Friday 22 April 2011

The power of music education research

This music “has the same effect as tickling my toes” and this other music makes us think “they’re playing our song.” Professor Keith Swanwick, in his lectures for the MA in Music  Education course in the 80’s used simple expressions like these to bring home deep truths from the otherwise complex world of aesthetics.
I thought again about those happy Monday evenings spent at the Institute of Education in London  as I re- read Professor  Susan Hallam’s 2001 report “The Power of Music, the strength of music’s influence on our lives”  and compared it to her 2010 follow up study, “The power of music: Its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people” based on her research with her team at the Institute of Education  See also:  International Journal of Music Education 2010 28: 269 DOI: 10.1177/0255761410370658 the online version which can be found at
The 2001 study was commissioned by the Performing Right Society, which is the organization responsible for collecting artists’ royalties in the United Kingdom. I have a copy on paper which I printed out all those years ago, but have not been able to find it online and there is no mention of it on the PRS website. Hmm?
The Power of Music 2001 is a series of  short articles on different topics including Music in Our Everyday Lives, The Extent to which people listen to music, The Power of Music, Neurological aspects of musical processing, The Effects of music on individuals, Music in Society, among others, and is a review of specialist writing from around the world available at the time. These are followed by resumes of no fewer than 210 articles, mainly from music education, music therapy and psychology journals in the West.
Ah, there you are, the first sign of the times: I say in the West automatically, as I could not imagine a current publication that does not include significant contributions from Asia and around the world.
So? No, in the more than 135 references in the 2010 edition, 45% are dated after 2001, but the newer references are very much rooted in the anglo-saxon intellectual community. I just wonder how much study material the tens of thousands of young students at conservatoires in China will produce: Lang Lang has already shown us that there is musical gold in those far off hills. Nevertheless, a really useful source of research materials.

Striking it is how much we now depend on the internet, and our own free choice of music with almost unlimited access, the possibilities available to us to link with other musicians, create collaboratively online, produce high quality recordings with domestic equipment and share our work and our students’ work openly through Youtube and more safely through sites such as NUMU. Obviously, in 2001 we were not yet into all that.
Okay, in 1984 when I wrote my dissertation for my MA at the Institute of Education I typed it up word by word on a gadget my son laughed at when I finally showed it to him,  and my Aunt Edna did a brilliant job, with carbon paper and immense patience, of producing the final version, no tippex allowed. 
I would like to see more about the power of music with reference to the digital world in a IoE publication from 2010.
I just had a Tweet from Lady Gaga on my iphone with a link to her latest recording. She shared that information with me and her more than 9 million Twitter followers and before I finish writing this sentence millions of them around the world are already enjoying listening to the music on Youtube. At the same time I just had an alert from Facebook that tells me and her other 32 million followers that the song is available to download legally from iTunes. The social aspect of involvement in music cannot be divorced from the internet. Last September my colleague Pete Romhany brought his students from Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets to perform with my students here in Spain. On the Saturday afternoon they performed in the Hay Festival in Segovia, and by the time I finished unloading the van and got home for supper he had already uploaded a video of their performance to Youtube.   

So, what is new in the 2010 study? There is lots of very interesting work on the brain, and a recognition of the amazing  contributions made by neuroscience:
“When we learn there are changes in the growth of axons and dendrites and the number of synapses connecting neurons, a process known as synaptogenisis. When an event is important enough or is repeated sufficiently often synapses and neurons fire repeatedly indicating that this event is worth remembering (Fields, 2005).“

Then we find a series of reviews of the literature on topics such as Transfer of Learning, Perceptual and Language Skills, with the conclusion: “Overall, the evidence suggests that engagement with music plays a major role in developing perceptual processing systems which facilitate the encoding and identification of speech sounds and patterns, the earlier the exposure to active music participation and the greater the length of participation the greater the impact. Transfer of these skills is automatic and contributes not only to language development but also to literacy.”
Literacy, Numeracy, Intellectual development, General attainment, Creativity, Personal and Social development, Physical development, health and well-being are the following sections covered, all with abundant references to the available literature.
2001 or 2010 version? Both studies are examples of drawing conclusions from surveys and empirical observations. As always, you will only appreciate the value of these works by going directly to the source.

Through Professor Swanwick’s reading list I came across Arthur Koestler, who distinguished three all powerful sounds: the Aha! Of the wonder of scientific discovery; the Ha Ha! that a comedian’s skill evokes; and the deepest, heart rending Aaah! of aesthetic appreciation.
I love the title chosen for these studies: I believe in the power of music.

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