Music to the core

Music, learning and  excellence

Martin Barraclough, Director of Music at Cranleigh, Abu Dhabi, thinks music should be placed at the centre of a modern curriculum. All else follows.

What is a ‘Modern Curriculum’?

As an educator for 15 years, it has not been difficult to see how the process of  teaching and learning is changing. The latest developmnent is the rise of AI and its potential impact on learning which could well lead to the kind of reforms that keeps education attuned to the demands of the modern world.

We are all aware of Sir Ken Robinson’s famous 2006 TED Talk in which he argued that our current educational system was designed for a past industrial age. He deplored the traditional nineteenth century hierarchy of subjects, with maths and languages prioritized over humanities and arts and the killing of creativity in children.

As a teacher of music it is difficult to disagree that for years, education has focused far too much on achieving ‘results’, passing ‘academic’ exams and securing white-collar careers. This is clearly not enough. As we all know, the jobs that our children aspire to now may very well not exist by the time they leave mainstream education. We need to think bigger and in my view, this means thinking ‘music’.

The effects of an exam-driven curriculum that focuses too narrowly on ‘traditional’ academic subjects is well-documented. Exam stress and pressure to succeed are real issues with the current educational system. A 2016 survey found that nearly two-thirds of students experienced overwhelming anxiety, a significant increase of 50% compared to five years earlier.

And then came Covid!

Sidelining music

Meanwhile, funding for music and arts education had been declining globally. These budget cuts have led to reduced music instruction time, fewer music teachers, and limited access to instruments and resources. Developing countries in particular, struggle to provide adequate music education due to limited budgets and competing priorities. These cuts deprive students of the cognitive, emotional, and social benefits that music offers. Additionally, they can negatively impact a country’s cultural landscape and hinder the development of talented artists. As early as 2006, international organizations like UNESCO recognized the importance of arts education and actively argued the case for its inclusion in national policies.

Is the future of education music-centred?

Let’s go a step further. Is there a case for putting music at the very centre of a relevant, modern and creative education in order to meet student needs and aspirations? At first this might seemed far-fetched but let’s consider the evidence. Extensive academic research supports the benefits of music education, including:

  1. Accelerated cognitive development: Learning music stimulates brain development, enhances memory, attention, and executive functions. This leads to improved performance in other subjects like maths, language arts, and science.
  2. Enhanced language and literacy skills: taking part even passively in music improves reading comprehension, vocabulary, and verbal fluency. Students who actively participate in music develop stronger language and literacy abilities, leading to better performance in language arts.
  3. Improved mathematical proficiency: Music and mathematics are closely connected. The patterns, rhythm, and mathematical structures in music help students understand mathematical concepts, leading to better performance in maths.
  4. Creative Problem-Solving: Music education fosters creativity and critical thinking. By exploring different musical styles and experimenting with composition, students develop creative problem-solving skills applicable across academic disciplines.
  5. Heightened emotional intelligence: Music allows for emotional expression. Through music education, students learn to identify and manage their emotions effectively. This emotional intelligence enhances overall well-being and positively impacts academic engagement and relationships.
  6. Sensitised cultural awareness: Music education exposes students to diverse musical traditions and cultures, fostering appreciation and understanding. Appreciating diversity is crucial for global citizens and enriches students’ educational experiences.

A transformative music-centred education in practice

Nevertheless, it would take a brave Senior Leadership Team to argue that placing music at the centre of the school curriculum could transfrom a school in a much wider sense and then put it into practice. And yet, that is exactly what happened at  Feversham Primary Academy in England under the leadership of Naveed Idrees. With music placed at the centre of the curriculum, within five years, the school had transformed itself from a failing institution under special measures to one of the top 10% in England for helping children progress in core subjects like maths and English. Despite over 98% of its pupils having English as an additional language and facing high levels of poverty and crime, Feversham’s eldest pupils now rank in the top 2% and 1% respectively in England for reading and maths, a success Mr. Idrees attributes largely to adopting a music-centered approach to learning. As the school’s music coordinator, award winning teacher Jimmy Rotheram argues:

Music is a rigorous academic discipline in and of itself – giving so many children the gift of musicianship, artistic appreciation and self-expression should never be under-valued.

You can see more of what they have achieved at Feversham when Mr. Rotheram was featured on BBC TV’s ‘The One Show’.


A win-win situation

A school that values and integrates a well-rounded musical culture not only achieves excellent academic results but also protects, strengthens, and enriches its community. Whilst implementing music programs can be costly and require skilled specialists, schools like Feversham show that there are alternative, music-centred approaches. Just by ‘normalising’ singing in schools can have significant benefits! Singing stimulates the production of endorphins, those “feel-good” hormones that elevate mood and promote happiness and contentment.

Moreover, singing involves deep breathing and mindful focus on vocal techniques, inducing relaxation and mindfulness. It is a free and liberating activity. As we strive to provide the best education for our children, it’s crucial to recognize the vital role of music education in fostering academic success.

By investing in music programs and ensuring their inclusion in school curricula as close to the centre of learning as possible, we empower students with a well-rounded education that nurtures their intellectual, emotional, and creative growth.

Let us embrace the power of music to unlock the full potential of our future generations!



Martin Barraclough is Director of Music at Cranleigh, Abu Dhabi.






FEATURE IMAGE: by Brenda Geisse from Pixabay

Support Images: by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash