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Bang the drum and strum the guitar – music helps children to learn


Rock on: Students of The Academy of Popular Music in Cork Institute of Technology get in tune

Rock on: Students of The Academy of Popular Music in Cork Institute of Technology get in tune

Rock on: Students of The Academy of Popular Music in Cork Institute of Technology get in tune

It is time for kids to stamp their feet, clap their hands and chant loudly to the rhythm. These activities may make an infernal racket but they also help children to learn.

A recent conference at the Academy of Popular Music in Cork heard how playing an instrument or beating out rhythm are not only enjoyable in themselves. They also help a child's intellectual development.

Susan Hallam, professor of education and music psychology at the University of London, believes music is not just an enjoyable pastime or an extra activity to be enjoyed whenever the teacher has a spare moment.

It can also improve educational achievement of children in a wide variety of areas, particularly at a time when they are learning how to read. It helps children to distinguish sounds.

Professor Hallam told the Irish Independent of an experiment involving eight children with reading difficulties.

They were trained to clap their hands, stamp their feet and chant in time for 10 minutes every day over 10 weeks.

Prof Hallam says: "The reading scores of half the group improved by two years during that time, two others had an improvement of six months, and in two of the cases there was no significant effect.

"There is also some evidence that playing an instrument at a young age can help children with dyslexia."

Professor Hallam was working as a violinist in the BBC Midlands Light Orchestra when she started studying psychology at the University of London. She has since become a Professor of Education.

"Initially I was interested in how musicians practise for performance, but alongside that I began to look at how music helps learning in other ways."

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She says recent advances in the study of the brain have enhanced our understanding of the way in which music can influence other activities.

In her research on the topic she concludes: "Speech and music have a number of shared processing systems."

She says musical experiences improve the way the brain processes information. This way of hearing sound has an impact on a child's perception of language, and this affects how a child learns to read.

Professor Hallam has found in her research that eight-year-olds who play an instrument outperform others in language tests.

It seems that strumming a guitar or playing a recorder enhances a child's ability to remember words.

"Most of the research has been done on children working in groups, but it also works for those learning individually," says the academic.

Curiously, playing music can also have an effect on numeracy, but those playing rhythm instruments benefit more than those who learn the piano or sing.

Professor Hallam says music participation enhances creativity, particularly when it involves improvisation.

She says most of the intellectual benefits of music come when students learn an instrument at primary age.

However, she also outlines the social benefits of playing during the teenage years.

"Working in small musical groups requires the development of trust and respect and skills of negotiation and compromise.

"In adolescence music makes a major contribution to the development of self-identity and is seen as a source of support when young people are feeling troubled or lonely."

Professor Hallam says increasing the amount of classroom music within the curriculum can increase social cohesion within a class.

She says it leads to greater self-reliance, better social adjustment and more positive attitudes, particularly among low ability, disaffected pupils.

But teachers who want to foist their musical tastes on their pupils may be well advised to avoid it.

Forcing teenagers to sing the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan may be counter-productive.

Prof Hallam says: "The positive effects of engagement with music on personal and social development only occurs if it is an enjoyable and rewarding experience."

Teachers also have to have musical skills in order for it to be effective.

The academic and musician suggests that music could even help with PE.

"Rhythmic accompaniment to physical education enhances the development of physical skills. Learning to play an instrument enhances fine motor co-ordination."

Could it help prevent a child catching a cold?

"There may be particular health benefits from singing for the immune system and breathing.

"Research on this has been carried out with adults but these benefits could equally apply to children."

Generally in her research, Professor Hallam has found that it is playing an instrument or singing that bring the most benefits. The benefits of listening to music are less clearcut.

"Children may listen to music while they are doing their homework, but it does not always help.

"Depending on what type of work they are doing it could be beneficial or disruptive," she says.

She says: "A lot more research needs to be done into what types of musical activity help with what aspects of learning."

But overall, she confirms the view of Plato: "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything."

Our very own academy of pop

It is Cork's school of rock. The Academy of Popular Music has opened its doors to budding guitarists, drummers, keyboard artists and singers for three years.

Until recently, those who wished to join an academy were confined to classical, but pop music is a growing field of study.

The Academy of Popular Music is based in Cork Institute of Technology's School of Music as a private venture. Some of the tutors are staff and graduates of the school.

"A classical programme may work well for some musicians but it does not suit everybody.

"The point of the academy course is to match people with their age group and their interests, whether they be emos, goths or something else."

Students learn their instruments in groups after school as an extracurricular activity.

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