How should Minn. honor Prince? Fund music education

Minnesota could make purple its official state color to honor the memory of Prince. It could name a new transit line the “purple line.” It could find a street somewhere and call it Prince Street.

Here’s another idea: It could better support music in public schools.

For a generation now, music has been sacrificed at the altar of sports and other activities, even though there’s ample evidence that music education instills a better math ability.

Writing in an op-ed on the Star Tribune today, Derek Otte, of Minneapolis, suggests we reflect on what music means to a community.

Music is powerful. It has the scientifically proven ability to ease pain, reduce stress, relieve symptoms of depression, and elevate mood, and it helps manage stress and anxiety. It can even improve cognitive performance.

In an Atlantic article, “Using Music to Close the Academic Gap,” author Lori Miller Kase discusses many ongoing longitudinal studies with children from lower-income backgrounds that are tracking the academic benefits of music education. Preliminary findings reveal that learning to play an instrument can have a dramatically positive effect on a child’s future academic trajectory.

Learning to make music strengthens an individual’s auditory working memory, which makes it easier to pay attention in class. Strengthening the brain’s encoding of timbre, pitch and timing also strengthens one’s ability to interpret speech. Research also has found that those skilled in rhythm also tend to be better readers.

Increasing a child’s exposure to and participation in music has so many benefits. Sadly, struggling schools are apt to dissolve or cut back their music programs, as the more basic needs of the children overshadow what’s seen as a luxury.

Struggling schools that do offer music programs might not have the resources to effectively engage the children, as they’re spread thin and families may not be able to afford instruments or private lessons. Unfortunately, in these scenarios, the children who would most benefit from music instruction are often denied access.

It’s unlikely Otte’s call will be heeded. The media’s coverage of Prince is moving into its oh-so-predictable tabloid-journalism phase, politicians are quicker to embrace empty symbolism than lasting impacts, and, as reported this week, parents are reluctant to support music education because they don’t understand how it enhances a child’s career prospects.

Yesterday, Herbie Hancock joined educators and researchers in Washington to urge officials to integrate music, math, and computer science.

“It goes across language barriers, cultures and achievement barriers and offers the opportunity to engage a very diverse set of students,” Susan Courey, a professor of special education at San Francisco State University, said. In a small study, students who received the music lesson scored 50 percent higher on a fraction test than those who learned with the standard curriculum. “They should be taught together.”

“If a student can clap about a beat based on a time signature, well aren’t they adding and subtracting fractions based on music notation?” Courey said. “We have to think differently.”

As hard as learning to read notes can be, thinking differently is much harder for us.