The Value of Music in Education


The Value of Music in Education

Steve Nelson is the author of the book First, Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk. Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Indigo Books, more.

By Steve Nelson

The most recent discoveries about the power of music may be the best news since the revelations that red wine and chocolate are good for one’s health. Such felicitous discoveries might make the most insistent atheist consider the possibility of a beneficent power at work in the universe.

As with wine and chocolate, music’s delights go far beyond pleasure. Abundant evidence reveals music as being among the most powerful ingredients in other learning including, but not limited to, language development and mathematics.

Profound leaps in human understanding are emerging in the interrelated fields of neurobiology/neuroscience and cognitive science. Technological advances are inviting brain observation at the neural level, accelerating our comprehension of how we humans learn and behave, from motor responses to falling in love.

It is odd that so little of this crucial knowledge informs contemporary educational practice. Cursory awareness of neurobiology should inspire active curricula with multi-sensory richness, yet many American classrooms remain as dull as dishwater. Little kids are told to sit still when studies show that stillness inhibits brain activity. Big kids are earnestly doing hours of tedious homework when mounting evidence indicates no correlation between laborious tedium and achievement. But at least in the so-called “core” subjects, words, letters and numbers are still present, however inelegantly and blandly offered. Music, however, is relegated to the periphery if not altogether thrown out of the house. It is only slight hyperbole to call this child abuse.

Before continuing with the practical rationale for a lively music program, a few words for the impractical. The late Reverend William Sloane Coffin was my good friend and recital partner (he, piano, I, violin) for a dozen years. During one rehearsal he remarked that performing Mozart made him much more nervous than any sermon he ever preached. After a brief, reflective pause he mused that perhaps that was because music is a much more direct expression of the divine than anything he might ever think to say. Although Bill and I shared an appreciation of many things – beautiful phrases, red wine and chocolate, among others – I didn’t share his belief in the divine, at least not in a remotely literal sense. But I (and, I suspect, you too) seldom have a more powerful connection to the ineffable than in the good company of music.

Chopin Nocturnes absorbed at age five beneath my mother’s piano carry more emotional power than any other memories of those early years. The opening chords of a Bach Prelude played at my father’s memorial service will forever evoke unbidden tears. This is no elitist phenomenon, for the saccharine theme from the saccharine movie “Love Story” calls up lovely images and feelings from early in my marriage that may be otherwise inaccessible. Even a song as inane as the 1960s hit “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians carries a flood of teenage emotions along with its dreadful two-chord keyboard drone.

Music should thus be a significant part of every school day, if for no other reason than that it gives great pleasure and provides a medium in which life experiences are stored for future enjoyment, perhaps with more power than any other mechanism.

The most widely discussed, but perhaps least significant, role of music in learning arose from a phenomenon called the “Mozart Effect.” This phrase, trademarked by the author Don Campbell, represents a largely discredited claim that music – Mozart in particular, piano concerti in the microparticular – increases IQ, adds points to SAT scores, stimulates learning and fosters creativity and imagination. On further examination, this “effect” lasts about fifteen minutes and is related to very fleeting mood changes or temporary arousal. Nonetheless, millions bought Campbell’s books and put Mozart concerti on the home stereo hour after hour. There are worse things. In fact, as one who loves Mozart piano concerti, almost anything else is worse.

Many benefits of music programs have been apparent for decades, if not centuries. Learning to play an instrument (including voice) requires discipline, good time management, development of fine motor skills, persistence, patience, focus and many other “traits” that have value far beyond the musical skill itself. The sequencing and “scaffolding” activities demanded by learning an instrument are applicable to nearly all kinds of learning.

Music students also learn a great deal from ensemble experiences, ranging from simple duets to full orchestras. Learning to match intonation, shape phrases, defer when appropriate, hear the whole along with the parts – these are complex and powerfully important cognitive and social skills. These skills are even more complex in jazz, where improvisation demands an amazingly complex set of cognitive and motor skills. Making music with others is a very high order process.

