Why We’re Dead Wrong About What We’ve Told Our Kids About Music and Music Education

It’s no secret that our society has long valued left brain thinking over right brain thinking. Up until now, it’s left brain thinking that has more or less paid the bills for a lot of us for the last few years, and was definitely taught to us within most education systems. Prioritizing analytical thinking skills at the expense of creative thinking, while well enough intentioned, has proven to be more of a disservice to society than anything else.

To clarify, left brain thinking is the common reference to most logical, calculated forms of reasoning. Things like mathematics, the sciences, and deduction occur in this hemisphere of the brain, and are thus given the highest esteem when they translate into business practice. Generally, the types who are born or successfully work to develop an acute ability to exercise this hemisphere are the ones who go on to illustrious careers in traditional career fields. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc are the ones that most often come to mind.

By contrast, right brain thinking – as you might have used your left brain to figure out – is responsible for the abstract, creative, “out-there” kind of thinking that characterizes us musicians, artists, theatrical types, poets and writers, and the like. Those of us who long ago expressed a logically inexpressible need to try to do something impossible to recreate to the T, those of us were discouraged from pursuing what we loved because “it would never pay the bills”, and those of us who may have listened or didn’t.

Now, was that counsel misguided and untrue? No. At least, for the most part.

The streets are full of brilliant cellists, guitarists, songwriters, artists, actresses, writers who just knew they would be the exception. The “starving artist” stereotype is in place for good reason, and largely because it’s true.

Ultimately, it’s not within the scope of this article to explain why left brain thinking is superior or inferior to right brain thinking or why you should develop one over the other for the purpose of greatest economic gain. That’s an argument best left to dedicated scientific types; a population I am far from part of. Personally, I see merit to logic and think we could a whole lot more of it. But all that is beside the point.

The trend in just about every phase of our society’s developmental architecture, where young people experience their most dynamic years of development are decidedly, ardently, and unarguably against developing right brain thinking.

Some would contest the validity of that statement, and the simple way to respond to that skepticism is examining the financials. Elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, even colleges are routinely cutting or completely eliminating budgets for art and music departments entirely. Seriously? If ever there was need for evidence of an imbalance, there you have it.

It’s also not within the scope of this article to get into the incongruencies within the education system as it applies to music and art, in spite of the juicy, compelling fact that there is now more money being pumped into our education system than at any point in (American) history. However, it is within the scope of this post is simply trying to break down the why? behind the paradigm shift and whether the new paradigm has merit.

Once upon a time, America was a thriving, envied contributor to both the global economy and a trendsetter for the rest of the world in all things cultural. What changed? We’ll ignore economics for now, although the two are surprisingly linked.

When it comes down to it, you can argue the politics/bureaucracy, the economics, the applicability, the real productivity of the arts for years. Indeed, the argument has been going on for some time and to no useful end. In a way, this article is just a continuation or extension of those arguments. Unfortunately, the issues discussed at board meetings high up in the schools’  food chains are missing the mark, for most part, by a long shot.

In fact, those discussions are an enormous waste of time because they have no regard for the nature of art.

It’s more or less in the abstract mission statements of our school system to produce promising young people and in some way or another prepare them for the workforce or whatever it is that people do after high school. Unfortunately, much of these decisions are made based on estimations, numbers, and projections or otherwise concrete notions. Obviously, the arts don’t have much of a place in those kinds of discussions.

Why is it such a disservice that young people are blatantly or not so blatantly (To me, ousting it from standard curricula is pretty blatant. But hey, is a white lie still a lie? Same argument.)  discouraged from pursuing art or music or theater? It doesn’t start with the school, it’s simply propagated there.

It starts in the home, and that’s often where we end up back at an economic argument. Mom and dad want Little Johnny and Suzie to have nice things when they grow up, a college education, a home, financial stability, and the classic American dream. Mom and dad think back to how little they used any of that mandatory recorder (or tonette) training they experienced and then discount it. Add to that the pressure many young men experience to commit to conventionally masculine pursuits and then you start running out of hours in the day. At some point the balancing act becomes unmanageable. (Ironically, save for <1% of athletes, there’s not a lot of economic gain in sports either, but stay with me.)

The parents then take these concerns to the schools, and because they don’t see a need for it, they don’t want Little Johnny and Little Suzie’s time being wasted on stuff that won’t get them anywhere in the real world. While a legitimate concern, and with absolutely wonderful intentions, many, many parents also completely miss the point.
Ignore the economics. Ignore the politics. Ignore the bureaucracy. And certainly ignore the stereotypes that come with the arts. None of that stuff is the point of music, it’s not the point of traditional, it’s not the point of theater.

The point of developing right brain thinking, embracing art, and encouraging it in young people is to instill an ability to think outside the realm of the known. The point is to encourage making the unknown less daunting. Art and embracing it encourages something I’m told used to be called “gumption”. Or rather, the acknowledgement of the rules, but the willingness to bend or break them when necessary.

This is a common trait found in entrepreneurs, who see the world in a flexible light, while by extreme contrast, others view their worlds as fixed and only marginally subject to augmentation, but over the course of a great period of time.

Again, the point is not embracing art and music for the sake of paying the bills, but for the sake of coming up with innovative solutions to pay the bills. It’s about developing and having the capacity, imagining what’s outside the realm of probability, and the gumption to test the one’s ability against the currents of possibility. How could this be a bad thing?

I admit, the science isn’t in my favor. Not many studies have been conducted in defense of what musicians, artists, and other creatives have long suspected. In many, if not all of us is this deep-seated suspicion that “I don’t think I think like all the others”. Personally, left brain thinking is a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful for the balance my insatiable curiosity in leaning both directions at differing intervals has provided me.

At the heart of the argument, then, is that music, art, and its counterparts are far too often discredited as things to be taken with a grain of salt. Activities best left to pursuing on the weekends and if it makes you money great, but don’t put a lot of stock in your abilities, because there are so many other people doing the same thing, there’s always someone doing it better than you, blah, blah, blah. Continue inserting whatever excuses you like. The point is that although the arts merits are a long way from being measurable, doesn’t mean they’re not formidable. And if you’re questioning the value of art and the type of thinking it promotes, perhaps you just have a limited capacity for challenging the “impossible”.

-Dane