Music education seems to live in a perpetual state of conflict and controversy. Educators have for decades been barraged with questions about the educational value of music and whether it is prudent, in lean fiscal times, to spend tax dollars on a supposedly frivolous subject. Even those within the field seem at times beset with doubts—they treat their subject as if their critics’ characterizations were true.
This situation can seem hopeless. However, if conscientious music educators dedicated to the premise that what they do is truly important in the lives of students, can develop a clear, concise, coherent philosophical basis for what they do, a secure persuasive fortress can be constructed for times when critics attack.
The purpose of this article is to present such a philosophical basis for music education in the public schools. Music itself will be explored from its fundamental aesthetic level, then, upon this, specific educational conceits will be explored.
Fundamental Principles: On the Value of Music and of Music Education
Human beings can survive without art. Lungs will continue to breathe without poetry. Hearts will continue to pump without music. Neurons will continue to fire without painting. However, living means more than simply existing. Human kind is distinguished from the lower life forms by its propensity to create, to forge unique cultures. Purely objective, empirical, rational pursuits are important in building and perpetuating society, but what can life be without a means to express what cannot be expressed in hard fact alone? The creative mind is the mind that solves problems and truly innovates. Indeed, the world of man would be a cold, sterile, primitive place were it not for the arts.
Music has a great communicative power which other means cannot convey. Thus one of the most important reasons for music education is to pass on to students this communicative force. Enriching the ability of students to show what is in their hearts and minds, to change the world with inflections not possible any other way, is why we educate students in music. To deprive them of this would be to stunt our students’ emotional and intellectual growth.
Because of music’s inherent communicative and social properties, music educators should embrace full classroom integration. All students, even those with learning disabilities, can grow emotionally and enhance their appreciation of music in a well-taught music class sensitive to the needs of all students.
It is sometimes argued by well-meaning music educators that music makes students smarter in other subjects and helps them on standardized tests. There is, however, no proven link between music and these supposed benefits. We should not rely on defending our profession based on byproducts that don’t exist. This will only serve to weaken music education by making it subservient to other subjects instead of being equal, where it belongs. Only when music is recognized as being a serious subject with serious academic and artistic qualities of its own will it become more immune to the budget cutter’s axe.
On General Music Curricula
Music is both academic and artistic. This is borne out in the wealth of knowledge generated by theorists and philosophers as well as in the contributions of composers and performers. Therefore the focus of general music education—that which usually takes place at the elementary level and in higher level music appreciation courses—should not emphasize one facet over the other. Neglecting the academic for the artistic, as often happens, gives students—and parents and administrators—the wrong impression about the fullness of the musical experience.
The ultimate purpose of the elementary music course should be to lay the foundation for future study in music. This end can be achieved by augmenting the typical curricular emphasis on singing with basic instrumental performance. With such resources as Orff percussion instruments and widely-available recorders, students can be taught, and teachers can reinforce, such basic concepts as beat and rhythm and more complex concepts as improvisation.
In addition, basic theoretical knowledge should not be neglected. By the time a student completes the elementary music courses, he or she should, in the least, be able to read standard music notation. In addition to, and complimenting, this theoretical base should be composition training. Students can be guided through simple exercises growing out of improvisation until, by the end of their elementary training, they are able to notate their creations for others to perform. Composition is a vital component of any music education curriculum, one which truly embodies the personal creative spirit, and young children should not be denied it.
Singing, though it is quite common in the elementary curriculum, is often inadequate as preparatory study in music. Students should be taught to match pitch, to sightsing with solfege syllables, and should be taught proper breath control and posture for producing a pleasing tone. These elements are critical in order for students to gain sufficient knowledge of the art of performance so that, in turn, they can express themselves more clearly.
In music appreciation courses for older students, more theory and composition should be integrated. Too often these courses become dry lectures in history and this approach fails to connect students with the full power of the musical experience.
Music is about exploring one’s creativity in the world of sounds. Students, both elementary and older, should have ample opportunities to realize these possibilities—not just through performance, but also through composition and improvisation—instead of as an afterthought or, worse, not at all.
On Performance Curricula
Most students in middle and high school have the opportunity to enroll in a large performance ensemble. School bands, choirs, and orchestras flourish around the country. For many students, the performance ensemble is the only music course available. Thus it is critical that music educators involved in such courses take advantage of the opportunity they have to reach their students with a meaningful musical experience.
Students enrolled in a performance ensemble should have access to models of professional tone and style from the beginning and should continue to be exposed as much as possible throughout their education. Educators could provide recordings, invite guest musicians from the community, and mandate or encourage private lessons. Students need to hear what their instruments optimally sound like so that they have a clear goal for themselves. Without models, students will not progress far.
By the time a student finishes a complete course in instrumental performance, he or she should be able to, at minimum, play all major and minor scales from memory, be able to sightread a simple piece of music, and be able to play in tune with idiomatic tone. Choral students should, at minimum, be able to sightsing basic melodies with solfege syllables and be able to sing with a pleasing tone. These curricular benchmarks, if met, will give students the technique they need to fully express themselves as musicians and be prepared, if they choose, to enter collegiate music study.
Ultimately, no performance student should be subject to low standards from their educator. While it may seem easier in the short term to cut corners, it is the students—and the ensembles—that suffer if they are not pushed to higher levels of performance.
On the Integration of Non-Performance Curricula
As stated above, performance classes may be the only music courses available to many students. Music educators should take advantage of this fact to include the academic aspects of music to augment a rigorous performance curriculum. Topics for integration include music history, theory, and composition.
In order for students to gain a full appreciation of the richness of the musical experience, they should be exposed to the heritage of the music they are performing. Lecture need not be the only means to do this. Some ways to get students directly involved in exploring history could be small group projects, listening assignments, performing quality arrangements of period music, and creative writing assignments designed to get students to synthesize their knowledge of history with what they are presently performing.
Music theory helps to build students’ confidence in performance by helping them to understand what they are playing or singing, which, in turn, builds greater independence in making interpretive, creative decisions. Theory training need not take up large amounts of class time—simple theory concepts can be linked to daily performance issues. Teachers can discuss how scales are constructed before they are played, they can discuss formal construction when discussing phrasing, and the basics of harmony can be discussed in conjunction with almost any other ensemble issue.
Composition is the culmination of all other aspects of musical experience. It is the synthesis of art and academics. It is the apex of personal musical expression. Thus, a curriculum without composition is truly incomplete. A strong theory background is not essential to developing the creative potential of students in a performance class. Teachers can give students a basic framework for composition, beginning with short, simple pieces written for their own instruments. Such details as meter, motives, and pitch vocabulary can be given by the teacher so as not to overwhelm the students in the beginning. From these roots, teachers can continue to build into longer, more complex pieces. Ultimately, near the end of their performance course experience, students could write full ensemble pieces for performance by their peers.
Non-performance curricula is an essential part of any musical training. Because most students will only have access to performance courses, teachers need to integrate these aspects of music into their courses to give their students the full expressive palette of music.
Music education is a vital component of the public school experience. From this article a philosophical framework has been presented which can serve not only to defend music education’s rightful place in the curriculum but to bolster existing music education standards. All students should have access to a quality music education, and that includes a general music education program at the elementary level which prepares them for future study and performance courses designed to give them a balanced portrait of what music can be.
Music is an integral part of humanity. Every culture from the dawn of time has had at least a rudimentary form of music. To say that what we teach is frivolous and expendable is to deny millennia of human culture and its inherent expressive values. Students must be given the opportunity to realize their freedom to create as humans and teachers must be prepared to enable that freedom.
Keep up with my work and join the community conversation on my Facebook page!