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Why I Believe In My Job

As a sort of addendum to my last post, here’s why I think music is important, and why we should keep it in schools:

*this is a modified version of a paper I wrote to present to employers and school boards to show my commitment to music as a valuable asset in education

I agree with Edgard Varèse, who once said that music is “organized sound.” For me, the question becomes not what should be permitted to be called music, but rather what music I choose to immerse myself in, and of course by extension, what it is that I like in music. The vast majority of people listen to music and have their preferences in some way as to what is ‘good’ music: music for listening, music for communicating, music for humour, and music for selling things. Music informs who we are, helps us define ourselves, and communicates the most basic attributes of what it means to be human. If all music vanished from the planet tomorrow, culture as we know it would die: commercial advertisements, movies, TV, concerts, video games, and romantic holidays would no longer exist in anything approaching recognisability to us (Valentine’s Day without songs of love!). Music in its depth, variety, and complexity is one of the most crucial descriptors of humanity. In The World In Six Songs, neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin explains that there is “One important thing that makes us human… that separates us from all other species on the planet… is one thing no other animals do: art.”

If the above cannot elucidate why music needs to be taught to our children, let an analogy illustrate. We teach math in schools to all children throughout their education; why is that? Math is a fundamental underpinning of our physical world. Space, time, and our very actions can be explained the form of increasingly abstract and complicated number statements. Music is likewise a fundamental concept: not of the physical world, but of our human societies that live upon it. There have been many studies attempting to prove or disprove ancillary benefits to music education (such as the correlation between musical study and improved mathematical reasoning), but I feel that these are mere side issues that have little or no place in determining the appropriateness of a regular course of study in music. Other facts and realities about music are much more crucial to demonstrating its proper place in the education system. For example, no culture ever discovered throughout history lacks music and there is some evidence to suggest that the origins of music predate those of language itself. If something is so crucial to our definition of society, and indeed of humanity itself, there is no reason not to teach it to our children, just as we teach them math. Music is one of the most important ways in which human beings communicate our values and beliefs. To simply not teach this vast, rich element of our species’ social makeup would be negligent on the level of not allowing a child to learn anything of his/her world’s history, his/her family’s culture, or basic skills that will permit that child to function normally in the world.

The argument that music is as universal as, and maybe predates, language seems to provide an opening for the argument that children should not be ‘taught’ the basics of music by specialist teachers any more than young children are taught by specialist speech therapists to speak. However, that presumption would be faulty. Children learn some of the fundamentals of music simply by being exposed to it just as they learn their family’s mother tongue by hearing it spoken in the home. Music pervades our society, and some elements are inevitably ingested by young children: think of the many young children’s programs on television which are accompanied by cheerful songs and jingles, or the way in which young children commonly develop their own music at play with others (the descending minor third used by many cultures as a taunt comes to mind: “Nah-nah-nah-nah-NAH-nah”, etc.). Just as children are taught the increasing complexities of language by increasingly specialized language teachers as they get older, students should have specialized music teachers. It is perhaps even more important to have music specialists than language specialists, as the amazing variety of music and techniques to make, appreciate, and criticize music would bewilder the layman who tries to simply read a single book and listen to several songs in order to teach an entire culture’s musical style and history.

Obviously, not everything of value can be taught in one course, and probably not even in a typical 3- or 4-year secondary school program of music. Too, students have vast differences in musical interest. If a typical grade year of your typical high school were to be surveyed about their relative interest in, firstly, music in general, and then in the area in which they were interested, the sheer variety of musical organizations, college programs, and musical styles sold to the public dictate that you would find a vast array of directional paths to take music. Some students would be interested in studying classical orchestral music, others jazz from 1930-1960, some the whole history of music, some world drumming, and some the production of music in studios. Sir Ken Robinson, an advocate for reforming and revolutionizing education, said at his TED Conference speech in 2010 that “human communities depend on a diversity of talent.” I believe he is absolutely right, and encouraging the vast profusion of musical talents and interests inherent in our students is one of the ways in which we as teachers can encourage the development of this diverse talent.

I would argue that music education begins in the womb, consciously or otherwise. When popular opinion had made out that exposure to music at a young age would assist in the formation of a more intelligent individual, parents would expose the fetus and young child to classical masterworks that the child would then adapt into his or her memories and internal conception of music. This process, while most clearly exemplified in that particular fad, occurs all the time. As human beings, we are exposed to music constantly, and the young child who is tugged around our orbit is likewise inundated by it. We are unconsciously educating our children when we consistently listen to certain kinds of music, or remark that “so-and-so is a great artist”. The process of systemized music education under specialized teachers should begin as early as the parent or child wishes. All children are capable of music, and their education in that area can begin as soon as the wish is expressed.

I believe as Sir Ken Robinson does that this means we need to radically rethink our priorities about education. “All kids have tremendous talent” was one of the premises of his 2006 talk at the TED Conference, and I could not agree more. As music educators, we need to adapt our classrooms to a world that cannot, and in fact should not, revolve around the white-tie world of European orchestral musicians from the 19th century. Music is more than any one person can experience in a lifetime, and as teachers, it is our job to make sure that whichever students walk through our doors, they are presented with an experience of music that enriches their life, and does not provide another way of obscuring their natural talents and interests. Bennett Reimer, a prominent advocate of transforming our current system of music education, said “…we have so poorly represented the many musical roles in our culture as to have unconscionably limited the opportunities available for each child to discover which might be fulfilling, and to be able to pursue that discovery.” As the music educators of the future, it is our job to change that. We must give them not the burden of music, but the gift of it.

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