Even more fascinating are indications that music may be intimately, arguably inextricably, tied to the neural process of acquiring language. Although I don’t intend this article as a scientific survey course, Daniel J. Levitin’s fine book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession is a good and accessible introduction to the fascinating world of the neurobiology of music. Among other things, Levitin observes the neural basis of emotions aroused by music, connecting the roles of the cerebellum, amygdala and frontal lobe. The collaboration among these primitive and highly developed brain functions suggests the complex place of music in memory, cognition, emotion and even that critical student skill, executive function.

Other intriguing suggestions of the essential role of music come from the Duke University Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Among other things they have discovered is that the 12-tone intervals found in much of the world’s music are identical to the tonality in most human speech, across such linguistic ranges as English to Mandarin. This hints that music is embedded at some deep, perhaps pre-language stratum of the human condition. We ignore such hints at great peril.

Even more current and directly germane is a Northwestern University study published this year in Nature Neuroscience. This work provides substantial evidence that playing a musical instrument “significantly enhances the brainstem’s sensitivity to sound encoding skills.” Nina Kraus, the study’s senior author writes, “Our findings underscore the pervasive impact of musical training on neurological development.”

In the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Diego Minciacchi of the University of Florence provides an even broader endorsement. “Musical performance is the realm in which humans produce the most elaborate integration processes, involving perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and motor skills.”

Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug adds, “Music training might enhance spatial reasoning because music notation itself is spatial. Mathematical skills may well be enhanced by music learning because understanding rhythmic notation actually requires math-specific skills such as pattern recognition and an understanding of proportion, ratio, fractions, and subdivision…. Phonemic awareness skills may be improved by music training because both music and language processing require the ability to segment streams of sound into small perceptual units.”

We may be, certainly should be, on the cusp of a revolutionary time in education. Sophisticated techniques now open an incredible window into the biological basis of learning in and out of school. Decades-old philosophical convictions about learning through experience and the importance of the arts, as only two examples, are clearly affirmed by each new development in neurobiology.

There is a powerful irony apparent in this revolutionary time. Over the millennia human experience has been encoded in symbols and algorithms. So-called “academic work” has been increasingly mired in this representative world of symbols and algorithms. Children are being drawn (or forced) into this symbolic world at younger and younger ages, diligently focusing on decoding, calculating, memorizing and reiterating. The irony is most destructive in schools in the thrall of nonsensical public policy, which violates nearly all of what is now known about learning. The testing and accountability culture is guaranteed to leave more and more children behind.

Aside from the toxic psychological and emotional dangers of such practices, the greater sin is one of omission, as more and more schools abandon music, dance, field trips and joyful play in the service of this foolhardy pragmatism. While education becomes evermore sterile, groundbreaking neurobiological research points us back to the powerful human experiences that too many schools have abandoned. Research reaffirms that human development is, and always has been, rooted in rich sensory experience – smell, sound, movement, touching, and seeing and creating things of beauty.

Deep at the base of authentic human experience is music, that magical precursor of language, mathematics and love. From the limits of recorded human history to the breathtaking songs of warblers and whales, music may be the most universal and compelling form of expression – across time, species and experience. The thought that music is abandoned in schools is heartbreaking. It’s also just dumb.

If I had one bit of advice to anyone seeking a school for a child it would be, “Find a school where there is much singing, listening to and playing of music all day long, in and out of the classroom.” This advice is as valid for high school as it is for pre-kindergarten. It’s not bad advice for home either.

Far too many well-intentioned parents of young children are engaged in a daily battle of the wills, exhorting their children to do more homework and memorize more things for tests.

Relax! Pour a glass of red wine (for yourself), break out the dark chocolate (for you and the kids), sing with your children or listen to some good music. If the neighbors wonder what’s going on, tell them you’re preparing your kids for college. And you might live long enough to sing with your great-grandchildren, too.

This article first appeared in the Parents League Review. REPRINT © Parents League of New York