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ON THE PURPOSE OF MUSIC EDUCATION

BY LUKAS STANLEY

WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY


MUS 3440-105
NOVEMBER 24, 2015

Abstract

Music education is a subject which has been often contested in the public school
system in recent years. Its value and purpose have many times been called into
question, especially in the face of economic recession and dwindling resources.
Musics purpose in society is strongly tied to the question of why it should be
taught in our school systems: if it has humanitarian value, it should therefore be
transferred to the next generation.


On the Purpose of Music Education

Music has been a staple in education globally for many years, and has stood the test of

time in Western cultures for the past few centuries. However, as its role in the educational

system is questioned, a careful look must be taken at why it is deserving of our time and

attention. Discussed here will be the importance of music as a temporal art, the way in which this

lends itself to education, and then a brief dialogue on the intrinsic philosophies of the methods of

instructional delivery.

The discussion on music education and its role in our academic structures first warrants

an argument for the importance of music as an entity. If music itself is deemed unimportant, it

seems unlikely that an argument in favor of music education would hold any water. Many

academics and philosophers have discussed the nature and importance of music, justifying it

through its historic significance, its benefits in cognitive development, and its societal functions

among others. However, these discourses will likely never prove music to be something which is

absolutely necessary to humanity. This is because in order for something to be accepted as truth,

a hypothesis must be tested against a control variable, and conclusions be drawn which support

the hypothesis. From a broad, sociological standpoint, this would require an entire society to

exist without ever experiencing music, and another identical society to experience the same exact

reality with every variable controlled, the sole exception being the inclusion of music. In this

gedankenexperiment, the purpose would be to draw a conclusion as to whether the society with

music was better off than that which was without, based upon criteria which were agreed upon to

define the quality of societal living. The test results could not evaluated from testimonial data

because each society would have only its own limited reality from which to present information.
The conclusion would have to be based on impartial external assessment and concrete

physiological data.

Proponents of music in our society today would likely argue that in this thought-

experiment, the society with music would be the better off of the two. Perhaps it would have

greater cognitive capabilities as a whole. Perhaps it would have a lower crime rate. Perhaps the

children in the society would be happier, more well-rounded individuals. These are all very

plausible effects of music, ones which are argued by many as its benefits. But does the

systematized compression and rarefaction of air, vibrating our eardrums and sending electrical

signals to our brain, really do all of this for a society? If the answer is yes, then the need for

musical education is clear, in the same way that teaching children to brush their teeth or to eat

vegetables is necessary. Not for basic, biological survival, but in order to enhance their quality of

life. However, this persuasion proves difficult because music, unlike many things, cannot be

seen, felt, tasted, or touched. As Roger Scruton points out in in The Aesthetics of Music,

sounds are presented to a single privileged sense-modality.They are objects of hearing in

something like the way that colours are objects of sight, and they are missing from the world of

deaf people just as colours are missing from the world of the blind (Scruton 1). Something

which cannot be seen or held in the hand will create an ambiguous, difficult-to-grasp concept for

some, especially those who have limited experience listening to or studying music. Such people

are likely to be the ones who first oppose music as a necessity, particularly when it is threatening

resources.

In the interest of stating my own opinion, as opposed to trying to uncover absolute truth, I

would argue that musics importance is derived from meaning that it holds in it. Not necessarily

programmatic or semiotic meaning, although that could certainly be part of it. It is in the way
that art grabs and holds our attention, demands our focus, which gives it importance to me. In the

book On the Nature of the Musical Experience, edited by Bennett Reimer, philosopher Monroe

Curtis Beardsley is quoted as saying, I propose to say that a person is having an aesthetic

experience during a particular stretch of time if and only if the greater part of his mental activity

during that time is united and made pleasurable by being tied to the form and qualities of a

sensuously presented or imaginatively intended object on which his primary attention is

concentrated (Reimer xii). While his notion of pleasure could easily be contested in this

statement, his emphasis on the individuals experience is key to what makes music important.

Even if this is something which is taught rather than biologically innate, aesthetic response to

music has stood the test of time and become part of what defines humanity. It might be of a

recursive nature: music has value because we value it. I also disagree with his single-mindedness

with regard to the form and qualities of the work being the sole criteria by which they should be

judged. Social context can often bring another important layer of meaning to music.

The previous paragraphs do not herein reach a definitive conclusion. Rather, they bring to

the forefront the fact that there are more revealing questions that need to be asked about the

necessity of music (and art as a whole) which supersede more diminutive details such as what the

best pedagogical method might be to teach an instrument. For the sake of argument, let it be

assumed from here that music is a societal necessity. Therefore, though perhaps enthymematic,

music education is also necessary. The premise which I omitted from this syllogism is that the

older generation as a whole has an innate desire to transfer knowledge it deems valuable to the

younger generation as an act of preservation. Again, for the sake of argument, this premise will

be accepted as an a priori truth so as not to deviate too much from the topic at hand.
Once it is accepted that music and therefore music education is valuable, a more detailed

discussion as to how (and the associated why) music should be taught. Music is a tree with many

branches. An educators job should be to look at this tree as a whole and discern which branches

are most important. To clarify this metaphor, a branch could be a genre of music, a mode of

sound production, an era in musical history any facet of music as an entity in space-time. It

would be impossible to teach a student or a class of students every aspect of music, because such

comprehension is beyond the scope of human capability. In my opinion, one should strive to

teach music within the realm of progressive social constructs, while remaining grounded in

historical context. Music, like language, has evolved syntactically throughout history. Todays

music uses different instruments than were used in the 1400s, especially with the advent of

electronically produced music. The way that sounds are arranged texturally and linearly is also

much more diverse now, in comparison to the monophonic chants of medieval times. In this

regard, the point is that music education should also reflect advancements and changes in this

musical landscape.

