Paul R. Lehman
Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Past President, MENC: The National Association for Music Education
Honorary Life Member, International Society for Music Education
Why is music important? Why should every child study music in school? Almost everyone who has made a major contribution to educational thought since Plato has agreed that music should be an integral part of the basic education of every young person. So why are we still trying to answer these questions? Because some people view music not as a subject for serious study but merely as a form of entertainment. Others believe that it can be learned well enough outside school. Still others see value in music but simply don't regard it as a high priority.
Educators generally agree that there are five basic fields of study—mathematics, languages and literature, physical sciences, social studies, and the arts. No one can claim to be educated who does not have a reasonable acquaintance with all five. Every person should have the ability to perform, to create, and to listen to music with understanding. To achieve that end, every student should have access to a comprehensive, balanced, and sequential program of music study in school.
Recent research has suggested that music instruction can have a positive effect on the functioning of the brain in young people and can offer other far-reaching educational and developmental benefits. These results deserve our attention, but the most basic reason for studying music is that music is intrinsically worthwhile. It is valuable in itself. It is important.
Still, not everything that is valuable and important can be included in the school curriculum. Why should music be? There are many reasons. Here are only a few:
1. One of the most fundamental and generally accepted purposes of education has always been to transmit the cultural heritage of a group to succeeding generations. And music is one of the most powerful, the most compelling, and the most glorious manifestations of every cultural heritage. The fundamental and pervasive role that music plays in the entertainment business sometimes blinds people to the even more fundamental and pervasive role that it plays throughout human culture. Because of the central position that music occupies among the core behaviors of human beings, any student who is allowed to leave school without studying music has been cheated just as surely as if he or she had been allowed to leave school without studying mathematics or science.
2. Another purpose of education is to help students to achieve their potential. Musical potential is one of the basic abilities that exist in every person. It can best be developed if study is begun at an early age and continued through adolescence. Anyone whose musical potential remains undeveloped, which happens too often, is deprived of some of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences that life has to offer. Schools should give students opportunities to test the limits of their potential in as many domains of human endeavor as possible. The more such opportunities are available, the more likely it is that students' lives will be as full and rich as possible.
3. We are surrounded by music every day. If we are content to wallow indiscriminately in the superficiality and banality of popular culture, then there may be no need to study music. But just beneath the surface layer of trivial music, to which we are involuntarily exposed on a daily basis, there is a wondrous and incredibly diverse realm of profound and engaging music where, once the barriers of unfamiliarity and bias have been stripped away, exquisite beauty and enjoyment are readily accessible to everyone. The formal study of music can unlock this gate. It can increase the satisfaction that students derive from music by enabling them to understand and enjoy more sophisticated and more complex music. Anyone can "enjoy" music at a rudimentary level, but sequential study can sharpen students' perceptions, raise their levels of appreciation, and expand their musical horizons.
4. One of the things that schools teach implicitly is that every question has a right answer. But outside the school the most important problems facing society seldom have clear-cut answers. These problems do not lend themselves to the formulaic, step-by-step solutions that we are taught to apply in school. Music is different from the other basic disciplines in that it does not reflect a preoccupation with right answers. It tolerates and accommodates the ambiguities with which life is filled. It teaches us to cope with the subjective. In this respect music is more like life itself than are the other disciplines. Music brings a balance to the curriculum that can help to offset what might otherwise be a distorted view of problem-solving in the real world.
5. Every student should have a chance to succeed in something. Music in school can prevent drop-outs by providing opportunities for success for some students who have difficulty with other disciplines in the curriculum. For some students music can make school tolerable. Most music teachers have known students who remained in school solely because of the joy and satisfaction they received from participating in music. Only in music class were their talents appreciated, their contributions respected, and their achievements valued.
6. Most important of all, music exalts the human spirit. It enhances the quality of life. The vast and unique ability of music to improve the quality of life has too often been underemphasized or overlooked entirely in discussions of the value of music study. Music transforms the human experience. It brings joy and pleasure to men, women, and children in every society and every culture. It brings us solace in the ordinary activities of daily life, and it's an indispensable adjunct to both our happiest and our most solemn occasions. It represents one of the most basic instincts in human beings. That's why it has played such a important role in every known civilization. And that's why it will continue to do so as far into the future as anyone can see. The only question is whether we want to limit access to music knowledge and skills to an elite few or whether we want to make them available to everyone to appreciate and enjoy. I hope that the answer is obvious.
