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Making the Case for Music Education

What will it be -- music or more software? In some communities, it all comes down to that question. New research, special programs, and dedicated teachers and community members are helping to make a solid case for putting music "Bach" into our schools!

Once considered dispensable, music education is back on the agenda at school board meetings in many communities. Community and board members are taking a stand, fighting to reinstate music programs cut from school budgets over the last decade.

But why the sudden about-face?

The highly publicized results of several recent studies are one factor in the push to reinstate music education:

  • Early this decade, Gordon Shaw (University of California-Irvine) and Frances Rauscher (University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh) incited discussion of the connection between music and learning when they revealed the results of their work with college students. The researchers found that listening to 10 minutes of a Mozart piano sonata improved students' abilities to perform some spatial-reasoning tasks (for example, to see patterns in objects or numbers). While the benefits faded quickly after the music was stopped, that research opened the door to a follow-up study with preschool children.
  • In the follow-up study, 78 preschoolers were given tests designed to measure spatial abilities. Then a fourth of those students then were given a 12-15 minute private piano lesson each week for six months. At the end of that period, the tests were administered again. The results confirmed the impact of music instruction on students' spatial-reasoning skills. On one test that required students to assemble a puzzle of a camel, the students who received piano instruction show significantly more improvement than the other children did.
  • In another study, published by Martin Gardiner (currently at Brown University's Center for the Study of Human Development) in the May 1996 issue of the journal Nature, groups of first graders were given music instruction that emphasized sequential skill development and musical games involving rhythm and pitch. After six months, the students scored significantly better in math than students in groups that received traditional music instruction. (Reading scores for the two groups didn't show marked differences.) Follow-up studies with different groups of students showed similar results.

Music training conditions the brain to do tasks similar to those it has to do when working on math problems, Gardiner told Teacher magazine last May. "In the case of singing on pitch, pitch has a pitch line of its own," he explained. "'Do' is less than 're.' And 're' is less than 'mi.'" Developing skills such as those can help students understand mathematical concepts such as number lines.

Additional studies with adults highlight the benefits to music instruction. For example, researchers using magnetic brain imaging technology at the University of Munster in Germany found that the auditory cortex of the brain (the area where sound is processed) can be as much as 25 percent larger in musicians than in those who have no musical training.

At a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Dr. Lawrence Parsons (University of Texas-San Antonio) shared results of his research which employed magnetic imaging technology to examine the brains of expert musicians. The research showed more clearly than ever that significantly more of the brain is used during music making than previously thought.

"Music is represented in mechanisms widely distributed throughout the brain rather than localized in a single region as are other kinds of information, such as visual or movement information," Parsons reported.


After years of cutbacks, music is making a comeback in many schools.

Gary Wolfman, director of the Appleton (Wisconsin) High School-North's orchestra, promotes the benefits of music to his school community in any way he can. Buried in the back of the program for a recent concert, Wolfman summarized some of the recent brain research related to music.


The National Association for Music Education offers support to music educators and concerned community members on its Web page, including the organization's Advocacy Information page. Among the tools offered are articles about the latest research and a practical guide and form letters for building support for music education. "Even if your music program is in great shape, you must build and maintain a base of support," MENC advises. "Do this by offering your students the broadest and best music education possible, and by letting the public, parents, and administration know about it."

  • "Try to develop a program that involves as many students as possible -- performers and non-performers.
  • "Be sure your students and parents understand the importance of music education and the lifelong knowledge and skills your students are gaining. Use a variety of means to do this, including providing information at performances, at meetings of parents, and through the media.
  • "Be sure that your school and district administrators and your school board members understand the value of your program. Invite them to attend your programs, to visit classes, to open concerts, and to present student awards. Also, provide them with reports at least once a year on the needs, goals, and values of the music program.
  • "Write thank you notes to decision-makers for their support. Ask students and parents to do the same.
  • "Make sure that the purpose of music instruction in your schools is expressed in terms of its value to the students. Support for music suffers if the program is seen as ego gratification for the teachers."

If you're looking for additional ammunition for stating your case, the Music Education Online Web site offers The Value of Music Education (scroll down the page for text). Among the reasons you'll find there are

  • Music contributes to the school and community quality of life.
  • Music promotes use of higher-order thinking skills.
  • Music is a way to understand our cultural heritage as well as other past and present cultures.
  • Music contributes to sensitivity ("feeling intelligence").
  • Music education promotes motor development.
  • Music encourages teamwork and cohesiveness.
  • Music fosters creativity and individuality.
  • Music education fosters discipline and commitment.
  • Music is a therapeutic outlet for human beings.
  • Music is a predictor of success in life.


A fair amount of recent research supports the value of music as part of a well-rounded education. But the studies are admittedly few. Much remains to be learned about the connection between music and learning.

But will music education survive, and thrive? The answer to that question rests with the members of each and every community. The signs are good -- if the results of a Gallup Poll of American attitudes toward music (published on the American Music Conference Web site) are any indication. In that poll

  • nine out of ten Americans agreed that music is part of a well-rounded education;
  • 95 percent said music should be part of a well-rounded education;
  • 93 percent agreed that schools should offer instrumental music instruction as part of the regular curriculum and 78 percent felt music education should be mandated.

It's "opening night" in a great new debate. Will music education get the standing ovation it deserves?


Support Music
A public service of the Music Education Coalition, this page offers tips to help parents make a case for music -- no matter what argument a local district board might be using to force cutbacks.

Music Makes You Smarter
Research findings, articles, and Web links to information about the value of music education.

Articles on the Importance of Music Education
A compilation of recent press reports relating to the value of music education.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 03/01/2003
Last updated 03/09/2015