Recorder on sheet music Credit: Shieladixon on Wikicommons

Recorders: ear bleeding or life longing? 

By Nina Atkinson

In light of research which found  that playing a musical instrument can improve cognitive abilities in later life, writer Nina Atikinson explores the ways this could be implemented universally in Scottish schools. 

The squeaky sound of a novice recorder player practising is a familiar memory for many parents across the UK. My own mother wasn’t too fond of overhearing my attempts to master the instrument, but a recent study has revealed that her exasperation may not have been in vain. 

A study conducted by researchers in psychology and music at the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Napier University has suggested that there is significant correlation between those who were taught a musical instrument as a child, and better cognitive abilities at an older age.  A comparison of 400 participants was made, finding that the 167 who had had some form of experience playing a musical instrument demonstrated somewhat of an advantage in their response to processing speed and visuospatial reasoning tests. The researchers have stated that although some unexplored factors mean it has not been conclusively proven that musical education directly improves cognitive ability, it is obvious that it may provide ageing benefits. Musical education can also be a fun way to provide children with confidence as well as generally improve their well-being. It is undeniable that having musical education from a young age is a valuable experience and although my own recorder playing skills remain unenviable, the fact that the opportunity was free as a part of my early education is something I am very grateful for.

Disappointingly, in previous years there appears to have been a move away from free musical education in Scottish schools. The Education and Skills Committee at Holyrood opened an enquiry into music tuition in schools in 2018 after it was revealed that there had been a decrease in over 1,200 children receiving musical instrument tuition in Scotland. This data was followed by the news that in February of this year the Dundee city council stopped providing funding for the Dundee Big Noise orchestra operated by Sistema Scotland. These funding cuts were described as having a “catastrophic impact” by the Educational Institute of Scotland. 

Fortunately, more recently new measures seem to have been taken to increase access to free music education. Members of the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood’s education committee are calling for measures that would contribute to allowing school music lessons in all localities to be free. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has suggested that all children entitled to free school meals should be exempt from music tuition fees, and, in May 2023 the Scottish National Party announced a £9.5 million grant for the Young Music Initiative, a programme focused on developing access to opportunities that get young people involved in music, particularly those who may not otherwise be able to. The 2021-22 scheme had over 362,000 participants and supported 1,182 music education posts. As musical education can be so valuable to young people’s well-being and our long-term brain health, efforts like these towards universal music education are crucial.

The school curriculum is the perfect way to incorporate these opportunities, ensuring access for all school age children – but with funding running low in most government sectors, the cost of such schemes must be considered. Thankfully, there are ways around it, and there are, of course, some instruments that are significantly cheaper than others. Singing may not be not everyone’s natural calling, but providing free singing lessons to all children would avoid the cost of hiring or purchasing instruments, and make future karaoke sessions a much more enjoyable past-time! As well as helping children to gain confidence and musical ability, singing in a choir can also be a fun social activity and encourage interactions between schools. 

And my previously mentioned musical calling – the recorder – is another cost-effective option for introducing even the most basic level of musical education into the next generation of Scottish children’s lives, no matter how squeaky they may sound. There are so many ways that these policies could be implemented, and with the effects of such education being so clearly positive, hopefully more parents in the future will be getting agitated by the sound of their child misplaying their first instrument.


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