Arts in Education: Music Meets Econ

Founded in an Atlanta suburb by a stay-at-home mom and former teacher, the Baby Einstein Company grew to a multimillion-dollar video and book business that eventually became part of the Walt Disney Company. The inspiration behind the children's videos, which expose young children to classical music, is the so-called Mozart effect. The Mozart effect is based on a theory that people who listen to classical music, especially at a young age, can experience improvements in intelligence, learning, and memory. Advocates for music education in the schools have linked music education to improved language and math skills, grades and test scores, graduation rates and attendance, and even social skills and resistance to drugs and alcohol. In the workplace, music has been found to boost productivity. Given all of these benefits, it is not surprising that some teachers incorporate music into their classrooms as a backdrop to group work or as students are completing individual assignments. However, it is still rare to see music used as an integral part of teaching and learning outside of the arts curriculum.

Songs such as the Civil War's familiar "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," the Great Depression's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," and the 1980s requiems to American farming and manufacturing heard in John Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow" and Billy Joel's "Allentown" are examples of primary sources that reflect both the history and the economics of the times. More direct approaches have been taken by artists as diverse as Pink Floyd ("Money"), Madonna ("Material Girl"), Aloe Blacc ("I Need a Dollar"), and Destiny's Child ("Bills, Bills, Bills"), to name just a few examples. You can probably name a half dozen more of your favorite money songs off the top of your head.

Teachers have long used song lyrics in the classroom as a hook (Pink Floyd's "Money" was a staple of mine to introduce the definition of money), but with increasing emphasis on primary sources and literacy skills, the money messages in music can be used in a variety of ways in the economics classroom to illustrate economic concepts and boost analytical thinking.

Classroom ideas
Teachers who integrate music into the classroom choose a variety of approaches. Some have their students identify and analyze the particular economics presented in a song—such as the demise of agricultural employment in the United States in Mellencamp's "Scarecrow." Some teachers summarize the song and then have students list and define the economic concepts the song presents in either individual or group assignments. Sometimes teachers provide a song list, lyrics, and even listening samples for their classes, or they may invite students to submit their own choices for approval. You can make historical contexts, such as the structural shifts in the U.S. economy that Joel's "Allentown" describes, part of a student assignment to reinforce research skills. Or, with the class, analyze a song for an introduction to a research project so that students understand the type of analysis required. Having the students compare two or more songs from a historical time period is also a useful idea, one of many you can find in links to papers on music in the economics classroom listed below.

Many of the links also include extensive song lists. One of the more interesting choices is the use of Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable," with its instantly identifiable hook "to the left, to the left" to teach students the difference between demand and quantity demanded. Since Beyoncé no longer values the relationship in the song (a change in tastes) and because the relationship's painful circumstances render other relationships less costly (a change in the price of related goods, in this case, substitutes), her demand curve for the relationship shifts "to the left, to the left." To stay true to the lyrics "everything you own in a box to the left," have students draw a box underneath the demand curve.

The song also has the potential to spark a discussion of opportunity cost in the context of relationships, a topic that will undoubtedly pique student interest and opinion. Dirk Mateer, the Gerald Swanson Chair in Economics at the University of Arizona, provides a media library on his website that holds music, TV, and film clips for use in the economics classroom. He suggests that the song "Irreplaceable" can also be used to evaluate elastic and inelastic demand. Hint: the song's lyrics "I could have another you in a minute" make it clear that Queen B has plenty of substitutes for her current beau; who knew Beyoncé was such an economist? Each of the music links in Mateer's library includes discussion questions and a link to the song's music video.

Other online media content
At the Critical Commons website, Brian O'Roark provides links to videos spanning a number of genres, from Mary Poppins explaining the role of banks to Macklemore's ode to saving, "Thrift Shop." The songs are embedded in PowerPoints that highlight both the economic history and concepts included in the song and the lyrics accompanying the music. In the case of "Thrift Shop," a quiz is included that covers concepts such as inferior versus normal goods, maximizing utility, and marginal benefit analysis. The video could also serve as a template for a student project replicating the PowerPoints with students' own song choices. On the lighter side, ACDC Leadership's Jacob Clifford, known for his AP economics workshops and materials, has the results of his AP Economics Music Video Competition posted on his YouTube channel, featuring such "hits" as "Bohemian GDP" and "Demand Curves Move Like Jagger." Taking popular songs and remaking them with an economics twist, a la "Weird Al" Yankovic, is another project idea to blend music and economics in the classroom.

The music business
Music may, as Bob Seger professes in his classic "Old Time Rock and Roll," "soothe the soul," but it is also big business; according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the U.S. music industry accounts for more than $125 billion in U.S. exports per year, exceeding U.S. exports of automobiles and agricultural products combined. The RIAA website includes many fascinating statistics, particularly on the impact of digital music and piracy on the industry. Also included on the site are figures on the number of businesses and employees involved in the music community by state. For educators, the RIAA provides helpful links and a lesson plan on intellectual property. In a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, economists Marie Connolly and Alan B. Krueger extend the discussion of "rockonomics" to include the music industry itself. Although technical at times for the noneconomist, the paper gives a thorough background on the economics of the popular music industry and features numerous interesting charts and graphs. Economic concepts covered include moral hazard, fixed and marginal costs, complementary goods, price discrimination, monopoly, revenue maximizing, inflation, elasticity of demand, and consumer surplus. The paper also contains lengthy discussions of the ethics of payola and the impact of digital downloads and piracy on the industry's revenues.

Educator resources
Another helpful resource from the RIAA is a website called Why Music Matters, which provides links to legal downloading services. The Education World and Stanford University websites have useful guides explaining the limits on "fair use" of music by educators. For students looking to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic's Occupational Outlook Handbook offers information on the education needed, median pay, and job outlook for a number of musical occupations. Billboard's online magazine also provides a useful guide to "Schools of Rock" for students who are interested in degrees in music business. Billboard, Pollstar, and Statista are good online statistics sources.

The Boston Fed's Show Business: The Economic$ of Entertainment game Climbing the Charts mixes economics with the music industry in an interactive online game that also incorporates the history of how the market for music began. "Another Action Hero," a second game on the Boston Fed site, teaches international trade and economics concepts using the setting of the film industry.

Julie Clark, Baby Einstein's creator, is featured in the Dallas Fed's Entrepreneurs online publication and is also featured in the Dallas Fed's Great American Entrepreneur whiteboard lesson. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's website provides educational resources and professional development opportunities. The website also has an interesting and thoughtful blog and links to both music and videos.

As National University Professor Alex Zukas describes in his paper outlining the use of music to teach history (and by default, economics), students know music better than they know literature. Their language and clothing reflect how they embrace popular culture, including its music. Introducing music into the classroom has benefits for both students and teachers: greater student engagement and content retention, and something familiar used in a new way to enhance lectures or provide a break from chalk and talk. By appealing to students of all ages and with varied learning styles, music creates a new learning experience that may truly be "irreplaceable."

Resources on Other Sites

Music advocacy Teacher lesson ideas Videos Educator links and resources

By Lesley Mace, senior economic and financial education specialist, Jacksonville Branch
February 4, 2015