Can Music in School Give Stimulus to Other School Subjects? PDF Print E-mail
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Maria B. Spychiger


Recent reports on the effects of musical activity in school shed a very positive light on the topic addressed in this paper, the effects of musical activity on extra-musical learning and achievement. For example, the highly recognized weekly magazine The New Scientist reported on the Swiss school experiment with extended music education (called "Music makes the School") in an article titled "Children learn faster to the sound of music." Nature did similarly in presenting the results of an experiment with a special arts training in eight first-grade classrooms in Rhode Island, USA, under the headline "Learning improved by arts training." The German monthly magazine, Psychologie heute, portrayed an experimental school in Berlin, Germany, under the title "Musik macht Kinder klug" ("Music makes children smart").

As a researcher who for many years has dealt with extra-musical outcomes of music and music education, I too feel quite confident to confirm these reports and to answer "yes" to the question in the title, but: things are not quite that conclusive. We should not be simplistic about the positive outcomes of music education, and I will, after this short introduction, elaborate on five qualifications as regards this positive reply.

We are likely to believe in the effects of music because the phenomenon is clearly represented in most individuals" experience. Most of us witness that listening to some music, singing together in a choir, or playing in a group, has the power to change significant psychological conditions, such as mood, concentration, stamina, state of motivation, and so forth. Much of this has been investigated and verified in numerous research studies—even the improvement of important factors in mental abilities, as Frances Rauscher and her group were able to show with the Mozart-effect.3 But such experiences are examples of short-term effects of music or musical activity, and this is not the same as if we assume that music can change things in the long-term. If we expect improvement of school achievement, school motivation, or social behavior, we are expecting long-term positive effects of music, and this leads us to the first of the promised qualifications.

Five qualifications

(1) Short-term and long-term effects of music and musical activity need to be distinguished from each other

Longitudinal studies have to be undertaken in order to investigate lasting effects of musical activity. The already-mentioned Swiss study is an example of this kind of research. I was a member of the research team which accompanied this school experiment in the years of 1989-1992. About 50 regular school classes, spread almost all over the country, participated.4 Each class included in the study had a control class, located usually in the same school, or at least in the same town. The students of the experimental classes received 5 weekly lessons of music tuition. This is 3 lessons more than the regular curriculum usually carries. The spectacular part about the extension of music education was that the students did not have more lessons on their schedule than their controls—the additional music lessons were cut from the main subjects, usually from Math (one hour less), Language (German) (one hour less), and either Second Language (French) or Science (one hour less). This is a cut of 20-25% percent of tuition-time in these subjects. It was, on this background, especially important to evaluate the achievement in the time-reduced subjects. Special assessments, applied in 17 classes (that is, 17 experimental classes plus their control classes), were constructed and carried out carefully; each pair received its own tests, according to the topics they had had in common.

The results after 3 years of extended music education revealed that the experimental group as a whole did indeed as well as the control group. This speaks of course very much for stimulation through music. But in looking closer, a new problem arises and is addressed in the second qualification:


(2) Positive (long-term) effects on the cognitive domain are not necessarily direct outcomes of music and musical activity

We have observed that many teachers became very creative in coping with the cuts in the main subjects. They taught more effectively and developed a strong sense of responsibility in keeping up with the requirements of the given curriculum. For example, one teacher from the German speaking area was especially concerned about the cut in French. He was convinced that the time factor definitely is important in order to learn a foreign language. The more time spent within the foreign language, the better the learning, he said. In order to cope with his concern, he took advantage of the circumstance that there were French speaking classes participating in the experiment. The experimental-class teachers met each other in the in-service music education courses. Our teacher became closely acquainted with one of the colleagues who taught in the French speaking area. They visited each other with their classes, had exchanges, and gave a concert together in each other"s communities. During these shared activities, the students of the two classes became friends and started to build up pen-friendships. Finally, this was one of the experimental classes which showed very good achievements in French. Can we really attribute this to music?

Also with other music classes we had the impression that the good results in the school achievement were not so much a direct outcome of music, but rather were mediated by the factor of good motivation, and social climate. With this I have already arrived at the third qualification, which is:


(3) The effects in the social domain are stronger / more direct than in the cognitive domain

I would like to illustrate this statement with a case study from the experiment. One of the classes started under especially difficult social conditions. The class was in a desolate state not only as regards their social situation, but also as regards their school achievement. When they were at the end of the 4th grade, no teacher in this schoolhouse was willing to take over this class for the new school year. But there was a teacher who wanted to participate in the school experiment, and the deal was finally that he agreed to take over the difficult class, if the community would let him do the music and participate in the experiment. The parents and the school committee agreed, because the teacher was acknowledged, and because they thought that, after all, it could not get much worse with this class. Also the students readily agreed, their character was mainly extroverted and they happily involved themselves in something that made them special. But at the time the teacher wanted to start making music with them it became obvious that the group was not able to bring up the cooperation and togetherness which is required for making coordinated sound. It was not possible to sing or dance together because of too much interruption from lack of discipline, not listening to each other, or quarrels.

