Music education, it seems, is just plain good for you. In addition to recent research that suggests music training improves literacy, increases brain function, and leaves a lasting mark on the adult brain, a recent study out of Finland featured in the journal Music Education Research found that, even when controlled for gender, school music lessons for four hours a week, over time, left students feeling good about all aspects of school.
Researchers Päivi-Sisko Eerola and Tuomas Eerola looked at Finnish public schools that offered “extended music education,” in which students had to test in by singing and showing reasonable music skills. According to the study, students who were in the extended music classes after three years of participation (grades 3 through 6) were happier with all aspects of school than those who took a standard music class (they did not indicate how often the regular music class met).
“The results suggest that studying music does provide measurable social benefits. In the comprehensive school, pupils in the classes with extended music education were generally more satisfied with school life than pupils in the classes with a normal music education curriculum,” the researchers wrote.
The Eerolas point out that Finnish students had high test scores but low satisfaction scores, and school leaders responded by bringing in more “voluntary classes” like art and music to help students engage. Here in the U.S., many schools already recognize music classes as a priority for a variety of social and academic benefits, but hurdles like time and money keep schools from offering even elementary school students dedicated music class more than two times per week.
Some schools, however, are choosing to make music education a priority, finding creative ways to stretch both time and money to make daily music a reality. At the W.B. Travis Vanguard/Academy for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas, Texas, orchestra director Ken Hurst said that principal Mari Smith decided to make music a priority for students when the middle school opened 10 years ago. For students who choose instrumental music as an elective, classes are offered five days a week.
Hurst said that while most Texas schools secure a music budget from the state, music teachers still find they have to supplement: “Although most music directors resort to getting funding through fundraisers, PTA, grants, etcetera, almost all schools have some budget to provide for a music program,” he said.
In another creative move to reach more students, Hurst also teaches introductory music to fourth-graders at a local elementary school, and provides assistance to the orchestra director at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
Teaching at several schools and going out to get the extra funding in order to provide daily music education shows Hurst how important music is for the students. He cited a recent survey in Southwestern Musician showing Texas All State Band, Choir and Orchestra participants scored significantly higher on standardized tests, and were also ranked among the highest in their graduating classes.
“These music courses are electives, and not all students are required to take them,” Hurst said. “However, the fact that many students take music courses in band, choir, and orchestra would indicate that these students are enjoying that experience. I believe that most of them realize that the study of music enriches their lives in ways that nothing else can.”
Hurst said he’d heard about the Finnish study from a colleague. “I’m very interested in and intrigued by studies and research into the ways that music influences our lives intellectually and emotionally,” he said. “I think it would be wise for leaders in our educational systems to attempt to better understand the potential benefits of the study of music and to take that a step even further, adopt teaching strategies of the best music programs to teaching of the core subjects.”
At John Swett Elementary in Martinez, Calif., principal Adam Welcome said he’s grateful to have a credentialed music teacher, and three solid hours of music per week for every student. Welcome is committed to building John Swett’s music program, and that has meant getting creative — both in finances and in scheduling.
In order to squeeze in enough time for both music and physical education, said Welcome, they have done something a bit out of the ordinary by combining the two. The result is a kind of dance class with instruments that the kids love. “In order to reach first through fifth grade — five hundred kids and one music teacher — on a weekly basis, on Wednesdays we do PE (dance) and music together,” he said. The combination class takes place in the cafeteria, and the curriculum includes both ballroom and country dancing. “Our music teacher uses tons of drums and equipment for music and dancing. I came from a different district, and I’ve never seen a program like this before,” he added. “It’s pretty unique.”
Welcome said the school has also integrated their 1:1 laptop program into music class, where kids are writing beats and rhythms as well as creating podcasts and recordings. And to help get their new band program off the ground, the school used Donors Choose and secured a $35,000 grant for instruments.
For Welcome, squeezing in as much music as possible is a top priority at John Swett, since much of modern schooling has to fall in line with standardized testing and what he calls “fill-in-the-blank.” Welcome said he is aiming to educate the whole child, and that definitely includes music.
“There is a very small population of my kids who get an instrument other than the radio,” he said. “Kids may not be exposed to it [music education] otherwise.”