What music is for

Music is....

It’s not easy being a school music teacher. I don’t know this from personal experience, because all my teaching experience has been in universities and my own private studio. But as hard as I work, I’ve never experienced the daily stress of having to defend my own job against a board of education that believes a subject is only worth studying if it’s directly applicable to the needs of the job market.

This, I suppose, is why I keep seeing articles like “The Scientific Reasons We Should Teach Music To Kids in School” by Tom Barnes that stress the cognitive benefits of studying music, with the usual reasoning that doing so will improve students’ test scores and abilities in STEM subjects.

This reasoning is understandable. School music teachers are overworked, underpaid, disrespected, harangued. They’re overwhelmed with the expectation that they’re supposed to be administrators, fundraisers, and the moral exemplars of society in addition to the very challenging work of teaching music. They know that if there are budget cuts, music will be the first to go. Then art, then drama. (The football team is usually safe, for reasons of bread and circuses.)

But here’s the problem with touting the extramusical benefits of music. Saying children should study music because it’s “good for them” undermines the very thing music teachers do in their classrooms. Music is not a daily vitamin or a nasty vegetable that you have to eat before you can have ice cream. Music is worth studying because music is wonderful.

Music isn’t just wonderful. It’s sublime, profound, challenging, polarizing, life-changing. Brain scientists have demonstrated that music activates our pleasure circuits. Survivors of suicidal depression report that music has saved their livesMusic is our companion and our consolation. Music is how we communicate with the divine. Music accompanies every significant ritual of human experience. 

As William Congreve famously observed, “Musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” It hath a few other charms too, such as stirring the savage breast back up again.

Music is dangerous.

If it wasn’t, why would so many political and religious establishments seek to suppress it? Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a drama with a text, might have provoked Shostakovich’s initial problems with Stalin’s government with its immoral subject matter (plus a shockingly suggestive trombone solo in Act One), but his other works, even those with no text or story, were enough to get him officially censured in the sweeping cultural reforms of 1948.

Music is so dangerous that even a dissonant interval between two notes–the tritone–was considered so subversive by the medieval church that they called it the “devil in music.” If those musicians were allowed to use this diabolical interval, who knew what unholy Dionysian chaos they might wreak with it? After all, Orpheus’s lyre was powerful enough to persuade the guardians of the Underworld to let him cross the Styx. The implication is clear: music breaks rules. Music is above the law.

We musicians have always had a little problem with authority.

This being the case, is it really any wonder that those in authority are so quick to cut the music budget?

Official antipathy towards music–whether you’re going to call it philistinism, utilitarianism, or some other ism–is nothing new. People have been calling music superfluous and frivolous since the Dark Ages, when St. Basil the Great opined “Of useless arts, there is harp playing, dancing, flute playing, of which, when the operation ceases, the result disappears with it.” (All I can say is that St. Basil didn’t have Spotify.)

Music isn’t going to go away, no matter how much those in power try to suppress it. People will always write and play and listen to and talk about music. What will happen, what is already happening, is that the joy of making our own music will be the exclusive preserve of the middle and upper classes, i.e. the people who can afford to study privately, if it disappears from schools. Do we really want music to be a polite middle-class profession? We might be shocked that Mozart had to sit at the servants’ table in Salzburg, but it goes to show that music study wasn’t always for the moneyed class. Mozart was singing for his supper.

What I’d like to see–not instead of, but alongside the plea that music makes you smart, or competent, or more likely to exercise your right to vote, is a plea for music for its own sake. For the sake of all that is beautiful and good and truthful.

As I wrote in a recent essay, “Can we please stop pretending that music isn’t a matter of life and death?”

I stand by this statement. You can’t turn on your television for five minutes without learning of disaster, war, the violation of human rights, torture, epidemics, starvation, and the abandonment of hope. We can do almost nothing about any of it, except to give whatever money we have to the cause that horrifies us the most. But making music is one of the very, very few ways that human beings can do something. Music affords us a chance to create beauty in a world that is full of ugliness. If we expect today’s children to change the world, we must honour their right to make music.

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42 thoughts on “What music is for

  1. “Music affords us a chance to create beauty in a world that is full of ugliness”… Very true! Music is like therapy. Now a days, be it newspaper or TV, all they offer is depressing news. Music is like an escape from all this negativity.

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  2. Understandable. They have this “campaign” to keep music relevant in schools like, we’ll die without it. I know that isn’t necessarily the case (although I would) but music is worth it because it opens you up to something new. Btw, I also play cello. Not recently. I lost mine to airline fees and haven’t been able to play since ☹️ but I’ve bought an old student cello missing a bow and bridge. You know how important that bridge is! Lol 😝 It’s a pain when it breaks. I’ll have it fixed eventually. Cheaper than putting it on a plane. Next time I move I’m driving with it.

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  3. Like you, Miranda, I find that music ought to be integral to one’s life learning. I was launched into the world of music and art(s) at the age of 3: piano and ballet. Perhaps because my mother was schooled in music, a violinist. Less than a decade later, cello happened. For awhile, I swooned over the sounds of those strings; until my interest began to wane (and teenage angst took over). Still, I’m grateful to have been introduced to music in my youth, and applaud you for your activism and passion.

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  4. Great read. I agree, music is everwhere, and tremendously powerful. However, I do think music classes should be focused more on music discovery and the emotion of it. Less on the wording, terms, and history. Would you agree?

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Miranda,
    One of the BEST articles I have ever seen. I feel EXACTLY THE SAME WAY about MUSIC. Your comments on how music “saved people’s lives, ” yes! !
    I can attest, coming from an alcoholic home was difficult. I was the oldest and became the caregiver at a very young age. My Mom and Dad were unavailable. Music was my Serenity, Escape, and Comfort. It was my “go to place,”and helped me feel safe, like a Security Blanket. It kept me moving forward in a disfunctiona

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I appreciate you making the link between the subversive & dangerous nature of ‘music’ & the ever-coming budget cuts. I hadn’t made that connection before, but it seems so clear now! Surely telling this to kids, slyly, as if by accident, is the very way to get them to insist on learning music, yah??

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post! It’s often a shame to see subjects like music defended only to the extent that they improve stem test results. I’m glad you highlighted the subversive nature of music too.

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  8. I think you’ve hit on something crucial which is the degradation of education in the arts in general in the education system. If it’s not applicable to a standard 9-5 job it’s not worth teaching. We’re losing our understanding and appreciation for beauty as well as our ability to think deeply and question our society. This applies to the fine and the liberal arts. Great piece!

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  9. Excellent essay and I agree with what you say. The question should be put the other way around: when you have done all the utilitarian, practical things, when you have made money, when you have done the dishes and the laundry, where are you if you don’t have music?

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  10. “Music is how we communicate with the divine”… and with every other being, if I may venture. Music is the chorus that possesses the power to ring through every heart. Music is “The Divine.”

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  11. I had to undergo physical exercises during school which I had no interest in and there was no other options for me. I would have loved to study some musical instruments, or rather just study it rather than huff and puff in the school grounds

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