On 14 November
2017, the grand opening of a Dutch project called ‘Méér Muziek in de Klas’
(‘More Music in the Classroom’) took place in Groningen, The Netherlands (NOS,
2017). While this event only marked the start of a regional project, the
foundation’s main goal is to have proper music education introduced into the
curriculum of all Dutch state primary schools by 2020. At this opening, a young
boy spoke. He considered music education to be essential, because “it has a
positive influence on children’s achievements. Also, making music makes
children calm and happy.” Now, it might be fair to say that the boy did not come
up with these exact words himself, but there may be some truth in them. Music education can be defined as
teaching pupils how to develop musical skills by imitating and listening to a
broad variety of musical genres, how to acquire and use musical knowledge (e.g.
when making their own music)  and how to learn to recognise tones, pitch
and other dimensions (study of eurhythmics) (Department for Education, 2013). Focusing on the individual rather than the entire
class, private schools already offer these music classes. State schools, funded
by the government and thus free of tuition fees, on the other hand, often seem
to neglect the arts subjects. It is often argued that curricular music classes
are a waste of time and money, but this appears not to be true. In fact, there
seems to be a connection between music education and pupils’ cognitive skills,
which can be defined as brain activities related to problem-solving and
learning. Therefore, music education should become a bigger part of the
curriculum of state schools, as this might boost pupils’ well-being and even
increase their learning ability.

To start off
with, music education should be compulsory because it has several health
benefits. Obesity among young people has
been a problem for a few decades. In early October 2017, the NCD Risk Factor
Collaboration published an article in the medical magazine The Lancet, which illustrated the problem with appalling numbers.
The report revealed that in the last forty years obesity among children has
increased immensely. In 1975, 5 million girls were obese. Forty-one years
later, this number has grown to 50 million. Similar numbers were found among
boys; in 1975, 6 million boys were obese, which grew to 74 million heavily
overweight boys in 2016 (Abarca-Gómez, Leandra et al, 2017). Shocking reports
such as this have sparked the idea that children should exercise more in order
to prevent or reduce obesity among children. One of the ways to achieve this
seems by letting them play a musical instrument for at least an hour every day.
Burggraaf et al. (2013) suggested that making music, be it singing or playing
an instrument, has effects similar to physical exercise training. The group of
participants was divided into two groups, one of which consisted of musicians,
and another that was made up of a non-music-playing group. Then, blood pressure
and heart rate were measured. As it turned out, the participants in the
musicians’ group had a significantly lower blood pressure than the control
group, as well as a lower heart rate. It must, however, be noted that the
latter result was a statistical trend rather than a significant difference
(Burggraaf et al., 2013). Though a high blood pressure is not an immediate
danger, it may lead to, for instance, heart disease, heart failure, stroke or
kidney disease (NHS, 2016). While these risks are mostly long-term effects,
serious attention should be paid to preventing high blood pressure in children.
High blood pressure is most often caused by obesity (Beckerman, 2016). Seeing
as the number of children with obesity has increased immensely, there is all
the more reason to find ways to put a halt to this, and this may be having
children play music on a regular basis.

Not only is frequently engaging in music lessons
likely to positively affect children’s overall health, it might also boost
their self-esteem in the long run. Costa-Giomi (2004) suggested that self-esteem
of Year 7 students had improved after three years of learning how to play the
piano, starting with no experience. Children appeared to be more confident
about themselves and their abilities than the pupils who never received any
sort of musical training. Self-esteem seems to play a significant role in a
child’s life; children with high self-esteem are less likely to doubt their own
abilities. Those with more self-confidence are able to focus on their abilities
and positive characteristics. This allows them to handle failure in, for
example, their academics results better than their peers with who have low
self-confidence (Dodgeson & Wood, 1998). Studies have even suggested that
having low self-esteem as a child or adolescent may increase their risk of, for
example, developing depression, attempting suicide or having a child in their
teenage years (Dubois & Tevendale, 1999; Emler, 2001). Considering that
suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens (BBC, 2017), the
connection that music education and self-esteem seem to have is definitely
worth looking into. Of course, making music education mandatory might not fully
solve these problems, but it may very well pull some weight, as it seems to
help pupils increase their self-esteem, which has shown to play a fair role in
their mental health.

