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There's more to music than meets the ear

There's more to music than meets the ear


In the second of our new series about what makes Salisbury Cathedral School special, we explore the many benefits of a musical education. Read the blog to find out why the beautiful music that beats in the heart of our school is much more valuable to our children’s development than we often appreciate.

Have you heard about the school in special measures that chose to increase the amount of music in the curriculum instead of pursuing extra academic studies? It’s a happy tale that ends with a ‘Good’ Ofsted rating and the school, which serves a deprived and densely populated community, being in the top 10% of schools nationally for positive pupil progress.

Look back to 2010 and the Feversham Primary Academy in Bradford was in special measures, struggling to find and keep pupils and battling low staff morale. The Head refers to the decision to tackle the problem with music, drama and arts as ‘brave’ and ‘a big risk’. A risk worth taking it turns out as not only have results improved across the school but so has attendance which now sits at 98%. In fact, attendance rose steadily as the amount of music taught in the school increased. All pupils now have about 6 hours of music a week (a minimum of two hours).


‘I’m not surprised the pupils [at Feversham Primary Academy] progressed so much,’ says Susie Lamb, Salisbury Cathedral School (SCS) Head of Music. ‘Music makes you feel better, whether it’s your favourite pop song on the radio or playing a piece on the piano. I always say: you don’t sing when you’re sad and happy children learn better.’


The Feversham Academy story acts as a wonderful reminder that the beautiful music that beats in the heart of our school is much more valuable to our children’s development than we often appreciate. Here at SCS, we learn spellings with song, times tables with rhythm and generally ensure music is for everyone every day. And why do we do that? Obviously, it makes learning fun, but it’s also well proven that the more music the better when it comes to improving academics.


In essence, music makes your brain grow. Neuroscientists around the world have proven this across many research papers investigating different age groups and the over-arching conclusion is that continued exposure to music improves cognitive abilities. Whilst the positive effect of musical education is occasionally hyped – the so-called ‘Mozart’ effect – it is equally physically proven by neurological measurements such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or EEG (electroencephalography).


Starting with our youngest children, aged between 3 and 6, research has shown that taking early music classes leads to an increase in vocabulary, pre-reading skills and singing ability beyond what could be attributed to normal development. Furthermore, a correlation between singing ability and language skills has also been highlighted. All great news for the enthusiastic participants of our Bright Beginnings toddler group.


Neuroscientists at the University of Southern California (USC) also concluded that music instruction appears to accelerate brain development in young children. What’s more this was particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception and reading skills.


Studies with slightly older children, of primary school age, bear similar conclusions. For example, The University of Amsterdam conducted a longitudinal study of 147 primary aged children over two and a half years. The goal was to examine whether structured music lessons can affect executive subfunctions of the brain that may underlie academic achievement. The results positively proved the children who received music lessons had significant cognitive improvements compared to all other children in the study. 


A more recent study (results published Oct 2020) targeting older children, aged 10-13 in Chile, also reports that learning to play a musical instrument is good for the brain. Working with 40 children, the neuroscientists introduced musical instrument lessons, plus at least two hours practise each week and regular time spent playing in an orchestra or ensemble, to half the children. The other half had no musical training outside of the school curriculum. In the final assessments the musically trained children had better attention and memory recall. They also had greater activation in the brain regions related to attention control and auditory encoding which are executive brain functions known to be associated with improved reading, higher resilience, greater creativity and a better quality of life.


‘Here at SCS a lot of our children participate in music – singing or instrumental lessons – before school meaning their brains are fired up and very receptive to learning,’ explains Susie Lamb. ‘Every pupil has at least one timetabled class music lesson each week, around 90% learn an instrument (or two), all regularly sing within other subject lessons like French and Science as well as in chapel and our two weekly assemblies. We usually run 20 ensembles and we’ve managed to keep at least one ensemble per bubble in our pared back COVID-safe timetable. It’s fair to say we breathe music in this school.’


She continues, ‘Obviously, the benefits of learning an instrument go beyond academic improvements. The pupils at SCS also build self-confidence through a programme of regular informal concerts that celebrate all levels of musical accomplishments. We recognise the effort and the bravery behind every performance be it a grade 8 masterpiece or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Friendships are also born and strengthened in the fun environment of our choirs and ensembles. And, the very best outcome in my mind, is that music is for life not just for childhood.’


So, next time you hear one of our choirs singing, or the beat of a drum lesson, trumpets blaring or violin scales floating across the skies above the school take a minute to remember we are all building our brains as well as learning a life skill, having fun and being mindful. We are so lucky to learn together in a school dedicated to (multi-tasking) musical education.