Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education

Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education

The Report of The National Commission on Music Education
March 1991

(an excerpt)
MENC copyright 1991
ISBN 0-940-796-89-9

III: Education with Music

I’ll tell you about a class I had…music appreciation. I didn’t really think of it as a class, I thought of it as the period where we went and sang songs. We were learning that English precisely presents a writer’s thoughts and feelings, that songs are a form of communication. We were learning history [through] the songs of the nation…. [It was] better than any other history class in my life. We were learning math, discovering the relationships between parts, and that composition followed mathematical rules. And we were learning to listen; if you don’t listen you can’t learn. This music appreciation connected my entire studies.
Don Schlitz, Songwriter, Testimony to the Commission, Nashville (November 14, 1990)

What is true of all the arts is supremely true of music. When a child studies music, significant elements of his or her education find focus and expression:

developing the ability to understand and use symbols in new contexts;
discovering the power, precision, and control of mathematics in unexpected ways;
finding and directing personal creativity;
exercising the diverse skills of problem-solving;
experiencing the joy of self-expression;
growing into the liberation acquired through self-discipline; and
participating in the deeply human satisfaction of shared work and the gratification of challenges met.

In addition to these characteristics fundamental to education, music shares with the other arts a resource that is of paramount importance to the education of the young: Music is a highway for exploring the emotional and aesthetic dimensions of experience. Indeed, here is where music and the other arts make their unique and most visible contribution.  Education without music shortchanges our children and their futures. Education with music offers exciting possibilities in two directions. As we look to the future, educational research on the nature of intelligence and brain function give promising indications that could change the face of education. And as we look around us in the present, we see connections between music education and changes in students that offer direct and immediate benefits, not only to them, but to the educational enterprise as a whole.

A Rationale for Music Education

Why should music be included as a basic part of the curriculum?

1.Music is worth knowing.
2.Music is one of the most important manifestations of our cultural heritage. Children need to know about Beethoven and Louis Armstrong as well as about Newton and Einstein.
3.Music is a potential in every individual that, like all potential, should be developed to its fullest.
4.Music provides an outlet for creativity, self-expression, and individual uniqueness. It enables us to express our noblest thoughts and feelings.
5.Music teaches students about unique aspects of their relationships with other human beings and with the world around them, in their own and other cultures.
6.Music opens avenues of success for students who may have problems in other areas of the curriculum and opens approaches to learning that can be applied in other contexts.
7.Studying music increases the satisfaction students derive from music by sharpening sensitivity, raising their level of appreciation, and expanding their musical horizons.
8. Music is one of the most powerful and profound symbol systems that exists.
9.Music helps students learn a significant lesson–that not all aspects of life are quantifiable.
10.Music exalts the human spirit.

Adapted from The School Music Program: Description and Standards,
Music Educators National Conference, 2nd ed., 1987

Looking to the Future: Musical Intelligence

After nearly a decade of experience with the educational reform movement, policy makers are beginning to confront a disappointing truth: In terms of improving student achievement, not much has changed. We believe a new possibility is worth exploring. If music and the other arts were brought from the educational periphery to the core of learning, they could make a significant contribution to a more effective solution.  Music is beginning to be understood as a form of intelligence, not merely as a manifestation of it. The idea that intelligence is a single, monolithic entity of characteristic has been seriously questioned by many leading researchers and educators. Led by the provocative work of Howard Gardner, researchers and educators are moving toward a theory of “multiple intelligences,” any or all of which can be developed.  By “intelligence” Gardner means something like a distinguishable ability to solve and create different kinds of problems. His research identifies seven basic, different intelligences: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intra-personal (intelligence about one’s own feeling life), inter-personal (intelligence about human interactions, temperaments, and motivations). Everyone has some capabilities in each of these; some intelligences are more dominant in some individuals than in others. Researchers continue to test the theory and work out the details, but Gardner’s work helps us understand many aspects of learning and intelligence in a new and useful way.  Gardner’s ideas are significant for the relationship of music education to general education. Since music is, for some learners, a powerful way of knowing, it can become, for teachers, a way of teaching. When important ideas, information, and ways of thinking can be approached through the strategies and structures provided by music, learning can be reinforced.

As the “way of knowing” present in musical intelligence is understood more comprehensively and applied to other kinds of learning tasks, music and music education may also hold the potential for tapping into underdeveloped abilities. In short, music may help children learn more, and more readily, beyond the limited contexts in which their musical intelligence is generally put to use. Gardner and his colleagues may have come up with a powerful, new argument for placing and keeping music at the core of the curriculum.  Gardner’s work offers us a new source of understanding from which to work. It is worth noting, however, that at best, <i>our educational system works diligently and systematically at developing only two of the seven intelligences </i>he identifies, the linguistic and the logical-mathematical. The other five are left to fend for themselves or find their nurture in the general culture. Little wonder that American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker, a Commission member, has argued publicly that, at most, our schools do a good job with only 10 percent of our students. How could they do better when entire realms of individual human potential are slighted in the approach our schools take to education?

