This is the fifth article in a six-part series on the importance of the arts in education:
Intro | Visual arts | Dance | Drama | Music | Media arts

Music's positive effect on brain development has been researched and documented more than any other art form — from increased intelligence and higher SAT scores to better listening skills and greater self-esteem. There may be other less efficient and enjoyable ways to develop these skills and some people still claim it's all hype — but music is a valid subject that should be available to all children as a part of their regular school education.

Learning to play a musical instrument teaches self-discipline, problem-solving, perseverance, concentration, as well as motor skills. When children begin to play in ensembles, the benefits expand to include teamwork and cooperation.

Recent research out of Northwestern University shows direct evidence that music training has a biological effect on children's developing nervous systems, reports Melissa Locker in Time. This is good news in terms of improved academic development.

"You can document that kids who have had musical education now have nervous systems that respond more accurately and precisely to meaningful elements in language," lead researcher Dr. Nina Kraus told NPR.

Learning music improves the brain's ability to process pitch, timing and timbre, which also helps kids pick up language, explains Kraus in the NPR interview: "Consonants and vowels become clearer, and the brain can make sense of them more quickly."

The study was conducted in conjunction with the Los Angeles-based Harmony Project, which provides more than 2,000 students with at least five hours of music classes and rehearsals each week. Such nonprofit youth orchestras, found in cities across the U.S., are making a significant difference in low-income areas where schools have cut or never had music education programs.

"Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone on to colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, NYU," said Harmony Project director Margaret Martin, "despite dropout rates of 50 percent or more in the neighborhoods where they live and where we intentionally site our programs."

Active involvement in making music is key to reaping real change in the brain. Further research conducted over the course of two years found that the children in the project who were consistent in their class attendance and actively participated in class during this time period demonstrated greater improvement in how the brain processes speech and in their reading scores than peers who were less engaged.

As important as academic benefits are, social and life skills are enhanced by participation in school music programs. Two parents, Jason and Jenna Day, share in the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) blog that all their four children have gained focus and direction as well as valuable problem-solving skills from taking part in their school orchestra.

They relate a great learning moment after both their sons spent many hours practicing for their first orchestra and band district auditions. Although neither placed that particular time, each utilized the experience to better prepare himself for the next audition.

"These life lessons go far beyond music. Even giving it your all, sometimes your audition does not turn out the way you hoped," writes Jason. "However, if you know you have worked hard, then you have no regrets."

In the music classroom, having instruments for students to play is a fundamental, yet this isn't always the case when school budgets are tight. Many seasoned music teachers have overcome this obstacle by teaching their students using the voice and body percussion. Instruments don't have to be expensive, claim others who recommend boomwhackers, recorders or even creating a junk band with found objects.

In addition to learning how to produce music, becoming familiar with music from a variety of cultures and time periods is a highly enriching experience for students.

Record producer and songwriter Frank Fitzpatrick also emphasizes the importance of having knowledge of music's value and potential benefits. Truly understanding all that music can do for us as individuals and as society would naturally increase students' desire to learn more and budget-makers to allot more to school music programs.

"'How to' courses are great for teaching people to become more proficient performers, arrangers or composers," Fitzpatrick writes in a HuffPost blog. "But what about answering the fundamental question of why music is so essential or focusing on the universal gems of music: like how we can better use music to improve the quality of our lives and well-being, to enhance performance in other academics or careers, to improve our relationships, or to help us stay balanced during life's more challenging times?"

Many nonmusic teachers who already understand the power of music are using it as part of their lessons for teaching other subjects like history, language and even science. This isn't a substitute for a dedicated music class taught by a qualified music teacher, but it is a great way to hook and motivate young people who with few exceptions are attracted to music.

With all its amazing benefits, music has earned its place as a dedicated school subject as well as an incredibly effective tool for teaching nearly everything else.

In Part 6 of this series, we examine the benefits of involving school children in media arts.