Applause: Children, Music & Social Change

How music improves the lives of children.

Posted Jun 30, 2011

Young musician
Music enhances child development, providing intellectual and emotional benefits that last a lifetime. The research article Childhood Music Lessons May Provide Lifelong Boost in Brain Functioning shows just how powerful music can be in a child's life. It says music lessons can pay off for decades, even for those who no longer play instruments.  Music keeps the mind sharp, serving as a challenging cognitive exercise. It also feeds the soul, develops character, and boosts creativity. Music doesn't discriminate between race, income, or social status.  It benefits children equally.

There is a growing body of research that supports how music nurtures children's success at school and in life. A study in the journal Social Science Quarterly, Adolescents Involved with Music Do Better in School, found that music also had positive effects on reading and math. Studies conducted by cognitive neuroscientists from seven leading U.S. universities, Learning, Arts, and the Brain correlates music training with improved cognition, motivation, attention, memory, and other developmental benefits. This research shows the importance of attention to every aspect of school performance and cognition.

While recent research is fueled by neuroscience, there is also solid evidence that music programs help develop internal strengths in children, like initiative, creativity, resiliency, and a belief in self. To learn music and musical performance, children must overcome many obstacles. What Teens Learn by Overcoming Challenges? Initiative discusses important aspects of initiative-building experiences. Orchestral music presents the kinds of challenges that develop initiative, including the opportunity to choose one's instrument, participation in an environment that contains rules and complexities, and long-term practice and repetition.

Research clearly demonstrates that music training is correlated with higher academic performance and increased internal strengths in children. In fact, music is a key contributor to positive youth development. Want the Best for Children? Ask Different Questions outlines this positive approach to development, engaging kids in activities and programs that increase their capacities to thrive as adults.  Music is one of those activities!

Music and America's Moral Dilemma

Youth orchestra
As research acknowledges the benefits that music brings to children and teens, a moral dilemma exists in American communities. Many schools can no longer afford to offer music programs for children. For those living in poverty, the access to music training is often nonexistent. Will we become a nation where only the wealthy can afford music lessons for youth? Or will we use the power of music to increase children's success in life and raise them out of poverty?

Americans are beginning to take action.  Last year, one community took on a challenging mission, to bring classical music training to children in a migrant farming area of California.  Few of the children's families spoke English, and their community had been designated a High Intensity Gang Area. The new program, Youth Orchestra Salinas (YOSAL), is a collaborative partnership of community leaders, including the Salinas City Elementary School District, Monterey Symphony, Carmel Bach Festival, Rancho Cielo, and the National Steinbeck Center.  The program is demanding. Children attend lessons and group practice five days a week, three hours each day.  Participation is voluntary and free for all students. In less than a year, more than 80 children became regular participants. Already, improvements in school attendance and achievement are being noted.

El Sistema, the program on which YOSAL is based, began more than 35 years ago in a parking garage in Venezuela by Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu. Since its meager beginnings, El Sistema has grown to include many "nucleo" orchestras that now teach ensemble music to 300,000 of Venezuela's poorest children, demonstrating how music can positively change the lives of a nation's youth and the communities to which they belong.

El Sistema, "The System," is firmly grounded in philosophical, psychological, and sociological theory and research, all contributing to its success.  The philosophical frameworks of Paulo Freire and Lev Vygotsky guide its dual emphasis on comprehensive education of the individual and the collective nature of learning.  Psychological theories on self-efficacy, scaffolding, modeling, and initiative development inform its teaching methodologies, connecting how learning music follows a similar trajectory to advancing in other arenas of life.

El Sistema's sociological roots reach far beyond the role of arts and music.  The partnership between teachers, musicians, politicians, community leaders, families, and the public is also aimed at creating social change.  In Venezuela, 60% of the children in El Sistema programs were at risk of dropping out of school, were already outside of the educational system, or were victims of family violence or social neglect.  Through its Social Action Center and numerous supporting institutions, El Sistema has improved the lives of marginalized young people throughout Venezuela.

From its success in Venezuela, El Sistema programs have been established around the globe. In the U.S., programs have been launched in cities that include New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Durham, and San Diego. These programs are typically formed through family, school, community partnerships that bring together three important ingredients: funding, a love of music, and a passion for making a difference in the lives of children. Together, they are fostering a global movement to transform the lives of children through music.

All children deserve to have music in their lives! If you have children and access to music programs, encourage your kids to become involved during childhood! If your community wants to develop a program like El Sistema, contact others who are engaged in these efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere!

Additional Information

Learn more about El Sistema by watching the 60 Minutes segment: El Sistema: Changing Lives Through Music.

El Sistema USA website

Additional Sources

American Youth Policy Forum. (2006). Helping youth succeed through out-of-school time programs. Washington DC: American Youth Policy Forum.

Arvelo, A. (2006). Tocar y Luchar. Caracas, Venezuela: Cinema Sur, Explorart Films.

Matarasso, F. (1997). Use or ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts. Stroud, UK: Comedia.

Sanchez, F. (2007). El Sistema Nacional para las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles. La nueva educacion musical de Venezuela. Revista da ABEM, Porto Alegre, 18, 63-69.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement. 

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©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.