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Music as a Tool for Learning

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Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

Published: Mon, 12 Feb 2018

The teaching of music in Primary Schools is an area of education that has seen dramatic changes in the last few decades. From a situation where music teaching was almost non-existent in some schools, and where in others young children were frequently alienated from music by being banned from choirs or told they were ‘tone-deaf’, music is now strongly represented within the National Curriculum.

Current thinking emphasises that there is no such thing as a completely unmusical child, and the curriculum has moved from an emphasis on performance – often for the relatively gifted only – and passive listening to encompass composition, performance and critical appraisal part of the musical education of every child.

This study considers music within the broader context of Primary education, considering the benefits of integrating music into other areas of the curriculum, and looking at the implications for learning bearing in mind that music in itself has been linked with improved behaviour and concentration (Glover and Ward 1998: 14), and thus may be considered conducive to a desirable learning environment for all subjects, and, furthermore, to the social and mental well-being of Primary school children.

The development of modern Primary music education can be traced back to the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1987, although music at the time was considered low priority, and was not included in the Curriculum until 1991.

When the National Curriculum was introduced, many teachers questioned its viability: it moved away from the topic-based teaching which had embraced a number of subjects without specifying distinct areas such as history or music or language. It was felt that by focusing on the topic rather than specific academic subjects, lessons held more interest for children. However, a number of educationalists had criticised the topic-based approach because of its lack of objectives and limited focus on specific achievement, and the National Curriculum sought to address this.

Today, best practice is considered to be somewhere between these two approaches: subjects are distinct from each other, but a focus on the links between different disciplines is encouraged, and it is in this environment that incorporating music into cross-curricular activities can be particularly beneficial.

The past few decades have seen a significant change in the delivery of music education. The Plowden Report (1967) recognised the importance of ‘non-specialist’ teachers being able to deliver music teaching :

“It is to the musical education of the teacher that attention must first be given… Comparatively few primary schools…can, for some time to come, expect to have a music specialist as a full-time member of the staff and it is even doubtful whether a specialist responsible for most of the teaching is desirable. It is the musical education of the non-specialist which, in our view, is the key to the problem.”(Web link: Plowden Report para. 690)

It was over two decades before this thinking began to be properly implemented. In the meantime, schools relied on music specialists –teachers who were trained musicians, almost always skilled pianists –and this led, at best, to a detachment of music-teaching from the rest of the curriculum, delivered by the class teacher, and, at worst (where a specialist was unavailable), marginalised or non-existent music education.
The development of a National Curriculum for music which is intended to be delivered by classroom teachers without any music specialisation has allowed it to be linked with other work more easily.More significantly still, delivery by the class teacher who, through far more exposure to the class than the ‘once-a-week music teacher’,understands the dynamic of the class and the individual pupils’situations, enables that teacher to deliver music teaching in a way that engages the class more readily and meets their specific needs.

In 1991, the National Curriculum for Music was developed quickly,with limited research and, in many areas of music teaching, no accepted‘good practice’ that could be incorporated into the plan. In 2000, anew National Curriculum for Music was introduced that could take account of what had been learnt through the 1990s. The announcement of the government’s Music Manifesto in July 2004 suggested a further commitment to music education, with the aim that every child should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. Although this could be considered a move away from classroom music teaching, with the requirement for peripatetic instrumental teachers and the demands made on limited school time, the potential outcome is a future generation who consider a wide range of music to be part of their culture and experience, rather than something for their more gifted or more affluent classmates.

In order to consider how music should be used across the Primary curriculum, some thought should be given to the ways in which children learn. There are various theories of learning: at the extremes are maturation, which suggests children should be left to learn through their own experiences, and behaviourism, which advocates learning through instruction from others. Many theories consider learning to be a combination of the two: Vygotsky’s theories reconcile the two approaches.

