TORONTO -- An education watchdog is striking some sour notes about the number of Ontario elementary schools with teachers dedicated to helping kids learn music.

People for Education says in its annual report that only 43 per cent of elementary schools last year had specialist teachers dedicated to teaching the music curriculum -- the lowest percentage in Canada, and down from 49 per cent in 2012.

Instead, there has been a rise in recent years in the number of schools with so-called itinerant music instructors -- now at 40 per cent -- who group executive director Annie Kidder says are often there to lead a school band rather than teach a proper music class.

And the watchdog says 29 per cent of elementary schools have no music teacher at all, but that this figure has dropped over the last seven years.

Though four-fifths of the schools say their pupils had an option of joining a choir, band or orchestra, the group says the arts curriculum doesn't get special funding and whether any music teachers are available can come down to "pure luck."

Kidder says children learning how to strum a guitar or toot a saxophone has benefits that extend beyond music by helping teach creative thinking, something that comes in handy when getting work in the increasingly brainpower-driven economy.

"When you talk to people in business now, they feel that capacity to think creatively, to innovate, is a core part of being an entrepreneur -- being able to lead a change in a knowledge economy," she said.

"These aren't just nice things to do you if you can get to them. They're very important skills for all kids to have in the 21st century."

Schools in larger districts are more likely to have dedicated music staff, while those in smaller areas can be left out completely.

The report surveyed 1,349 elementary and secondary principals across a range of school boards and also highlighted children's health programs, aboriginal student engagement and early childhood education, among other topics.

Kidder said that while itinerant teachers have a role to play, they can't replace a dedicated music teacher who can conduct a full school music program and hit all the right notes.

"Itinerant teachers are useful but they are not the people that are there teaching a very complex arts curriculum that's compulsory."

"So it's left up to classroom teachers to teach. Some of them can, and some of them really struggle to teach it," she said.

Kidder said that she hopes the newly re-elected Liberal majority government doesn't take an axe to education funding as it seeks to balance the books, calling the spending an investment that "pays off tenfold later."