Why Study Music?

Throughout much of the first half of the 20th Century, musical knowledge was considered one of the important disciplines in a learned individual’s education. Every student had mandatory general music courses in elementary, middle and high schools. More importantly, students had the opportunity to participate in a band, orchestra, or a choir in grades K—12. In fact, during the 1950s and into the 1960s when the U.S. was engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Arts in our country were given great priority (funding) since we needed to demonstrate superiority in this sector in addition to military might, space exploration, athletics, etc. There were also numerous jobs in the music industry during this period. Steady work could be found in symphony orchestras, opera and ballet companies, musical theater, choirs, television and motion picture studio orchestras, society dance bands, jazz bands, Latin music ensembles, touring groups, freelance recordings, as well as composing and arranging gigs. However, today we find ourselves in a radically different environment.

Societies for thousands of years understood the benefits of an education that mandated a wide array of arts as a part of the curriculum. “Plato’s ‘music’ included not only what we call music today, but also the dance, poetry, fine arts, literature, history and other areas of study known as the Liberal Arts.” (Assemblyman Edward C. Sullivan, ALLEGRO, 10/98) European culture dating back to the Middle Ages defined an educated person as someone who was musically literate. As European immigrants migrated to the U.S. in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries and brought their traditions and customs with them, music study became a vital part of the American definition of a well-rounded education. And it is not a discipline that is only prioritized by European and Western cultures. The more recent successes of the El Sistema and Suzuki methods of instruction which have been adopted throughout the world demonstrate that all cultures appreciate music education if it is made available and affordable.

Educational curriculums in the U.S. have moved further away from the concept of a liberal arts education to an educational policy of increased specialization at an early age, which is not necessarily directed towards Arts education. America is obsessed with a left-brain education that can easily be quantified through standardized testing procedures. The creative aspect of the brain—the right side—has been largely forgotten in traditional educational formats. Parents have been asked to pick up the pieces in most musical endeavors that their children would likey engage in. These are now perceived as extracurricular activities, nice to have on a student’s résumé but not as essential as participation in soccer leagues, tutoring programs, and religious instruction. And yet studies by the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada indicate that virtually every region of the brain is engaged during musical activity.

Educational policy in America is now being determined more by businessmen and many schools are being run like corporations. The obsession to have schools produce individuals who test well and are ready to enter the workforce as soon as possible has resulted in students faced with fewer opportunities to explore in-depth subject areas outside of their “majors” while politicians and education supervisors allocate less money for the Arts. Mass media rarely features performances of higher art forms in prime time, leaving that area to the local PBS stations or cable channels late at night. There are virtually no record companies that have contracts with any major large ensembles or non-pop artists. Most musicians have to create and publicize their works by manufacturing a community to fund their projects. All of these forces have created a different attitude in this country’s view of the study of music.

But the study of music is essential. The multi-dimensional benefits of music education as evidenced by participation in performing ensembles and other creative musical endeavors is well established. They include the following:

  1. The study of music requires commitment, patience, attention to details and an ability to organize one’s time.

  2. Learning to read musical notation and employ it while manipulating an instrument or singing is akin to learning to understand a foreign language and therefore reinforces those skills.

  3. Learning to play a musical instrument helps to improve hand/eye coordination.

  4. The performance and creation of music also demands that one learn to interact with others in rehearsals and performances in order to create successful presentations. Collaboration is an essential aspect for succeeding in any aspect of life.

  5. Performing in front of audiences helps to build confidence and can enhance one’s self-esteem.

  6. Performers, composers, educators and listeners are able to explore emotions through music that words alone often fail to elicit.

  7. Participating in the study, creation and performance of music allows one to gain a greater understanding of oneself, others, and world cultures.

All of these characteristics are necessary to succeed in any discipline—medicine, law, business, education, athletics, etc. and it has been shown that graduation rates improve when students are involved in musical activities. The goal of providing a music education should not be to see if one’s child has enough talent to become a star, elicit a scholarship from a college, or become a professional musician. The philosophy for a music education should be to allow any individual to become a lover of music and the arts while developing their individual life skills.

One doesn’t suddenly espouse a lifelong passion for music by taking just music history, general music, or theory courses in school. Humans benefit the most when they are actively involved in a discipline. In music, this includes participating in a band, orchestra, chamber ensemble, jazz band, choir, Latin ensemble, rock band, or composing music. One learns to love baseball by playing the game, not by studying statistics. (Sorry Bill James) Once performing opportunities are made available, any individual is more likely to have a greater understanding and respect for artistic endeavors and will tend to support the Arts throughout their lives. And while opportunities for those who have trained for professional careers in music have been in decline for many years before Covid, that fact alone should not prohibit the study of music as a necessary part of an educated person’s training.

For a number of years, I was contracted to play in bands that accompanied Barry Manilow whenever he performed in the NY/NJ region. During those concerts, Barry would often end the evening by saying to his audience: “Parents and grandparents, I can think of no better gift to give to your children and grandchildren than music lessons. Not so that they can become professional musicians like the ladies and gentlemen behind me, but so that they can experience the type of shared enjoyment through music that I hope we all experienced this evening.” And that is the single most important reason to study music!