To fully understand the importance of teaching music in the American school curriculum, one must look at the historical and philosophical groundwork that was laid over the three centuries. In pre-colonial America, it was said, somewhat apocryphally perhaps, that every home had three things: a bible, a musical instrument, and a copy of Shakespeare. Whether true of not, the importance of music in the lives of Americans was well established from the earliest times.
In pre-Colonial and Colonial times, Singing Schools were the primary form of music education. These utilitarian courses were designed to improve singing in church choirs, which had suffered in the New World. These schools were also a community and social activity that afforded young and old alike the opportunity to study two to three evenings a week. Courses were given on a circuit by a music supervisor who would travel between towns and congregations. Each course usually lasted around three months (Mark and Gary, 2007).
When Horace Mann organized the first public school in Boston, he advocated for the inclusion of music in the curriculum. Lowell Mason was hired as the first music supervisor in the Boston Public Schools in 1838. This was following the first Report on Music Education in America in 1837, the first time music was considered an academic subject. Mason was the first to adapt on a wide scale the methodologies of the Swiss educator Johann Pestalozzi. Pestalozzi’s methods focused on the moral, physical, and mental aspects of education and Mason adapted it to music education by: teaching sounds before signs; teaching children how to listen; focusing on one thing at a time and mastering it before moving on to the next skill; teaching performance first and the theory behind it later; and finally, teaching students to analyze and practice the elements of music for enhanced performances (Mark and Gary, 2007).
The Pestalozzi-influenced Mason pedagogy held sway throughout America through the Civil War. Following the Civil War, music education turned more pragmatic and an emphasis was placed on authentic learning. Music became systemized and was taught in graded courses, where both teachers and students were held accountable for their work on annual examinations. This led to a pedagogical controversy pitting the “sound before sign” methods of Mason against Joseph Bird’s (1850) emphasis on note reading.
By the 1880s, the National Education Association Department of Music Education was overseeing music in the schools. But reformers such as Frances Clark felt that the divided interests of the NEA would not properly serve the music education of American students. After several attempts, the Music Supervisors National Conference was formed in 1910. This organization would eventually become the Music Educators National Conference and, finally, the National Association for Music Education (Mark and Gary, 2007). Clark and his colleagues feared that undue attention to the study of music could result in something that was not music making at all, but merely the thinking of sounds in certain relations – that is the form of music without the spirit. Thus began the first notions of National Standards in Music Education.
With the formation of a national organization for music education, standardizing instruction became increasingly important. In the early 20th Century, music consisted of singing and reading, but there were concerns over losing expressive response to music. Additionally, music instruction was vulnerable to budget cuts, and until the conclusion of the First World War, qualified music teachers were often in short supply (Mark and Gary, 2007)
By the 1930s, high school enrollment was at an all-time high of 50% (up from only 4% in the 1890s) and music courses were being offered with academic credit. At this time, school music came to mean, “performing ensembles,” and a change began to take place. School administrators began to see music as an “extra” and it became increasingly more difficult for students to schedule music classes. Instrumental music was now an elective and a polarization of “music for all” versus an “elitist” viewpoint began to take shape, as not all students were able to afford the cost of being in school ensembles (Mark and Gary, 2007).
From the 1930s to the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, American Music Education was influenced by several trends in the educational system at large. The Progressive Education movement of the 1930s and 1940s found a strong curricular exponent in music. The purposeful activities of music were found to increase reading and math skills but opponents of the movement saw the method as being too random. Prior to World War II, the average school day consisted of seven to eight class periods but following the war, it fell to five to six per day. This trend led to a decrease in the effectiveness of Progressive Education as the demands of curricula met the reality of not enough space for electives (Mark and Gary, 2007).
The 1945 Harvard University report General Education in a Free Society was focused on how best to prepare Americans for citizenship in a post-totalitarian state world. The report found that the aim of education should be to prepare an individual to become an expert both in a vocation and in the general art of citizenship. This time period saw a huge rise in the study of Western Civilization and the Humanaties. And for the first time music is seen as part of the “common schooling” of those who would attend college (Mark and Gary, 2007).
The 1955 MENC publication Music in American Education stated that self-expression through group activity is of socializing value for good citizenship, self-assurance, self-realization, and respect. In addition, music satisfies aesthetic needs, enhances self-expression and belonging, and it helps students understand other peoples, cultures, and problems (Mark and Gary, 2007).
But the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 saw a drastic change in curricular design in the United States. A race to enhance science and math education was spearheaded by US Naval Admiral Human Rickover who recommended that “frills” be eliminated from the American educational system. The 1958 National Defense Act led to the reestablishment of traditional academic subjects where centralized curricular revisions replaced locally controlled efforts (Mark and Gary, 2007).
Also in 1958, Basic Concepts in Music Education was published by MENC. In addition to chapters on general educational philosophy, it included music education philosophies as well. In it, the esteemed music educator, Allen Britton articulated that music should be studied not because it supports other areas studied within the school, but for its own sake. He was a major proponent of the aesthetic music education philosophy that would guide music education policy for the next few decades well into the 1990s.
