Music education’s essential role in a strong education

11/27/2011  |  MICHAEL BLAKESLEE
Music Education

American education has long played a key role in defining and strengthening our nation. For most citizens, this fact goes without question — and without much thought. When asked, most would point to the ways that our education system provides the skills and qualities needed by the future workforce. They might mention the ways that schools, as small societies in their own right, help students learn to interact with persons in authority and with one another. They might even call up the role that schools play in passing on our shared sense of belonging to a vibrant, growing culture.

With the pressures that come with scarce resources and future uncertainties, however, both the general public and those with the direct power to make decisions regarding education sometimes forget the breadth of educational benefits that we all want for children. In doing so, another key principle is sometimes forgotten: that students facing a fast-changing, varied future need a varied set of experiences to give them the skills to address that future.

As a resident of the Washington, D.C. area, I have the opportunity to attend any number of discussions on education policy. At one such discussion about a year ago, I recall one ranking official saying that, “when it comes to education, all anyone cares about is jobs.”  The discussion went on, based on this premise, to imply that all that was truly valuable in school are the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math).

I’ll admit that my first thought on hearing this job-based valuation of education was that this concept could only be called foreign to anyone who had attended more than one local school board meeting. In those local meetings, I’ve heard time and time again concerns about preparing our young people for specific jobs. But I’ve also heard concerns — sometimes anguished concerns — about the ways that schools need to serve the social and more general development of our children as we prepare them for society at large. After all, goes the reasoning, without the ability to work with others, without the internal flexibility to confront new jobs or tasks as they come along, our children will be handicapped in their quest to become productive, integrated individuals. And without the creativity to provide new insights into the challenges that they will most certainly face, even their job prospects will be limited to the type of rote employment that is fast vanishing from the workforce. Finally, of course, parents want schools to help their children to be engaged as students — to be excited about the process of learning rather than bored by the prospect of each new school day.

In other words, a narrow focus on a few subjects to the exclusion of a broad education is likely to materially harm students’ future as citizens, while failing even to meet the immediate goal of preparing them for good jobs. At the National Association for Music Education, we put the underlying lesson simply: For today’s students to succeed tomorrow, they need a comprehensive education that includes music taught by exemplary music educators. 

Backing up this assertion is surprisingly easy. The Arts Education Partnership, an independent organization involved in researching and disseminating information to policymakers and the public, recently produced an overview  of some of the key points established by research in the field:

First, music education prepares students to learn. They point to studies that demonstrate that music education enhances fine motor skills, prepares the brain for achievement, fosters superior working memory, and cultivates better thinking skills.

Second, music education facilitates student academic achievement. The report specifies that music education improves recall and retention of verbal information, advances math achievement, boosts reading and English language skills, and improves average SAT scores.

And third, music education develops the creative capacities for lifelong success by sharpening student attentiveness, strengthening perseverance, equipping students to be creative, and supporting better study habits and self-esteem.

Added to these three categories of research results are a number of studies that show that music education is associated with some of the key outcomes that we want for all our children — including the outcome of employability.

For example, a 2007 Harris poll showed that children with music education are more likely to seek higher education, and that they are more likely to ultimately earn higher salaries than their peers who don’t get the benefits of music education. Why this should be is a matter for speculation, but 72 percent of the adults surveyed for the report agreed that music education equips people to be better team players, and nearly six in 10 of those who had music education agree that it helped their creative problem-solving skills.

An earlier Harris study (from 2006) showed significantly higher attendance and graduation rates in schools with music programs — and included the result that most of the high-school principals surveyed believed that participating in music education encourages and motivates students to stay in school.

Almost anyone who has ever been involved with music education — teachers, students, and parents — can cite anecdotes about the motivational power of strong school music programs. Engagement in the discipline of music and ongoing experience in the immediate satisfaction of music is a powerful thing. As one third grader from North Carolina put it, “The part I like best is when we get to play on the musical instruments because it makes me feel smart when I get it right.”

The way that music education seems to provide the basis for career success may be a little harder to pin down, but the subject becomes clear when put in terms of the qualities that young people need for success in today’s world. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an organization with members from education as well as, notably, a number of companies that are leaders in technology-based companies that are always looking to the future, addressed this with their codification of a list of 21st Century Skills. Their list of skills includes such things as flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, and productivity and accountability. And the list is headed by what the partnership calls the 4 Cs: creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration.

Those interested in seeing some examples of how music and the other arts support development of these skills need only look at the P21 Arts Skills Map at The map sets out a series of examples showing how each of these skills is native to arts instruction — examples that will ring true to and call up similar scenarios from many teachers. The very familiarity of these examples stems from the fact that music and the other arts indeed provide the skills that our students need.

So even in an era of challenges to schools’ schedules, finances, and other resources, we need to hold fast to the idea that education is an essential source of our strength as a society. And we all need to remember that music education plays an essential role in delivering that strength. After all, we each have a stake in helping today’s students succeed tomorrow.

Michael Blakeslee is the Deputy Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the National Association for Music Education (formerly MENC). For more information visit
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