Why Everyone Must Continue to “Defend” Music Education (Using Any Means Necessary)

en-q4lOnGuo3slPbDoE97TzMv3omZQ-I0_Q7QusJ2OM,DDb2oHX6-MEc_Y-T0DeSD4Spq250_hpRshKKfAGMNiI,saTbQ4_drfu-_1WAYBi14OuTm4w9J-gmNfOunTlRezo,H8RsIToknUHOJDwJMRTtcDptLgFsWpkUlnjzbJD_deMI ran across a piece last week on Huffington Post warning people that they should not advocate for music education using the argument that it helps with academic and test performance, etc.  The author, Peter Greene, even went so far as to say that it was a “tactical error” to defend music in this manner. He believes that if/when testing doesn’t drive educational policies anymore, music will be left hanging out to dry, having latched on to test improvement as its largest selling point.  What was more troublesome than the article itself was the enormous amount of people who agreed with it, as evidenced by the amount of shares and supportive comments left on the blog.

On the surface, there is a lot to agree with in an “art for art’s sake” argument, but with today’s educational and political landscape, this argument alone will not get us to where we want to be:  music as a core part of every child’s school day.

Articles like this are attractive to many.  We all love to huddle up in our ideological corners — it’s comfortable, and we love to talk to people who agree with us;  in turn we exaggerate and stereotype the “other side”.  Ultimately, this was an extreme-viewpoint piece, but because it got so much attention it deserves to be addressed and discussed.

I’ll relate my argument to politics (very quickly, I promise!).  I know it is hard to believe, but there are bi-partisan bills that get passed from time to time.  When they do, they get passed because one side of the aisle sees something in a bill that’s good for them, but not necessarily the same thing the other side sees, yet both sides win.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  This is exactly how we need to approach music education advocacy if we are to maintain, grow and create programs.  As long as children receive music instruction in the schools as the end result, it does not matter which argument got the programs there — so we can’t marry ourselves to just one.

So let’s start with this:  there is Utopia and there is reality. In the case of music in the schools, unfortunately, we live in the latter.  The reality is that most people love music — it’s just that many do not believe it needs to be part of our children’s education during the school day.  It is also reality that our school system uses quantifiable means of assessment to determine if students are learning and growing, whether we all like it or not.  For many administrators, teachers, boards of education and parents, music’s effect on the whole child may need to follow suit with other areas of the curricula as far as assessment is concerned — at least on the surface.

Let’s look at some of Mr. Greene’s pro-music arguments and how he believes they are better than others:

  • “Music is awesome. It’s human. It’s universal.” Well…yes.  Yes it is.  But I wonder what would happen if — for one whole year — we only used these lines as our advocacy tool.  No one would be allowed to publish anything about the benefits music has to our brain; nothing about increased academic performance…nothing else for one year.  Think about the town where you live, and the Principals of the schools, and the administration and Board of Ed, and your neighbors.  How would those lines work out for you?  Not well for me.  Unfortunately, some people do not care how awesome and universal music is when it comes to educational policy.  So we need to take a different approach.
  • “Music does not need to make excuses for itself, as if it had no intrinsic worth.” As I have written many times, there is more research of the brain that has been done over the past 25 years than in the past 250 years combined.  Talent was once thought to be inherited and innate, not developed, which gave schools even more reasons to decide that it was not for all children.  With this research, however, we see that everyone can benefit from learning an instrument, and the benefits cross over to other subjects and other important aspects of being human.  Saying “music is freakin’ awesome” doesn’t quite cut to the core of the issue.  Pointing out the benefits of learning an instrument is not “making an excuse” for music — the benefits are real, and we would be crazy not to tout them.
  • “Do not defend a music program because it’s good for other things. That’s like defending kissing because it gives you stronger lip muscles for eating soup neatly.”  As I mentioned above, science has uncovered that studying music has amazing effects on the brain, and the timing could not be better.  Are we supposed to ignore this information?  Defending music education because it is good for other things will convince more parents to stay involved, and they will help convince educational leaders to keep the arts in schools.  When this happens, all children will pick up an instrument and experience the beauty that arts education provides — exactly what Mr. Greene and others want through an otherwise one-dimensional argument.  Everyone wins.

No one would love to live in a world where music education is valued for being the essential human experience that it is as much as I would, and I have dedicated my life energy to exploring ways for us all to get there.  But if we are to deftly negotiate the educational/political/social landscape in order to bring music education to the forefront of everyone’s minds, we can ill-afford a purist, “art for art’s sake” approach as panacea for all that ails our education system.

To all of my professional musician friends who agreed with the Huff Post article:  I hear you.  I agree with you in principle.  But our children are not going to receive music instruction in school if we marry ourselves to one argument — especially Mr. Greene’s.  When in the trenches at school board meetings,  it’s not like chatting at a cocktail party with fellow musicians. It’s more like when we are at that party where, when we tell people we play an instrument they ask, “So…then you play in a band?”  Let’s meet these people where they are.  It’s easy to get bent out of shape when someone else doesn’t share our passion and views — but if we want to be effective as music advocates, we have to be flexible in order to be effective.

