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For as long as I can remember, I have loved music.

Thanks to parents, grandparents and public-school music teachers, I grew up listening to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, Ray Charles and Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson and Tennessee Ernie Ford. My teen years caught fire with the sounds of Motown and Atlantic R & B, the British invasion, and later acid rock. Then I discovered motion-picture sound tracks, real jazz, better blues and a broader range of classical music.

Over 30 years, I have built a small but much loved music collection that is almost as eclectic as the books on my shelves. My music reflects who I am. It has been my companion in both joy and sorrow. It has taken the edge off a difficult day, added atmosphere to intimacy, enlivened gatherings of friends.

It is a necessary part of my existence even though I cannot read one note, sing like a frog in need of the Heimlich maneuver and, apart from a mid-teen flirtation with African drumming, have never attempted to play an instrument.

I cannot imagine a world without music or the means to appreciate it.

The possibility of such a world, however small, comes one step closer each time a school district marches music instruction up the steps of the budget guillotine or a municipality withdraws symphony support. The recent announcement that music education was to be "repositioned" at the University at Buffalo is the latest link in a chain of actions and policies that seek to undermine the arts in education.

While music education may seem just another casualty of the misguided money malcontents who would like to reduce life to a ledger page, its loss has graver consequences than the short-sighted can imagine.

University of Wisconsin psychologist Frances Rauscher has studied and written on the role music plays in spatial-temporal processes -- in short, reasoning and intelligence. In one study, the spatial reasoning performance of preschoolers with eight months of music lessons was higher by far than that of a control group that had no music lessons.

But practicing an instrument is not the only way music enhances mental development. In another study, Rauscher noted increases in the spatial IQ scores of students who listened to a selection of Mozart.

In other words, music makes us smarter. But that should come as no surprise to those of us who love music, who have listened to the tragedy of Madama Butterfly fill our houses; who have felt our hearts brushed by Itzhak Perlman's violin bow on the "Schindler's List" soundtrack; who have listened to Duke Ellington work a piano keyboard or Billie Holiday wrap her voice around a song.

Music makes us feel. It makes us tremble, laugh, cry and dream. It validates one side of human experience and helps us link it to another. It makes us think and imagine, move and feel alive. In so many ways it makes us fuller, richer human beings.

Smarter human beings.

Still, music education is facing too many firing squads.

What the penny protectors have forgotten is that their own love of music was learned. Certainly, part of one's musical awareness is acquired in the home, or in churches or in private lessons. Much of it, however, especially for children whose environments expose them to little or no variety in music, is learned in school.

For schools to use music to good purpose, they must have music programs and trained teachers. The University at Buffalo has long been the principal supplier of music teachers in this area, and study under various members of the Buffalo Philharmonic has made those teachers exceptionally well prepared. The weakening of music education at UB, then, is a major disservice to the school children of Western New York.

I remember a quasi-bully from my own grammar school days who seemed to drop the chip from his shoulder only when he was called upon to sing a solo in music class. He had a beautiful voice. Without these intervals of self-esteem, the school experience of this frequently in-trouble boy would have been almost completely negative.

One can only speculate how many with a "savage breast" have been or will be soothed by music education. However appalled it makes the bottom-liners, sometimes we have to have faith that a child with an instrument in his hand will have a harder time pulling a trigger or sliding a needle into his arm.

For that reason alone -- even if it had no impact on mental development -- music education would be well worth preserving.

GARY EARL ROSS is an associate professor at the University at Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center.
For guidelines for columns appearing in this space, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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