Music is a very powerful force

In Brisbane, there’s a big youth orchestra, the Queensland Youth Orchestra. It’s the best youth orchestra in town and attracts kids from all over the metropolitan area. Every Saturday, they come to town by bus and car and train and find their ways to the building where the rehearsals take place. They unpack their instruments, get out their music and go to sit in their orchestral places to wait for the rehearsal to start. There’s probably about 80 of them spread right across this large room.

Rehearsals last for probably a couple of hours. At the end, everyone is packing up their instruments and there’s time for a bit of chat. If you are a bass player, your friend on the French horn was way across the room. Now she can hear you. But not for long. You have to get back to the buses and trains and off home and that’s it until the next week.

Some years ago the orchestra’s managers decided they wanted to know a bit more about their kids. Each member of the orchestra was asked to answer a questionnaire. One of the questions was something like “Who are your best friends?”

Well here’s a surprise! The majority wrote that their best friends were other members of the orchestra.

Now you and I probably made our good friends by talking and listening to them. And that’s how we keep them too. That’s what friends are for. Isn’t it?

But most of the time these orchestra kids are together they are playing music. And even when they have a moment to speak, they really can only be heard by the few people who are sitting close. There is very little talking going on. And yet this is where they find, make, their best friends.

Music is a very powerful force!


For decades past, there has been research all over the world to discover the benefits of a music education – other than learning to make music. The research has shown benefits such as:

  • The brain develops faster
  • Music students build self-esteem
  • Their self-confidence grows (playing to audiences helps)
  • Music students become better in socialising.

The OECD surveyed the best music education research done in its 37 member countries. It was very strict in its requirements: it was looking for research that PROVED that arts education CAUSED a particular outcome, not just might have caused it.

Overall, music was found to be a more powerful change agent than other art forms. For music, the change with the strongest proof was an increase in IQ. IQ is a predictor of academic success. Music education also improved outcomes in other school subjects, especially reading and second languages.

There is research that shows that the sort of music education that is most effective in this way is learning to play a musical instrument rather than, for instance, just listening to recordings. It works best if learning is disciplined: ‘sequential’ – a little harder each week, ‘continuous’ – it is regular and goes on for, well, months and years and the student practices, and ‘the student learns to read music’. I would say also that it is important to make music with others, as in our orchestras.

So the Symphony for Life kids get all these benefits. They learn to play music with real skill, something that will enrich the rest of their lives. They become part of a musical community. They are learning one of the most developed forms of music, one that has been the life’s work of some of humanity’s great geniuses. And they are gaining many other abilities and personal characteristics that can improve their lives in so many ways.

I am not now a musician but I studied music intensively when I was younger. A few years ago I suddenly caught myself thinking that the way I work has a lot to do with my music studies. I am a self-starter – I see something I think needs to happen and I do it. Just like music practice! I focus. I persist. I find solutions. Metaphorically, the main thing is, as it were, to make up a tune in which all the bits fit together and balance and are shapely and it is, if possible, beautiful. And the best reason to make up that beautiful tune is to make up that beautiful tune. It does not need applause, payment, any reason other than itself. It is beautiful, life is full.


Richard Letts November 2020