Jean Piaget’s theories tend towards maturation and have been influential in education, though probably more so in the sciences than the arts. Through many years of observation, Piaget drew the conclusion that children establish a ‘framework’ within which they construct their vision of the world. As they experience something new, they try to explain it from the perspective of the framework (assimilation). Only if they cannot will their framework develop in some way(accommodation). Much of the experience Piaget considers should be self-generated and not instructional from teachers, parents or other authority figures.
Piaget proposed four key stages of learning. For primary school teaching, the second and third stage are most relevant, covering the ages of around 2 to 7 (Pre-Operational) and around 7 to 11 (Concrete Operational) respectively. There is a lack of logic and a focus on the self in the Pre-operational stage, while in the Concrete operational stage, children are able to apply knowledge logically, manipulate information and understand the concept of others’ perceptions as well as their own.

While Piaget’s theories are popular, many educators have reservations about them, particularly with regard to the specific age ranges linked to the stages. It is widely considered that such developments vary greatly in respect of age from child to child .Criticism of the Plowden Report has at times focused on its emphasis onPiagetian approaches (Gillard 2005). However, Piaget’s ideas are applied widely, including in music education, with its frequent focus on working together in ensembles (which helps develop understanding of others’ perspectives), or experimenting with the sounds that different classroom instruments can make (learning by experience).

The behaviourist approach has lost favour in education: certainly in music, where it would be characterised by passive listening and instruction, it has been superceded by a more critical and analytical approach. Pavlov, famous for teaching dogs to salivate at the sound sofa bell, was a key figure in the development of behaviourist theory, and it has some place in musical education: for example, historical or cultural context of a piece of music is best explained by the teacher before pupils explore its musical qualities.

Vygotsky’s theories, which suggest children learn by a combination of experience and instruction are perhaps more relevant to primary music education. Vygotsky took into account the social and cultural environment, particularly the influence of parents. He proposed that children’s development arose as a result of interactions with others.

Vygotsky’s theories provide a link to theories regarding the learning of expression through the spoken word. A number of academic shave researched the area of music as a language which might be learned in a similar way to speech. In Barrett (1996), various research into the learning of oral language is explored to construct a framework in which successful learning of music might take place. Key to it is immersion: just as language is practiced all around the child, so too should music be, with parents demonstrating good practice as well as teachers. This parallels the Suzuki method of instrumental learning,where the parent learns alongside the child and reinforces at home what has been taught.

Barrett endorses a method which leans towards maturation – “the learner is encouraged to assume responsibility for his own learning,with frequent opportunities provided for the continuous practice of skills” (Barrett 1996:72), with “the teacher available to assist when help is requested” (ibid). Yet there is also an element of behaviourism: “The experience of explaining, or teaching an item to another is often instrumental in clarifying the issues within the mind of the learner” (ibid: 69).

In Mills’ exploration of the development of musical skills in the primary years (Mills 1996), a New Zealand study is discussed which supports Barrett’s theories. Through extensive fieldwork, Roger Bucktonfound that Polynesian children in New Zealand schools sung with moreconsistent vocal accuracy than those from European families. Millsattributes this to the difference in culture:

“[Polynesian] children sing with their families and in church from anearly age. Children of European ethnic background…often arrive atschool with little background in singing.” (Mills 1996: 119)

As will be seen, these various schools of thought have implications forboth the study of music and of other subjects, and hence forcross-curricular activity too.

To consider music’s use across the curriculum, we must first consider its place as a subject in its own right.
The National Curriculum addresses the following core areas:

  • Performing skills: controlling sound through singing and playing
  • Composing skills: creating and developing musical ideas
  • Appraising skills: responding to and reviewing music
  • Listening and applying knowledge and understanding.

The scope of the National Curriculum for music is broad. By the end ofKey Stage 1, pupils are expected to reach a standard where they arecapable of organising sound, of using symbols to represent music, ofperforming with an awareness of others and of responding to the mood ofmusic. Beyond the practical, they are also expected to learn aboutvarious music from history and around the world – this provides auseful opportunity for cross-curricular work – and to understand thefunctions of music such as for dance, again offering cross-curricularopportunities.

