Interview with Anita Collins


Boogie Mites Director, Sue Newman interviews Anita Collins who is a world renowned music education and neuroscience researcher University of Canberra.

Introduction to interview

Sue: “Our discussion today is about the neuroscience evidence behind the benefits of music for brain development in early years – I am Sue, Director at Boogie Mites and (we have) Anita Collins researcher of music and neuroscience at the University of Canberra in Australia. Anita, you have recently completed a worldwide road trip visiting laboratories studying the impact of music on the brain. The Boogie Mites team have followed you with interest.”

Anita:“Thank you to the Boogie Mites team for following me, that’s really nice to know. I am travelling all around the world and hosting things and to know that there is a community out there benefiting from it, is just the best thing that I could ever hope for.”

Music and language are underpinned by the same neural networks

Anita: “What music learning does, and musical activities and being surrounded by music in all its many forms, is develop that network that underpins all of our language learning. It underpins our hearing so that when we go to speak language we are taking information correctly through our ears,  we are then taking it out through our mouths. When she (the researcher) explained it like that I thought that is such a simple explanation and such an important reason why, for so many, hundreds of thousands of years we’ve had music and language as two very connected things in early childhood, it’s a natural thing for us to do. Part of what might be happening now is that we are forgetting that it is natural and it might not be all the answer, but this is some of the reason why we are seeing kids struggling with literacy, basic literacy. That is one of the examples of some research that is feeding into my understanding.”

Music develops sound processing to cope with our current day noisy environment

Anita: “Our world is noisier than it’s ever been, which means our sound processing networks are working harder than they’ve ever had to, and by not concentrating on the very activity that develops sound processing we’re not preparing the kids for all the noise and all the processing that they are going to have to do through their lives. It’s so simple yet beautiful and elegant – music teaching and learning is such a good simple and well rounded answer to that”

Boogie Mites programmes empower early years practitioners to use the power of music to support children’s development

Sue: “We started out as a team of teachers going in once a week, regularly to nurseries and then having done all the reading on the neuroscience and child development, we realised that by far the most effective approach would be that we train those practitioners that understand early childhood development, who are with the children all day, every day and they can bring music in all day, every day. So we’ve very much gone down that route and there’s a big gap that we can contribute to.”

Anita: “It’s a win, win.”

Music good not only for literacy and maths foundations but for learning across the board

Sue: “Not only are we creating strong literacy foundations but maths foundations and you talked about the patterns which are obviously a basis for mathematical thinking – is there anything else you want to say about what you found out about maths?”

Anita: “It’s interesting, the direct connection, the easy connection is to say that music is all about the division of time, it’s all fractions so therefore it must be maths and whilst absolutely that’s true, what’s been found, and for me is much more exciting is yes, it’s good for processing maths but it’s actually good for processing across the board.”

The myth that music ability is a nature not nurture talent

Sue: “We’re very often met by practitioners who say ‘I can’t sing, I’ve got no sense of rhythm’ and so we have to persuade them that they can change that, they can improve their sense of melody and rhythm by daily practise.”

Anita: “And I believe it’s a misconception that lives – about what musical challenge is, this concept that we’re born with it or not born with it. So much of this research has shown us that we all have a predisposition for music and we’re born with it as we all have to use it to learn how to speak so by the fact that most of us learn how to speak, we must be born musical and I find that is a beautiful way of looking at it.”

Keeping a steady beat as a predictor for reading difficulties can inform where music intervention required at age 3 years

Anita: “Just the simple stuff is about keeping a steady beat and one of the nicest pieces of research I have seen is that if a child can keep a steady beat watching an adult, copying an adult then the predictor of them being ready to read by the age of five is very, very high.

Taking it back the other way, if a child cannot keep a steady beat at 3.5 years then (between) 3.5 – 5 years if we can identify those kids then, we’ve got a whole 18 months to help them develop all those connectors. It’s actually showing that all the things that need to be connected are connected in order to then start reading. So that’s a way that the research can help so many kids, because once they’re having trouble with reading, all sorts of other things are happening, self-confidence goes down, self-esteem, the social aspects that come in with that.  It’s so vital, something as simple as keeping a beat, as it helps kids forever to learn.”

Regular practise is the key

Anita: “I often talk about the pathways in kids’ heads, the pathway when they first start is like one of those wonderful small British windy forest pathways that if you don’t use it, it goes away and grows over. It’s that small and that sort of temporary – the more we practise the wider and more permanent that actual pathway gets and one of the researchers describes it as going from a small country lane to a highway. It’s a brilliant way to think about it because once you’ve got a highway you can go along it faster. That’s why musically trained kid’s brains work faster is because the pathways are wider, smoother and faster.”

You can listen to the whole interview with Anita Collins on our YouTube Channel.

Our website has a section dedicated to neuroscience here. You can read more about the topic, including the latest research from Anita Collins at the University of Canberra as well as another luminary in the field Dr Nina Kraus of Brainvolts at Northwestern University.