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Stop Advocating Music Education for the Wrong Reasons

I’m going to rant for a little bit about a trend that I see among music educators that needs to stop, for the good of our art.

As you might expect, my personal Facebook account is linked to those of many who are strong advocates of music education. Some are former undergraduate classmates who have since joined the public education establishment; others are not professional educators, but for whatever their personal reasons, are believers in the value of school music programs. I know this, because nary a week goes by without my feed containing some glurgy reposted content urging the reader to (somehow) support music education.

I don’t see any inherent evil in this practice. I fully agree that music education is vital to a child’s development, and (perhaps more importantly, but unfortunately not as hot of a topic) just as vital to an adult’s continued cultural awareness. What I do object to are the statements made in support of music education, most notably that it helps a student perform better in other subjects like math and science, that it increases SAT scores…the list goes on. Several lists, in fact, all quite accessible through a Google search for “benefits of music education.”

At first, these sources appear to make a compelling case for music education. Why wouldn’t we want our kids to enjoy the benefits that music purportedly offers? What kind of objection could I possibly have to statements that so strongly legitimatize my chosen livelihood?

I find two problems with this strategy of advocacy: First, many of the facts raised in support of music education are of suspicious veracity; and second, advocating music as supportive of other class subjects distracts from better reasons to support music programs.

How Many Facts Supporting Music Education are Based on Good Science?

A cursory inspection of the top search results for “benefits of music education” reveals a plethora of sites reposting a handful of lists, which themselves overlap in content, and are mostly void of any substantive citations. Some lists that are accompanied by sources only link to other articles that lack credibility. The National Association for Music Education’s article on the subject is a reprint of an article at bachelorsdegree.org, which supports its list items one at a time with links to other sites that are themselves advocacy sites; and sometimes the links are irrelevant or broken (the header “Kids Stay Engaged at School” links to the front page of my private lesson agency, takelessons.com).

Several facts, like those claiming a correlation between the study of music and metrics like academic achievement and graduation rates, and even less consequential metrics like substance use, bear the red flag of correlation without causation. For example, the article “11 Facts About Music Education” at dosomething.org claims that schools with music programs (which I suppose is probably most schools) have a higher graduation rate. No information is supplied that would assuage suspicions that a higher graduation rate might not be caused by the presence of a music program, but that both a high graduation rate and the presence of a music program are both the result of better funding, or the location of a school in a community of more supportive families. This is critical thinking 101, a truly underrepresented subject in any given school (and something I learned with no help from my music classes).

Other proclaimed benefits of music education are not unique to the subject, like claims on the NAFME’s website that music aids with memorization skills, helps students to learn to improve their work and stay engaged at school, and learn better pattern recognition. These and several other benefits in their 20-point list are redundant; one can enjoy these benefits by studying just about any academic subject. Some points bear the impression of being mere brainstorms, and not a reporting of empirically observed phenomena — “Music can be relaxing,” for instance.

Some claims are based on something resembling junk science, such as the assertion that music enhances “spatial reasoning” (a computer science term; do they mean “spatial intelligence?”). This is clearly inspired by Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, which is in dispute among psychologists. There is occasional mention of left brain development, appealing to the pop psychology notion of brain hemispheres controlling different types of thought, which is at best an oversimplification of how the brain works.

Surely I do not deny that students who study music tend to be more cognitively well-developed, socially well-adjusted, and successful. There are mountains of evidence supporting these correlations. But this once again raises the problem of causation. Isn’t it probable that students’ involvement in music is the product of their being more ambitious individuals?

There Are Better Reasons to Support Music Programs in Schools.

If you convince a school board to save a music program because it helps students perform better in science and math, you have only applied a bandage to the problem. The question of its value will be raised again with every budget proposal. Couldn’t we produce more scientifically literate students by expanding existing science and math programs? What happens when language teachers, coaches, and home economics teachers make a case for their programs by citing similar benefits? Music programs should be able to stand on their own merit. If you attempt to garner support for music education because of its impact on a student’s performance in other subjects, you are diminishing the inherent value of music itself.

I want every music teacher to ask themselves, “Why really do I think it’s so important that kids learn to play music?” Can you express your answer in a statement that conveys its importance to someone who isn’t already passionate about music? Can you give a reason that music is important that cannot also be applied to athletics or visual arts? If you haven’t given it that much thought, how can you advocate music education without parroting dubious claims and touchy-feely aphorisms?

Your real answer is going to be personal. But I’ll try to express my thoughts on the importance of music:

I have often quipped about how my Music Theory degree is masturbatory. “Music Theorists,” I have said, “exist to train other Music Theorists.” As a fan of science, I hold in great respect those who study much longer and harder than any musician, or pretty much anyone for that matter, to better understand things about our universe that, even when explained, elude a lay person’s understanding. Their pursuits are likely to have a greater direct impact on the very long-term future of humanity than the study of, say, finance, law, human resources…things that most working folk have chosen as their path. And here I am, a musician. How indulgent of me. I peddle knowledge in a field that, for all its artistic high points, is, in the most abstract way of looking at it, entertainment. A team of researchers in biology or nanotechnology could be working on something today that in a hundred years could extend our life expectancy, or eradicate a disease. In a century, my work will be forgotten. Even the great music artists of the past whose memories remain in the public consciousness are relevant only as options in an ever-expanding myriad of selections for performance and listening enjoyment. We cannot discover more about Beethoven that will save a life.

But what happens when we broaden our thinking about humankind’s future to include not centuries beyond today, not millennia, but an expanse of time that will ultimately include our extinction? Even the greatest achievements of science will not save us from the end of the universe. If you think big enough, everything on the scale of human achievement becomes insignificant.

This places all pursuits — biology, computer technology, music, drama, civil engineering, stamp collecting, sex, dog grooming, you name it — on the same level of significance with regards to our future as a species. Taking that into account, the single most significant measure of a profession’s importance is how much it enhances our lives today.

In a forgettable romantic comedy starring Brendan Fraser, his naive character says that his parents taught him that good manners means making other people comfortable. For all the film’s faults, this statement remains with me, and I’d like to take it a step further: I posit that any human activity is important if it improves the quality of life for humans.

Any human activity is important if it improves the quality of life for humans.

That is the only reason you need to learn and teach music. We study science, math, physical fitness, language arts, sociology, everything…because it can only help us to be better able to make our fellow humans more comfortable with their lives, through better communication, improved health, more helpful technology, more just government, and yes, entertainment.

Entertainment is not a bad word. Video gamers are using the same rhetoric as musicians to advocate their interests, hoping to avoid a resurgence in anti-gaming paranoia like that of the 1980’s: Gaming helps develop problem solving skills, hand/eye coordination, and so on. But dash it all; entertainment is something that makes lives better, and that’s all that matters. During his “Inside the Actor’s Studio” interview, Mike Myers said he doesn’t believe in a distinction between high and low humor; if drinking poop makes a good joke, then so be it. Likewise, musicians who insist on a demarcation between “art” and “entertainment” need to check their elitism.

Yet we can improve the quality of our entertainment. In a society where one American Idol panelist is utterly baffled and even dismissive of Harry Connick Jr’s attempt to criticize a contestant using (not even challenging) terms associated with music theory, we could stand to raise the bar.

And that’s why we need music education.

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