Music Education: What Students Want, What the Workforce Needs

Learning, Learning Innovations, PreK-12

By: Alexandra Eaton

“Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education, and children should be taught music before anything else….I would teach the children music, physics and philosophy, but the most important is music, for in the patterns of the arts are the keys to all learning.” Plato spoke these words more than two thousand years ago, and music has continued to be an irreplaceable core foundation in the development of students until very recently. Now, article after article discusses music education as an underdog field, losing ground to other subjects because of its supposedly “soft” nature. Media pits music and the arts against math and science: the fun versus the useful, the expressive versus the effective, the personal versus the professional, the expendable versus the critically important.

The problem is, this recent narrative is wrong, and a new Harris Poll shows that an increasing majority of Americans recognize this. Seventy-six percent of Americans say they participated in some form of music education in school. Nearly the same proportion said music education was important in teaching them to work toward common goals, strive for individual excellence in a group setting, have a disciplined approach to solving problems, problem-solve creatively, and stay flexible in work situations. The list of job skills goes on, but as companies increasingly request students ready for the “real world,” in which they must be creative, disciplined, and focused, it highlights the question of why music is no longer seen as the educational powerhouse it has been for millennia.

The discussion that music may be correlated to higher scores in other subjects has dominated much of the argument for music in recent years. Can this be tied to increased math scores? Are students more easily able to learn second languages with exposure to music? The list goes on. While researchers have found correlations to a range of benefits in other academic areas, the real question should be: If music can provide such a range of things for our future workforce, why is increasing a math score considered more important than increasing the ability to work with your coworkers and take on problems more effectively?

Fascinatingly, in the Harris poll we see that participation in music education seems to have increased, following a dip among Baby Boomers. Among millennials 80 percent said they experienced music education, up from 76 percent of Generation X, hardly the mark of a rapidly declining subject. Those who were most impacted by music education are often correlated with higher school attendance and income level. While it would be hard to assert that these people excelled based only on their exposure to music education, survey respondents did overwhelmingly say music education contributed to their sense of personal fulfillment. At what point does being happier, more confident, and more connected with your peers based on what you learned in a music classroom make you more successful?

This highlights the complicated interconnectivity that is at the heart of music, and especially its tie with math and science, which are often pitted as “the other side” of education from music. Luminaries like Plato, Newton, and Einstein viewed music as a second language based on mathematical relationships that require constant observation and reaction. The careful process of composing and performing a song mirrors the process of researching and developing a product or designing and performing an experiment—except that it also engages emotions, a trait that is the hallmark of good user-centric design for business. If our scientists, engineers, and researchers had all experienced engaging an audience in addition to the rigorous critical process both science and music demand, what kind of innovations would we have? Music, science, and math are each based on logical systems and reinforce and strengthen each other. The idea that they are polar opposites in a zero-sum educational war is not supported by research or even anecdotally.

Music taught for music’s sake has been known for thousands of years to unlock students’ potential and prepare them for excellence in their chosen disciplines, rather than viewed as an excess elective class offered to students who are already excelling, or a pipeline for a society of professional musicians. We need to return to the idea of the universality of music, and the importance of music study for all students. By changing the way the United States discusses music education and bringing it back to its central position in education, we will be offering the keys to learning that Plato so passionately described and Americans overwhelmingly recognize.

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Alexandra Eaton is a policy analyst and coordinator at the National Association for Music Education. Originally founded in 1907 NAfME  is now one of the largest arts education organizations in the world. Alexandra works to analyze and align federal education policy with research-based best practices to better meet the needs of students across the United States.

1 Comments

eugene cantera /

I wonder why music education doesn’t stand alone outside of academia like almost every other professional discipline. If more music educators banded together to create private facilities that reach all members of their communities as well as “the other 80%”, then perhaps we would have a profession that is more self reliant and healthy. Leaving all of our eggs in the El-Hi basket seems like an investment of negative returns with programs being cut faster than any new “studies” are released that say music makes us smarter in math. Perhaps if we taught future music educators to think more like entrepreneurs, we could create more music makers of all ages – that would be a win-win-win… for manufacturers, musicians, and educators as well.