Learning music as a child has untold benefits, yet music education is contracting in Australia. So what are we actually investing in when we put money and resources into teaching music? Anita Collins discusses how impactful it can be for each and every student at a range of different schools.

Anita Collins
Dr Anita Collins with students from Canberra Grammar School. Photo © William Hall

Conversations like these come at a time when music education in Australia appears to be contracting rapidly. Whether programs are being diminished due to the need for more time for literacy and numeracy, or because of the commandeering of music education time for wellbeing programs, or the dilution of specific music education in favour of a broader Arts education approach, we are sitting on the edge of a cliff when it comes to the next generation of Australians. The dire nature of music education in Australia was highlighted in the 2018 report Music Education: A Sound Investment, while the latest data available from back in 2014 estimated that only 23 percent of government schools offer continuous, developmental music education.

With a clear need to address falling literacy and numeracy levels, and bolster students’ wellbeing after two years of disruption and isolation, it is worth asking the question: why should music education be high on the educational agenda? 

The answer is quite simple and is backed by extensive research. Music education can improve literacy and numeracy skills at the same time as boosting students’ attention, focus, self-regulation and overall academic achievement. Music education also enhances students’ wellbeing, motivation, love of learning, sense of belonging and connection to their school community. Music education bolsters the cognitive capacity of students, which they can then apply to every aspect of the school experience. So why would we want to shrink access to an activity that can propel every student’s education upward?

We need to have a deeper understanding of exactly what we are investing in when we invest in music education for every Australian child. Teachers and educational leaders around Australia are doing just this, informing their teaching practice and educational decisions based on research that shows how impactful music education can be. 

What are we actually investing in?

As a consultant who advises schools, systems and states on music education, I feel I should have a well-polished, pithy and powerful answer to this question. But I don’t, and the reason that I don’t is because the investment in music education looks different for every context, and the motivations for the investment are as individual as each school.

Investing in enhanced cognitive capacity

Take the small and welcoming Catholic primary school in a mid- to high-income area of Brisbane. After reviewing a proposal for a compulsory music program for nine to 10-year-old students from their music teacher, and then listening to one of my wide-ranging presentations about the many benefits of music learning, the principal and the business manager were in a dilemma and came to chat to me. 

After hearing about the cognitive benefits that the research has found for students who start learning a music instrument from six to seven years of age, they were unsure if they should be investing in music earlier than originally planned. Was it possible that they were missing the prime time for enhancing literacy skills, attention and self-regulation, which have been shown to occur when music learning is commenced at this age?

Their motivation was driven by balancing the best educational decision for their students and the perceived significant financial outlay to commence the music program. However, the business manager gave away their greatest concern with one facial expression. When I mentioned the upfront capital investment on instruments, she winced. Quite rightly she asked, “But is it really worth it?”

Neither the principal nor the business manager have had a particularly positive, sequential or meaningful music education themselves, so they have no point of reference for the leap they are about to take. The 2011 study, Bridging the gap in school achievement through the arts, by Australian researchers Dr Tanya Vaughan and Professor Brian Caldwell, sees students who learned music perform at least one year ahead of their peers in language acquisition and syntax, and up to a three-year gain in auditory processing that supports reading development.

While a broader music program in their school will contribute to the school’s cultural life, both of these school leaders are investing in the potential to enhance the cognitive capacity of their students. Music learning is their tool to enrich the educational experience at their school for every student, not just for those students who are interested, talented or whose parents can pay extra for it. Give it two or three years and I know that that initial, wince-worthy capital investment will have faded far into the distance.

Investing in school culture and opportunity

The P-8 school in the outer suburbs of Adelaide focuses on a new model of education for Indigenous students. While touring their refurbished school, which was once the film set for Mortal Combat and before that an ammunitions factory, I fielded their questions on how best to incorporate music education in their particular learning model.

They have a lot going on: great music rooms, an enthusiastic choir, instrumental teachers visiting the school for individual music lessons and opt-in music activities. But it is not yet a coherent and comprehensive music program, mostly because, as with anything new, we all have to feel our way and respond to the needs of the students in order to bed down new ways of learning and teaching.

