This article is excerpted from the IIP publication Sketchbook USA, a richly illustrated volume that depicts Americans at work, at play, in their communities, and engaging in civic life. View and download the fully formatted Sketchbook.
With popularity of rock and hip hop music among U.S. young people, it may come as a surprise to learn that American students experience very different kinds of music in their classrooms.
In U.S. middle and secondary schools, music education is largely built around participation in bands, choruses, and string orchestras. School bands are a longstanding tradition in schools, certainly since the early 20th century, when John Philip Sousa composed his stirring marching band music that remains popular today.
Although more than 90 percent of school students receive some kind of music education, the percentage of students playing an instrument has declined in recent years, according to the National Association for Music Education, which cites tight local budgets and national testing standards for the drop in music programs. Music educators do wield a very effective weapon, however; repeated studies find a direct connection between music education and educational success.
Although numbers can vary widely, a typical secondary school band consists of wind instruments (flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet), brass (trumpet, trombone, saxophone, French horn, euphonium, tuba), and percussion. Orchestras, which feature string instruments (violin, viola, cello) and piano, are less common, although smaller jazz and guitar ensembles are growing in popularity.
To provide a rounded music education, school concerts are often eclectic affairs, featuring classical music excerpts, Broadway show tunes, old favorites such as Sousa marches, traditional folk tunes, and original music composed or arranged specifically for school bands.
Choral music, second only to bands in popularity, can also be wide-ranging and challenging. In Oklahoma, for example, school choirs compete in the annual “Circle the State With Song” festival. The 2008 repertoire includes music by Antonio Vivaldi, a traditional Quaker hymn, and “Ton Thé,” described as a “French tongue twister.”
A recent survey found that almost 1,800 colleges and universities offer music programs for an estimated 320,000 students, or about 2 percent of total enrollment in higher education. The United States is also home to some of the world's most prestigious music education institutions, such as the Julliard School and Eastman School of Music in New York, and the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. Aspiring jazz musicians flock to the Berklee College of Music in Boston; pianists to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore; classical vocalists to the University of Texas School of Music.
Educators cite benefits of music education that extend beyond the select number of performers who pursue music as a career:
- Music education increases chances of success in school, earning an advanced degree, and getting a better job at higher pay, according to a 2007 Harris Poll that found “a positive association of music with lifelong educational attainment and higher income.”
- Music requires cognition, emotion, and aesthetics, and develops individual capabilities. A person learning music is synchronizing and integrating these faculties so that they stretch themselves mentally in a variety of ways, according to the Brown University Center for the Study of Human Development.
IBM scientist and engineer Fred Behning observes, “I made a career of doing things that weren't invented when I went to high school,” he says. “What made a difference in my life has been the ability to learn as I go, adapt to new ideas, and have the courage to take risks — all skills I learned through participation in band.”
Behning still plays the oboe and English horn in a community orchestra.
The saxophone-playing former president, Bill Clinton, said, “Music is about communication, creativity, and cooperation, and, by studying music in school, students have the opportunity to build on these skills, enrich their lives, and experience the world from a new perspective.”
While band and choral music are the programs most commonly found in U.S. schools, the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation drums for a stronger back beat in the schools.
“Rock and roll shapes our culture and is the great equalizer among people of different racial, social and economic backgrounds,” says foundation advocate Steven Van Zandt. “It belongs in the schools!” Van Zandt’s career in rock and roll dates back to the 1970s when he blasted on to the music scene as a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
The foundation is developing a curriculum initiative on the history of rock and roll to be made available to public schools.