Photo courtesy of Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Sir Keir Starmer sang the praises of playing instruments in a recent interview on Classic FM.

Learning music gives not just joy, but also develops skills such as leadership, communication and teamwork, all of which are valued in the workplace, he argued.

No one would dispute that being able to play an instrument can be joyful - although I’m not sure my old neighbours were overjoyed by my late-night drum solos.

But some, like education policy expert Sam Freedman, questioned whether it teaches other vital skills and/or aid wider academic achievement?

There is already a huge body of research in this field to draw on to look at this question.

Academics have found links between music and improved academic achievement, greater cognitive abilities and increased personal well-being.

But let’s be cautious with this. The relationships tend to be correlations, rather than explicit causation, which is very hard to prove.

Playing a musical instrument and academic achievement

Looking at improved academic performance, a study of 11 to 16-year-olds published in April this year found statistically significant differences in exam outcomes between instrumentalists and non-instrumentalists in English and maths.

Controlling for prior attainment, scores were higher for those playing instruments, with the most diligent musicians scoring highest.

Change scores for instrumentalists and non-instrumentalists between KS2 and KS4

GCSE outcomes for instrumentalists and non-instrumentalists

Academically, those who played an instrument were over one year ahead of non-musical peers.

Does playing an instrument help academically across the social divide?

Interestingly, budding musicians of lower socio-economic status showed greater improvement in both subjects than non-musicians of similar backgrounds.

Comparison of test outcomes at age 11 between instrumentalists and non-instrumentalists from low socio-economic households

Change scores for those from low socio-economic status households

Does that prove the wider benefits of playing instruments?

As the researchers controlled for prior attainment and socio-economic status, we might think that is proof of a causal link. So, let’s give every child a violin or recorder and watch the results roll in!

However, it is rarely that straightforward.

It could be that those who have the motivation to play an instrument for years are also motivated to work hard academically.

Or they have parents who value education and music, making them sit down to do their homework and play their instrument.

Maybe it’s having a full stomach and a warm bedroom of their own in which to practice their scales.

How does playing a musical instrument affect brain development?

So, to try and go beyond this, we can look at other fields such as neurology.

A large body of research shows learning to play an instrument brings about changes in the brain which in turn may boost a range of intellectual skills.

First, the self-discipline needed for repeated practice is linked to growth in parts of the brain associated with cognitive ability.

Next, the need for co-ordinated finger movements and the ability to listen carefully is also thought to improve motor and auditory skills.

Then there’s the boost to the memory and concentration from performing long pieces of music which then improves verbal fluency.

The psychological benefits of playing a musical instrument

Positive feedback – audience applause or parental/teacher approval – also increases chances of higher self-confidence and enhanced emotional intelligence.

All these add up to skills which could be termed ‘flexibility,’ ‘creativity,’ ‘perseverance’ and ‘resilience.’

Beyond the cognitive boosts, playing an instrument is also really popular with parents.

What do parents of young musicians say about the benefits of playing?

A survey conducted for the DfE found 94% said music education improves their child’s confidence and a similar number spoke of the benefits for mental wellbeing.

Eight in ten said it supported their children’s wider studies and 42% thought it would help in their later careers.

What did we learn about the benefits of playing musical instruments

So, where are we with Sir Keir’s statement that learning to play an instrument ‘teaches’ young people the skills and creativity needed for future learning and work?

The scientific consensus seems to be that learning and playing a musical instrument does contribute positively to cognitive abilities, emotional intelligence, social skills, and other qualities beneficial for academic and professional success.

But the evidence is not completely clear cut and there may be other factors at play beneath the surface.

Sir Keir’s hopes to widen opportunities to learn musical instruments from a young age and for a prolonged period.

His suggestion is to realise the potential benefits for everyone, ensuring that this is not just for the privileged few.

Music allows a route to develop skills and confidence in an arena which is not strictly academic.

It can provide a huge confidence boost and particularly be beneficial for those with SEND.

At the end of the day, music is also something that can bring joy to people, and no one should under-rate the value of joyousness.

At least that’s what I tell my neighbours…

Read more :
SEND arts barriers can be broken down
Making assessment accessible for all
Creative arts and 21st Century Skills