Music as an educational inspiration

An inner-city school in England was in trouble: funding problems, complaining parents, unhappy teachers. They reversed their situation, however.

  • The school is in the top 10% nationally for pupil progress in reading, writing and maths.
  • 74% of its kids met the nation’s reading standard, higher than the national average of 53%.
  • 74% of its pupils achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, compared to a national average of 53%.
  • Feversham students are 7.1 points above the national average for reading and 3.4 for writing.
  • Feversham students are 6.5 points above the national average for math.
  • The school’s results for disadvantaged pupils are well above average.

All it took was ‘one weird trick’: they incorporated 6 hours of music into the curriculum every week.

The school bases its method on the Kodály approach, which involves teaching children to learn, subconsciously at first, through playing musical games. Children learn rhythm, hand signs and movement, for example, in a way that will help their reading, writing and maths. Idrees says teachers have found that asking children to memorise passages of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for example, improves reading and writing.

I don’t think music is the one magical element that makes this work, but it’s part of the recipe. Kids have to learn that applying oneself with discipline has rewards, and music is a good tool for that; I think also that the missing ingredient in education is inspiration and enthusiasm. Kids have to want to learn, and restricting the curriculum to some tiny few fragments of the range of human interest is a sure way to lock people out from learning that lesson.

In my own case, I was lucky: I was brought up with an enthusiasm for reading. Maybe soaking up trashy science fiction and fantasy novels wasn’t a direct path to educational success, but it did give me the skills I needed to do well in English and math and science. The local high school in Morris is not exactly exceptional, but one of the things that stood out about it when my kids were attending was their theater program — my son Connlann was very gung-ho about performing, and my nerdy daughter Skatje was focused on theater tech. It makes a difference when going to school to have something that makes you enthusiastic about participating. (The school made major cuts in the theater program about the time my kids graduated — a classic short-sighted bit of stupidity. I’m sure that their thinking was that since performing arts weren’t on the standardized exams, who needs it?)

I’m seeing it all the time in higher ed, too. In times of short budgets, who needs philosophy or foreign languages? Cut those disciplines so you can give more money to the STEM fields, where the money and the future lies. They never seem to realize that students are human beings with diverse interests, and our job is to expose them to the breadth of human knowledge, so they can choose how to apply themselves. Force-feeding our students through a funnel of one domain isn’t going to succeed; they’ll learn more with a smorgasbord that allows them to voluntarily stuff themselves with wisdom.


  1. Owlmirror says

    Re: STEM — it might be worth noting, especially given the main point, that I’ve recently seen the acronym STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.

  2. anchor says

    Yes, it should be STEAM. One should never underestimate the value of artistic or musical expression/appreciation as an inspirational tool. They belong to the human experience too

  3. chigau (違う) says

    A regular dose of physical activity would be a good idea, too.
    If it can be implemented without forcing people into competition.

  4. robro says

    Reminds me of Sir Ken Robinson who has advocated keeping the arts in the curriculum for years. Still, it might not be for everyone. While I’m a product of and an advocate for broad-based eduction myself, my son has a different perspective. It’s difficult enough for him to get through school even if he’s immensely interested in the subject but having to take classes outside his area of interest but are core requirements, is practically torture to him. One in particular is holding up getting his AS degree.

  5. says

    I know every time Waldorf education (aka Steiner schools) get hammered every time they get mentioned here. My daughter is in her final year there. I’m a nerdy engineer, am a life-long science fan, and find a lot of the Steiner rationalizing why they do what they do to be bizarre. But the program itself, the part kids see, is a different story. Another caveat is that each school is its own microcosm, and I’m sure some suck. So at the risk of getting flamed, a partial defense of it.

    * the first couple of years there is no explicit teaching. kids are given wet paper and paints and they discover themselves that colors mix to make new colors. they are not made to memorize the combining rules. there is an emphasis on outdoor activities and tactile manipulation (eg, weaving and knitting). there is a lot of unstructured play time where kids learn to socialize.

    * families agree to not have TV and radio and computers until late jr high. kids sing and draw a lot there, and kids who think that polished studio productions is what “real music” sounds like will think they can’t sing. families are highly encouraged to eschew plastic toys, and instead have toys with texture and heft and which are more generic (building blocks are a perfect example).

