Arts: The full value of music education

DAVID A. SMITH, Arts columnist – Article printed in the Waco Tribune June 26, 2014

Listening to Mozart probably won’t make you any smarter, as a pop psychology movement had us believing a decade or so ago. It turns out, however, that performing Mozart’s music just may.

In a paper published earlier this month, Harvard University researchers working with Boston Children’s Hospital announced they’ve found a link between training to play a musical instrument and the development of certain cognitive capacities that influence learning and reasoning. Their study involved 30 adults and 27 children, with about half of each group having some level of musical training.

Their findings indicate that playing an instrument seems to promote the brain’s “executive functions,” which contribute to a person’s ability to pay attention, manage time, organize thoughts and even regulate behavior.

Those executive functions in the brain are better predictors than intelligence of readiness for school, the study says, and predict math and reading skills throughout all grades. The study’s authors conclude that children and adults with extensive musical training perform better than non-musicians on a number of executive-function constructs.

Playing an instrument — especially when done with others such as in orchestras, concert and marching bands — also helps develop goal-directed behavior and the ability to hold several ideas in the mind simultaneously. The study further found that individuals with musical training show enhanced general cognitive, academic and language abilities and, the authors contend, this connection may be mediated by executive function.

One of the bigger ideas unpacked in this study is the way music instruction stimulates the brain to excel in non-related areas, many of which are the subject of hand-wringing when it comes to test scores.

“Musicians have shown enhanced language skills compared to non-musicians across several domains,” the researchers say, highlighting vocabulary knowledge and the ability to understand stress and intonation patterns in both poetry and prose.

In terms of reading, the study explains that abilities in music “correlate with early reading skills and phonological processing in pre-readers and kindergarten-age children.” Are you worried about math scores of today’s kids? Well, the researchers note that musical training has been demonstrated “to significantly relate” to achievement in mathematics.

One problem with the way many people tend to think about education is that academic subjects are viewed separately instead of as an integrated whole.

A practice called “interdisciplinary education,” a big thing in some universities these days, operates on the assumption that fields such as literature, history, philosophy and science aren’t as sealed off from each other as contemporary education has treated them in the past.

But such an approach is far from the norm, especially in K-12 public schools. Once you’ve trained yourself to think of the arts as being isolated from all the “serious” subjects in the curriculum, it’s much easier to see them as superfluous, a field in which the ripples from budget cuts won’t spread too far.

On the contrary, in reminding us that education in the arts relates to the development of other brain functions, this study indicates that slashing the arts from schools — in hopes that more time, effort and resources could be devoted to raising test scores in math and science — may be counterproductive.

Whether all this makes any difference depends on whether the goal of public education is to turn out well-developed people who can reason, think critically and keep several complex ideas straight in their heads at the same time.


David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and Waco Symphony Association board member, can be reached at