With this the teacher experienced in a pronounced way that music tuition is, more than other subjects, based in social interaction and shared activity, and that it depends on the ability to listen to each other, including trusting, being patient, tolerant, and kind. Quarrels, even slight disagreements, have an immediate bad impact on playing music in a group. The teacher initiated basic reconstructive work. He took failed attempts of making music as starting points for conversations; indeed, at the beginning he used all the music time for long discussions and exchanges, sometimes even as long as a full morning, and introduced rules and modes of organization which allowed verbal exchange and discourse. This required much discipline of all of them, but the teacher reported that quite soon the first changes occurred. Much of the history of the class was reconstructed and worked through and the teacher reported that the individuals came "in big steps closer to each other", and to an understanding. It was now possible to start with music. It turned out that the group as a whole did well with music; they enjoyed it, progressed quickly and readily built up an identity as "the music class".6

The good social development of this class is also represented in the sociometric assessment which we carried out in most of the classes. In most of the experimental classes we tested the results of a sociometric inquiry for the following four sociometric measurements: (1) Positive Social Interconnectedness (PSI, Average of the positive points), (2) Negative Social Interconnectedness (NSI, average of the negative points), (3) Impact (IMP, average amount of the sum of positive and negative points), and (4) Social Indifference (SI, "Non-Impact", average amount of zero-points).7 In both the control as well as the experimental group the values of all four measurements got better, but the PSI improved significantly in the experimental group. Many of the single sociograms show that children who at the beginning of the assessment were outsiders became increasingly integrated throughout the three years. This result was also confirmed by the assessment of "team-spirit", which was a dimension within an inquiry on classroom climate that the students also filled in. The music classes surpassed the control classes after the second assessment.

But I would like to come back again to the single "wild" class and present a letter which a student of this class wrote to the research team, at the end of the experimental time:

"It is simply great to make music and sing together. At the beginning of our 5th grade we were known as a class who notoriously produces hubbub and discontent. Now we are able to play and we try to understand each one who is of a different opinion. We get along well with each other, and I believe we owe this to the school experiment and to our fabulous teacher. ... I hope that many children get in touch with this wonderful experience and that this experiment doesn"t remain an experiment, but will become something very normal for all classes in the entire world."8

The letter speaks for itself, but what I want to take up in order to introduce the fourth qualification is the remark about the teacher—as the girl says, "our fabulous teacher".

(4) It depends on the quality of the teacher

A really strong emphasize has to be put on this issue: Good teaching is what needs to be secured in order to have a stimulus from music to other school-subjects. Good teaching has been the strongest factor in the conclusiveness of the findings of positive extra-musical outcomes from (extended) music education. While I do not have the space to elaborate on the meaning and contents of the phrase "good (music-)teaching", I would like to mention some important preconditions for good music teaching: (1) music teachers have to be given a high quality of training which should guarantee musical and general didactic competence as well as psychological knowledge in the domain of music; (2) music education has to be given a good place in the curriculum; (3) the quality and outcomes of music teaching need to be evaluated.

It remains to discuss the last, fifth qualification, which I consider as the most important one in order to understand extra-musical outcomes of musical activity, especially in practice:

(5) The transfers are specific

Mottos such as "make more music and you will be smarter" or, "musical activity makes children more social" are, as stated in the introductory paragraph, simplistic views and evoke false expectations. Not just any musical activity will be beneficial to other and whatever abilities and capabilities; rather, the musical activity and the topic of the extra-musical improvement have to be similar. The improvement phenomenon works very much in the sense of Edward Thorndike's old theory of identical elements. For example, if a music teacher repeatedly and on an increasingly demanding level practices Solfège with his or her group, improvement of concentration and perhaps mathematical skills may appear along with the improvement in Solfège, while other effects, for example increase of playfulness, decrease of social anxieties, or enhancement of creativity, will probably not come up. The latter effects might rather be expected by a teacher who focuses on musical activities which include much social interaction, for example, the use and creation of musical games.

Empirical results in this area were shown in a small but very valuable study by Konrad J. Burdach & Sylvia-Gioia Caesar in 19799. They used two different music programs in two groups and received different extra-musical outcomes for the two groups. The one focusing on creativity and social activity had effects on social factors such as aggressivity and inhibition, but not on concentration or other school subjects. The other program, concentrating on music theory, Solfège, and notation, had positive impact on achievement in general, but not on social factors. In this sense it is also no accident that the Kodály method in music education usually has good effects on school achievement10. The Kodály method requires much discipline and concentration, and is basically an achievement-oriented method.

There are also results in the Swiss study which shed a light on the necessity to think about the specificity of the transfers, for example those in the inquiry on classroom climate. The students were asked to assess the climate for two subjects, Music and German. For two dimensions, "cooperation" and "intelligibility of teaching", we found that they improved in the music classes in Music, but didn"t in German, while in the control classes, an opposite effect came into play.

