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 lives. Music 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.