In Estelle Jorgensons Book, Pictures of Music Education, she discusses another

important aspect of music education the apprenticeship model which is fairly universal in its

use to transmit musical knowledge through generations. This concept of music education moves

away from the broad philosophical debate of why music and music education are important for

society to why music education is important to the musician himself. This particular angle on

music education places particular emphasis on historical context and enculturation (Jorgenson

58). Our current model of music education in the United States makes use the apprenticeship

model, though not exclusively. Many students who are serious about the pursuit of music study

the craft in a one-on-one setting with a mentor who critiques, evaluates, and passes along
knowledge and experience. However, we also have a model in which this same experience is

attempted with a much larger student to teacher ratio in a classroom setting. This model

sacrifices, in many ways, quality for quantity. The teacher cannot possibly tend to each students

need for correction with the same level of detail and personalization when their agenda is larger

than the individual student. For this reason, it is much more beneficial if classroom teaching, or

cooperative music, is supplemented by a mentorship type of learning. This will maximize

learning and speed up the rate of improvement in the students proficiency.

Disseminating music widely throughout the public school system has its benefits as well.

It is sort of a see what sticks mentality, because many people begin playing music, but only a

small percentage of those who start in a program as a child will actually become a professionally

practicing musician; however, for the time that students are enrolled in music classes, it can still

have and leave a profound impact on a students life. In Music in the Schools, by Janet Mill, she

references a time when she was asked to answer the question of why we should teach music in

schools. This is an excerpt of what she wrote:

We teach music in school primarily because we want children all children to grow as

musicians. But music, also, improves the mind. While it is hard to catch the results of this in a

scientific experiment, or to plan music teaching so that this will necessarily happen, no-one who

has had the privilege of observing really good music teaching, and as watched children grow

intellectually in front of them, can doubt that this is the case. It may be the raising of childrens

self-esteem through success in music making that helps them towards achievement more

generally. It may be that enjoying music helps children to enjoy school more. It may be that

chemical changes induced in the brain by music facilitate learning more generally. Or perhaps

the thought experiments that musicians must carry out to improve their performing and
composing help children to extend their thinking more generally. I dont much mind what the

reason is, but am certain that it happens (Mill, 5).

Such testimonies and speculation as to the benefits of this music education for everyone

mentality certainly cannot replace concrete evidence; however, Mill acknowledges this fact. She

places a lot of stock in the testimonial evidence that music is something that makes life better,

and that should be a good enough justification to invest time and resources into it. I am in

agreement with her that stories of how music enhanced someones life will certainly make for

good supplements in discourse supporting music education. Personal stories often provide an

easier way for a non-scientific community to connect to a cause. I am even in agreement that

music does do all of the things which she stated, and that it does justify a place in our educational

system.

Once the question of the importance of music education has been settled, there is then the

entirety of creating a personal philosophy of how music should be taught. I have already touched

briefly on my own opinion of a necessary balance between cooperative and independent

learning, but there are many more decisions an educator must deliberately make between or on a

spectrum between binary pairs; for example, the debate between Bennett Reimer and David

Elliot about Praxial versus Aesthetic education. This disagreement is described in the article

Gradually Adaptive Frameworks, by Stanley Haskins. In the article, he focuses mostly on the

idea of peer disagreement, and a little bit on the specifics of their differing ideologies. For

example a primary instance of divergence between the praxial and aesthetic philosophies is an

emphasis on performance versus listening, respectively (Haskins, 202). The article by Haskins to

me illuminates an important point: there isnt one right way to teach. Some might be more

effective than others, as defined by evolving circumstances and changing environments. As a


teacher, one must be reflective, analytical, and willing to change their approach in the face of

ineffectiveness. A teacher who begins to teach with a single-minded, ridged approach will likely

fail to transfer knowledge as effectively as possible in the classroom.

In summary, music is a difficult concept to justify as being of great societal importance.

Largely through testimonial data and thought experiment it can be thought of as having cognitive

and social benefits which enrich the human experience. There are many models and methods by

which music can be taught, and while one is not intrinsically better than another, teachers must

be flexible in their approach and be continually evaluating whether the students are excelling in

the areas of music that are being emphasized by the given method. Music is a universal art which

has stood the tests of culture and time for all of recorded history, and in my opinion, this is proof

in itself that it has value enough to warrant careful teaching and transfer to all future generations.
Works Cited

Haskins, Stanley, (Author). "Gradually Adaptive Frameworks: Reasonable Disagreement And

The Evolution Of Evaluative Systems In Music Education." Philosophy Of Music

Education Review 21.2 (2013): 197-212. RILM Abstracts of Music Literature (1967 to

Present only). Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Jorgenson, Estelle. Pictures of Music Education. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2011. Print.

Mills, Janet. Music in the School. New York: Oxford, 2005. Print.

Reimer, Bennett, and Jeffrey E. Wright. On the Nature of Musical Experience. Niwot, CO: U of

Colorado, 1992. Print.

Scruton, Roger. The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. Print.