The Importance of Music

The Importance of Music

"Some people think music education is a privilege, but I think it's essential to being human."

-Jewel - singer, songwriter and instrumentalist

In 2008, a Senator named Barack Obama released a powerful Platform in Support of the Arts. In it, he argued for reinvesting in American arts education and reinvigorating the creativity and innovation that has made this country great. Yet over the past few decades, budget pressures and an increasing focus on reading and math have crowded the arts out of too many schools. As a result, students have lost the chance to reap the myriad benefits of a music education including improved academics, the learning of essential skills for the 21st century workforce, confidence, citizenship, creativity and innovation.

As President, Obama's President's Committee on Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) conducted an in-depth review of the current condition of arts education. Their landmark study, Reinvesting in Arts Education, clearly shows the link between arts education and achievement in other subjects. All forms of art - from music to photography to dance - prepare children for success in the workforce not simply as artists, but all professions.

In his foreword to the report, Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education states: "Education in the arts is more important than ever. In the global economy, creativity is essential. Today's workers need more than just skills and knowledge to be productive and innovative participants." He continues to explain that creative experiences are part of the daily work life of engineers, business managers and hundreds of other professionals. "To succeed today and in the future, America's children will need to be inventive, resourceful and imaginative."

The opportunity to learn about the arts and to perform as artists is an essential part of a well-rounded curriculum and complete education. The arts help students explore realities, relationships and ideas that cannot be conveyed simply in words or numbers. And the arts engender innovative problem solving that students can apply to other academic disciplines while at the same time, provide experience working as a team.[1]

Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, echoes the President's Committee's thoughts. He firmly believes that "when a school delivers the complete education to which every child is entitled - an education that very much includes the arts - the whole child blossoms."

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The Academic Benefits of Music Education

"I've been playing the violin for over 10 years... In the meantime,
I've developed a liking for high-level math, like calculus..."

-High school student

Researchers have studied the benefits of music education for decades, consistently finding strong correlations between music and academic achievement. For example, positive results have been noted in standardized tests. Regardless of socioeconomic background, according to a 10-year study that tracked more than 25,000 middle and high school students, music-making students get higher marks on standardized tests than those who have little or no music involvement. The College Entrance Examination Board found that students in music programs scored 63 points higher on the verbal and 44 points higher on the math sections of the SATs than students with no music participation. Additionally, students performed better on other standardized tests such as reading proficiency exams.

Similarly, a study examining the relationship between participation in high or low-quality school music programs and standardized test scores showed that students in high-quality programs scored higher on both English and mathematics standardized tests than their counterparts who did not have high-quality instruction (Johnson, 2006). The researchers also found that students in exceptional music programs as well as low-quality instrumental programs still performed better in English and mathematics than those students receiving no music classes.

These findings were all confirmed in the first major study to compare data from four longitudinal studies. In this landmark study, James Catterall, found that teenagers and young adults of low socioeconomic status (SES) who have a history of in-depth arts involvement show better academic outcomes than do low-SES youth with less arts involvement. These students have higher test scores in science, writing and math, as well as higher overall GPAs than students who lacked arts experiences. Better GPAs also were observed among high SES students.

Lastly, a study performed at the University of British Columbia emphasized that participation in music does not hamper achievement in other domains. "Widespread notion is that instructional time spent on music courses is 'wasted' because it takes away from time used for academic 'core' subjects and thus slows down students' progress in those courses. [However] our results imply that music participation benefits students in ways that are directly or indirectly linked to higher academic achievement in general. . ."[2]

Mathematics Skills

Research has clearly found that music instruction helps develop the capacity for spatial-temporal reasoning, which is integral to the acquisition of important mathematics skills. One explanation is musical training in rhythm emphasizes proportion, patterns, fractions and ratios expressed as mathematical relations.

U.S. Department of Education data showed that students involved in band or orchestra during their middle and high school years demonstrated significantly higher levels of math proficiency by grade 12. The results were even more pronounced for low-income families. Those who took instrumental music were more than twice as likely to perform at the highest levels in math as their peers who were not involved in music (Catterall, 2002). Similar findings were found by Helmrich (2010) who concluded that formal instrumental instruction was positively correlated with algebra achievement. He also analyzed the data for differences between white and black students, finding that students of both races performed better than those who received no music instruction. Interestingly, the degree to which music instruction affects the achievement of black students is greater than that of white students.

