Music, the Brain, and Why it Matters


Music Love
Music Love Wallpaper by Widescreen Wallpapers

         If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that many people love music. Throughout my research and interview process, passion was the most common theme. Whether it’s singing, playing an instrument, or even just listening, music is an important part of many people’s lives. In addition to its abundance of fans, many studies suggest educational, cognitive, and emotional benefits to music. However, not all students will have the opportunity to receive these benefits, due to one of the biggest barriers in our schools and communities- funding. Since 2008, funding has been cut in more than 80% of U.S. public school districts. When these cuts occur, it is often disciplines such as music, art, and foreign language that are the first programs to go (Boyd, 2014). Even though there are many studies that suggest the link between music and educational success, many schools and communities struggle to provide those meaningful opportunities, due to lack of funds. And believe it or not, in the beginning of 2017 the new presidential administration’s budget plan proposed to completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts- a national organization that brings meaningful opportunities for arts integration and education into our schools and communities. Now is the time to support music in our schools and community, but how? Upon reading this article, hopefully you will be ready to take the next steps.

Table of Contents-
Table of Contents
Important Definitions
History of Music Education in Public Schools
The Educational Benefits of Music
-Language Acquisition
-Motor Skills
-Emotional Intelligence
Physical Changes to the Brain

Funding Information and Statistics
The Importance of Music. Period.
Proposed Cuts to National Endowment for the Arts- Why It Matters
Supporting Music in Our Schools and Communities

Important Definitions-

To view the Important Definition for this research article, please click here.

History of Music Education in Public Schools-
         As explained by Holly Oliver, Head of Music Education at Plymouth State University, the first opportunities for music in American communities was through private singing schools or church choir performance. Sometimes, singing companies or church groups would travel town to town, teaching church music. It wasn’t until 1836 that music education was first introduced into public schools (H. Oliver, personal communication, April 12, 2017).

lowel mason
Photo of Lowell Mason from Hymn Time

“In 1836, two petitions by Boston citizens and a memorial from the Boston Academy of Music were submitted to the Boston School Committee” (Mark, 2007).  All three documents called for the introduction of vocal music lessons in the public schools. In response to this, the school committee appointed a special committee on music to review the petitions and make recommendations for how to proceed. On August 24, 1837, the committee recommended that vocal music instruction be introduced into four of the public schools on an experimental basis. It is said that this recommendation was based on three utilitarian reasons: intellectual, moral, and physical development. This experiment was supervised by the Boston Academy of Music (Mark, 2007).

          Although the report was approved by the committee, the Boston Common Council refused to appropriate funds for the experiment. In response, Lowell Mason volunteered to teach at the Hawes School in South Boston for free, which the school committee agreed to (Mark, 2007).

          At the conclusion of this experiment in 1838, the Boston School Committee approved a motion to instruct the Committee on Music to appoint a vocal music teacher in all of the Boston public schools. This action very well may have been the first time that music was approved as a subject of the public school curriculum. It is also referred to as the “Magna Charta of Music Education” (Mark, 2007). As this program began to take off, more states decided to incorporate music into their curriculum. Some of the other states that integrated music into their curriculum at an early date were: New York, Connecticut, Maryland, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Ohio (Mark, 2007).

           “The introduction of music into the school curriculum was a critical and


Taxes by The Dough Roller


profound event for American schools because it opened the way for the development of music education as we know it today” (Mark, 2007). As the public began to realize the value of music to our society, music began to enter the public school curriculum across the nation. However, even from an earlier time, “more needed to be done before Americans were willing to spend their tax money on music in public education” (Mark, 2007), which we are still seeing to this very day.

The Educational Benefits of Music

           Music has the potential to be an incredibly beneficial application for learning and enhancing our neural systems. Our brain, and all of its systems and connections, are plastic; we can stretch and adapt our neural wiring to fit our needs and abilities. This means that we need to continuously supply our brains with appropriate exercise to continue to grow and progress. One way of enhancing these neural connections is through music; playing an instrument is proven to help stimulate these neural connections that power abilities from basic motor skills to language acquisition. We access our temporal lobe, parietal lobe, cerebellum, motor cortex, and a variety

Photo by The Odyssey Online

 of different sensory areas when we play an instrument. Thinking of all the elements involved with playing an instrument makes this theory perfectly clear; reading sheet music involves our occipital lobe, listening to the sounds incorporates our auditory areas, moving body parts in such precise ways helps to develop motor skills and hand-eye-coordination which is controlled by the cerebellum and other areas, while simultaneously incorporating our long-term memory storage in our motor areas and temporal lobe. These different neural systems come together, working incredibly hard to broaden their abilities, which therefore strengthens and maintains their connections. This is what exercising our brain consists of, engaging every single neural system that we can while feeling engaged and stimulated (S. Nigrelli, personal communication, April 29, 2017).

