The Value of Music Education

By Katie Knutson, CSU Music Education Major

This piece was originally written as an assignment for my Writing Arguments (CO 300) class. For the assignment, I had to choose an issue related to my field of study and argue for a stakeholder group to take action on; it was presented in the form of a magazine article. I chose the issue of declining funding for music education programs and am trying to convince parents of students in the school system that action must be taken against the local school boards in order to allocate appropriate funding to keep music in schools.

Katie Knutson in the CSU Marching Band

Music. A form of expression through sounds created across a span of time that provoke varying emotions from the listener. In other terms, a universal language where emotions are conveyed to others without the need for spoken words. It exists in every culture across the world and is prevalent in the day to day lives of most. Many people would even say their music preferences define who they are and choose music as a way to escape from the stress of life. Some people even choose to take their love for music a step further with learning an instrument or participating in a choir. For children, this outlet often appears through school music programs which allows students to foster their passion for music through creating it. Contrary to other school subjects, students choose to be in these music classes and tend to enjoy what they do. For a school program that seems to have a very positive student outlook, funding for it seems to be much less enthusiastic. According to a report from the Department of Education referenced in a blog post by the Association of American Educators, music programs are still declining for urban, low-income schools across the nation. The “No Child Left Behind” Act sparked this decline over the last few years, as school funding became dependent on test scores with low-performing, lower-class urban schools taking the hit the most. Since music classes are seen as less of a priority compared to math, science, language arts, and social students, it is usually the first program to be cut in a school with a tight budget. With that being said, school budgets need to be modified to keep music programs in schools by pressing school boards to provide more support.

There is no doubt that maintaining a music program can be a little costly. Since there is so much more that goes into a music program such as school instrument budgets and travel expenses for performing outside of school, the cost of maintaining a such a program is not necessarily favorable. However, researcher Marci Major--who ran a case study on how a lower economic class school district in Detroit, Michigan kept their music program despite hard economic times--says that the reason why the school district was able to keep their music program was due to intense budgeting efforts that didn’t necessarily cut other programs. The school district did things such as cutting and adding sections of classes where needed to save money. This shows that even if the cost of keeping a music program is unfavorable, it can absolutely be done if school officials budget correctly. Since this is a broader issue of not enough funding on the federal and state side of things, schools must make do with the money that they have. This means that steps must be taken to shift around the budget to ensure that music programs remain. Music programs already take steps to limit the costs as much as possible which includes fundraising and implementing parent volunteers to help keep expenses down by having them do tasks such as repair uniforms and chaperone/help provide transportation to events. Even the music director takes steps to limit what they spend, including repairing instruments themselves and maintaining owned music copies to avoid purchasing new repertoire for the students. Music programs are already doing their part to keep the cost low, it is time for the school districts to step in for the rest of the cost.

There is certainly a good argument for other school programs such as robotics and math/science resources to stake a stronger claim for the limited school funding due to the pressure to develop higher core subject knowledge for college. While these other programs are important, it is also important to look at how music classes benefit students in other areas that are not as explicitly academic. For example, James S. Catterall of the Tavis Smiley Reports on PBS mentions that involvement in music classes increases overall motivation, teamwork, and self-confidence. While these characteristics may not be favorable with academic skills, they are certainly concurrent with aspects of a healthy mental state and good social skills which are essential for life. In today’s world of depression and anxiety, anything that fosters good mental health is always welcome. Music classes-according to Marci Major-are fundamental in contributing to a well-rounded student.

Why is a well-rounded education worth it in a world that places so much emphasis on academic achievement?

This question could best be answered through Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to Maslow, there are 5 different tiers to the pyramid of needs ranging from physiological needs at the bottom, then safety, belongingness and love, self-esteem, and self-actualization in ascending order to the top. Maslow theorized that the needs at the bottom of the pyramid must be satisfied first before achieving the goal of self-actualization at the top. While music education cannot provide for the physiological, safety, or love and belongingness of humans, it can help us fulfill the last two tiers of the pyramid which are self-esteem needs and self-actualization. In the adolescent years, self-esteem is often in a fragile state as teenagers and pre-teens struggle to find out who they really are. Naturally during this time, they will gravitate towards activities and environments that foster self-confidence and high self-esteem. According to Nasram Shayan of Allzahra University on their study of music and confidence, simply playing an instrument in a musical setting is enough to create that sense of high self-esteem and recommends music in schools for this reason. Upon completion of this tier, this leaves us with room to fulfill the last tier of Maslow’s pyramid—self-actualization. This can best be defined simply as our self-growth and potential which is crucial to transcend into being the best human beings possible. The hidden meaning behind music education is that it is about teaching your children to be better people and to enjoy music for the sake of music, not solely for academic guidance. “The teacher can help their students to experience self-actualization through recreative music acts of understanding leading to creative acts of music understanding”, says Dr. Erik Johnson, Associate Professor of Instrumental Music Education at Colorado State University. “Through exposing students to what other artists have said about their own lived experience...the teacher can lead students to a place where they too have the tools and understanding to express their own views”. Music education is a liberation to the confines of typical academic structure that your child experiences on a day to day basis in school. Allowing a program that fosters nothing but positive self-growth and creativity to perish at the hands of school officials due to lack of funding would be doing your child a disservice to their school opportunities. With that being said, students who are in music classes choose to be there because they enjoy it--which can’t often be said about other subject areas.

In addition to being an enjoyable activity that fosters positive self-esteem and personal achievement, music for many is used as an outlet for creative expression. For some, music classes in their school are one of the few chances they may get to work both independently and with their peers to make music. Many popular musicians arose from having the opportunity in public schools growing up to be involved in music classes. Popular artists such as Kurt Cobain from Nirvana, Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, Kesha, and Gwen Stefani were all involved in their high school bands, according to Sarahanne Yeo from the publication “The Odyssey.” Just imagine if these musicians didn’t have the opportunity to participate in music programs in their schools because they got cut. They may not have even been inspired to pursue a music career to become the famous people they are today. Every music program that is cut from schools could very well deprive the next Kurt Cobains of the world a chance to find their passion in music and share it with the world. It is crucial that we take a stand on making sure that school board officials allocate appropriate funding to keep these programs going.

How do you go about influencing these school board officials to make this change, you may ask? Simply reaching out about it to them can go a long way. Petitions and action creates change. Some of you may even have children of your own who are in music programs and come home smiling every day because that is their favorite class. Some of you may live near a high school and hear the marching band hard at work for their rehearsal playing their show. Imagine waking up one day and never hearing them again. Their field is empty after school and there are no more smiling and laughing faces all because the school had to cut the music program which brought joy to many. These are the consequences of not taking action. Our voices must be heard.