This paper represents a class assignment that I thought would be good to share and hopefully encourage discussion. The assigned task was to develop a brief personal philosophy that included answers to the following questions. What makes music valuable? Why should music be taught in schools? What kind of music should be taught in schools? Who should teach? Who should learn? I tried to give each question some careful thought and approach the subject from the point of view of a music therapist who has been working for many years in the public schools.
Philosophy of Music Education
The current economic times have encouraged a thorough examination of every aspect of public education. It is now more important than ever that music educators have a firm understanding and rationale of music’s place in the school system as well as the method and scope of implementation in the curriculum. As a music therapist who has worked in the school system for the last decade, it is also in my best interest to put forth a philosophy of music education. My background may offer a unique perspective to add to the comprehensive statement of philosophy from the traditional body of music educators.
The foundation of any philosophy of music education must answer the question about why music has value. I believe that a large part of the answer to this question relates to the way music is part of our physiological makeup. Rhythm, for example, is naturally expressed in our breathing, walking and most importantly, our heartbeat. Human vocal cords are unique in their ability to produce a wide range of sound and naturally provide us with a way to express melody. Children at very young ages demonstrate instinctual impulses to sing, no matter their cultural environment. This bodily connection humanity has to music has resulted in music being created in every culture.
Music therapy exists in part because society has recognized the connection between music and the body and mind. Teachers and clients alike recognize that in certain situations, music has a power to affect change and behavior even if they cannot fully explain the reactions. Fortunately, there is a growing base of scientific research quantifying and explaining some of the ways music affects the brain, body and behavior.
Music is also valuable because it is individually significant and exponentially powerful. Almost everyone has some kind of preferred music, even if they do not listen to it regularly. Music has often been regarded by people as spiritually powerful and personally poignant. Music brings joy or sadness by allowing feelings to exist in a unique and stubbornly indescribable environment. Dr. Bennett Reimer espoused this idea in his writings about the five values of music (Madsen, 2000). I agree with his assessment that the connection of music with emotion allows music to complement and expand the appreciation of all other forms of art.
Some music educators have pointed out that music, as it exists in the brain, may actually be a separate type of thinking process (Lehman, 1995). Music seems to be processed in many different parts of the brain and not simply concentrated in the right or left hemisphere like math or language skills (Liegeois-Chauvel et al., 1998). This is one reason why stroke victims can sometimes sing what they want to say, but cannot speak. The brain also somehow processes music stimuli while producing emotions, but leaves one without a way to describe the process or experience with symbols or words. In the Western music tradition, for example, the need or desire to coalesce around a tonic note or key is a visceral, not language-thought induced reaction. Perfect pitch and various forms of synaesthesia are even more evidence that the brain can treat music as a unique form of cognitive processing.
The value of music may be easy to understand and accept as a society, but the next question that must be answered is why should music be taught in schools? I believe that music in the schools provides students with an opportunity to develop unique cognitive thought processes. Listening to music, analyzing and creating music all involve cognitive skills and thinking strategies that are transferable to other tasks and school subjects. Dr. Paul Lehman (1995) also argues that music instruction and experience can help to develop, “out-of-box,” thinking. I think that this type of thinking can be useful in a world where many issues are not black and white.
A second reason to teach music in the schools is because of its importance as a pervasive force in society. A good grasp of the attributes, history and functions of music is essential and integral to learning about our culture. Not only is music historically important, but it also has contemporary ramifications in political and business interests. Popular culture is sometimes ignored in school curriculum, but the close relationship of music and sports will not easily be rejected even during the leanest economic times. The marching band experience, for example, would largely cease its existence without the symbiotic relationship with football and high school.
In my experience, music should at the very least be offered to qualifying students in special education. Some children make significant and unique progress on non-musical objectives through the use of specially designed music strategies. Participation in music activities is also one of the easiest and most socially accepting mainstreaming activities for some of the children with disabilities.
