Why teach music? Because it makes kids enjoy school

Why teach music? Because it makes kids enjoy school


norman lebrecht

July 29, 2020

Earlier today, we published a report on some academic research suggesting that music lessons may not improve a child’s education.

Chrissy Kinsella, Chief Executive, London Music Fund, has come right back at us with some cogent home truths. Go, Chrissy:


The debate about whether learning music makes children ‘smarter’ is one that never seems to reach a conclusion. Numerous studies around the world argue that music does, in fact, improve cognitive function, strengthens neural pathways and contributes to educational attainment, though this Slipped Disc post suggests that new research from Dr Giovanni Sala found that it does not. This is an argument that will never be won, by either side. But we are focusing on the wrong outcome.

Searching for evidence that music supports educational attainment is not an argument for keeping music present in schools. The debate about the positive impact of music in the curriculum is stronger than ever. The DfE have recently suggested that schools remove ‘non-core subjects’ from the curriculum over the next 12 months to allow children to catch up on work that may have been missed during lockdown, a suggestion that was (thankfully) met with horror by education specialists up and down the country. In fact, the Tri Borough Music Hub have created a post-Covid ‘recovery curriculum’ for schools, based around music and singing, to help children get back into structured learning and support their wellbeing.

In arguing whether or not music makes children better at maths or english, we are doing the very essence of music education a huge disservice. Learning a musical instrument, singing, making music with others or alone, provides an enormous sense of joy, recreation and comfort. It allows us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It allows an escape from the difficulties of the day. There is enormous research on how much music helps emotional and mental well-being. We have seen first-hand during lockdown just how much the world has turned to the arts in order to get through the anxiety and stress of recent times.

At the London Music Fund, the Mayor of London’s music education charity, we have seen the enormous impact of how music has helped the children that we support since the lockdown began in March. We have heard from them about the fun and relaxation they have gained from being able to continue learning and practising their instrument, and the outlet it has provided. Online music making can not and will never be a replacement for making music with others in person, but at time when we can’t make music in groups, the connection and community that can be found online is enormously important. Children have told us how music has helped them to forget their difficulties during this time, allowing them to switch off from frightening and scary news, to relax from stressful days, or home-learning, to connect with something that reminds them of their friends and ‘normal’ times, to give them some semblance of familiarity and routine. Perhaps, most importantly, they tell us every day that it makes them happy.

Learning an instrument or singing, or even just listening to or experiencing music – live or recorded – allows us to connect with others, to make music and fulfil a fundamental human need to be creative. The additional benefits are wide-reaching and may well include cognitive function, academic attainment, etc, but the experience of learning and doing music for music’s sake – for the sheer joy of music – must never be underestimated.



  • Charles B. says:

    The singer with the vulva dress at Last Night of The Proms. Well, she had to distract from her singing!

  • Brettermeier says:

    “Why teach music? Because it makes kids enjoy school”

    We had to choose between music and art at some point. I chose the latter: You can eat cookies while painting or drawing but not while discussing music. And that’s the only thing we did: Listening to and then discussing music.

    And there was nothing they could teach me that I didn’t already know as I had private lessons since I was four.

    • Jack says:

      As a musician, I’d have chosen as you did if those were the choices (performing an art vs talking about it). But if it was painting versus playing my oboe (both creative activities) and I did both reasonably well, then it would have been a tougher choice.

    • mikhado says:

      Bless your heart…

  • Michael Turner (conductor) says:

    An excellent article.

    We seem to have lost sight of words like “fun”, “recreation” and “leisure” being important. It so often seems that, whether you are 5 or 50, there’s an expectation that you should work like stink and, when not working, work hard at playing ( a bit like the old saying from the 80s – “we work have and play hard”). So many people find it difficult to be able to just sit down, relax and, with music, listen.

    I’ve said it many times here and I will say it again. Putting aside the whole matter of music helping other subject areas in education, or not, I see music (and the arts more generally) as a perfectly viable part of the well-being “system”. As Chrissy Kinsella says, “learning a musical instrument, singing, making music with others or alone, provides an enormous sense of joy, recreation and comfort.” Isn’t that, in itself, something to celebrate and nurture? Won’t that, to a greater or lesser extent, help the financial stability of the economy? If people are content they’re less likely to crash out of society, draw Universal Credit or hit the NHS for crisis support.

