Excerpts from an article by James R. Ponter, appearing
in the February, 1999 issue of the NASSP (National Association of
Secondary School Principals) Bulletin.
Comparing School Music Programs and
Science Test Scores of Countries Worldwide
Nations whose students consistently outperform the United States
in tests assessing science achievement are the countries where
music is a primary focus of the curriculum. Test results cited in
the 1983 report A Nation at Risk showed the United States trailing
badly behind other countries in mathematics and science. A 1988
test of the International Association for the Evaluation of
Educational Achievement (IAEEA) ranked the United States
fourteenth among 17 countries on an instrument testing science
achievement of eighth and ninth graders (AAAS, 1989). Our
students' scores compared favorably with those of Thailand and
Singapore, while trailing far behind Poland, Italy, Korea, English-
speaking Canada, and every other participating country, with the
exception of the Philippines and Hong Kong.
This report was among the catalysts for the many reform efforts of
the '80s and '90s. In New Jersey, these reforms included the
Governor's Statewide Systemic Initiative, Core Course
Proficiencies, the Core Curriculum Content Standards, and the
Academy for the Improvement of Teaching. These actions were
accompanied by a flurry of legislative initiatives aimed at
tightening the requirements for obtaining and retaining teaching
and administrative certification.
Trampled in the stampede toward technology in the classroom, one
of the most neglected reforms has been a serious examination of
the influence of the arts on academic achievement, particularly
upon achievement in mathematics and science. In conjunction
with recent work in cognitive psychology regarding the
relationship between music and academic achievement, it is
enlightening to examine the status of music in the curricula of
those countries whose students consistently outpace our students in
mathematics and science. The top-performing students on the
1988 IAEEA Test in science were the eighth and ninth graders
from Hungary, followed by those from the Netherlands and Japan.
If we examine the top three ranked countries on the 1988 test, we
see some fascinating parallels between academic achievement and
music education. In a 1988 study cited by Frank Hodsoll,
Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, he noted that in
grades 1-6, the Japanese require two class periods per week [of
music]. Music includes singing, instrumental performance, and
appreciation of both western and Japanese music. At middle level,
students learn to sing in choruses and play instruments in
ensembles (DOE 1987).
In Dutch secondary schools, music and art became mandatory
subjects in 1968, and compulsory examinations in these subjects
were implemented in 1976 (Netherlands National Institute for
Educational Measurement).
In Hungary, the land of Bela Bartok and Franz List, with its
number one ranking in science achievement for eighth and ninth
graders, music education has long been an essential and
developmental program implemented nationally by the composer
Zoltan Kodaly. Both voice and instrumental training twice a week
are compulsory throughout the first eight years of schooling.
The centrality of music education to learning in the top-ranked
countries seems to contradict the United States' focus on math,
science, vocabulary, and technology. Yet, we continue to
emphasize the need for computers in every classroom, and more of
the same academic emphasis.
According to Howard Gardner, musicians follow a progression of
notes, a very sequential left brain process; seeing patterns in the
construction of phrases, seeing the whole for expressive phrasing
and interpretations, and dealing with rhythmic patterns, on the
other hand, are very right-brain skills. Additionally, mathematical
abilities involved in timing, counting, and the symbolic encoding
of time and sound involve abstract and spatial reasoning.
All this brain activity must be consummated in the form of precise
fine motor skills. Beyond all other musical activities, the playing
of stringed instruments without keys or frets involves the
estimation of decreasing distances down the finger board for
accurate intonation.
Bowing technique requires the cultivation of an intuitive sense for
velocity and acceleration that may later become codified in the
symbolic language of calculus.
Because it draws on so many different attributes, music develops
flexibility in thinking. Musical training is an effective way, not
only to enhance the conceptual-holistic-creative thinking process, but
also to assist in the melding and merging of the mind's capabilities.
Although most musical capabilities seem to be represented initially in
the right hemisphere, as an individual becomes more skilled,
capabilities that were housed in the right hemisphere are found
increasingly in the left. It appears that, with musical training, a
significant proportion of skills migrate across the corups callosum
into the linguistically dominant left hemisphere (Gardner, 1984).
The mental flexibility that is developed by the study of music is
reflected in industrial applications. One of the most innovative
and entrepreneurial centers of U.S. commerce is the Silicon
Valley of California. Grant Venerable, in "The Paradox of the
Silicon Savior," says: "One of the most striking facts in Silicon
Valley industry is that the very best engineers and technical
designers are, nearly without exception, practicing musicians"
Physician and biologist Lewis Thomas studied the undergraduate
majors of medical school applicants. He found that 66 percent of
music majors who applied to medical school were admitted. This
was the highest of any group, while only 44 percent of the
biochemistry majors were admitted (1994).
The research emerging from the cognitive sciences gives us useful
information to explain the connections between music and
learning. Technology allowing us to see the human brain in the
process of thinking shows us that when people listen to melodies
with a variety of pitch and timbre, the right hemisphere is
activated, as it is when one plays by ear or improvises. When
music is read, the player must understand key signatures, notation,
and other details of scores and follow the linear sequence of notes
activating the left hemisphere in the same area that is involved in
analytical and mathematical thinking (Dickinson, 1993). This
mental multi-tasking seems to enhance cognitive ability in
powerful ways that we must not ignore.
The studies cited here seem to present a compelling argument in
favor of the implementation of long-term developmental
instrumental music programs for all students, not just those
students with an obvious aptitude and interest. Music programs
should go beyond the scope of our present treatment of elementary
classroom music and should be centered on the mastery of musical
instruments including the voice and be aimed at solo and ensemble
performance. These programs should also include appreciation
and theoretical components for all students.
Source: James R. Ponter. "Academic Achievement and the Need
for a Comprehensive, Developmental Music Curriculum." NASSP
Bulletin. Vol. 83 No. 604, February 1999.
American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science
for All Americans: A Project 2061 Report on Literacy Goals in
Science, Mathematics and Technology. Washington, D.C.:
American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989.
Dickinson, Dee. Music and the Mind. Seattle, Wash.: New
Horizons for Learning, 1993.
Gardner, Howard. Art, Mind and Brain - A Cognitive Approach to
Creativity. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
National Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at
Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983.
Thomas, Lewis. "The Case for Music in Our Schools." Phi Delta
Kappan, February 1994.
U.S. Department of education. U.S. Study of Education in Japan.
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, January
Venerable, Grant. "The Paradox of the Silicon Savior." In The
Case for Sequential Music Education in the Core Curriculum of
the Public Schools. New York: The Center for the Arts in the
Basic Curriculum, 1989.
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