The leadership and teaching team are both very well informed about educational approaches and are eager to learn about the potential of music learning to contribute to their teaching practice and student learning. Their investment is driven by past professional experience and now the significant research into how music learning encourages powerful social cohesion, meaningful social inclusion and prosocial behaviour.

A study led by eminent Canadian researcher Professor Glenn Schellenberg in 2015 found that music learning significantly improved students’ development in vocabulary, emotion comprehension, sympathy and prosocial skills.

The investment that this school would like to make is bolstered by this research, because the researchers stringently controlled the music selection, as well as the home environment, parental encouragement and education. Why would these controls matter when investing in music education?

An investment in music learning that caters for students who may not have had the most positive school experience, no matter how or why, can develop skills that will serve them for life, whether they pursue music beyond school or not.

Investing in teacher capacity

I have also had the privilege of working with schools that use South Australia’s highly publicised Music Education Strategy and the Catholic diocese school system in New South Wales – and following the differences and the numerous similarities fascinates me.

These systems have both made big investments in music education. Whether it is in a state-wide, 10-year music education strategy or a rapidly expanding teacher capacity building program across close to 100 schools, the investment is significant.

The two systems are predominantly investing in their teachers, as all systems should. They have, for different but interlinked reasons, identified that improved music learning for every child is an educational right, as well as a tool for system-wide student development. The systems are allocating significant investment, year in and year out, in the training of teachers to deliver confident and appropriate music education to every child in their class. Every teacher is supported by mentors and skilled music educators, as well as the community of teachers who travel through the program with them.

These systems are investing in changing the nature of their workforce for the better. A 2019 study by Dr Bethan Garett found that the capacity to build teachers was the most influential factor in improving student development. Add to this the many benefits that music learning has on cognitive capacity for students, and it is a match made in educational heaven. Enhance the teacher and you have the potential to enhance the lives of thousands of students at the same time, and over generations.

Investing in student potential

My own school, a high fee-paying independent school in the ACT, is coming to the completion of its most recent investment – a music performance venue and a new music centre. The concert hall will seat 1400 students, an 80-piece orchestra on the stage and deliver acoustics on a par with Hamer Hall or the Melbourne Recital Centre. Most importantly to our development, we will no longer be sharing a practice space with everything from school exams to vaccinations and visiting educational events. The music centre will provide twice as many classrooms and instrumental tuition rooms as we currently have. I have had the privilege of being part of the process almost from the beginning and it has helped me think more globally about what we are actually investing in when we invest in music education.

When any school embarks on constructing a new building, it is a once-in-a-generation event. In this case the school could think that they have invested in a purpose-built music performance space, more music practice rooms and an enormous amount of steel and concrete. But what they have actually invested in is a way to maximise the learning potential for every student’s development. 

Learning music in childhood is the gift that keeps on giving through life. In a 2015 study, Drs Adrian Hille and Jurgen Schupp from the German Institute for Economic Research found that “learning a musical instrument is associated with better school grades as well as higher conscientiousness, openness, and ambition”. Dr Martin Guhn led a team in 2020 from the School of Population and Public Health in British Columbia that found that students who studied music in school, including class, choir and instrumental learning, were at least one year ahead of their peers in Maths, English and Science at graduation. These are the types of investment that pay back in countless ways for individuals, but are also magnified across an economy and society when every student has experienced music learning through their school life.

When an institution – may it be a government, a city, a cultural institution or a school – has the capacity to invest in music education in this way, everyone benefits. The community also reaps the benefits of a new space and the chance to realise every student’s potential. No matter where the investment is made, and in whatever form it takes, investing in music education for every child is investing in the social, cognitive and economic health of our future generations.

Dr Anita Collins is an educational consultant and a member of the teaching staff at Canberra Grammar School. She is the Artistic Director of the opening ceremony for the school’s new Snow Concert Hall, which takes place on 25 August.

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