Since its inception as part of the National Education Association Department of Music, the National Association for Music Education has been at the forefront of music education policy in America. This exam is not a fitting place for a sufficient chronological and in-depth study of NAfME’s role in music education in America, but a few salient points do need to be made. It has been NAfME’s role to serve as guardian of music education policy, research, and advocacy for over one hundred years. During that time it should be noted that NAfME’s own policies have come under scrutiny and a “call from within” has usually resulted in broad educational reforms in music in this country. When society has deemed music a “frill,” NAfME was there to disagree. And when funding cuts hit programs across the country, NAfME set to work advocating for students’ rights to have music as part of a thorough public school education.
And so, as the effects of the 2002 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, “No Child Left Behind,” come to an end and the American educational system turns its attention toward Common Core Standards, music educators find themselves three-quarters of the way through Vision 2020: The Housewright Symposium on the Future of Music Education. In this 1999 event, music educators from across the nation came together to address issues that were first established at the Tanglewood Symposium in 1967. In The Housewright Declaration, the participants laid out their vision for the next twenty years of music education. In it, they stated,
We agree on the following:
All persons, regardless of age, cultural heritage, ability, venue, or financial circumstance deserve to participate fully in the best music experiences possible.
The integrity of music study must be preserved. Music educators must lead the development of meaningful music instruction and experience.
Time must be allotted for formal music study at all levels of instruction such that a comprehensive, sequential and standards based program of music instruction is made available.
All music has a place in the curriculum. Not only does the Western art tradition need to be preserved and disseminated, music educators also need to be aware of other music that people experience and be able to integrate it into classroom music instruction.
Music educators need to be proficient and knowledgeable concerning technological changes and advancements and be prepared to use all appropriate tools in advancing music study while recognizing the importance of people coming together to make and share music.
Music educators should involve the music industry, other agencies, individuals, and music institutions in improving the quality and quantity of music instruction. This should start within each local community by defining the appropriate role of these resources in teaching and learning.
The currently defined role of the music educator will expand as settings for music instruction proliferate. Professional music educators must provide a leadership role in coordinating music activities beyond the school setting to insure formal and informal curricular integration.
Recruiting prospective music teachers is a responsibility of many, including music educators. Potential teachers need to be drawn from diverse backgrounds, identified early, led to develop both teaching and musical abilities, and sustained through ongoing professional development. Also, alternative licensing should be explored in order to expand the number and variety of teachers available to those seeking music instruction.
Continuing research addressing all aspects of music activity needs to be supported including intellectual, emotional, and physical responses to music. Ancillary social results of music study also need exploration as well as specific studies to increase meaningful music listening.
Music making is an essential way in which learners come to know and understand music and music traditions. Music making should be broadly interpreted to be performing, composing, improvising, listening, and interpreting music notation.
Music educators must join with others in providing opportunities for meaningful music instruction for all people beginning at the earliest possible age and continuing throughout life.
Music educators must identify the barriers that impede the full actualization of any of the above and work to overcome them (Hinckley, 2000).
With the historical perspective established, a closer look at the philosophical frameworks upon which past policies were made will now be explored.
Since the time of Ancient Greece, philosophers have debated the importance of education and how best to implement it. The education of the whole person, the search for “truth” as the Greeks saw it, came through physical and mental preparation (Mark & Gary, 2007). Over the course of history, Western societies have struggled with balancing these two basic components of education, and the struggle continues today.
Formal education in the American tradition has struggled with the same issues over the past two centuries. From the earliest public schools in Boston, adhering to the teachings of Johann Pestalozzi, American education has fluctuated between the practical and the moral (Mark & Gary, 2007). Curricular decisions, and the implementation thereof, whether they are progressive, conservative, or innovative, have changed as the needs of American society have moved from those of an agrarian-based colony to that of a technologically advanced world power. But one must remember that these curricular decisions were made by the powerful few while affecting the education of all.
Education in America today is designed to produce highly qualified workers that can fulfill the needs of a corporation-based society, as exemplified by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (Varshavsky, 2011). The No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on standardized test scores, is giving way to a more holistic, albeit still testable, approach to education in America by way of the Common Core Standards. The underlying assumption here is that American students, in order to be competitive on a global scale, must not only be knowledgeable in core subject areas, but must also be creative and flexible enough in their thinking to adapt to a constantly shifting paradigm of global expectations. In short, we want our students to out-think and out-create our international competition.
That American society as a whole values corporate-driven ideals of education has yet to be determined, but there is no doubt that the current trend in educational reform has placed an emphasis on educating students in curricula that are designed to meet such needs. Music education, then, must not only align somewhere within the given model, but it must also prove to be an invaluable, indomitable force for educating our students within the given parameters of education today.
Music education has been dominated for the last forty years by the teachings of Bennett Reimer. Reimer’s approach places emphasis on the aesthetical, or emotionally reactive, value of music. “We get the feelings directly from the music – not from ideas about music, information about music, the vocabulary of music, facts about music, the history of music, cultural backgrounds of music, music theory, music philosophy, or any of the other associated learnings in the music education enterprise” [original emphasis] (Reimer, 2003, p. 95). Reimer acknowledges that different cultures, experiences, and other outside influences can, and do, impact our music experiences. However, he believes that those factors are secondary to the true nature of music. “But at root it [music] goes beyond such functions, immersing them [students] as one determining factor in the immediacy of sounds configured to be felt” [original emphasis] (Reimer, 2003, p. 95).
