Music or Social Action?

[14/12/2015] Adopting utilitarian arguments to support the funding of classical music education and performance has been a successful strategy by any measure. El Sistema became a global sensation after adopting this rhetoric in the 1990s, and the rapid proliferation of Sistema-inspired programs in other countries in recent years, often within an overall context of austerity and cuts to education and culture, illustrates the effectiveness of this approach. It has worked, and it has done so quickly.

Like many quick fixes, however, it brings longer-term or less obvious problems in its wake. One, which has been apparent for some time, has been the need to demonstrate that classical music education actually has the effects claimed for it. Outside a capricious petro-economy and “magical state” like Venezuela, at some point grand rhetoric has to be backed up by something rather more concrete if money is to continue to flow.

There are other issues, too. As I noted in my book,

utilitarian arguments for the arts have been critiqued as scientifically weak, philosophically problematic, and politically risky. Winner and Cooper (2000, 66), after casting doubt on purported causal links between arts study and academic achievement, conclude that “advocates should refrain from making utilitarian arguments in favor of the arts. Such arguments betray a misunderstanding of the inherent value of the arts.” Belfiore concurs and suggests that the arts play a dangerous game by arguing for their value on instrumental grounds without robust evidence of their efficacy; they are then vulnerable to being displaced by social programs with more demonstrable results. She concludes: “instrumental cultural policies are not sustainable in the long term, and… they ultimately may turn from ‘policies of survival’ to ‘policies of ‘extinction’” (2002, 22).

Belfiore’s argument, in particular, holds considerable salience for El Sistema. By rebranding itself as primarily a social program, it exposed itself to the long-term risk that its social goals might eventually be proven to be achievable more fully by different means, and that, with inherent value now in the background, the use of music itself would no longer be justified.

So I was interested to come across a 2004 article in Psychological Science by E. Glenn Schellenberg called “Music Lessons Enhance IQ.” Digging into the article, I came across an interesting additional finding, which came out of the comparative aspect of the research. Those who took music lessons were compared not just to those who took no lessons, but also to those who took lessons in drama. While music lessons did indeed cause a small increase in IQ,

Changes in social behavior (as measured by the BASC) told a different story. Improvements in adaptive social behavior were evident in the drama group, but the two music groups and the no-lessons group did not change from before to after the lessons. The drama group had a significantly larger improvement than the other groups, which did not differ from each other. Similar analyses of changes in maladaptive behavior revealed no pre- to postlessons differences in any group and no differences among groups.

[I have removed some stats from this paragraph for the sake of clarity – they can be found by following the link]

The information about adaptive and maladaptive behaviour is as follows:

The Parent Rating Scale of the BASC provides separate composite measures of maladaptive and adaptive social functioning: Six subtests measuring maladaptive behavior (Hyper-activity, Aggression, Anxiety, Depression, Atypicality, and Attention Problems) are combined to form the Behavioral Symptoms Index, and three subtests measuring adaptive behaviors (Adaptability, Social Skills, and Leadership) form an Adaptive Composite Score.

This is not my field at all – I do not do quantitative or experimental research on music – so I cannot comment on the validity of the article, but the author is a prolific writer in this area, his research is peer-reviewed, and it is much quoted by Susan Hallam in her extensive work on the power of music. It looks solid enough, in other words. And while a single study is hardly conclusive, it’s nevertheless suggestive.

What it suggests is that – at least under these experimental conditions – learning music has no significant effect on social behaviour. If arts educators are looking primarily for social impact, then they would be better off using drama than music, since the drama group is where improvements in social behaviour were found.

As John Sloboda argues in his chapter in the just-published Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education, if social justice is the primary goal, then one has to be willing to consider abandoning music altogether. If the overriding aim is to counter poverty, crime, and drug use, the employment of music is only justified by evidence that it is more effective than direct anti-poverty, anti-crime, and anti-drugs initiatives, and better than other educational and cultural interventions. If one is not willing to countenance abandoning music, then the goals are primarily musical. If one is not willing to countenance abandoning classical music, then the goal is primarily the perpetuation of a particular musical style. And if one is not willing to countenance abandoning particular ways of learning and performing classical music, then the goal is to reproduce the traditions of that particular musical culture (and the values and ways of life associated with them).

Taken together, Schellenberg and Sloboda’s research poses some big questions to the Sistema sphere. Is its interest really and primarily social action? Or to put that question in more concrete terms, would it be willing and able to give up music for drama or some other intervention, if the latter were proven (via research like Schellenberg’s) to be more socially effective? If not, is the claim that El Sistema is a social program, not a musical one, anything more than a strategic discourse?

I was intrigued to come across this article because I’ve thought for some time that a comparative approach to different arts and non-arts interventions would make for a more interesting research project than asking whether a kid who plays music ten or twenty hours a week shows cognitive advantages over one who doesn’t (which seems like a bit of a no brainer, if you’ll excuse the pun). I’m sure I’m just dipping my toe into a huge sea here, so I’d be very interested to know about more comparative studies that confirm or contradict the findings of this one with regard to the social impact of learning music versus other skills.

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