When great programs are being built and all students are receiving great music instruction in schools on a regular basis, adults will see the benefits of it and our education system will prosper.  At the end of the day, we need to use every argument at our disposal to get to that place, especially when the facts are supported by science.






  1. Hi,
    I completely agree with your point of view. 100%. I actually read the mentioned article and was a little disturbed and irked at it’s implication that we should avoid touting the neurological and cognitive benefits of music because it should not have to be “defended”. As a licensed music therapist and music teacher I have no interest in this whatsoever. I am constantly defending my field (music therapy) so that people see it as a legitimate form of treatment and the attitude that music does not need to have so physiological benefit and we need to stop explaining all the amazing things it can do for our brain is not helping my cause whatsoever. Besides, no school subject stands for itself. People don’t generally learn math just so they can practice equations over and over again…they learn it so they can accomplish certain everyday tasks such as learning how to leave a tip, double a recipe, ect…and of course they use it within their scope of practice if they are a doctor, engineer, scientist, ect. The more practical application music can be found to have the better in my mind. Teaching private lessons, I always emphasize to parents the amazing gift they are giving to their child when they learn an instrument. Not only is the child having an opportunity for creative expression but he or she is refining his or her motoric coordination, spatial reasoning, reading fluency…the list goes on. Why can’t we have both-celebrate the creative expression AND tout the benefits?

  2. “As long as children receive music instruction in the schools as the end result, it does not matter which argument got the programs there — so we can’t marry ourselves to just one.” And when those arguments are disputed, or inapplicable? The existence of all of the Arts (in education), as per your position, will always be dependent on the existence, and the strength, of it’s (the Arts’) value in enhancing other disciplines. I do, though, accept a certain amount of interdependence, but as it is now, the Arts are massively underfunded, precisely due to their “subservient” position.

    • Thanks for this interesting comment. I would imagine that inapplicable arguments hurt any cause, let alone music education’s. But your question took my quote out of context. As far as school funding is concerned, the arts get the shaft because they lay very low in the hierarchy of subjects, not because they are “subservient” (if you meant the term to mean the arts serve as a means to an end). Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of subjects — arts on the bottom. The whole system of public education is built around university entrance. When more children are involved in the arts, more people will notice its profound impact on their lives in many different ways (regardless of how or why the students are involved). Finally, your summation of my position is inaccurate. However, in the educational climate that we live in now, we need to discuss how the arts enhance childrens’ brains and their lives — not necessarily other subjects.

  3. Today the stress levels are out of range, leaving all ages kids through adults stressed out and depleted.
    It is known that live therapeutic music can reverse the classic stress response and equalize brain waves.
    When I have sat at the bedside of a patient and played my instrument to bring peace to the environment, the techs came in to test vitals, and found a dramatic lowering of blood pressure, normalizing of the heart rate and improvement of oxygen uptake.
    I can only go by experience, strength and hope for a better outcome based in natural acoustic sound.
    It is also true that according to a medical research, funded by Remo drum company, Health Rhythms Recreational Music making program, improves the immune system of participants.
    Cheryl “Chery” Cohen Kerr
    C.M.P. (Certified Music Practitioner – Therapeutic Musician) This is not to be confused with a BCMT. Actually, we can work together, just as a Nurse Practitioner, CNA, Registered nurse, etc do in a clinical setting.

  4. Cindy says:

    I think I’m going to agree with both points of view. Music is a universal language and we shouldn’t have to defend it as a core subject any more than math or English. Unfortunately, because it’s often grouped in “extra-curricular” activities, which are seen as optional, we are forced to defend our passion and provide ridiculous amounts of detailed information in order for the smallest of budget amounts.

  5. Your argument is exactly why music programs are not receiving much support in the schools, and why our professional organizations have been so ineffective at providing support for teachers struggling to push back against cuts. Peter’s arguments are about the value of music–using “any means necessary” is a philosophically unsound premise, and shows those who do not understand the value of music that musicians don’t understand it either.

    When you aren’t clear about what you believe, or don’t put your beliefs in front of your methods, you have no real basis for your actions.

    • Mitch, thanks for the comment. If you read my work, I couldn’t be more clear about what I believe. Peter even admitted he needed to nuance a bit more, as his points would not resonate with enough people who care. As to “my argument”, I have used it to reinvigorate and save music programs many times and preached to many choirs, not just musical ones. I would like to hear about a few examples of music programs not receiving support due to a message like mine.

    • Tony’s position is one shared by music educators across the globe and has been shared and embraced by a growing number of superintendents and principals. One need to look no further than the state of Texas where music education is placed on its own altar of worship. The statistics cannot be disputed. Students in all state ensembles in Texas score among the top 5 percent of college exams, state exams and have high grade point averages.

