By Jim Miller
Music is a force.
This statement is true both literally and figuratively.
In the scientific sense, music produces a series of physical vibrations, invisible forces that move through the air to our ears, where their frequencies are translated, their meanings interpreted by our minds.
In the more poetic sense, music is a force that moves people. The rhythms of some songs drive us to the dance floor; the lyrics of others bring us to tears.
The force of music is both immediate and enduring. A classic-rock anthem can get a coliseum-full of sports fans off their butts for a raucous rally; while heartful hymns have conveyed universal truths to congregations throughout the ages.
Music defines the moods and modes of generations while defying time itself, dancing in the afterlife of our memories long after the songs are over. Music also lives as a universal language that has the power to break cultural barriers and elevate cultural conversations.
And yet, despite all the evidence that points music’s value to humanity, our society continues to devalue its worth — at the risk of its long-term health.
The Decline in Music Education
There are plenty of examples of the devaluation of music from creation to commerce, but the most disturbing trend is the lack of music education in our schools — despite ample evidence to its benefits.
Dozens of well documented studies show that music enhances both language and math abilities; increases neural activity and motor skills; boosts self-confidence and emotional resilience; and may even increase IQ itself.
A 2007 University of Kansas study offered proof that, despite any pre-existing socioeconomic disparities, students in schools with better music programs posted higher standardized-test scores in English and math than students in schools that put less emphasis on music.
Ironically, recent decades have seen the same proportion of resources (or more) go towards programs directly related to standardized testing. All while arts programs like music continue to get cut.
The decline in music funding is nothing new. A nationwide survey conducted in 2008 by the National Endowment of the Arts showed that arts education in public schools may have peaked in the early ‘80s, when 65 percent of 18-year-olds surveyed said they had received arts education at some point in their schooling. By 2008, that number had dropped 15 points to below 50 percent.
Who knows what that number looks like in 2022 after two years of a pandemic?
What we do know is that minority populations are impacted the most by music education cuts. In that same 2008 NEA study, the decline of arts education went from 50 percent among Black students in 1982 to 26 percent in 2008, with a similar downward trend for Hispanic students (47 percent to 28 percent).
These results are echoed in studies conducted by the Save the Music Foundation: “the approximately 7,000 schools [in the U.S.] without music programs are predominantly in school districts that serve Black, immigrant and low-income student populations.”
Pythagoras Would Be Pissed
Plato and Pythagoras would not be pleased with our educational priorities. Both saw music as a vital study. That should mean something coming from two founding fathers of Western thinking.
Plato saw music as an equal counterpart to geometry: the former as an expression of number in time and the latter as number in space. These two fields, combined with arithmetic and astronomy, comprised the four major studies he discussed in The Republic.
Later become known as the quadrivium (Latin for “four ways”), these four areas of study joined grammar, logic and rhetoric as the foundation for liberal arts throughout the Middle Ages, setting the groundwork for the Renaissance.
In the 2010 book Quadrivium: The Four Classical Liberal Arts of Number, Geometry, Music & Cosmology, Keith Critchlow writes that, under another name, the quadrivium actually dates to Pythagoras, “in a community where all were equal, materially and morally, and where women had equal status to men.”
According to Critchlow, Pythagoras saw music as “the nature of the Soul.” This coming from the man who originated the first known musical scale and coined the term “Cosmos” in describing the known universe.
Which begs the question: If music was one of the original seven liberal arts — and remained so for centuries — what has changed?
And What Could Change Again?
Thankfully, we have some indications of what can happen if we choose to make improvements to the system.
A five-year case study (2017-2021) conducted in Newark, N.J. by the Save The Music Foundation shows how an increase in music-education funding can result in measurable positive results:
“With the assistance of local, state, federal and private funding, Save The Music and our Newark partners were able to provide access to music education to approximately 98 percent of more than 35,000 students across 45 public schools in the area.
“Sixty-eight percent of teachers reported [that] students improved their academic performance, while 94 percent of teachers noted improvement in social-emotional skills like ‘grit, perseverance, and teamwork’… [and] increased academic engagement.
“Schools also observed increased attendance and improved ELA scores at measured schools.”
We know music was once one of seven major foundations of study in Western civilization. We have seen evidence music enhances learning skills and engagement. And the facts point to the ugly truth that the students who could benefit the most from music education, simply aren’t getting the funding.
Yes, music is a force.
But like all forces: It only serves us if we use it to our advantage.