          This neurological concept can also be explained through the lens of transferable applicable skills in both music and other subjects. Many elements found in music are also found in other subjects. Therefore, music helps fine-tune skills necessary for many other disciplines. For example, by listening to music, you are practicing recognizing pitch, rhythm, and tempo, elements which are also essential for language acquisition (Brown, 2012).

          Physicist Gordon Shaw hypothesizes that by connecting associated groups of neural systems, you are helping your brain gain pattern recognition skills. Pattern recognition allows you to identify stimuli based on information stored in your memory. This multiple-site, cross-activation may be necessary for higher brain functions including cognition, memory, etc. Because music is an easy, effective way of unifying our neural systems, it can be assumed that music can be a fast track to activating and enhancing high brain activities (Jensen, 2001).

            The next step in the equation to neural success is passion. Studies have shown that feeling truly passionate and engaged in what you are doing will only be beneficial towards strengthening the neural connections being activated. Basically, the more you enjoy something, the more you retain. Most people truly enjoy music, which would lead someone to suggest that music has incredible potential in helping people be passionate about learning (S. Nigrelli, personal communication, April 29, 2017).

          Another study, which was the first long-term study to directly correlate neural structuring with behavioral changes over time in the developing brain,  demonstrated plasticity that occurred with only 15 months of instrumental musical training.  Structural changes in motor and auditory areas were correlated with improvements on motor and auditory-musical tests. This means that instrumental musical training can improve motor and auditory functions, aiding neural development. This is critical for brains that are still developing, meaning children (Hyde et al. 2009).

          Music can also help us think by activating and synchronizing the neural electrical


Photo by 


pulses that are in charge of connecting multiple brain sites. This neural synchrony increases the brain’s efficiency and effectiveness, strengthening connections between key systems of the brain located in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes, as well as the cerebellum. These vital parts of the brain are responsible for many different tasks, from motor movement and development to making sense of sensory information (Jensen, 2001).


  • Mathematics

          As previously discussed, many of the skills that are essential towards learning mathematics are also strengthened by singing, playing, or listening to music. There is strong evidence in support of music’s positive impact on mathematical abilities; research suggests training children in music at a young age tends to improve their mathematical skills. “One particular study published in the journal ‘Nature‘ showed that when groups of first graders were given music instruction that emphasized sequential skill development and musical games involving rhythm and pitch, after six months, the students scored significantly better in math than students in groups that received traditional music instruction” (Zhan, 2008).


CC 2.0 Math by Jeremy Mikkola


          Another study conducted suggests that a part of the direct value of playing music comes from fine-tuning skills in spatial reasoning, which is one of the first essential skills in proportional mathematics (Jensen, 2001).

          In addition, the parts of the brain that are responsible for mathematical abilities are located in the left temporal lobe, an area highly involved with music (Jensen, 2001). This suggests that engaging in music strengthens the connection in the brain that are also important in mathematics.

          The success of other countries suggests that music may be the foundation for later math and science excellence. In Japan, Hungary, and the Netherlands, music instruction is required. In Japan, students have at least two music courses per week. In Hungary, students attend three music classes a week unless they enroll in the music magnet schools, where they receive daily music instruction. In the Netherlands, music became mandatory in 1968. Today, students are assigned comprehensive art projects to complete before graduation. In these countries, math and science scores are near the top in the world, which may have something to do with these music programs! (Jensen, 2001).

  • Memorization/Retention

          In his book Arts with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen suggests that music enhances memory by activating our attentional systems (or what we pay attention to) and multiple memory systems for both explicit and implicit memory. “By activating multiple memory pathways, we can dramatically improve our chances for retention and recall” (Jensen, 2001).

          Jensen also suggests that music helps our memory because the beat, the melody, and the harmonies serve as “carriers” for the semantic content. This is why it’s easier to remember the words to a song than a conversation. Put keywords to music, and you are much more likely to remember the information. In a study by North Texas University, researcher Barbara Stein and her colleagues used two groups. “The control group of college students heard no music during their review of 25 vocabulary words. The experimental group heard Handel’s Water Music. The music group had significantly higher scores than those who listened in silence (Stein, Hardy, & Totten, 1984).” (Jensen, 2001).

