music and learning

To Keep the Music Playing: Music and Education

Would you believe someone if they told you that a three-year-old could memorise an entire cellphone number? It seems like a stretch. The memorisation of ten separate digits, in a particular order, seems like a tall task for someone who is the tender age of three. But this does seems like it could come in very useful for mother and child should a situation arise when this would be necessary. Interestingly, I have seen this work. But how? 

The answer: music. I personally know a conscientious mother who successfully taught her then three-year-old daughter to memorise her ten-digit cellphone number through the power of music. She made up a sing-song tune, much like you would hear echoing throughout the rooms of a nursery school, and paired the numbers to this tune. The result: a three-year-old who can effectively sing out her mom’s contact details! This is but one case of how music can be used effectively to teach and to learn.

In the iconic 1965 film The Sound of Music, the loveable lead character, Maria, played by the incomparable Julie Andrews, sings, in what is an unforgettable scene in cinematic history, “The hills are alive with the sound of music!” And so too are many school classrooms, particularly those of pre-primary schools. Why is this the case? Simply put, music is an effective tool to use in order to teach and learn.

Numerous studies have shown that music education is effective in the development of numerous cognitive domains including intelligence, mathematics, spatial reasoning, reading, writing, and memory[1]. Playing an instrument, or even simply engaging in active listening to music, lights up numerous areas of the brain[2]. One study has shown that after 15 months of learning an instrument, there are even structural changes in both motor and auditory areas of the brain[3]. The brain scan below contrasts the areas that light up in the brain, showing increased activity, of non-musician and musician 9-11 year-olds on simple rhythmic (RD) and melodic discrimination (MD) tasks. It is clear that musicians have more brain activity while doing these tasks[7].


However, one main area of concern for people who research music’s effect on education is the transferability of the skills that music imparts[1]. These are broken down into near transfer effects and far transfer effects: near transfer refers to the immediate skills related to music and music-making such as fine motor skills involved in playing, pitch, rhythm, and creativity to name a few; whereas far transfer refers to the ability of skills gained in music to improve other domains such as mathematics or reading. The near transfer effects are well establish, but the far transfer effects are more difficult to study.

Despite these challenges that researchers face, studies seem to show that music does indeed have far transfer effects. These include an increased IQ, better reading performance, in some cases improvements in mathematics skills, and is even associated with improved school attendance[1, 4, 5]. For special needs children, the inclusion of music in education is even more beneficial as children with reading disabilities showed faster improvement in an eight-week music instruction programme compared to those without such a programme[4].

When you think about it music does have some qualities that are beneficial to learning: active listening, repetition, as well as enjoyment. Taken together these elements enable a learning experience that is enhanced. No wonder a three-year old can then memorise a cellphone number. In a TEDxSydney talk, music educator Richard Gill stated passionately that, “Music evokes, music suggests, music implies, and music opens up the mind of a child in an extraordinary way.”[6]

Unfortunately it is often the case that music education has to continually justify itself to powers that be, such as school policy makers and school management structures. Such is the case with many artistic subjects in a world moving increasingly towards an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields of study. But clearly music still has its place and it is in the best interests of children to include music in their education in some form. It falls to us then, the custodians of children’s futures, the parents, teachers, school managers, and policy makers to really think about the answer to the questions posed in the classic song:

How do you keep the music playing?
How do you make it last?
How do you keep the song from fading too fast?

1 Jaschke, A. C., Eggermont, L. H., Honing, H., & Scherder, E. J. (2013). Music education and its effect on intellectual abilities in children: a systematic review. Reviews in the Neurosciences24, 665-675.
2 Iversen, J. (2015). “Does music change a child’s brain?” TEDxSanDiego Available at:
3 Hyde, K. L., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, A.C., et al. (2009). Musical training shapes structural brain development. Journal of Neuroscience, 29,3019-3025.
4 Gordon, R. L., Fehd, H. M., & McCandliss, B. D. (2015). Does music training enhance literacy skills? A meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology6, 1-16.
5 Standley, J. M. (2008). Does music instruction help children learn to read? Evidence of a meta-analysis. Applications of Research in Music Education27, 17-32.
6 Gill, R. (2011). “The value of music education.” TEDxSydney. Available at:
7 Schlaug, G., Norton, A., Overy, K., & Winner, E. (2005). Effects of music training on the child’s brain and cognitive development. Annals-New York Academy of Sciences1060, 219-230