Quite some time ago now I wrote a piece titled “Unconvincing Arguments for Music Education” in response to an article in the Australian press arguing for mandatory music education in Australian schools.
At first glance this heading may have suggested I believed either music education was not a valuable aspect of a child’s development, or that music education should not be included in the mandated curriculum. Quite the reverse, in fact, on both counts; but the arguments for why music education is important need to be more than a simple assertion that music education is a Good Thing, that it Improves Society and Civilises Citizens, and that we would be All the Poorer Without It. This contribution just doesn’t cut it in the kind of evidence-based, best-practice world we inhabit these days.
With curricula and education practice endorsed and mandated in most part through the political system, it is vital that music educators stop arguing the value of music education through the lens of their own experience, and start being part of a debate that is mostly decided by people without a first hand knowledge of the impact music makes in the life of a child.
So, what are the convincing arguments, if any, for music education?
Firstly, the research showing links between playing a musical instrument and heightened intelligence is now quite solid. But this research has been much misrepresented over the past fifteen or so years, with some researchers claiming that simply listening to music will increase an IQ score. Wrong. (Or at least, dodgy and unsubstantiated.) If you do want to gain an intelligence advantage through music you need to actually be playing the music yourself, and if you don’t keep practicing your skill you will lose those extra IQ points.
Learning to play a musical instrument will make you smarter (even if just a little).
Secondly, the emotional impact of music has been much played down by music academics (particularly in the middle to late twentieth century) as if admitting to an emotional aspect in what one studies will in some way make it less academic, less valuable!
Music has some neurological functions that make it the most direct means of communicating nuanced emotional content, certainly much more straightforward than spoken language (and obviously way ahead of emails and texting). Learning how to create music, to enact musical gestures, is a means of educating students about their own emotional life (how to understand it, how to deal with it), as well as connecting to the emotional lives of others.
Music education is a powerful tool in developing emotional (and not simply academic or intellectual) maturity in children and teenagers, and provides a means for them to communicate and process complex emotional realities.
Thirdly, sociologists have demonstrated repeatedly the role of music in identity formation in childhood then especially in adolescence, and also throughout adulthood. This comes about in part due to the emotional content of music; we ‘relate’ to what music communicates and we experience music as narrating our own internal emotional responses to the world and the people in it.
In addition, humans have a response to music that is really quite extraordinary – we move in time to it. We feel the beat and the pulse in the music and we sing in time with each other, we jump up and down in mosh pits together, we sway, we march, we tap our toes. Listening to music is something that creates a feeling of belonging to a community, and this is another aspect of music that is at work in identity formation. Finding ourselves literally moved by music in the same way that others are we then recognise further commonalities by which we can define ourselves.
Not only do we find music expresses who we feel ourselves to be as individuals, but it expresses how we connect as groups and communities.
Music education helps children and adolescents know who they are and feel that they belong.
Finally, being involved in music performances is often cited as a turning point in a child’s awareness of what they might ask of themselves, and in their belief in what they can accomplish. Students are known to improve their performance across the spectrum of their educational contexts once they begin to believe that they are capable of excellence, and music performance is often the context in which students’ self-belief is boosted.
I have not seen any research on exactly which aspects of performance manage to flick the switch from shy to assertive in children, but many a time a child is transformed through the experience of performing music. And it is an exceptionally powerful moment when the child begins to believe that the extraordinary is possible.
Once that moment has been experienced there is no going back. These children will be less afraid of tackling new tasks, of participating in a public forum. And these children will be more likely to sign up for new learning experiences, consequently increasing their chances of learning even more.
Music education can develop children who believe in themselves, and who actively seek new challenges.
These reasons listed above are sound reasons for the mandatory inclusion of music in the education curriculum for every child. Each of the benefits is one that contributes to a happier community and a more engaged citizenry. I hesitate to suggest commercial benefits, but from a brazenly economic rationalist point of view one would think that these benefits are highly desirable.
And these arguments are convincing – so long as the person you are talking to has either experienced first hand what music can do, or actually takes seriously the research and evidence that backs up these claims. And in the 21st century even though you can’t count on policy makers to be part of the first group, they have no excuse for not belonging to the second.