Seize the advantage - don’t ever stop that music!

Anita Collins is Australia’s leading music researcher, TedEd presenter and consultant to ABC documentary Don’t Stop the Music. Pat Devery talks with Collins and writes about her research and her work.

As a young teacher Anita Collins found herself responsible for the high pressure musical formalities which accompanied the end of year graduation ceremonies at her school. Once the tension of the opening procession and national anthem had been concluded, however, she would find herself, in her words, “a bit bored, to be honest – so I started a little game”.

That game would not be unfamiliar to many music teachers across the nation, namely, keeping a record of how many students from the band or orchestra were called up on stage to receive an academic award. Invariably Collins would find that seven or eight of the top prize winners in each year group either had a previous or continuing and significant involvement in music.

Australia’s top music researcher

Little did Collins know these musings would take her down a path to becoming Australia’s leading music researcher, delivering a TedEd presentation which to date has close to nine million views, being the consulting academic on the hit ABC documentary, Don’t Stop the Music, and now publishing her most recent book, The Music Advantage.

Invariably, Collins would find that seven or eight of the top prize winners in each year group either had a previous or continuing and significant involvement in music.

The book is a compilation of Collins’s work over the last two decades, drawing on the latest international neurological research to reveal the extraordinary and surprising benefits to children of learning music.

The music advantage, it seems, kicks in right from the time we are born. Current research indicates that babies actually begin decoding language via the same neurological processes they use for music. Where once it was presumed that musical ability had a strong connection with mathematical proficiency, it now appears that music activity is more closely related to, and may in fact assist in, the acquisition of language.

Intuitively this makes sense. A baby is clearly unable to discern what a word actually means, but they can understand meaning through the musical elements of rhythm, pitch, contour, and timbre of the way in which that word is spoken to them.

“They use sound to identify the important things, like who are their primary carers, who is part of their family or tribe,” says Collins.

“One of the most effective mechanisms humans have to convey that information is through song.”

Research is also highlighting how a child’s capacity to maintain a consistent beat is a strong indicator as to their readiness to learn how to read.

“Music and reading are actually complementary and overlapping processes inside a child’s brain,” says Collins. “Enhancing musical development benefits reading development.”

Structured and sequential music learning activities, the research tells us, also provide the foundation for the important school ready skill of paying attention and memorising information.

Transformative power of music learning

Collins herself has been privileged to have witnessed the beneficial impact of a dedicated music program in schools across the nation, especially in many of our poorer or disadvantaged areas.

“Reading skills, along with any other skills including executive function and social skills, are often found to be lower in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Studies show that when music programs are implemented in schools in disadvantaged areas, students’ reading levels seem to improve significantly and rapidly”.

The transformative power of music learning was made blindingly clear to the viewers of the Don’t Stop the Music documentary and Collins is hoping that school leadership teams and policy makes will also start to sit up and take notice.

Music relates to higher performance

Change is beginning to happen, according to Collins, and visionary and informed school leaders are seeking her help to implement programs in their schools. And the research strongly suggests that students of all ability levels and from all socio-economic backgrounds can benefit from such programs.

According to Collins, the research shows that, across all schools, “participation in school music, especially instrumental music, was related to higher exam scores” and these achievements “were of considerable magnitude”.

“Highly engaged instrumental music students were, on average, academically one year ahead of their peers.”

As the field of neuro-music research is in its relative infancy, Collins expects that the body of evidence supporting the beneficial impact of music education will only continue to grow.

In our increasingly evidence based world maybe it is about time the policy makers took a look at the research and ask themselves the question, ‘What if every child had a music education from birth?’

As the late, great Richard Gill used to say, “every child deserves a musical education”. Anita Collins would back that up by saying, “and the scientific evidence is firmly supporting that view”.

The Music Advantage: How learning music helps your child’s brain and wellbeing by Anita Collins is published by Allen & Unwin, September 2020, paperback ISBN 9781760875886

Patrick Devery is a Professional Officer with the Independent Education Union of Australia, NSW/ACT Branch and is the General Manager of the Australian School Band and Orchestra Festival, of which Dr Anita Collins was recently appointed Patron. To hear Devery’s interview with Dr Collins, go to the IEU Zone