A friend on Facebook (and in life), recently posted an article from The New York Times Well Blog on the importance of early music education called Early Music Lessons Have Longtime Benefits. I have mixed feelings about research that touts music as a gateway for other skills. So often music is viewed as important because it's "good for Math skills" or it "teaches children to concentrate" or that it "strengthens a range of auditory skills." Music is presented as a short-cut for intelligence. These things are all excellent side benefits to music, but what about the importance of music for it's own sake. It was a relief to read this article by Perri Klass that points out that music is valuable in it's own right:
There’s a fascination — and even a certain heady delight — in learning what the brain can do, and in drawing out the many effects of the combination of stimulation, application, practice and auditory exercise that musical education provides. But the researchers all caution that there is no one best way to apply these findings.
Different instruments, different teaching methods, different regimens — families need to find what appeals to the individual child and what works for the family, since a big piece of this should be about pleasure and mastery. Children should enjoy themselves, and their lessons. Parents need to care about music, not slot it in as a therapeutic tool.
For me, music is important because it is an essential form of human expression. Developing skills as a musician gives us a way to understand that expression and participate in it. It does this in a way that no other set of skills does. While more skills lead to more options for expression, musicians don't have to perform at a professional level to participate in it and benefit from it. However, in order to give their performance meaning they need appreciate it as a valuable expressive art; otherwise it is purely a trick-based performance (look what I can do) rather than a performance that communicates a fuller meaning.
Music teachers should start advocating for music for it's own sake rather than focusing on side benefits. The side-benefit approach may convince school districts to keep music programs short-term, or get parents to sign children up for lessons. However, when music becomes secondary to the potential cognitive boost it can provide, it suffers as a second-class subject. Music should be treated as a primary subject, as important as reading and math, because along with reading and math (and other subjects) it is a vital part of what makes us human.