5 reasons to advocate carefully for music education

Peter Greene’s blog post—Stop “Defending” Music Education (6/11/2015)—has been floating in the blogosphere for a long time. Some people “Like it,” others don’t, and some don’t read it carefully.

The gist of Greene’s argument is not that music educators should stop defending music education. He’s arguing that we should stop defending what we do by “touting the test-taking benefits of music education, defending music as a great tool for raising test scores and making students smarter.” In the end, says Greene: Don’t advocate like this!

We agree—which doesn’t mean we agree with everything he says in his blog. Some of his points are right on target, but some need deeper probing.

For now, we’ll spotlight 5 issues and/or mistakes that some music educators overlook when they automatically believe “pop” advocacy claims and/or disagree with Greene’s main point. But before explaining these issues, let’s review some obvious points.

In American schooling, literacy and numeracy, and standardized tests of math and reading, are highly valued, very often at the expense of other aspects of education. The message that some music teachers take from these facts is that if we want our music programs to survive, then we should surrender to educational policymakers, which means telling parents and administrators what they want to hear (“whatever works”) like “music raises math and reading scores,” “music boosts the brain,” or any other non-musical “added-value gains.” So, many music teachers use the “whatever works” strategy to support and save their music programs.

We understand why teachers feel this way, but we don’t support these assumptions and actions. Here’s why:

1. There is NOT a critical mass of excellent research that supports claims that music raises math and reading scores, or that music boosts the brain, etc. Scholars who’ve studied possible links between music and different forms of cognitive achievement for 20, or 30+ years haven’t developed anything approaching a consensus on these issues.

So if you’re a teacher who makes “added-value” claims, be ready for one of two results:

(a) Someday, a parent or administrator will challenge you to produce solid evidence to support your claims. If you haven’t spent a lot of time studying research, good luck defending your claims. If you have, you’ll find out that nobody knows for sure—not even close.

(b) Someday, an administrator might believe you when you say that music raises math and reading test scores. If so, s/he may start evaluating your music students based on their math and reading scores, not on their musical achievements. And s/he will start evaluating you on your students’ scores.

As we mentioned in a previous post, we have many school music-teacher colleagues in New York City and beyond who are being assessed on their students’ test scores in math and reading, and so are their students. If you decide to defend your music program with empty claims about the non-musical benefits of music, this could easily “kill the music” in your music program.

So let’s be very careful what we claim and wish for, which is Peter Greene’s point, too. Claiming that music “makes students smarter,” or better at math or literacy, could produce negative outcomes for music teachers.

2. A big issue many teachers fail to think about is this: What do advocates mean when they say “music” raises math and reading scores, or “music” boosts your brain? Do they mean Jay Z’s hip-hop music boosts your brain? Or do they mean West African drumming, Philip Glass’s minimalist’s pieces, or Shakuhachi flute playing increase cognitive functioning? Maybe they mean that kids who play Holst’s First Suite in Eb for Military Band—or Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, or sing “O Music, Sweet Music,” or play “Twinkle, Twinkle”—will get better math scores. Or maybe they mean kids will develop better language skills if they listen to Taylor Swift’s songs, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “Music” is hugely varied, which is another reason why researchers don’t know whether or not “music” has specific non-musical benefits.

For example, is there any solid research that demonstrates there is a one-to-one causal relationship between playing or listening to “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” and (a) a significant increase in (say) all 8-year-old boys’ math scores in Los Angeles (or any place), or (b) marginal improvements in all adolescents’ listening abilities in Harlem, or anywhere else? No. There is absolutely no valid and reliable research that indicates or “proves” any such claims. If you don’t believe us, read these researchers, who’ve spent their lives studying such things: Glenn Schellenberg, Ellen Winner, and Eugenia Costa-Giomi.

3. The eminent British music scholar Susan Hallam also questions the relationship between music and mathematical abilities. She asks: What math? All math? Specific mathematical principles? Geometry? Calculus?

4. One variable that people tend to omit when they talk about “music and the brain,” or “music raises academic scores,” is that TEACHERS play a huge role in whether or not music students succeed musically, or whether music motivates them to achieve more in school and life. A great—an effective, educative, and ethical—teacher, who is also musical, may improve students’ lives. But s/he can’t claim that there’s a causal relationship between her music teaching and better academic achievement because there’s far too many variables involved in students’ lives.

5. Do you = your brain? No. Do scientists know everything there is to know about the human brain? No.

Neuroscientists aren’t even close to understanding everything about the brain. Scientists’ current knowledge of the brain is extremely incomplete. Imagine that the brain = Mt. Everest. From this perspective, the majority of scientists argue that our present understanding of the brain is only in the foothills of Everest. Scholars aren’t even close to the summit.

As neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran explains, the brain “is the most complexly organized structure in the universe.” The brain contains 100 billion nerve cells or “neurons” that engage in “something like 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons” all the time, which means the brain is entirely capable of making and maintaining about 100 trillion synaptical connections. Stated another way, “the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity … exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe.”

If each person is unique, and if it’s true that the current population of our planet is about 7 billion people, is it likely that today’s scientists know enough about the brain to be sure that every American adolescent hears, feels, interprets, and values Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst, or “If I Had Hammer,” in the same way? No.

Takeaway message: The next time you read an advocacy blog that says music boots the brain, or that music is good because it stimulates the right brain, or music increases math or literacy skills, it’s nonsense. Music is processed throughout the brain, the body, and the mind. Our experiences of music making and listening result from our unique conscious (and nonconscious) interactions with the world. Such interactions are extremely complex.

Summing up, scientists simply don’t know exactly how the brain functions. Accordingly, it’s dangerous to advocate for music education using music-and-math, and music-and-brain claims. However, we do know why music is valuable for its own sake—for the “goods” of actively engaging in music making and listening, as we explain in MM2 and elsewhere.