Better Minds Through Music

Child playing violin

by Michael Shasberger, Adams Professor of Music and Worship

In 2007, one of our violin students nearly died in a car accident and lay in a coma for several weeks. Doctors told the family there was little hope of recovery. He did regain consciousness, however, and while he had limited speech, he couldn’t form cogent thoughts or recognize simple objects. Case workers predicted months or years of therapy and doubted he’d recover his intellectual capabilities.

His violin professor visited him in the midst of these assessments. At the time, the student was doing tests that determined he couldn’t recognize or name simple objects such as a spoon. Then Dr. Phil Ficsor took out his violin and put it in the student’s hand. Perplexed, the student was unable to name the instrument and said he didn’t know what to do with it. Dr. Ficsor put the bow in his other hand and encouraged him to try. Moments later he was playing music from memory that he’d studied a few months earlier. Two months later he was back in school playing drums in the Chapel Band and violin in the orchestra and taking a full academic load. Music played a seemingly miraculous role in a recovery that exceeded the doctor’s wildest imagination. But it wasn’t miraculous. It was the result of violin studies this young man began at the age of 6. The musical resources of both his brain hemispheres were so strongly developed and linked that they could pull together when linguistic skills, which operate in only one lobe, couldn’t. His parents’ investment in musical studies —and the resources committed to his high school orchestra —made the difference. What happened to this student vividly illustrates the value of music education.

At a time when public school districts are cutting music programs, I seek to reinforce the understanding of the essential nature of music education and, by association, all arts education. The question of what to provide in the public education system comes down to priorities, and it’s within my calling to articulate why music education must be given a priority. Essentially, music belongs at the core of the educational experience, and when it is lacking, the results are substandard for students, schools and society. When I ask students to write their philosophy of music education, I encourage them to avoid the secondary justifications and focus on the primary purposes of music in our lives. But it’s increasingly difficult to do this as study after study have demonstrated the profoundly significant impact music makes on children’s intellectual and social development. Since the arts and music play a fundamental role in the human condition and the essential body of knowledge within our culture, the educational systems we put in place to preserve and advance that culture should include music.

From the beginning of civilization art has been a priority for humanity. Every primitive tribal society included a component of musical expression, usually played out in dance, instrumental and vocal idioms. The sole legacy of some cultures is the work of their artisans who painted cave walls, carved stone tablets and crafted pottery whose artistic character far exceeds the requirement of its function. Even when survival was an all-consuming challenge, music and art existed in the center of the culture.

Throughout history it’s the artists and musicians we remember when we think of a particular time and place. From the cave paintings off of San Marcos Road to the music of the ages, it’s the artistic achievement of preceding generations that endure when the temporal power brokers, passing politicians and titans of industry have lost their influence and passed into the forgotten annals of history.

Consider these pairs of names —which do you know? Johann August Ernesti or Johann Sebastian Bach? Filippo Maria Visconti or Antonio Stradivari? Hieronymus von Colloredo or Woflgang Mozart? William Congreve or Ludwig Van Beethoven? The former were leading politicians who often opposed the interests of musicians and artisans. They’re famous now only for their hostility and lack of support for their celebrated adversaries.

Can we learn from history and understand that music defines our culture as strongly as any other societal aspect and more so than most? Can we acknowledge that maintaining our musical literacy is critical to perpetuating the most valuable aspect of our humanity?

We lament the quality of the music consumed in our culture, particularly by our young citizens, yet we ignore the process of educating them to make better choices. Despite the erratic and often intentionally neglected music education experiences in our nation’s schools, our country maintains a $130 billion music industry each year. An investment of this size will leave a legacy; the question is, what will its character be?

The reason for this outpouring of musical activity, whatever its quality, is that music has always expressed what couldn’t be expressed in any other way. It elevates our literary efforts to a higher plane. It picks up where our linguistic capacities leave off. If we could effectively describe the effect of music on our condition, then music wouldn’t be necessary. We know full well, however, that we can’t.

The historical legacy of education has taught us this, and we should be listening. The ancient academies in the early days of our modern society defined the core of the educational experience as the seven liberal arts divided into two parts. The first section was called the Trivium because it had three parts: grammar, logic and rhetoric. These disciplines teach us how to communicate.

The second section, the quadrivium, had four parts: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These are the things worth communicating and the core of the curriculum. They define our humanity. They should still be the core of the curriculum. We have crudely reduced these to the three R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic. But any serious educator should know that you can’t responsibly cut out the fourth part of the quadrivium —arts or music —any more than you can responsibly cut out theRof research or science, originally represented by astronomy.

I have always believed that music speaks for itself and ultimately needs little help from other concerns to justify its equal place at the center of the curriculum. It’s the very soul of what we aspire to be. However, the more we know about the effect of music in the mix of the curriculum, the more compelling the secondary arguments become.

We now know a great deal about how the brain works and that music makes a significant and positive developmental impact on the brain that is unique and profound. We also know that music education yields impressive results in the achievement and behavior of students in the public schools.

Consider these findings from a Stanford University and Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching study described in “Americans for the Arts Monograph” in November 1998. Students involved in arts in the curriculum are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, three times more likely to be elected to class office, four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair, three times more likely to win an award for school attendance and four times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or poem.

Young artists, as compared with their peers, are likely to attend music, art, and dance classes nearly three times as frequently; participate in youth groups nearly four times as frequently; read for pleasure nearly twice as often; and perform community service more than four times as often.

Daniel Levitin in his book “This Is Your Mind on Music,” says “Studies of violin players by Thomas Elbert have shown that the region of the brain responsible for moving the left hand —the hand that requires the most precision in violin playing —increases in size as a result of practice.”

Researchers from UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and the Music Intelligence Neural Development Institute conducted a study on the enhanced learning of proportional math through music training and spatial-temporal training. In their abstract, they conclude, “We have demonstrated that preschool children given six months of piano keyboard lessons improved dramatically on spatial-temporal reasoning while children in appropriate control groups did not improve. Children given piano keyboard training scored significantly higher on proportional math and fractions than children given a control training.” Yes, we can achieve better math through music.

An article in the February 1999 issue of the National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin reports, “Nations whose students consistently outperform the United States in tests assessing science achievement are the countries where music is a primary focus of the curriculum.” If we examine the top three countries, Japan, the Netherlands and Hungary, we see that all three have compulsory music education. The Japanese require two class periods of music per week for grades one through six. At the middle level, students learn to sing in choruses and play instruments in ensembles. In Dutch secondary schools, music and art became mandatory in 1968, and compulsory examinations in these subjects began in 1976. In Hungary, which has the highest ranking in science achievement for eighth and ninth graders, music education has long been an essential part of the curriculum. Both voice and instrumental training twice a week are compulsory through the first eight years of schooling. The centrality of music education to learning in the top-ranked countries seems to contradict the United States’ focus on math, science, vocabulary and technology.

How is it possible that music can make such a profound impact? It results from how the brain functions. Howard Gardner, a leading researcher in education, says “Musicians follow a progression of notes, a very sequential left-brain process; seeing patterns in the construction of phrases, seeing the whole for expressive phrasing and interpretations, and dealing with rhythmic patterns, on the other hand, are very right-brain skills. Additionally, mathematical abilities involved in timing, counting and the symbolic encoding of time and sound involve abstract and spatial reasoning. All this brain activity must be consummated in the form of precise fine motor skills. Because it draws on so many different attributes, music develops flexibility in thinking. Musical training is an effective way not only to enhance the conceptual-holistic-creative thinking process, but also to assist in the melding and merging of the mind’s capabilities. Although most musical capabilities seem to be represented initially in the right hemisphere, as an individual becomes more skilled, capabilities that were housed in the right hemisphere are found increasingly in the left. It appears that with musical training a significant proportion of skills migrate across the corpus callosum into the linguistically dominant left hemisphere.” This is what helped our violin student recover from his accident.

Music is a total brain workout that both builds the capacities of logical and creative thinking and uniquely bridges the two. Hence we create scientists who are more likely to discover something new as well as artists who think and act logically.

But does music make you smarter? Grant Venerable in “The Paradox of the Silicon Savior,” says, “One of the most striking facts in Silicon Valley industry is that the very best engineers and technical designers are, nearly without exception, practicing musicians.”

Physician and biologist Lewis Thomas studied the undergraduate majors of medical school applicants. He found that 66 percent of music majors who applied to medical school were admitted. This was the highest of any group, while only 44 percent of the biochemistry majors were admitted.

The research emerging from the cognitive sciences gives us useful information to explain the connections between music and learning. Technology allowing us to see the human brain in the process of thinking demonstrates that when people listen to melodies with a variety of pitch and timbre, the right hemisphere is activated as it is when they play by ear or improvise. “When music is read, the player must understand key signatures, notation and other details of scores and follow the linear sequence of notes activating the left hemisphere in the same area that is involved in analytical and mathematical thinking,” one study concluded. This mental multitasking seems to enhance cognitive ability in powerful ways that we must not ignore.

The College Board, the entity that runs the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for college-bound students, consistently reports a 10 percent advantage in both verbal and math scores for students who have been involved in music for four or more years. Ten percent may not seem like a lot, but it can easily be the difference in a college deciding to admit an applicant. Students of the arts continue to outperform their non-arts peers. In 2005, SAT takers with coursework/experience in music performance scored 56 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 39 points higher on the math portion than students with no coursework or experience in the arts. Scores for those with coursework in music appreciation were 60 points higher on the verbal and 39 points higher on the math portion.

Our schools today serve students from a wide range of socio-economic levels. Can we afford the luxury of music that only serves a talented few? According to the research, this question is completely wrong-headed. Involvement in the arts has a positive impact on students of all socio- economic levels, as reported in a study from the UCLA Graduate School of Education. These statistics, first released in 1997, are based on a study of more than 25,000 students who were tracked for several years. The authors incorporated data from students of all ethnic and economic backgrounds so the study wouldn’t be biased by those factors. They also looked at students of low socio-economic status both as part of the entire student population and separately to see if arts education had a significant impact upon students of low socio-economic status.

