High stakes tests have had a tremendous impact in curriculum and pedagogy. Often, when greater emphasis is placed on national exams, which are used as a gauge of school quality, teachers are tempted to teach to the test. Also, schools tend to decrease time dedicated to courses such as art, music and foreign languages, which are not included in these tests. More time is dedicated to reading and math at the expense of the arts and music, in order to improve scores. This is problematic because music and the arts, which are courses that are often the first to be cut, can contribute to improved test scores in mathematics and reading. This video shows a number of news clips regarding the relationship between music and improved learning.
Success in the arts is often a bridge to successful learning in other subjects. For example, music is similar to language and math in that it is a foreign language, requires interpretation, relies on fractions for tempo and on time divisions for pacing, octaves and chord levels. The rhythm of music also relates to the rhythm incorporated in poetry. Recent MRI studies illustrate that mathematical and musical processing takes place in the same areas of the brain. It is then hypothesized that early musical training can contribute to developing similar neural networks required for numerical and mathematical tasks (Schmithhorst and Holland, 2004).
In terms of results, in a 1998 study, low socioeconomic students who took music lessons from grades eight through twelve increased their test scores in mathematics and scored significantly higher than low socioeconomic students not involved in music. Granted there could be a number of other factors influencing the results. Yet, more and more evidence is being collected regarding the relationship between music and the arts and cognitive development. According to the Dana Foundation, there seems to be general consensus that music training alters neural development and may strengthen cognitive skills.
In addition to the increasing evidence on the correlation between music and cognition, music training also contributes positively to child and youth development in other ways. It can improve self-esteem, confidence and contribute to a decrease in youth violence. Examples may be found through music therapy programs that also bring normalcy to youth affected by violence. Music programs in Brazil, for example, are used to draw at risk youth out of violence and drugs and into positive alternative life choices. Music has also been used to advocate nonviolence, peace and understanding by youth, as you can see in this video by former gang members in Los Angeles: