We all know that music can support learning and sometimes also boost your motivation - but what is actually scientifically proven and how can we regard this knowledge as educators when teaching in elementary school? In this blog, I will talk about the neuroscience behind the effects of music on cognition, emotion and social skills.
Tanja Linnavalli and colleagues support the idea of implementing music lessons in elementary education since their long-term study was able to show the positive effect of musical playschool through four tests within a time frame of two years. There was a significant correlation between music training and the enhancement of linguistic abilities, such as phoneme processing and vocabulary skills.
But not only language skills can be improved by musical activities. It has also been confirmed that they affect listening skills as well as cognitive skills.
According to Mari Tervaniemi, Sha Tao and Minna Huotilainen, longitudinal studies showed that brain areas changed in children with music-related hobbies in terms of enhanced listening and motor skills, while these brain areas did not alter in children who were not regularly doing musical activities. Furthermore, improvements in language skills and cognitive functions could be found after short, but very intense music interventions. However, neuroscientific research has proven that it is beneficial to perform musical activities for a longer period of time, since brain responses to auditory signals could only be recorded after two years.
This evidence emphasizes that musical playschool lessons should be implemented as early and much as possible, enabling students to profit from these activities.
Music, emotions and social skills
Facts about the effect of music on cognitive skills aside, musical activities are also known for being able to influence emotions, which is of high importance for facilitating motivation and ensuring a positive learning environment.
Nicolai Petrat explains that neuron connections in the brain react to order. Slow, regular rhythms are usually perceived as positive and noradrenaline is released. In contrast, fast, aggressive music produces more adrenaline. However, songs that are individually perceived as nice usually convey joy and happiness, which reduces the perception of stress.
To give an example on how to use this information in day-to-day school life, educators can integrate music by letting students choose a song which is then played for indicating the start or end of recess. It can also be changed weekly or monthly and further used to create musical activities with the class through singing, dancing or playing instruments to the song.
Jay Schulkin and Greta B. Raglan report that dopamine is considered a central organizer of drives and rewards and can be linked to music sensations. They also explain that music stimulates social contact and therefore leads to an expanding cortex, whereby music could promote cooperative behavior.
Susan Hallam states that most studies about the effects of music on social skills are self-reported. These studies however display that music could influence students’ development regarding the awareness of others, well-being, making friends and social skills, as well as improve their sense of belonging, self-esteem and self-confidence.
Eckart Altenmüller further explains that a study of a group of young children showed that making music together led to an increased cooperation. Compared to children who were not involved in musical activities, the kids were much more likely to support each other while solving playful tasks. Consequently, it can be suggested that music promotes solidity and teamwork among students and other groups of people.
So what now?
The sensitivity of the teacher is highly important in the implementation of music lessons in the classroom, so that no negative emotions are associated with it. Nonetheless, several studies have shown that music can influence linguistic, cognitive, and social skills, as well as boost mood and motivation.
Wider activities can be implemented by making music with instruments, by singing, dancing and also combining these elements or even listening to music while doing sports or painting. There are numerous ways to include music in educational settings already in the first grade of primary school. Of course, it is in the hands of the teacher to choose and assess which musical activity is suitable for specific educational settings in their classroom - and whether to integrate it by teaching another subject or by playing instruments to boost the motivation and target long-term positive effects.
It is indisputable though that music can support an encouraging learning environment - and is it not our job as teachers to create motivation and positive emotions in the classroom and to help children develop in the best way possible?
Why not use music to support this goal? There are endless possibilities to use music and musical activities in daily school life! You can even let students improvise and experiment with instruments or dance to get new ideas, stimulate their intrinsic motivation and give children the possibility to discover music as a hobby. Our job is to find these examples, explore them, and creatively look for new opportunities to integrate them in daily school life – and not just in secondary school but as early as the first grade of elementary school.
Altenmüller, E. (2018). Vom Neandertal in die Philharmonie. Warum der Mensch ohne Musik nicht leben kann. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Hallam, S. (2010). The power of music: Its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Journal of Music Education, 28(3), 269–289. https://doi.org/10.1177/0255761410370658
Linnavalli, T., Putkinen, V., Lipsanen, J., Huotilainen, M., & Tervaniemi, M. (2018). Music playschool enhances children's linguistic skills. Scientific reports, 8(1), 8767. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-27126-5
Petrat, N. (2014). Glückliche Schüler musizieren besser! Neurodidaktische Perspektiven und Wege zum effektiven Musikmachen (Bd. 121). Augsburg: Wißner-Verlag.
Schulkin, J., & Raglan, G. B. (2014). The evolution of music and human social capability. Frontiers in neuroscience, 8, 292. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2014.00292
Tervaniemi, M., Tao, S., and Huotilainen, M. (2018). Promises of Music in Education? Frontiers in Education, 3. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/feduc.2018.00074
My Name is Hanna Recker and I am in my Master’s Degree for Primary Education in Vienna, Austria. Currently I am studying as an exchange student at the University of Helsinki. Since I have always been interested in music education, I wrote my bachelor thesis on how educators can use musical activities to support social skills, and I am now eager to learn and write more about the positive effects of music when implemented in elementary education.