Make the case for music!

A couple of months ago, I wrote a response to an article in The Economist lamenting the continued devaluation of music in the curriculum in the UK. A couple of weeks ago a similar article was published in The Times by Alice Thomson. I’m not sure what prompted the article but it drew a supportive letter to the paper from Simon Rattle which was enthusiastically retweeted by Tom Watson.

Whilst we should all encourage continued coverage and discussion about the place of music in our culture and in education specifically, these articles are way too meagre in content to make an impression on anyone who is not already fully in support of music being central to our education.

Thomson’s article carries as its headline a quotation of Lesley Ward that is a decade old. Mrs Ward made the comment in response to a Commons schools select committee report published in 2008 which specifically referred to music in primary education. It may well be that the sentiment is still valid but quoting it out of context and with no reference does not suggest the kind of solid intellectual approach that will hold water in the long term.

Thomson also quotes Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk that is now 12 years old. As I wrote before, Robinson’s lecture is inspiring and his intentions are good but there is a serious lack of coherent content in what he says.

Lesley Ward and Ken Robinson are commenting on the state of education at the time. They are not providing any research evidence for the value of music in the curriculum, or the effects that studying music has on children.

Simon Rattle is sadly guilty of exactly the same problem in his follow-up letter. What he says sounds terrific but there is no actual content. It is all very well to say ‘it is every child’s birthright to have access to music’ and ‘our children need to have the artistic vitamins that will help to build a better society’ but what does that actually mean? How does that help us persuade those who are uncertain that music should be at the centre of our curriculum?

I don’t want to revisit all the ground of my previous article; you can read it here. But it is absolutely vital that we put serious content behind all of our assertions. The value of music to every child stretches far beyond the obvious social and creative benefits, and it is in no way a vague benefit. Being involved in music improves educational outcomes across the board; the value of that musical involvement is not confined to music alone: it reaches every aspect of learning and development.

The number of studies that show how active involvement in music improves outcomes in maths and language is enormous. You can read about a recent one from The Guardian about a school in Bradford here. There are also significant benefits with regard to understanding how to learn. Understanding how to practice deliberately is a key skill musicians gain which can be used to enormous impact in any other subject. A study published by the American Psychological Association in 2006 even suggested that continued musical practice could increase IQ.

This is to say nothing of the analytical skills gained in learning how to discuss music, the understanding that skill level is a direct result of practice put in, the experience of being in groups that may have a wide range of ages and of cultural backgrounds, the opportunity to learn how to use and develop ideas.

The amount of scientific research that makes the value of music abundantly clear should mean that the discussion is over. But we seem weak in our ability to advocate for music. We will not win supporters through aphorisms and sentiment; we have to show that music belongs at the centre of everyone’s curriculum regardless of what direction they want to take in life.

Music isn’t only for musicians, or for creative people, or for those who don’t do sport. Music teaches us skills that enable us to improve ourselves, to be better across the academic board, to understand what it takes to really develop skill.

We have to have depth and breadth to our argument. We need good rhetoric, for sure, but we absolutely must have real content. We will gain nothing if we just say that kids should be involved in music because we think they should; we have to persuade those who are equivocal, who don’t immediately see the value, who haven’t thought-through what music does for us all.

We have to cajole, engage, convince. We have to gain support, grow understanding. We have to present solid evidence, argue clearly and cogently, show plainly what music gives every single one of us, whatever we decide to do in life.

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