IN THE summer of 2003, a community newspaper in Toronto carried an advert offering free weekly arts lessons to six-year-olds. For 36 weeks the children attended classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music in the city, where half were taught to play keyboard, and half were given drama lessons.
Before they started they were given IQ tests, alongside a group of six-year olds receiving no arts lessons at all. At the end of the year, their IQs were tested again. For the children learning nothing, or drama, IQs had risen between zero and four points. But the researchers were astounded to discover that the IQs of the children taught the keyboard had risen by seven points.
The tantalising conclusion? Learning an instrument makes you smarter.
Research projects worldwide have investigated the social, educational and emotional benefits of instrumental music tuition and without exception, concluded that learning an instrument has a positive effect on who we are as human beings.
Professor Susan Hallam, of the Institute of Education in London, says the benefits cannot be over-estimated.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” she said. “Learning an instrument is very important in terms of a child’s intellectual development. It improves listening, it impacts on how they learn language, literacy, mathematics, it can boost self-esteem, improve social skills, not to mention that it gives young people the opportunity to demonstrate that they are good at something.”
Violinist Nicola Benedetti, one of our campaign backers, agrees. “The benefits of learning to play an instrument are greatly misunderstood and underestimated,” she said. “It’s not just about the instrument but about playing in a group, perhaps in an orchestra. Those benefits are ones that turn into life skills and ones that can be applied to anything that you put your mind to..”
There is now evidence that learning an instrument can actually affect the development of the brain. In 2005, a research project found that playing a musical instrument triggers changes in the brainstem that impact significantly on verbal communication. Musicians who had been learning an instrument since the age of five were found to have quicker verbal responses and increased activity of neurons in the brain to both music and speech sounds, while children learning instruments had an improved ability to distinguish between rapidly changing sounds, something which in turn contributed to their ability to learn to read.
A Harvard study in 2008 went further, reporting that children who received at least three years of instrumental music training outperformed those who did not, in auditory discrimination abilities and fine motor skills, as well as in vocabulary and non-verbal reasoning skills.
“There’s evidence that engagement with music improves listening skills and the way we are able to process sound,” said Hallam. “That in turn has an impact on language understanding, and how we are able to comprehend language.”
Indeed, a 2001 study in the US that focused on children learning to play music found that those who had studied an instrument before the age of eight had higher scores in mathematics than those who had not.
Dr Barbie Clarke, an associate lecturer in child development at the University of Cambridge, who recently produced a report entitled The Educational, Social and Therapeutic Benefits of Music in the Lives of Children, said that learning an instrument also provided extensive benefits to a child’s social skills.
“There seems to be a distinct link between children playing music in a group and their ability to socialise at a much higher level,” she said. “If you’re playing music together you have to give way to one another while you play and work together, and there’s also a shared emotion in listening to that music.
“Children who have friends are less likely to be bullied, and they’ll have more confidence.”
One instrumental music teacher has seen those benefits first-hand.
“You get them as a young P5 pupil and you show them how great music can be. They come out of their shell. Learning an instrument gives them an edge. You’re teaching them in a one to one basis or on a one to four basis – that’s something they don’t experience anywhere else in their school life.”
The teacher said that playing music together in a group environment also allowed the children to develop social skills amongst each other. “It enables them to work well in a group – if they’re playing in a group environment they’ll bounce ideas off each other. If you’ve got one member not practising they’ll be embarrassed into practising because there’s a rivalry to do well. You really see them develop.”
Another campaign backer, composer Nigel Osborne, who is also Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh says: “Music has a really important role in terms of how we first communicate emotionally to one another. If we’re giving kids the opportunity to learn music, we’re giving them the opportunity to learn intelligent forms of emotional communication.”
The postcode lottery system for instrumental music tuition currently in place in Scotland – whereby children in 24 out of 32 local authorities are charged up to £340 a year for instrumental music lessons – means that thousands are missing out on these opportunities.
Mark Traynor, head of the instrumental music network at the Educational Institute of Scotland, said: “As instrumental providers, we feel that given how well documented these benefits are, if learning an instrument is going to help improve literacy and numeracy, it’s something that should be encouraged as much as possible. It’s also something that disadvantaged children should not be missing out on.”
How Scottish local authorities are raking in over £2.8 million in revenue from charging for instrumental music lessons
LOCAL AUTHORITY NET REVENUE
Aberdeen City £523,000
Angus Not provided
Argyll & Bute None
Clackmannanshire Not provided
Dumfries & Galloway £156,910 (£14,525 additional income from instrument hire)
Dundee City £102,097
East Ayrshire £33,000
East Dunbartonshire £98,250
East Lothian No charges
East Renfrewshire £182,514
City of Edinburgh No charges
Falkirk Not provided
Fife Not provided
City of Glasgow No charges
North Ayrshire £75,000
North Lanarkshire £131,742
Orkney No charges
Perth & Kinross £202,796
Scottish Borders £40,800
South Ayrshire No charges
South Lanarkshire £154,000
West Dunbartonshire No charges
West Lothian No charges
Western Isles No charges
Total amount £2,862, 551
• Source: EIS Freedom of Information request to councils in June 2012.