A Modest Proposal

March 1, 1998


The Governor Has an Idea

The day before sitting down to write this, I heard over our local NPR station an interview with the Governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, who was announcing that he would propose a new initiative to his state's legislature. He had heard news reports about research on the connection between music and children's development of cognitive skills.* As you are also probably aware, recent studies indicate that children who listen to classical music at a very young age appear to perform better on tests of spatial/temporal abilities than other children do. This means that they do better in science and math.

Governor Miller's recommendation would be this: that the State of Georgia supply a cassette tape of classical music to the parents of every single child born in Georgia (over 100,000 each year), with instructions about playing the music to their infants.

This idea might seem naive to us. It certainly might seem like a mere drop in the bucket.

It is a fascinating idea, though. Only time will tell whether it works. Perhaps in a decade or so there will be a measurable improvement in Georgia's children's abilities in math and science. For not much more than one dollar per cassette, let us hope Georgia will give it a try.

A Foot in the Door

Moreover, this modest proposal raises the possibility that here there may be a crack in the door, and we might take the chance to wedge in a foot.

First, let's have someone get across to all our governors and legislatures that music can do more than raise math scores. Can't we find a way to grab some headlines with the news (is this news?) that music and art act as humanizing forces in society? Can't we broadcast the discovery (is this a discovery?) that participation in choruses, bands, and orchestras teaches such things as the importance of each person in a team, cooperation, responsibility, discipline? In a time when declining social values are just as much decried in our newspapers and on the floors of our legislative bodies as is falling performance in math and science, can't we find ways to get some attention?

Second, once we've got their attention, we must convince our leaders—in government and on school boards—and convince the public in general, too, that we need to make a more substantial and long-range investment than one cassette tape for each family. We know that, in order to be fully effective in improving our individual and communal lives, music needs to be a continuous component of every student's education all the way along-K through 12 and beyond. Can we do a more effective job of insisting on that?

We are the musical and intellectual leaders of our nation. To get our political leadership and society in general to take notice and to make commitments is our business. We have not yet sufficiently made ourselves heard. We cannot say we have tried but no one is listening. If they aren't listening, we have not yet spoken clearly or forcefully enough.

Bring It Home

Moreover, we are in a position to make a difference by the nature of our situation. If the present generation of adults doesn't get it, we surely can work to make sure the next one does so before the end of the time they share with us.

Right here, on our college and university campuses, let us be sure that we do not let a single student graduate to the ranks of the educated citizenry without understanding how important music is to her own life and his own community. To get this across is our responsibility; no one else will teach this if we do not. Pursue the research to produce more evidence to show how this is so, and make sure the results get into the news. Quote Plato's Republic, Boethius on musica humana, and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (act 5, scene 1-remember?). Tell our students again and again.

On our campuses, let us model musical communities, where every student studies music and participates in music-making. Let us work harder to make music part of our curricula in general studies, to bring more students to musical events, to recruit students to performing groups. We can do this!

No excuses.

End of lecture.

*There is, of course, a substantial literature in this area, not only in research journals but also in the popular press. For one of the most high-profile studies in this area, see Frances H. Rauscher, Gordon L. Shaw, Linda J. Levine, Eric L. Wright, Wendy R. Dennis, Robert L. Newcomb, "Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children's spatial-temporal reasoning," Neurological Research 19/1 (1977): 2


1938 Last modified on November 19, 2013
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