Guy Sebastian worked with students from Challis Community Primary School for a new TV series. (ABC)
When Dr Anita Collins first visited the kids at Challis Community Primary School in one of Perth’s most disadvantaged postcodes, she found what she expected to find.
While they were generally happy, the students had problems with their attention, memory, and impulse control.
For some, those were exacerbated by issues of substance abuse or chronic illness at home.
But Dr Collins, an expert in how learning music can change the developing brain, had gone to Challis on a mission.
As part of a new ABC docuseries Don’t Stop The Music, alongside singer Guy Sebastian, she wanted to help design a music program that would have positive impacts beyond the students’ abilities to sing or play an instrument.
The changes she witnessed speak to the impact learning an instrument can have on a young child, something research in neuroscience has only begun to clarify in the past few years.
How music changes a young brain
“Music and language are an overlapping network in the brain, so we actually use music, our music-processing network, to learn how to speak language,” Dr Collins said.
Music develops the auditory system, which in turn helps children understand nuances like rhythm or tone — common to both sound and language — and how they can carry meaning in subtle ways.
Assal Habibi of the University of Southern California said that music training during childhood, “even for a period as brief as two years, can accelerate brain development and sound processing”.
“We believe that this may benefit language acquisition in children given that developing language and reading skills engage similar brain areas,” she said.
Another benefit is improved executive function, what Dr Collins calls “the skills you need to be a grown-up” — paying attention, making plans, understanding your emotions.
“Through learning a discipline,” such as an instrument, “you then learn how do you work in a team, how do you keep paying attention, how do you focus on a problem and not get so frustrated straight away that you stop trying.”
“That then transfers across to what happens when you have a maths question in front of you and you are really frustrated because you don’t know how to do it.
“Instead of throwing your hands up in the air and saying ‘I won’t do it’, the transfer of what they learn in music is ‘if I just stick with it, I will probably get it right’.”
Don’t Stop The Music looks at the benefits of music education to a child’s development. (ABC)
The ‘inequity’ of music education in Australia
In Australian primary schools students get a “taster” menu of the arts, including music.
As for ongoing music education programs, Dr Collins said, it often comes down to which schools have the means to keep programs going and retain specialist teachers.
“That’s where the inequity really begins,” she said.
Australia lags behind other countries when it comes to the availability of music education, according to advocacy group Music Australia.
More than 80 per cent of independent schools provide music education, it said, compared to about 20 per cent of state schools.
Dr Collins said the prevailing belief was that learning an instrument was just a past-time, one students should be free to abandon once the practice stops being fun.
“We have this really narrow idea — and I mean the general public as well as the education fraternity — that you study music, or any art, in order to be a musician, or an actor, or to be a visual artist,” she said.
“As opposed to: every child should study it so their cognitive connectivity is as fantastic as we can possibly get it.”
Guy Sebastian and Dr Anita Collins visited Challis Community Primary School in Perth. (Supplied: ABC)
While there has been debate in recent weeks in the UK House of Lords about the importance of generalist music education, Dr Collins said that in Australia, governments had not yet grasped “how vital it is for cognitive development”.
“I think we need to shift the public understanding.”
She and Sebastian saw the benefits at Challis first-hand.
“There are a lot of kids missing out on a lot of things beyond just learning notes,” Sebastian said.
“They are missing out on just connection with their emotions.”
He said the pressure of being thrown a solo — “the equivalent of having to do a speech in front of a class” — helped them in ways that were “unseen”.
As Dr Collins said: “There were really significant changes that were not one-off changes. They were things that became permanent.”
The first episode of Don’t Stop The Music airs Sunday, November 11 at 7:40pm on ABC.