Music Education: a More Extended View (1)


"It is rare to find a teacher of music who has much acquaintance with the music of our own time,

rarer still if one includes rock, jazz and other popular forms; his own training,

for the reasons given, will have afforded him little opportunity of meeting it,

and once his training is completed there is little incentive (or, to be fair, time) for him to do so."

(Christoher Small. Music, Society, Education. London: 1977: 203)



Issues are at times raised and discussed that elicit immediate empathy. For instance, everybody agrees legislation and policy should aim at containing unemployment as much as possible. So, if we maintain there should be work for everybody, no one will surely object. Should it, however, be discovered we actually advocate forced labour – most people would hopefully rebel.


Very similar is the question of supporting music education in primary and secondary schools. Who could possibly be against it? And yet whenever the issue comes under discussion, one should not forget to ask the fundamental question: what “kind” of music education are we really talking about? It is crucial to ask, because I see little good in much of the music education usually promoted.


What Kind of Music of music Education?

Most problematic I consider education ignor
ing the undeniable fact that what we call “music” is something that the peoples of the world conceptualize in a wide range of different manners. Ethnomusicologists have been making it clear all along: 1. “music” (however defined) is no universal language, 2. musical systems are based on different principles, incompatible with one another. In other words, the music of Bali or that of the Waanga people of Australia is not conceived to please Europeans; just like European music was never meant to make sense to the Suya of Brazil or the Guaranì of Paraguay. If to some extent it does make some sense to some of those peoples – after centuries of colonialism and forced exposure to Western culture – that is, of course, quite another matter. That is why the question, “what kind of music education?” is so crucial. Will it be education that teaches to appreciate Bach and Beethoven, while ignoring contemporary Indonesian Gamelan, Kroncong and Dangdut? Will it be education that makes young people feel strangers in their own time, by brainwashing them to believe that jazz, popular song and rock are inferior forms of endeavour, if not downright commercial trash?


My position is that we should primarily avoid music education that smells of violins, pianos, harp or flute, inflicting on innocent children staff notation and fingerings: that is: teaching them music through the eye, rather than through the ear (more about that later). Even worse is that so many music educators would love to bring their students to make a symphony orchestra, the metaphor (so wrote Louis Mumford back in the 1950s) of our industrial hierarchical society. Is that what young people really need? Hardly. This is a sure way to alienate them from the soundscapes that are part of their everyday life. Let us give then instead electric guitars, midi keyboards, and computers, so that they can be on time with their own time. Later, some of them may develop a taste for the violin or the bassoon, for the music of other ages and cultures – but let us make it clear that they do not have to. What they have to do, is to live their own time, in their home environment. Just like it helps them be citizens of our time if they know something about of the technology that goes into a cell phone, by the same token it will help them just as much if they have an intellectual orientation on how and why the soundscapes they daily intercept have come to exist, how they change and evolve.

The Scope of Music Education

I view the scope of music education as twofold. First: help young people realize how large and diverse are the musics of the world. Second: help them experience more consciously (I am tempted to say, intellectually) the music they already know and enjoy, made for them, by artists sharing them the same contemporary life experience.

Young people primarily need to understand
why they like rock, techno, hip hop, or popular music at large, and not other genres. In other words, they need to discover the historical dimension and social functions of the sounds they are exposed to. Once a more conscious comprehension of that is achieved, the door is open to other kinds of experience. That is in a nutshell what Zoltan Kodály advocated almost a century ago: a music education rooted in the soundscape young people experience in their daily life (in rural Hungary, at the beginning of the XX century, that was Magyar folk song; today, of course, it no longer is). Later on, one can progressively expose children to less familiar styles and repertoires. Kodály, however, still relied on the erroneous assumption (still widely accepted today) that “music-making” equals “musical knowledge”. In reality there is a profound divide between “practical consciousness” (the individual's skills that help deal with particular situations, a kind of knowledge that can seldom be put into words) and “discursive consciousness” (the form of knowledge allowing us to verbalize or explain). It is this second one that is essential to education; because what is articulated through language can then be transmitted, can be the object of discussion, even of controversy.


Why is that? Simply because once we become “intellectual” about the music we instinctively relate to, the one Kodály called “the musical mother tongue”, then we stand on a platform that allows us to reach further, and approach music that is not part of our upbringing, made for other people, for other times or parts of the world. It is in a way like when at school we learn the grammar of our mother tongue that we already fluently use; we learn how it consists of verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc., and that knowledge makes it possible to approach other languages by recognizing in them similarities and differences.


Alien music can at first only be approached intellectually, not emotionally. How could we, Europeans, be emotional, at first contact, about Gagagu, developed in the Middle Ages for the Royal House of Japan. No one can be expected to relate to music conceived for people who live or lived other cultural realities from ours. And if by any chance an emotional reaction is triggered, it will probably be for the wrong reasons. Alien music first needs to engage our mind, before it reaches our heart (provided it is intended to carry an emotional import, which is not necessarily always the case).

It is through education and intellectual
focus that we progressively realize what a wonderful human achievement even music we find disagreeable often and embodies. And it is through an intellectual effort that we come to understand that, for instance, if the Navajo Indians never made songs resembling those by Schubert, that is not because they are stupid; but rather because their concept of music is fundamentally different from ours, and is meant to serve different aims.


Once we get that far, we can move on and the sky is the limit. Once we begin to understand why music we find incomprehensible exists, then we begin to appreciate the extent to which it corresponds to the needs it wishes to satisfy. Once that alertness is reached, the tools come by to find meaning in all facets of Western music; whether it be in Sigismondo d’India, Turnage, Miles Davis, Ned Rorem or Sakamoto. At that point the equipment is acquired to find meaning in repertoires and practices that lie beyond the boundaries of Western culture like, for instance, the Gamelans by Sumarsam. And once acquaintance is made with the concept that music is not necessarily made-up of discrete units manufactured once and for all, then one can approach traditions that do not express themselves through composers, pieces and masterpieces. But one cannot get there before comprehending why it comes so easy to enjoy the sounds that are part of our everyday life.


For the sake of clarity, I will still put it another way and say that it is not by exposing young people to Gregorian chant that we may help them to be intelligently musical in the world of today. On the contrary, if they are prematurely indoctrinated to absorb European music of the past, they are likely to become alienated from the music of their own time, and live in a musical horizon that is prevalently archaeological.


Music Education and Instrumental Practice


If the first avatar of European music education is to indoctrinate children into musical archaeology, the second is to equate music education with instrumental training. Learning how to sing or play is a wonderful experience in itself but – let us make no mistake about it – but it has little to do with music education “per se”. It is therefore unfortunate that the current understanding is that “music education” goes through active music making, instrumental or vocal. This is not at all what happens with literature. We do not study literature at school in order to later write poems, or act in a Shakespearean play, because the ability to write a short story or act does not necessarily spring out of a profound knowledge of literature. Nor does it happen with the fine arts. In order to understand art history we are not taught to paint or draw, simply because the ability to paint is in itself no indicator of profound knowledge in the fine arts. By the same token, the ability to sing, play or compose, is “per se” no indicator of a well-rounded knowledge of the internal workings of music or of its roles and significance in society.

It is actually not rare to meet artists who do not have much to say about art in general; even about their own. And that is OK. Artists do not need to be scholars. Indeed most great composers were not particularly intellectual. Beethoven, never mastered simple arithmetic and, to be sure, was not as knowledgeable in the history of his art as his contemporary Raphael Georg Kiesewetter,
author of pioneering musicological works and founder of the Gesellschaft für Musikfreunde in Vienna in 1812. Richard Wagner, certainly more well read than Beethoven, was not as knowledgeable about music theory as his contemporary, Hugo Riemann. Riemann was no composer at all, he was however the one who forged those mental categories (the functional theory of harmony) that, to this day, shape our technical understanding of what the great composers were able to do. That is why it is a fallacy to maintain that teaching kids how to play or sing “equals” giving them education in music.