A clip from my own personal experiment testing the power of music and memory:

          To further this connection, Jensen identifies another study in which twenty-seven kindergartners participated in a program that brought music into their whole-language reading program. These kids were divided into three groups. The first group rehearsed with only spoken text. The second group rehearsed their text only through song. The third group rehearsed their text through spoken word and song. The students were asked to try to recall the text, and identify any mistakes or sections left out. The two groups that rehearsed using music proved far superior to the text-only group (Colwell, 1994). This finding supports the hypothesis that music facilitates verbal memory (Jensen, 2001).

          Another method used to increase memory and retention are called concerts. There are two categories of concerts- active concerts (which activates the learning process mentally, physically, and/or emotionally) and passive concerts (which help the student’s alpha brain relax and stabilize their mental, physical, and emotional rhythm to increase information absorption.) Each of these methods result in high memory retention. When these concerts are used together, it provides a powerful learning experience (Brewer, 1995).

          Students that receive music instruction have better memory recall, which helps in many academic areas and may improve test scores. A study by Christopher Johnson in 2007 showed that regardless of socioeconomic levels, schools that had successful music programs outperformed schools with low-quality music programs or no programs, with 22% higher scores in English and 20% higher scores in mathematics. A 1997 study by Phi Delta Kappan showed that math test scores increased proportional to the amount of time spent in arts education (Cutler, 2016).

  • Language Acquisition

          Researchers out of Northwestern University found that there are five skills that underlie language acquisition: “phonological awareness, speech-in-noise perception, rhythm perception, auditory working memory and the ability to learn sound patterns” (Merzenich, 2014). As previously mentioned, the key to music’s educational benefits lies


Children and the Singing Voice by Deborah Aloba


within the transferable skills that are applicable to other disciplines. Through reviewing a series of longitudinal studies, researchers found that each of these skills are exercised and strengthened by music lessons. “Children randomly assigned to music training alongside reading training performed much better than those who received other forms of non-musical stimulation, such as painting or other visual arts.” (Merzenich, 2014). This suggests that by singing, playing, or listening to music, you are also fine-tuning essential skills for language acquisition.

          In the book Music, Language, and the Brain, Aniruddh D. Patel suggests there is another beneficial link between music and language acquisition: “Song employs intensified versions of the affective cues used in speech” (Patel, 2008). Philosophers and theorists as far back as Plato support this theory, by speculating that music’s expressive power lies in acoustic cues related to the sounds of emotive voices. This concept is practical because there is a relationship between vocal affect and musical aspects of speech such as pitch, tempo, volume, and timbre. “For example, tempo and average pitch height are important cues to affect in both speech and music: Sad voices and musical passages are likely to be slower and lower pitch than happy ones” (Patel, 2008). Therefore, by engaging in musical activities, you are also strengthening many skills needed for language acquisition.

  • Motor Skills

          Frank Wilson, assistant clinical professor of neurology at the University of California School of Medicine, says that learning to play an instrument connects, develops, and refines the entire neurological and motor brain systems  In regards to our motor skills, Wilson states, “In order for our movements to be effective, the brain, or the motor control system, must complete records of which muscles are doing what at every instant and regulate the degree of contraction and relaxation of every muscle participating in a particular move, or precise control would not occur” (Wilson, 1999). Gaining these skills is essential for all movement. Although different instruments require different level of gross and fine motor skills, playing an instrument of any kind means that you are constantly practicing and strengthening these skills, leading to a more defined motor system.

          Gross motor skills are defined as movements made with large muscle groups, such as walking or jumping. Fine motor skills are defined as smaller movements using the tongue, lips, fingers, hands, wrists, toe, and feet. Take string instruments such as the violin or viola. These require strong fine motor skills. Violinists need to hold the bow precisely and sometimes pluck the strings. Fingers need to be placed carefully for the notes to be in tune. They also help enhance gross motor skills. String instruments require (and can help develop) a skill called “bilateral integration.” This is the ability to use both sides of the body together in a coordinated way (Wright, 2017).

*To view a chart of other instruments and what motor skills they use, click here.

          In addition to Wilson’s findings, a study by Virginia Penhune at Concordia


Photo by Kevin Beck

University also suggests that musical training has benefits to motor abilities and associated brain structures. He also adds, “the earlier a child starts instrumental training, the stronger the connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain” (Boyd, 2014).

          In one study by Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, children ages 5-7 began instrumental music training after having undergone preliminary brain scans and cognitive tests to establish baseline information. A control group was used and matched according to similar performances, age, and socioeconomic status to ensure comparative results. After 15 months, the students who had musical instruction displayed greater improvement in fine motor skills and the ability to decipher different auditory cues. The study also determined structural brain differences in the areas linked to motor and auditory processing, and in various frontal areas (Wilson, 1999).