      This is not to be disputed and in no way does it make music subservient. Im my many roles in the world of music one hat I wear is one of a conductor of an avocational instrumental ensemble ( otherwise known as a community band.) While some people have interesting opinions of community bands, many that exist play at quite the high level. However regardless of their level community bands are a perfect example of music being actually less subservient to other Humanities that are taught. For example, in my ensemble we have lawyers, doctors and English professors (none who need Advanced trig in their every day work.) We have accountants, educators and even one of the top cancer research scientists in the country in the ensemble. What does that say about the value of music and how that value needs to be measured not only by its worth alone, but by its work as a collaborative art and disciple that helps anyone, but especially our youth focus more on those essential humanities. Tony’s commentary is right on the money and while I first cringed at Peter’s a article I then realized after reading it three times that it is in support of music education but it cautions us not to put all of our eggs in one basket. In my opinion Tony’s article here understands Peter’s but cautions us all not to jump on the bandwagon of ignoring music’s many properties.

      Brian Worsdale
      Conductor, The Manhattan School of Music
      Artistic Director, The Grand Street Community Band
      Artistic Director, The French Woods Festival of The Performing Arts

  6. Steve Greenfield says:

    The premise of this article, and of the comments supporting it, somehow completely missed the point of the article they are critiquing. It was focused on one thing, which is that the “all the things you value are better when there’s music” argument overwhelmingly dominates the landscape of music education advocacy — and that is true. I’m on a school board, so I get the music-teacher sponsored postcards, and the rest, and it’s all about the “other things,” and not about the music, in its own right, at all. As a professional musician who got most of my youth opportunities, from introductory instrumental class, to my desire to get a private teacher, all the way to All City High School Band at Carnegie Hall, through the public education system, I find this maddening. I mean, think about it — institutions representing thousands of people who are making a living because of being musicians are sending me postcards that never once mention, like the “coding” advocates do, that kids who learn music find EMPLOYMENT. Or that millions of adults play music recreationally throughout their lives. It is my experience as the recipient of these well-intended advocacies that they are generally exclusionary of these elements, and that is a big tactical mistake. These other elements are eternal. Testing is subject to the whims of the next election. You can make that part of the attention you’re trying to bring to decision-makers, but you can’t make it the bulk of your message.

    Compare this with the mid-’70s in New York City, when my teachers gave us those great “Music Is Basic” buttons to wear, and I did, and still have it. With the city bankrupt, the loudest voices were those saying “we can only pay for the basics.” We did not respond to that solely by trying to prove that students would perform better with the “basics” if they were in band. We said “music is basic.” Period. In more recent times, and as a school board member, it’s amazed me how many times I have to remind people — especially the “drop everything, and teach everyone, especially girls, coding!” crowd — that there are millions of jobs in music, music writing, musical instrument and equipment sales, music education, music curating, music publishing, etc., and they’re only available to people with music backgrounds. We also never hear anyone saying that kids shouldn’t play basketball in gym because there are only a couple of dozen pro basketball positions opening up in the entire country every year. The justification for becoming familiarized with a variety of sports in gym is that they’re fun, and will provide recreational opportunities throughout our lives, which any visit to a playground will confirm. Well, same with music. People are jamming non-professionally, just for fun, by the millions. But only because they had music classes.

    While nobody posting here is explicitly wrong about anything they’re saying, it’s largely off the point of the article you’re rejecting.

    • Appreciate this reply, Steve, especially since I am a NYC music kid, teacher, administrator, and lover myself.

      There is too much to type here in answer to your comment, but here are a few thoughts:

      1. I am sorry you work on a Board where you only have teachers/parents who advocate for music one way — that is rare. And therefore I agree that, tactically, their advocacy strategy is not sustainable, nor are their reasons for teaching/learning sound.

      2. “Music is Basic” is true and will always be true — that does not mean that people in charge of education in 2016 are listening and understand that.

      3. I don’t believe we should only teach subjects that will lead to a career, especially since we do not know what careers will even be invented when our children grow up, so your second paragraph troubles me much the way my article troubles you. To my point: whether you like it or not, learning and being trained in music during K-12 schooling yields benefits that we may not see immediately, but translates into habits of mind that serve humans well throughout their lives — whether they continue playing an instrument or not. Are we not supposed to mention that while advocating? The answer is D) All of the Above — we point it all out to people who,unlike you, were not involved with music when they were younger and are now your colleagues on the Board and in Government.

      This is why Mr. Greene’s article needed serious nuancing and was not helpful, even if I agree with it in spirit. I do not believe my article — or those comments on it — is off-point.

      Thanks again for reading!


  1. […] As I have written before, it’s important for students to study and enjoy “art for art’s sake” — and for us to advocate for music education using this mantra, at times. But the sad truth is that ironically, due to decades of attrition in school music programs, most parents, teachers, and administrators have not experienced the intrinsic joy of music making and the value it could have offered in their own school lives. Therefore, it is up to this generation of parents and students to create a new level of understanding utilizing a viewpoint school administrators and boards can understand — albeit narrow and sometimes short-sighted.  And that is the effect of music education on the whole child, including test scores. The more data parents can gather regarding the benefit of music education on all aspects of humanity, the more we can build advocacy efforts by creating dialogue that best relates to those who will determine the future of our music programs, sad as that me be to some of us. […]

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