Music as the Glue of the Core Curriculum

An ongoing debate within the educational community relates to how to classify physical education classes, athletic programs (in particular, football) and music programs within the academic curriculum. Specifically, the question relates to whether these programs should be considered “extracurricular” or “core” activities. The purpose of this essay is not only to examine that question, but to make the case that music programs are not only “core” in nature, but actually have the potential, if utilized strategically, to be the “glue” that holds the entire core curriculum together.

Clearly, some form of physical activity should be a part of a well-rounded, core educational experience. Plato’s concept of “sound mind, sound body” is, in fact, sound. The question is what is the best way to effectively achieve this goal? Of the resources that a school devotes to physical activity and athletics, what percentage should be devoted to football, in which virtually no girls and a small percentage of male students participate, largely for entertainment purposes, versus a robust physical education program? A strong case can be made that a comprehensive physical fitness and wellness program should be considered and funded as a core activity because it can be accessible to all students and structured to offer activities that emphasize, teach and instill lifelong fitness habits.

Although football may have some positive academic impacts, it is extremely difficult to make the case that it is a core academic activity. This assertion is not widely disputed because football, as currently structured and conducted, is not about providing broad-based participation opportunities to benefit the general fitness of the entire student body. The reality is that Plato’s concept of a well-balanced and conditioned mind and body has been distorted in our current “football as entertainment” model.  A high school football program and a general physical fitness program have little in common. In a nutshell, while a case can be made for general physical fitness and wellness as a core activity, football is clearly extracurricular.

The case for music is different. A reasonable argument can be made that music, because of its’ direct impact on various core academic activities such as math, reading, language and even science, should not only be considered a core academic activity, but an activity that can serve as the “glue” of the core curriculum. In short, music is math. Music is reading. Music is language. And music is logic. As a result, music in some form can be incorporated into virtually any subject matter or academic curriculum to enhance learning and understanding.

While some schools consider and classify music as part of the general, core academic budget, the majority of junior and high schools consider music an extracurricular activity because, from a cultural and public perception standpoint, music is widely considered a “nice”, “add on” offering, but not absolutely necessary from an academic standpoint. If this were not the case, why is it that when budget crises hit, decisions regarding funding cuts usually do not center on core subjects and programs in science, math or English but, rather, on athletics, music and arts programs? The result is that sports and music programs are all too often pitted against each other in the funding debate.

But after a thorough review of the relative educational value and effectiveness of these activities, one has to question why they are both considered to be in the same category of noncore activities.  The difference is so stark that not only should music be considered a “core” subject, but has the potential to serve as the “glue” of the core curriculum.

Clearly, music has far more in common with core academic activities than with extracurricular ones. Music possesses several unique and extremely valuable educational characteristics that are particularly important in today’s schools, which face increasing pressure to provide students with an education equal to the challenges of the twenty-first century. Music positively impacts reading, language, math and logic skills and is universal in application, leading to excellent learning opportunities across disciplines. Football programs, on the other hand, possess very little in the way of these benefits, producing few discernible, direct academic benefits.

That said, music’s status as a core activity is a bit different from that of other core subjects such as math, reading and science. Specifically, music should not be considered a stand-alone core subject such as math or science. It is not another subject matter box to be checked. Music’s value as a fundamental, core educational activity rests in its’ universality–it’s potential and ability to link all of the other core educational activities into a comprehensive educational experience. Music, if utilized strategically, can offer a common thread throughout an entire academic curriculum.

In addition to its’ potential to amplify, crystallize and enhance learning in virtually all other subjects, there are other characteristics of music that lend credence to the claim that it is core in nature. Any core educational activity must be available to everyone. While football generally caters to a small slice of the student population, music programs are accessible to and can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone.

Additionally, we must instill in students the ability to navigate our increasingly multicultural, complex and integrated world. Music, as the universal language, clearly has the capacity to reach across cultural boundaries like no other activity. We have long considered core subject areas to be math, reading, language and science. However,  a case can be made that, moving forward in this wildly diverse world, “cultural understanding” should be added to that list of core subject areas.

Another subject that must be considered a core aspect of an education worthy to meet the demands of the twenty-first century is creativity. The ability to think outside the box to address increasingly complex issues and challenges and to make new and different connections that lead to exciting discoveries and knowledge will be one of, if not the most important characteristic that students must possess to be successful in a globalized world. Music is our most effective educational tool to encourage and develop creativity.

Further, a core educational principle that our teachers and schools should instill in all students is a love of lifelong learning. It is not enough to simply teach facts and figures, but rather teachers must spark in their students a fascination with the world in which they live and encourage an intellectual curiosity about their place in that world that will last a lifetime. An important component of such lifelong learning is to provide access and exposure to activities that can be engaged in, and thus learned from, for a lifetime. Music is such an activity while the ability and opportunity to continue to participate in football after high school is limited to a select few.  
Finally, music should be embraced as a core educational activity because it offers something different from math, science and reading in its approach, methodology and process. As Charles Fowler writes in Strong Arts, Strong Schools, the arts have a distinct advantage over other subjects in that the arts are “refreshingly different in the way that they are taught and learned.” (Fowler, 1996, p. 102.)

After fully assessing the impacts and benefits of these activities, it is clear that because of music’s broad based, universal educational impact and academic value, it should be considered not only a core educational activity, but an activity that can provide a broad framework to bring together all of the core subject matter elements in a cohesive, comprehensive way that reflects the realities of a global, creative, interdisciplinary 21st Century education. That being the case, decisions regarding how to allocate increasingly scarce “extracurricular” educational dollars and resources become quite clear. If music’s academic and educational benefits are significant enough for it to be considered not only core in nature, but the glue that can be applied to enhance the understanding of all core curricular elements, the choice is indisputable.