The Consequences of Curtailing Music Education

By James S. Catterall

If you have any attachment to music in the schools, you don’t need research or investigative journalism to know that things are in tough shape, not only here in the U.S., but across the developed world. The story has played out with some regularity for decades — economies boom and bust, school budgets get squeezed and music and the other arts take the first hits. The global economic downturn of the past two years has taken an especially hard toll on arts programs. Many school systems will have no music specialists serving elementary schools by next year.

What do we know about music learning and its effects? What should we expect in a future starved of music education in the public schools? Is this just longing for the old days when every second grade classroom had a piano and teacher who could play it? No, it’s a more serious story that doesn’t get better with each telling.

Members of Youth Orchestra LA

The research community I represent has investigated a wide array of effects that learning in music may have on child development. The late 1990s brought us the work of Frances Rauscher and Gordon Shaw, showing that listening to specific Mozart piano sonatas gave college-age subjects a small boost in spatial reasoning skills. The media jumped on this as “Mozart makes you smarter.”


The “Mozart Effect” was born, and diverse scholarly investigations about how music positively contributes to academic success began to appear. So did professional testimonials that served to echo the research.

One study identifies a strong relationship between sustained involvement in instrumental music across middle and high school and high level math proficiency in grade 12, particularly for students from the lowest income families.

My additional work with Rauscher fine-tuned a widely publicized research finding that keyboard and vocal lessons in fact contribute to measured intelligence in 6- to 7-year-olds. Our contribution was that the effect centered on the performance side, rather than the verbal side, of the standard IQ scale — performance items related to math, science and spatial measures.

Music programs also show effects on student motivation — apparently because students tend to enjoy music and feel a sense of accomplishment when they become proficient with a musical instrument and with ensemble performances; and perhaps with gaining the people skills necessary to collaborate in a group performance; and also with cultural pride and identification that can result from increasing awareness of culturally embedded musical traditions.

And in the past few years, cognitive neuroscientists have explored the way our brains perceive, react to, and contribute to making music — including studies of relationships between musical experience and emotion, and between our auditory and visual systems. While the neural networks involved serve a great deal of what humans experience and create, music is shown to have clearly visible and unique clusters of effects on us.

I think it is safe to say that music contributes to thinking skills and dispositions that show up in cognitive measures, to detectable gains in certain spatial and mathematical capacities, and to early-age measures of intelligence. At the same time, if schools, families or communities are concerned about these academic developments — and there is plenty of worry to go around here — music is not the place to turn for relief.

The “music boosts academics” tenor of research has stirred up a lot of enthusiasm about music on the part of parents and the public. The growing academic reputation of music has spurred the lobbying of school district trustees and legislators to expand music offerings, when possible, and also to protect music programs in bad times. In some cases, this has given music a more comfortable seat at the bargaining table. But for the most part, when music or any of the visual and performing arts was seen to go head-to-head with reading development or mathematics learning, music takes little away from that table.

Musicians and music educators (these are NOT mutually exclusive groups, by the way) have mixed feelings when it comes to the effects of music learning, documented by education researchers. On the one hand, music teachers are pleased to gain an ally anywhere they look for support for their teaching programs. After all, they understandably seek to direct budget allocations to music to provide better musical instruments, hire more teachers and to boost the salience of music within the school curriculum.

On the other hand, musicians are loath to feature mathematics, language, science or any non-music outcomes as featured rationales for teaching music. Music teachers are typically about music first. Many were musicians as students or as young professionals, and they stand for musical learning in the context of their sense of what children need in order to grow up in this world.

Youth Orchestra LA at Heart of Los Angeles

If we turn questions of what music does for children to questions about the consequences of curtailing music offerings, the story starts like reversing what shows above, but the problems are actually different. We should not be materially concerned about the fate of mathematics achievement if we starve music education, nor about declines of intelligence across the nation’s elementary schools, nor about shortfalls of spatial skills infecting the Midwest.


What children would miss most in a musically reduced or barren environment are the musical experiences that music education brings to them. It’s the loss of music that will matter. The biggest loss may simply be the chance to participate in a guided way with music — to learn how music is made, to try making music, to learn about the infinite ways that music comes to us and to learn about music’s connections to events and eras of our history.

Serious losses would attach to the loss of children’s opportunities to learn to perform music — to play the violin, the trumpet or trombone, the drum, or to sing with tutored skills. Making pleasing sounds on intended pitch is a start. Then there are the subtleties of expression possible through music that cannot be achieved in other ways.

The problem is worse than this, though. The losses inflicted by cutting music from the curriculum will surely visit children from low-income families disproportionately. Music instruction can be obtained in the private market by those who can afford lessons. But schools have proven themselves to be an effective and efficient way to cultivate musical skills for all children, at least for all children who wish to take advantage of the experience.

We hope that music cutbacks will be met to some, probably small, extent with increased volunteerism surrounding music in poor districts and schools. Many organizations pursue this agenda: Music National Service is a superb example.

Taking projections another step, the big losers will be the children who would have developed a personal passion for music if they had benefited from an effective school music program. These are the young musicians who perform in school orchestras and bands when they reach sufficient proficiency and otherwise grow to place music near the center of their lives in school.

Secondary schools must provide places for students to engage in their passions — experiences that balance (or overlap with) the academic side of the institution and that help students grow identities and feel competent. For some students, this is athletics, for others the theatre association, chess club, yearbook or cheerleading squad. It is not unusual to hear someone say, “Music saved my life,” where music steered an adolescent away from drugs, gangs and apathy.

The students deeply engaged with any of these or other school-based activities are likely to be students happiest about being in school and the most successful all around.

There is no reason to think of, say, basketball players and student musicians as interchangeable. Both need ways of engaging their passions and, by the time they reach high school, their passions differ. Both are positive in many ways; the arts promote more success than athletics in college.

Removing music from the schools will not, of course, excise music from students’ lives. Popular media hurl waves of music across children and youth. Micro-technologies allow us to carry around the catalogues of Lennon and McCartney and Deutsche Grammophon in the same pocket. And what could be richer, where listening opportunity is concerned? Well, richer might happen with some knowledge and guidance about where to seek music, with some wonder about what it takes to compose or play a passage, or with some prompting to seek personal understanding in contemporary music.

Music education could benefit all of today’s adolescents — if not in the middle of an MP3 blast, perhaps a few years later.

James S. Catterall is professor in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, as well as the Center for Culture, Brain and Development. He is the author of Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art and the study, Unpacking the Effects of Music on Intelligence.

Last modified: March 27, 2014 at 8:36 pm
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