If music is so valuable and necessary in the schools, then music educators must decide what will be taught. Although the core music classes have served the system well, there is room for improvement. Band, orchestra and choir teachers should continue to encourage related ensembles such as jazz band, show choir, string quartets and musical theatre. Some evidence points to a decline in participation in these traditional forms of music groups, but they are still part of the culture.
Some schools have begun offering other music programs in order to increase interest and participation. Guitar, world music drumming, composition and sound engineering and recording are good examples of programs to supplement traditional music classes. If parents and children in junior high and high school have the choice of which school to attend, then different schools could focus on individual programs and make them stronger and more successful. I think that school choice is the key to successfully expanding these types of programs to more schools.
Each school could offer the core music programs and a selection of specialized music courses. Every course should include opportunities to practice composition and learn about history as part of the instruction. The music repertoire should center on western civilization with occasional study of world music. Our country was established by western civilization and has made much contribution to that tradition at the same time it has established its own unique form of musical culture. Understanding other cultural music is still important, however, so schools might choose yearly world music themes to encourage collaboration and help manage the rotation of curriculum.
As our culture continues to grow and change, adjustments in our view of the philosophy of music education will necessitate changes in the field of education. Paul Lehman (Madsen, 2000) hinted at this when he wrote that teachers will have to receive more training in psychology, special education, non-traditional instruments and assessment protocols. I think that this training will help teachers be successful as alternative music courses are added to the programs and outreach to non-traditional students and students in special education is increased.
Teachers should also strive for more collaboration with music professionals outside of academia. Music educators may facilitate this collaboration by using electronic media to bring the world to the students when field trips are not possible. Co-teaching between departments in schools can also be a creative way to bring in new perspectives. In addition, stronger ties should be established with universities to foster research. Perhaps universities could take the example of the business world and develop more “corporate” MME programs so that teachers do not have to stop working in order to obtain an advanced degree and become trained in research methods.
I do not think that music can be mandated for all children in the special education program. Music may be contraindicated for some disabilities or syndromes and trigger unwanted behavior issues. Children with disabilities should also not be mainstreamed into regular music class without consult from a music therapist. The consult will ensure that the placement will be good for the child and not take away from the musical experience for the rest of the students. Music therapists will need to be prominently available as a resource for music educators as more special education students become mainstreamed into regular education classes. When necessary, it may be more effective to have the music therapist teach individual adapted music lessons with the music educator acting as a consultant. Junior high and high school students with disabilities could benefit from a “circle of friends” or peer partners to help with placement in music class or ensembles. Special roles may also be explored so that any interested special education student can participate, even if it is as an office assistant or on the sidelines in the “pit” for the marching band.
Aside from special education, music time in elementary schools should be increased. Early childhood and kindergarten programs often include much music in the classrooms, but first through fifth grade classes are frequently shorted in their music classes. Children in these grades should have a minimum of one music class per week for the entire school year. Once children reach middle school, they should be offered more options and choices. High school students should also be offered the opportunity to participate in off-campus community music groups, professional ensembles and the music industry for educational credit.
In summary, music is valuable because of its intrinsic nature within humanity and human cultures. Music has become a part of the makeup of our society. Music should be continued as part of the fundamental curriculum in schools with highly trained teachers who are open to change and collaboration. Outreach should be increased to non-traditional and special education students and more opportunities for music programs beyond band, orchestra and choir should be offered to all secondary level students. Regardless of its form, music as part of the fabric of our humanity and culture is an essential part of the experience, knowledge and practice and should have its place among the core subjects taught in school.
Lehman, P. R. (1995, September). Why teach music in school? Remarks prepared for the public relations video presentations of the Gemeinheardt Company, Inc., Elkhart, Indiana.
Liegeois-Chauvel, C., Peretz, I., Babai, M., Laguitton, V., & Chavel, P. (1998). Contribution of different cortical areas in the temporal lobes to music processing. Brain, 121, 1853-1867.
Madsen, C. K. (Ed.). (2000). Vision 2020: The housewright symposium on music education. Reston, VA: MENC: The National Association For Music Education.