Numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between music and intellectual development. So why are German schools giving music education short shrift?
Playing and learning are one and the same when it comes to music
Classical violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter may be one of Germany's best known ambassadors in the field of music, but lately she has rounded out her schedule of concerts, recordings and master classes with unexpected activity: promoting a music curriculum she developed for kindergartens and grade schools.
Kids who don’t learn to read notes are like musical dyslexics," Mutter recently said in an interview with the German Welt am Sonntag newspaper. She hopes her curriculum -- a progressive, age based method that brings young children into early contact with music in theory and practice -- will help make Germany music-literate again.
"It is absurd that we go to the gym regularly to shape our hips but don't do anything to keep our mind in form. All infants are rocked and sung to, (but in school) music is no longer considered a basic need," said Mutter (photo) in the interview.
Mutter's voice is one of the most recent additions to the chorus of complaints about how German schools are failing in the area of music education.
Amid ever-tighter budgets and a renewed zeal for "back to basics" education, the country has neglected to teach children how to make and appreciate music, the critics argue.
A 1999 study by the nonprofit German Music Council, an umbrella organization that promotes music in Germany, showed that only 20 percent of German schoolchildren are taught by qualified music teachers. The rest either got no music education or were instructed by unqualified teachers, said the council's vice president, Hans Bessler.
Dresdner Kreuz Choir
Recent polls have suggested the consequences are dramatic. Surveys have shown that German children sing worse and less frequently than they did a decade ago and they're ignorant of their cultural patrimony. Fewer Germans are music-literate, too.
Meanwhile, neurological studies -- loosely grouped under the heading "Mozart effect" -- show a clear correlation between exposure to music and brain development, spatial and logical thinking, and academic success.
"The three important constants that the brain uses to absorb information are haptics, acoustics, and analysis, " Mutter told Welt am Sonntag. "All three are developed through music. ... Music should not be seen as a secondary subject, but as a basis for all other subjects."
The Sputnik effect
Felicitas Liemersdorf, the principal of a Cologne primary school, agrees. "Learning music in the school -- from a qualified music teacher -- is just as important as learning German or math or foreign languages. Unfortunately, society doesn't really support this view."
Several decades ago, Liemersdorf recalled, primary teachers needed to play an instrument as part of their degree studies. "That all changed with Sputnik," she said. In the era of the cold war and the space race, the focus in education switched from all-around liberal arts to science and technology. Finally, in the 1980s, the obligatory music component to education degrees was removed.
Since the late 1990s, when Germans were shocked by their country's poor showing in comparative international tests, music education has lost even more ground. Any spare resources tend to be aimed at improving results in "basics," like reading, math and foreign languages.
Wanted: music teachers
In fact, Bessler of the German Music Council notes that German schools are meant to follow what he and others say is an "excellent" music curriculum. But while it looks good on paper, it is almost never carried through -- due to the severe shortage of trained music teachers.
Competitor in the "Youth Makes Music" contest
The German Music Council is making a public push to correct this weakness, Bessler said. It will campaign to attract more music students to the teaching profession, and plans are underway to revamp archaic teacher training, he added.
A lot is riding on their success. When music in the public schools fails, only wealthier children will have ready access to lessons.
Music: key to identity?
More important than academic benefits, "a good music education helps children understand their own identity. They learn to understand their own personality," Bessler said.
He cited several music projects, including one recorded in last year's documentary film "Rhythm Is It" -- about the effects of classical music on impoverished youth in Berlin -- where music gave hope to people in dire straits.
"Where we make music, the social climate changes. We need this more now than ever," Bessler said.
For Anne-Sophie Mutter, nothing less than German culture is at stake.
"In the short term, a lack of culture can leads us to spiritual and mental poverty. In the long term, it can make a nation stupid," Mutter told Welt am Sonntag. "We have to ask ourselves if a country that won't fund good music education for its youth is the kind of country we want to have."