Does music lead to success?
Several of my music-loving Facebook friends got quite excited about an article that appeared in yesterday's New York Times. In the article, titled "Is Music the Key to Success?," author Joanne Lipman points to a diverse and impressive list of high-achievers, ranging from Paul Allen to Woody Allen and from Condoleezza Rice to Alan Greenspan, to support her belief that musical practice helps lead to success in other fields. Lipman, co-author Melanie Kupchynsky of the book "Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations," no doubt wants the link between music and achievement to be true, and so no doubt do my Facebook friends. But does Lipman make a strong enough case for her belief? I'm not convinced.
To be sure, Lipman tells us that "multiple studies link music study to academic achievement." Well, some studies do, and some other studies are more guarded in making this link, but I'd be willing to go along with the notion that studying music probably does at least some good. But does pursuing music lead to more achievement than, say, pursuing athletics, or chess, or painting, or any number of other things? Only with such a comparison would I know where music stands on the list of beneficial pursuits.
Then there's the question of whether Lipman's list of musically-inclined achievers proves anything at all. "I put the question to top-flight professionals in industries from tech to finance to media," writes Lipman, "all of whom had serious (if often little-known) past lives as musicians. Almost all made a connection between their music training and their professional achievements." Good for them, and I take them at their word. But could Lipman also have compiled an equally impressive list of achievers who connected their success to the pursuits I cited in the preview paragraph, as well as many others? Or a list of high achievers who've not made music part of their lives? Of course she could have. This highly selective "cherry picking" of just the examples that support your point is exactly the kind of thing some critics are beginning to notice in the work of the writer Malcom Gladwell, such as Christopher F. Chabris's criticism of Gladwell's latest book, "David and Goliath" in the Wall Street Journal (subscription only) and Slate.
You might think that I, a former music student, current amateur music maker and lifelong music lover would also cheer Lipman's article. Au contraire, this kind of high-minded feel-good reportage about music's manifold benefits strikes me as at best silly, at worst actually harmful to the cause. Unless such articles are going to be supported by real facts and figures, employ logic and reason, and get rid of platitudes and wishful thoughts, they will change no minds and influence no one of importance. That's why I so admire the work Greg Sandow is doing on his blog and elsewhere to address the serious challenges faced by classical music — he supports his beliefs and prescriptions with facts and research , not with smiley faces. And oh, how I wish music could be uncoupled from the educational-industrial complex, so we could pursue it simply for its most important benefit: pleasure. At least Lipman gives a nod in that direction in her final words: "Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening." Allow me to raise a cup of music to that sentiment!