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10 Things Schools Should Know About Music: #3 Music is an Educational Building Block 

6th July 2020

Bob Cuff, headteacher at Manor Lodge primary school in Sheffield, understands the importance of Music as the foundation of a good education. He recently spoke passionately about the importance of Music at our Summer Summit. Here he expands upon the value of Music as an education building block.

Some of you will pick up quickly that I do not have a pedigree in music. You will also gauge, rapidly, that I am not musically ‘competent’ and nor do I play a musical instrument. When singing, I sound like a cat when its tail has been trodden on. Puberty was unkind.  Your radar will also hone in on the fact that, other than reading for CPD or enjoyment, I am not a thoroughbred in the sciences.

So why keep on reading, you might ask? Well, I’m hoping that my passion for music/musical education and witnessing the impact that music and a musical education has had upon my pupils, community, parental engagement and staff mental health and well-being will either confirm your beliefs, or offer you some non-peer-reviewed food for thought. Failing that, I will hopefully offer you some enjoyment if you have kindly found some time to read this.

I often like to start a ‘blog’ or piece of writing with a quote. I offer you this:

“You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. If a (wo)man carries many such memories into life with him (her), s/he is saved for the rest of his/her days. And even if only one good memory is left in our hearts, it may also be the instrument of our salvation one day.” Dostoyevsky (Fyodor)

I amended the quote slightly: Dostoyevsky’s personal pronouns needed updating from the 19th Century. Other than that, I feel that this quote still stands true. Some beautiful sacred music, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all. In my humble opinion, music -preserved since childhood – creates memories. Both learning memories and emotional memories.

Maybe, like me, you remember key events alongside music? Maybe tuneful mnemonics helped you remember scales, periodic tables or spelling rules? Perhaps, like me, hearing a piece of music catapults you to a distant memory locked away.

I remember a specific song playing on the radio as I was driving home from the maternity ward following the birth of my first child. Every time I hear that song, I’m launched back to that moment. I remember vividly the music played to my ‘first dance’ when I was married. I remember it much more than the readings friends and family gave. A fond farewell song at a funeral or a relative playing a poignant piece. Singing – en masse – in the car on my way to our first family holiday…. the list is, happily, endless.

I shall dare to tiptoe into the science behind this in a moment. First, though, let me define the premises: ‘Music is an educational building block.’

Music, I shall take to mean in its widest sense. This might include initial ‘music’ i.e. babies encouraged to bang their toys, perhaps rhythmically, by their parents or carers. Often the child receives great applause from these adults once they manage some sort of pattern or metric quality. Musical education might include parents singing to their baby/toddler. Nursery rhymes. A simple ‘Happy birthday to you…’

Progress this to singing in class then being introduced to our first instruments. Mine was a recorder. Our patient teacher – bless her. Moving along to performing in an assembly. Then celebrating religious festivals with music. My first happened to be a Nativity play. I remember being orchestrated into position, on a stage, nervously chanting songs into the emotional eyes of my star struck parents.

Some children progress to become immersed in the rich journey musical studies will take them upon. Its history; ethnic roots; structure; form; theory and rudiments. Some people will simply be content listening to the radio.

I watched my daughter, 14, recently listen repetitively to a popular song and learn the lyrics. She and her friends ‘zoomed’ and learnt the words and created a dance routine. She had collaborated on this plan, virtually, with her ‘bezzies’ during lockdown. After days and days, her big night arrived. Together they performed ‘it’ (virtually) to rapturous giggles and hysterics of an audience of family and friends who had dialled into said event. It looked like a Virtually Reality game of “Guess Who” on the screen. Tell me she’s not (a) created music in her own way and (b) created a memory to recall upon in the future.

Some children then find themselves in front of live audiences (remember those days!) after years of practice. Some teach themselves; meet friends and equally end up in front of audiences. Some fill huge stadia. From the moment children are born, music is a potential memory maker whether we are the performer, audience or listener.

And we owe it to children to equip them with all the options that music offers. So at the point when a child makes decisions, they have both the skills and knowledge to progress as far as they wish with music. Or they can just sit back and enjoy the musical journey as a passive absorber. A bit like me.

Lyrics have been used to tell stories. These were often formed into poetry, or song, and have been for centuries. The distinction between ‘Bob Dylan the Poet’ and ‘Bob Dylan the musician’ is blurry, is it not?

Education, I shall take as the process of receiving (or giving) knowledge and skills. Building blocks, I shall interpret as components, without which, a solid foundation of education isn’t possible.

