Music education and the brain

Dr Anita Collins presents new research on the impact of music education on a child's brain.

Reflective task for schools

An optional reflective task has been developed to maximise the impact of this resource in schools. The reflective task involves answering questions that have been broken into three parts:

  1. Before viewing
  2. During viewing
  3. After viewing.

The reflective task could be completed individually, or as a group (for example, in a staff meeting). It is acknowledged that the most powerful learning occurs when school staff have the opportunity to engage in collegial discussion.

Before viewing

Consider the NESA time allocation for the Creative Arts and the expectation of a minimum of 1.5 hours per week (inclusive of all 4 artforms). Is our weekly time allocation for teaching the creative arts consistent with PDHPE, HSIE and Science and Technology?

Are we valuing the creative arts within the classroom in the same way that we do our co-curriculum programs?

During viewing

How does music education link to other areas of learning?

Reflecting on the research discussed by Dr Collins, discuss the relationship between music and literacy?

Has this research altered your thinking about why you should you be teaching music?

How and why should we teach music?

Dr Collins points out that the research shows that we should be teaching music:

  • consistently and frequently throughout a child?s education
  • inclusive of the performance learning experience of performing from our syllabus - singing, moving, playing
  • as a group but with time for individual exploration and practice.

What does music consist of in your classroom? Does it incorporate all the learning experiences of listening, performing and organising sound?

As Dr Collins suggests movement is paramount to music learning is this consistent with your teaching and learning program?


Watch music education and the brain video (11:12).

Dr Anita Collins presents new research on the impact of music education on a child's brain.

Anita Collins

Music education helps wire a child’s brain well and effectively and it does it permanently. And there’s 3 really big areas. There’s phonological skills, aural perception and language skills. These are the ones I love taking to principals because it’s like ‘You want better literacy scores, do some music, it’s absolutely vital’.

The reason we now know this is because music is for want of a better way of saying it, our first language, it’s the original one we have. And the reason we know is they’ve studied babies who are 1 day old and they’ve put them, very trusting parents, they’ve put them with EEG caps on or an fMRI machines and they’ve got their mother to speak to them. They’ve been trying to figure out what is that baby hearing? Every single time they’ve done it they found that their baby is hearing their mother’s voice as if it was music. They are using their music processing network to understand language as rhythm and melody.

So, from the very start of life, music is our first language, what we do after that is we build spoken language on top of that in a whole bunch of different ways. We learn to hear it first of all. We learn to speak it and then we learn to check our hearing again, speak it again. And after we’re really good at that, think about of a 4 year old, 5 year old toddler, we then apply that to the ability to read it. So, they are automatically causally connected.

Alright, so I wanted to give you an example of just how connected music and like lots of other learning is. So, this is something called a phonological loop which basically means the ability to connect sound with a symbol. Now, if we start at the top with the yellow one, when a musician sees a symbol like 2 quavers or a 2 x D quavers for example or a T and a H on a page, we’re doing exactly the same process. So, we start and we see the symbol. Now, what happens next is inside our brain there is a brain recording like a huge iTunes library of all the sounds to do with music and to do with language. So, what we actually do is we hear that sound in our heads, we have a little brain recording. The next thing we do is we talk to our body to make that sound. So, for me as a clarinet player I know I put my fingers down, I know to put my mouth a certain way, I breathe in and I blow through the instrument. If I’m reading a T and an H I think about, can everybody do that go ‘TH’? Have a think about what you’ve got to do. ‘TH’, tongue’s got to go out, airs got to go past, teeth have got to kind of, who holds down their ‘TH’? I hold down my tongue, do you? Yeah, okay. You’ve got all of these things are happening, that’s your motor cortices, you’ve just made your motor cortices work. And then you make the sound. As soon as you’ve made the sound, your ears are checking the sound. Does it sound like my brain recording? Does it sound different to my brain recording? How do I want it to sound? Do I want it to sound the same or do I want it to sound different? And then it will go back up and either amend the recording or refine the recording or say ‘Yes, I’ve got it right’.

Now, that process in the brain is exactly the same when we read music as to when we read language. And interestingly enough we can start doing the reading music part with 2 year olds. We can have a symbol and say it makes this sound. We can actually set it up heaps earlier than they actually start reading. The other thing that’s interesting is for some reason the brain thinks reading music is harder than reading words especially English which is probably the hardest one to do. But what they’ve shown is that when kids have had a lot of symbol to sound connection before they start reading the brain goes ‘Oh, reading’s a doddle compared to music’. And they don’t have as much energy being used in their brains and they find it really, really easy to start reading.