The results show that 72.5 percent of students with high participation in the arts scored in the top two quartiles of the standardized achievement test for 10th grade, but only 45 percent of students with low participation in the arts did. Students with low socio-economic status but high involvement in the arts had 41.4 percent in the top two quartiles, while those with low socio-economic status and low involvement in the arts only had 24.9 percent in the top two quartiles. Other areas of measurement showed similar patterns of achievement.

Is improving the standardized test scores of students from underprivileged backgrounds by 17 percent —or of all students by 27 percent —a desired goal? If so, then this study suggests expanding the arts in the curriculum as the way to accomplish it.

Building upon the pioneering work of Dr. Frances Rauscher, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, a recent study at the University of Munster in Germany revealed that practicing the piano in early childhood expands the mind, literally altering the anatomy of the brain.

According to Dr. Rauscher, musical training (specifically piano instruction) appears to dramatically enhance a child’s abstract thinking skills and spatial-temporal ability, which are necessary for mathematics and science, even more than computer instruction does. Those children who received piano/keyboard training performed 34 percent higher on tests measuring spatial-temporal ability than the others. The combination of these scientific findings, plus ongoing research into the field, continues to point to one conclusion: music has an obvious impact on the brain and should be supported and encouraged in early childhood education.

Areport from New York reveals that the schools producing the highest academic achievement in the United States today are spending 20 to 30 percent of the day on the arts, with special emphasis on music. Included is St. Augustine Bronx Elementary School, which was about to fail in 1984 when administrators implemented an intensive music program. Today 90 percent of the students are reading at or above grade level.

The January 1997 article “The Musical Mind,” quotes Howard Gardner as saying that music might be a special intelligence that should be viewed differently from other intelligences. He stated that musical intelligence probably carries more emotional, spiritual and cultural weight than the other intelligences. But perhaps most important, Gardner says, is that music helps some people organize the way they think and works by helping them develop in other areas, such as math, language and spatial reasoning. In a January 1997 publication, Gardner states that school districts that lop off music in a child’s education are simply arrogant and unmindful of how humans have evolved with music brains and intelligences. Students are entitled to all the artistic and cultural riches the human species has created.

The research speaks clearly, the stories are legion, and the evidence is overwhelming. How should we react?

When the Santa Barbara School District mistakenly thought they had a budget shortfall in 2007, they planned to cut $400,000 from music programs through staff reduction and the elimination of elective offerings to make an already skeletal and under-funded program bear 25 percent of reductions. The same budget featured $500,000 in increases in administrative salaries. Even when the district discovered they had a $2.5 million surplus and not a $5 million shortfall, they initially failed to reinstate the programs, citing fears of possible future shortfalls. Thanks to active community advocacy, the Santa Barbara School Board eventually restored several aspects of the fine arts curriculum for the 2007-2008 school year. In November 2008 Santa Barbara voters passed a $35 parcel tax (Proposition H) to fund certain math, music and theater programs threatened by budget reductions in the public schools. Community arts advocates played a key role in restoring funding. Otherwise, reducing music education programs would have resulted in diminishing test scores, slower intellectual development and less social improvement and cultural awareness for our children.

Elementary music education has been most significantly reduced. All the studies cited here and in the literature show that the younger the student, the more profound and lasting the effect of the encounter with music. In addition, students who have no base of instruction are far less likely to elect music in the middle and high school years than those who have had sequential and developmental opportunities in the elementary years. A report by John Langstaff and Elizabeth Mayer in the journal Learning (March/April 1996) presented a rationale for the importance of music education in early childhood, “By approximately age 11, neuron circuits that permit all kinds of perceptual and sensory discrimination, such as identifying pitch and rhythm, become closed off. Not using them dooms the child to be forever tone deaf and offbeat.”

While course offerings have been preserved to some extent in the middle schools, students’ access to them is often greatly curtailed by the elimination of class periods and the resulting limited access to electives. With little or no junior high instruction, will the high schools be far behind? Soon we can be rid of those pesky and expensive marching bands, musical theater productions, choirs, orchestras (what few there are) and jazz ensembles.

Misleading financial presentations and inadequate partial gestures will not do. Music instruction must be comprehensive, systematic, accessible to all, integrated in the curriculum, sequential (beginning in the lower elementary grades) and not just available but required in the same fashion and with the same commitment as other core subjects. The cultural imperative is obvious, the research is clear. To ignore it is simply unacceptable and irresponsible.

Here is what I suggest. Simply insist to your local school authorities, both those you pay and those you elect, that music education be a component of the core educational experience for every student at every level in your school district. Demand that every student has unrestricted access to developmentally appropriate musical experiences at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week in elementary school, with an additional option for at least weekly semi-private lessons and twice-weekly ensemble experiences. This equates to a daily musical experience for every child similar to what we expect for every other core discipline. Ask that every student in middle, junior and senior high school have unfettered access to at least one music elective that doesn’t conflict with other core classes. We insist on this for other critical aspects of the curriculum, and we should do the same for music. Perhaps we should try holding bake sales to fund administrative salaries while we increase the budget for the arts.

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