This kind of background knowledge continues to form a core part of thecurriculum at Key Stage 2, with the practical element further expandedthrough ICT, with the statutory requirement to “capture, change andcombine sounds”. Technological developments and greater affordabilitymean this is an area that has been practical to include in thecurriculum only in recent years, and for many teachers unfamiliar withmusic technology, this creates an additional challenge. However, it isagain a practical area to apply cross-curricular teaching in.

At Key Stage 2, pupils are expected to develop a sense of musicalexpression along with more advanced ensemble skills. They should alsobe able to evaluate and suggest improvements to pieces of music by thetime they leave Primary School. This corresponds to a time when pupilsare developing their own tastes, influenced by a range of externalfactors such as family (particularly older siblings), or artistsspecifically marketed at ‘tweens’. An awareness of such subcultures canhelp the Primary school teacher to relate elements of the music lessonto them to create a particular resonance with pupils with suchinterests.
A 2002 study by a team of researchers from Southampton Roehampton and Keele Universities carried out as part of the QCA’s (Qualifications andCurriculum Authority) Curriculum Development Project in the Arts andMusic Monitoring Programme produced some interesting findings(Hargreaves, Lamont, Marshall and Tarrant 2002). Many of the study’ssubjects were KS2 pupils. Across the study, which used interviews andquestionnaires to look at pupils’ and teachers’ attitudes to andengagement with school music teaching, children responded positively tothe performance aspect of the curriculum. Although many spent a gooddeal of time listening to music outside school (particularly popularmusic on the radio or on walkmans), little reference was made tolistening and appraising music in school music lessons, nor tocomposition.

Given the government’s commitment to enabling every child to havethe opportunity to learn an instrument, it is perhaps surprising thatonly 17% of children thought this was something a school should offer,although the majority were learning or wanted to learn an instrument.While instrumental lessons may seem to offer limited scope forcross-curricular activities, and indeed may take up additional teachingtime, their indirect effect on other subjects is positive as thelearning of an instrument helps develop a range of skills includingco-ordination, concentration and self-expression.
The Southampton/Keele study noted that a number of teachersexpressed concern over time and financial resources available toimplement a music programme. The time constraints suggest thatcombination of subjects through cross-curricular activity may be anattractive solution if managed appropriately.

The study also showed that the use of external music specialists inPrimary music teaching was widespread and, furthermore, help fromspecialists was seen as vital to the success of the music curriculum.The aim that music teaching should be deliverable by non-specialistteachers is still not met entirely:

“Technical demands of the curriculum are mentioned by many teachers:even those with musical qualifications and expertise feel unable tocover the entire spectrum of the music curriculum.” (Hargreaves,Lamont, Marshall and Tarrant 2002: Section 3)

This is not expanded on. Teachers responded positively to theschemes of work, particularly as a tool for less musically-experiencedteachers, but it is possible that the breadth of the music curriculumis a challenge for teachers to deliver. The government’s increasedfocus on learning an instrument is likely to maintain this situation.It will be interesting to see whether, in future years, the generationof teachers that has benefited from the National Curriculum for Musicas pupils and who have had more opportunity for learning an instrumentthan previous generations of Primary teachers find it easier to deliverclassroom music lessons.
The response from schools in the Southampton/Keele survey wasoverwhelmingly positive and it appears that the National Curriculum hasbrought classroom music teaching out of the margins by demonstratingthe many benefits of musical activity, notably those beyond musicalskills such as the social aspects and positive impact on behaviour andconcentration.

In addition to focusing purely on music for a period within thetimetable, many teachers practise combining music teaching with othersubjects. This has roots in pre-National Curriculum teaching, wherelearning was frequently cross-curricular and based on a topic. Incertain situations, it appears that music is highly relevant in theteaching of another subject. This section explores the opportunitiesavailable and shows how there may be significant benefits for learningin all subjects in a cross-curricular lesson.

Glover and Ward warn that there is a danger of attempting tocombine subjects in a way that has little benefit. They particularlydraw attention to themed songs which have no musical relevance:

“In a topic on ‘food’…young children might be encouraged to sing ‘FoodGlorious Food’… the links with the topic are spurious…the song may be apoor musical choice for a class who find difficulty with pitching thedemanding interval leaps.” (Glover and Ward 1998: 153-4)

Glover and Ward also draw attention to the practice of linkingcomposition too closely to topic work, so that children are invited tocreate the sound of, for example weather, producing sound effectsrather than an appropriately-structured and thought-out piece of music(Glover and Ward 1998: 154).

