Today, where there is such a focus on technology, science and other “hard-core” academic subjects and the emphasis is so much on test results rather than on how one arrives at those results, I believe that it is time to take another look at the benefits of Music in education.
Music has been a standard part of an overall education since ancient Greek times, if not earlier. At that time,
the discipline of Music was one of 3 main subjects taught and it encompassed not only the playing of instruments (lyre and flute) and singing, but poetry and dancing as well. Through the recitation of ballads, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were accompanied by the playing of the lyre, the students learned history, geography and ethics. Music was also an integral part of the theater, where the chorus was an obligatory feature of theatrical form, commenting on the action of the play, and hymns and paeans to the gods were used in the temples and religious ceremonies. Dancing was a part of both ritual and social life, so it is clear that the ancient Greeks understood well the power and importance of music.
But it is the actual process of learning music that is important. What ancient civilizations understood intuitively, and intellectually, today’s scientific research has proven beyond a doubt: Music is the only subject that activates all four cortices of the brain at the same time, creating connections between the parts of the brain that didn’t exist before. This causes the brain to be able to function more actively, think differently and, in effect, “exercise” effectively.
Just listening to music sets off a multitude of fireworks in the brain, as it actively analyses and processes what it hears, dividing up the pitches, harmonies, rhythms and more. This all happens in the time that it takes from when the sound waves enter our ears to when we begin tapping our feet. Listening to Mozart or some other type of classical music has been proven to boost brain power for about 20 minutes afterwards, but it is the active making of music, learning to read it, physically producing the sound, and listening to it which has the scientists astounded. If listening to music lights up the brain, making music sets it positively on fire! Although studies show that students need to be studying music in this way, for at least two years, before the benefits can really be seen, the benefits are real and span the spectrum of what the brain is capable of doing.
Think about what it takes to play the piano. There are 88 keys on the piano, ten fingers that need to move independently on two hands, (fine motor skills), eyes that need to read the music (visual), ears that need to listen to evaluate if the correct note has been hit, and how, (auditory) and a voice to count out loud. Now add in the fact that one needs to learn how to read the music (notes), how to count (rhythm), what the different markings mean, and how that translates into the physical reality of moving the fingers, hands and feet (fine motor skills). All this involves spatial reasoning and understanding, a good comprehension of direction (up and down on the page translates to right and left on the keyboard) and the ability to put this all together well enough to form a coherent whole. Only then can one be able to start to “feel” the music and put the heart and soul into it, expressing the meaning of the music and what it is trying to say. Musicians use both sides of the brain, cognitive reasoning, auditory, linguistic and math skills (left side of the brain) plus emotional and creative processes (right side) as well as motor skills in both hands and feet (both sides of the brain). It’s no wonder that children are tired after a lesson or a good practice session. Their brain has just had the equivalent of a full body work out!
The result of all this exercise in the brain is that the connections throughout the brain, and particularly between the two sides of the brain, are created and grow. This enables the brain to use more connections simultaneously which improves and speeds up problem solving in all areas, not just music, and enhances the ability of musicians to process the emotional and the reasoning sides of a problem at the same time. This helps with social skills and emotional intelligence along with cognitive reasoning.
Whether the music making is within the class, in an ensemble or in an individual lesson, studying music helps with focus and discipline in the learning process, teaches teamwork, particularly with the ensemble work, and builds confidence. This increased confidence becomes more visible as other academic work improves, along with the musical skills and the ability of students to present themselves and their work well through participating in concerts and recitals.
With all these proven benefits emanating from the study of music, I can never understand why it is that music programs are usually the first to be cut by many school administrations in a budget crunch. I applaud those schools which are actively engaged in and promote the arts as important to creating a whole, well-rounded person prepared for life. And to those parents who have the foresight and the conviction to put their children into music lessons, classes and camps, I say to you, bravo! Your children will be better prepared for their future because of it.