Wednesday, May 6, 2009

An Argument for the Importance of Music Education

I'm so proud of this paper, I'm sharing it with cyberspace. Sorry it's probably really boring though. :D

It’s a common sound at any school of music. As you pass the doors lining the hallways, a cacophony of noises fill the air; a myriad of instruments warming up before a concert band rehearsal, a soprano singing an Italian aria from inside a practice room, the glistening ivory keys of a grand piano being tickled by a potential future Chopin or Rachmaninoff. These college-level music majors are lucky—they made it. They come from a generation of students who were blessed to have exposure to a half-way decent music program while they were growing up. But many students are not so fortunate. All over the country, many of the music programs are being cut from public schools in favor of putting more money and resources into the mathematics and science programs. But what kind of effect could these cuts have on our students of today, and the adults they are shaping into for tomorrow?

While I agree that math and science are important to the education of our students, I feel that music is equally important to education and brain development. Some people even believe that our brains are pre-wired to learn about and listen to music. A University of Toronto psychologist, Sandra Trehub teaches babies who are between six and ten months old to listen to excerpts of music that are being repeated, and to react when they hear a change in the pattern. These experiments have shown that babies are, if nothing else, naturally drawn to music. These babies have abilities similar to adults in that they hear a tune as the same when it is only changed in key, however can immediately tell something isn’t quite right when they hear only a note or two changed. Trehub believes that by six months, it is possible babies have heard enough melodies to have “cultivated an ear for music.” But she adds that others studying this idea have seen the same abilities in newborns. She also states that “the babies she has tested don't prefer music that is specifically Western—the kind they are most likely to have heard. Instead, they seem to respond most strongly to scales and intervals found even in unfamiliar, non-Occidental music” (Appenzeller para. 7). Trehub’s belief is that we are born with a “musical brain” because music “provides a special communication channel between parent and child.” She indicates that lullabies are found in every culture, and parents have a habit of speaking to their infants in singsong, or musical baby talk. "Music is a child-caring tool,” she states (Appenzeller para. 8).

At a conference of the New York Academy of Sciences, Trehub, along with dozens of other scientists reported on the biological foundations of music. Besides the musical babies, there is much evidence suggesting that the human brain is, in fact, wired for music, and even that some forms of intelligence are enhanced by music. One major example is the fact that while people can only remember a few “snatches of prose,” we have the capability to remember dozens of tunes, and recognize many more. It is also proven that music affects the mind in powerful ways: “it incites passion, belligerence, serenity and fear,” (Begley para. 2) and does so even in people who do not have a great deal of understanding of music. Psychologist Isabelle Peretz of the University of Montreal states that, "All in all, the brain seems to be specialized for music” (Begley para. 2).

It has also been found that there is a link between learning music and success in mathematics. Last year Gordon Shaw, of the University of California compared three groups of second graders: 26 were given piano lessons and practice with a math video game, 29 received extra English lessons as well as the math game and 28 got no special lessons at all. After four months the piano kids were shown to have scored 15 to 41 percent higher on a test of ratios and fractions than the other kids in the study. This year, Shaw stated that the study of music could even help bridge a socioeconomic gap. He compared second graders in inner-city Los Angeles, California to fourth and fifth graders in Orange County, California. The second graders received twice-a-week piano training in school for a year, and after that year, were shown to have scored as well as the fourth graders, who did not have these lessons. Half of the second graders also scored as well as fifth graders who did not receive piano instruction either. (Begley)

However, some believe that this is a link only between music and math, not of music and any other subject. Although kids who receive music training often improve slightly across the board due to the enjoyment of school because of music lessons, psychologist Martin Gardiner of Brown University finds that, "they just shoot ahead in math. This can't be explained by social effects or attention alone. There is something specific about music and math” (Begley para. 5). This can be explained because music involves proportions, ratios, and sequences—all of which are studied with mathematics.

