Opinion
Education Opinion

Does Mastering Fractions Improve Musical Performance and Understanding?

By Nancy Flanagan — April 05, 2012 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As a professional flutist, I frequently play for weddings, funerals and other life-transition occasions. Once, after sharing some melancholy Irish ballads and Van Morrison tunes at a contemporary’s funeral, his brother approached, wiping his eyes, and said “I was fine until you started playing--and then I lost it.”

And I thought--no, you weren’t fine. Until the music began, and made it possible for you to release your full humanity and experience your loss.

And there, in a nutshell, is the reason all schools ought to incorporate music programs: because music truly is a universal language, and the arts are our must potent means of human expression. Not because student musicians get higher test scores.

Yesterday, the Learning First Alliance asked Can Arts Education Help Close the Achievement Gap? I appreciate the perspectives and data assembled by Anne O’Brien--who points out that students from high-poverty schools who study the arts are more likely to graduate HS, attend and finish college, and register to vote. But I believe the real question is: What do the arts teach children that other subjects can’t?

Last week, an article in Education Week trumpeted the news that a new program “uses rhythm to tackle fractions--a math concept that is fundamental to higher math, but one that students can find difficult to grasp.

Susan Courey, one of the researchers who developed the soon-to-be-commercial program says:

We're suggesting that teachers put music in their arsenal of tools for teaching math. It's fun, it doesn't cost a lot, and it keeps music in the classroom.

No! That’s not how or why we need to keep music in our public schools! And please don’t refer to music as a effective weapon for teaching fractions...

I expect music education journals and arts education advocates to jump on these items to advocate for inclusion of the arts in school curriculum. Having spent a good-sized chunk of my own life on that very cause, I wish them well. My own archived “Why Teach Music?” clippings fill a drawer in my filing cabinet. Lately, the links in my folder with the same title are focused on research that links arts education to a range of measurable, quantifiable skills.

I wonder why we feel compelled to defend music, art, dance and drama for their subsidiary benefits: enhanced brain development, spatial/visual/temporal processing, improving memory and attention, physical coordination, personal discipline and teamwork?

Worse--why do academics and researchers persist in tying music and art to achievement data that probably doesn’t even tell us much about the subjects being tested?

This tendency to look for “scientifically based” reasons to teach the humanities was stirred in 1993 when Dr. Frances Rauscher produced a modest little study about the temporary effects of listening to highly patterned music on spatial reasoning. Rauscher (to her eventual regret, I’m sure) used the word “IQ,” noting that her subjects’ measured responses improved 8 or 9 points after listening to Mozart. From there, it was a steady parade of books, newspaper articles and boxed CD sets, based on her “proof” that Mozart makes you smarter.

Naturally, music teachers everywhere repeated the mantra. Arts teachers and programs have been under fire since, well, forever. I get it, fellow arts teachers. We’re just trying to stay alive.

But where did we get the idea that artistic expression is less useful or important than the sciences? How did music, art, dance and drama get pushed aside in our American school curriculum? I’m not surprised that studying or listening to music has beneficial effects on learning fractions or other academic skills, but those are side effects.

Kids should study music because it’s central to every human society on earth and has a vitally important role in every aspect of culture, from history to literature to media and communication studies. Music is part of what it means to be a human being.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. f we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Gunman in 2018 Parkland School Massacre Pleads Guilty
A jury will decide whether Nikolas Cruz will be executed for one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings.
3 min read
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP
Education Briefly Stated: October 20, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Gunman in Parkland School Massacre to Plead Guilty
The gunman who killed 14 students and three staff members at a Florida high school will plead guilty to their murders, his attorneys said.
4 min read
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is sworn in before pleading guilty, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on all four criminal counts stemming from his attack on a Broward County jail guard in November 2018, Cruz's lawyers said Friday that he plans to plead guilty to the 2018 massacre at a Parkland high school.
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is sworn in before pleading guilty, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on all four criminal counts stemming from his attack on a Broward County jail guard in November 2018, Cruz's lawyers said Friday that he plans to plead guilty to the 2018 massacre at a Parkland high school.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP
Education California Makes Ethnic Studies a High School Requirement
California is among the first in the nation to require students to take a course in ethnic studies to get a diploma starting in 2029-30.
4 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, Democratic Assembly members, from left, James Ramos, Chris Holden Jose Medina, and Rudy Salas, Jr., right, huddle during an Assembly session in Sacramento, Calif. Medina's bill to make ethnic studies a high school requirement was signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)