A Sound Education: the Value of Music in Schools

At the end of a recent music session with 6-7 year olds, I took out my flute and played some slow, improvised melodies in a minor key (known as a sad key). I asked how they felt after listening to this music.

These were some of the answers:
“ It made me think of my grandad’s funeral and I got a lump in my throat”.

“ It made me think of my puppy that died and I felt sad”.

“ I felt like I was floating with the clouds, far, far away”.

After everybody had had an opportunity to share, I changed the key to major (the happy key) and improvised again, this time using a fast tempo. Most of the children were on their feet instantly and were hopping, dancing and skipping about the room.

Some had grabbed a partner and they were twirling around the room together. There was laughter and abundant joy – what a happy picture! When the music had stopped and everyone was sitting once again, I asked how the music had made them feel.

“It felt like dancing music!”
“Can we do it again? Please?!”
“I was dancing in a field with my dog and we were running around and around a tree”

Never at any point in the lesson did I explain the difference between major (the happy key) and minor (the sad key), yet the children had responded to the tonality of the music (major and minor) emotionally and physically. It wasn’t a mild, middle of the road response, it was powerful and emphatic. During the sad music and the happy music, the children were accessing their emotions and imaginations.

The sharing led to some class discussion about the loss of a loved one and there was support for the sad child. The music had been a powerful tool in enabling a child to express feelings about a painful, sad experience. The music had also been a powerful tool in enabling the children to express joy and happiness and this led to movement and dance as they expressed that joy.

An approach to music education

The general approach to music education in South Africa has been very cerebral. There is an emphasis on being able to read and recognise certain notes and note values. There is a strong emphasis on being able to aurally recognise and identify certain instruments and styles of music.

These are valuable elements of music education, but they should never happen at the expense of creative music making. The same is true of learning to read and write. It is no good having an extensive knowledge of grammer and vocabulary, but not using the knowledge to express imagination and fantasy and creating stories. I would agree with Albert Einstein as he says: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited.”

This brings me to a quick laymen’s guide to the brain and how it functions. The brain is divided into two halves which are connected by tissue called the corpus callosum. The right side of the brain receives and controls sensations from the left side of the body and the left side of the brain receives and controls sensations from the right side of the body. The two brain hemispheres are like two separate people with specialised tasks. The left deals with language, analysis, and sequencing ability. It solves problems by taking one piece of information after another.

It works like a very powerful computer and creates understanding by making comparisons.

The right side deals with non-verbal and spatial awareness, visual imagery, pattern recognition and music appreciation. It processes incoming information in a holistic way. These are descriptions of how the different hemispheres process information and not the type of information they deal with. Recent studies show that the right hemisphere was not active while technical, analytical content was being read, but was much more active when reading stories, where imagination and fantasy was required. Ideally the two halves of the brain work together to compliment each other.

Music enables learning

A 1986 Music Educator’s Journal cited some research that was done in Germany with a Grade One class. The whole class was tested for reading, writing and mathematical ability at the beginning of the year. The class was then divided into two halves and each half had an equal spread of academic ability, as determined by the tests.

For a whole year one half had class music twice a week for half an hour and the other class had no music at all. The class music consisted of singing, movement and playing of basic percussion instruments. After a year the two halves of the calss were tested again and the educators were stunned at the marked difference in reading, writing and mathematical ability of the group that had had music classes for a year. This research confirms my belief that music enhances learning in all areas as it engages the right side of the brain and the brain functions in a holistic way.

Traditionally music education happens in organised slots within the school time table. There is most likely class music (singing around a piano; playing percussion instruments such as tambourines, maraccas and xylophones;doing listening exercises ), singing or musical items happening in assembly as well as individual instrumental tuition (piano, vlioin, guitar, etc.) In many schools there would be a choir, orchestra or ensemble (group of instruments playing together).

According to the research cited above, this would most definitely have a positive effect on the general learning experience of pupils taking part in any of these musical activities. A child who is activating the right side of the brain by making and experiencing music will also perform better in other academic areas which predominantly uses the left side of the brain which involvles analytical and logical thinking.

The value of music in education

So far I have touched on how powerful music is as a tool for enabling expression of feelings and emotions. Through a good music education, the writing of music can become a tool in many childrens’ hands. Let’s look again at the scenario I described at the beginning where children responded in a creative way to different pieces of flute music. The children responded to what they heard and were able to express themselves.

If we turned this into a hypothetical class and took them through five years of music education, teaching them to read and write music, we would have 12 year olds who would not only respond in reacting to music (emotionally and physically), but we would also have children who could write down those expressions in the form of songs or instrumental pieces.

The other area I touched on is how through music the right side of the brain is engaged, which increases the brain’s capacity when it comes to learning concepts like maths and language. I believe that music can be used far more extensively in general education throughout primary school education and could lead to academic excellence.

Why is it then that when there is a cut in budget in education, music and art are often the first subjects to go? I believe the true value of music in education has not been fully grasped and embraced in our education system. It is considered an optional extra and a privilige.

I believe it should be a neccessity. It should be a neccessity not only to help and encourage our children to express themselves and have an outlet for emotions and feelings, but to foster creativity which brings about a wholeness in our beings. Our spirit man is often drowned out by so much activity and sound — busy lives, television, playstation, PC — that we don’t often allow ourselves to become still.

I believe it is in this stillness that our own ability to be creative becomes endless.

Heidi is a music teacher who works as part of the Synergy Schooling Team in Cape Town where they explore cutting-edge educational methodology.