Music Matters

Music Matters

In 2010, money was tight in Cincinnati Public Schools. Principals were asked to take steps to save money by reducing our largest expense: cut back on staffing. I convened a meeting of the Instructional Leadership Team to examine the bleak prospects of eliminating parts of our music program in order to balance the budget.

We examined the details: The student:teacher ratios proscribed by the accounting office were growing larger. Gamble Montessori was small, just over 100 students, and growing steadily. The numbers of students did not seem to support the argument to have a rich arts program including music and visual arts. We, technically, could be supported in our schedule with merely gym. Mathematically speaking, the other arts programs were unnecessary in building a functioning building schedule. This was essentially the budget we had been given, with a nod to an arts program that would fund the visual arts at the same part time level as we had the year before.

The school had already creatively addressed the need for music instruction. Carolyn Quinn, the music teacher, offered choir as an elective, taken when students were scheduled to be out of their core classes. She also did pull-out instruction for a small group of strings players in the school – students would come to her during a different core class instruction one bell a day. Teachers modified the schedule so that the string players would not miss the most important part of the lesson.

It is no surprise to those who understand the relationship between music and academics that these students were among the most successful in the school, despite the missed time in class. There are always a range of factors involved in the success of a student, and it is not accurate to say simply that they did well because they took strings class during the day, but the music played an important role in their education.

Martin Gardiner, from the Brown University Center for the Study of Human Development, observed that music and math cause the brain to work in similar ways. This implies that there may be a symbiotic relationship between the two, instead of simple cause and effect. One study of his, described in Nature magazine in May, 1996, found that 1st graders trained specifically in rhythm and pitch performed better in math than those taking a more traditional music curriculum.

The research suggests that the positive effects of music expand beyond the direct correlation with math skills. Its benefits are seen in areas including executive function, a key focus of recent employability and so-called “21st Century Skills” touted by politicians as diverse as Ohio Governor John Kasich and President Barack Obama. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the Obama administration’s update of President Johnson’s landmark education bill, renews emphasis on the arts.  We  know that music reinforces math instruction especially, and we know that performances reinforce a student’s attention to detail. The act of creating and performing music are so important, that we have not even figured out all of the ways it helps a child’s development. “Music is represented in mechanisms widely distributed throughout the brain rather than localized in a single region,” according to Dr. Lawrence Parsons from the University of Texas – San Antonio.[1] This suggests that teaching music has the power to improve every aspect of a child’s ability to learn, and not just his math scores.

In addition to the research that would support keeping choir and strings, the Gamble Montessori program was demonstrably a success by other measures as well. The choir had already started bringing home high scores from competition, in individual and group work. Also, having music as an elective helped provide our teachers with common planning time, which we viewed as essential to creating a strong interdisciplinary academic environment for the students.

At the prospect of eliminating or even reducing the music program, the ILT raged. It was proposed that I go to the Board of Education, or argue with central office administration more vociferously. Or, someone else offered, we could rally a group of parents to protest at the Board meeting. A politically attuned teacher pointed out that the Board had already made a public statement that the cuts might be difficult at some schools. Complaining to the people who were geared up to receive complaints seemed ineffective. Also, at that time, we were a small program that had not yet made a name for itself. A miscalculation in our efforts to take a political approach could result in our school simply being eliminated. We thought better of this idea.

Gloria Lane, a science teacher who was one of the founding teachers of the school, spoke passionately about the need for a music program. She knew that it served a vital role in any school, and it was part of what students loved about Gamble. We had already spoken in advance of the meeting, when I called the emergency session and circulated the only agenda item, and had told me already what she planned to propose: she offered to go part time in order to save the music program. She would stay and work with students during the period we called “Montessori Time”, which carried important programmatic elements, but not core academics.

I told her I would oppose that, and I did, even speaking against it and voting against it when it came to a vote. It was not because I believed the music program was unimportant. Rather, I saw that her proposal meant that she would continue to work full time while taking a substantial pay cut, and I had a responsibility to preserve the Montessori components and the core class time. She deserved to get paid fully for the hard work she was doing.

I lost. The ILT voted to allow Gloria to take a reduction in order to preserve our music program.

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In a year when music was cut from many elementary schools, and trimmed back in other high schools, Gloria’s selfless offer to cut her own salary saved the music program at Gamble. In the six years since that time the offerings have grown, and we now offer band, steel drum, choir, and a middle school musical theatre program. The spirit of her sacrifice still imbues the discussions we have each year around budget priorities, pushing us to protect all the time, and expand when possible.

Why did Gloria take this stand? Why was she so passionate about this issue? She didn’t do a deep dive into the research, but she knew that the arts offered students the opportunity to create and perform, which sharpen the academic senses in a way that worksheets and multiple choice tests never could. She knew that it brought joy to students and parents, and helped create a sense of community in the school and beyond. She knew that it was what she wanted for her own children, and thus, it was what she wanted for all children.