          In addition to research, I had the privilege of interviewing two musicians who used instrumental instruction to help them gain motor skills in their real lives. “We got me into piano lessons and it actually started as a therapy because I was born two months premature,” explained Alex Ager, current Music Education major at Plymouth State University. “So, there were a lot of complications with dealing with noise and working on gross and fine motor skills. And so that was starting out as a therapy for me so I could become desensitized to noise and be able to work my fingers, arms, and [more]’ (A. Ager, personal communication, April 25, 2017). Now thanks to his love of playing music, Alex has been student teaching at Laconia Elementary school as a part of his Music Education degree.


Empowering Youth Through Movement Workshop, led by David Lynch and Taylor Fournier


David Lynch, LCSW and and Social Work/Dance Professor at Plymouth State University shared some of his personal story with music and motor skills, “I had a lot of trouble with fine motor skills and hand-eye-coordination. Learning to play the clarinet […] really helped with [those skills]” (D. Lynch, personal communication, April 25, 2017).  David went on to compose a 5 movement symphony for his college band, and now teaches a course on how to use movement to empower youth.

  • Emotional Intelligence

          “With musical experience, we ought to be better able to detect and respond to emotions. One study suggests that music improves emotional awareness (Alexander & Beatty, 1996)” (Jensen, 2001).


CC: Public Domain


          The benefits of cognition and emotional expression are intertwined. This means that the way we organize and maintain our thoughts and the way we express our feelings, and make sense of emotions in general, are interconnected.  Our brain processes information from the auditory area and deems it emotionally significant; when emotional meaning and auditory input are combined, the information is coded and worth storing in long-term memory.  This means that being emotionally engaged in what you’re listening to will help access and gain storage in our long-term memories.  This shows the benefits of music, and how cognition and emotional expressions are intertwined and beneficial to strengthening neural systems (Jensen, 2001).

          The way to access and develop emotional intelligence is through taking advantage of, and mechanising, neural networks, which are complex patterns of neurons that stabilize and establish our behaviors.  Neural connections begin as sensory activation, making new connections based on genetic and environmental stimuli. This means that our brains are deciding which neural connections to keep based on what experiences we have and what our genetic make up is. Music evokes emotion which is a proven way to activate these sensory areas, helping develop new connections and strengthen pre-existing ones (Jensen, 2001).


  • OTHER-
    The neural connections in our brains communicate through electrical currents or pulses, also known as brain waves. Music helps create an atmosphere by stabilizing our emotional and physical rhythms. This helps attain a state of deep concentration and focus, getting our brains into an alpha brainwave state in which massive amounts of information can be learned and stored.  This would make learning vocabulary and memorizing facts incredibly effective while being engaged in music (Brewer, 1995).

Cognitive Systems:
          Making music is beneficial to the development of extremely vital systems in our brains that help us generate thought and cognition, including: reasoning, creativity, thinking, decision making, and problem solving (Jensen, 2001).

           Engaging in music’s many outlets, like playing an instrument or singing, can improve our abilities in auditory refinements, such as making more precise acoustic distinctions. These qualities can also influence a variety of other skills in positive ways, especially reading and listening.  This developmental impact comes from the physical rewiring and growth in brain areas that regulate these skills.  These changes and improvements can have lasting implications, including a significant effect on perceptual abilities. Changes in our behavior are parallel to the physical changes of our brain; these neural connections or synapses are created and strengthened when the brain is engaged in these challenging and repetitive tasks (Jensen, 2001).



CC: Public Domain


          The rhythmic abilities that are enhanced by playing music are also correlated to early reading skills. A study found that musically trained children are better at processing sounds and language than non-musically trained children. The same researcher previously found that learning music could potentially improve concentration, memory, and focus, by strengthening neural connections and functions. Music remodels or rewires the brain to improve the connections between sounds and meaning (Musical training ‘can., 2014).

Social Skills:
          Jensen hypothesizes that, “Music activates and develops the areas most involved in our brains that facilitate mood, social skills, motivational development, cultural awareness, self-discipline and personal management, and aesthetic appreciation” (Jensen, 2001).


-Physical Changes in the Brain due to Music:
          One study found that listening to music for just one hour each day may reorganize the brain. A group of 4-year-olds heard classical music for one hour a day. Electroencephalogram (EEG) readouts showed their brains spent more time in the alpha brainwave state, which allows for higher concentration and retention. This study showed that music influences brain activity in general, but more specifically, neural connections and coherence (Jensen, 2001).