Bearing these points in mind, how can music teaching be productively combined with other subject areas?

History lends itself to an exploration of music from other times. Astudy of the Tudors might incorporate a look at Tudor instruments andmusic, which provides further opportunities to consider Tudor life.Many pieces are dances, and pupils might participate in a dance of theera. Pupils can find out more about the function of the music, aboutwho would have been able to afford the instruments and who would haveplayed them. This might link with study of life for the wealthycontrasted with the majority of the population or of leisure pursuitsof the time. This helps reinforce what has been learnt about life inTudor times, while consideration of the stylistic qualities of themusic benefits musical understanding.

Geography provides the chance to consider world music within its socialand cultural context rather than in isolation. Glover and Ward advocateexploring various musical styles from the same geographical area:

“A little research goes a long way towards getting things intoperspective. Children will be interested in the detail and thedifferences between different music within a culture.” (Glover and Ward1998: 160)

Through exploration of the elements which go to make a particularmusical style, children can learn about musical devices such as dronesor call-and-response structures. Simultaneously, by understanding therole of a type of music within a particular culture, they gain abroader understanding of different societies.

Science lessons can provide a framework for the study of soundproduction. Through a focus on a range of instruments and othermaterials and their sonic properties (the production method of thesound, its qualities and pitch range, for example) causes pupils tofocus on the detail of sound. Composition activities linked toexperiments with sound production are enhanced: pupils consider thescope of their instruments in a broader range of musical parameters.Their scientific understanding of sound also benefits.

Maths has particularly strong links with music, and various studieshave established a link between aptitude in maths and musical ability.Rhythm in music has a significant mathematical component: an obviousexample is the US note-naming system, where a crotchet is aquarter-note, a quaver an eighth-note and so on. Musical patterns offerthe opportunity to explore principles of symmetry, by playing a patternin its original form and in reverse. The inversion of a melody can belikened to reflection. A number of composers have incorporatedmathematical concepts into their music: many of these are rathercomplex for consideration at primary level, although the works ofXenakis may be useful for older Primary pupils. The construction of aparabola through a series of overlaid straight lines is visible in someof Xenakis’ scores, with lines performed as a string glissandi (slidesthrough pitch). Xenakis’ involvement with architecture, again using thescience of curves, may also be linked to lessons in this subject area.In addition to obvious connections with mathematics, Xenakis’ scoresare a useful example of how modern composers develop their own notationsystems and graphic scores, which may inspire children in compositionactivities.

Literacy also has a close affiliation with music. The inflections inspeech are melodic and it has distinct rhythmic qualities. The settingof text to music draws on these connections. Explorations of languageand words – for example, rhyming words or short poem – can be takenfurther by turning them into chants or songs.

A recent trend which underlines the links between language andmusic is the frequency with which children write a ‘rap’ rather than apoem. This could be taken further with a look at rap music payingattention to the dialect, fulfilling the requirement of the NationalCurriculum for English that children understand about language variety.However, any rap music should be selected with care due to subjectmatter and vocabulary in many rap tracks being unsuitable for use inschool.

Narratives in literacy can also be explored through music, but itis important that children understand the concept of music without aprogramme and can link musical devices to punctuation: a cadence is afull stop, a musical phrase correlates with a spoken phrase (Glover andWard 1998: 166).

The National Curriculum for Physical Education promotes the explorationof music through dance, and schools have a long tradition of music andmovement lessons. Dance and music together are included in thegovernment’s Schemes of Work:

“Unit 31…In this unit children focus on popular dance styles ofdifferent eras. They explore a range of dances, using step and gesturepatterns, body shapes, contact work, and contrasts in dynamic andrhythmic patterning. They learn more about both dance style and music.”(Weblink: Schemes of Work: PE/dance)

This unit has links to history and possibly geography too, so is truly cross-curricular.