Is there a cause and effect link between music and academics? This is a complex question to answer. Nadine Gaab, a leading researcher in Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital, was asked in 2015 about the verifiable correlation between musical ability and mathematical competency. She replied,

“It is unclear, to this stage, whether musicians have that because they are born with [it] and they are just really good with listening and doing certain finger movements and that’s why they are drawn to music, or it’s the other way around, and music actually changes the brain. We don’t know that yet.” [2]

Perhaps instead of being cut, the music program should be required, a “core” program like math and social studies. This seems to work for physical education, which is the only elective required by name, and which is required for two semesters. While all of the fine arts are important, music currently shows the strongest correlation with other academic outcomes. But the music requirement currently is unsubstantial, and the positive effects are left to those students and families who purposely pursue the music program. In Ohio students are required to take two Carnegie units of fine arts, which is the equivalent of only one semester each year they are in high school, and can include visual arts, computer graphics, or drama – which means a student could earn her diploma without having taken a music class.

The research on the importance of music has begun to sway public opinion toward requiring music education. Cincinnati Public School Board of Education recently endorsed elementary schools with music as a core focus of their curriculum, and the district now touts arts instruction as a key academic program.[3] Language designating music as a core subject, along with art, was included in ESSA in 2015.

These advances have been encouraging, but a difficult final step remains. Graduation requirements for the arts are still minimal and have not changed in response to the new laws, suggesting that the changes so far are in words, but not necessarily in deeds. New funding has not flowed into the schools to support this, at least not at the levels needed to truly impact every student. And, with typically only seven hours in a school day, there has been no indication of which other courses should be trimmed back in order to make space for an expanded music program.

Cincinnati Public Schools has begun to address this need by hiring a fine arts curriculum manager for the district. His role has been to coordinate resources within the district to meet the needs of our many different schools and students. Isadore “Izzy” Rudnick has worked to highlight programs, bring together schools with similar programs, and harness grants to pay for more itinerant teachers in not just music, but in visual and performing arts as well. This is not necessarily an original, groundbreaking idea. However, it is an important step that shows a commitment to the arts and that can bring in needed resources without passing the responsibility down to individual principals and arts teachers.

At Gamble Montessori, even after Gloria Lane’s retirement, we pay similar respects to the importance of the program, with bursts of relevant – and significant – related action. For instance, we have expanded our program beyond one part-time teacher with a small choir and strings program. We now have one full-time teacher for choir and steel drums, and an itinerant band director who works with our middle school and high school students. Additionally, with the support of a start-up grant from the Educational Theatre Association, Gamble has initiated a musical theatre program at the middle school which has instilled a new interest in performance and created new ties within the community.

But music remains an elective at Gamble. Students can take it, or they can opt out. If the research is right, we should go further. The readings suggest we would be heading in the right direction if we found a way to require all students to take music in middle school and into high school, every year. Beyond simply listening to music, or learning about it, students should be required to learn to play and perform music for an audience. This authentic audience promotes the sort of learning that is most important – attention to detail with focused practice and a community-minded final project. How do we do that without compromising visual arts? Or without cutting back on traditional core classes? These are the problems we need to solve.

Here’s what you can do:

  • In your community: link local organizations and other support with your school(s)
    • Advocate for partnerships with local arts organizations
    • Support full-time positions for music teachers in every school
    • Encourage sponsored programs in the schools for specialized classes that meet the needs of students and the goals of the (sometimes) grant-funded programs
  • In your school: advocate for more resources allocated to music.
    • Find local groups or volunteers who can help provide instruction
    • Offer to teach an elective with a music focus
    • Donate instruments after finding a program in need (please don’t just drop and drive away – verify that they need your instrument first!)
  • In your class: Teach rhythm and music-related skills in your class.
    • English? Look at rhythms in poetry, and the poetry in songs
    • Math? Examine the fractions of time signatures
    • Science? Sound waves are already written into the curriculum
    • Social studies? Explore the music that has shaped social movements
    • Any group: use the cup game or other rhythm-based game to create a sense of community, or use rhythm (clapping patterns) or distinct sounds as transition signals


[1] Hopkins, Gary. “Making the Case for Music Education.” Education World: Connecting Educators to What Works. Education World, 3 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 July 2017.

[2] Eide, Naomi. “Does Music Give You Math Skills? It’s a Tricky Equation.” LiveScience. Purch, 27 June 2015. Web. 25 July 2017.


2 thoughts on “Music Matters

    • Well, it’s about great people doing great work! So many others I could have mentioned who are part of it – Tom Frank, Jen Monceaux and Brian Huhtala are the core of our arts program (visual and musical) right now, of course.

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