In 1998, the governor of Georgia tried to fund a program that would send every baby Georgian a cassette tape or CD of classical music.
In the ’90s, the so-called “Mozart Effect” led to a marketing wave pushing gullible parents to play the Austrian composer’s music for their children, even though the study that inspired the term wasn’t even about children. In hindsight, this is obviously bonkers, right? And yet the idea that listening to classical music makes you smarter remains weirdly persistent to this day.
Neuroscience has demonstrated that listening to or playing music has a real effect on brain waves and patterns. This is most directly applicable to music therapy, but what about music education?
Current research implies — implies, not concludes — that studying music can help children develop spatial reasoning and listening skills and improve their concentration, but more study is needed to fully understand this relationship.
In Pittsburgh, thousands of young people study music privately, in school and in extracurricular organizations. So what are the real, tangible effects of keeping music education in public schools? How is Pittsburgh’s school system faring amid tight budgets?
“Music education and arts education has so many different benefits for our students,” said Kymberly Cruz, senior program officer of arts education at Pittsburgh Public Schools.
“It helps students become problem solvers.... We recommend people study an instrument to help learn to concentrate. It helps students’ critical thinking, allows students to think outside the box when we engage them in the arts.”
There is a documented correlation between music education and some of these developmental benefits, but the actual research, while extensive, is not conclusive. A 2017 critical review of dozens of music education studies published in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that most areas of development thought to benefit directly from music education need further investigation.
Studies about music education’s effect on a student’s social and emotional development, language skills, cognitive processing, academic performance, reading and problem solving generally received a “precise conclusions cannot be reached on the basis of reviewed studies” or “insufficient information” grade from the review.
“In conclusion, although the underlying mechanisms are not always clear, evidence of reviewed studies seems suggestive of some beneficial effects,” the study says.
Still, research continues. In 2018, a 2½-year-long longitudinal study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience concluded that there is a “possible far transfer effect from a structured music education program to academic achievement,” though further study is needed to understand this.
Other recent articles confirm correlations between music education and child development, but causation is hard to pinpoint. Anecdotal evidence, however, is overwhelming.
“For those that need a place to belong, it can save your life,” said Lindsey Nova, executive director of the Three Rivers Young Peoples Orchestras, an extracurricular youth music organization.
“I’ve seen it. I would love for every kid to play music, but I’d really love for every kid to find something they really love to do. Every kid should find their tribe, and a lot of them do that through music.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools provides music instruction in grades K-12, though music becomes an optional elective in high school.
“I’m very proud of the work we do here, especially as an outsider,” said Ms. Cruz, an Atlanta native who also serves on the Americans for the Arts advisory board. “It’s unfortunate that people have such a negative perception. We’re doing OK, better than a lot of school districts around the country. But we could always do more.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools employs about 59 music teachers, including roving instrumental specialists who rotate through different schools. This figure doesn’t include adjunct faculty at CAPA, the Downtown performing arts magnet, and has dropped slightly since 2011 due to budget cuts. The figure also doesn’t take into account guest appearances by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra or Pittsburgh Opera.
Ms. Cruz is seeking funding to hire more roving specialists, whose number has doubled from four to eight since she arrived four years ago.
Ms. Cruz has been tracking data to make her case to district officials and Superintendent Anthony Hamlet. She said the teachers work with around 1,800 students in grades 4-8 alone and each teacher works with an average of 250 students.
There are enrollment guidelines that determine whether a school has a part- or full-time music instructor. She said schools aim to spend about $400 per 40 students on instruments, textbooks and other supplies.
“Music education is a priority,” she said. “You hear all the time about districts losing programs and funding. Pittsburgh Public Schools is not in jeopardy, but are we where we should be? No. I’d like to see a dedicated band program in middle schools someday like some schools around the state have.”
Photo: Kymberly Cruz