Philosophy of Music Education

Philosophy of Music Education
A short paper in which I attempt to commit some of my foundational beliefs about music and music education to paper.

Music is a universal experience, one which is fundamental to, and inseparable from, human existence.  Providing children with musical education is not a luxury to be indulged in when resources permit, and foregone when they do not; rather, teaching our young people to create and experience music is our supreme responsibility and duty.  Music, unlike any other subject area, including other art forms, provides unique insight to otherwise unseen realities which deeply impact and inform the human condition.  Providing not just exposure and appreciation, but a working education in- and hands-on experience with- music, completes the ultimate goal of education; that of equipping the individual with the tools and strategies he or she requires to understand the world he or she is born into.  

The entire universe is in constant vibration.  Modern science confirms that at all levels of magnification, from the rotation of the galaxies and planets, to the very core of matter itself, the world of form in which humans exist exhibits cyclical behaviors analogous to the vibrations which produce sound, as well as to the rising and falling cycles evident in music’s inexplicable ability to “stir the soul”.  All physical forms undergo musical cycles.  From the rhythmic natures of our heartbeat and breathing, to the cycles of waking and sleeping, to the inexorable progression of seasons, to the tides and phases of the moon, there is not a single observable area of the created world which does not have a pulse!  

Music illustrates the divine interplay of opposing forces, which underlies the universal human experience of struggle and achievement, gain and loss, want and fulfillment, etc.  With its dichotomies of sound/silence, loud/soft, major/minor, fast/slow, etc., music literally enacts the dynamic balance of push-pull or “yin-yang” which is central to our very existence. Music flows, both out of, and into, the central reality of being human.  Music serves as a portal to the eternal, providing indescribable experiences of beauty for listener and performer.  Music creates positive, life-giving and sustaining connections, between humans and the source of all life, as well as between individuals.  At a level deeper than our typical notions of thought or understanding, music expresses the very essence and interconnectedness of all life.  

The study of music is a serious intellectual endeavor, on equal footing with all time-honored core academic areas, yet one which is unique and unlike any other academic discipline.  Music is not a “helpful supplement” to learning, but is a core subject unto itself, one that is necessary and vital to the complete development of the whole person.  Music provides a group experience unlike any other found in the school, or any other, setting.  In no other group situation is the cooperation and full participation of every individual so critical to the success of the entire endeavor as in music-making. 

When carefully chosen and skillfully taught by teachers who are themselves excellent musicians, music in the school setting can be performed at a very high level of proficiency and artistry, leading to transcendental experiences for the entire school community, as well as for its families and the greater community.  These types of “musical thrills” experiences are unavailable through any other means in the school setting, and typically only available to small, select groups outside the school setting.  School-age children are naturally curious about music and are instinctively driven to perform and experiment with it, learning music easily by ear, without the acquired inhibition of the “tin ear” so common in adults who have received little or no music education.  Spontaneous, “homemade” performances and compositions should be encouraged, as they are capable of producing beautiful and expressive music, and also facilitate the development of skills necessary to excel at higher-stakes, planned performances.  Kids naturally want to be excellent musicians and, given the tools, time and encouragement, they can be! All children instinctively crave challenges and music provides an unlimited number of them. There is no such thing as “complete mastery” in music; each new achievement brings with it an entire new world of possibilities.

Music must remain an integral component of any fully-functioning academic institution.  The greatest scientists, heads of state, philosophers, and educators throughout recorded history all give witness to the critical role of music in the full development of human potential in the educational setting.  A growing body of scientific research is providing more conclusive evidence of music’s positive effect on cognitive development, particularly in the area of spatial reasoning, but also in reading and social development.  In an increasingly fragmented and individualistic society, where classroom teachers are locked in battle with the iPod and GameBoy for the attention of the young mind, music stands out as perhaps our single greatest resource for fostering mental calm and clarity, attention span, self-discipline, cooperation, and collective achievement.  The preservation and advancement of our educational system, perhaps even our very social order, requires the inclusion of music education, not as an alternative, but as a necessary ingredient of the entire academic program.

            From Plato, who asserted in his Republic, that: “education in music is most sovereign”, to the ranks of Aristotle, St. Augustine, Charlemagne, Martin Luther, John Locke, Franklin D. Roosevelt,  Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela, the great minds of history have spoken clearly concerning music and the arts.  Respected thinkers and writers have consistently cited arts education as vital to the complete development of the human mind.  Science, mathematics, literature, physical training, visual art, and music are referenced by the great minds of history, and need to be seen today, not as stand-alone alternatives from which educators can pick and choose, but as interdependent, vital components of a complete, unbroken system, which addresses not only educational aims, but the full function and health of an orderly civilization.

            Today, we live in an age of globalism, competing for limited resources among both established and emerging economies, seeking to understand and coexist with diverse cultures, tasked ultimately with the preservation of our planet and the life it supports.  The role of technology in our current challenges is undeniable.  We have for some time understood the need for our educational system to develop minds which excel at technology, primarily through emphasis on mathematics and the physical sciences.  The temptation to accentuate and enhance math and science programs, even to the exclusion of other areas of curriculum, is great; however, history shows us that this is infeasible.  A baker cannot create bread by using more flour and omitting the yeast!   Moreover, science shows us ever more conclusively that music education, especially in early childhood, significantly enhances performance in the other academic areas.  The great figures of history believed it, the science we have come to revere is proving it:   The success formula for our schools is not “either-or”, it is necessarily “both-and”.

            Finally, if only to give kids a real-time, real-life activity in which groups of actual humans must work together, contributing, listening, sharing, and cooperating, we must continue making music with our young people.  The musical experience is universal; music provides deep insight to fundamental principles governing humanity and the created universe, not only to performers, but to listeners as well.  Music provides the opportunity for everyone to participate in the creative process, to play on a winning team, to experience the satisfaction of earned success through shared struggle.