Arts Education

Response to Samuel Mehr’s Study on Music Education

First of all, watch the video. Watch all of it. It’s barely more than two-hundred seconds long, and Samuel Mehr won’t waste any of your time – his video is stuffed full to bursting with important research findings about music education, and analysis about what it means for the place of music education in our society, and how we promote it.

In sum, Mr. Mehr’s video contests the idea that music lessons increases a person’s cognitive skills. His study put children into three different randomized groups for testing purposes – one group received music lessons, one group received visual arts classes, and the third group received no classes. After testing the children for improved linguistics skills, math development, and spatial cognition, his study found no enhanced value for music lessons in any of the areas tested. However, this does not mean that music lessons have no value. As Mr. Mehr states in his opinion piece in the New York Times,

You might be tempted to conclude that our studies debunk the claim that music makes you smarter. That conclusion is false. Our studies cannot rule out the existence of cognitive benefits of music lessons. Before anyone can justify a strong conclusion about the existence or nonexistence of such benefits, many more randomized controlled trials must be conducted.

I agree with all of his findings and analysis, and especially the above quote from his New York Times piece. Personally, I’m not sure that we will ever find a definitive link between musical studies and increased cognitive skills, because music lessons impact a human being in ways that are more difficult to measure. That’s why when the National Endowment for the Arts produced their study on the effects of the arts on children, they couched their findings in terms of future success enjoyed by the students. When we think about the things that the arts teach – interdisciplinary studies, how to apply your imagination to real life, the value of hard work and creative problem solving skills – very few of them will have a direct effect on any traditional skill set, and I wouldn’t expect almost any of them to display their benefits in a preschooler, the age that Mr. Mehr’s study targeted. If Mr. Mehr is searching for a link between music studies and increased mental ability, perhaps he should venture into the realms of metaphors and similes, and document based essays, and critical thinking skills in teenagers and young adults.

Yet music education does have value, as Mr. Mehr says at the end of his video. It’s association with the human race goes back thousands of years. It is an invaluable communication tool and a very human thing to do. When my little sister was younger, you could always tell when she was enjoying a meal, because she would hum herself a happy little tune when she was enjoying herself. There’s something about the human spirit that finds expression and empowerment in music. If Mr. Mehr is trying to find a provable benefit for music lessons, he’s going to have to ask the question “what does music actually do, and how should we try to define it?”

This round of testing was a good first step. I look forward to Mr. Mehr’s next foray into the field, as it could be even more important.

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