    Some might say that what I have set out above is too simplistic. It is, of course. There is no way that I can fully outline a full set of proposals (some worked through with a senior NHS professional) here. However, the synergistic relationship of the arts with health just seems to be ignored by those in power, with the result that so many in society end up on the rocks, as they get lost in the current gap between Local Authorities and the NHS.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Thank stars my schools had rhythm bands, singing, chorus, marching band, concert band, and orchestra. God bless Mrs. Wells in fifth grade, age 10-11, who played us Arthut Fiedler and the Boston Pops in movements from New World, Schubert Unfinished, Tchaikovsky Fift , Beethoven. The stringendo after grand pause in Schubert’s Unfinished struck me to the heart and changed my life for the better. I had not previously heard an orchestra except on AM radio, but had music at home with my father snd sister, who payed raachmaninoff, Lecuona, Sibelius, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin.

    I had by then taught myself to play piano after a fashion, read muic, and play the French horn.

    We had an art class, eventually producing a recognizable sailing ship at sea in oils. Our boys played trumpet, trombone, and sang in children’s chorus undeer Fiedler, “Carmina Burana”. I sang in church, oratorio, and symphony choruses all my life.

    The value of music teaching as adjunct to mathematics and physics is known. Music teaches us to count without knowing we are counting, develops good breathing, speaking and singing voices, chest and lung functions, a regulated heartbeat. Best of all, it gives us an unfailing pleasure through life, a resource of wisdom the personifies the Greek ideal of Harmony, whih we had not got.

    Nothing worth learning can be taught? perhaps as applies to paradox, but the tools of self discovery can be transmitted, also the love of harmony for its own sake, and even perhaps an inkling of the riches of the musical literature, as with writing plays, Shakespeare, poetry, and the like I would cetainly be poorer without the music we had in schools, although I carefully guarded my amateur status so far, but learned enough to recognize the abilities of better players and singers.

    Teah it by all means, along with the dissection of frogs, differential calculus vector concept and tensors, useful though they are, if only as a natural extension of typing or double-entry book-keeping. If beautiful Beth Baskin, our own Lauren Bacall, hadn’t taught junior high school typing, I might hae starved to death Or, of course, learned something even more remunerative, but I’m not complaining, and realize I now live in a different world far more comples and difficult than the one I almost grew up in. All the more reason for the diversions and delights of art, music, literature, poetry, and philosophy.

    “All art is quite useless, but this uselessness is absolutely essential.” Ionescu

    “Art is a Lie. that enables us to see the truth..” — Pablo Picasso

    “Life without music would be a mistake.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, and for him it was, poor fellow, although he earlier had it even to excess, even composing.

    It is this search and desire for the not yet attained Harmony that accounts for so many disharmonious souls in music, I’m convinced.

  • Gary Griffiths says:

    Chrissy Kinsella is quite right that the debate will rumble on, not least because classteachers and music teachers see examples that indicate wider educational benefits to music all the time.

    Let’s be accurate: Sala and Gobet certainly do not say that learning music “may not improve a child’s education”. They say that they have found no causal link between learning a musical instrument and enhanced cognitive or academic skills. They do comment that there may be mileage in further investigating music’s benefit in terms of prosocial behaviour and self-esteem.

    Improving children’s education is not simply measured by higher academic outcomes in a defined set of ‘proper’ subjects: it is a far broader issue that encompasses children’s curiosity, humanity, empathy, resilience and many other characteristics. Education is preparation for life, not just the workplace.

    We do not justify teaching other subjects by reference to their impact on achievement in other areas of the curriculum. As Chrissy Kinsella and other commenters rightly point out, music offers a range of social and personal benefits that justify its presence on the timetable, even were it not a rigorous academic study in its own right.

    As a former London music service head, I can attest to the value that the London Music Fund adds to the music educations of young Londoners and thank Chrissy and her team for what they do. It is no small thing to help disadvantaged children do something that makes them happy now and potentially for the rest of their lives.

  • Vince Scuderi says:

    It makes kids enjoy school and Life in general. I understand that many years ago IBM sought out composers (Juilliard, I think) to train as computer programmers. Why? Because composers are familiar with using abstract language and conventions to create a plan or procedure. It was thought they could naturally adapt to computer programming. Valuable (real world) skill, enhanced by working knowledge of music? Sure, I think so.

  • Robert Freeman says:

    Those who deny the arts’ positive role in improving cognitive function in young people should read James Catterall’s very persuasive book “Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art.” Teaching music also accomplishes all kinds of other positive outcomes: improving listening skills, improving a willingness to work hard towards a positive goal, and the appreciation of beauty among them.