In a society and era in which single-minded pursuit of academic grades and excellence usually precludes all co-curricular education, learning music is often regarded as an unnecessary luxury, even a waste of time.
In the overwhelming majority of K-12 schools across the country, students are highly focused on the academic domain. Therefore it’s important to correlate music learning and attainment to academic achievement. Students need to see music education as an enabler of academic success, not a distraction from it.
Fortunately, there’s a plethora of studies which demonstrate that music education correlates closely to academic and social success. High school students who play an instrument or sing consistently in a choir perform better in SAT, earn better grades, and receive more awards. One study even found that music majors are more likely to be admitted into medical school than biochemistry majors by 66 percent to 44.
The Mozart Effect, a much-publicised research study (1993), indicates that listening to some types of classical music produces a performance boost in the execution of certain tasks. While this particular phenomenon was blown out of proportion and erroneously publicised as “simply listening to classical music raises your IQ”, there is reputable research which validates verifiable causal relationships between music learning and high intelligence development.
Moreover, there’s a substantial body of evidence which indicates that music education delivered in the early years improves spatial-temporal intelligences which in turn boost maths learning skills. A 1994 University of California (Irvine) study found that a mere eight months of piano lessons improved preschoolers’ spatial reasoning intelligence by 46 percent. Likewise a University of Toronto study (2004) of six-year olds found that music lessons improved their overall IQ significantly above children who received drama or no performing arts lessons at all. Musical attainment has also been proven to improve brainstem sensitivity to speech sounds, which enhances language learning skills. In most cases, these findings hold true even when adjusted for a child’s socio-economic status.
Indeed, it should be self-evident that the study and learning of music develops discipline, coordination and self-confidence, as is true of any activity which requires focus and practice. Several studies also indicate that music practitioners derive actual health benefits. For instance, some studies focused on the elderly having found that involvement with music reduces depression, anxiety, and delays dementia.
Active involvement with music prompts healthy lifestyles. In 1998, the Texas Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that secondary students who were members of an orchestra or band had the lowest lifetime incidence of alcohol, tobacco and drugs use. Another study in 2002 found students who sign up for music classes are less likely to exhibit disruptive behaviour. A German study (2007) indicates that listening to or participating in music lowers the stress hormone cortisol and raises levels of immunoglobulin A which strengthens the immune system.
Although I have made passing references to several research studies and statistics, the truth is that I’ve only mentioned a fraction of research on the subject of the beneficial impact of music on learning attainment and the human psyche. What can’t be quantified as easily is the human import of making, playing and listening to music which bonds people together in a shared community experience.
As a high school senior, I was in a choir that performed the African-American spiritual, Precious Lord, Take My Hand. On the first page was a little note: “Dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr”. I’ll never forget the solo as it was sung by an African-American student. He had a nice enough voice, but it wasn’t the timbre of it that I remember; it was the symbolism. As I listened to the rendition, I connected it to what I had learned in history class, and in the recounted experiences of fellow black students. Like me, most of the choir was white, but we were able to experience a bit of black culture which would otherwise have remained an abstraction for us. Precisely 18 years later, a recently released UK study (http://www.psmag.com/culture/making-music-together-increases-kids-empathy-41627/) confirmed my experience: group music participation actually makes children more empathetic.
Currently in my school and its colourful diversity of a true international community, finding common ground is a challenge. But in our music rooms, we have an opportunity to engage in a community activity that is formative and bond-forging. We learn each other’s national anthems. Nepali children learn solfege (“Do Re Mi”) from the Koreans. American students learn Indian taal as rendered on a percussive instrument or sitar. In a very tangible way, music provides a medium through which students experience a world outside their own, for a fuller and integrated education experience.
(Abe Okie is an AP music theory teacher and choir director at the Woodstock School, Mussoorie)