First and foremost, I believe that it is important to educate the whole person, not just the practice of music. As educators we should make every facet of existing knowledge available to students in our classrooms, no matter what age or discipline we teach. This allows us to create an environment conducive to cultivating new ideas. By exposing our students to various disciplines and the intersections between theory and practice, we can better promote innovation and cultural development within them.
Good education is like good nutrition. Our bodies function best when we consume foods in a correct and balanced proportion. I believe the same rules apply to education: balanced amounts of scholastic material are required to allow the mind to function at its optimal level. A student who receives nothing but math and reading lessons will quickly become intellectually malnourished. Unfortunately, this has become more common in recent years. In lieu of classes in the arts, schools frequently double down on reading, writing, and math, thinking the extra investment of time will improve development in these subjects. While a focus on these basics may effectively benefit the short term success of our students on standardized tests, what is the long-term impact of such an educational philosophy?
It is my experience that inspiration occurs when different spheres of learning meet and interact, subsequently bringing forth creative thought. Without arts education alongside math, reading, and writing, students do not experience this intermingling effect. As the cinematic music teacher Mr. Holland once said, the arts give children something to read and write about. This feeling is echoed by a growing number of American leaders, employers and parents. In a national 2007 poll, 82% of voters surveyed stated that imagination and creative skills should be taught in our schools. Furthermore, 91% of those same voters believe that the arts are essential to building those skills.* In order to remain competitive with the world at large, as well as to give students the best chance of success in their adult lives, we must teach the arts alongside basic skills. Perhaps more importantly, we owe students the chance to experience the full potential that can only come with a well-balanced, diverse curriculum that prominently includes the arts.
Numerous studies in the last 20 years have also shown that the presence of a music program dramatically improves student performance in other academic areas. Students with musical training show higher test scores in both reading and math. In particular, students with four years of arts education in high school scored on average upwards of 85 points higher on the SAT than those who have had no arts education. Other studies show a high correlation between music education and improved verbal memory, mastery of spoken language, and understanding of fractions and proportions. One Florida study in 2007 found that students who scored higher on the Florida Music Assessment test generally scored higher on math, reading and writing tests as well. Furthermore, schools with music programs enjoy higher attendance rates (93.3% vs. 84.9%) as well as significantly higher graduation rates (90.2% vs. 72.9%).* Regardless of whether or not these statistics demonstrate cause or effect, it is hard to deny that there is some kind of symbiotic relationship between student performance and the presence of arts education.
In light of these studies, I find it frustrating that music is often not considered a core subject. I believe music is a valuable, powerful, as well as necessary tool in the education of our children. Throughout our development, we constantly use music to assimilate and codify information we receive. The simple ubiquity of the Alphabet Song is a prime example of how we use music to master other non-musical concepts. For another more personal example, I learned to count at an early age due to my love of Sesame Street, particularly through the catchy song "Ladybug Picnic." During my years of teaching high school and college-age students, I have heard countless similar stories of how music played a significant part in the acquisition, formation, and recollection of knowledge.
Music education purports to improve many things, from test scores to self esteem. Likewise, there are numerous scholastic and motivational factors that are complimented by music education. While these are indeed valid reasons to pursue the study of music, we cannot ignore the intrinsic worth that music has in and of itself as an art form. In essence, music is both nutritional in its ability to compliment a well-developed curriculum, as well as a delicious field of study that provides its own source of reward. It is indeed a means and an end.
*All statistical data is drawn from the Spring 2010 issue of the Iowa Music Educator.