For years, music educators, myself included, have used the aesthetic value of music to justify its curricular importance. From Ancient Greece through the Progressive education movement in America in the early twentieth century, music educators tied music’s intrinsic value to other areas in order to justify its place among core subjects. “Character development, healthy leisure activities, and socialization, democratic values, and citizenship by participating in civic events and playing patriotic music were all consonant with progressive education goals” (Mark and Gary, 2007, p. 300). But the justification of music as a means by which other educational subjects might be learned is a logical fallacy: one does not justify something by making it part of something to which it does not belong.
In his seminal work Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education, Elliott sets out a philosophy based on an active participation in music making (Elliott, 1995). Yes, music has a parenthetical relationship with the aesthetical, but according to Elliott, true musicianship only comes through performance, whether in class, individually, or as part of a group performance on stage (Elliott, 1995). Moreover, music must become more than just the regurgitation of theoretical or historical facts. “In short, music education programs must not become just one more situation for the development of knowing-that” (Elliott, 1995, p. 260). In this regard, Reimer and Elliott would seem to agree. But it is Elliott’s praxial (or practical) approach to music that sets his philosophy at odds with that of Reimer.
Musicianship, as defined by Elliott, includes listenership, taking into consideration the passive and active roles of the musician and teacher in the creative/educational process (Elliott, 1995):
Musicianship is the key to achieving the values, aims, and goals of music education. Musicianship, which includes listenership, is a rich form of procedural knowledge that draws upon four other kinds of musical knowing in surrounding and supporting ways. Musicianship is context-sensitive, or situated: that is, the precise nature and content of musicianship differs from practice to practice, and musicianship develops through progressive musical problem solving in teaching-learning environments designed as close likenesses of real music cultures. (Elliott, 1995, p. 260)
Music is universal then, speaking to all cultures across the planet regardless of exposure to the Western idea of “classical music.” Children sing and dance without having to be taught. It is in the music classroom, however, that musicianship can be refined and advanced as the student progresses through a series of musical challenges (Elliott, 1995).
According to Elliott, musicianship “is not something given by nature to some children and not to others” (Elliott, 1995, p. 260). In other words, music is for everyone. Perhaps Elliott sums it up best when he says “the best music curriculum for the best music students is the best music curriculum for all music students” (Elliott, 1995, p. 260). The study of music, or rather the pursuit of musicianship through a music class, is a means in and of itself, that should not only benefit a selected few students; it should be available to all students.
So Why Should Music be Included in the American School Curriculum?
It is through the study of musicianship, whether it is in general music class, band, choir, or orchestra, that we can best prepare our students to be critical and creative thinkers in the next century. Through the application of musical challenges in the classroom, coupled with appropriate guidance, music teachers can guide their students to higher levels of creativity (Elliott, 1995). And this leads directly to appropriate assessments based on musicianship in the classroom. Students become active assessors in the creative process, and when the teacher acknowledges that assessment “is not a matter of two or three special events that occur outside the normal stream of teaching and learning,” (Elliott, 1995, p. 264) then the assessment of musicianship over time becomes the primary focus.
Perhaps Wane D. Bowman sums it up best in his essay Why Musical Performance:
[Musical performance] is a mode of action – of direct, bodily engagement in production of musical sound that offers a powerful and much-needed alternative to the pervasive consumer-orientation of most educational practice. It is an enactment of self- (or selves-) expression or self-educational practice. Because of its unique phenomenal characteristics, it can be highly motivating and rewarding, and its overt, productive nature makes it amenable to evaluation. (Bowman, 2005, p. 162)
It is not only the performance aspect that leads to the creativity needed for a 21st Century workforce, but performance is a part of a balanced music philosophy that will give our students the skills needed to be successful, not only in music but also in life. Music for the sake of music is difficult to justify in an era of economic downturn and tough curricular decisions; however music for the sake of musicianship and creativity in our students is an argument that is difficult to refute. By striking a balance of aesthetic and practical approaches to music in the classroom, we can better serve the needs of our students, schools, and society at large.
Azzara, C.D. (1993). Audiation-based improvisation techniques and elementary instrumental students’ music achievement. Journal of Research in Music Education, 41(4), 328-342.
Bechtel, B. (1980). Improvisation in early music. Music Educators Journal, 66(5), 109-112.
Bowman, W. D. (2005). Why music performance? Views praxial to performative. In D. J. Elliott (Ed.), Praxial Music Education: Reflections and dialogues (pp. 142-164). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Elliott, D. J. (1995). Music matters: A new philosophy of music education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hinckley, J. (2000). Vision 2020: The Housewright symposium on the future of music education. Reston, VA: NAfME.
Mark, M. L., & Gary, C. L. (2007). A history of American music education. (3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Reimer, B. (2003). A philosophy of music education: Advancing the vision. (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Varshavsky, T. (2011). Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Retrieved from http://www.p21.org