Music study boosts kids' academic performance, empathy, creativity, and more.
Becoming fluent and expressive in the language of music requires nothing more than exposure and passionate guidance. The great jazz musician John Coltrane stated that his most formative music influence outside family was his high school music teacher. In North Carolina, at the height of the enforced segregation of the Jim Crow era, a single superb teacher stood out and changed both his life and the course of music history.
The notion that a child must be exceptionally intelligent or super talented to take part in music activities is a myth. Randomized neuroscience studies have shown that the positive effects of music instruction impact everyone, regardless of skill level. The key factors are consistency in exposure, and excellence in teaching. With regular, high quality music instruction, every human being can experience the cognitive, emotional, and creative benefits of music in their lives.
Music Appreciation in America Compared to Other Countries
It is well known that the United States lags far behind other developed nations in math, science, and reading. One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy, and other key skills among 15-year-olds in many countries. The most recent PISA results (2015) placed the U.S. at an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. A survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that just 16 percent called the U.S. kindergarten through 12th grade STEM education “above average.”
Arts Education has a spotty history within American secondary schools. The benefits of such education are well recognized and documented. But while there are clearly established mandates in New York State Education Law requiring that students in seventh through 12th grades receive core arts instruction taught by certified teachers, a report by the NYC Comptroller noted that “the provision of arts education in New York City’s public schools has become both inequitable and underfunded. Instruction in visual arts, music, dance, and theater has been weakened by over a decade of disinvestment and disincentives and a school accountability system based on federal and state priorities–that fails to fully recognize the value of comprehensive arts education.” An astounding 25 percent of NYC high schools, 24 percent of middle schools, and 9 percent of elementary schools in New York City lack partnerships with any arts and cultural organizations whatsoever—and this, in a city that boasts some of the world’s premier performing organizations, creative artists, and venues. Predictably, many of these schools are in low-income areas.
A 2012 National Endowment for the Arts report showed that high levels of arts engagement by the lowest socioeconomic quarter of students corresponds with a greater numbers of students who complete high school calculus, exercise their right to vote, do volunteer work, earn a bachelor's degree, and choose a professional career path. Still, when schools face budget challenges it is very often the subjects that are labeled as “extracurricular activities” or “specials” like music that first come under the budget-cutting knife.
It is interesting that nations whose students consistently outperform the U.S. in math, reading, and sciences—or example Singapore, China, and Finland—are the countries in which music has a central place in the curriculum. Frank Hodsoll, Chairman of the NEA, noted that in first through sixth grades, the Japanese require two class periods per week of music, including singing, instrumental performance, and appreciation of both western and Japanese music. In several highly ranked European countries, intense music instruction (up to four hours per week) is compulsory throughout the first eight years of schooling.
Studying Music is a Smart Move
While the correlation between musical instruction and academic performance has been well established, recent advances in brain imaging now enable us to validate that making music alters the fundamental structure of young brains. Consistent engagement with music strengthens memory, facilitates language acquisition, enhances spatial and mathematical learning, and provides an edge in solving complex problems. There is a direct correlation between music engagement and increased high school graduation rates, and even a connection between music study and higher income levels.
Just as significantly, the study of music fosters social and emotional learning that are just as important—if not more critical—to life success as academic achievement. Music helps us express and moderate our emotions, soothes us in times of stress and trouble, helps regulate energy and arousal levels, and gives us inestimable skills for navigating that thorny world of peer interaction. Even in utero, the fetus is immersed in a world of sound—breath and heartbeat, rhythm and vibration!
Imagine how the fabric of our country would change if those students who are currently denied the opportunity for first-rate music education had access to it. One would expect to see not only stronger academic outcomes, but also better citizens, with young people more socially and civically engaged, in full possession of the remarkable and fundamental ability to express themselves through sound, with passion and eloquence.