A ” Window in the Brain.” Among the most fascinating witnesses heard by the Commission at its Los Angeles forum was Dr. Gordon Shaw, a physicist and brain researcher at the University of California-Irvine. According to Shaw, the 1990s will be the “decade of the brain.” His own research focus is opening fruitful avenues into how the brain functions.

Shaw’s work has led him to posit that when the brain does certain tasks related to learning and memory, it reflects a structure that is, for all intents and purposes, “musical” in its form, shape, and timing. Using music, Shaw believes, we can examine higher creative and learning functions in new and potentially more productive ways.  Other sci
entists studying the brain report equally suggestive results, e.g., that the nature of music may have its roots in Nature itself. Richard Voss at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Center has found that nearly all music shares a simple mathematical formulation that expresses how notes change in pitch over the course of a musical work. This same mathematical relationship is found in a wide variety of other natural patterns, including the changes in the electrical patterns of brain cells, the fluctuations of sunspots, and the growth of tree rings. The same mathematical formula that characterizes the ebb and flow of music exists widely in Nature, from the flow of the Nile to the beating of the human heart, to the wobbling of the earth on its axis. Voss’s research reminds us of the ancient philosophers, who claimed that music is in harmony with the Cosmos itself. We are, it seems, “built” to learn, and where music offers a structural analogue to the learning process, it can and should be tapped into at the earliest possible age and used to the greatest possible extent. To ignore the significance of that for pedagogy would not only be foolish, it would be tragic.

Although the implications of these research results are still conjectural, if these investigations bear fruit, the possibilities for how we teach and learn are as exciting as they are profound. It is worth remembering that it has only been within the past generation that “left-brain/right-brain” discussion became commonplace in education, to the growing benefit of both instructional strategy and curriculum development. The consequences of denying the right brain’s role in education was aptly pointed out to the Commission by music student Shirley Joo in Chicago, who likened it to “trying to climb a ladder with one leg.”

Looking to the Present: Benefits to Students and All of Education. Beyond its intrinsic value, music education also opens the door to a number of utilitarian benefits. But a caveat is in order.
It would be enormously useful–but simplistic–to claim that music causes the benefits, e.g., self-esteem and self-discipline, with which it is so often associated by astute observers of children. From a strictly scientific point of view, however, such results have not been well demonstrated, for two reasons. One has to do with logic. Just because we can construct an association between two things does not mean that one produces the other (the rooster’s crowing does not cause the sun to come up). The second reason is practical: While there is plenty of evidence that children who do well in music tend to do well at other things, it would take many studies with strict controls to demonstrate that the study of music alone produces these desired results.

The Impact of Music at an Early Age. Nevertheless, where science cannot supply universal confidence, many studies are still instructive for understanding the impact of music education–especially at an early age. It is already abundantly clear, for instance, from the work done using the Orff, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Kodály methods of musical instruction–in this country and in Japan, Hungary, and elsewhere–that the musicality of preschool children can be translated into performance skills.

A Teacher’s Testimony

I have found, during my 18 years of teaching, that music students tend to score better on tests, have better communication skills, and are better disciplined students. They tend to be more prepared for the work force and are more readily hired by businesses. I have also seen several instances where music kept a student in school who would have otherwise dropped out. Jo Ann Hood, Music Teacher, Nashville Forum

Reaching beyond music performance to other areas of learning, significant work has been done in Australia, where researchers have demonstrated statistically significant relationships between music instruction and positive performance in such areas as:

reading comprehension, spelling, mathematics, and learning ability;
listening ability;
primary mental abilities (verbal, perceptual, number, and spatial); and motor proficiency.

Begin Music Education at an Early Age

Commissioner Harold Smith (President, Baldwin Piano & Organ Co.): There’s a number floating around in the music industry, that from 80-85 percent of the young parents are not interested in music. How do we go about convincing these parents that music can help their children excel in their basic education?

Joe Giles (Director, Arts Education, Tennessee Education Association): I think we’re seeing every year, as research is done, the importance of starting arts education at a very, very early level. [But] we are not going to be able to convince them by experience. Music education needs to begin not just at the kindergarten level, but before. Extensive research by such people as Edwin Gordon of Temple University has shown that it is at this early point in a young person’s life that [music] can really make a difference. I think as parents see that, we’re going to have a greater impact.

Testimony at the Nashville Forum

Similarly, in this country, K-1 music instruction programs in the schools sponsored by Yamaha have been associated with remarkable achievement in reading. One study of the effects of the Yamaha program in the Downey, California Unified School District showed, for example, that the reading level of first-grade students with a single year of music was nearly one grade higher than their peers; those with two years of music scored at almost the third-grade level; and some students scored as high as fourth- and fifth-grade levels.

