Music Lessons: A Sound Investment

One of the most famous dismissals of music education was stated by none other than Aunt Mimi Smith, John Lennon’s fabled relative who mostly raised him.

“The guitar’s all right, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.”

History proved Aunt Mimi wrong, but let’s be honest – more than one child’s parent or guardian has wondered if there is any point in investing in a youngster’s musical education. Most kids do not grow up to be the kind of wealthy musician Lennor or Taylor Swift became, so unless your child is a budding Bach or Beyonce, is there really any point in having your kid learn how to play an instrument?

Play It Forward has researched this question and found that yes, indeed, investing in a child’s instrumental lessons – or funding a group like PIF who provide them for free – is a sound investment, pun fully intended. Children, teens, and adults develop characteristics by studying a musical instrument that will benefit them in the work world even if their livelihoods have nothing to do with tickling ivories, strumming guitars, or plucking ukuleles.

Getting an Edge

According to a 2013 article in the UK newspaper The Guardian, the Confederation of British Industry outlined seven skills that define employability: self-management, teamwork, business and customer awareness, problem-solving, communication, numeracy, and IT skills. Dr. Robert Adlington, an associate professor of music at the University of Nottingham, said music students develop all seven, making music graduates among the most employable people of all.

“While some of these skills are acquired by students of all subjects – for example, teamwork, good communication, self-management – Adlington points out that music students have an edge,” the article states. “The experience of organizing, hosting, and performing in events that are open to the public provides them with skills beyond those on other degree programs.”

On this note, PIF supporters and participants know our organization hosts public recitals for all our students in late spring. To perform properly, the students must stay focused on their studies throughout the year, collaborate with their teachers, be punctual with their classes and create their own notated original compositions.

Handling the Heat

Anyone who’s worked for a living knows one of the toughest lessons to learn is taking criticism from a boss or a co-worker. Hence, learning to play an instrument prepares children for a process they will experience throughout life, namely listening to someone critique their work and telling them how to improve it.

“Band students won’t quit the job because the manager gives them criticism because they understand that is what makes them better,” one music teacher wrote in an online blog. “And they learn that striving for excellence is a worthy goal.”

Another music education advocate, Anne Fitzgibbon, founded the Harmony Program, a non-profit organization that provides thousands of young people from under-served New York City communities free, intensive musical training with the goal of supporting their healthy social development and academic achievement.

 “As founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Program…I have seen hundreds of young people develop not only instrumental facility and music appreciation, but also a broad base of life skills that contribute to their long-term success – academically, socially, and professionally,” she wrote. “Among the many skills and habits they strengthen through the study and performance of music, three of the most important involve applying persistence to efforts that do not come easily, working independently on self-improvement, and collaborating within groups of their peers.”

“Interestingly, during my more than two decades of government and nonprofit leadership, these very same skills, also happen to be the top three skills I consistently observe in my most valued staff members and colleagues,” Fitzgibbon wrote. “Often referred to as ‘soft skills,’ they are not technical, but they can be as critical to effectiveness in most work environments, and they may be just as elusive to today’s frustrated employers. In fact, according to a 2016 survey by the Wall Street Journal, almost 90 percent of companies across the US report, ‘it is becoming increasingly difficult to find applicants who can communicate clearly, take initiative, problem-solve and get along with co-workers.’”

Qualifications Quantified

According to Fitzgibbon, a candidate’s background in music may suggest training in exactly the qualifications employers seek:


Musicians hone problem-solving skills every time they tackle an unfamiliar piece of music. They break the written work down into manageable pieces — by line, measure, or note — and practice until they have mastered it. 


Musicians log long hours of one-on-one time with their instruments because there is simply no other way to gain proficiency. Unlike the study of other subjects, they cannot borrow another student’s homework or copy an old exam, and there is no short-cut. 


Making music in an ensemble is the perfect training ground for collaborators. Within an ensemble, each member’s voice is unique and valued and at the same time, ensemble musicians do not compete against each other; they succeed or fail as a group.

Notable Note-Players

Fitzgibbon also notes many, many amateur musicians become accomplished professionals in other fields. She lists the following as examples.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft (guitar)

Steven Spielberg, film director (clarinet)

Condoleezza Rice, 66th US Secretary of State (piano)

Neil Armstrong, astronaut, (baritone horn)

Bernie Williams, former New York Yankee, (guitar)

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve (clarinet)

Antonin Scalia, late Supreme Court Justice, (piano).

“My tip for those who invest in expensive consultants, screening tools, and training programs in the quest for the ideal employee is to give some consideration to something less conventional perhaps, but no less promising: hiring a musician,” Fitgibbon concluded.