Why, indeed? Answering this seemingly innocuous three-word question is an ongoing process constantly revisited by music educators throughout their careers, the answer constantly shifting and evolving as teachers gain new insight and experience. While there is always a circular justification that can be made in defense of any subject (i.e. the value of knowledge for its own sake), what factors make music worth teaching as part of the core curriculum in an organized school setting? After all, music requires a lot of school space, specialized staff, instruments—a considerable outlay of funding and resources.
But with test scores more of a priority than ever in a No Child Left Behind era and federal dollars on the line with each administrative misstep, making sure that a school maximizes its financial and personnel resources is paramount. Is music a viable element of a core curriculum in this new reality? Can a school’s resources be better spent in pursuit of other goals, that space-wasting music area carved up into a new science lab, study center, or even a storage center for materials from those “more important” subjects like calculus, physics, and chemistry?
If music is in fact a subject appropriate for academic study, how can one possibly present this vast and scattered topic area in a coherent manner? How can one wrap such diverse styles as rap, reggae, classical, country, bluegrass, folk, and any of the other dizzying array of multicultural musical heritages into a neat and tidy academic package, appropriately accessible by students and assessable by teachers and administrators? Or is music simply another sport, like volleyball or basketball?
These activities, while obviously considered valuable by a significant proportion of the typical school student body (just look at the attendance at a high school football, basketball, or track-and-field event), are not considered part of the core curriculum, and are hence not allotted time during the school day proper. Nor are these activities assessed like academic subjects like math, science, reading, writing, and music. Does music belong on this list? And if so, why? Why teach music, and why teach it as part of the core curriculum?
Music, in so many ways, is like a secret society. Those who belong intrinsically understand the value and merit of this magnificent mode of artistic communication, and once immersed in this heady brew, it is difficult to take a step back and analyze it from the perspective of a non-musician. Making curriculum inclusion decisions is always a balancing act between the cultural mores of one’s own society with the teacher’s own imaginative educational innovations. One’s own upbringing and the environment in which they live play a huge factor in determining beliefs as to what should be taught and what should not be taught in schools. A person surrounded by music since a child, with parents, friends, teacher, and other role models constantly performing on instruments and attending concerts, will likely believe that music is a fundamental part of the human experience, while another person with a background devoid of music may question what the fuss is all about. Regardless of one’s cultural background, music is a pivotal part of the human experience, equal parts affective communication and artistic expression.
This dual nature of music (serving as both a uniquely powerful tool for communication and artistic expression) gives it tremendous power and makes it a critical part of any educational curriculum. In defense of music as a core element in any educational curriculum, four justifications for its inclusion as a critical foundational element in the education of every young person spring to mind:
1. Music expresses what words cannot.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between human beings and all other animals is our highly developed communication abilities. Unlike most other animals, though, humans do not instinctually possess their communication skills. Instead, they are developed through enculturation, first from parents, then other relatives, and eventually through teachers and classmates. While verbal expression is perhaps the most obvious form of communication used by humans, there exist other, less initially evident but equally powerful, methods of communication. Kinesthetic communication, for example—dancing, sign language, or even non-verbal gestures and postures—allows for alternate avenues unavailable in verbal communication.
Can words effectively communicate the essence of dancing, throwing a baseball, or even giving someone a pat on the back? To a degree, perhaps—but they simply can’t replicate the visceral experience of these kinesthetic actions. Music represents a third avenue of communication known as affective communication, and learning how to understand and harness the power of this language has implications far beyond the ability to simply replicate a song or carry a tune.
2. Music harnesses and develops the emotions.
By developing one’s own understanding of and ability in communicating through music, one begins to become a member of the aforementioned “secret society” of affective communicators. Learning how music works and how to communicate through music develops one’s ability to harness and express their emotions in a structured way, and developing this skill has a huge positive impact one both one’s enjoyment of the human experience and one’s ability to effectively communicate, create, and function in society. Children differ in their learning approaches—visual, kinesthetic, and auditory—and they also differ in their most effective form of communication. Some children are verbal communicators, some are kinesthetic, and some are affective.
Music manages to combine these three forms of communication and also do a great job developing the affective skill set. Harnessing and developing the emotions proves to be a crucial skill in life’s non-musical endeavors. Music helps to articulate and categorize emotions, and this categorization can help one to understand what they are personally experiencing. Listening to and performing the music of Tchaikovsky can lead one to more deeply understand despair, triumph, and tragedy. When events triggering these emotions inevitably befall one later in life, they will have vicariously experienced these feelings before, enabling them to more easily deal with them. Having an outlet to express one’s emotions allows a person to “blow off steam” and release those emotions in a socially acceptable manner.
3. Music is a constant in today’s fractured world.
The general pace of life is increasing worldwide with each passing year. Students are bombarded on a daily basis with messages (“buy this!”) and slogans (“Just Do It!”), and their attention is fragmented by television, portable media devices, and the Internet. At the same time, academic expectations from school administrators are increasing, with students being tested (and being prepped for tests) with increasing frequency. Adulthood is being foisted upon kids at an earlier age than ever before, and there is an ever decreasing amount of time to just sit back and……breathe. As a temporal art, music cannot be forced or rushed. No matter how hard one tries, a piece of music takes a certain amount of time to perform, and it requires a single stream of focused attention in order to do so.
Multi-tasking is becoming the norm for most other areas in life, but engaging in musical activities does not allow for this approach. It may, in fact, be one of the few times during a student’s day when they are focusing on a single task for an extended period of time without interruption. Engaging in music can be a calming and meditative activity for students, and early experiences involving music as a soothing and relaxing force gives students the option later in life of turning to music in times of stress. Plus, the ability to focus on one thing for an extended length of time is (to put it mildly!) a valuable skill in other areas of life. Music is therefore an activity that requires one’s attention, and it both develops the ability to focus for an extended length of time and serves as an emotional balancing factor later in life.
4. Music brings people together.
Labeling music the universal language may sound trite, but it really is true. In an era that places a premium on multiculturalism, music is more vital than ever, for it is one of the quickest and more profound conduits into the cultural experiences of others. One can extensively study the country of Brazil, attempting to learn as much as possible about the history, people, and culture of this nation, only to discover that putting on a record of samba music from Rio de Janeiro or Salvador answers a multitude of elusive questions. As previously stated, music communicates what words cannot, and many non-Western cultures place a much higher value on the music of their culture than we do. Understand the music, and you’ll often find that you understand the people—and that has more value in today’s global environment than any standardized test. While great disparities and inequities may exist between two groups of people, music is a leveling factor, creating a common ground for interaction and understanding.
The participatory nature of music (one plays music, sings music, dances to music, and just plain experiences music) can bring disparate groups of people together more effectively than ever manage, Together, these factors make music a critical element in the education of any young person. Can algebra make the world a better place, promoting understanding across cultural divides? Will physics provide an outlet for the frustration, anger, despair, joy, ecstasy, and merriment that a person experiences in their daily life? Does history allow for a student to create and innovate, stimulating their imagination and sharpening their interactive skills? Can geography give students a temporal experience, focusing their attention on a single event for a length of time, harnessing all of their intellectual, creative, and kinesthetic impulses in an organized fashion? Maybe so, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
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