Music: the essential element

Mr Mark Sullivan, Director of Instrumental Music

‘When I started on this path of research I thought that music was important, but I realised that it was vastly more important than I imagined,’ Daniel Levitin, Psychologist and Neuroscientist

Imagine a world without music. It would be like a car without an engine or a library without books. It is simply impossible to contemplate as music is so embedded in our daily life. From the stirring of national fervour at public events, to the creation of dramatic tension in a movie, the jingle that encourages shoppers to spend money, or the fireworks at Brisbane Riverfire, music always seems to play an essential role. Is this just entertainment and something to fill our hours of leisure or is there something more to it?

We know instinctively that music has a primal power and it is fascinating that anthropologists have yet to discover a culture without music. The foundations of music have been traced back to at least 40,000 years with the discovery of archaic flutes which still create a remarkably pure and beautiful tone. This discovery of music in ancient cultures has led researchers to ask the question: Are humans hardwired for music? Is music something that is learned or is it something that is inborn in everyone?

Tangible evidence to answer these questions has been elusive but during the past 10 years the new technologies of MRI and PET scans have fuelled an explosion of interest in the science of music. These technologies have enabled researchers and neuroscientists to delve deeper into the brain to understand its interaction with music and discover intimate connections between music and human life. Researchers can now take pictures of the brain in action and track where the blood or oxygen is flowing in the brain which is allowing them to map the different functions and regions of the brain when listening to and performing music.

Scientists used to think that there was a specific music centre in the brain but Patel (Mannes, 2011) has revealed that, ‘unlike all other activities there is no single music centre in the brain. In fact it seems that each subcomponent of music (harmony, pitch rhythm etc.) engages a broad network of brain regions so that music as a whole has access to vast portions of the brain.’

At the recent World Science Festival, Lawrence Parsons (2011) from the University of Sheffield stated that music is a whole nervous system activity even when you are listening to music. He went further in The Music Instinct (Simlow, 2009) saying that ‘If you look at music performance, there is no activity that we do that allows the brain to do so many things at once at such a complicated co-ordination and at such depth.’

Robert Zatorre (Simlow, 2009) from the University of Montréal states that ‘there is not a cognitive function that does not somehow pertain to music and that music really does serve as the gateway to understanding human cognition.’

Today ‘many scientists are convinced that there is a biology of music, a hard-wired capacity for musical appreciation and expression’ and ‘evidence that we are born with brain structures that allow us to experience music both emotionally and physically’ (Mannes, 2011).

The only people who scientists believe cannot perceive pitch or melody are those who suffer from a neurological disorder known as amusia which affects approximately four per cent of the population.

This research surely challenges the long-held belief that music is a talent available only to some people. Peretz (in press) states, ‘it has become increasingly clear that musical competence is not confined to the elite. Musical ability is acquired early and spontaneously as are language abilities. …. Accordingly any given individual would be born with the potential to become musically proficient.’

Those advocating for music education in schools often cite the extensive area of research that has focused on the transferrable skills related to learning music. These studies have demonstrated significant correlation between studying music and academic performance particularly regarding SAT scores.

Champions of Change: The Impact of Arts on Learning (Fiske, 1999) a landmark longitudinal study of 25,000 students was one of these. It found that students with high levels of arts participation outperform students with low levels of arts participation on nearly every measure. It showed a strong correlation between high levels of involvement in instrumental music in the high school years and higher levels of cognitive development and maths proficiency.

More recently, a compilation of research from all over the world by Northwestern University (2010) indicated that ‘musical training has a profound impact on other skills including speech, language, memory, attention and even the ability to convey emotions vocally.’

The research strongly suggests that ‘the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other aspects of human communication.’

It went on to say that ‘an active engagement with musical sounds not only enhances neuroplasticity but also enables the nervous system to provide a stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns so important to learning.’

Vaughan, Harris and Caldwell, (2011) in a recent independent Australian study Bridging the Gap in School Achievement through the Arts commissioned by The Song Room, found that ‘music education not only has intrinsic value, but when implemented with a structured innovative and long term approach it can also provide essential extrinsic benefits, such as improved school attendance, academic achievement across the curriculum, as well as social and emotional wellbeing.’

The study examined the performance of students in 10 highly disadvantaged schools in western Sydney compared with a set of matched schools in the control group. Schools participating in The Song Room programmes outperformed those not participating, including significantly higher scores in NAPLAN tests and on every dimension of wellbeing.

Caroline Aebersold, Chief Executive Officer of The Song Room claims this research is of international significance as it has ‘demonstrated a significant and quantitative impact on educational intervention’.

More recently, research and debate has begun to consider whether music plays a role in behaviour, health, wellbeing, imagination and spirit.

Mannes (2011) identifies numerous recent studies that reveal remarkable evidence of the impact that music can have on the physical and emotional functioning of the body.

