Nov 4, 2010 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.
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benefits of music in schools

Educators, researchers and education policy-makers have long discussed the benefits of structured music education. In today's environment of shrinking district resources, the arts are often early arrivals to the budgetary chopping block. Certainly, math, science, language arts and social studies are essential subjects, but we must also understand exactly what is lost when we cut arts programs. When we let go music education, we let rest layers upon layers of essential learning.

  • We lose the cultural understanding and historical knowledge that accompanies such training.
  • We remove an environment and a medium that is highly conducive to the acquisition and honing of essential skills for workplace success such as collaboration and creativity.
  • We lose proven benefits to learning and brain function. Through the mechanisms of brain plasticity, music contributes to the development of listening and cognitive skills essential for language.

While all of these losses are arguably of equal importance, I wish to focus on the last. In their August 2010 article Music Training for the Development of Auditory Skills, Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran present the neuroscience research demonstrating that music training, in the same way that physical exercise impacts body fitness, "tones the brain for auditory fitness." Specifically, Kraus and Chandrasekaran examine three specific areas of brain function where music training positively affects function:

  • Transfer of cognitive skills: Music has been shown to affect how the brain processes pitch, timing and timbre. Along with describing music, these are also key elements of speech and language—that are positively affected by musical training.
  • Fine tuning of auditory skills: "Musicians, compared with non-musicians, more effectively represent the most meaningful, information-bearing elements in sounds — for example, the segment of a baby's cry that signals emotional meaning, the upper note of a musical chord or the portion of the Mandarin Chinese pitch contour that corresponds to a note along the diatonic musical scale." While music does not appear to affect visual memory or attention, research shows that it does affect auditory verbal memory and auditory attention.
  • Better recognition of "regularities": The human brain is wired to filter regular predictable patterns out from the noise surrounding us (e.g., we can pick out a friend's voice in a room filled with many other sounds and voices.) Musical training enhances this cognitive ability.

Based on this information, Kraus and Chandresekaran argue "that active engagement with music promotes an adaptive auditory system that is crucial for the development of listening skills. An adaptive auditory system that continuously regulates its activity based on contextual demands is crucial for processing information during everyday listening tasks."

Kraus and Chandresekaran end their article with a discussion of the implications for education. All of the skills and abilities discussed above clearly have the potential to impact student success and achievement "by improving learning skills and listening ability, especially in challenging listening environments."  Whether considered as content, as skills or as brain processing exercise, the benefits of music should be carefully weighed as we evaluate its place in the school day.

For additional reading on the positive effects of music education, check out: