For a printable version with bibliography: Why Is Music Education Important?
Why Is Music Education Important?
Most people would say that the purpose of education is to prepare children for adult life – to give them the skills they need to survive. The big question is: what skills are necessary in order to survive? What are the “core” subjects that every child should know? Certainly math, reading, and writing – as a society we use these on a daily basis. History and science, while not necessarily used every day or in every field of work, are considered essential as well, because they give a person important information about how their world and society works. For a long period of history, music was included in this list of vital subjects as well. This is because the study of music also teaches us and lets us explore an essential part of life: the emotions. Music is a way of expressing oneself, and most people use this medium – consciously or unconsciously – all the time. Music, like reading, writing and arithmetic, is experienced almost every day and in almost every aspect of life. Music is an integral part of movies and TV shows, indicating or setting the story’s mood. Virtually every mall, elevator and restaurant has music playing in the background. Most families own at least one music playing device, and play music during parties, meals, cleaning, driving, and other activities. There is no doubt that music is an inescapable part of life. The question is, why? What makes music so important?
Music is a medium for personal expression. In his welcome address to the freshman parents at Boston Conservatory, Karl Paulnack talked about the Ancient Greeks’ views on music and its importance in curriculum. They believed that the study of music was about “invisible, internal, hidden objects,” and Paulnack goes on to say, “Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us” (Paulnack). There are plenty of examples throughout history that show how important music is to the human psyche. Throughout the Holocaust, there was music. In ghettos, concentration camps, and death camps, there were various kinds of music and musicians. Terezínstadt is the most famous for its musical scene. The Terezín ghetto was used as a “model camp” by the Nazis for propaganda – the Nazis used the ghetto to film movies deceiving the world as to how well they treated their Jewish prisoners, which gave the Terezín inmates more cultural freedom. However, life in the ghetto was still harsh, and about 33,500 people died in Terezínstadt during the holocaust (Fackler). Many more died after being transported to other camps. Many of the famous musicians and composers who were in Terezín, such as Viktor Ullmann or Hans Krása, died in gas chambers or death marches later in the war. However, while alive, these musicians and others managed to structure many musical activities in the ghetto, and Terezín maintained a strong musical community with choral groups, instrumental groups and opera. Later in his address, Karl Paulnack says, “Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning”” (Paulnack). When humanity is pushed to its limits of physical and emotional trauma, it turns to music. Humans show time and time again that music and the arts are as essential to survival as food and shelter.
Many other essential tools for life are taught through the arts as well. There is a movement called the “whole child approach,” which is about not just focusing on academics in school, but also health (emotional and physical), connecting to the community, and provides much more individualized help for children. Education should not just teach subjects like math, but also tools like critical thinking, logic, etc. Music, especially in an ensemble like a choir, can teach some of these essential life skills. In choir, students learn the value of working hard, being punctual, teamwork, learning from mistakes, and other related concepts. All of these can really help a student succeed in their life, no matter what life path they choose. Elliot W. Eisner, in his article “What can education learn from the arts about the practice of education?,” wrote about the value of the arts in curriculum, saying, “The arts teach students to act and judge in the absence of rule, to rely on feel, to pay attention to nuance, to act and appraise the consequences of one’s choices and to revise and then to make other choices” (Eisner). These are crucial skills for a person to have. In addition, students can explore other cultures and languages through music.
Like history, music is important because it teaches us about our past and our culture. Music can and has been used to powerful effect in human history. We already saw how it could lift people’s spirits in hard times, such as the music of the Holocaust. It could also be used for social change. In the 1960s and 70s, songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez expressed the feelings of a generation. When rap and hip-hop emerged as musical genres, they told the story of life in the slums. Hip-hop, born in the political injustice happening in the Bronx in the 1970s, is a genre that speaks to the repressed masses in society; a conduit for the feelings of the people and a possible motivator to change. In his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Jeff Chang (a well-known hip-hop scholar) writes, “In the Bronx’s new hierarchy of cool, the man with the records replaced the man with the colors” (Chang). It became more popular to be a DJ than in a gang. While gang violence and other crime didn’t stop, the culture was still changing, and music culture was making a difference. Music is a powerful tool for emotion and motivation: singing the national anthem often unites crowds, and playing a certain piece of music can bring a person to tears, laughter, or rage. It is important to educate students about the power of music and its influence on human history and thought.
Choral ensembles are a particularly good method of teaching music, since they are equal access and very cost effective. Everyone has a voice and a basic understanding of how to use it: speech. This makes voice a very inclusive instrument, as well as affordable – neither students nor the school needs to buy the instrument. Also, the voice is an instrument that can experience almost every aspect of music: pitch, rhythm, style, expression, languages, etc.