Teach music for music’s sake

Teach music because it’s a universal language and “the arts are our most potent means of human expression,” not because it might help kids learn fractions or raise test scores or develop teamwork, writes Nancy Flanagan, a music teacher.

Yesterday, the Learning First Alliance asked Can Arts Education Help Close the Achievement Gap? I appreciate the perspectives and data assembled by Anne O’Brien–who points out that students from high-poverty schools who study the arts are more likely to graduate HS, attend and finish college, and register to vote. But I believe the real question is:  What do the arts teach children that other subjects can’t?

Teachers defend music, art, dance and drama by arguing they help teach something considered more important, such as “enhanced brain development, spatial/visual/temporal processing, improving memory and attention, physical coordination, personal discipline and teamwork,” Flanagan writes.

But where did we get the idea that artistic expression is less useful or important than the sciences? How did music, art, dance and drama get pushed aside in our American school curriculum? I’m not surprised that studying or listening to music has beneficial effects on learning fractions or other academic skills, but those are side effects.

Kids should study music because it’s central to every human society on earth and has a vitally important role in every aspect of culture, from history to literature to media and communication studies. Music is part of what it means to be a human being.


About Joanne


  1. Obi-Wandreas says:

    In an era where time is short, and needs are great, it is necessary to distinguish between what kids need and what they really should have.

    Kids need to be able to read and write; they need to be able to analyze written arguments, and formulate their own in response.

    Kids need to be able to comprehend numbers and statistics. They need to be able to quantify things that affect them, whether financial or otherwise.

    Kids need to understand the natural world and how it works.

    Kids need to understand the history of the world in general, and their nation specifically. They need to understand the philosophies and traditions which make up the institutions with which we live. They need to understand the basics of economic intercourse.

    Kids really should spend time learning music and art.

    By all means, find time for music and art. It makes life worth living. It creates a nice break in the day, without which students can easily burn out. Money’s not a problem – instead of wasting millions on new lousy curricula every few years, go back to the old ones that actually work and get rid of the useless people who find these curricula for no other reason than to simply justify their own salaries.

    Let’s not confuse our priorities, however. Some things are more important than others, and others can be occasionally temporarily pushed aside.

    • Catherine says:

      What a shame that we don’t have efficient math algorithms that kids could learn quickly and practice a little each day so that they could have time to learn music and art. Oh, we do? No, we can’t teach those. Children have to construct mathematics from a multitude of time-consuming projects. Sorry, fine arts will have to get pushed to the side. Same thing for systematic phonics instruction; we need that time for balanced literacy.

      Seriously, the traditional ways were efficient. Go back to them and be amazed at the time that opens up in the school day.

      • I agree with Catherine. There is plenty of time and plenty of money. Usually, music programs have a front row seat for cost cutting. The assumption is that everything else has been cut. In our town, cost cutting often comes at a time other than when the union contracts are negotiated. This puts the burden on things like music and other supposedly non-essential programs. The goal is not to find a better justification for music. The goal is to find another way to cut costs or to argue trade-offs when ALL cost factors are on the table.

        However, music is one of the few things that teach students the connection between skills and success. Nobody is going to listen to badly-played instruments and comment on how they interpret the music so well. But that’s what many educators expect from math – that students can somehow solve problems and think critically without mastery of “rote” basic skills.

        Ironically, it is really the private lesson teacher who does most of the difficult, no-fun work of trying to get students to excel. At a recent high school concert, they handed out the All-State certificates in a very self-congratulatory fashion. The superintendent of schools handed them out and specifically made the point about coming to the budget cutting meetings to support music. I’m all in favor of supporting music in schools, but the details of what goes on are more complex.

        • That is also true of sports, at least in metropolitan areas (small towns and rural areas are likely different). In these areas, it is almost impossible to make a varsity team in sports like swimming, soccer, lacrosse, wrestling, tennis, golf , gymmastics etc. without having had years of upper-level travel/elite training and coaching. It may not even be possible for kids lacking that background to make a JV team. Many HS coaches refuse to admit this, but some are willing to be honest and admit that all they can do is to put together the right combination of players and do some work on teamwork, although experienced elite players already have lots of experience playing with different kids and are very likely to have played with/against their HS teammates during club play over the rest of the year.

          • I was thinking about sports too. Our high school got a lot of mileage out of a student who made the Olympic swimming team.

            In music, you don’t get to be first chair without years of private lessons. It’s always been that way. However, high school music programs can add a lot. It depends on the people. Just having a music program doesn’t guarantee anything. Our theater group does an enormous amount although most kids don’t have outside experience. It’s the people. They expect a lot. Generic arguments about how music helps kids has little to do with whether a program is effective or not. It takes good people, hard work, and high expectations. There is little that is natural about the process.

      • If the ed world has any awareness of or interest in the concept of efficiency, they’ve been keeping it so well-hidden as to be invisible. Even IF their beloved groupwork/discovery learning gigs work (and I don’t believe they do for most kids), the fact that they take far more time than direct instruction ought to disqualify them from routine use.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    I had art and music, of one kind or another, as early as I can recall. I think I recall sitting in fourth grade and seeing the teacher take one of those five-chalk stick thingies and draw lines across the board to start doing musical notation.
    In seventh grade, a semester of general music. And a semester of art, both required. Of course, there were more of those as electives later on for those interested, including band, orchestra and various choral organizations.
    And I got as much math and col-prep science and English and history as I could absorb.
    I suppose some of the ‘crats today could explain why what was possible then isn’t now, and make me like it. Not.

    • My 1950s-60s small-town, small (~300 kids 1-12) school didn’t have art or music teachers, but the k-8 teachers taught art and music history/appreciation as part of the regular curriculum, coordinating with what we were doing in history. We listened to records, talked about different types of music (including classical, jazz, etc), learned to sing the traditional folk and patriotic songs and studied art/architecture periods, creators and works, from books, film strips and pictures. It was a regular, Friday-afternoon event. With the AV resources now available, there’s no excuse for not exposing all kids to that kind of cultural literacy. Obviously, it’s nice to have performance options for those interested, but everyone can benefit from the background knowledge.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Background knowledge is good. My wife used to teach HS Spanish and we took kids to Spain and Mexico. She insisted on having the kids going on the trip attend after-school classes on what we would see, doing research papers and presenting them, and so forth.
    Seeing a large, ornate pile of stones doesn’t mean nearly as much if you have no idea of what it is, why it was built, who built it, and what its connection to other aspects of society was.
    This requirement also ran off the party animals.
    So even a passing knowledge is good.
    My granddaughter is into dance and what I recall from General Music more than half a century ago has allowed me to find stuff on Youtube that she likes.