    * they don’t read out of textbooks until high school. the teacher writes stuff on the board, and the kids write it down in their blank books, neatly.

    * everyone takes spanish and german for a few years, then in jr high pick one. by “taking a language” it really is just learning songs and simple conversations so they get the sound and feel. no actual grammar until high school.

    * kids start in kindergarten playing one hole flutes. mostly it is rhythm. then they get three hole flutes. then about 3rd grade they play violin, and in jr high they get to pick an instrument. all throughout there is an emphasis on singing too.

    * each year they study some spiritual belief system. one year it is saints. one year it is jewish customs and traditions. one year it is norse mythology. then romans. etc. although there is a spiritual undercurrent, nobody is told what to believe, and I think there is a subversive effect of studying saints in one year and norse myths in the next — kids start to think maybe the stories about the saints might be somewhat mythical too.

    * there is always a lot of drawing, but every year there is a focus on some aspect. it might be perspective, or shadow, or woodwork, or metalwork, or sculpture, etc.

    Does it just produce a bunch of hippy kids? No, the graduating classes run the gamut. Some go to engineering schools, many (more than average) go liberal arts, some take a gap year and travel. Overall it was great for my daughter.

  6. eamick says

    If the name Kodály sounds familiar, the hand signals were featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

  7. rietpluim says

    Jim Thomas I won’t flame you. Our daughter is at a Steiner school too. We simply decided to take the woo with the good. Also, she’s way too smart to believe all bs that is told to her.

  8. ck, the Irate Lump says

    I often wonder if the thick walls we have between subjects like language, each of the sciences, maths, and arts were ever a good idea. It seems like it just helps convince kids that they’re not the [subject] type after having one or two bad experiences with it. For some reason, things like a music class will usually start and end at reading sheet music and performing it, when there could be much more to it than that. You could analyse the message of the music, the structure of the music, the physics of the sound, the technology of the instruments, or the biology behind the hearing of it.

  9. consciousness razor says

    It’s depressing that the question is typically whether music even belongs in the curriculum of every student.

    And then we have to hear people telling themselves it’s good for doing something else. I agree that music education is useful in that way, but it’s not clear why that should make a difference. Why isn’t music just one of the many things people ought to learn about, like chemistry or biology? Are you also asking yourself how the chem/bio parts of the curriculum help to improve musicianship, musical skills, music literacy, etc.? Or does that seem like a silly question to be asking, since even if they do help with such things, you understand that chem/bio are valuable all on their own and don’t need to do anything for the benefit of other academic disciplines like music?

    STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.

    But … what is this for? Does it basically amount to a claim that a good education consists of those items? If not that, then what?

    What exactly is being excluded from the list, once we’ve covered those five broad categories? For example, history is apparently not included. Alright, so now what do we do with that? The idea could be that we shouldn’t put emphasis on studying history, since it’s not on the list. Maybe history’s not even in the curriculum, since it’s not on the list. Or it won’t get as much money/resources as the others, since it’s not on the list. Or it’s not important to evaluate skills/knowledge related to it, since it’s not on the list. I just don’t know what the plan is supposed to be here, and I don’t think adding “arts” to the list of traditional STEM fields changes any of that.

  10. consciousness razor says

    ck, the Irate Lump:

    For some reason, things like a music class will usually start and end at reading sheet music and performing it, when there could be much more to it than that. You could analyse the message of the music, the structure of the music, the physics of the sound, the technology of the instruments, or the biology behind the hearing of it.

    Well, all of those things are part of music ed, at the university level. They’re not so much featured in primary/secondary, which are general/introductory music courses and school ensembles (bands, choirs, and so forth). Kids in primary/secondary can start to learn some things, but they’re not ready for much, until they have a decent grasp of the relevant math, physics, history, psychology, etc., and can apply it to music.

  11. ftltachyon says

    Soaking up trashy science fiction and fantasy novels IS a pretty good path to educational success, though. Reading a lot – no matter what you’re reading, pretty much – teaches you to pick up information and synthesize it and think about it.

  12. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    But the program itself, the part kids see, is a different story.

