The past four decades have seen such an erosion in music education in public schools that Leonard Slatkin, the music director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, calls the situation "quite alarming."

Some school systems have whittled their programs to virtually nothing. In Florida, some schools set up musical ensembles, but students are seldom given time to attend. Sometimes music classes will be added to the end of a busy day.

"Imagine putting reading on at 3:30," Slatkin said.

Some musicians -- including Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson -- have become involved in private efforts to raise money for school programs. Still, said Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education, private efforts can never take the place of public funding in schools.

The issue of why music should be studied in school -- with so many other basic subjects competing for time -- has been debated for years.

Some educators point to research that links music education to higher standardized test scores, improved reasoning and other academic attributes, though research does not always show a causal relationship. Others are loath to make these claims, only because, they say, it shouldn't be necessary to have to construct reasons for music's existence in school curricula.

"Music is inherently important," Blakeslee said. "It's part of what makes us human."