Much evidence indicates the cognitive and learning improvements associated with children learning music yet availability to such life-changing lessons and programs is haphazard at best.
Over recent decades, research into the value of music education has illuminated an almost boundless list of flow-on benefits for students, from areas of language development to spatial awareness.
However, while these benefits are largely undisputed, music programs are often among the first to be sacrificed in response to ever-tightening school budgets, particularly in public schools.
Music education advocates, who believe strongly in the inherent value of music in schools, claim that music is an “essential art” with proven benefits for students in terms of cognitive development, academic achievement and wellbeing.
They argue that music should be valued equally alongside reading, writing and numeracy in school curricula, and made available to all students, rather than treated as an expendable “extra”.
Research has shown that music education improves cognitive abilities and enhances academic achievement across many areas of the curriculum including science, mathematics, history and languages.
Music is considered important in the development of listening and concentration skills and has been found to improve language development, comprehension, creativity, memory, spatial awareness, communication and higher order thinking skills. Flow-on benefits have also been noted in the areas of student engagement, self-esteem, citizenship and emotional expression.
As a social activity, music education enhances a school’s atmosphere and helps create a sense of community both inside and outside school grounds. In short, music has been found to make students better learners, superior thinkers and enriched human beings.
More recent research has found that music education has unique benefits for brain development and activity; noting that it “primes” the brain for learning and creates neural pathways in a way not encountered in other disciplines.
How is music education implemented overseas?
Many countries have strong, well-funded music programs that are supported by a national belief in the value of music (and arts) education.
For example, music education thrives in countries like Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark, where it often extends beyond the classroom to include extra-curricular musical instruction that is publicly subsidised.
Well known Swedish music producer and songwriter, Martin Sandberg, professionally known as Max Martin, says his significant musical success is entirely the result of his Swedish public education.
In Canada, England and the United States, music education is less consistent; varying from district to district and, indeed, from school to school. In Canada, 38 per cent of respondents to a recent survey reported that music is either taught by teachers with no musical background or not taught at all.
Similarly in the United States, music programs, particularly in public schools, are often underfunded or abandoned altogether under budgetary pressure. While funding is still an issue for music education in England, a network of 123 music hubs was set up by the government across the country in 2012; enabling access to a musical instrument for more than 1 million children.
Other advocacy initiatives have also invigorated the musical experience for students, for example “Link Up” in the United States, where schools are paired with orchestras culminating in joint performances at Carnegie Hall.
What about Australia?
Australian music advocates claim there is significant disparity in schools when it comes to music education. A recent survey conducted by advocacy group The Music Trust found that 63 per cent of responding schools offered no music instruction and that only 23 per cent of government school music programs were taught by specialist music teachers; as opposed to 88 per cent of private schools.
Furthermore, the Trust claims that in an average undergraduate primary teaching degree, students receive only 17 hours of music education; compared with 350 hours for trainee teachers in Finland, and 160 hours in South Korea.
According to the Trust, countries that consistently perform well in international rankings such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) provide much more music education than government schools in Australia.
To tackle some of these issues, passionate music education advocate, Richard Gill, helped establish the National Music Teachers Mentorship Pilot Programme, which started this year.
Funded by the federal government, this program attempts to address music education inequalities between state and private schools by providing selected classroom teachers with tuition and mentorship from professional music educators.
Mr Gill has also petitioned Minister for Education Christopher Pyne, calling for every child to get the “full deal”: the opportunity to be taught by a trained music teacher in a music class at least once a week.
While music education holds benefits for students that permeate across many areas of the school curriculum, advocates say it should not exist merely to complement other areas of study.
They say music has its own language, symbolic representation and its own rewards; including learning a new skill, cultivating personal discipline, being part of something cultural, enriching a sense of historical heritage, and celebrating the cultures of others.
They explain that music is intrinsically about involvement and engagement: singing, playing instruments, reading music, performing, analysing and composing. For students who struggle in other learning areas, music can offer a chance to excel, or a future vocational direction.
Some fear that if music education continues to decline, there will be broader negative ramifications, not just for local music industries, but also for society and culture. Mr Gill says that until we value the arts and music education in Australia, “we will remain in danger of being a dull, unimaginative nation”.
In an era of ever-tightening school budgets, many argue that money should first be spent on teaching “the basics”, namely literacy and numeracy; expressing the view that music education is time-consuming and a luxury that many schools cannot afford.
However, music advocates describe this view as short-sighted; arguing that a student’s grasp on these “basics” would be more assured if music was taught in conjunction with them and made available to every student.
They argue that the accumulated evidence in favour of music instruction provides many compelling reasons for music education to be expanded in schools rather than diminished.
Colleen Ricci, www.smh.com.au, www.msidallas.com