As the debate over school funding continues to rage on, music education, along with other “non-core” curriculum classes, will continue to be used as a bargaining chip in discussions about school planning. Proponents of the arts will argue, correctly, that the inclusion of these classes benefits students in many ways. In the quest for funding, however, budgets rise and fall based on quantitative results. As a result, music education, along with other elective courses, are reduced to proving their worth in measurable, reliable indicators.
Much of the impetus for demonstrating music’s importance is due, in large part, to the ever-growing reliance of school systems and legislators on testing outcomes that demonstrate proficiency and student mastery. Worried about the prospect of eliminating classes that can help to improve students’ test scores, music educators and advocates have begun to concentrate on evidence that music classes improve students’ cognitive function as an example of why music education is necessary. To understand the risks of this type of reasoning, one should carefully look at the evidence of music’s impact.
1. Music raises test scores
One of the most common refrains used by music education advocates is the idea that music improves students’ standardized test scores. There is much evidence to support this claim. According to recent studies, students who took music lessons scored up to 63 points higher on the verbal section of standardized college entrance testing and 44 points higher on the math section. However, the risk is that when test scores are no longer the focus, then music education may no longer be relevant. If the primary argument for including music classes in schools is to drive test scores, then where does music fit if test scores are no longer the focus? When the tide of public support (and funding) moves away from testing, music educators will once again be scrambling to demonstrate the importance of music. Does music education improve student test scores? Yes. Should that be the primary reason why schools offer it? No.
2. Music helps students succeed in other classes
Much like the argument about test scores, there is validity to the claim that studying music improves students’ performance in other classes. Students involved in music education perform better academically overall than their non-musical counterparts. They tend to view the world through a broader perspective, are more inclined to make connections across subject matter, and are generally seen as more well-rounded in their education. However, the inclusion of music education has more to offer than being a crutch.
3. Music keeps students engaged in learning
The argument that music keeps students engaged in learning has merit. By focusing on the result instead of the cause, however, music is reduced to a side benefit rather than a stand-alone component. Many of those who use this argument rationalize that by giving students “something larger than themselves” to be part of, they are less likely to search for their identity and purpose elsewhere. In light of this, music is seen as a way to reduce juvenile delinquency, a cause that most people would support. However, music must be seen as more than a way to reduce potential trouble.
If the most common reasons for including music education are based on faulty thinking, then what measures should be used to demonstrate the importance of music?
4. Music is a global language
Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for expanding the music curriculum is to equip students to compete on a global stage. The increase in technological advancements has both broadened and connected the world in ways that were never thought possible before. Students are studying foreign languages and cultures, participating in global forums, and learning how to engage with a changing community. Music unites the world in ways that transcend language and customs. Understanding the impact of music in the lives of cultures around the world can give students a broader view of humanity and help to establish connections that benefit everyone.
5. Music adds beauty to the world
Learning how to appreciate and create music is a reflection of the beauty in the world. Music can be used to express emotion, compel one to action, and inspire one’s soul. Valuing music education simply for the beauty that it adds to the world is both necessary and worthwhile. The world is filled with sound, and music offers a means of interpreting and validating the sounds and emotions that surround us.
Generations of students have participated in rites of passage that include performing in a school musical, coaxing sound out of a wind instrument, or wrestling with an instrument case on a school bus. These experiences are more than “character builders” that children endure as part of childhood. They underscore the larger importance of including music in the process of development. Making room for an unwieldy and cumbersome violin case as it bangs down the bus aisle on a bus is more than a metaphor; it demonstrates the value of making room for music in education. Jostled between book bags and lunch boxes, the instrument may seem to be in the way of the larger purpose of school. However, the value is not in the case. It is in the music that the case represents, similar to how the value of music education is not in how it supports other curriculum, but in the beauty alone that music offers.