          An autopsy performed on a renowned violinist showed the area in the brain responsible for hearing reception was twice as thick as normal. A similar study on the part of the brain involved with speech, the cortex, suggests that postnatal experience with sounds enhances changes on a cellular level.  These findings are paving the way for more research on the benefits of music-making (Jensen, 2001).

          An area of the brain that is involved with keeping beat and rhythm, the cerebellum, was roughly 5% larger in musicians than non-musicians (Jensen, 2001).

Funding Information and Statistics
          Since 2008, funding has been cut in more than 80% of U.S. public school districts. When these cuts occur, it is often disciplines such as music, art, and foreign language that are the first programs to go (Boyd, 2014). Studies from the 2009-2010 school year report that music education was almost universally available in U.S. public elementary schools, with 94% of schools offering instruction that was designated specifically for music. In secondary schools, music instruction was available in 91%  (Boyd, 2014).


CC: Public Domain


          However, what schools offer for music instruction and what students receive aren’t always the same. Many schools throughout America have only one music teacher and 1000 students, meaning not all students get the same amount (or any) music. “There’s some evidence in the DOE study to suggest the impossibly large student/teacher ratios Kessler describes, but you really have to hunt for it. Take Table 70, one of 165 supplemental tables: it shows that only 81% of secondary schools with an enrollment under 500 offer music as compared to 98% of secondary schools with a thousand students or more. Coincidence? I think not. Even if one simply uses the DOE’s enrollment numbers to calculate the number of students in schools without music instruction at all, that’s over 2.1 million children across the country — likely a conservative estimate” (Pellegrinelli, 2012).

          Elementary school music specialists rated the support for their programs “somewhat or very inadequate” in a multitude of areas: funding (40%), facilities (27%), materials, equipment, tools and instruments (23%), instructional time (28%) and the number of arts specialists (36%) (Pellegrinelli, 2012). What the report does spell out quite clearly is the difference between the availability of the arts in low-poverty schools as compared to high-poverty schools. In 1999-2000, it was reported that 100% of high-poverty secondary schools offered music instruction. Today, that number has fallen to only 81%. 

Statistics from Chicago, 2011.

          A report from the National Endowment for the Arts suggests that high levels of engagement in the arts by the lowest socioeconomic quarter of students corresponds with higher numbers of students who have better academic outcomes, are more civically engaged, and express higher career goals. How would our society change if we could teach music to the 2.1 million students currently denied that opportunity? (Pellegrinelli, 2012).

          “So why do we still have to fight to include music in the curriculum?” Eric Jensen asks. He suggests that the answer lies within the perspectives of our policymakers and politicians. “The unfortunate answer is that most policymakers and politicians are interested in the input-output ratio. That’s the cost per student per year against the resulting test scores—the old factory model of education.” To many, the arts are not seen as “efficient.” Although many benefits of music education take time to show, once they do, they are very strong and impactful. However by that point, policymakers have already made their decisions- which is that music doesn’t have a quick enough output to deserve funding.

The Importance of Music Education. Period.

“Music is biologically part of human life, just as music is aesthetically part of human life” – Mark Jude Tramo, Neurobiologist of Harvard Medical School (Jensen, 2001).

          It’s true, there are many studies that suggest educational benefits to music education and integration. However, it’s also true that music is important to have in our schools and communities for many more reasons than just educational success.

          An article written by Peter Green suggests reasons outside of the educational and development benefits of music integration in our schools and communities. Some of these reasons include:

  • it’s prominent everywhere in our everyday lives
  • “Listening to music is profoundly human. It lets us touch and understand some of our most complicated feelings. It helps us know who we are, what we want, how to be ourselves in the world”
  • the concept of playing music is majestic.
  • Music connects us to other humans in amazing ways. 


    Music by Paradox 56 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


  • “It is both indescribable and enormously compelling to see the many ways in which humans making music come together and connect to each other.”
  • “When a group of bands or choirs give their all, everybody wins.”

          Throughout the interview process, many people shared their thoughts about why music education is important outside of academics. David Lynch states, “I believe that STEM and science are essential in education. They teach us how to be more comfortable in our world […] and have some control over our environment. I also feel though, that music education and the humanities are equally important because they teach us how to have power with and be with our communities” (D. Lynch, personal communication, April 25, 2017).

