Monday, 30 October 2006

23: A Worthy Function for Music in Education

23: A Worthy Function for Music in Education

Robert Walker

The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Humans have two basic but essential needs: one is to keep us alive with enough strength to earn a living and look after our loved ones involving such things as food and clothing; the other concerns less tangible emotional and intellectual matters - viz., our mental living. Religion and music are easily the most important parts of our mental life. The ubiquity of music in our contemporary commercialized environment is testimony to the fact that music is possibly the most important thing in our life. Its function is to provide sound analogies to encapsulate our emotions, our feelings, our beliefs, our personality. We cannot exist without our mental life. In which case we cannot live without music.

There is an inevitable human need for some expressive form of communication which deals in over-arching matters of life: love, death, tragedy, religion, belief, happiness, sadness, melancholy, wars, famine, and so on. The structure of our brains is such that we demand answers to such cosmic questions as why are we here, where did we come from, why did this or that happen. This is where music comes into its own. It is a form of philosophical discourse which has no axioms, no logical arguments in the sense that language has, but yet it contains all the elements for our minds to engage in complex thoughts purely through the sounds of music.

So there is a good case for claiming that music is a natural and inevitable part of the evolution of humans everywhere. The fact that there is no known human culture without music is sure testimony to this. In our contemporary media-dominated society music is the central component in the profitability of the entertainment industry. Can we even imagine a movie without music? Movies sell as much for music and its ability to encapsulate key components of the story as anything. From Casablanca's "As time goes by" to Titanic's "Our love will go on", millions across the world know the power of music to evoke the deepest sense of who we are, what we know about being human, and life itself.

The popularity of Pop stars rises and falls with an intensity which is nothing less than illustrative of the power of music to affect people's lives almost instantly. Note how Madonna captivated the minds, and purchasing habits, of practically a whole generation of teen-age girls in the late 1980s. The power of Elvis's music has now turned into a religion, the centre of which is at his home in Memphis. On another level, no words can possibly convey the mental effect of hearing Beethoven's 9th Symphony performed in the ruins of a former Nazi concentration camp in Austria recently, and ending with no applause, just an overwhelming silence and a brain crammed with thoughts and images too powerful even to attempt to articulate. Mendelssohn's famous comment that music can convey meaning too powerful for words is only too true.

Music is clearly essential to humans. Of that there can be no doubt. And it occupies such a prominent place in our daily lives, through the various broadcasting media, recordings, in supermarkets, dentist's waiting rooms, elevators, aircraft, hotel lobbies, bars, even out on the streets, that there is virtually nowhere one can go without hearing music. With music so ubiquitous, so pervasive, and so universally prominent in all societies there arises the question of how it should be dealt with in education.

The first point to make is that music is essentially something we listen to; not necessarily do. The plain facts are that the minority perform music for the majority to listen to. There are in fact few cultures where everyone is a performer. The vast majority of humans spend their time listening to music, and it is the effects of that listening on our sentience as humans which contains the power of music.

In education we tend to see children performing music as the major educational goal: the school administrators are particularly pleased at a good concert where parents can be impressed, or at a successful tour overseas by the school choir, concert band, or orchestra. The reality in educational terms is that only a small proportion of the total school population is involved in such activities. A fact which raises the age old issue of whether we should focus on musical performance or developing good listening habits in our schools and of course feeds administrators with the notion that music is really only for the few who perform. It is this as much as anything which has pushed music to the fringes of education. We don't see mathematics in education as only for mathematicians, nor science as only for scientists for the obvious reason that we believe that everyone should learn about mathematics and science.

Plato and Aristotle discussed this matter 2,500 years ago when they argued about whether the Guardians, the sons of the elite leaders of society, should actually learn to play musical instruments as opposed to listening to music performed by the lower orders of Hellenic society. In 18th century England, the powerful Lord Chesterfield famously wrote a letter to his son, traveling in Italy, that under no circumstances was he to perform music, although he could listen to it.

The critical issue is to do with what we mean by an education in music. Learning to perform on an instrument is not necessarily the same thing as learning about music. In the same way, learning to recite formulae in mathematics or physics is not the same thing as learning about important concepts in mathematics or physics. An education should focus on conceptual understanding rather than peripheral skills. In music this means developing an understanding of the way music works on our senses, our emotions, and our intellect.

An education in music should concern the development of musical understanding, and particularly how music can affect our emotional and spiritual well-being. For performers in a choir or orchestra the effects of music are magical, but the reality is that less than 10% of all children take part in musical performance for many reasons. Most young people are not prepared to devote the time needed to perform well; nor to commit their time, money and effort in practicing. However, everyone likes to listen to music but not necessarily play music.

We have, then, a conundrum in music education. It is crucial to our lives and performing music gives one a wonderful insight into how music works on our sensibilities. Yet most children will never develop very far as performers. We know this well because we have been attempting to get all children to perform music in schools for at least half a century now, yet the numbers of school age performers inevitably drop to a meager 10% of the total population by the onset of puberty.

The most important thing that we can provide for the majority of children is to teach them how to listen intelligently, and with a growing sense of the power of music to symbolize our emotional sensibilities. Focusing so much on performance in music education, at the expense of developing sophisticated methods of teaching students to listen with intelligent involvement fails to address the demands of the majority of students with the result that most young people leave school with no idea at all how to listen to music, or what to listen for. They become immediate and unwitting fodder for the clever and seductive world of popular musical entertainment to exploit. The only freedom most young people have in this situation is the freedom to spend their money. They don't have the freedom to choose Bach instead of Britney because they have never been taught how to exercise such freedom.

Just imagine how our musical world would change if even a fraction of the amount of money young people spend on purchasing recordings of every new "pop" sensation was spent on recordings of, say, western art music, or of indigenous music from across the world, or of the traditional music of some ancient culture! It might even promote greater cross-cultural understanding among the instinctively egalitarian young, but an understanding that was based on intelligent listening to the other, and a desire to learn more about the complex ways in which music can express, and be an analogue to, enormously complex semantic capabilities of the human brain. To achieve such an end is a worthy function of an education in music.

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