After seven years and counting in music education through Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org) and also in the wider community, as a friend or relative to peers who are now parents of growing children, I hear this constant refrain: “My child has got exams round the corner, so s/he had better take a break from music lessons for a while”; or “This is an important year for my child, so we’ll take a sabbatical from music for a whole year”; or “Now that my son/daughter is in medicine/law/(fill in the blank), it’s best that we shelve music altogether.”

Parents and children have the best of intentions, of course; there are only so many hours in a day after all, and the competition to get into colleges and higher education gets more and more fierce each year.

But doctors, scientists and researchers are finding increasing benefits to the growing and adult brain development that should make parents really sit up and take notice.

It would be worthwhile examining the mounting evidence. The results of a study conducted at the University of Kansas in 2014 seem to confirm a long-held anecdotal observation that “increased music participation has important direct and indirect effects on positive outcomes in student achievement and engagement.”

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After a study period of four years involving over 6000 children, the researchers were convinced that “education advocates should also be advocates for music education.” A detailed description of this study, selection criteria, methods used, data collected, complete with graphs and tables, and analysis of the data, results and conclusions is available online in the public domain for those interested.

It used to be thought that the reason that children exposed to music did better at school was because “the smart kids participate in music.” This study dispels this notion. Analysis of data showed that students (regardless of background) engaged in music education programmes outperformed their peers on every measurable indicator.

The observation of one of the researchers, Becky Eason, was also telling: “One of the key findings that shouldn’t get lost is how important music is for creating a sense of belonging and purpose for the students who participate. They identify themselves as musicians, as being in the band or chorus, and they’re motivated to come to school so that they can participate in music. The students also believe that music participation teaches them skills like discipline and concentration that they can use to their benefit throughout the school days.”

We have certainly noticed this at Child’s Play India. The bonds of friendship even across our various locations become ever stronger as our project grows, and there is a fulfilling sense of achievement as the years progress and the children notch more and more concerts and performance opportunities under their belts. Our children correspond through a pen-pal programme with peers in a likeminded music education project in the US called Phoenixville Phiddlesticks, and the letters from the children to each other reflect this sentiment repeatedly.

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The Kansas study was conducted in partnership with ‘Music Makes Us’, an initiative focussing on music literacy and student participation, for all students from kindergarten to Grade 12. The quality of music education imparted, however, must extremely high for beneficial effects to be noted, and this is something that we must address in India. Noted Goan-origin music educator and pianist Karl Lutchmayer touched upon this as well in a recent interview to the national press.

Another contemporaneous research article published in the scientific journal ‘Frontiers in Psychology’ by neuroscientist Dr. Nina Kraus et al from Northwestern University Illinois was of even greater interest to me, given Child’s Play’s particular emphasis on children from the underprivileged sector. The paper was titled “Engagement in community music classes sparks neuroplasticity and language development in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.” This was a much smaller study group involving just twenty-six children between the ages of six to nine; they were followed as they participated in a music education programme for 2 years. But the beneficial effects of music education even over a 2-year observation period were unmistakable.

And the benefits of a music education are not limited to just the classroom. One of the largest scientific studies looking at the effect of music on the brain (conducted at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, published in 2014 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, with a study group of 232 children between the ages of six to 18 and assessed by magnetic resonance imaging and behavioural testing) seems to indicate that music provides “tremendous benefits to children’s emotional and behavioural maturation.”

James Hudziak, professor of psychiatry involved in the study noted: “What we found was the more a child trained on an instrument, it accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control.”

The study “provides even more evidence as to why providing children with high-quality education may be one of the most effective ways to ensure their success in life.”

56-year old Hudziak was sufficiently impressed and inspired by the results of his own study to take up a musical instrument (viola) himself, having not had the opportunity to learn a musical instrument in his own childhood.

I was not able to easily access similar studies conducted in India, using either western or Indian music education projects, but I am pretty certain they would reveal salutary effects on children’s academic performance and other life development parameters as well.

The important thing however, to belabour the point, is the quality of music education, and we have to strive harder to raise the bar here while simultaneously pushing for wider access to greater numbers of children in India. Quality should never become a casualty to quantity.

Paradoxically, music education, not just in India but worldwide, gets neglected or very cursorily addressed when it comes to budgeting and formulating mainstream education reform agendas. As increasing data gathers to demonstrate that music education can play such a vital role in child development, educators everywhere will have to factor this into mainstream education programmes.

(An edited version of this article was published on 25 June 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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