Let the kids face the music

The phenomenon of music has tremendous benefit, amongst which it affects the psychosocial and psychophysiological equilibration of every child, says music researcher Simon Farrugia

Throughout history, music has been an important part of human life. Studies show that music helps children in numerous aspects of their development. Apart from helping the child to build relationships and connect with other people, music is a source of stress relief and it also helps to improve the child’s brain development. Thus, music is an extremely important subject for children of all ages and ethnicities.

In his Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato described music as a fundamental part of education. It is clear that education and the development of students’ personalities demand that music education should be inserted in the school curriculum in the same way as other academic and non-academic subjects are. There may be educators who have doubts about music education and whether it is rich in possibilities that can contribute to all areas of the child’s development.

I think – or rather, I strongly believe – that music education should form part of every school curriculum since it provides social interaction, development of physical coordination, cognitive skills, and memory. It is an intrinsically worthwhile subject and absolutely central to any concept of education. Indeed, the idea that music education develops certain qualities of the mind has a long history that can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosophers.

Some curricula tend to focus far too much on cognitive development and pay little attention to the affective side. Certainly, music education contributes to children’s emotional development, self-expression, self-knowledge, and feelings. The curriculum of music as a subject should also be concerned with the emotional development of the child through creative self-expression.

Another valid reason for including music education in the curriculum is that regular music education leads to improved performance in other subject areas. R. Gagne suggests that good study habits acquired in any subject are likely to transfer to other subject areas. This principle is not applicable solely to highly talented music students. There are many below-average students who excel in music education but struggle in almost every other subject. Music can therefore give more opportunities to these particular students to achieve some sense of success despite their poor performance in other subjects.

The value of the expressive arts in education is universally accepted and its place in every school curriculum goes without question. However, music is wrongly regarded as a weak subject in the curriculum. As a result of frequent generalisations and misleading comparisons between different artistic subjects, the educational world would not dispute the value of a child’s attempts at creative expression in drawing or painting; yet, similar attempts at creative work in music, although having a comparable value, is looked down upon.

However, music education is part of aesthetic education, which, in turn, is part of the general education of the child. Through experience with music, the learner would be increasingly capable of feeling, creating, discovering, performing, learning, and thinking. It is very contradictory, therefore, to treat music education as a field of study that lacks in possibilities. Is music education of any real human value? The answer is undoubtedly a resounding ‘yes’.

Psychologists have frequently turned their attention to music and this is not surprising in any way. Nothing surpasses music when it comes to demonstrating capabilities such as the chaining together of units of skill, the examination of muscular coordination, or aspects of aural perception and memory.

Jean Piaget (1896–1980), originally a biologist, is one of the leading figures of cognitive development theory. According to Piaget, the young learner manipulates objects while acquiring concepts into that learner’s acquiring concepts of pitch, duration, dynamics, and other elements of music that are aural, or not concrete in a physical sense. The content of children’s music should include their identity, their bodies, and their feelings because of their egocentric nature. Creative and improvisatory activities are encouraged because of their vital significance in learning. The creative process is necessary for self-fulfilment. It seems that students respond to learning whenever they can become personally involved in this process, regardless of aptitude or socio-economic background. To be creative is to think in new and different ways.

Music involves the cognitive (intellectual) and psychomotor (physical) abilities and is learned through the integration of these areas of learning. Indeed, music education can enrich experience in ways that other subjects cannot. Through music education, students learn about themselves, other people, and humanity in general. It is particularly useful in situations of cultural pluralism since it is probably the best medium for understanding other cultures. It is valued because it gives insight into human experience and enables students to delight in living.

It is correct to say, therefore, that every child has a right to engage directly and practically in music. This is accomplished by including music education in the curriculum in order to pave the way for acquiring skills, knowledge, experience, and values.

The Music Curriculum for Primary and Secondary Schools in Malta starts with an important statement, which says that ‘in music education pupils should be engaged in the three interrelated activities of composing, performing and listening/appraising, thereby acquiring skills, knowledge and understanding and hence enjoyment of the subject.’

Music has a distinctive contribution to make to the aims of any school curriculum. Composing, performing and listening/appraising provide learners with opportunities to develop successfully. Music education helps students by giving them possibilities to develop their independence and use their creativity. Appreciating the relevance of music in their lives can motivate students to enjoy learning and to develop the skills and attitudes needed to succeed across the curriculum. Students learn to cooperate with others to reach a common goal through singing, playing, rehearsing, and performing music. Children develop an awareness of different musical parts and the roles and contributions of different members of a class, choir, or ensemble. They learn the value of sustained effort to achieve excellence and reap concrete rewards from their hard work.

Composing also develops students’ critical skills by giving them opportunities to evaluate their own work and the work of others. Music education promotes students’ awareness of national and global cultures, both past and present.

Early music education can help develop the brain areas which are responsible for language and reasoning. There is a link between music and spatial intelligence, i.e. the ability to perceive the world accurately and to form mental pictures of things. This kind of intelligence is valuable for a student (for instance, to pack the school bag needed for the day and to solve advance mathematical problems). Since it is a creative art, music helps students to think in a creative way, like solving problems by imagining various solutions, and rejecting outdated rules and assumptions.

Music education helps students to understand themselves as well as relate to others, thereby creating links with home, school and the wider world. It provides children with the discovery of other cultures and teaches them to be tolerant towards people of different cultures. This development of compassion and empathy, as opposed to greed and an egotistic attitude, leads to respect towards other races at an early age.

Music education brings together intellect and feeling, and enables personal expression, reflection, and emotional development. The students’ challenge is to make life meaningful and to reach for a higher stage of development. Self-esteem is a by-product of this self-expression. Music performance teaches students to conquer fear and to take risks. A little anxiety is a good thing, and something that will occur often in life. Dealing with it at an early stage often makes it easier to handle later on. Risk-taking is essential if students wish to fully develop their potential. Learning about music through a range of styles, genres, and traditions can also help students develop enquiring minds and learn to process information, reason, question, and evaluate.

All children should be inculcated into a musical tradition sometime during their life. The phenomenon of music has tremendous benefit, amongst which it affects the psychosocial and psychophysiological equilibration of every child. Music education should always be given the necessary importance in the curriculum and its value must not be underestimated.