I.S.A. Journal, October 2018

Why every great school has a great Music department at its heart

Every school has a culture. Every school has an ethos. Every school projects an image on its students and through its students. It’s not about buildings, Governors, Leadership, Staff or even uniform code. It’s something that just happens. But although it is a spontaneous occurrence, it is not beyond our control. In fact, one can actually shape and craft the culture and ethos in one’s school whilst simultaneously raising attainment and creating an environment that nurtures young people and establishes mental health and wellbeing. I’m not a maverick or selling snake oil – I have plenty of evidence to establish this claim: the very best schools have very good Music provision.

Music is an incredible phenomenon. Every human experiences it every day. It is part of what makes us human. In fact, as soon as a foetus develops hearing, it has been shown to respond to music[1].  Every human being is a rhythmic being thanks to breathing and the heart beating. Walking, running, the sleep cycle – they all have rhythmic Picture1repetition. Most humans can vocalise too. Although people say they are “tone deaf” every single language relies on intonation to give meaning, whether that literally changes a word such as in Japanese or Chinese, or helps to convey extra information such as emotion. You cannot escape the fact that humans are musical. Any school that does not recognise that is closing the door on so much more than just playing instruments or joining choirs. To deny the study of music is to deny the child in your care a whole host of development and growth, personally and educationally.

At this point, I should confess that I have been teaching Music in Secondary schools for almost 25 years. I am completed biased. But I have also taught Science as a second subject and have even been employed as a part-time Science teacher who “does a bit of music”. I like experimenting, rigour and need to see proof if at all possible. In some ways, Music is a practical outworking of numerous principles from Physics – it certainly helps to understand a bit of Physics when composing or recording music. There are many examples of scientists who were musical and musicians who were scientists: Einstein was famously expert on Violin and said he could only think clearly when playing[2]; Borodin was a famous composer of Nationalist Russian Romantic music yet is also renown in Chemistry for discovering the “aldol reaction” which is still used today[3];  Brian May is the World famous guitarist from “Queen” who also holds a Doctorate in Astronomy[4]; Brian Cox is Professor of Particle Physics at Manchester University as well as a broadcaster and played the keyboards in D:Ream’s number one hit “Things can only get better”[5].

In “The Republic”, Plato writes education “has two divisions, gymnastics for the body and music for the soul” (Book II) and delineates his ideal curriculum for 7- to 17-year-olds as Picture2“gymnastics, literature, music and elementary mathematics”[6]. Although we have grown far beyond this simplicity in Educational Philosophy, I find it very interesting that these four areas were identified so early in History – almost one of the first things that appear in “civilised” societies across the Globe. All the more disappointing that Gove’s “English Baccalaureate” completely ignores both the Arts and Physical skills, leaving us to observe the child obesity epidemic and increasingly poor mental health of our young people. I have long come to believe that for any school to meet the needs of all of its students, it must develop strong Art, Drama, Music and P.E. departments as every child will find they can excel in at least one of those four areas. Early learning involves “Nursery Rhymes” and all sorts of sung learning, physical learning and creative “play”, yet by the time our children are 7 years old, we are force-feeding them Literacy and Numeracy above all else, ignoring their personal development needs.

There is plenty of evidence to show that Music literally reaches the parts other subjects don’t reach. It has benefits well beyond that of the disciplines involved in the subject itself. For starters, there are the straightforward skills – auditory processes, manual dexterity and physical control (by which I mean things such as diaphragmatic breathing Picture3or muscular control involved in holding the body in a correct position to play or sing). Despite their reputational girth, most opera singers need to be more than reasonably fit to repeatedly get through a performance night after night. It seems obvious really – because music exists in sound, of course, you learn to listen better than someone who does not have the benefit of musical training. But there is evidence that Music training helps people to learn better too. The details on exactly how this happens are suggested through neurological study, but even then it seems rather incredible how higher results are achieved by students when they engage with music making, as reported at Feversham Academy in Bradford[7]. At Feversham, the numbers speak for themselves: with up to 6 hours a week spent on music lessons, the school has gone from “special measures” to the top 10% for pupil progress in reading, writing and maths with 74% of its students hitting expected standards in reading, writing and maths against a national average of just 53%. This in a school where 99% of the children speak English as an additional language and where the school is sited in one of Bradford’s most deprived and densely populated neighbourhoods. The Headteacher is also keen to stress the positive impact on the children’s mental and social development through involvement with music lessons.

