Dec 15, 2015

It’s easy to get caught up in making the case for the fringe benefits of making and teaching music.

Take for example the popular but occasionally-debunked Mozart effect that claims classical music will improve everything from memory to math skills. These kinds of fringe benefits are held up and debated particularly in times when music education funding is at stake, but at the end of the day, perhaps the best case for music is that it should be made for its own sake.

However, that isn’t to say that the benefits of music in the classroom end at translating the mnemonic “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” to notes on a page.

Last month, Canadian researchers at the University of Toronto Mississauga published a study that suggested that teaching music in a group setting helped some students develop prosocial skills.

The study looked at 84 third- and fourth-grade students who participated in Canadian public school program called Ukulele in the Classroom. The program had students learn and perform arrangements in classical, folk, jazz, world and pop genres in a group setting. Students were assessed using standardized testing to measure emotional comprehension, vocabulary, sympathy and prosocial behavior prior to and after the 10-month program.

The results showed there were increased scores in prosocial behavior after going through the music training, but only for children who scored poorly on social skills measurements initially. Part of that might have been that students who exhibited high prosocial behavior before might not have had much room for improvement, but researchers proposed two theories for the increase for students who scored low on prosocial behavior initially.

“In the present study, children could easily hear if they or their peers were struggling with a lesson (e.g., playing or singing wrong notes or the right notes at the wrong time), and the music program stressed that children should help those who were having difficulty,” the paper states.

That second line refers to peer-to-peer learning and suggests it could be key in the improved prosocial behavior. A growing model for group music lessons stresses that students have a shared responsibility for the education of their peers. The El Sistema model for example, which was founded in Venezuela, asks that if a student knows four notes on an instrument and the student next to them only knows three, they should teach their peer the fourth note. Researchers in the study note that this “show your neighbor” approach is heavily emphasized in the Ukulele in the Classroom program that they used for their student sample.

Camille Delaney-McNeil is the site manager at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School in East Baltimore for OrchKids, which is an after-school music program operated by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and modeled after Venezuela’s El Sistema. Delaney-McNeil said she’s seen the effect on behavior that the Canadian researchers described up close.

“I’ve seen vast improvements,” she said. “There’s constant peer-to-peer learning, so you might have a higher functioning, socially adept student who is able to model behavior that the kids who struggle with getting in trouble and getting detention all the time can see and learn from.”

Kids who have behavior issues in the top-down classroom setting — where a teacher gives a lesson and each student is responsible for their own assignment — aren’t often put in a position of responsibility for their peers. While there is certainly top-down instruction in OrchKids, Delaney-McNeil said they are grouped by skill level and encouraged to help one another learn their instrument and music.

“If you’re charged with the responsibility of making sure that someone else knows something, that’s going to change your perspective whether you’re nine years old or whether you’re 29,” she said.

Similarly, learning from a peer who they might more easily relate to can also change that perspective.

Another potential driver in the results theorized by the researchers is what they call “synchrony.” Synchrony is essentially the act of doing something together.

“Music is an ideal candidate for facilitating synchrony because it provides an external rhythmic framework that facilitates coordination among individuals,” researchers wrote.

They go on to suggest that the physical act of coordination — playing in unison, moving together, mirroring breathing patterns, listening to one another to match pitch — helps promote a mindset where participants develop emotions focused on their peers like sympathy and empathy, which can reduce anti-social behavior like aggression or bullying.

Delaney-McNeil said she sees the type of synchrony that researchers describe.

“We all know that the orchestra is a great metaphor for community. You’re relying on other people while also being independent,” she said.

In some cases, Delaney-McNeil said she’ll hear from other teachers at the school who will say that a particular student had bad behavior in their classroom and maybe this would be a bad day for them to participate in OrchKids.

“But every time they go to OrchKids, they demonstrate the most beautiful behavior,” she said. “And that’s because the music is there. They see their peers and are constantly relying on their peers.”