Is Learning Music Really That Academic?

Most people have heard about the numerous studies suggesting that early music education has positive effects on a child’s academic performance, fine motor skills, ability to focus, and overall cognitive abilities, among a long list of other desirable attributes. How does a musical education have that power over a young mind? Can it truly transform, say, an “average” child into a “gifted” student who is now destined for success? Let’s think about this for a bit.

What kind of young, prospective music student would want to take lessons in the first place? It would have to be a child who has: a) a motivated parent or guardian, b) some previous exposure to music, c) some sort of liking or inclination to music because of said exposure, and d) financial and emotional support. With all of these elements in perfect alignment, we’ve got a new music student on board. Yay! But does this really support the argument that any child can become extraordinary at academics because of music lessons? Already, we’ve got an extra boost just from checking off all the boxes. Isn’t that…kind of like…cheating? What about those kids who have never heard of Beethoven and will probably never hear Beethoven?

Perhaps, then, the real problem lies at the source. We need to democratize music education. We need to incorporate music lessons into classrooms from preschool onward. Hypothetically, all children would reap the benefits of learning rhythm and differentiating among pitches. But is mere exposure to music enough? Does it even make a dent?

As a private piano teacher, I can tell you that learning music can be intense, especially if it’s one-on-one and consistent. There are expectations and weekly assignments. There are goals that need to be met in order to move on. Good lessons can make a student feel chipper and on top of the world, and bad lessons can bring out the Kleenex. It’s personal sometimes because the student and teacher demand the best out of each other. And beyond these emotional demands are the academic ones. Yes, you heard that. Music is very, if not mostly, ACADEMIC!

The best teachers are methodical and analytical while allowing breathing room for the student. Each lesson should build on the previous one (which is why practicing at home is essential). There are weekly assignments that consist of music theory (a.k.a. music notation, harmony, rhythm, melody, scales, key signatures, etc.), ear training, sight reading, some music history, sometimes composition, and a rotating array of pieces that are in some state of learning. All of these elements inform one another to allow a greater understanding at each level. There shouldn’t be holes in any person’s education, whether it’s earth science in the 5th grade or world history in the 8th. Music education is no different.

So, with all of that being said, can a one-on-one music education truly steer a student into not only being an informed musician, but also a future Harvard grad? It certainly can, but there are never any guarantees. However, what I can say, through observation and through experience, is that it makes you stronger. It makes you work harder. If you know how to take a new piece from its rough beginnings to a polished performance, then you can apply those same principles to other challenges, like knowing which steps to take to compose a good essay or improving your backstroke technique. If it doesn’t make you “smarter,” it certainly makes you tougher. Maybe this is what can elevate a student from the rest of the pack.

However, not all students have the privilege of taking private lessons. This is why it is essential to bring music classes back into schools, even if it’s music appreciation, tooting a recorder, or rattling rhythms to a beat. This is the required exposure that could inspire a child to ask about lessons or to find a way to get more of this good stuff. But it’s the week-to-week and day-to-day aspect of taking private lessons and practicing diligently that will offer the more character-building aspects of education. And undoubtedly, it has other positive side effects, too.