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Research unveils comprehensive benefits of music education

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Dr. Indre Viskontas’ report reveals that if even a single student remains in school thanks to a music program, savings to the taxpayer more than make up for a salary for that music teacher.

January 15, 2021 by Tim Records

There's an unfortunate truth in today's America: A majority of school boards and policymakers view art and music education as important but non-essential.

The reasoning here isn't nefarious—studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics provides a solid educational foundation for many stable, good-paying jobs. Parents and educators and lawmakers believe this to be best for the country's children. And while decades of research into music education reveals a positive impact on children's lives, it's difficult to quantify and qualify.

No matter how well-intentioned, however, this policy strategy is shortsighted.

It doesn't take into account the economic, social, or developmental value of studying music.

Enter Dr. Indre Viskontas '08, a trained operatic soprano turned director, neuroscientist, and communicator who is on faculty at SFCM and is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco.

Inspired by a 2018 symposium organized by SFCM—which included leading archeologists/paleoanthropologists discussing the significance of music in the history of human evolution—Dr. Dre, as her students call her, began researching for a report on the impact of music education on students in elementary and secondary schools. With generous funding from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation and SFCM, she spoke with top educators and psychologists to unravel the benefits of music.

"Ultimately, we know that taking vitamins has the most benefit for people who are malnourished," she said. "Music is actually the same way, it has the most benefit for people who are impoverished."

In fact, it's no stretch to say that with the correlations between high dropout rates and high crime rates, if even a single student remains in school thanks to a music program, savings to the taxpayer more than make up for that music teacher's salary.

This sort of data-driven, holistic thinking is revolutionary.

"This paper needs to be read by every state legislature, by every school board in the country," said SFCM president David Stull. "There's no question that music programs can bind students to academic programs. It provides a sense of self-worth and social belonging, in addition to the executive function and developmental benefits."

The report, "Music for Every Child: a special report for parents, educators, community organizers, policy-makers and citizens of the world," aggregates existing research to codify and clarify the precise impacts music education has on developing minds, from improving skills like planning and following instructions to building stronger neuroplasticity and providing a quantifiably significant incentive for children at risk for dropping out to remain in school.

"The Getty Foundation believes that it is essential that every child have access to music education," said Lisa Delan ‘89, director of the Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation. "Not tomorrow. Today. The empirical evidence irrefutably illustrates the role that early exposure to music plays in myriad aspects of brain development."

"And the biggest benefit comes in the most at-risk student populations," Dr. Viskontas said. "Even if you didn't have these direct neurological benefits, which we do, we also see that it brings students to schools. Students at risk of absenteeism are more likely to attend classes."

Students participating in a music program in Nashville, for example, showed higher attendance and graduation rates, higher test scores, and fewer discipline reports in one study. This is one of the key conclusions the report highlights: Music education keeps students involved in school and provides that key sense of belonging, which, in turn, can help break the vicious poverty cycles with which so many of the country's poorer districts have found themselves contending in recent decades.

This is in addition to the cognitive benefits of studying music, which increase the more music training a child undergoes. Studying music can enhance auditor skills and memory and coordination and even social and listening skills. There is a correlation between music education and GPAs, even accounting for the myriad variables that go into such a calculation. Additionally, music education can be particularly beneficial for students with ADHD, and compared to other extracurricular activities like drama or playing sports, music tends to show the strongest correlation with high executive function and graduation rates.

So what comes next?

"First, we can get this paper into the hands of parents, educators, principals, whoever needs to know that music education is worth spending time and money on," Dr. Viskontas said. Next, she hopes these stakeholders will use it to convince lawmakers that there should be music funding in every school, not just private schools. Finally, the paper identifies what isn't yet known and provides the beginnings of a "best practices" guide to the kind of music education that is most effective in the classroom. "Not all music teachers are good music teachers, and not all programs are good," she said, noting that such programs must be adaptive as "there are schools where they don't see these benefits because students aren't interested in learning Mozart piano sonatas."

"This is about changing policy," said Stull. "If we just developed educational policy using this matrix–we'd actually save money. I'm not suggesting it's a complete silver bullet for everything, but the data absolutely suggests we could make progress and save money on these fronts. It's right there in front of us."

He added that the organizations will be seeking foundation support to mount a national, multi-year public relations campaign to place the information in front of key stakeholders and policy makers.

"We have come to regard music education as largely inconsequential, when it is in fact one of the most important tools we can employ to positively impact both individual growth and cultural cohesion," Delan said. "By failing to integrate music education into pre-K-12 learning we are limiting the potentiality of each new generation. We are denying them facility in a language which is foundational to human development and the human experience."

There's something fundamentally human about making music. This art form has been essential to our evolution as a species, and yet society has marginalized the role of music in our lives and in our children’s development. This initiative aims to elevate the importance of music education in schools once more, with SFCM and the Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation leading that charge.

Learn more here and download the full report