It is difficult to quantify why music is so invaluable. To do so almost feels counter-intuitive. The very nature of the subject lives beyond words, at an archetypal level—where music gets its energy and pattern—reliant upon making conscious those ambiguous qualities drawn largely from intuition. You listen, you play, and interact. And as a result, a new form of communication emerges unrivaled by writing or speaking.
Perhaps it was this indefinable quality that inspired me to take up the piano as an adult and let my intuition put into practice what was so difficult to define. Even after experiencing some of the direct benefits from five years of lessons, I still struggle to clarify its meaning. Which begs the question, 'why does the importance of music education need defending?'
When Oliver Sacks speaks of it, he has little trouble expressing how 'music is a part of being human, and there is no human culture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed.' [ 2 ] His explanation seems to come from that place where instinct and experience meet.
And when Nietzsche philosophizes, is there anything left to doubt?
All qualities are united in music: it can lift us up, it can be capricious, it can cheer us up and delight us, nay, with its soft, melancholy tunes, it can even break the resistance of the toughest character. Its main purpose, however, is to lead our thoughts upward, so that it elevates us, even deeply move us...Friedrich Nietzsche [ 3 ]
We could even reach back 2,000 years and take inspiration from Pythagoras (ca. 580 B.C.E), who like many ancient Greeks believed in the universal concept of Harmonia, and who was 'reputed to have been able to soothe both animals and people' [ 4 ] when he played music. Just by the simple virtue of harmonics, music had the power to heal.
In more recent years, many like-minded and intelligent thinkers have devoted a lot of effort to the study of this very topic. Their analyses and approaches differ in various degrees, but most seem to share some similar conclusions.
For example, in 2011, the Department of Education for the UK—recognizing music’s intrinsic value—came up with a national plan to enhance their existing programs. They culled from many well-researched monographs to bolster their main thesis:
"Music can make a powerful contribution to the education and development of children. [It] can change the way pupils feel, think and act." [ 5 ]
The development of this comprehensive program included work done by Susan Hallam from the University of London. In her paper, The Power of Music: Its Impact on the Intellectual, Social and Personal Development of Children and Young People, she graphs three distinct areas in which music education has demonstrated a great effect.
I have summed up her findings and added a few more, which includes the work of Dr. Barry Bittman (a neurologist and CEO/Medical Director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center), who along with the father of the Music-Making and Wellness movement, Karl T. Bruhn, scientifically discovered how playing music can promote overall health.
...In terms of brain development, musical performance is every bit as important educationally as reading or writing.Oliver Sacks [ 6 ]
Improves reading comprehension, vocabulary memory; and augments language progress.
Helps improve math components, through rhythmic music training.
Improves creative abilities with the use of musical improvisation.
Improves spatial reasoning.
Increases problem-solving skills.
Aids students in performing better on standardized tests.
Encourages good study habits, discipline and critical thinking.
Increases left/right brain communication.
Improves concentration skills.
Improves skills in other subjects.
The evidence suggests that for children to get the most from music education, it needs to be enjoyable, challenging and also achievable. It needs to be supportive and provide space for children to be creative, and include group activity to help build social skills.The Importance of Music, A National Plan for Music Education, Department of Education [ 7 ]
Positive impacts of music education:
- Increases self reliance
- Increases confidence, especially when performing in recitals.
- Increases self-esteem
- Increases sense of achievement
- Increases ability to relate to others
- Increases grit
Positive impacts of music education in a group setting:
- Increases discipline
- Increases teamwork
- Increases cooperation
- Increases self-confidence
- Increases responsibility
- Increases social skills
- Increases mutual support
Dr. Bittman's research on creative musical expression, even for people convinced that they were not musical, also recently proved that playing any kind of instrument—no matter how well or badly—enhances the brain's ability to facilitate healing.Oliver Sacks [ 8 ]
Increases hand-eye coordination.
Reduces the impact of stress, lowering heart rate and blood pressure.
Encourages good posture.
Reduces burnout and mood disturbances in long-term care workers.
The above lists are all significant by-products from playing music—integrating creativity, expression and process. However, I would be remiss if I didn't mention how important it is to have a good teacher to guide you through this development. One who is patient and dedicated, who understands it’s not the final performance that matters the most but the journey it took to get there.
I don't know how but my teacher always knew when it was appropriate to push me a little further, before I was aware I could do it myself. He loved to say 'playing piano is not fun, it is enjoyable; if you want to have fun, go to the park.' As we worked together, time floated away. And though it didn't happen very often, every once in a while I had a glimpse into what a state of grace really means. The moment anxiety, self-doubt, and ideas of perfection were stripped away replaced by muscle memory and rhythm. Where I was completely in the music—it was bigger than me—I was connected to something and everything, completely in the present. I am still mystified that I was able to play anything at all. I don't know if I am any smarter or can calculate math problems better, but I do know first hand the joy of playing music.
What I've learned is it doesn't matter if your intentions are to play professionally or for self-enrichment. It doesn't even matter if you play well. In the end, music is not what you do; rather, it is a part of what helps define who you are and who you become.