Music for its own sake

At least once every few weeks, my social media feeds get flooded with links to the latest article about how kids should learn music because it turns them into excellent businesspeople and scientists and politicians. The latest is an opinion piece from the New York Times.

Condoleezza Rice trained to be a concert pianist. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a professional clarinet and saxophone player. The hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner is a pianist who took classes at Juilliard.

Multiple studies link music study to academic achievement. But what is it about serious music training that seems to correlate with outsize success in other fields?

It may or may not be true that musical training sharpens math skills and teamwork skills and so forth. But I am irritated by the subtext that music isn’t something worth pursuing on its own merits—it is only valuable as cross-training for making a “real” contribution to society. Nobody ever seems to wonder whether education in mathematics or reading or science makes people into better musicians.

Photo, Bill Selak
Photo, Bill Selak

With American schools in crisis and the threat of budget cuts constantly looming, music education is only safe so long as it is believed to support “real” skills (like taking standardized tests and gaming the college admissions process?). When the next study rolls off the presses revealing that the connection between clarinet playing and algebra isn’t as close as we thought, school music programs will be on the chopping block again. Musicians and music educators seem anxious to bolster music’s place in education by playing up the music-improves-academics angle, but shouldn’t we be the ones pointing out that music is academics? Isn’t music as central to our society as accounting and chemical engineering and software development?

Friends, I encourage you to work for music in our schools using whatever tools are available, but can our main point be that music is important and valuable because it is music? When we argue for music—or the arts in general—as merely supporting other subjects, we feed the notion that the arts are disposable. Let’s remind education administrators and policymakers that, yes, music may improve math skills, but math also improves music skills, and that’s a worthwhile thing.

Dr. Rice, it’s not too late to put those skills in political science and diplomacy to work in a career as a pianist.


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