A research team led by Dr. Gottfried Schlaug of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston made another discovery of the link between music and the brain. The left and right hemispheres of the brain are connected by a thick cable of neurons called the corpus callosum. When the corpus callosum in 30 non-musicians was compared with the corpus callosum in 30 professional string and piano players, several differences were found. The front part of this neuron cable is larger in musicians than in non-musicians, especially if these musicians began their training in early childhood. The front of the corpus callosum connects the two sides of the prefrontal cortex, which is where planning and foresight occur, as well as connecting the two sides of the pre-motor cortex, where actions are thought through and planned out before being executed. "These connections are critical for coordinating fast, bi-manual movements," says Schlaug. The movements made by a concert pianist, perhaps? The right brain is linked to emotion, while the left is linked to cognition, and the enhanced connection between these two parts of the brain in musicians could explain why great musicians are not only masters of technique and execution but also of playing with great amounts of emotion (Begley).

In Daniel J. Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, he discusses in detail the processes each part of your brain goes through in musical activity. His simple summarization is this: “Musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about” (Levitin 85-86). According to him, “different aspects of the music are handled by different neural regions—the brain uses functional segregation for music processing, and employs a system of feature detectors whose job it is to analyze specific aspects of the musical signal, such as pitch, tempo, timbre, and so on” (Levitin 86). He goes on to say that “several different dimensions of a musical sound need to be analyzed—usually involving several quasi-independent neural processes—and they then need to be brought together to form a coherent representation of what we’re listening to” (Levitin 86). He explains how the simple act of listening to music is actually quite complicated, beginning in subcortical structures such as the brain stem and cerebellum, before moving to the auditory cortices on both sides of the brain. More and more processes begin to occur as we begin to try to do more with the music we’re hearing. Recalling music we know or recognize calls for the hippocampus, or memory center of the brain, while tapping along to a beat needs the timing circuits of the cerebellum. Not to mention the act of performing music, which calls for the frontal lobes for planning and execution, as well as the motor cortex for the movements needed, and the sensory cortex, which provides you the information needed to know if you have sung the correct note or pressed the correct key on your instrument. Reading music involves the visual cortex, located in the occipital lobe, while reading, recalling, or simply listening to lyrics involves the language centers of the brain. The emotions experienced in response to music are something in itself. These emotions invoke structures deep within the cerebellar vermis and amygdale, which is where the brunt of emotional processing takes place. All these multiple processes make Levitin’s statement very true: music really does involve almost every part of the brain (Levitin 86-87).

The many studies linking music and enhanced brain functions and capabilities should give school officials even more of an incentive to keep their music programs alive. However, this does not seem to be the case. Too many schools are concentrating on teaching to the test that they leave too little of the budget for music classes. In Canada, music programs are greatly suffering, according to Kenneth Whyte. At a candidates' debate for an Edmonton Public School Board election, a woman complained that graduating students were “inadequately prepared to take their places in an ever more demanding labour market,” and that too many resources and instruction time were “wasted on frills like music.” She also maintained that enough attention was not being paid to math and science, computers, and technology, which are considered to be “future keys to employability.” Everyone agreed that it was necessary that classroom time and education funds were used as wisely as possible. Wisely, meaning the elimination of music programs across Canada. Music has all but disappeared at both the elementary and the secondary levels in New Brunswick, while in southern Ontario twenty-one school boards have dumped the music coordinators who arrange instruction in the schools without the money or the staff to do it themselves. In fact, more than a hundred Ontario elementary schools are not fulfilling their music requirement due to a lack of funds. British Columbia has even cut its music teachers by about half. Much of the vacated space in the curriculum has been filled by additional science requirements, as well as career-directive or life skills courses, and work-experience projects. Music has completely fallen by the wayside. (Whyte)

While Whyte still agrees that math and science are important, he has changed his mind about the place of music in the educational system. He maintains that music is not only “one of the highest manifestations of human intelligence,” but that music is “the most scientific of the arts, relying for its best effects on mathematical knowledge of pitch and duration, the weights and measures of strings, the bore of pipe” (Whyte para. 6). Pythagoras, the first theoretician of music, considered it to be a mathematical discipline alongside subjects such as geometry, astronomy, and arithmetic. There is no reason why, then, that music should not be considered with the same importance as other subjects.

