It’s probably as well Langley Hall Primary Academy doesn’t have a school cat. That’s because at any one time, 460 children aged five and upwards are learning the violin – and there are no soundproofed rooms.
The school in Berkshire isn’t some exclusive prep school. It’s a state primary on the edge of Slough and serves a diverse and multicultural area. But head teacher and founder Sally Eaton passionately believes every child should learn a musical instrument – and scientific research is on her side.
Studies show that learning music can have a dramatic effect on children’s abilities in maths and reading, increase happiness and even raise their IQs.
Every five-year-old pupil starts with the recorder in year one and in the summer term, they also begin to learn violin – parents have to agree to buy an instrument before their child arrives at the school, although those receiving free school meals are provided with one.
Some had really poor academic skills when they joined us, but are now doing well academically
Then, in year four, pupils can choose to move on to cello or cornet and, later, the clarinet or flute.
All 728 pupils have singing lessons, the school has three choirs, one of which recently joined the chapel choir of Jesus College Cambridge for evensong, and last month Langley Hall organised no fewer than nine Christmas concerts.
Sally believes this emphasis on music is at least partly the reason for the school’s rapid academic progress. When Langley Hall opened three years ago, many pupils transferred from other schools. Only 60 to 70 per cent of its seven year olds were set to reach national targets in maths and English last year. But by the time the SATs tests came around in May, more than 90 per cent did.
“Some had really poor academic skills when they joined us, but are now doing well academically. Some would say in spite of the creativity, but I believe it’s because of it,” says Sally, who oversees an annual theatrical production where the children take charge of lighting, stage design and front of house, as well as performing. “When you enjoy something you become self-motivated,” adds Sally.
“The more you do with the children to encourage them to be motivated, independent and creative, the better their academic skills are going to be. I want them to learn to love learning. That doesn’t mean drilling lots of facts into them – it means making them curious.”
Music motivates children and teaches them that if they work hard at something, they will get gradually better. But neuroscience shows that music can also change the structure of children’s brains.
Of all hobbies and activities, music is the only one that can increase children’s IQs by up to 7.5 points if they start at the age of about two and continue for six years. Even one year’s music training before the age of seven, when the brain is at its most malleable, can boost IQs by three points. Neural pathways are laid down before the age of seven and while you can still get the benefits later, they won’t be as “hard-wired” into the brain. You also have to do more than simply listen to music to get these benefits.
It’s the doing that counts – not just banging a drum in toddler class but learning about note length, pitch and musical time, as well as singing in the younger years and progressing to learning an instrument as soon as a child is big enough to hold one.
‘Music have remarkable effects on children’s brains’
That’s what Finnish-born songwriter Liisa Henriksson-Macaulay discovered when she set out to research the effect of music on children’s brains. Over six years, she combed through 1,200 scientific studies.
“I couldn’t believe that scientists seemed to know something parents didn’t – that music had remarkable effects on children’s brains, especially if started early,” she says.
The result was her book The Music Miracle (Earnest House, £16.99). Liisa discovered that after only 15 months of music education, the results were clearly visible in brain scans. The connections between the left and right-hand sides of the brain had improved and those areas controlling spatial sense, maths and language ability had been strengthened.
There’s also a strong link between music and reading. In one experiment at a school in Switzerland, five hours a week of reading and maths was replaced by music for half the class.
Those doing music overtook the other pupils in reading and equalled their scores in maths. Studies have shown that children who learn to play an instrument also have better spatial and geometric skills.
Research also shows that children who make music have superior life skills, are better at recognising and processing emotions and are more likely to be socially included. They also have better memories, higher self-esteem and even better physical fitness – singing and wind instruments are particularly associated with higher lung capacity. To cap it all, they are happier.
And all these benefits can be long-lasting. Scientists in China scanned the brains of young adults who’d had musical training as children and found that those who started before the age of seven had strengthened the brain regions in charge of language and had better executive function as well as the ability to think ahead, concentrate and organise themselves.
“Studies show that all it takes is less than 60 minutes of music study a week – and no pushy parenting is needed,” says Liisa.
Children at Langley Hall get 90 minutes of music a week, taught by a rota of 23 specialist teachers overseen by head of music John Halsey, who was tempted out of retirement by Sally’s vision.
“It’s an amazing place in many ways,” he says. “You see children coming in a little wild, but that energy is soon channelled into something positive. We recently held a concert by a professional violinist, and the parents said their kids had dragged them along.
“When he said, ‘Now I’m going to play some Vivaldi,’ there was a whisper of voices around the room saying, ‘Storm! It’s going to be Storm.’ How many other eight year olds would even know about Vivaldi, let alone be enthusiastic about it?”
Article by Rachel Caryle,www.express.co.uk, www.msidallas.com