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Education Opinion

Does Mastering Fractions Improve Musical Performance and Understanding?

By Nancy Flanagan — April 05, 2012 3 min read
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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.