Classical Music, Youth & Social Change


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” If you are a musician or one at heart, you probably know that something magical exists between the notes that connect us to others despite our differing cultures, religions, or political preferences. In fact, research shows a great deal about music that benefits all of us and particularly how it contributes to the development of children and adolescents.

According to the research article, Childhood Music Lessons May Provide Lifelong Boost in Brain Functioning, 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 all children equally.

Research also 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 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!

Can Music Foster Social Change?

Many believe it can. And a program that began in Venezuela more than 35 years ago shows us how. El Sistema, a classical music-training program for children, started in a parking garage through the efforts of Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, an economist and musician with a big vision. He believed a symphony orchestra, like an ideal society, could nurture a better environment for children. It turns out, he was right.

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.

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.

Responding to the Need

Just as research acknowledges the benefits that music brings to children and teens, current economic conditions no longer afford many schools the opportunity to offer music training. For those living in poverty, the access to music education 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 who embrace the connection between music, youth, and social change are beginning to take action, forming programs based on the El Sistema model.  Programs are thriving in cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Durham, San Diego, and in the migrant farming community of Salinas, CA. These programs are typically formed through family, school, and 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. In 2008, the television program 60 Minutes produced an informative segment, El Sistema: Changing Lives Through Music.

Classical music training is beginning to take center stage as a vehicle for positive youth development and social change in urban and rural settings. El Sistema USA lists more than 40 budding or established programs in the United States as well as in 25 countries around the globe. In time, more research will grow out of these programs, particularly their ability to replicate the results of their Venezuelan founder.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

Marilyn is a developmental psychologist, educator, researcher, and writer with a passion for learning how today’s youth grow into healthy, successful, and engaged adults.  She synthesizes multidisciplinary research in psychology, education, sociology, child & adolescent development, social psychology, and neurobiology to bring trusted, evidence-based research to parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, and all those who support kids. Visit her blog at Roots of Action; Twitter; Facebook.

©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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