Music moves into mainstream

16th May 1997 at 01:00
United States. The piano is taking over from the computer keyboard, reports Tim Cornwell

When the Los Angeles school district announced late last year that it was increasing its force of roving music teachers from 73 to 100, creating five new staff positions a year, it hardly seemed a resounding triumph for arts education.

The stated aim was that every city elementary school should get a visit from a music teacher for at least one day a week. These schools, however, can have up to 1,500 pupils. Overall, the ratio of music teachers to elementary pupils is estimated locally at one to 4,500.

The United States lags well behind Europe in music education. But the Los Angeles move was significant, say educators, because it may be part of a national trend. It was only five years ago that LA attempted to abolish the elementary programme outright.

For years the first victim of budget cuts, arts education, and particularly music teaching, appears to be making at least a minor comeback in schools across the country. "It is on the rebound," said Don Doyle, an LA schools music adviser. "It has improved significantly over the past couple of years. It is a combination of the economy, advocacy, and research."

More particularly, the driving force behind the change is a coalition of the music industry and music educators, from university professors to instrument makers such as Yamaha to recording companies, all with a strong vested interest in keeping children in touch with music.

As a formidable weapon in their arsenal, they have helped to finance and publicise research showing that music teaching can both help early childhood development and potentially boost examination scores in other subjects.

This February, two scholars published a study in the journal Neurological Research, showing that piano lessons dramatically increased spatial-temporal skills among three and four-year-olds - the kind of reasoning required for success in science and mathematics. The same results were not achieved by computer lessons. The study was partly funded by the National Association of Music Merchants, and has been widely cited by backers of music education as an established link between music and intellectual growth. Fund music, the reasoning goes, and exam results will improve.

Two other California cities, San Diego and San Francisco, have recently added music teachers, Mr Doyle said. So has Clark County, in neighbouring Nevada, where a population boom is driving a chaotic school expansion programme. Across the continent in New York, mayor Rudolph Guiliani has also proposed putting Pounds 15.5 million aside in next year's budget to help restore music and arts instruction. Since the 1970s, youngsters in that city have received little or no music education. The New York initiative has won private backing from the VH1 music video channel.

In East Chicago, it is reported, the school board voted last month to add seven new music teachers to the payroll, nearly reversing the 10 dropped in 1994. In North Carolina, 27 schools have joined an experiment to introduce music and poetry into the curriculum, in a pilot programme to learn whether or not they improve test scores.

At the national level, music education standards were incorporated in the Goals 2000 initiative backed by President Bill Clinton. According to one recent survey, 28 states now require some arts study for high school graduation, as opposed to only two in 1980. On the other side of the equation, there are now six or seven states that require arts credits for admission to college.

Accurate national statistics are hard to come by, however, and leaders in the music education field are urging caution. Partly, it is a question of regaining lost ground. In 1962, for example, nearly 70 per cent of state schools had orchestras; now it is 14 per cent.

According to The Instrumentalist magazine, school music budgets have increased 63 per cent in the last year. But music programmes still rely heavily on fund-raising by parents and schools, rather than money from the state.

"Talk is cheap," said John Mahlman, director of the Music Educators' National Conference, with some 70,000 members. "But whether or not it translates into real action, with more music for more kids in schools, there's a lot more attention and rhetoric on the issue."

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