Early childhood exposure to music and music education can also have a significant impact on early child development. Dr. Frank R. Wilson, a neurologist and member of the Commission, together with music professor Franz Roehmann of the University of Colorado, organized an international conference on music and child development in 1987. One of the conclusions emerging from the conference was that “music has a profound influence on language [and] social and emotional maturation in children, beginning in infancy.” Edwin Gordon, at Temple University, has found that the earlier and more varied a child’s music experiences, the greater the prospects for growth and development in music. Wilson also notes that ‘as contemporary neurophysiology and psychomotor research discover more about the rhythmic organization of movement, it is likely that musical experience will be shown to have important effects on motor skills development as well.”

But we need not pile up scientific studies to show the nonmusical benefits of music education. Common sense lends support to the belief that music and music education foster a number of nonmusical factors important for success in school and life. Three areas are important here:

1. developmental goals such as self-esteem, self-discipline, and individual creativity;
2. the development of important academic and personal skills; and
3. the contributions of music to other areas of study, particularly to their integration.

Music and Developmental Goals. Testimony from the music education community, as well as the verification of parents, teachers, and other adults, is almost universal in insisting that involvement in music powerfully encourages self-esteem, self-expression, creativity, and self-discipline.

Speaking to the Commission’s Los Angeles forum, parent Pat Abicare reported seeing “first-hand” that “music and the other arts enable our students to build self-confidence through their ability to develop creativity and to find their freedom of expression.” To enable her son to experience that, she was sending him to a school that was an 80-mile round-trip commute by school bus. Such stores are legion.

That music education contributes to these important developmental goals should come as no surprise. Correl
ations between successful performance and self-esteem, self-expression, and self-discipline exist in fields of endeavor that stretch across the curriculum and across life itself. When a child succeeds at such complex tasks as playing an instrument or singing in a chorus, self-esteem is enhanced.

When my children were learning music in school, they had to learn other things; to sit still, to listen, to pay attention, to concentrate. With music you don’t learn just music; you learn many things.
Jackie Richmond, parent, Chicago Forum

When a child learns, by experience, that music forges direct links between self and world, self-expression becomes more fluent; the music helps interpret “who I am.” The child who is taught how to create music is also learning something significant about his or her innate creativity. As a child begins to understand the connection between hours of practice and the quality of a performance, self-discipline becomes self-reinforcing. It is only a short jump from that realization to making the connection between self-discipline and performance in life.

Marion Etzel, a teacher educator at the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University, spoke directly to the importance of music education among at-risk students at the Commission’s Chicago forum. She reported that in the Chicago schools, where the overall school retention rate is 50 percent, one inner-city Hispanic school was able to boast a 95 percent retention rate, attributing its success in no small measure to its comprehensive music program.

It would be simplistic, of course, to suggest that music programs alone are the answer to significant educational and social problems among many of our youth. But it would be just as foolish to discount music education’s contributions to finding solutions in these areas. Music is one of the few areas of study available to children that can bring such a diversity of positive factors together in the same classroom.

At perhaps no other time have music and arts education been more important. Apart from their obvious benefits, music and the other arts produce critical thinkers, people who are decision makers. In the information age, our company needs people with the critical thinking skills to analyze data and make judgments.

Susan Driggers, Bell South Corporation, Nashville Forum

Music and Academic and Personal Skills

Music education also provides a critical introduction to and reinforcement of such academic and personal skills as critical thinking, problem-solving, and learning how to work cooperatively toward shared goals. Critical thinking skills are widely endorsed as a <i>sine qua non </i>for our children if they are to make much needed contributions to the work force. This requirement is being significantly affected by massive change in the occupational structure of the work force.

Of particular importance are skills acquired through learning how to manipulate symbols; higher order cognitive skills such as the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information; and the kinds of teamwork abilities and conflict-resolution skills required for success in the modern work place.

Such skills are both implicit and explicit in music instruction. The inherent mathematical under-pinnings of music, for example, powerfully reinforce the analytical dimension of higher cognitive skills.

Abstract concepts such as counting, fractions, and ratios acquire concrete and tangible meaning when applied in musical context, and the relationships between symbol and context are more readily made. Music requires the integration of eye-hand coordination, rhythm, tonality, symbol recognition and interpretation, attention span, and other factors that represent synthetic aspects of human intelligence. Moreover, the frequent requirement in music to subordinate individual performance to group goals, and the reinforcement music gives to the skills of cooperation, are among the qualities now most highly valued in business and industry, especially in high-tech contexts.

