A letter to principals: Why and how to have a music program in your school

A letter to principals: Why and how to have a music program in your school

A letter to principals: Why and how to have a music program in your school

It’s been pretty hard to get a good music program going in government primary schools in most states – unless parents pay and you bring in outside teachers. The problem is that music education is the responsibility of our classroom teachers – but initial teacher education does not give them a music education. (Of course, some principals are lucky and have teachers with skills and experience in music gained from studying music in their private lives or as electives.)

We looked at music provision in the countries with the highest PISA rankings in 2009. In Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, students are taught by specialist music teachers. Most primary school children in Finland are taught by classroom teachers – with 350 hours or more of music education.  Teachers in South Korea receive 160 hours; in Australia, on average, they receive 17 hours. Yes, one seven. With this, Australian classroom teachers are supposed to be able to teach seven years of music. Since they are not super-human, it hasn’t worked.

After a few decades of this neglect, thousands of teachers in the primary school workforce cannot teach music. It’s a problem on a scale almost beyond remedy.

The problem is thrown into relief by the arrival of the Australian Curriculum in music.  It is supposed to be taught to all children but probably in the majority of NSW government primary schools, the classroom teachers lack the educational preparation to deliver it. It should be emphasised that the curricular expectations are normal and reasonable. Primary school children, competently taught, will reach the achievement standards.

However, with the delegation of authority to principals in most states, they have a new opportunity to bring in specialist music teachers who really know what they are doing.

There are many alternative uses of those funds? Why would you choose to hire a specialist music teacher?

There is now abundant research that shows some unique advantages of a music education in supporting student development in a wide range of abilities. There are some links to that research below – and you can check out the Research section on this website. We have done a survey of a small number of principals of schools reputed to have good music programs and some of their observations are here also.

These benefits come from music programs that are well taught. That requires musically educated teachers. Some classroom teachers have good musical knowledge and skills but generally, the outcome is more assured if the teaching is done by music specialists.

Note that in NSW, the Education Act states that students should receive an education in music and visual arts. So although the national curriculum is for five art forms and the state has also committed to that, priority might be given to the two arts named in the Act.

Observations by principals

Here is a summary of the observations of the principals in the survey noted above[1]. The paragraphs in italics are statements from principals:

·         Music builds a sense of belonging, discipline, confidence, creativity, movement skills, and cooperativeness. Music extends the world of possibilities for gifted students.

The students in our music program have a real sense of belonging to the group and are motivated to perform at the highest level and to be challenged musically, socially, emotionally and intellectually.

The sense of belonging engendered by being a part of a choir or orchestra, and the feeling of elation following successful performances is huge boon to the self-esteem and confidence of many individuals.

Students who have little to do with each other, come together for common performance goals and make life-long friendships. Cooperation, trust, responsibility and respect for each other develops over time in positive and observable ways.

·         A successful music program can be the soul of the school and bring community respect and support.

There are two key areas. Firstly, what I term as the soul of the school. It is that indefinable quality that starts to permeate through your school with the overlap of dedicated students who are also involved in performance. Secondly, it has brought the community into the school and the community knows that we have a superior music program and they experience it in community functions etc. We also attract enrolments purely for our musical offering.

·         The quality of the music teachers is a crucial factor. So is the structure of the program – it should be sequential and developmental.

By implementing a sequential program of music since Prep, the students have developed remarkably. We teach recorder in Years 3 and 4 and Ukulele in Years 5 and 6.

·         Music is a subject in which excellence is especially evident, valued and shared, and can be experienced/witnessed by the performers and by their listeners.

Any emphasis on excellence must, perforce, spread to other areas of the school’s activities.

·         In a multicultural school, music makes connections across cultures, aids those who do not yet have good English skills. It links students with the immensely rich history and diversity of cultures.

·         These respondents observe music as having some causative effect on positive non-music outcomes:

Music students have always been, and remain amongst the highest achieving students in the school. The increased motivation, the ability to work in ensembles, the use of music practice and performance to stimulate brain activity are well known and recognised throughout the school community.

We see students who are gifted in Music, also gifted in Mathematics and Physics. When I enrol new students, I always encourage them to take Music, citing advances in neuroscience observations that learning Music assists students in the development of all areas of their studies

There is a high correlation between student involvement and academic success. Part of our improvement in academic success in recent times can be attributable to the success and improvement of the music program.

The research

Surveys of research showing the broad benefits of music education can be found on this web page: http://musicinaustralia.org.au/index.php?title=Summary_of_International_Research_into_the_Benefits_of_Music_Education  There are other papers on that site that explore these issues at greater length. Here is a quick roundup.

Intrinsic benefits of a music education

·         Lifelong enrichment through gaining ability to make and respond to an art form that offers entertainment, special skills and capacities, and the most profound experiences and insights. 

The benefits of a music education for personal and academic abilities

·         Brain development with greater integration of right and left hemispheres, development of brain areas underlying skills in other disciplines. There is a lot of arresting new work in this area.

·         Increased creativity if music is taught in such a way as to build creative skills

·         Increased self-confidence, self-esteem of students, supporting better performance generally

·         Increased emotional skills, empathy

·         Improved socialisation skills

·         Highly developed motor skills, listening skills (the latter also relevant to language learning)

·         Accelerated learning in literacy, numeracy, academic subjects

·         Inclusion of students who are left behind by the traditional curriculum

·         Reduced truancy where that is a problem, better attendance, retention, with effects on academic performance

·         Better school spirit, morale, reputation, attractiveness. Independent schools and some government schools market themselves using their music programs as a major attractor. 

It all starts with the brain. Associate Professor Sarah Wilson of Melbourne University has written about the effects of musical activity on brain activity and development[2]:

There are now over 100 neuroimaging studies showing that music activates multiple brain networks during music listening, responding and performance. As a result, when we compare musicians and nonmusicians there are substantial differences in size, shape, density, connectivity, and functional activity that occur extensively throughout the musician’s brain… The brain can change in response to music and [there is a] broad range of cognitive processes and behaviours this may impact.

Powerful amongst these is the ability of music to prime the brain for future learning, whilst more broadly promoting our individual and social wellbeing.[3]

In the interests of bolstering NAPLAN scores, some schools are giving more time to literacy and numeracy classes and less to other subjects, including music.  But consider this research:

A two-year Swiss study involved 1,200 children in 50 schools. They already received two music classes per week. They were taken from regular classes for three additional one-hour music classes per week. At the end of the experiment, these students were better at languages, learned to read more easily, had better social relations, demonstrated more enjoyment in school, and had a lower stress level than those who remained in regular classes. [4]

Parents want music education for their children. In a phone survey by Ibis, 87% of the population agreed that “Music education should be mandated by the states so that every child has the opportunity to study music in school”.


[4] Weber, E., Patry J.L., Spychiger, M. (1993).Musik macht Schule. [Music makes the school].Essen, Germany: Die blaue Eule

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