Music education

Students perform in the orchestra at Lancaster County Music Camp.

Music is everywhere. It’s embedded in TV shows and commercials; it forms the soundtracks to the movies we love; it’s on the airwaves of our radios; and it’s available any time of the day or night on our phones via apps such as Spotify or Apple Music.

Scholars and scientists agree that music is what makes us human — and it’s an essential part of what makes the human experience worthwhile.

Studies have shown that when we listen to music, our brains release dopamine, and that dopamine in turn makes us happy. Our heartbeats and breathing patterns unconsciously speed up or slow down in order to match the tempo of the music we’re listening to. Our brains are hardwired to distinguish music from normal sounds due to the rhythms, beats, tones and melodies associated with it.

Music may seem like mere entertainment, but countless studies have shown that there’s more to it than that. Some of the most commonly known benefits of music are that it improves moods, lessens anxiety and reduces stress. Listening to music can make almost anyone feel better in any circumstance.

According to studies by Pfizer, cancer patients experience significantly less anxiety during treatments while listening to music, compared to those receiving standard care alone. Music not only provides them with emotional comfort, but it also eases their pain, improves their cognition, and boosts their physical energy levels.

In the world of health care, physicians are recognizing the undeniable benefits of music therapy. Why? Because it’s providing physical and psychological relief to patients who are struggling with chronic pain, surgical recovery, childbirth and even addiction recovery. Licensed musical therapists provide interventions for patients by allowing them to create music, move to music or simply listen to music. In some instances, music therapy is proving to be a more powerful painkiller than most prescription narcotics.

The National Institutes of Health has been researching the benefits of music therapy in end-of-life care for terminally ill patients. The results? Music alleviates physiological, psychological, social and spiritual distress and improves comfort for those who are dying.

While study after study confirms the benefits of music, too many people — especially those in public education — continue to deny or undermine music and its many benefits. Music education in public schools is in crisis. Too often, it is the sacrificial lamb of school economies. When budgets get tight, music education is put on the chopping block.

According to the National Education Association, almost all fine arts departments in all public schools in this nation have had their budgets or programs cut since the 1970s. Several years ago, our orchestra program here at Garden Spot was eliminated from the curricular school day in a “cost-saving” measure.

Across the country, 1.3 million elementary school children do not have any music education classes. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education reported that there was only one music teacher for every 1,000 students — and that statistic has only gotten worse in the last eight years.

Unfortunately, too many school officials view music classes as luxuries rather than what they are: absolute necessities. Our schools are on the brink of a serious mental health crisis among young people — 70% of public school students with a psychological disorder are not receiving any therapy whatsoever. Yet, what do school officials do? They deprive students of a music education, which is proven to provide psychological benefits.

As I write this column, I’m listening to music — it’s helping me focus and it’s helping me cope with my stress.

We live in a world where it’s difficult for most people to agree on much of anything. Music might just be the only thing that still unites us. It is something that everyone regardless of race, economic status, health status, gender, age or geographical location can relate to.

As science and medicine realize the undeniable power of music, and as they use it to help people function even under the worst circumstances, I hope that our public schools will maintain strong music programs for our most vulnerable members — our youth.

Alex Nieves is in grade 12 at Garden Spot High School.