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Funding and general support for music education in American public schools has been slowly declining over the past 20 years in favor of seemingly more practical STEM courses. This has made it particularly hard for more musically inclined students to find a way to get the education they need to be successful, and has decreased the effectiveness of more general education. Despite numerous studies showing how valuable music education is to the growth of students and the surrounding community of a school, the music budgets of public high schools are lower than ever. There are some organizations trying to support music education around the country, like the Give a Note Foundation or NAMM, but what they need is more public support for music education. We need to start valuing music and the arts in general more as a society, or we’ll be on the brink of losing a valuable part of our education.
Have you ever listened to music while studying for a test or reading for homework? If so, then you no doubt understand the positive impact that music has on your brain. It can help people focus on tasks or motivate themselves, it boosts cognitive function, and listening to it is just fun. Why, then, is it not more supported in the public education system? Funding for music and the arts in general within schools has steadily declined over the years, and as a result, an essential part of education has been deemed superfluous. Music education is of utmost importance to a person’s academic success, and should be supported in a way that reflects that.
According to an extensive report by Dr. James Catterall (2012), principal investigator at the Centers for Research on Creativity, students with a higher level of engagement in music programs were found to also have higher levels of academic achievement than their non-musical peers (24). Research by Columbia University in 1999 shows that students involved in music programs cooperate with their fellow students and teachers more readily (Burton, 1999). A report by the Give a Note Foundation (2017) says that “Music programs continue to be under-resourced, particularly in urban settings.” (5). Music education is still underfunded, despite research conducted all the way back in 1999 showing its benefits being published.
A lot of people say that music education encourages students to pursue a career path that isn’t always viable, yet these studies don’t even mention going into music as a career. The benefits of music education apply to everyone involved, regardless of their career path, which is why all of these studies talk about academic achievement rather than career success. Instead of focusing on how every aspect of education should prepare students for the workforce and plot out a clear path for them, we should start focusing on supplementing those existing career-focused courses with classes that make it easier to succeed in school and serve as a much-needed respite from academic rigor. People who say that arts education is frivolous or impractical fail to acknowledge that a student’s feelings and mental health impact their education just as much as the content of their courses.
Further support for the necessity of music education for advancement in other areas of education can be found in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. First described by Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, it’s a 5-tier pyramid that describes what motivates humans to do anything. As seen in the picture below, the bottom two tiers entail things like food, water, shelter, and physical security. These tiers are often referred to as “deficiency needs”, and are purely physical.
Picture from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
The part where music education comes in is in the top three tiers, which highlight the need for love and belonging, self-esteem, and finally, self-actualization- the need to be all that you can possibly be, and to achieve as much as you personally can. All people are constantly “climbing” this pyramid, with the unconscious goal of reaching the top someday.
In order to advance to a new tier on the pyramid and climb higher, all the tiers below it must be fulfilled. Music education helps with precisely that. The top three tiers can often be hard to quantify, as they are mostly subjective, but something that has been proven to help with self-esteem and a feeling of belonging is music. Education can be seen as a form of the journey to self-actualization, and music can provide the baseline needed to achieve it, which motivates students to achieve more in both life and school.
Anyone who’s played in a musical ensemble (including me) can tell you how amazing it is to be in a group of people that are all interested in coordinating with each other to achieve something and improve their musical prowess, and how it creates a profound feeling of belonging, which is almost the entire middle tier of the Hierarchy of Needs accounted for. We can now move in to the next tier, which is self-esteem. The feeling of accomplishment that you get when you finally are able to do something you couldn’t before is extremely prevalent when learning how to play music. Whenever you learn how to play a song or a chord, you’re accomplishing something, and that contributes immensely to one’s self-esteem, which accounts for the next tier of the Hierarchy of Needs. Music education, when implemented correctly, accounts for two entire tiers of the Hierarchy of Needs on its own, serving as an indispensable source of motivation for anyone participating in it.
Despite these amazing benefits, music education budgets are at an all time low. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, most states that had mass teacher protests in 2018 raised their school budgets, but those budgets remain lower than they were in 2008 (Leachman & Figueroa, 2019).Coupled with the fact that art classes are more likely to be impacted by budget cuts, you get an environment where middle and high school students are lucky if they have any form of music program at all. In my high school, for example, we have a music teacher, but because the school already receives so little funding, it can’t afford to buy any instruments, and our teacher has to rely on instrument donations or students bringing their own instruments to school. Because of this, the only ensembles that exist are small and student-formed, which limits the music that we can play and detracts from the group-based benefits of music education, as a lot less students are likely to participate in this.
In an article by Sam Bloch and Kate Taylor (2019) about the lack of funding for music programs in New York specifically, Maria Schwab, a music teacher in Queens and a judge at school music festivals, when interviewed, says “In a concert band, you’re not the only trumpet player sitting there- there’s seven of you.”, and “In that large group, there’s a lot of repertoire open to you that would not be open to smaller bands.”. This is absolutely true. Some pieces of music simply require more people to play, and when a band is too small, that limits the enjoyment that people get from being in it and what they can play. In the same article, Bloch and Taylor also touch on how the three high schools they are interviewing people from used to have three full-sized concert bands in 1985 when they were all part of the same school, called Columbus High. Those three schools now struggle to provide enough instruments for even half of a concert band between all of them. The combined budget of all three schools is lower than it was when they were one school, and the program that has suffered the most as a result is the music program.
As you can see in the picture below, the room they play in doesn’t even have any soundproofing or acoustic treatment, and the amount of students participating is nowhere near the amount needed for a full band.
While this may be a rather extreme example of this funding problem, it is very similar to what’s going on in other schools around the united states. Just last year, an organization called Bringing Music to Life held an instrument drive that gave over 450 instruments away to 37 different middle schools around Colorado, giving many schools the resources to start a proper music program for the very first time. Support for music education has gotten so low that schools have to rely on people donating old instruments to them to even be able to provide music programs to their students.
