Plato wrote that, in addition to teaching science and philosophy, he wanted to ensure that every student in Greece had access to a high-quality program of music instruction. The philosopher noted that learning musical skills prepares students for success in a full range of other subjects.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, German philosopher of the Enlightenment, noted music’s complexity and its potential to elicit insight and creativity. He referred to it as a type of “hidden arithmetic” working in the soul.
Contemporary expert opinion echoes these great thinkers, citing the numerous benefits of music instruction for brain development. These include the fact that performing or composing music engages all the regions of the brain, making it unique among school subjects.
Today’s parents and teachers have an increasing number of anecdotes and studies to draw on in their support for the value of a strong program of music instruction. Here are just six of the reasons that music is an important component of primary education.
1. Music helps to develop social skills.
Students who participate in school bands and orchestras improve their musical acuity as well as facilitate their academic, emotional, and social development. Strong and lasting connections often form not only between students and their peers but also between students and their instructors and mentors.
Playing an instrument in a band teaches students to engage in collaboration and mutual assistance. For instance, in order to play together well, students need to learn to listen to one another. They must develop self-discipline necessary to count their own time and perfect their own performances. Additionally, they learn to modulate their own instruments' voices in order to harmonize with others.
If they notice that another student is having trouble mastering a certain passage, fellow students learn that they need to step in with advice and encouragement. This way, they help not only that one individual, but contribute to the success of the group. Life skills such as these are among the major benefits to participation in a musical ensemble.
2. Music supports academic gains.
The correlation between music instruction and academic achievement is well-established.
One 2007 study was conducted at the University of Kansas under the auspices of the NAMM Foundation. Researchers found elementary school students enrolled in schools with adequate music education programs tested significantly higher in English language and math skills than students in schools with music programs of lesser quality.
Schools with good music programs had test scores that were on average 20 percent higher in math and 22 percent higher in English than students whose schools did not have excellent music programs. This was the case even when researchers took social and economic differences among student demographics into account.
3. Music improves speaking and listening skills.
Other studies confirm that elementary-age kids who participate in music training programs develop better listening skills than peers who lack such training. Experts have found that well-developed listening skills help children in a variety of ways. They are more able to recall specific sounds, focus their attention, and understand human speech even against a background of noise.
Studies have also shown that children who were actively engaged in music-related learning over two years demonstrated greater improvements in their reading and in their speech-processing abilities.
4. Music enhances neural function.
Additionally, when students begin a program of music education in early childhood, they tend to exhibit larger gains in motor and auditory functioning. Early childhood is the ideal time to begin music instruction. This is because it is the age when the brain’s plasticity is at its highest.
Research has also demonstrated that even a moderate amount of musical education begun in the teen years, or even well into adulthood, can increase neural functioning. For many people, these gains are lifelong.
5. Music programs in public schools are often inadequate and underfunded.
The Give a Note Foundation published a report on the state of public school music education in 2017. The researchers confirmed that large-scale group performance-instruction programs, such as band, orchestra, and chorus are the most common forms of school-based music education. In elementary schools, a generalized music program is also often front-and-center.
Only about one-quarter of the public schools surveyed offered focused instruction in music subjects—for example, guitar or music theory. Music teachers across the country reported feeling that fundraising simply to support their general and ensemble programs was essential to those programs’ survival.
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act lists music as among the 18 essential subjects in a well-rounded general education program. However, many public schools today failed to provide a quality music program.
In 2012, the United States Department of Education published a report stating that, for the 2009 to 2010 school year, most of the public elementary schools in the country offered music education programs. But those statistics missed something important.
There were significant discrepancies in quality and access among schools based on school size, budget, and other factors. Large numbers of teachers quoted in the report stated that they lacked both time and resources to deliver an adequate program of music instruction.
6. Music education facilitates achievement.
Thomas Südhof, a 2013 Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine, is only one example given by the National Association for Music Education of an accomplished adult who traces much of his success to a music teacher. Südhof said in an interview that his bassoon teacher’s instruction on the value of practice, focus, listening, and consistent application influenced his own later creativity and capacity for study in the laboratory.
In the United States, the Emmy Award-winning Children’s Music Workshop points out that schools with strong music programs have consistently shown attendance rates of about 93 percent and graduation rates of more than 90 percent.