A study from The Free University of Berlin demonstrated clearly that music had an effect on production of stress hormones, ACTH, adrenaline and cortisol which prepare the body for the fight or flight response to fear and stress. ACTH stimulates the release of adrenaline and cortisol into the blood stream which affects organs that release glucose for energy, increase blood flow to the muscles and raise blood pressure (Weinberger, 1997).

Dr Robert Zatorre studied the emotions we feel as we listen to music and the physical changes such as goose bumps, sweat, and changes in heart rate and blood pressure, and found that the brain areas activated when we listen to music that we find pleasurable, are the same ones activated by more tangible pleasures such as food, drugs and sex. He states that ‘listening to music releases neurochemicals such as dopamine – the so called feel-good hormone, prolactin – the comforting hormone and oxytocins – the trust hormone’ (Mannes, 2011).

Zatorre believes that this is the first demonstration that an abstract reward such as music can lead to dopamine release. This research confirms that there is a strong correlation between subjective ratings of pleasure and emotional arousal (Health 24, 2011).

In Music and Health Care, Wolf & Wolf (2011) provide evidence that music offers health benefits for babies born into neonatal care units to adults in hospice care at the end of their lives. Some of the specific conditions cited include; pain, stress and anxiety, stroke, cancer, Parkinson’s disease Alzheimer’s, dementia, mental health, depression, cancer, autism and gerontology. They attribute the plasticity of the brain and the capacity of music to shape the brain’s development into later life as the key research finding: ‘The implications of this finding are huge… and can have a profound impact on the healthy development of individuals.’

The impact of the extensive, overwhelming and ongoing research is beginning to have a significant impact on how educators see music and its importance in the development of each individual not only during childhood and adolescent years but throughout adulthood. With evidence that we are all hardwired to respond to music and that innate talent is not a requirement for musical achievement, it is now possible to consider that everybody has a capacity for music and can access the far-reaching benefits of engaging in music programmes in school and later life.

The revolutionary El Sistema music programme in Venezuela is undeniable proof of the power of music to transform lives. In spite of appalling poverty, criminal behaviour, drug addiction, hardship and oppression, El Sistema has been a stunning success, not only in creating fine young musicians but restoring dignity and hope to those who take up the challenge. Science is now proving the intuitive notions held by Maestro Abreu when he began the programme 35 years ago that music is central to a child’s full realisation as a human being.

Researchers, Kraus and Chandrasekaran (2010) in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, argue for serious investing in resources in music training in schools accompanied by rigorous examinations of the effects of such instruction on listening, learning, memory, attention, and literacy skills. They state that, ‘the effect of music training suggests that music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness and thus requires society to re-examine the role of music in shaping individual development.’

Cognitive Archaeologist Steven Mithen goes further saying:

I think we neglect music at our peril. Music is such an important way for building both personal well-being and the wellbeing of groups, that if we don’t engage people in music especially from a young age, somehow they’re losing something of the human experience and somehow we threaten the wellbeing of our societies (Mannes, 2011, p. 214).

At Brisbane Girls Grammar we are most fortunate to have significant philosophical endorsement of the music programme from the School and community as well as the human and capital resources necessary to deliver a vibrant and diverse music programme to our students.

Although the overall participation rates are high with more than fifty per cent of students actively engaged in music, there is a significant percentage of students who do not engage and according to the research are significantly disadvantaged by not doing so.

Thankfully, classical music is no longer considered to be an esoteric form of entertainment for the elite but an art form that has major implications for human development from the womb to the grave. I see it as our challenge to lift participation rates in future years so that every student in the School can benefit fully from a quality music education and all it has to offer.


Fiske, E. (1999). Champions of change: the impact of arts on learning. Retrieved from


Health 24. (2011). Feel-good hormones. Retrieved from,60583.asp.


Kraus, N., Chandrasekaran, B. (2010). Music training for the development of auditory skills. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11, 599-605. doi:10.1038/nrn2882.


Mannes, E. (2011). Foreword. In A.D. Patel (Ed.), The Power of Music (pp. ix-xi). New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc.


Parsons, L. (2011). Music: a whole body experience. [Video file]. Retrieved from


Peretz, I. (in press). The biological foundations of music: insights from congenital amusia. The psychology of Music. Retrieved from


Simlow, M. (Producer), & Mannes, E. (Director). (2009). The music instinct: science & song [DVD]. USA: Mannes Productions Inc.


Vaughan, T., Harris, J. & Caldwell, B.J. (2011). Bridging the gap through school achievements through the arts: Summary report. Melbourne:The Song Room.


Weinberger, N.M. (1997). The musical hormone. MRN, IV(2). Retrieved from


Wolf, L., Wolf, T. (2011). Music and health care (Research Report). New York: Wolfbrown. Retrieved from


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