          Within many other interviews, my interviewees discussed music ability to express themselves and the benefit of having the outlet in school. Current Plymouth State University student Emily Sullivan states, “you need your arts to express everything that can’t just be describe in words” (E. Sullivan, personal communication, April 24, 2017). Emily was not the only person with this opinion. Nicki Meldonian, an aspiring Music Therapist, explains, “I’m not the best at expressing myself through words, so music has helped with that,” (N. Meldonian, personal communication, April 26, 2017). However, expression through the arts is not just something you may find within yourself. David Lynch also shared, “In my work as a therapist and a social worker I’m constantly using [the performing arts] to reach kids that I just can’t reach verbally,” (D. Lynch, personal communication, April 25, 2017). Overall, I think it’s a pretty universal concept- many people feel that music helps them express themselves, an important factor in a child’s development.

          Related to self-expression, many interviewees sensed that music was a powerful way of helping someone cope. “It’s impacted my life very much so. It’s gotten me through a lot of hard times,” shared Nicki Meldonian, (N. Meldonian, personal communication, April 26, 2017). Emily Sullivan and musician Tyler Silva also shared personal stories about how music has been a helpful coping mechanism in their personal lives.

          “Music unites us. Music brings us together and it gives children that sense of unity and that sense of connection with other people so that we can really learn how to be a society and learn to be a community,” David Lynch stated, (D. Lynch, personal communication, April 25, 2017). Playing, singing, or listening to music can help you bond with your peers and the community. Middle school and high school are often difficult times in the lives of youth. Giving them an opportunity to create strong and meaningful connections with their peers holds many benefits. As David continues, “It was extremely helpful socially. I was a kid that was bullied a lot in school, but our high school band was a very unified group because they were united through music and through discipline… So the second I got to high school, the bullying stopped, because the upperclassmen in the band were not going to allow one of their fellow band members to be bullied by anybody in the school” (D. Lynch, personal communication, April 25, 2017).

          And he wasn’t alone. Alex Ager, Music Educator, explains his thoughts about his school years if music education wasn’t in the picture: “I probably wouldn’t have found a space where I could go to and I know that I can just be myself and be comfortable. In middle and high school socially wasn’t too great, so I found social solace in the music room and the music program,” (A. Ager, personal communication, April 25, 2017). In my own personal experience, the people that I perform with end up feeling like a family. Why would we want to deny that opportunity to students in public schools?

          In addition, Holly Oliver touches on the importance of recognizing the need for social-emotional learning in our children and youth: “We really can’t even begin to think about education in the content areas if we don’t have healthy children […] we give them breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we provide them with recess, [we provide a lot of opportunities for them], but we really haven’t done the social-emotional piece yet, and I see it every day in this job. The amount of unofficial counseling that I provide is astronomical,” (H. Oliver, personal communication, April 12, 2017).

           When asked, “what do you think is the biggest disadvantage to losing music education in our public schools?” I received many corresponding answers, each of which touching on that important theme- recognizing the essence of humanity within each child that can be exercised through music.

Roland Dubois: “You wouldn’t be exposed to an integral part of being a human.”

David Lynch: “I believe that music education is essential to educating the whole student and the whole child and the whole human-being.”

Holly Oliver: “I think the biggest disadvantage is that we are not looking at the whole child, and we are not recognizing the essence of humanity and culture that is connected and communicated through music.”

          As graduating Plymouth State University student Roland DuBois explains, “[Music education and integration is] a foundation in the arts that unfortunately in this country, kids can’t always receive outside of the public school system,” (R. DuBois, personal communication, April 28, 2017) and he is absolutely correct. Without music in our schools, not all students would have access to music. They would not have access to the educational, emotional, and general benefits that music can provide. Roland describes how music education and integration in his school system helped him realize an important life lesson: “Teaching kids at a young age that art is okay is everything. It means that life isn’t just a job; life is how you make it” (R. DuBois, personal communication, April 28, 2017).

Proposed Cuts to National Endowment for the Arts- Why It Matters

          When Donald Trump released his first federal budget plan in the beginning of 2017, many artists, museums, and cultural organizations nationwide felt a deep sense of fear. The “Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” proposed to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, a national organization that provides meaningful opportunities for art integration into our schools and communities (Avins, 2017).
          The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was created in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, as he declared that, “any ‘advanced civilization’ must fully value the arts, the humanities, and cultural activity” (Deb, 2017). Although the budget has decreased since then, Trump’s proposal was the first time that a president has called for ending the endowment (Deb, 2017).
          “Today we learned that the President’s FY 2018 budget blueprint proposes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts,” the agency said in a statement on its website. “We are disappointed because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every Congressional District in the nation”


666 Fifth Avenue by Tishman Speyer Properties


The total cost of the NEA’s budget is $147.9 million, a pittance in the grand scheme of the current federal budget- just 0.013% of all discretionary spending (which includes things like transportation, housing assistance, and defense, but excludes Medicare and Social Security), or 0.004% of the total federal budget in 2015. “For some perspective, the NEA’s total budget amounts to about 0.06% of the projected total cost of Trump’s proposed border wall (or, put another way, a little over a third of the sum Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner is expected to receive from a Chinese insurance group for a stake in his real estate company’s property at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan)” (Avins, 2017).

