Study: Music Education in K-12 Promotes Lifelong Engagement With Arts

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — April 11, 2017 3 min read
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A new study from the University of Maryland indicates that adults who participated in music education in school in grades K-12 were more likely to attend a musical performance and play an instrument in later life. Education in other artistic disciplines, including theater, was also associated with participation in those disciplines later on in life.

Using information from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, Kenneth Elpus, an assistant professor of music education and the author of the study, examined how adults who reported studying a given art form in school engage with the arts as adults.

While other researchers have noted that participation in arts education is tied to being active in the arts as an adult, Elpus focused in on who had studied specific disciplines and on just how adults are involved with art later in life.

The findings may seem obvious—Theater kids turn into theater adults! Those who study music when they are young participate when they’re older! But Elpus writes that there are good reasons to look at how arts education affects behavior later in life. While arts educators often seek to explain how work in their disciplines has a positive effect on other educational outcomes, like graduation rates or math scores, many teachers are most invested in educating young people about the arts and helping to foster lifelong involvement in music, visual art, media arts, theater, or dance. This survey is evidence that this education in artistic disciplines seems to have a real impact on people’s later experiences with the arts.

Elpus noted the paper’s use of data collected by the National Endowment for the Arts, an agency whose future is uncertain. President Donald Trump’s initial budget proposal would cut the NEA altogether, but the New York Times reports that 150 members of the House of Representatives, including 11 Republicans, are calling for the NEA to receive more funds in the coming fiscal year than it did in 2016.

Making art

The research turned up some interesting trends, especially involving who makes music as an adult.

Some 13 percent of survey respondents reported playing a musical instrument, 5 percent had performed in theater, 13 percent said they had taken photographs, and 6 percent had created visual art that’s not a photograph within the past year.

Those who had studied music were more than three times more likely to play an instrument and more than 2.5 times more likely to have sung in the past year. Theater students were nearly 3.7 times more likely to have participated in a theatrical production. The same trend held true in the visual arts— visual arts students were more likely to have made art as adults.

Notably, those who made less than $50,000 a year were not less likely to play an instrument than those who make more than $50,000 a year. Those who have more higher educational attainment, however, were more likely to have reported making music than those with less.

People who identified as black were 67 percent less likely to report playing an instrument than those who identified as white, and men were 80 percent more likely to play an instrument than women. Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders were more likely to play instruments than white people. Elpus said each of these trends is worth further investigation.

Attending arts events

Some 20 percent of people reported attending live theater events, 11 percent saw live jazz, and 13 percent saw live ballet. Those who had taken music classes were 93 percent more likely to see classical music or an opera.

The tie between what was studied and what was attended as an adult was slightly less direct—for instance, studying dance and visual arts was tied to watching theater as an adult.

And in a contrast to participation, which seemed to be more money-blind, those who earned more than $50,000 a year were significantly more likely to attend certain arts events, especially jazz and theater.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.