The above picture shows some of the tables from the music drive, and just how many people are willing to donate to give kids access to music education. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s reassuring to know that there are some people that believe in the value of music and are willing to show their support.
Perhaps the most well-known and widespread benefit of music education and music in general is the impact it has on one’s emotional state and brain. It’s also most likely why so many people even still believe in music education and its value, even after STEM education’s rise in popularity. Listening to music releases dopamine in the brain, to the point that some studies say that you can get addicted to music. As I hinted at in my introduction, listening to music helps many people focus on academic tasks, often making them feel more bearable. It can even help with tasks requiring physical exertion; a study conducted by Texas A&M University even found that when students were made to run 1.5 miles while either listening to music or not, the students that listened to music almost always ran the 1.5 miles faster than without music, and reported being less tired than when they ran without music (Bonnette et al., 2012). Playing music has even more drastic effects. According to an article by the Portland Chamber Orchestra, practicing music can lead to major structural changes in the brain after as little as 15 months of practice, leading to improvement of motor skills, heightened alertness, and even the creation of new neurons.
There have also been numerous studies about the effects of music on mood, and specifically depression. So many studies have concluded that music has a positive effect on depression that most hospitals now provide music therapy as an option for long-term patients. There’s been a rise in teen depression rates in the past 15 or so years, and making music education a more central part of school might help alleviate that. Music education provides a powerful way to at least deal with many of the emotional problems prevalent in students, without deviating from regular school curriculum too much in the form of student-led seminars that not everyone wants to participate in, or token gestures by the administration that rarely do any good. It’s almost impossible to not connect to music in some way, whether it be through playing it, studying its history, or listening to it.
To me, the best reason to support more music education in American schools is because of its almost universal accessibility. Literally anyone can make or listen to music, regardless of their background or stance on anything. As someone who was recently in middle school and is still in high school, I can see just how badly the environment in public schools needs to be closer to that. The entire reason people dread their first day of school, and meeting new people in general, is the hostility of it all. People might not act how you want them to. They might not like something you do or wear. They might think you’re too different from them.
The culture surrounding making music is completely different. In a concert band, there is no one instrument that is more important than another. Everyone is there for a reason, and everyone more or less understands that. There’s no real discrimination or hostility, and everyone works together to get better at something they all enjoy doing. I feel that if music education becomes a bigger part of education as a whole, that kind of culture will start spreading outside of musical ensembles. Students’ relationships with one another will improve, and school will become something to look forward to rather than to dread.
Music education, with its many benefits, is something that should be a bigger part of our education system across all levels. Whether you’re in middle school, high school, or college, music education will always be something that everyone can benefit from. However, in order for it to start becoming a bigger part of education, people need to believe in its value, and it needs more money. There are many organizations dedicated to funding music education, some of which I’ve mentioned in this paper, and supporting them, either vocally or monetarily, is the most direct way to make a difference. More generally speaking, our society needs to become less career-obsessed if it doesn’t want music education to die out completely. The benefits of music education are there for us and always will be, we just need to accept them.
- Bloch, S., & Taylor, K. (2018, May 13). In New York High Schools, the Sound of Music Is Muted. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/13/nyregion/nyc-music-high-school.html?module=inline
- Bonnette, R., Smith, M. C., Spaniol, F., Ocker, L., & Melrose, D. (2013, November 25). The Effect of Music Listening on Running Performance and Rating of Perceived Exertion of College Students. Retrieved from http://thesportjournal.org/article/the-effect-of-music-listening-on-running-performance-and-rating-of-perceived-exertion-of-college-students/
- Hambek, J. (2016, March 14). Arts programs in schools often in danger of being cut. Retrieved from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/mar/14/arts-programs-in-schools-often-in-danger-of-being-/
- Jasemi, M., Aazami, S., & Zabihi, R. E. (2016, October). The Effects of Music Therapy on Anxiety and Depression of Cancer Patients. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5072238/
- Knutson, K. (2017, December 5). The Value of Music Education. Retrieved from https://music.colostate.edu/news/the-value-of-music-education/
- Leachman, M., & Figueroa, E. (2019, April 23). K-12 School Funding Up in Most 2018 Teacher-Protest States, But Still Well Below Decade Ago. Retrieved from https://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/k-12-school-funding-up-in-most-2018-teacher-protest-states-but-still
- Mcleod, S. (2018, May 21). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
- Monroe, J. (2018, July 31). Adolescent Depression in Schools. Retrieved from https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/adolescent-depression-in-schools/
- Rampton, J. (2017, August 21). The Benefits of Playing Music Help Your Brain More Than Any Other Activity. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/john-rampton/the-benefits-of-playing-music-help-your-brain-more.html
- Stull, E. (2018, August 22). Menu. Retrieved from https://yourhub.denverpost.com/blog/2018/08/underfunded-colorado-schools-and-music-programs-receive-450-instruments-from-bringing-music-to-life/223382/
- What Happens When the Brain Plays a Musical Instrument? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://portlandchamberorchestra.org/what-happens-when-the-brain-plays-a-musical-instrument
- James, S. C. (2005). Conversation and Silence: Transfer of Learning Through the Arts. Journal for Learning through the Arts,43(3), 228-257. doi:10.2307/1320379
- Catterall, J. S. (n.d.). The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies. Retrieved from https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Arts-At-Risk-Youth.pdf
- THE STATUS OF MUSIC EDUCATION IN UNITED STATES PUBLIC SCHOOLS – 2017. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.giveanote.org/media/2017/09/The-Status-of-Music-Education-in-US-Public-Schools-2017_reduced.pdf
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