A meta-analysis of 15 studies involving 701 children ages 3 to 12 years (Hetland, 2000) suggested that children provided with music instruction score higher than controls on spatial-temporal tasks. Children who begin music instruction very early in life are likely to show the greatest benefits. And longitudinal research suggests that at least two years of music instruction are required for sustained enhancement of spatial abilities (Rauscher, 2002).

Other studies have demonstrated the correlation between music and academic performance at a young age. These include Cutietta (1998) who found that elementary school children who played in the orchestra scored considerably higher on math and spatial intelligence tests and Shaw (2000), who conducted a four-month study on the effects of piano instruction on making spatial and temporal distinctions. The second-graders who received piano instruction for 25 minutes each week scored 15% higher than the test cell and 27% higher on questions devoted to proportional math. Shaw concluded that piano lessons condition the brain and that spatial awareness and the need to think ahead reinforced latent neuronal patterns.

Reading and Language Skills

In the case of language development, the relationship between music and skill transfer is less obvious or direct. Nonetheless, what we write, read and hear involve words that are used and understood in specific contexts. These contexts can be seen as spatial networks where words are related to other words and expressions. Thus, overall reading skills improve with exposure to music, as does the quality of a student's writing.

In 2000, Ron Butzlaff conducted a year-long study on 162 sixth graders to determine whether instrumental music instruction helps children acquire reading skills. At the end of the year, all the students were given the Stanford Achievement Test, which explores reading and verbal skills, and Butzlaff found that students with two or three years of instrumental musical experience performed significantly higher on the exam than the students with no instrumental music instruction. Similarly, in 2000, using a sample size of more than 500,000 high school students, Butzlaff found a strong and reliable association between music instruction and reading test scores.

Other researchers have demonstrated that music enhances reading and cognitive development as well. For instance, in a 1995 study with six to nine year-old students with learning difficulties specific to reading, Bygrave tracked the children in a 30-week study in Michigan. Post-test results indicated that the music program had a significant positive effect on the students' receptive vocabulary. Another study, involving six to 15 year-old boys, found that music training significantly increased verbal memory. As expected, the longer the training, the better the verbal memory (Ho, Cheung & Chan, 2003). Finally in "Arts education, the brain and language," musicians were found to have significantly increased second language performance, greater fluency and competency compared to non-musicians (Petitto, 2008)

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The Practical Benefits of Music Education

"It is clear from the research the arts provide the type of emotional,
creative and expressive development that students
can benefit from throughout their lives."

-Dr. Nancy Rubino - Senior Director, College Board

Not all benefits derived from a music education are academic. Many studies have found that involvement in music leads to positive personal, social and motivational effects. Specifically, Catterall (2012) demonstrated that the arts significantly boost student involvement - both for low SES and high SES groups -- in extracurricular activities and student government, reduce discipline problems and increase the odds that students will go on to graduate from both high school and a four-year college. In short, music helps improve the overall quality of a young person's life.

A Columbia University study revealed that students in the arts are found to be more cooperative with teachers and peers, more self-confident and better able to express their ideas. As a result, researchers have found a reduction in aggressive and anti-social behavior as well as an increase in pro-social behavior (Bastian, 2000). Similarly, a study by Shields (2001) using music education in a mentoring program found a significant positive increase in self-perception derived from musical competence and a correlation between musical competence and global self-worth. Students felt free to be themselves and gained confidence from the experience. Finally, students who participate in school band or orchestra have the lowest levels of current and lifelong use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs among any group in our society. Importantly, these positive behavioral effects steadily increase and persist over time.

Performing with others also helps students build critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Students who play an instrument in a band need to acquire certain social and emotional skills necessary to be a contributing member, including discipline, collaboration, patience, persistence and motivation (Adderly, 2003). In addition, performing in front of others helps boost children's self-esteem and gives them the opportunity to overcome fears and see they can succeed.

The arts also create a supportive environment that promotes acceptance of constructive criticism and safely allows one to take risks (Barry, 2002). In several national studies over the past decade, students at risk of dropping out of school cite participation in the arts as their reason for staying. These students also reported watching fewer hours of television, participating more in community service and having less feelings of boredom in school. Similarly, orchestra students in Tacoma, Washington (Cutietta, 1998) followed over a two-month period were found to have more positive attitudes about school and less classroom friction and competitiveness.

Finally, in Catterall's 2012 study, the findings revealed a large increase in volunteerism in young adults with arts-rich high school experiences. This was true for both low income and high income students, with a greater impact seen on low income students.

Today's Reality

"The skills gained through sequential music instruction, including discipline and the ability to analyze, solve problems, communicate and work cooperatively, are vital for success in the 21st century workplace."

