Zuo: The Merits of a Music Education

A music requirement should be a crucial part of any liberal arts education.

by Andrew Zuo | 4/19/22 4:05am

A crucial component of the academic culture here at Dartmouth is our set of distributive requirements — the completion of which is a prerequisite for graduation. These classes fit into thematic bins — arts, international studies and quantitative or deductive sciences, among others. Through these requirements, the College encourages us to pursue our academic curiosity in classes that we might not otherwise take, ranging from ENGS 12, “Design Thinking,” to CRWT 10, “Introduction to Fiction.” And yet, nowhere on this exhaustive list of requirements is that of instrument practice. If the professed goal of the College’s distributive requirements is to expand the skills of undergraduates, I would argue that the skills that daily music practice develops — namely, that of creative license and the art of practicing — justify a spot for music education in Dartmouth’s pantheon of distributive requirements. 

Music and instrument practice were much bigger parts of my middle school, where one period each day was dedicated to rehearsal. For me, this meant an hour in the orchestra room filled with every stereotype you could imagine: The hasty unpacking of cello, viola and violin cases, the squeaking of stray bow hairs on string and the frantic shuffle of sheet music. However, upon passing through the gates which separated my middle and high schools, all musicality seemed to fall away. No longer bound by an administrative requirement to practice an instrument, numbers in the school band, choir and orchestra dwindled. I substituted my violin practice for long hours writing code; the joyous smiles that used to accompany the ends of recitals were replaced by the sighs of relief that followed successfully built 3D models and error-less programs. I was not alone in dropping my musical practices — classmates also began to look elsewhere, opting for  computer science, engineering and TV broadcasting groups.

The migration from music education to more “career-oriented” studies is a common theme in undergraduate education as well. Dartmouth is not an exception to this trend, exemplified by the closure of the Paddock Music Library even while significant funds were poured into the construction of brand new engineering and energy buildings. Music departments around the nation have shrunk in comparison to their sibling departments, frequently  at larger state schools that face more pressure from the government on how to allocate funding. More and more, music education has become a privilege reserved for the elite as schools with restrictive  budgets have been forced to drastically reduce spending on their music departments. 

And yet, the value of learning an instrument within the context of a liberal arts education is undeniable. In fact, it was through the piano classes I have been taking here at Dartmouth, and the hours spent practicing, that I learned important lessons concerning the art of practice and the encouragement of creativity.

Perhaps the most important commitment that comes from taking music lessons in college is that of daily practice. Growing up, I viewed piano practice as repetition: Training your hands and fingers to follow the shape of a bar, carefully mapping landing points for your fingers to strike the keys exactly how you want them. And yet, more than just mindless repetition, good practicing is purposeful. According to the University of Montreal, there are improvements in memory, reasoning and literacy skills associated with the practicing of an instrument. These differences likely arise from the memorization of many pages of music, the ability to synthesize new information as you work through a piece and the importance of logically working through difficult sections of a piece that are necessitated by daily practice. Just as telling, research done by the University of Melbourne suggests that music practice is one of the few activities correlated with experience-driven neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to adapt and grow over time, a result of the high levels of mental strain that accompany long hours spent practicing an instrument. 

The second —  and more often overlooked — part of music education is the process of thinking creatively. To play music, one must learn to recognize the leverage that performers of music have in re-interpreting the notes and sheet music handed down to them. One must be able to read in between the notes, dynamics and annotations to add their take on the work. And one must be able to translate their vision of the piece into the different pressures and different sounds that make the piece uniquely theirs. In this way, playing music is a profoundly individual and artistic experience, an activity that involves more right and left brain activity than any other activity measured. 

To properly practice and think creatively are prerequisites for any musician and skills that new students would pick up quickly. They are also tools that should absolutely be a part of the proverbial toolbox that liberal arts colleges are meant to supply us with. If there is anything I’ve learned from these few months of practicing the piano, it is that learning an instrument is about more than just technical skills. It is about learning to learn, learning to adapt and learning to think creatively — crucial skills for any student at Dartmouth. Amid the shift from the arts to the “more practical” studies, a musical requirement would go a long way in saving the skills that music education uniquely provides. In a school that has distributive requirements that target analytical thinking, language-learning and creative metaphysical thought, perhaps a little music can go a long way. 

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