Music education website


Music lessons make you smarter! (Is hardly the point)

Posted on February 20, 2013 at 9:30 PM

Joseph Hollings wrote:

After a colleague (at whom none of the following diatribe is directed, I should stress, and to whom I am most grateful for making me think) recently shared the above article, one of many I’ve read about music and how the benefits of studying it or the piano have been proven by brain-based research, I felt a distant rumbling in my musical foundations or perhaps my artistic gut. I remember feeling a similar queasiness after reading the book on the (much-debated) “Mozart Effect.” Having initially indulged in the premise that by listening to a Mozart piano concerto, a student would score higher on a test than if he or she had sat in silence or listened to a (I’m making this up) Scarlatti sonata or Stan Butcher medley, I digested the book’s message, exhaled, and realized a number of unsavory ingredients had left an unpleasant aftertaste.

I do not wish to imply, nor care about implying any particular parallels between the work of the researchers at Concordia University and the Mozart Effect authors. What I do care about – and what makes me feel like I need to brush my teeth – is how too often such “brain-based research” draws attention to itself and away from music-making, placing the study of music in a draw with other mental-floss exercises like Sudoku puzzles or word-searches.

Actually, that’s a little unfair to many of the research papers I’ve read, as most make no such claim. To be honest, my frustration is usually always with the way everyone else talks about such papers – those who amp-up the importance of such findings and take them out of context. This would include media types as well as music educators who seem to think they need some bigger message to justify the teaching of their subject. And who can blame them when music programs [in the US] get cut because levies aren’t passed on Election Day? If “brain-based research” says taking piano lessons means you’ll be able to score 30 points higher on state tests, no superintendent in their right mind would cut music programs, right? Aside from the fact that no study I’ve read would get close to making that sort of claim (because the evidence isn’t there), arguments like this perpetuate the notion that test scores are more important than anything else in education. They’re not.

But before I skip merrily down a path and round a corner into the thick of a raging test-score mob, I will cartoon-tiptoe my way back to my point. And it is this: the study of a musical instrument (voice included), learning to listen to music, composing music, and the years of dedication, love, fun, social interaction and growth, dexterity development, frustration, anxiety before a concert, rapture at hearing your own work performed, cross-cultural appreciation, and moments of unswerving faith that humanity really can be better than we appear on TV, combine to create something greater than any brain-based research project can hope show or most people can readily appreciate. A study that shows kids who take piano lessons before the age of 7 have greater brain connectivity than those who don’t is fine, but I guess I just don’t care. I’d rather be absorbed in Beethoven 7, or fascinated with Hindustani ragas, or wrestling a Bach fugue to the ground, or counting furiously so Stravinsky doesn’t get the better of me, or writing the greatest song ever, or laughing hysterically that everyone else knew we were in G, how come I didn’t? You see? That’s something worth caring about…

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