Admittedly,
the main reason why state schools fail to offer curricular music programmes is that
these courses come at a price. Literally. Instruments are expensive, playing
spaces need to be hired, hosting a concert costs extra money and last, but
certainly not least, employing professional music instructors is a must if you
want to offer children proper music education.   In the 2011 fall edition of Journal of Education Finance, Mark
Fermanich estimates that these costs add up to an average of $187 per student.
This means educational institutions will either have to cut back on the regular
curriculum budget or rely on governmental funds or financial contributions made
by parents to be able to introduce music classes. Some parents might object
here that these costs are high, but they are not nearly as high as health care
costs caused by, for example, obesity among students, which would make an
estimated total of $19,000 per obese student, suggests Duke Global Health
Institute (2014). The expenses of music education may be large,  but
considering the benefits for the children, it may be worth the costs.

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Furthermore,
it can be argued that children who have enjoyed music classes do not score
significantly better on tests than peers who have not had music classes. A 2013 Harvard
study showed that the cognitive skills of preschool children do not improve
after they have participated in music lessons and that it is mainly a matter of
coincidence when experiments with music education give positive results. The
research involved toddlers in a six-week music programme, after which they had
to retake three tests. The results were then compared to pre-assessments and
the results of tests taken by a control group, who did not participate in the
music programme or take part in a visual arts course, which another group of
toddlers did. It became apparent that the preschool children who were part of
the music group did decidedly better on three out of the four tests compared to
the visual arts group. However, in comparison to the control group, the music
group failed to score decidedly better results. It can, therefore, be concluded
that the cognitive skills of toddlers do not improve after taking six weeks of
music lessons. (Mehr, Schachner, Katz & Spelke, 2013). Music education may
then not be beneficial to the school results of preschool children, this is not
true for students who are in secondary school. Morrison’s article “Music
Students and Academic Growth” (1994) suggests that students who are involved in
the music programme(s) at their school are more likely to receive special
recognition at their school. For example, 29.5 percent of the music students
were elected class officer, and 28.6 percent was awarded an academic honour,
opposed to the expected 22.8 percent. The expected percentage can be explained
as follows: of all the students that participated in the study was defined as a
music student. It was thus expected that these music students would make up
22.8 percent of the students receiving such an honour. Not only does music
education seem to have positive effects awards and honours-wise, but also
looking from an academic perspective, it appears to have a positive influence
on students. In his article, Morrison draws a comparison between the academic
achievements of music participants and nonparticipants. An example to
illustrate this is that the percentage of music participants reporting Bs in
Science was 63.8 percent, whereas 55.3 percent of the non-participants reported
the same grade. Another example is the number of As that were received in
English Language Arts: 59.9 percent of the non-music students reported
receiving As, opposed to 70.4 percent of the music students (Morrison, 1994).
It seems to be safe to say that the music students received higher grades and
more honours, and therefore playing a musical instrument might be an
academically beneficial thing to do as a student.

While
some people are convinced that teaching music at school might not be beneficial
to students, giving music education a more prominent place in the curriculum of
state schools actually seems to be a good idea. One of the first things that
seem to come to people’s minds is the expense of music lessons. It is true that
music programmes come at a price, but so do child obesity and mental illnesses,
both of which could possibly be, although partially, prevented by providing a
regular musical engagement in the classroom. Additionally, music education does
not seem to ameliorate the cognitive skills of preschool children. However,
studies suggest that older students might actually benefit intellectually from
frequent music classes. In this light, making music lessons mandatory from Year
7 and onwards seems to be the right thing to do. Ultimately, it comes down to what
is deemed more important: the health, self-esteem and academic accomplishments
of school children and young adults, or the school’s budget.

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