What’s all this advocacy for music education?

‘Study finds listening to music increases accuracy and speed at work.’ [1]

Such headlines seem to be growing in number as studies into the power of music proliferate accompanied by ever more remarkable claims. Enthusiastic twitterati are quick to post these.

Then there are the Plato quotes in praise of music. What greater authority can there be than Plato? But such Plato quotes are often, if not always, of dubious provenance.

All this becomes part of a feverish advocacy for music and music education. Rarely do the many advocates examine the veracity of the claims or resort to the kind of argument that qualifies as a justification for music education.

Wayne Bowman defines advocacy as:

‘… promising the world, without asking about the circumstances under which its promises might be realized, or acknowledging their contingency.’ [2]

In response to the incessant claims on the power of music I recently tweeted in full ironic style:

‘We must search out the parts that music is not yet reaching and deal with this urgently.’

It was duly re-tweeted. Was my irony lost I wondered?

But here is another tweet:

‘Year 1 have made a 21 month average gain in phonological blending and a 12 month gain in phonological elision in 5 weeks.’

And then an academic paper published by the Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research. [3]

This was from Dr. Marion Long reporting on the progress of the Rhythm for Reading project.

The project examines how a rhythm-based music intervention can bring about improvement in children’s reading comprehension, reading accuracy and reading rate. [4]

The programme of training required the children to:

… ‘plan ahead, synchronise, monitor and integrate multi-level physical coordination, which in turn required anticipatory and inhibitory control, and to keep time with the musical accompaniment and the other children in the room. Lastly, the teacher modeled simple staff notation, chanting on a monotone the alphabet letter names of music notation. Chanting was syncronised with stamping and clapping actions.’ [5]

Marion’s report makes clear the circumstances under which the children’s reading improves as a result of musical training. Contingencies are recognized. The claims are not overblown or unreasonably arrived at and build upon existing research.

This I think is helpful and puts into perspective the repeated claim that musical experience contributes to children’s reading development. Marion’s research shows under what circumstances and conditions this can be the case as well as what contingencies are in play.

The intervention places fundamental importance on the relationship between music and movement and, in the first instance, on music and gross motor movement, the stamping.

The role of movement in musical development is at least intuitively grasped in the primary school. That is, movement in response to music and movement in its making. I wonder if in observing children’s engagement with music sufficient attention is given to the way their bodies are thinking and the ways in which their minds are moving.

I know: let’s sing ‘Pack up your troubles’ with gross stamping movements.

This might be more valuable than seeking out dodgy Plato quotes.

[1] See http://tinyurl.com/lnyvjm5
[2] Bowman, W. (2005) Music Education in Nihilistic Times, in music Education for the New Millenium: Theory and Practice for Music Teaching and Learning, (ed.) D. K. Lines. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing pp. 30-31.
[3] Research Studies in Music Education 2014. Vol.36 (1) 107-124. ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading.
[4] Also see http://rhythmforreading.com/

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