-U.S. House of Representatives, 2006

The Facts

Despite the strong supporting evidence, the arts remain on the fringe of education. Music classes are often the last to be added and first to be dropped in hard economic times. According to the Department of Education’s report, "Arts Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools: 2009-2010," more than 1.3 million students in elementary school receive no music instruction. The same is true for roughly 800,000 secondary school students. Likewise, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2008) found that private schools have better music education than public ones and suburban schools are better equipped than inner-city and rural schools. By extension, schools in higher income areas consistently offer more music and arts classes than schools in poor areas - a finding consistent with both reports.

But all students - 100 percent - should have access to arts instruction. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a national organization that is built on partnerships with the business community, advocates for not only the 3Rs, but the 4Cs: Critical thinking and problem solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and innovation. In a study of superintendents and employers, both agreed that creativity is increasingly important in the U.S. workplace and that arts training is crucial to developing that creativity.[3]

As "Reinvesting in Arts Education" concludes, the narrow focus on only teaching the basics clearly has not been the answer. Many high school graduates lack the skills to make them successful in post-secondary education and later in the work force. Their report discusses the 21st century skills including problem solving, critical and creative thinking, dealing with ambiguity and complexity, integration of mulitple skill sets and disciplinary work.

Catterall's 2012 study once again backs up this premise, as data conclusively showed that both low-SES and high-SES students with strong arts backgrounds ended up in professional majors in college (i.e., accounting, education, nursing) and were planning professional careers by age 30 (i.e., management, sales, teaching). Casner-Lotto (2006) concurred stating that employers are placing value not just on basics but also applied skills such as problem solving, collaboration and creativity. Finally, business leaders from diverse industries such as Xerox, GlaxoSmirthKline and Google all agree that music aids students in skills needed in the workplace including flexibility, effective communication, creativity and innovation.

Public Opinion

Interestingly, the lack of support in the classroom does not mirror the vast majority of the general public's views. A May 2005 Harris Poll revealed that 93% of Americans agree that the arts are vital to providing a well-rounded education for children. In addition, the poll showed public support for the arts in the following ways:

  • 86% agree an arts education encourages and assists in the improvement of a child's attitudes toward school
  • 83% believe that arts education helps teach children to communicate effectively with adults and peers
  • 54% rated the importance of arts education a "ten" on a scale of one to ten

Government Views

While the government overtly supports arts education, it is powerless at a regional level. In August 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote a letter urging all school and education community leaders to remember the arts when determining budget and programming decisions for the upcoming school year. He stated: "I write to bring to your attention the importance of the arts as a core academic subject and part of a complete education for all students... I was reminded of the important role that arts education plays in providing American students with a well-rounded education. The arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem solvers who are confident and able to think creatively."[4]

The White House even started a Music Series, complete with a "Coming Up Taller" award. Awards are given to successful programs across the country that reach students who have insufficient opportunities to explore the arts. The award's unusual name stems from the pride students feel when given the chance to find their voices through the arts. As honorary chairwoman, Mrs. Obama, said: "Music shows young people not just the powers of their imaginations... but the power of discipline and hard work, and of teamwork as well."[5]

Tomorrow's Future

It is evident that the call for more rigorous academic standards is insufficient without a concomitant focus on developing creativity and imagination. In fact, many believe the U.S. will lose its competitive edge as an innovative world leader unless a shift in thinking and teaching is made.

Relying on government, individual school systems - even public sentiment -- is not enough. For this reason, the private sector must step in to fill the void left by the current educational system. Organizations such as Music Empowers help provide equitable access to music and all its benefits by advocating for youth in areas where traditional music education is limited. By helping fund and develop music programs that clearly foster an appreciation for music, improve academic achievement, build self-esteem, teach critical social skills, and engender creativity and innovation, Music Empowers hopes to ignite the spark of creativity that lies within all children and inspire a love of learning. Only then -- when children have access to academics their schools provide and music that private philanthropy provides -- will they be able to achieve their highest potential. It is a goal we all should share.

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The Importance of Music has been compiled by Ellen Judson.

Ellen Judson has worked for more the 20 years in marketing, both on the client and agency side. In such roles, she created strategic marketing plans performed extensive market research and wrote materials for public relations, advertising and promotional activities. Taking on the new topic of music education, Ellen has found the array of benefits overwhelming and hopes to convey to others the consistent and impressive correlation between music education and improved academic and social behavior.

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