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Close-up of an African American student playing a violin with a focused expression in a classroom setting.
Cutting music programs harms Black students by reducing cognitive social emotional and cultural benefits Music education boosts brain development and fosters growth

By Darius Spearman (africanelements) | June 11, 2024

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Cognitive Benefits of Music Education

Cutting music programs in schools disproportionately impacts Black students, worsening educational inequities. Music education significantly benefits cognitive, creative, and social-emotional development, which is crucial for the academic success of Black youth.

Research shows that music training enhances brain development in children. It improves language skills, memory, and executive functions like attention and self-regulation.

“Music training improves language skills, memory, and executive functions like attention and self-regulation” (SOURCE: Music Lessons and Cognitive Abilities in Children).

Music activates multiple brain regions simultaneously, strengthening neural connections. Students in music programs score higher on standardized tests and have better math, reading, and verbal abilities than those without music education (SOURCE: How Musical Training Affects Cognitive Development).

Budget Cuts and Educational Inequities

Due to budget constraints, schools increasingly cut music programs, hitting districts serving predominantly Black, immigrant, and low-income populations the hardest. Although most U.S. students have access to music education, the approximately 7,000 schools without music programs are largely concentrated in these communities. This deprives Black students of the cognitive and academic benefits of music.

“Although most U.S. students have access to music education, the approximately 7,000 schools without music programs are largely concentrated in these communities” (SOURCE: How to Stop Music Education Funding Cuts).

Bar chart illustrating the reduction in arts education and the percentage of students with no arts education. Black students experienced a 49% reduction and 7% have no arts education, Hispanic students have a 40% reduction, White students have no reduction but 3% have no arts education, and Asian students have no reduction but 2% have no arts education.
This bar chart illustrates the reduction in arts education access and the percentage of students with no arts education for different racial groups Black students experienced a 49 reduction in arts education and 7 have no arts education Hispanic students have a 40 reduction White students have no reduction but 3 have no arts education and Asian students have no reduction but 2 have no arts education

Social-Emotional Benefits of Music Education

Music education also provides powerful social-emotional advantages for Black students. Engaging in music fosters self-discipline, patience, and dedication as students set goals, manage their time, and persevere through challenges.

“The collaborative nature of music-making teaches cooperation, empathy, and cross-cultural understanding” (SOURCE: Cultural Connections Through Music).

Performing builds self-confidence and provides healthy outlets for self-expression.

Specific Cognitive Benefits for Black Students

Music education programs provide significant cognitive benefits for all students, but they are especially crucial for supporting the academic success and development of Black children. Numerous studies show that music training enhances brain function, leading to improvements in memory, attention, language skills, and spatial-temporal reasoning.

“Music training enhances brain function, leading to improvements in memory, attention, language skills, and spatial-temporal reasoning” (SOURCE: Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain Development).

Due to systemic inequities and budget cuts that disproportionately impact schools serving Black communities, African American students often have less access to the cognitive advantages that music education provides.

“Due to systemic inequities and budget cuts, African American students often have less access to the cognitive advantages that music education provides” (SOURCE: Cutting Music Programs Harms Black Students’ Academic and Social).

Research indicates that music instruction is associated with accelerated brain development in young children. One study found that after just two years of music lessons, children showed faster maturation of the auditory pathway, the brain network responsible for processing sound.

“After just two years of music lessons, children showed faster maturation of the auditory pathway, the brain network responsible for processing sound” (SOURCE: Music Training Speeds Up Brain Development in Children).

Culturally responsive music programs also offer unique benefits for Black students’ cognitive growth. By studying music from the African diaspora and other traditions, Black children stimulate multiple brain regions, strengthen neural connections, and process complex rhythms and melodies.

“By studying music from the African diaspora, Black children stimulate multiple brain regions, strengthen neural connections, and process complex rhythms and melodies” (_SOURCE: The Influence Music Education Programs Have on Identity_).

Music programs foster the development of executive functions, the cognitive skills vital for academic achievement. Learning an instrument requires focused attention, cognitive flexibility, and working memory to master challenging techniques.

“Learning an instrument requires focused attention, cognitive flexibility, and working memory to master challenging techniques” (SOURCE: Effects of Music Training on Inhibitory Control and Associated).

Culturally Responsive Music Education

Music programs grounded in culturally responsive teaching offer Black students an inclusive space to explore their heritage and identity. By studying and performing music from the African diaspora and other traditions, Black youth gain pride in their cultural background and feel a sense of belonging in their school community.

“By studying and performing music from the African diaspora and other traditions, Black youth gain pride in their cultural background and feel a sense of belonging in their school community” (SOURCE: Cultural Connections Through Music).

Music ensembles create a safe, supportive environment where students develop social bonds with peers and caring adults.

The Need for Equitable Funding

To support Black students’ success, schools must invest in high-quality, culturally diverse music education as part of the core curriculum. Educators should connect with community artists and cultural organizations to create music programs that celebrate and affirm Black students’ experiences. Administrators and policymakers must recognize the vital importance of music and the arts and allocate sufficient, equitable funding to make music education accessible to all.

“Administrators and policymakers must recognize the vital importance of music and the arts and allocate sufficient, equitable funding to make music education accessible to all” (SOURCE: How to Stop Music Education Funding Cuts).

Investing in Music Education for Black Students’ Future

The loss of music programs due to budget cuts is extremely harmful to Black students. It robs them of essential opportunities for cognitive enhancement, social-emotional development, and cultural connection. To close opportunity gaps and allow Black youth to thrive academically and personally, schools must restore and expand music education through culturally responsive programs. Music is not a luxury but a critical investment in educational equity and the well-being and potential of Black students.

About the author

Darius Spearman has been a professor of Black Studies at San Diego City College since 2007. He has authored several books, including Between The Color Lines: A History of African Americans on the California Frontier Through 1890. You can visit Darius online at africanelements.org.