To what extent it has become accepted in collective consciousness the idea that “learning about music” is something to be necessarily done with our fingers, or blowing into a pipe (accepted wisdom which in reality, is no wisdom at all
), is easy to verify. In fact, as soon as someone declares he or she is studying music, or even musicology, in no time the question arrives as to what instrument are they actually play. Of course, sometimes art historians also paint, literary critics may write poems, and musicologists may also perform or compose. However, no one has ever maintained than those who do are any better in their trade than those who do not. The historical paradox is that across the Middle Ages and up until the Renaissance “theoretical knowledge about music” was considered a nobler endeavour than practical music-making. Guido d’Arezzo famously wrote: “Great is the distance between theorists and practical musicians. The latter say, the former know, how music works. He who does what he does not understand deserves to be called an animal. (2) That was said around the year 1000 a.D. Indeed, like Leslie P. Hartley once wrote: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” Very differently indeed.


Learning Through the Eyes or Through the Ears

Another serious problem with the model conservatory training
(so often offered in a watered-down form even to amateurs), is how much it relies on learning music through the eyes, rather than through the ears. This is a nefarious practice, which is almost certain to make it nearly impossible to ever play by ear and so experience the joy of self-expression, or the joy of re-inventing on an instrument a song just heard on the radio, especially if we can give it a personal twist. One does not need to be a professional composer to have musical ideas and enjoy playing around with them.

How important it is learning music through hearing becomes evident, if we consider how most of what makes valuable the music of, say, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, etc., simply cannot be put on the musical staff. The habit of thinking sounds as discrete entities, corresponding to dots on paper, easily become a hindrance, a mental barrier, when we approach musics that do not rely on notation, or music like jazz that do not trely on prescriptive notation. There is of course much pleasure in reading a score and let it resound in our head through the so-called inner ear, no doubt about it. It is also beautiful to be able to play on an instrument pieces that were written with that instrument in mind. But it would be a disservice to indoctrinate children to believe that “real music”, “great music” is only that which can be put on paper; about 99% of the musics of the world do not work that way at all.



Music, the Cure-All

In Europe, where often education is organized at a state level, music education at times becomes a political issue, and discussions revolve around how much of it should be part of the curriculum. At that point pedagogues
boost their case as much as they can, and and maintain that music education is beneficial to all other forms of education. It fosters sociability, intelligence, mental openness, collaborative attitude, and what not. They stop short of saying it also maximizes sexual prowess. That is a bit of an overstatement, to say the least. If education in music could make such a difference, musicians would be the best representatives of the human species. Are they really? Aren't they just as envious, greedy, mischievous, jealous as most other people? Music does not make people better, and I can bring to the fore the example I know best: myself. I was a popular music arranger-composer in my younger years, then a musicologist. I think of myself as reasonably educated in matters musical. Am I better than the next persons. Hardly. I know for sure that nobody who knows me well would ever dare to say that they find in me a balanced personality.


Music education deserves to foster a
much broader and less dogmatic approach than it is usually offered. That is necessary because here, ultimately, we are not simply dealing with an art form. To call music “art” is almost offensive if we consider how what we call “music” is something much grater than art – it is “nature”, long before it becomes “culture”; and it is the crossroads where the sciences of nature and culture meet each other (mathematics, physics, psychology, neurology, linguistics, sociology, anthropology, aesthetics, etc.). It is therefore really too bad that while on the one hand literature and the fine arts are approached primarily as “culture” music, on the other, is approached mostly as a “craft”.

In sum, if
I were in a position to influence music education in our society I would make it clear that music (the social use of sound, “sonic actions” characterizing the very diverse human goups scattered across the planet) deserves serious consideration because it is part of culture; it is part of what anthropologists call the “expressive” realm of the sociocultural system and relates to all other realms of it. Education in music will not necessarily make us better human beings; it will just make us better aware of the astonishing complexity of the world we live in. (3)



(1) This invective was first presented at the National Conference on the Future of Music Education in Malta 26th-29th October 2010. In it I refer to my experiences of the practice of music education in the continental European countries I know best: Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy and France.

(2) Musicorum et cantorum magna est distantia. Isti dicunt, illi sciunt quae componit musica. Sed qui facit, quod non sapit, diffinitur bestia. (
Regulae rhythmicae).

(3) Did the study of music and the practice of it make Richard Wagner a decent and likeable human being? Apparently not. Did the study of medicine make Dr. Mengele in Nazi Germany a good person? No one could possibly say it did.


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