But not only is music scientific in nature, but it also provides children with experiences outside the confines of strict education. Music offers enjoyment and provides a chance for students to explore their emotions and is a sophisticated form of self-expression. Music is also an interesting way to learn the value of practice, discipline, and collaboration when performing with an ensemble. Whyte also makes the point that music permits us to look beyond just the short-term employment needs and instead to the long-term objectives of education. “And one of those objectives,” says Whyte, “must surely be to impart and preserve the riches of our cultural inheritance” (Whyte para. 10).

Things are not looking so bright for music education in America either. David Conrad, an Illinois teacher and middle school principal discusses the frustration of many of his public school music colleagues when it comes to the current situation that music is facing in our schools. Conrad says that in Illinois alone, school districts have been forced to cut fine arts funding and have even gone so far as to eliminate music and other fine arts programs altogether. The wealth and prosperity of the school districts in question made no difference; both poorer and richer districts have experienced these cuts. There are very few music programs that have been left untouched. Conrad’s own district has also faced these same problems. Within a span of two years, his school district was forced to cut one full-time staff position, eliminate beginning band instruction, and even cancel not only school musicals but two performing groups as well.

Conrad believes music programs are in trouble nationwide. He believes the problems lie mostly in funding, but also have to do with time and the focus of curriculum as well. A study by the National Commission on Excellence in Education revealed several problems within the American school system in a report released in 1983. Of the many problems facing our schools, the biggest seemed to be that American schoolchildren spend much less time in the classroom than children in other countries worldwide. This report, in turn, sparked many more reports and discussions about the potential for reform in our school systems. Music and fine arts were not excluded from these discussions. In 1988, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted its own study of fine arts education in American schools. It was found that music education in the United States was focused mainly on performance skills and ensembles, all the while disregarding actual musical understanding. In other words, music programs were focused on providing talent education for only a few children, instead of teaching understanding of music to all children. These reports ultimately brought about questions about the amount of time needed to provide a well-rounded education to our students, while sparking discussions about what music educators should actually be teaching. (Conrad)

With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), more commonly known as No Child Left Behind, music began facing yet another problem. This act required that all schools in all states test students in the concentrated areas of language arts, mathematics, and science. Most states already had tests in place for their students, but this law made school districts accountable if the test scores were not up to the high standards set by the federal government. If the score “benchmarks” were not met by a specific deadline, schools could face reduction or complete cancellation of federal funding, or in extreme cases, even school closure or the takeover of entire school districts. Under the pressure of these requirements, schools began to increase instruction time in the subjects with the highest testing accountability—math, science and language arts. This, in turn, reduced the amount of time available for subjects such as music and arts education. The result of this has ultimately been a “time assault on the subjects that are untested, subjects such as music, foreign languages, and the arts…Each of these disciplines has suffered massive cuts and, in some cases, elimination altogether.” Conrad states (para. 10). These massive cuts prompted a response, in a letter written by then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige in July 2004. He writes: “It's disturbing not just because arts programs are being diminished or eliminated, but because NCLB is being interpreted so narrowly as to be considered the reason for these actions. The truth is that NCLB included the arts as a core academic subject because of their importance to a child's education. No Child Left Behind expects teachers of the arts to be highly qualified, just as it does teachers of English, math, science, and history” (Conrad para. 11). His letter did next to nothing to help our music programs.

Carolyn Crowder is an Oklahoma music teacher as well as an executive committee member for the National Education Association. She tells Conrad in a personal interview: "Although NCLB actually includes the arts in its definition of core subjects, the law doesn't require testing in those areas. The law's focus on reading and math doesn't leave much time for students to be creative and develop a love for music and the arts in school.” She then goes on to say that "in times when school budgets are tight, fine arts programs are the first to be cut” (Conrad para. 13). It seems to be a Catch-22. By adding more time to the school year, (time that could be used for education in music and the arts) more funding will be required for salaries and other related expenses—funding that these schools don’t have. In order to receive the money needed, school districts are forced to make cuts, and as Crowder said, music programs will be the first to go.

