YOUR KIDS SHOULD STUDY MUSIC. HERE’S WHY.
At this moment, the town of Northampton, MA is considering steep cuts to elective classes at the local high school in an effort to close an estimated $1.2 million budget gap. This would mean significant cuts to many arts programs at the school. I believe that this is a mistake. My area of expertise is music, so I will limit my comments to that subject, but I think a great deal of my commentary below applies to all of the arts and I believe that they ALL should be saved.
Your kids should study music. Here’s why:
It rewards long-term effort. No one who can play an instrument learns to do so overnight. If you play well, you have been playing a long time. In a society that is increasingly concerned with short-term solutions and increasingly attached to technology that satisfies its needs quickly, it is critical that students participate in activities that are highly rewarding, but only after a great deal of effort. There are few things stronger than the sense of self-worth that students who have practiced daily for months to tackle a difficult piece of music achieve. If you’ve ever seen a performing ensemble right after a great performance, then you’ve seen a group of students that is ready to take on the world. More importantly, they’re ready to put in the effort required to do it.
It rewards consistency. Students who make music every day are not just getting better at music. They are building habits that will serve them for a lifetime. They are learning that they cannot attack a problem sporadically and only when they feel motivated to do so. They learn one of life’s most important lessons: true motivation is not a desire to do something, but rather the willingness do it even when the desire has wained.
It’s good for the brain. As pianist and educator Christopher Fisher notes, a musical performance requires the use of aural, visual, and tactile faculties. In addition, memory and a variety of cognitive skills are required. In short, music turns on significant and disparate portions of the brain simultaneously. Executing a flawless performance of a piece of music requires an extremely well coordinated set of actions drawing on motor skills, memory, listening, reading, and responding instantly to external stimuli. In fact, Frank Fitzpatrick recently noted in the Healthy Living blog on the Huffington Post that “Recent studies show that long-term musical training and expert level performance are associated with enhanced features of the brain’s actual anatomy in both auditory and motor regions.” 
It is a positive outlet. Speaking pragmatically, students who are busy with activities have less opportunity to take risks. More importantly, students who are passionate about something — anything — tend to focus their energy on that thing. There are two things that kids have in abundance: energy and a desire for new experiences (and, in truth, we should all strive to stay that way). The passionate pursuit of music puts these traits to use in a productive way. In addition, students who care about something larger than themselves gain a perspective on life that tends to prevent reckless behavior. Studies show the significant positive effects that extracurricular arts activities have on school dropout rates. Mahoney and Cairns note that “Students who dropped out of school had participated in significantly fewer extracurricular activities at all grades, including several years prior to dropout. …At the high school level, …those who dropped out were more likely to have had no involvement in extracurricular arts (27 percent) than to have had arts involvement (7 percent).” 
It promotes teamwork. In fact, major corporations have recently begun to recognize the powerful and positive effect that music can have on group dynamics. Face the Music, an organization that specializes in music-based team-building exercises, has worked with the likes of Con Edison, GE Industrial Systems, Pfizer, and JP MorganChase. They deliver team-building workshops to major corporations that are designed around musical activities like songwriting and performance. Face the Music notes that music is an “interactive process that uses team development to bring people to the next level of engagement – out of their heads, out of the box, and into a more powerful place of participation.”  It brings people together while stimulating creative thinking.
It requires focused concentration. Simply listening to music attracts and holds the attention of listeners. In 2007, researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine showed that the act of listening to music stimulated areas of the brain associated with paying attention, memory, and prediction.  Compared to making music, listening is a relatively passive activity. The amount of attention and concentration necessary to execute a motor function that results in exactly the right note, played at exactly the right time, in tune, and with beautiful tone, is extraordinary. Training in music is an excellent way to increase the attention level of students who are growing up in a world full of hyper-stimulating technological distractions. 
It’s fun. At the risk of sounding naïve, I think it’s important to make joy a part of education. Students need to spend some time in school that brings them joy and a sense of satisfaction. They also need some classes that offer an escape from the stress of preparing for the next standardized test. Because music has significant cognitive and educational benefits, it is the perfect escape in the context of an educational environment. It’s a far better way to blow off steam during the school day than video games, social media, texting, television, or many of the far less desirable ways that students have been known to spend their time.
The resources and studies cited below are only a handful of the many studies that have shown the incredible cognitive and behavioral benefits that music imparts. However, perhaps the most important argument for training young musicians is this: if we don’t, there won’t be any. It is impossible to quantify the value of music in our lives and equally difficult to imagine a world without it. We should consider the measurable benefits of music in our schools, but we should never forget its intangible benefits, which are much more valuable and far-reaching. Should we deny our children’s souls the nourishment of the arts in the name of pragmatism? I believe we do so at our peril.
- For more on this, see http://www.gazettenet.com/news/townbytown/northampton/5193878-95/nhs-rally-budget-northampton, http://www.gazettenet.com/news/5229747-95/students-budget-nhs-rally, and http://www.wwlp.com/dpp/news/local/hampshire/hamp-students-rally-to-save-the-arts.
- Christopher Fisher. 2010. Teaching Piano in Groups. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Frank Fitzpatrick. 2013. “Why Music, Part 2B — Music and the Brain: Rhythm and Playing.” Huffpost Healthy Living. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-fitzpatrick/music-benefits_b_1959775.html. Accessed March 26, 2013.
- J.L. Mahoney and R.B. Cairns. 1997. “Do extracurricular activities protect against early school dropout?” Developmental Psychology, 33(2), 241-253.
- Face the Music Company Website. http://facethemusicblues.com/how-it-works. Accessed March 26, 2013.
- Devarajan Sridharan, Daniel J. Levitin, Chris H. Chafe, Jonathan Berger, and Vinod Menon. 2007. “Neural Dynamics of Event Segmentation in Music: Converging Evidence for Dissociable Ventral and Dorsal Networks.” Neuron 55(3), 521-532. A summary of this article’s findings is available at the News Releases page of the Stanford School of Medicine website: http://med.stanford.edu/news_releases/2007/july/music.html.
- For additional reading on this subject, see http://www.dana.org/news/publications/detail.aspx?id=10752, http://www.dana.org/news/publications/detail.aspx?id=11334, and http://www.dana.org/news/publications/detail.aspx?id=10762.