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Why children must learn music

On World Music Day, Anil Srinivasan argues music is more than an extra-curricular activity. It is the route to holistic child development.

June 20, 2011 06:59 pm | Updated 06:59 pm IST

VOICE OF CONCERN: Anil Srinivasan. Photo: D. Krishnan

VOICE OF CONCERN: Anil Srinivasan. Photo: D. Krishnan

When someone mentioned the “World Music Day” celebration on June 21, I was surprised. Surely, everyday is a celebration of the world of music. On further reflection, I realised we need to delve a little deeper into what music does for us; perhaps an occasion such as this could serve to direct our attention to the topic. Einstein famously said that while calculus would have survived without either Newton or Leibniz, the world would not have been the same had Beethoven never lived. He remarked that Beethoven's contribution to human intelligence is irreplaceable. He used the term “intelligence”. This by itself is significant.

Various studies have been conducted on children and adults to understand the development of the musical instinct, and the development of the brain in relation to structural (or pattern) recognition using music. Musical learning (or even heightened musical exposure) certainly impacts rational (or logic-driven), visual-spatial and emotional intelligence. Attention to harmony or harmonic concepts improves memory and conceptual reasoning while rhythm improves motor skills and limbic coordination. I have personally seen the effect listening to mere scales (a combination of notes played in sequence) has on children's reasoning and categorisation skills in unrelated tasks. And yet, music education remains a privilege enjoyed by a discerning few, and music for children remains an overshadowed, underutilised educational tool in our schools and colleges. Where it does exist, the preferences of school administrators for particular musical styles or musicians override the desire or need to evolve structured musical curricula that can contribute towards better education. The implications of this are many. Structured music education at an early age will drastically improve a child's performance across multiple disciplines. Early music education will definitely bring out a better engineer in your child, or a better doctor. Viewed this way, music becomes a vital component of a child's development. No wonder social psychologist Howard Gardner classified musical intelligence as one of the core intelligences.

Maria Montessori, the famed educator and child expert, describes specific exercises, instruments and musical aids to be used in kindergarten. These tools, if used in the classroom, will open up a child's neural pathways to a lifelong interest in learning (our current approach to music education equates “music class” with “skating class” and “craft class”, a phenomenon that is lamentable. Few educators and even fewer parents understand the need for music to bring about a child's holistic development, choosing instead to treat it as yet another extra-curricular activity). In situations where school administrators have instituted mandatory musical education, there seems to be a general and fervent belief that a few songs or devotional melodies probably suffice. This can only be rectified with sustained education. School administrators should undergo training modules on the efficacy of musical excellence and education in early childhood, and school music teachers need to be trained constantly.

At a time when the educational policies and curricular structure for schools is under examination, this is probably a topic that will be under-represented. I believe we are committing a grave mistake in doing so. No successful person in today's India decries early musical training and yet there are issues about its prevalence and quality in various centres for learning. Unless we understand this, celebrating “World Music Day” will remain a tokenism.

The writer is a Chennai-based classical pianist and head of MusicUniv India, a music education venture.

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