Response to music through movement is pertinent throughout our culture(the inclination to tap a foot to the beat, for example), and in youngchildren a physical response to music is common. Ben-Tovim and Boydinclude this as a criterion in a ‘Musicality Test’ to be applied whenconsidering whether a child should learn a musical instrument(Ben-Tovim and Boyd 1995: 18).

Possibly the most difficult subject to establish effectivecross-curricular links in is art. While music and art can be seen asclosely connected, they both function in a similar role in terms ofproviding an outlet for self-expression through organisation ofelements, whether visual or aural. The temptation to play a piece ofmusic as an ‘inspiration’ for painting may result in the childinventing a programme for the music which is then represented in apicture. One must question the benefits of this regarding the verylimited extent to which it might benefit musical understanding, andalso its unintentional promotion of the idea that music must beprogrammatic. Also, is the music a background element compromising thechild’s concentration on the art, or vice versa?

Overall, there is a wide range of opportunity to combine music withother subjects to the benefit of both curriculum areas concerned. Thepractical applications discussed above also fulfil a balanced model ofinstructional teaching and self-discovery: for example, the teacherpresents a recording of music from another era or land, and providesbackground information, but the pupils are encouraged to explore itscharacteristics for themselves. This promotes a blend of thebehaviourist and maturation theories discussed earlier.

The opportunities for mutual support between subjects throughcross-curricular teaching demonstrates the importance of classroomteachers having adequate support and training to incorporate music intoother lessons; it is even more relevant in cross-curricular teachingthan in music lessons. By ensuring this is the case, benefits may beseen across almost all curriculum subjects.

In addition to combining music with other subjects in order to teach itdirectly, music has further applications in the curriculum.

The connections between language and music have a further benefit thatcan be utilised across various subjects. Text set to music is moreeasily committed to memory, and the use of songs to learn key facts iswidespread – for example, to learn numbers or the alphabet.Number-learning by song is effective, as one SEN teacher using singingin Maths comments:
“Even if pupils don’t understand the concept of numbers, they can sing up to 10”, (Maynard 2004)

Colwell’s research with Kindergarten children in the US (Colwell 1994)demonstrated that when children practised a reading text set to music,they read it with greater accuracy than a group who had practised thetext without its musical setting. However, although this researchsupports the findings of previous experiments, it used a sample of only27 subjects.

Research undertaken by Dr Frances Rauscher, a former professional’cellist with a Ph.D. in Psychology, and her colleagues suggested alink between playing music to a group of subjects and a simultaneousincrease in their spatial-temporal reasoning abilities (Rauscher, Shawand Ky 1993). Since then, further research has been undertaken whichboth supports and questions these results.
A further study in 1997 on preschool children showed a 34% increasein spatial-temporal reasoning tests among children who had receivedprivate piano and singing lessons compared to those who had not –including a group who had received private computer lessons. Theconclusion drawn by the researchers was that learning music was ofbenefit to learning potential in maths and science subjects, and moreso than computer skills.

This research raises many questions. Firstly, it is widely thoughtthat the ideal age to begin learning an instrument is no younger than 7:

“the second most common factor in musical failure was starting at thewrong time – too early…a six year old who goes on and on about wantingto play a musical instrument is experiencing the promptings of hisdeveloping instinct to make music, but he is not yet ready to do muchabout it.” (Ben-Tovim and Boyd 1995: 20)
It is therefore somewhat surprising that very young children engagedwith their music lessons in a way that increased their more generalmental capabilities. This has clear implications for the government’sMusic Manifesto; could earlier instrumental learning have a greaterbenefit in other subjects?

The second issue is the findings themselves: as the computerlessons had little impact on test results while the music lessons madea significant difference, it is clear that private teaching alone isnot the cause of the improvement; rather it is the learning of music.However, it does not necessarily follow that by simply listening tomusic, a child’s academic potential in mathematics or any other subjectis enhanced.
Rauscher’s research has created a great deal of interest bothwithin more general media and among psychologists and other academics.It has, to some extent, been mythologised with the label “The MozartEffect”.
Rauscher’s findings have been disputed by a number of academics.Heath and Bangerter (2004) argue that the original 1993 research, oncollege students, showed only a small effect which was not prolonged,and that a number of research projects have failed to replicate theresults. They also demonstrated a link between the level of attainmentin various states in the US and the amount of local newspaper coveragepromoting the Mozart Effect: the lower the attainment, the morecoverage. Heath and Bangerter attributed this to the recognition of aparticular problem and the possibility of a ‘quick fix’. In a number ofstates local government reflected media endorsement by subsidisingprojects to expose children to Mozart recordings, but it appears therestill needs to be more research in the area


Rauscher herself has moved to clarify her research:

“Our results on the effects of listening to Mozart’s Sonata for TwoPianos in D Major K. 448 on spatial-temporal task performance, havegenerated much interest but several misconceptions… the most common ofthese [is] that listening to Mozart enhances intelligence. We made nosuch claim. The effect is limited to spatial-temporal tasks involvingmental imagery and temporal ordering.” (Rauscher 1999)

However, a number of studies have shown some evidence of a Mozarteffect in various different environments. Most relevant is Ivanov andGeake (2003) which found a Mozart Effect and a Bach Effect on Primaryschool children listening to music while undertaking a paper-foldingtask (again, this is demonstrating spatial-temporal competence ratherthan intelligence). This study also established that general musictraining was not a factor in the results – this suggests that playingmusic has a temporary effect on reasoning, and might not enhancelearning in other subjects subsequently unless music is played on thatoccasion.

The Mozart Effect continues to be debated by academics because ofthe conflicting research findings. However, it is notable that limitedresearch has been done on the elements of music which might contributeto the effect, although reference to an unspecified study by Dr WilliamThompson (Weblink: Research relating to the ‘Mozart Effect’ (2)) notesthat the effect is evident when lively classical music, includingMozart and Schubert, is played, but not with slower music by Albinoni.

Many teachers report using background music in a variety of situations with positive results:

“For many years I have used music during lessons. It helps youngchildren relax in handwriting lessons, and helps their concentrationduring imaginative writing sessions.” (Hume 2004)

It appears that there is certainly some evidence supporting playinglively classical music in a variety of class situations to boostpupils’ performance, and a number of teachers are using backgroundmusic in class and feel it to be beneficial. However, much research isstill needed in this area.

Music teaching has a variety of uses within the curriculum for pupilswith special educational needs (SEN). The term SEN is used to refer topupils with special needs arising from a wide range of situations andconditions such as physical disability, emotional and behaviouralproblems, autism, school phobia, a background of abuse or stress ordyslexia. Many of these children may be academically gifted, others mayfind very basic concepts challenging. Music in SEN, as a result,fulfils a range of functions.

For all SEN music lessons, there is the potential to cover areasincluded in the National Curriculum: listening and appraising,composing and performing. The nature of SEN teaching means that thesemay have to be adapted according to the needs of pupils.

Cross-curricular activity can be useful tool: for example, whilepupils with concentration problems may struggle to sit and listen tomusic, they may be more receptive if asked to draw a picture respondingto music that is playing while they do so, although there can be adifficulty with children focusing on their art and barely noticing themusic. Perry (1995: 56) suggests using a 5 minute excerpt introducedwith a story – thus using literacy – to create an initial engagementbefore moving on to children drawing.

Music may also be used as a form of therapy. For younger children,activities undertaken while standing in a circle are of particularbenefit in helping child a child with attention difficulties to engage.An activity might involve passing a teddy around a circle while musicplays until it stops, at which point the child holding the teddy has achance to play briefly on an instrument. The teddy helps those childrenwho might be resistant to the activity to accept it (Weblinks: Becta).

For autistic children, music can contribute to establishing aroutine. With songs, for example, for lunchtime, for playtime and forgoing-home time, where the same piece of music is used consistently forthe same activity, singing can help maintain the sense of stability androutine which is particularly important for those with autism (Maynard2004).

While musical activities can benefit children with specialeducational needs, care must also be taken not to cause a detrimentaleffect. Packe

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