         Although the funding for this endowment is just a small slice of the total federal budget, grants from these agencies have been deeply valued financial lifelines and highly coveted honors for artists, musicians, writers and scholars for decades.
          So, what is the importance of the U.S. government funding the arts? How much impact can $112 million (the total funding that was distributed in 2016) spread across thousands of organizations throughout the country, have for those theaters, museums, choirs, and poetry festivals anyway? The impact of those grants goes far beyond the dollars’ face value. “A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts not only has symbolic value—a badge of honor making it easier for organizations to raise money from other donors—it also unlocks matching grants from local and state agencies. That $112 million unlocked around $500 million in matching funds from state, public, and private sources” (Avins, 2017).

          For example, East Valley Children’s Theater (EVCT) is a program which offers camps, classes, school outreach, and coaching for kids between the ages of 5 and 16, and puts on four productions per year. As explained by Karen Rolston, the volunteer artistic director of the program “We have gotten other grants where they ask, ‘Who have you


Production Photo by East Valley Children’s Theater


gotten money from in the last year?’” said Rolston. “It’s kind of a feather in our cap to have those [federal] grants. It does seem to make a difference” (Avins, 2017). In 2016, EVCT received an NEA grant of $10,000, which was then matched with a $10,000 grant from another organization—$20,000 total to invest in a mobile-friendly website, social media outreach, and marketing to serve a target audience online (Avins, 2017). Without the NEA, programs like EVCT would not be made available to as many people as they are today.

          In addition, the programs funded by the NEA help build bridges between remote communities. “Just [recently] the symphony traveled to Rathdrum, Idaho for a concert with children from the Nez Perce Native American tribe, who have been studying the history of music. (The program started with a singalong of Ode to Joy and ended with the theme from Star Wars)” (Avins, 2017).

          NEA acts as a leveling force, bringing arts opportunities to underserved areas. Although tacked with the reputation that the NEA is “welfare for cultural elitists,” cutting federal support for the arts will have the greatest impact in rural areas and on the vast swath of America that sits between its coasts. Big city museums and performing arts center often find themselves benefiting from corporations or luxury brands that are eager to associate themselves with the high culture they represent. However, NEA grant money helps to provide funding to areas that may not have the same opportunity. “It funnels essential grants to organizations in underserved counties that are less likely to receive support from private patrons. On a per-capita basis, more rural states such as Vermont, Wyoming, and the Dakotas are among the biggest beneficiaries from the NEA, while California—where privately funded institutions such as the $140 million Broad Museum in Los Angeles abound—falls toward the bottom of the list” (Avins, 2017).
           NEA chairwoman, Jane Chu, alerted the current staff, informing them they would conduct business as usual as the budget-writing process unfolds in Congress (Deb, 2017).

Although these proposed cuts are concerning, nothing will change for the endowments immediately. Congress writes the federal budget, not the president, and White House budget plans are largely political documents that telegraph a president’s priorities (Deb, 2017).
However, Republicans who have proposed eliminating the endowments in the past, have never been so well-positioned to shut down the organizations, given their control of both houses of Congress and the White House, and now the president’s fiscal plan. For example, many Reagan administration officials wanted to slash the endowments, but they faced a Democratic majority in the House, and was therefore unsuccessful. Ultimately, now is the closest this country has ever been to eliminating this program in its history. It is unclear whether Republicans who are friendly to the endowment will fight on their own party’s behalf, but we can hope, can’t we? (Deb, 2017).

Supporting Music in Our Schools and Communities:

          So how can we support music in our schools and community? One way is to donate. You can donate money to a music education or community non-profit such as Give A Note Foundation, National Association for Music Education, VH1 Save the Music Foundation, and more. In addition, many state Music Education chapters have scholarship or advocacy programs that are also in need of monetary support. Lastly, you could donate money to the individual school’s music program (Cook, 2015).

          However, money isn’t the only way you can donate! Many school and community music programs are in need of volunteers to donate their time. Whether it be to lend a helping hand during a concert season, volunteer to make costumes, or come into the schools to share your culture’s music and history, there are many ways to donate and support schools without spending a cent! (H. Oliver, personal communication, April 12, 2017).

