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A few days ago, someone asked me for a few quotes about music education for an article he’s writing. His first question:
“why is music important to the development (both personal and academic) of our students?”
In our everyday lives as teachers, we’re not generally asked to explain why music matters. We’re busy planning lessons and concerts, attending faculty meetings, and calmly explaining to a pair of arguing children why it doesn’t matter “who started it.” We rarely stop to examine why we’re doing what we do. We just love it. We can’t imagine doing anything else. Music is everything! Music is necessary! But based on how frequently music gets cut from theschool curriculum, not everyone sees it that way. I’m grateful to have an opportunity to sit down and really work out what I believe is theanswerto this question. Here’s what I think:
Because administrators and politicians generally view music as an “add-on” or “special,” it can be the first program cut from a school facingbudget constraints. As a result, supporters of music education constantly struggle to justify music’s importance. They might show how music improves math scores and increases school attendance, or they may demonstrate that the focus and discipline required to master an instrument improve students’ overall academic performance. Proponents of music education may also discuss one of the most compelling effects of music—the fact that creating music requires individual competence (based on practice and discipline) combined with attentiveness to others in an ensemble, and that this balance prepares children for success in any work or personal environment. They may also point out that learning to lead an ensemble, whether as a conductor, band leader, or first chair in an orchestra, is excellent preparation for leadership of any kind.
They’re right, of course, about all those things. But the underlying reason that music helps improve nearly every area of a child’s life is that music is a critical and necessary part of the human experience. The more you remove people’s access to creating and listening to music, the morepeople suffer, both individually and as a part of a culture.
Each of us has a heartbeat that makes us the walking embodiment of music. Our life force is a steady beat, the foundation for all music. When we are excited or frightened, the beat accelerates. When we are relaxed or at rest, the beat is slower. Music has its basis in our very core. Also, in order to communicate, we vary the pitch of our voices to create language. Varying pitches are the basis for melody. In fact, that’s why we can remember language in the form of lyrics to a song more easily than language in the form of a poem or expository prose. The song organizes the language into memorable pitch and rhythmic patterns, thus tapping into qualities which are inherent to our physical being.
Yet many in the U.S. and some other parts of the world increasingly view music as the exclusive domain of the extraordinarily talented. Many people will say that they can’t sing, or that they have no musical ability. The reality, however, is that they simply have had limited exposure to music, particularly at a very young age. What we think of as being inborn talent or genius is more likely a combination of some natural ability, passion, early exposure, extensive practice, and laser-like dedication.
Those same people who say that they are “not musical” often love listening to music and are deeply affected by it. That’s because music is a direct line to our emotions. Everyone from retailers toadvertisingexecutives to the person organizing the high schoolgraduationknows this. Every spa plays slow music during treatments to help you relax, every professional sports event is peppered with music designed to heighten excitement. Even fans often chant and sing in response to the action. (“Let’s go Yankees,” followed by a rhythmic clapping pattern, is sung to the tune of a minor third.) Music is an intrinsic part of events where we feel complex or heightened emotions. Anyone watching a horror movie with his eyes closed can tell you exactly when something bad is about to happen because the dissonant music evokes an immediate visceral response. Music is power, and people who control the music are in control of people’s emotions. And those who choose to participate in music gain something deeply satisfying when they tap into that power, often a sense of relief or expression. Consider these examples:
45, 000 people, many of whom will tell you that they “can’t sing” will nevertheless sing the chorus to “Hey Jude” with joyful abandon at a Paul McCartney concert.
On 9/11, U.S. politicians spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the capital building to express their sense of grief, anger, and patriotism. They didn’t spontaneously speak the pledge of allegiance in a monotone chant.
For adults, a song from childhood or high school will evoke extraordinarily immediate and tactile memories of that time.
Parents softly sing to babies to calm them and get them to sleep. Parents who “don’t sing” will purchase recordings and play them for the babies, knowing the effect they will have.
Immediately after a disaster, what is done in order to raise money? A concert! Not products to purchase, not a performance of comedy sketches, not an art installation, but music. The music helps people process the pain of the disaster, and also provides a foundation to inspire people to give money to help victims.
Music is unique in that it is both a discipline and an immediate gateway to human emotional life. Children who participate regularly in music not only hone their abilities to focus, think, analyze, organize, and work with colleagues, but begin to master their own emotional lives. Many of the people causing harm in the world through violence, wars, intimidation, and corruption could have avoided that path if they had had access to both a better awareness of their own emotional lives and a constructive passion in which to direct their desire for power. Music provides both.