Through scientific experimentation and observation, neurologists have noted a large spike in brain activity when anyone listens to music (although the activity is greater in a musician). What surprised the Finnish team conducting this study in 2011 was the areas of the brain that were lighting up: emotional and logic areas along with “wider brain networks” that they didn’t suspect would get involved[8].  They found that we use the Limbic areas of the brain, typically used in emotion processing, whenever the brain was processing rhythm and tonality. They summarised that music links the emotional, motorPicture4 and creative areas of the brain all at once – a unique phenomenon for a singular task. Other studies have shown that the brain actually grows when you are engaged with music making. Peter Schneider and his team from Heidelberg University, Germany found that professional musicians have 130% more grey matter in their auditory cortex than in non-musicians[9][10]. Iballa Burunat and her team in Finland also identified that musicians have a large corpus callosum – the part of the brain that links the two hemispheres[11].  This means that musicians’ brains can pass information back and forth between the “creative” and “logical” parts of the brain more quickly and easily. It certainly explains why a lot of people find they work better when there is music playing than working in silence – waking up the whole brain ready for use just by listening to music. And in 2014, a study in America found that singing familiar songs to late-stage Alzheimer’s patients enabled them to spontaneously respond, communicate and remember information as well as bring about positive feelings and a sense of accomplishment[12]. It should be noted that each individual responds to music in a different way and something that lights up your brain might not light up mine. An American study in 2014 found that more brain activity occurs when you listen to music you prefer[13][14]

In the face of such overwhelming evidence, I believe music to be an absolutely essential part of learning. I mean learning as a skill as well as learning subject-based material: life is not a series of exams and in the 21st Century, being adaptable, creative and taking on new skills is, and will become even more, essential to success. I don’t know of a single teacher who wants nothing less than the very best for their students. But how many school leadership teams neglect musical learning in favour of subject-based investment? How many students do nothing musical from one week to the next? My challenge to you all, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, is to recognise the immense benefits of an active musical life for every student in your school. It doesn’t have to be the school orchestra or choir – it might be a musical theatre production, playing in a rock band, recording hip-hop music on a laptop, participation in a music-focused talent show – indeed, the wider the range of music you can encompass, the more likely it is a wider range of students will respond positively. Which brings me back to my initial supposition – that every great school will have a great music department at its heart. The more active, the more inclusive, the more well-funded and well-staffed, the better the entire school. Your learners will be better learners, happier people, get higher exam results, hit their potential more readily and even grow bigger brains. Show me a teacher who doesn’t want to see that in their classroom! The whole school is affected by the musical activities of its students (and its staff too). Perhaps it is a good time to look at the musical life of your school alongside consideration of achievements and targets. If you want high achieving, happy students, happy staff, higher exam results and a stronger school culture, start with the Music department…


Matt Allen

BMus (Hons) PGCE

Music Education & Technology Consultant

Digital Content Manager, MusicFirst UK & International



Further recommended reading:






[1] http://www.bounty.com/pregnancy-and-birth/pregnancy/when-can-baby-hear-in-the-womb

[2] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/02/einstein-genius-violin-music-physics-science/

[3] http://www.rsc.org/diversity/175-faces/all-faces/alexander-borodin/

[4] https://brianmay.com/brian/biog.html

[5] https://www.famousscientists.org/brian-cox/

[6] http://pakphilosophy.blogspot.com/2008/08/plato-stages-of-education.html

[7] “The Guardian” 3rd October, 2017 – “How to improve the school results: not extra maths but music, loads of it”, Josh Halliday

[8] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111205081731.htm

[9] “The Independent” Monday 17th July 2002 – “Musicians found to have more sensitive brains” Lorna Duckworth, Health Correspondent

[10] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/musicians-found-to-have-more-sensitive-brains-5360670.html

[11] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28266-musicians-brains-fire-symmetrically-when-they-listen-to-music/

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25013944

[13] R. W. Wilkins, D. A. Hodges, P. J. Laurienti, M. Steen, J. H. Burdette. Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to EminemScientific Reports, 2014; 4: 6130 DOI: 10.1038/srep06130

[14] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170412181341.htm


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