Music and Integration Across the Curriculum

Many teachers have discovered that music can also be a powerful means of integrating other aspects of the curriculum. By tapping into the experiential and expressive aspects of music, teachers can add a distinctive dimension to instruction in other subjects. This insight has been used to develop interesting and productive pedagogical models like the Waldorf schools in Europe and the United States, and experimental instructional programs such as the Chelsea schools in Boston and at the Key School in Indianapolis, both of which are based on Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.

These experimental approaches make use of music and the other arts in an educational program that seeks to decompartmentalize learning:

In the Waldorf schools for example, the goal is the education of the whole human being by paying attention to the needs of the human spirit. Art, music, and crafts all have the same weight as reading, writing, and arithmetic, in order to dissolve false dichotomies between school subjects. The arts, particularly, are used as part of a theory of human development that helps children find nonverbal modes of expression and understanding.

In the Chelsea, MA schools, music has been placed in the core of the curriculum in the belief that aesthetic development is critical to achieving other goals essential to education, among them reducing drop-out rates, increasing student attendance, improving self-esteem, teaching the importance of discipline, and producing culturally literate students. The aim, significantly, is to change the ethos of the school system entirely, not merely to restructure or reorganize the curriculum.

At the Key School, a public school in Indianapolis, principal Pat Bolaños reports a perspective similar to that of the Waldorf schools. “As a matter of equity,” she says, “we stress all the intelligences.” All children take violin lessons in grades 1-3 before being able to branch out to other instruments. Thus the possibilities are greatly multiplied for identifying strengths in specific areas (like the arts) upon which to build instructional approaches. The arts are used to integrate across the curriculum, which is theme based rather than subject-area based.

Music Education and Self-Esteem

As we consider the difficult problems of inner-city schools and students there, we can readily see that music in the school may be the only beauty in the lives of some of these children.

In Sutro School in San Francisco, which has a large percentage of students with disadvantaged backgrounds, the problems of absenteeism, drop-outs, and lack of parental cooperation were rampant.

The school created an opera–”Paddington Bear”–with the music and the libretto both created and performed by the children. I had the privilege of watching it. After the bravos at the end of the performance, a group of us had the opportunity to meet with Julie Reinhoth, the principal. Someone asked her, “What did this do for the school?”

She said, “I can hardly begin to tell you. The youngster playing Paddington Bear was typical of our student body. Many of them have low self-esteem, many are shy, many are belligerent. Out of this program, many things have turned around. Students who could not work together have developed admirable patterns of cooperative behavior, better study habits, and higher achievement, both in and out of the classroom. Their self-esteem has grown by leaps and bounds. Parents have reached out to the school in a very helpful way. I could go on and on.”

The children involved in this music program learned the self-discipline necessary to work harmoniously with others. They developed creativity, not only in writing the music and libretto, but also in building the sets, gathering the props, even learning to think on the spot during the performance, when someone forgot a prop and on
e of the other youngsters was able to improvise. They really learned to think on their feet.
Norman Goldberg, president, MMB Music, Inc., Chicago Forum


Although participation in music education does not necessarily lead to improved academic performance in other subjects or across the board, there are impressive connections between participation in music classes and academic achievement. For example, in 1987-89, students taking music courses scored an average of 20-40 points higher on both verbal and math portions of the SATs than students who took no arts courses.

Similarly, in a recent study the College Entrance Examination Board reported a direct correlation between improved SAT scores and the length of time spent studying six academic subjects, including “Arts and Music.” Students with 20 units of study in the six areas scored 128 points higher on the SAT Verbal than those with 15 units; on the math portion, the difference was 118 points. Students who took more than four years of music and the other arts scored 34 points better on verbal SATs and 18 points better on math SATs in 1987-89 than those who took music for less than one year.

The contribution music and music education can make to the entire enterprise of learning for our children stands on firm ground. New research on intelligence and brain function point in exciting future directions that tie directly to music, while the continuing use of music as part of the curriculum is clearly associated with both academic skills and personal characteristics that are highly desirable for school progress and for developing the kind of well-educated young people we know we need for the nation’s well-being. Music does not belong on the periphery but in the center.

Music Across the Curriculum

I have always felt that all the subjects are one and should be taught as one. I also feel that we should tell the kids this: It’s all one, social studies, science, math, music.

I try to bring it to the level of their everyday life. One of the teachers was complaining about one of the band kids who was having a problem with fractions. She wanted to pull her from the band program. When I asked if the child could use any aids during the next exam, she said, “Calculators are out.” I asked, “How about pie pans?” She gave me a strange look, but she said, “OK.”

A long time before I’d gone to one of the bakers in the city and he gave me a lot of pie pans. So when I teach the breakdown of music notation, it’s the same thing as fractions, but, I teach it with the pie pans–a whole note is a whole pan, a half-note is half a pan, and so on. I told the math teacher, if you let this child take the test with the pie pans on her desk, she’ll pass. She did, too. With an A.

Mark Jordan, teacher, Samuel Gompers Elementary School, Chicago Forum