    The part I saw was that I had an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder and struggled socially while outpacing the classes academically; I got bored and taught myself to read at age 6 and was reading Lord of the Rings at 7 while my classmates were being taught the alphabet. The teachers in my kindergarten and first grade classes actively encouraged other kids to bully me in order to try and “make me normal,” and lied to my parents and told them I started it. Eventually they confronted my mother with their fears that I was “not properly reincarnated into my body” at which point she decided it had gotten too frickin’ weird for her and my parents withdrew me, homeschooled me for about a year, and then started me at public school, with near-adult reading skills, only the most rudimentary understanding of math, writing in all capitals at about six words per minute, and without anyone having explained to me that skipping, physically showing affection to friends, etc., wasn’t considered “normal” outside the Waldorf microcosm. It went almost as well as you might expect.

    I’m glad you had a good experience, but I REALLY don’t appreciate the glib dismissiveness.

  13. says

    My kid is in a special theatre class. It’s kind of magic for cooperation and also self-evaluation.

    Re: Waldorf schools
    Now, there’s a broad range of those. At the extreme end they are actively teaching racist pseudo science, following Steiner’s own beliefs.
    But even the better ones have a lot of nice sounding bad things. Jim Thomas enthusiastically describes some of them.
    No TV and Computers means no media competence and literacy, something that is quite being emphasized nowadays.
    No textbooks means little active working with texts. Neatly copying a text just that you can find all the words with ie vs ei is not effective nor efficient.
    Demonizing one sort of toy vs another is just elitist bullshit, especially given that the nice Waldorf toys are generally on the more expensive end of things.
    That doesn’t mean that the arts parts aren’t rad. They sound like something my kids would enjoy.

  14. jazzlet says

    Azkyroth,etc’s experience is by no means unique. One of my neices with an ASD had a similar experience in a Steiner school and further might well have been able to express that she was neice (rather than nephew) much earlier in a less condemnatory environment.

  15. says

    Hi PZ– I hope this might strike a musical nerve in you and other readers of the blog. I was fortunate enough a few years ago to have a MS published in American Biology Teacher In which I described several analogies I’ve found useful to help my students to understand the language of genetics (ABT 2013, 79:664-669; also available at my woefully outdated web site My co-author, Ed Himelblau, produced a wonderful series of illustrations that ought to help students to appreciate the difference between dominant and recessive alleles, and in latter portions of the article we write:
    “…DNA sequences that comprise the genome of an organism or species can much more usefully be analogized as the complete orchestral score carried by the maestro to the podium prior to the intended musical performance. Each note (nucleotide) and each piece of sheet music (gene) instructs the performers on how to produce the intended melodic outcome (the phenotype, as expressed from the genotype as encoded in musical notations of half-notes, chords, rests, etc.). Excepting those who are preternaturally able to “hear” the music by inspection of the complete score as indicated on the sheet music, a bit of translation and elaboration is required before the performance and expression of the musical phenotype becomes apparent. Beyond the fact that it is considerably more apt than a blue print analogy, the DNA as musical score analogy has the additional virtue of injecting a dynamic sense to patterns of gene expression and the arrangement of biological processes that program growth and development. It is also quite flexible and may be extended as you prefer to include notions of harmonic interplay among different musical sections.

    Finally, and assuming that the reader accepts the musical score analogy, the analogy can be extended even further to incorporate epigenetic mechanisms: adagio, pianissimo, allegro… are all musical notations imposed over raw musical scores (nucleotide sequences) to indicate the pace or volume with which the encoded notes are to be expressed; it is by now well-established that various modifications to DNA bases or to associated histone proteins can have significant influence over expression of the native DNA sequence. As a final embellishment to complete the analogy, one could point out to students the feedback loops that exist between musicians and the audience (the environment). This is a much richer, more vivid and more evocative analogy than the essentially static and erroneous view of the genome as portrayed by using the blueprint analogy….”

    Apologies for this shameless plug, but it seems quite relevant to your point that music and art have tremendous potential to expand developing human minds and even to inform students of uber-boring sciencey areas of the K-12 curriculum.

  16. dhabecker says

    #10 mentioned biology. Surprised PZ didn’t. It would seem the brain would enjoy being stimulated to produce networks of memory from many different sources. Remembering a statistic might be easier if it was interwoven with pleasure.