As an important nota bene: There are, sadly, some children ‘starved’ of these early musical experiences. It is our responsibility, as leaders of education, to ensure that these musical building blocks are rejuvenated for each and every child. We must plug these potential gaps with the same rigour we would with literacy and numeracy.

We equally have a duty to create opportunities to guide those children who present as aspiring musicians. I don’t believe in the phrase ‘gifted and talented.’ All children are gifted and talented in some way.

Turning now to my scientific minded colleagues –I must at first apologise – my knowledges may come across as clumsy.

There is a huge swathe of evidence to show that stimulus (across the senses) supports the growth of a protein that wraps around receptors to and from neurons (I think these receptors are called dendrites). The greater the strength of this protein; the greater the neurons; the greater the memory recall.

Recalling of facts and memories is a part of learning.

A simple example might be the smell of freshly baked bread filling a room. I wonder where any of you, my dear (and patient) readers have mentally wandered off to after reading that sentence? Was it a kitchen? Who was in it? A loved one? Were you on holiday? Keep it to yourself… and enjoy the memory.

Can you picture the expression when a child tastes a lemon for the first (and possibly subsequent times). I suspect most of you now, if I asked you to really focus on eating a lemon might wince or salivate – both.

Despite my clumsy science, I think it is reasonable to hypothesise that the greater the stimulus – the greater the memory. Therefore, the greater the potential for learning.

My experiences of working with children who have, sadly, had early childhood trauma or significant neglect do, for a period of time, need a huge back fill of nurture.  This includes: art therapy; music therapy; PAT dogs; growing plants/food; cooking; looking after school pets; tactile objects (stress balls etc) to manipulate – sand to dig in. What do all of these have in common? Sensations. The paucity of these in early childhood has a detrimental effect of a child’s development.

I suppose, what I’m trying to say is that music isn’t just a building block of education, it is a vital constituent, scientifically proven to support the building blocks of neurons which in turn support the physical and mental development of children. We give free fruit and milk to children for the same reasons. Why don’t we give free music?

Imagine a curriculum where music was inter-woven into all curricular areas to support learning across all subjects and as a subject specific programme of study. Is that so hard? Is that so wrong?

I serve a community where standards of adult literacy and numeracy vary. We have tried to encourage parents to come into school (successfully) to read to their child and try to explain what ‘phonemes are’ to shell-shocked parents. And when we do, we watch the life blood drain out of them. Just to be clear – I do think phonics is important and upskilling our children to use technical language is equally important. But the fact remains, that a split diagraph doesn’t have the same impact as a song at uniting a community.

It won’t take you long to work out where we have the longest queues and for what. That’s correct – to watch their children sing and play an instrument or perform. It is the biggest attraction bar none. It doesn’t matter if you can read or write or calculate or cook. There are no barriers to watching children sing or play an instrument. They smile; laugh; receive applause. It’s ok to make mistakes in music, it appears. It seems odd that it is not as ok in other subjects. We support, hug, encourage: motivate and take photos with children when they perform. I’ve never seen a parent yet take a selfie with their child after coming into see their maths or reading or other core subject learning. Yet dress them in a tunic, with some tinsel, and a make shift wand…

And haven’t we, at the same time, captured ‘some beautiful, sacred memory’ and ‘preserved it since childhood.’ And is this not the best education of all?

Can you picture parents watching their child singing or playing instruments to support dividing fractions? Can you dare to dream that, across all schools, Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, friends, and wider family members applaud their beloved young one for chanting ‘quel temp fait il’ to the 1812 Overture?  Would that not be powerful? And at the same time, would it not also develop the neurons/dendrites (whatever my clumsy terminology might be trying to reference) for recalling memories or learning for maths or French or indeed everything. I am aware that some schools do this. Our school tries. But all schools..?

Yes – we need a singular subject specific music programme of study and yes – we need to instil all of those singular building blocks so children can make decisions about learning focuses later on, which may be instrument specific or subject specific. But I believe we need music as a central building block. A foundation stone – the key stone – otherwise the arc of learning and childhood development will crumble.

The power of music as a building block of education, in my humble and layman-esque opinion, is the equivalent that food and air are to the building blocks of humanity. To those who think this is all too utopian –I give you my only (poor) cliché of the day: Some say I’m a believer, but I’m not the only one.

Join us Next Week for article #4 in our 10 Things Schools Should Know About Music series; Music Encourages Creativity. 

Photo Credit: Rosie Lowe