Professor Emeritus, School of Music, The University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA
The call for more educational time for "the basics" in schools seems to be growing louder. Of course, most of us agree with this view. But what is considered "basic?" If the inclusion of instruction in music is to be among the basic subjects taught in school, music instruction must be shown to contribute to the general goals of education. Music in the school day can only be justified if the outcomes of such instruction form a part of the overall development sought for all students. What might music education contribute to this development? I will describe three of many possible reasons one might use to justify music's role in education. The first could be labeled cognitive, the second, cultural, and the third, experiential.
In the last decade we have heard much discussion about the benefits of music study to the development of skills and knowledge in subjects other than music; to spatial/temporal intelligence; to health and mental well being; and even to creativity (whatever definition one might want to give to this construct). I believe these reasons for music instruction in the schools are somewhat specious. Even the argument of the ubiquity of music in all societies does not convince me of the need for music instruction in our schools. There are many activities ubiquitous to all societies but we do not normally consider the study of them important for the general educational curriculum. And creativity is not limited to study in the arts. Creativity is coveted by all human inquiry.
So what will serve as a catalyst for enlightening the general public to consider the study of music basic to the school curriculum? First and foremost, I believe music study is basic to the curriculum because music is basic to the human brain. Music teachers immediately embraced the research that became known as the "Mozart Effect" as a means to show how important music instruction is to education. But the research is mixed and the rationale for music's value to other subjects taught in schools is misleading. Even the multiple intelligence theories so touted in recent years (and in earlier decades, by the way) may not be the best reasons for including music instruction as part of the basic curriculum in our schools.
One way to justify the teaching of music in schools (especially in the early years of schooling) is to view music activity (listening/performing) as the Rosetta stone of human communication. Both music and speech require the brain to organize acoustic patterns. Cultures require the brain to construct and interpret rules for using these patterns. Many of these music/speech rules are implicit yet critical to successful musical and linguistic communication.
There is a learning window for certain aspects of language development that opens at birth (or even before) and closes by around the age of ten. Most researchers agree that important language rules are learned by age ten. If the same learning window operates for music (which I believe is the case), the important musical rules are learned by that same age. In speech, practice begins soon after birth. For the human brain to learn music, the practice window must be opened early in life (before the learning window closes). Early music study provides the grounding for meaningful brain pattern organization and problem solving.
Language develops as the newborn child learns to organize abstract acoustic patterns. Language in the infant quickly develops a need to become referential. Since music does not need a referential component I have argued that it (music in its most basic form) develops a capability in the brain prior to language. By "music" I mean the human brain's organization of non-referential acoustic patterns. This brain activity begins shortly after birth, and if it is reinforced (as language is reinforced) it develops into a musical brain. But this musical brain is the same brain that is required to deal with all sorts of complex problems. Early training in musical "language," then, helps the brain learn to differentiate, organize, and order abstract acoustic patterns. The musical brain's ability to solve complex abstract problems efficiently and elegantly contributes to a basic goal of education. We expect our educational system to develop such cognitive processes. This is especially so in the primary grades.
In grades 6 to 12 the study of music takes on added dimensions. First, music study in the middle and upper grades relates more to social and cultural constructs. An important goal at this level is to develop skills and knowledge that allow students to explore and to develop a perspective about great accomplishments of men and women in society (past and present). This includes, but is not limited to music. The curriculum at this level includes studies in government, literature, sciences, mathematics, and so forth. Knowledge in a wide variety of disciplines is a hallmark of the educated person. Of course, music should be part of this literacy.
Second, and perhaps more important in the middle and high school years, is the value inherent in the process of music making, both in individual and group settings. The notion of "practice makes perfect" is valuable across the spectrum of human endeavor, but nowhere is it more transparent than in the realm of music. Teaching students that consistent application and concerted effort leads to improvement and understanding is the stock-in-trade of secondary school education. Further, in a group setting, the value of working to perform together well, to function as a well-oiled machine, to meet the goals of the individual and the group, is enormous. In this way, music leads to great self-fulfillment, a very important concept for schools to teach and students to learn by doing.
Since all human activity requires the ability to construct meaningful patterns in the brain, and since music is an important way to develop such abilities, music instruction should be basic to education. Music study can also contribute to cultural literacy and meaningful participation. For these reasons music education should be central to the school curriculum.