Music Education is Essential

Anytime a school board starts discussing budget cuts, the knife is typically aimed at “inessential” programs in schools, a category that usually will begin with the arts. Unlike math, science, and history, curricula for art, music, and drama are considered somewhere between extracurricular and useless by budget cutters in many national, state, and local governments.

But spend 10 minutes with a child of any age who is singing or playing an instrument, and it’s quickly apparent that something a lot more serious than playtime is going on here. “When children learn music it exercises both sides of their brain,” says Mary Ann Cool, a music teacher and chorus director at Mt. Hebron Middle School in Montclair. “Music exercises the right side of the brain responsible for imagination, arts awareness and creativity, and the left side responsible for reasoning, number skills and speech. It’s a discipline that teaches children to focus on a task and master it. It is no surprise children who study music tend to have higher test scores.”

Just as we understand that kids playing sport teaches more than how to score a touchdown (e.g., cooperation, commitment, how to win/lose well, etc.), kids playing music are doing more than trying to be the next Green Day. In other words, some children can internalize more math by moving from a 4/4 to 3/4 time signature than by memorizing a handful of equations.

Leslie Lucas, who is the director of Music Together of Montclair and Summit & Chatham, believes that keeping music in the curriculum benefits everyone down the line. “In his State of the Union speech, the President was talking about how far behind in math and science our country is,” she says. As music and art are taken out of education, “it creates people who don’t know how to use their creative brains. So much of business is about creativity, and if you have been exposed to music, it stimulates your creative brain. In any discipline, thinking creatively can start with music education.”

So if there’s less music in school, what can parents do to make sure their children are thinking musically? The simplest thing is to make family time for music: sing along to your favorite songs with your child, play an instrument for them if you know how, or just sit down and make up songs together. “If we passively put on some music, they won’t learn as well as making the music themselves,” says Lucas. “Sing a song about brushing their teeth…or buy a little drum or some shakers, something so you can sit and make music together. Have a little jam session!”

Every child can get basic benefits from this kind of family-based exposure to music, and over time parents can be on the lookout for signs that a child has a particular interest in or talent for music. “I think when children independently are drawn to an instrument or independently like to sing, that shows an interest to be encouraged,” says Cool. “I also think some children naturally have a musical ear: They are able to follow melodies and sing them back accurately.” Lucas adds that a child around age 5 who can accurately find the beat in a song is showing signs of being musically adept.

But the best sign that you’ve got a child with an interest in playing music is fairly direct: “If someone really has a musical inclination, they’ll usually tell their parents,” says Lucas. “They’ll ask for piano lessons or something like that. I find that you will know if the child is ready for formal lessons.”

The best thing for parents to do is just make sure music is part of a child’s life in one way or another. A pre-verbal baby who sings along with a simple tune to nonsense “doo doo doo” lyrics and claps to the beat is learning essential skills that can carry over to so many other aspects of their educational and social lives. And older children who can make up a song or learn to master an instrument will be tapping into a valuable tradition that dates back to the earliest days of humanity. “In the old days before TVs, people would sit around and make music together,” says Lucas. “It was a basic life skill, everyone knew how to make some music, play some songs as enjoyment. It’s something everyone should know how to do.”

How are you making music a part of your child’s life? And is your child’s school doing enough to provide basic musical education?

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  1. Thanks for writing this, Brian.


    Even our non-sciencetist, non-mathmatician President got into it in his State of the Union Address, AS IF 1) MATH&SCIENCE is all the world needs, and 2) the arts are not essential parts of any great society. (Never mind that he, and almost every other Senator and Congressman, DID NOT major in science and math.)

    I have always believed that exposure to the arts is as important as anything (certainly more important than learning a language most will NEVER use- yes, Chinese). Though I caution folks who use the bogus stat that “kids who learn music do better in math…” Exposure to the arts is fine by itself, there does not need to be ANY other “benefit.”

    Music, drawing and writing- for generations- have been the sole salvation for the kid who schools left behind.

    So I ask our President and all the other idiots, what do we do with the kid who doesn’t like, doesn’t get and has NO affinity for Math and Science? Should we set up special schools for them? Or, like China, just not let them move forward with their education and force them to be laborers?

    And don’t get me started on the importance of video games!

  2. Yea. I heard her on Lenny Lopate’s show. He seemed to invoke every gaming cliche, to which she laughed and corrected him.

    For some though, believing that “gaming” and “gamers” are just teenaged boys playing first person shooters is comforting. The truth is another story. I would also add that the video game industry employs thousands– and makes a TON of money (Call of Duty Black Ops made 650 MILLION dollars in 5 days, but shhhhh….. don’t tell our President.)

    But the arts can be shared, or remain a deeply personal endeavor (try calming yourself down speaking Chinese in a darkened room). For me, I love the solitude of writing and imagining and strumming on my gee-tar. I have yet to find that same solace in the Pythagorean theorem.

    For the little prof, we don’t push. He enjoys music, he’s beginning to like dancing, but he does not have the patience to learn an instrument (playing a video game is another story). But at 8, there is no rush (though the Chinese Moms would disagree with me). His uncle was an extremely successful songwriter and producer- I’m sure most folks would know at least 7 of his hits- who didn’t learn music till middle school. So, for me, I just want him to develop a love for it.

    He’s got his whole teenage years to learn, practice and play.

    I do wish he had Art or Music in his elementary school EVERYDAY.

  3. I wouldn’t mind if the public school only taught math, science and literacy, if they also cut the time spent in school to about 4 hrs/day. This would allow us more flexibility in taking my little one to other lessons for music, art, dance, etc.

    What’s more, any good scientist or mathematician has to be creative as well.

  4. Prof, you might think about the BOE Saturday Morning Arts program, held at the high school. They are probably into the second week now, but you might still be able to get Little Prof in, depending on his interest. It is a great way to introduce different things, in a classroom style session … various instruments, art and dance! A really wonderful, reasonably-priced way to dip a toe in the water. You can leave a message for the director at 973-509-4100 x2512. The program is open to 3rd-8th graders.

    Unfortunately for my own boy, this particular session was not well advertised at every school. There was a notice in the Montclair Times but that only reaches subscribers….flyers were delivered to each school but apparently they did not all reach their intended destination. By the time I reached the director, registration was closed for the beginning guitar class my guy wanted to take. 🙁

  5. Well, bebopgun a garbageman has to be “creative.” Being “creative” is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the creative arts.

    Thanks Kay, we’re taking it slow with the boy. He does a few things, but at this point we don’t want one of these hyper-scheduled kids (and parents). I have a friend with a 4-year-old who has the kid doing 4 different “activities” a week.


    Fortunately for us, we spend a lot of time together as a family and that time can never be replaced as a kid gets older. All these “classes” in due time.

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