But at the moment we know that we need to learn a musical instrument. So, part of that is getting the motor cortices working outside our body doing very fine motor skills is really, really important. But at the same time singing and what was the revelation for me, actually moving, is equally as important as learning a musical instrument. Anyone who’s walked into an Early, have I got any Early Childhood teachers? Yes, your work is all this isn’t it? You’re just sitting there going ‘Yeah, we do this all the time’. What makes me very interested is like why don’t we continue to do that? Why does it stop? And how can we reintroduce it again?

The golden rule at the moment and a lot of again school leaders and policy makers were saying how little do you need to do, to get permanent change? To which I want to reach across and strangle them. How little do you need to do to actually have a permanent brain change? The current thinking and this is very much up for debate. If you start a musical instrument before the age of 7. Now, 0-7 have you heard that saying ‘Give me a child until they’re 7 and I’ll give you the man’ give me the boy until they’re 7 and I’ll give you the man? It’s actually a real thing. So, the first, we have this what’s called a sensitivity to our brain development and it’s that whole thing, you know how kids are like a sponge before the age of 7 they’ll pick up everything and they pick up amazing facts and they remember them. It’s the first time our brain gets wired, it’s the first opportunity to create those connections. Now, has anyone ever had a car that was a lemon? Yeah. I’m not saying a child is a lemon or a car but I’m just saying it’s that idea that when you wire it right from the start it will just keep going and keep going and keep going. By the same token, the reason we know that there’s a sensitivity period is we’ve studied kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Just like those kids in ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ and we’ve watched their brain development and then we’ve compared it to a child that maybe living in sort of not so challenging circumstances. Their brains look very different and they function extremely differently and not in a good way. They really, really, really struggle. Now, the reason why they’ve studied these kids and they’ve studied music is they’ve been using music education to see if they can correct the problems with the wiring in their brains. In so many of the studies they’ve actually found that and in ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ you saw it in real life.

But they think at the moment if you start before the age of 7 then if you do 2 years of formal music education that means learning an instrument, learning how to read notation, learning in an ensemble, yeah all those things together then 2 years is the very least that you need to do to see permanent brain change. If it's after the age of 7 it’s 3 years. The kind of like golden rule at the moment is learning a musical instrument between 5 and 7 years which is a long time but if you start really early it will have the best benefit.

And musical activities and learning a musical instrument can start as simply as pots and pans on the kitchen floor with a wooden spoon. That’s music education at the age of 2. Okay, it’s exploration, it’s very important.

As I said reading music is really important, that sound to symbol system is really, really vital. Do I have any guitarists in the room who teach with Tab? Ooh, no, damn. Okay, I can talk about them. They’ve had a look and they’ve said is it any symbol system because they’ve looked at across different cultures as well and they’ve found particularly with Tab, the brain thinks it’s a picture, not a symbol. It’s quite a different processing thing that goes on.

Performing is also a vital part of that and it’s not about the performing, it’s actually about all the things that go along with that. So, for example our 2 performers this evening stood out there and they went, I can tell you this, they were shuffling a little bit, they were looking and seeing what was happening, they had all that energy and excitement and adrenalin running through their body but they still had to you know keep their heads so they could come on and perform well. They then had to come on and perform, deal with anything that came up during the performance and just keep going. They had to get up at the end and remember to acknowledge the audience and they had to come off. And right about now the adrenalin is starting to go down, like that and you know they’re dropping off. It’s that whole process that kids go through over and over and over again which shows them they can achieve something even when they’re feeling quite excited about it.

The other main parts we’re finding at the moment is there needs to be the ensemble learning by an expert, so they have to learn in a group, that’s where teamwork gets taught, that’s where executive functioning gets taught. And by the same token they need to learn individually as a discipline. Now, us and our lovely first world country kids aren’t doing as much of a discipline any more, we’re a bit more of a taste to have a go at this, have a go at that, it’s all about having bits of things and it’s not about actually committing yourself to a discipline of doing something every single day and something that’s hard and something that you get wrong more than you get right. We don’t really like that part. So, it’s actually having that as a discipline that’s really, really important.

I think when it comes to music education and music advocacy it is with pun intended time to change our tune.

There are many people who say we should just study music because it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic, it’s part of being human, it makes us so happy. I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, that doesn’t pass muster with everybody because there are lots of other pressures.

So, there’s all this other research that helps us understand that music education develops the child’s brain, every child’s brain and we need to make that happen for every child.

[End of transcript]

After viewing

What can we do to reflect this research into music education within our teaching and learning programs and across our school?

What do we need to do to support any potential changes to the way we teach music education in the classroom?

Further information

How playing an instrument benefits your brain Anita Collins


Please note:

Syllabus outcomes and content descriptors from Creative Arts K–6 Syllabus (2006) © NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales, 2017.

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