I'm tired of excuses from school administrators trying to explain why their schools can't offer good music programs. And the excuse I'm most tired of is the claim that there is not enough time in the school day for music. That's nonsense. Lack of time is a pseudo-problem. It's a false issue. A lack of will is masquerading as a lack of time. There are excellent schools all around us that have no trouble finding time for music and can serve as models. If time is not a problem in school A, why should it be a problem in school B? Of all the resources necessary to run a school, time is the only resource that is allocated with absolute equality to every school everywhere.
Another frequent claim is that the schedule won't allow music instruction. That's equally absurd. Who's running our schools anyway? Is it the schedule, or is it educators? Is our highest priority the schedule, or is it the students? Should we begin with an arbitrary schedule and then try to fit in educational experiences if and when we can? Or should we begin by identifying what we want kids to know and be able to do and then figure out how to make that possible? Again, there are good schools everywhere that have no trouble in scheduling music. We have only to look around us.
When asked to cite their most memorable experiences in school, an extraordinary number of adults as well as students cite musical experiences. They typically describe the electrifying chill that flows up the spine during an exquisitely emotional performance, the uniquely close fellowship that develops with other students in an ensemble, the friendship and mentoring of a particular music teacher, a cherished opportunity to perform a solo, or the magnificent feeling of accomplishment one experiences after overcoming daunting challenges to achieve an ardently sought musical goal. Education is what we have left over when we have forgotten the things we learned in school. Treasured musical experiences are often among the most unforgettable events of our school years and, at the same time, they lay the groundwork for a continuous flow of pleasurable experiences throughout life. Music makes a difference in people's lives.
Perhaps the greatest threat to school music programs today comes from principals and other decision-makers who did not experience challenging and rewarding music programs themselves while in school. They don't realize what a good music program can do for a child, for a school, and for a community. It would be a terrible disservice to society, as well as to the individuals involved, to deprive yet another generation of educational and political leaders of the enormous satisfaction and joy that can come from participation in a high-quality music program.
Advocacy is an activity that music teachers have never sought to engage in but must nevertheless. Our most potent allies are the parents of our students, who are well positioned to bring effective pressure on elected decision-makers. In addition, we must mobilize all of our natural allies at every level in support of strong school music programs. These natural allies include other educators, amateur and professional artists, college and university professors, sympathetic politicians, and graduates of our programs, as well as every group and every individual who considers himself or herself a supporter of the arts.
In many places, the traditional emphasis on humanistic values in education has become badly distorted in recent years as the emphasis has shifted toward short-term, narrowly mechanical objectives. Too often schools have neglected important long-term goals in seeking to achieve fashionable short-term goals. It is not the central purpose of education, for example, to help the student to get a job. A broadly educated person will find a job, but a narrow focus on job training ignores the very skills that employers most desire: the ability to think clearly and the ability to communicate effectively. Employers want workers who are familiar with the five basic fields of study; they prefer to provide their own job-specific training. And the personal skills most valued by employers—creativity, flexibility, discipline, and the ability to work cooperatively with others—are all skills emphasized in music.
Neither is it the purpose of education to prepare students for the manufacture and marketing of consumer goods. Young people must not be treated merely as pawns on the gigantic chessboard of international economic competition. And it is certainly not the purpose of education to prepare students to pass standardized examinations. The larger, true purpose of education is the pursuit of truth and beauty, the development of human capacities, and the improvement of the quality of life. And nothing does more than music to contribute to that purpose. It is shortsighted and misguided to emphasize preparing students to earn a better living at the expense of preparing them to live a better life.
A nation is judged by posterity not by the strength of its army, nor by its trade surpluses and deficits, nor by its students' scores on standardized tests, but principally by its contributions to the arts and humanities. That has been true throughout history, and it has become even more true as we expand our potential for making our beautiful planet uninhabitable through pollution and war. It is the achievements of a civilization in the arts and humanities that remain when everything else is swept away by time.
Music is vitamin M. Music is a chocolate chip in the cookie of life. There is a magic about music. It enables us to express our noblest thoughts and feelings. It engages our imaginations. It provides us with unparalleled opportunities to assert our uniqueness. These are particularly important functions in a world increasingly dominated by electronic technology. Music is not merely an adornment of life; it is a basic manifestation of being human. In insisting that every student have access to a comprehensive, balanced, and sequential program of music study in school, we are merely seeking to give students in all schools the opportunities that are presently given to students in the best schools. A democratic society can settle for nothing less.