Although the financial concerns of districts nationwide are legitimate, the general approach to managing these concerns may not be the most effective. Traditionally, schools decrease funding to subjects that are not nationally tested in order to focus on the core subjects. Advocates of music education suggest that rather than adding more math and reading programs, districts should implement music programs. They believe that music programs will improve students’ academic achievement in other core areas. But do these claims justify using district funds on music education?
Some administrators do not think so. While they acknowledge that music education may be beneficial, these administrators argue that it can be reserved for junior high and high school, thus alleviating financial demands in elementary school. This assumption infers that music education lacks any benefits for younger children. Advocates of elementary music education counter this assumption by noting the critical brain development experienced in childhood. While some development does continue through the teenage and adult years, research has shown that some of the most critical brain development occurs early in life.
Dr. Laurel Trainor and Dr. Takako Fujioka of Canada studied this critical period of growth of children that children experience between ages four and six years. They found that those who received musical instruction experienced accelerated brain development over a one year period. Trainor noted that “children taking music lessons improved more over the year on general memory skills that are correlated with non-musical abilities such as literacy, verbal memory, visuospatial processing, mathematics and IQ.” This research suggests that early musical instruction enhances the development of the brain’s memory and attention processes—both vital skills for future academic success. In discussing the implications of this study, Fujioka asserted, “Our work explores how musical training affects the way in which the brain develops. It is clear that music is good for children’s cognitive development and that music should be part of the preschool and primary school curriculum.” By reserving music education for secondary schools, districts risk robbing children of opportunities to gain a cognitive advantage that would serve them in their future education.
In addition to the cognitive development of the brain, research gives strong evidence that music education can foster general academic improvement as well as specific advances in nationally tested core subjects. Indeed, several studies have concluded that students who receive music education have higher academic achievement scores than those who do not. The question remains, however, whether or not the academic gains from music education are sufficient to warrant the use of district funds on elementary music programs.
Justifying the use of funds for music education would require substantial evidence that music improves nationally tested subjects under the No Child Left Behind Act. When it comes to the NCLB specifics of math, science, and reading, studies on the effects of music education deliver impressive results. Music advances the higher-brain functionality required for mathematics and science. A practical illustration of the correlation between music, math, and science was given in a 2005 report from the American Chemical Society. It noted that in the Siemens Westinghouse Competition, a prestigious competition in math, science, and technology, they found that the overwhelming majority of winners played at least one musical instrument. This prompted further study into the connection between music, math, and science.
Math and science are not alone in their connection to music. Recent studies have shown that musical training can significantly improve both early reading skills and language processing. Furthermore, music education improved verbal memory in a study of children from ages 6 to 15. The positive effects of children’s musical involvement on reading and language are as overwhelming as those for math and science.
Though there is strong evidence supporting music education in schools, administrators will likely allocate funds elsewhere to satisfy core curricular demands if they do not see that music improves students’ test scores. If national testing demands are not met, schools receive less district funding, further complicating their economic situation. For district superintendents and administrators, testing results ultimately determine whether or not schools can fund non-academic programs like music.
In a study examining the relationship between school music programs and standardized test scores, Christopher Johnson and Jenny Memmott of the University of Kansas found that students in high-quality music programs scored higher on tests compared to students in schools without them. Students involved in high-quality music programs scored 22% higher in English and 20% higher in math than their counterparts in the study. The study also showed the relationship to be consistent regardless of the socioeconomic level of the school or district. Even students in lower-quality music programs scored higher in English and math than students who had no music education. This suggests that even poorer districts see improvements in standardized test scores when music is a part of the curriculum.
Studies show that these trends continue through secondary education and into college. According to a 2006 report of the College Entrance Examination Board, students with experience in music performance scored higher than their non-musical peers by 57 points on the verbal portion and 43 points on the math section. The exposure to music education fosters invaluable academic gains that result in higher standardized test and college entrance exam scores across the board, which would bolster financial security within districts and relieve the pressure felt by so many administrators.
There is sufficient evidence to suggest that elementary music education is essential to children’s balanced development. It promotes cooperation and teamwork, fosters creative thinking skills, develops cultural awareness and appreciation, reduces anti-social behavior, and increases academic achievement in core subjects. After considering the research showing substantial increases in standardized test scores, school administrators can confidently allocate funds to elementary music programs knowing that these programs are financial assets, not liabilities. It appears that music programs may be the finest educational investment for both students and budget-conscious administrators.