          For non-music teachers, Holly Oliver suggests, “Other teachers can support music in our schools by expressing interest to their students about what is going on in music class, lending a helping hand when it’s a concert season.” Even by just asking your students what they did in music class can show your students you support them (H. Oliver, personal communication, April 12, 2017).


Photo by 3dman_eu CC: Public Domain


Another important, (and oftentimes fun) way to support music in our communities and schools is to attend the public performances. Many school districts put on choir concerts, band performances, talent shows, etc. An easy way to show the community that you are in support of their program is to just buy a ticket! This not only supports the funding for the music programs, it also shows the students and/or community members that you support their hard work!

          It is always very important to know what is going on in your school systems and communities, especially in terms of music education! Luckily, there is one way that many school districts offer to help make that easier! As explained by Alex Ager, “Every March there’s a month called ‘Music in Our School Months,’ and so a lot of school districts around America will put on concerts. It shows the parents […] what’s going on in [their] child’s music class” (A. Ager, personal communication, April 25, 2017).


          For parents and teachers, encouraging children to participate in music education/integration can really mean the world. However, this is oftentimes not the case. As Tyler Silva explains, “I remember in particular some staff at the middle school encouraging kids away from music, [almost as if to say] “Go with something a little more solid… I had friends who were signed up for band and last minute their parents or one of their teachers convinced them not to it’s like… really?” (T. Silva, personal communication, April 23, 2017).

          On the flip side, Roland Dubois indulged us in a personal story of support from his parent:  “My mom throughout middle and high school was a part of our P.O.P.S., Parents of Performing Students organization, where the parents and guardians of all the kids who were already in the theatre and music departments would organize the fundraisers and plan little banquets to celebrate our achievements, which is so valuable coming from a parent,” (R. DuBois, personal communication, April 28, 2017). Because of this inspiring past, he urges other parents, “If the school district where your child or children go to school doesn’t already have a music program, talk to the school board. Talk to any interested teachers who maybe want to start that program in whatever way they can, and fundraise with local parents, local guardians” (R. DuBois, personal communication, April 28, 2017). It really can make a huge difference.

          And finally, the most essential part of supporting music education in our public schools is by supporting our public schools! This is especially important in terms of budgets and funding. As previously mentioned, schools, and therefore music programs, are funded by taxation. Therefore, in order to support these programs, we must support the taxes that go towards funding education. And when funding in our schools stand to be cut, it is important for allies to speak out on behalf of the programs (H. Oliver, personal communication, April 12, 2017).

Throughout this project, the idea has been reinforced time and time again: people love music! However, since music education/integration was first introduced into American public schools in 1838, funding has been debated. Even today, public schools across the country are facing barriers, with over 80% of school districts facing cuts since 2008, and the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. However, there are many benefits to music including educational, developmental, emotional, and physical benefits. Music is beneficial to aid in students learning as well as their emotional well-being. To say it frankly, music is important in our public schools and communities! Now is the time to speak out, and act up to advocate for these programs.

But first, we must begin with talking about it! Please share this article and view the video posted below to learn more about my incredible interviewees.


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4 thoughts on “Music, the Brain, and Why it Matters

  1. In some ways, I wish I had been using Hypothesis as I read this, because there were so many moments where I wanted to just add line-by-line exclamations. For example: “when groups of first graders were given music instruction that emphasized sequential skill development and musical games involving rhythm and pitch, after six months, the students scored significantly better in math than students in groups that received traditional music instruction.” Amazing information that is so helpful for any of us who consider ourselves advocates for arts education.

    The way you broke the research into the sections was very helpful, since you do present a dense collection of facts and studies, and it’s very reader-friendly to have them organized like that. I think a number of my music educator friends will especially find this work helpful, since they constantly have to articulate the value of music in public school curricula, especially when resources are scarce. You use the neurological and psychological research to make your case for the arts, and the merging of these scientific approaches to the topic with your own mission as an arts advocate is just wonderful. I think your “whole child” approach is really working here, since you yourself take such a broad and holistic approach to the topic of music, which adds to the strength of the case you ultimately make.

    And linking this research to our current political climate gives the work a sense of immediacy and impact. Taylor, this is crucial work right now, and my hope for the world is that your next step after PSU puts you in a position to use this research background to transform our society. You make me feel hopeful for the future. Thank you for this contribution to the field. It is going to make a difference because it is comprehensive, thoughtful, and passionate. As your work always is!


  2. Pingback: Helping Handed

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