Howard Gardner"s model of the multiple intelligences provides orientation and is a good reference to think about transfer. In this well-known model, musical intelligence is one out of seven intelligences.11 Although Gardner thinks that they are all to a certain extent independent dimensions of intelligence, they are of course connected to each other in many ways. If we focus on the one or the other connection, it will be strengthened and after enough time and exercise, the connection itself will reach a certain autonomy and stability—this is another way of looking at transfer.


Beyond extra-musical outcomes of music education—I hope that the general goal of this presentation—not to be simplistic as regards extra-musical outcomes of music education—came through. Besides having elaborated on five qualifications I need to make sure that also the following is understood: Music education doesn"t need the "certification" of extra-musical outcomes. Music is a general human activity12 and intelligence, and is as such by itself justified for inclusion in education.

Music is an integrative part of human mental activity and human culture, and it is perfectly justified that music is something done in schools, and is part of education, in civilizations which have educational systems. Music deserves a good place in the curricula of our schools, and it can indeed give much impetus to other school subjects. Especially as regards social aspects, music can sometimes even do miracles. Music education does not, however, deserve to carry the burden of being the solution to the plethora of problems in our schools!


1 This article is a written version of a lecture, given at the music pedagogical symposium of the music fair in Gothenborg, Sweden, 17 September 1998.


2 See also Spychiger, Maria (1998). Response 2 to Katie Overy's paper, Can Music Really 'Improve' the Mind? (Psychology of Music, 26, 97-99), Psychology of Music, 26, No. 2, 199-201.

3 Rauscher, Frances H., Shaw, Gordon L. & Ky, Katherine N. (1995). Listening to Mozart Enhances Spatial-temporal Reasoning: Towards a Neurophysiological Basis. Neuroscience Letters, No. 185, p. 44-47.

4 35 classes were located in the German speaking area of the country, 15 classes in the French speaking area. The study referred to in the following covered only the German speaking classes. The French speaking classes were evaluated by a different research team.

5 It is, however, important to look at the results of the single pairs: the variance between the pairs is considerable and covers both sides, that is, in some instances the music classes did much better than the controls, but in others it was the opposite. This means that some—a minority though—of the music classes did struggle with the reduction of time in the main subjects. For more details, and statistical analysis, see Spychiger, Maria (in prep.). What Does Music? Ausführungen zur Frage der aussermusikalischen Wirkungen von Musik und musikalischer Aktivität.

6 A little anecdote shows much of the ambiance: a reporter from a journal came to the class because he was interested in the students as members of the school experiment and in their experience of the extended musical activity. He had prepared sheets with questions and wanted the students to quickly fill them in. But there the students said that this is not the way they do such things, rather, it would be much more interesting to have a conversation with him. The reporter agreed with this, under the condition that, in turn, the students would fill in his written questions. The students accepted the deal; they started the discussion, as they were used to, with a student elected to be the moderator. Now it happened that the reporter repeatedly interrupted a speaking student with questions and comments. But soon he had to agree with the moderator"s correction, who said: "Sir, excuse us, but you have to understand that in our class discussions it is the moderator who gives allowance to speak, you cannot just start out and cut into somebody"s speech!"

7 Patry, Jean-Luc, Weber, Ernst & Spychiger, Maria. (1993). Musik macht Schule. Not published report to the Swiss National Research Foundation, p. 127f. (A short version of this report is available in English: Weber, Ernst W., Spychiger, Maria & Patry, Jean-Luc (1993). Music Makes the School, at the address of the author). For details see Spychiger, Maria (1995). Mehr Musikunterricht an den öffentlichen Schulen? Entwicklung eines zeichentheoretisch orientierten Begründungsansatzes als Alternative zur aussermusikalischen Argumentation. Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovac.

8 Translated from German.

9 Burdach, Konrad J. & Caesar, Sylvia-Gioia (1979). Die Auswirkung von zwei Förderprogrammen der musikalischen Früherziehung. Psychologie in Erziehung und Unterricht, 26, 295-298.

10 This is shown in a study also back in the 70s, carried out by Irving Hurwitz and collaborators. Hurwitz, Irving et al. (1975). Nonmusical Effects of the Kodály Music Curriculum in Primary Grade Children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 8, No. 3, 167-174.

11 Gardner, Howard (1983). Frames of Mind. The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

12 As music philosopher Francis Sparshott says: "Music is something people do" (1986, Aesthetics of Music: Limits and Grounds. In: Philip Alperson (ed.): What is Music? An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music (p. 33-98). New York: Haven Publications, Inc.

Address of the author:

Maria Spychiger, PhD

University of Fribourg, Department of Education

Rue Faucigny 2, CH-1700 Fribourg, Switzerland

Phone: +41 26 300-7560, fax: +41 26 300-9711

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