Music programs are still fighting for their place in our nation’s school curriculum. There is also a battle ensuing over the actual content that should be taught within these music programs. The question is this: should music education be performance or understanding based? Any school with a music program offers performing ensemble classes such as band, orchestra and chorus. But there are not very many schools who offer specialized courses in areas such as music theory, history or appreciation. Dr. Charles Fowler, who is a noted arts educator and author, says that "when music education concentrates solely on performance, its educational potential is compromised and its impact is diluted” (Conrad para. 17). While music education based solely on performance may reach the few talented students able to afford lessons and instruments, this performance-based curriculum fails to reach everyone. Yet, some have found a way to “bridge the gap” between musical performance and understanding. Comprehensive musicianship is one way the two aspects of music education are beginning to come together. In this strategy, students are taught such musical aspects as theory, history and appreciation within the confines of a performing ensemble. Conrad gives an example of a comprehensive musicianship classroom using the work “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland. Of course you would expect that in preparation to perform the work, the teacher would rehearse the correct notes and rhythms with his ensemble. But according to Conrad, in the setting of a comprehensive musicianship class, students learn “beyond the notes on the page; they experience a deeper and richer understanding of music and its context. A history lesson might teach students about the relationship between the music and the historical context of the American frontier. Students also might write a reflective essay on how the chords and harmonies create an emotional impact in the work” (Conrad para. 20). With these extra looks into the inner workings of the music on their stands, the student musicians ultimately become better connected to the music they are playing.

In conclusion, Conrad poses a simple question: “why should music education exist?” The answer is simple, according to Carolyn Crowder. "Fine arts education - including music education - is fundamental for the social, intellectual, cognitive and emotional development of students” (Conrad para. 28).

Maybe being a music major myself, I am a bit biased. But I feel that by living in a world in which music is considered a frill, and not a fundamental aspect of education, our students are being seriously deprived. Deprived of the chance to explore parts of the brain only music can access, deprived of experiencing the mental, emotional and spiritual connection music can create, and deprived of the chance to express emotion in a creative and self-satisfying way. Personally, if not for music, I would not be the person I am today. So why not give our students the chance to discover who they are going to be as well? For some it may be that math and science are their forte, but for others, music may be the key to their success and happiness. So let’s not decide their futures for them. Keep music in our schools and let them decide for themselves.



Works Cited

Appenzeller, Tim. "The musical mind.(the brain and music)(Brief Article)." U.S. News & World
Report 131.6 (August 13, 2001): 40. . Gale. Jamestown Community College - SUNY. 1
May. 2009 .

Begley, Sharon. "Music on the Mind: Scientists are finding that the human brain is pre-wired for
music. Could this sublime expression of culture be as much about biology as art?(Science & Technology)." Newsweek (July 24, 2000): 50. . Gale. Jamestown Community College - SUNY. 1 May. 2009 .
Conrad, David. "American Music Education: A Struggle for Time and Curriculum. " Phi Kappa
Phi Forum 86.4 (2006): 31-34. Platinum Periodicals. ProQuest. Jamestown Community College - SUNY. 1 May. 2009 http://www.proquest.com/

Levitin, Daniel J.. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York:
Plume; Penguin Group, 2006. Print.

Whyte, Kenneth. "Why Johnny can't sing: because he's being taught a lot of things less important than music.(Editorial)." Saturday Night 111.n5 (June 1996): 13(2). . Gale. Jamestown Community College - SUNY. 1 May. 2009 .

EDIT: I got my paper back today--I got an A+. :D Her comments at the end were simple. "Beautiful." ahhh hahaha I was so happy. :D

2 comments:

Jess said...

*re-types comment that was lost when the computer crashed...again* :)

Great paper! You have a right to be proud of it. Wish I could write like that!

And now, I have an excuse for the next time I have trouble learning a song...I will tell my piano teacher that music involves my entire brain and that is is a very complicated process, and if he doesn't believe me I will tell him to read your paper! :)

Allyson Rae said...

@Jess - Thanks! :)

It's a pretty good excuse, if I do say so myself. ;)