Published in the Delaware County Daily Times January 22, 2019
By Joseph Batory
One of the best ways to involve students and enrich their school experiences is with music education. How do I know this? Well, for 16 years at Upper Darby’s Superintendent of Schools, music was my secret and very successful educational weapon. I was blessed with a group of great teachers in Upper Darby who used music to help engage and motivate many thousands of students to be artistic, academic and disciplined in and out of classrooms.
Yet, when budget cutbacks are considered by school districts these days, music and art programs are often prime targets, as if these programs were somehow “frills.” But these attacks on music education are dead wrong.
Every civilization of any worth throughout history has recognized that music education involves important learning experiences for young people. It fosters student creativity, promotes effective communication and coordination of skills, instills commitment and self-discipline, forces persistence, and results in self-confidence.
Indeed, the scientific community has found an abundance of evidence suggesting favorable benefits of teaching music to students in the K-12 system. Multiple research studies have linked music education to overall academic achievement. Music creates pathways for students toward creative thinking and fosters other academic qualities: collaboration; the ability to concentrate and weave together disparate ideas; and, of course, diligence because instrumental and vocal prowess require hard work.
One ten-year study, which tracked over 25,000 middle and high school students, showed that students with music classes receive higher scores on standardized tests than students with little to no musical involvement. The musically involved students scored, on average, sixty-three points higher on the verbal section and forty-four points higher on the math sections of the SATs than non-music students.
Another study by Columbia University revealed that students who participate in the arts are often more cooperative with teachers and peers, have more self-confidence, and are better able to express themselves. And the social benefits of music education often continue throughout a student’s life.
Music education can also provide personal benefits to students that enrich student lives. In one recent study of the benefits of music, it was found that participating in a music ensemble enhanced feeling of self-achievement for the study’s participants, assisted individuals in overcoming challenges, built self-confidence, and raised determination to make more effort to meet group expectations regarding standards. In addition, group participation in music activities can assist in the development of leadership skills.
Yet another benefit of music education was cited by John Goodlad, one of America’s most brilliant researchers in education. Before his death in 2014, he stressed the “peculiar artificiality” of so much of what is taught in schools and how that “peculiar artificiality” often turns young people off. But in the case of music education, Goodlad emphasized that there is no “peculiar artificiality.” Music is something very real, easily pursuable by students, and ultimately captivating and engaging.
The relationship between music and language development is socially and intellectually advantageous to young children according to Dr. Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. The development of language over time tends to enhance parts of the brain that help process music. But Dr. Pruett also stresses that the primary value of musical education is in “music itself,” helping a young person to appreciate the joy of music and learn a life skill which is valuable on its own merit.
Daniel Pink’s best seller, A Whole New Mind, offers perhaps the most perceptive view of the value of music and other artistic pursuits.
Pink’s thesis is built around the functioning of the human brain. For years, scientists have pointed out that our brains have two regions, a left and a right hemisphere. The left side of the brain handles the factual, logical, linear, sequential and more rational abilities (typically measured by standardized tests); the right side of the brain favors abilities like artistry, creativity, empathy, synthesis and big picture thinking (not easily measured). It is not unusual to have either of these hemispheres dominating the way an individual analyzes and views the world. Of course, our brain’s wondrous workings can hardly be oversimplified, but there are in fact these two hemispheres that have tremendous potential to affect the brain’s functioning.
According to Pink, the “left brain” driven world was once the key to success for millions of Americans and numerous corporations. However, Pink argues that the exponentially emerging highly competitive economies of today’s world are changing that formula for business and individual success.
Pink notes that for the future, the abilities that matter most are in the right hemisphere of the brain, i.e., artistry, designing, innovation, inventing, and synthesizing are now the most valuable assets for career and life success.
In that context, music and art programs for students in public schools are all about the right side of the brain. Pupil involvement in music and art fosters creativity, encourages thinking out of the box, requires analysis and synthesis and decision making, enforces self-discipline, promotes critical assessment, creates self-discovery, and fosters vision and creativity.
Music is also blind. Whether students have disabilities or come from poverty or are average or intellectually gifted or have limited English proficiency matters not. In a marching band or an instrumental orchestra or a concert choir or an elementary music classroom, students from different income, racial, ethnic and academic backgrounds come together socially and create group magic.
Robert Marsh, the brilliant music critic of the Chicago Sun Times, before his death, perhaps offered this challenge: Schools must have music education! If necessary, we must fight to keep it. We must fight to get it adequately funded. Nothing less will do in the short and long term for our young people, for our nation and for our civilization.
Wynton Marsalis, the internationally acclaimed musician, composer and bandleader, and educator summarizes: Without music education programs in schools, public education loses its soul. And without music and the arts, American culture is threatened with dying from the inside.
Joseph Batory is a past superintendent of schools in the Upper Darby School District. He is the author of three books and numerous published articles on politics and education.