The Importance of Music (Part 1 in a series)
Updated: May 13
It’s Back to School time as I write this (completely redefined this year). September is also a time when a lot of people reset, regroup, and decide they want to seek therapy. In this series of blogs, I reflect on the importance of music in schools and the correlations to why music is an effective modality in therapy.
Music in My School
If I didn’t have music in school, I would (and did) have a ton of it at home. Still, music in school at times, meant everything to me. And where I grew up in a middle class suburban village on Long Island, my public school had music galore, beginning in first grade.
My district was unusual in that it had four elementary schools, Grades 1 through 4, that were spread all over town. We had our own music teacher and a dedicated music room where we were all escorted to and left in our teacher’s capable hands. Every year, she would organize a talent show. That gave me the opportunity to sing in public for the very first time, as well as perform a piano piece outside of a student recital. With fourth grade came new opportunities. We had a choir. We also got to choose an instrument to play and take lessons. I’ll never forget that day when a bunch of instruments were laid out for us to try. I gravitated to the shiny trombone, which gave Mr. Green a laugh because the instrument was quite a bit larger than I was. I settled on the cornet since we had one at home. I loved it, but my journey on the cornet was cut quite short due to a lip injury, so I switched to the 3/4 size violin my eldest sister had outgrown. It pretty much was a given that everyone got a chance to play something - rentals were cheap (we had a plethora of clarinets for some reason. So many budding clarinetists!) and we were seen coming in and out of buses or walking to and from school not just with backpacks on our backs but instrument cases in our hands.
The four schools came together to form one giant school for 5th and 6th grade. Of course I joined the chorus. Depending on what instrument you played you’d either be in band or orchestra, so I was in the latter. Group lessons continued. A select group of string players would meet from time to time as well, which I was part of. In middle school, we had all the same offerings. High School? It was a music lover’s dream! There were several choirs - 9th grade chorus, Mixed Chorus, and Select Chorale, a smaller group that speaks for itself. One year there were enough guys with enough chops and interest to form a men’s choir!
After school, if you had enough chops, you could be in Stage Band, which was pretty much an Intro to Jazz Ensemble. Word got around that I played piano. I had a couple of impressive classical pieces under my belt and I played rock piano by ear. I got recruited for the Stage Band and suddenly I was learning chord charts and being introduced to the music of Chick Corea, Horace Silver, and standards like A Foggy Day and Pennsylvania 6500, all before my 17th birthday. For me, that early introduction set the stage for a life-long interest in jazz.
The Decline of Music Education
As is so easy for a kid to do, I took this all for granted - weren’t all schools like this? We weren’t an anomaly by any means. All across Long Island you could find similar programs. I checked in with some old friends who are music teachers and ensemble directors in two separate districts in Nassau County. (You’ll hear more from them in Part 2). In comparing what I just shared with you, their schools have similar offerings today if not more than my hometown did. These three towns are very different demographically. While three towns is a half-drop in the bucket as far as schools on Long Island, I venture to guess, music education in public schools there is still thriving.
Imagine my surprise when I learned just how lucky we Long Islanders were in that regard. Just by talking and working with other musicians around the country, I understood that music taught in the schools was hardly a given. In many places, including New York City, the arts capital of the world, there were no music programs at all. Hence the rise of Teaching Artists and after school programs such as Highbridge Voices in the Bronx, where I taught for many years (and thank goodness for them). But it’s not just a recent phenomenon. In 2011 report entitled “Teaching Artists and the Future of Education" illustrates the gutting of steady declining music programs in Chicago in the late ’70’s:
Arts organizations had been sending limited numbers of artists to teach in Chicago schools since the 1960s. Demand for their programs grew after a 1978 fiscal crisis led to the dismissal of every visual art and music teacher in Chicago’s elementary schools. Enterprising principals who wanted to provide some arts education to their students found that the programs were affordable because most were subsidized by grants from private philanthropy or other public agencies. Arts organizations were eager to develop richer relationships with a young and more diverse audience through the schools, and artists were eager for the work.
I don’t know what that means for today in Chicago’s schools, but I imagine it’s not a great situation. The decline of music education has been precipitously happening over time in the is country and overall is in crisis in this country, and it turns out it’s a global issue.
The Value of Music
In the fight for funding music programs, arguments are made over and over again for all the benefits that music has. That used to bother the heck out of me that society does not deem music valuable in and of itself. That bugged me because probably until I became a music therapist, I couldn’t give a damn about all the benefits of music. I just knew that music was an intrinsic part of my life and well-being, and overall being. It resonated with me so deeply to my core. Clearly I value music for music’s sake and if music is a part of your life, you should too. Is music not a part of your life?
A Friend with Benefits
I’ve mostly gotten over my irritation and have embraced the fact that the amazing thing about music is not only the music itself. Its numerous benefits should be touted whenever possible and not overlooked, because music is worth fighting for! So here goes.
Studies have shown that music improves cognitive function, promotes language development and helps in the social-emotional realm. Laura Beer and Jacqueline Birnbaum’s recent book Using Music in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy breaks it down in a simple chart that I want to give their excellent work a shout-out as I’m going to break it down pretty much the same way they do in the book, without the citations. (I’m a big fan of Jackie’s work, and I snatched up her book as soon as it hit the market).
IMPROVES academic achievement, reading skills and spatial-temporal reasoning.
INCREASES IQ and mathematical skills
HEIGHTENS visual-spatial skills
STRENGTHENS executive functions of attention and memory
PROMOTES long-lasting improvements in cognitive abilities
IMPROVES listening skills, auditory discrimination, and perception of speech sounds
INCREASES verbal intelligence
ENRICHES early childhood language and development
ENHANCES sensitivity to emotions conveyed by speech prosody
HELPS people with neurological damage relearn language skills
IMPROVES interpersonal relationships with peers
ENHANCES parent-child relationships
And I want to be clear here. Mostly I am referring to actively making music, - also known as musicking (although listening absolutely has benefits too) With all those benefits, besides the joy of having all the feedback - the music you are hearing from yourself and others, the tactile sensations of your hands manipulating an instrument, the vibrations. And the absolute beauty that can be experienced. I’m not just talking about a high professional level! I have been involved in musicking with disabled seniors in a nursing home. To an outside listener, sometimes the music sounds more akin to noise. I had that experience back when I was volunteering considering the profession. It’s so subjective though - when the music therapist asked what people’s experience was, several commented on how beautiful the music was (although as I wrote this, it could have been the totality of the experience).
With all of these benefits, wouldn’t you think that it would just be a no-brainer to have music in schools everywhere? Music clearly packs a power punch on so many levels, it should be obvious that providing music education as a matter of course would help students excel in their other subjects, and contribute to their social and emotional functioning, and therefore overall well-being. Music is truly holistic!