5 Examples of Music for Humane Values

Music and music education can yield a wide variety of humane values, including the following:

1. Brass for Africa: Music can engage, empower, and repair.

2. The North Jersey Home School Association Chorale is an award-winning chorus directed by Beth Prins. Prins teaches music as a vehicle for “doing good” in the world. For example, as part of their schedule of events when touring France one summer, they performed at special-needs schools, private boarding schools, juvenile detention centers, homeless shelters, and gave two charity concerts to raise money for the victims of a recent earthquake in Haiti. According to their personal testimonies, the singers make music for “civic goods.” In their minds, their voices embody their personal and collective sense of mutual care, community, and spirituality.

3. Jahmir Wallace and his trumpet provide a moving example of helping a person to make a life of personal and communal significance and meaningfulness.

4.  After graduating from the University of Toronto in the late 1990s, Mary Piercey chose to become a school and community music teacher in a small Inuit community on the western shore of Hudson Bay, in the Region of Canada called Nunavut. When Piercey arrived in Arviat, it was an impoverished, hopeless, drug-infested wasteland.  To make a long story short, and largely because of Piercey’s skillful and imaginative use of musics in the service of social activism and artistic citizenship, the people and the traditional culture of Arviat and the surrounding region began to heal and blossom.

5. Performing, composing, and improvising music—among other musical engagements—can assist people with physical, psychological, neurological, emotional, behavioral, and social challenges. One example of music making for well-being is found at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. In any given music therapy session at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter there is a revolving number of participants. While the unit usually consists of 30 men, the number of participants in any given session varies, depending on the men’s needs and desires. They are not forced to go to music therapy; they go because they want musical-communal interactions. The sessions focus on musical improvisation. Percussion and string instruments are placed in the center of a session room. When the men walk into a session, they are free to choose whatever instrument appeals to them on that given day. They sit down and, as they wait for the session to begin, they play their chosen instruments, reacquainting themselves with musical materials. Research supports the claim that the men experience transformative communal engagement, and a feeling of power and control over their own lives.

While some people may assume that the values experienced in each of these cases are extra-musical—values such as a sense of community, well-being, social healing, and spirituality—they are not. They are all MUSICAL values because they are products of personal and group music making and listening.

Distinguishing between “musical” and “extra-musical” values makes little sense. The eminent UCBerkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin argues that the musical/extra-musical divide yields more harm than good. He states: “music regarded as set off from the world is still in the world, doing worldly work…musical meaning [arises] out of relation between music and its many contexts.” To characterize these meanings (namely, all results from musical experiences) as “extra-musical” is as illogical as it is pretentious.

Relatedly, music education philosopher Wayne Bowman states that to distinguish between musical and extra-musical value misses the mark entirely. All values, states Bowman, are functions of “the differences they make: the ways they enable people to thrive.” And whether or not music does achieve this potential depends on the ways it is experienced. We agree with Bowman when he says that music does not automatically “make people smarter, or more sensitive, or more perceptive, or better citizens.” It all depends. It depends on so many variables, too numerous to mention here.

Musics are a hub of social, emotional, personal, and worldly interactions. Any values we derive from or experience through music occur because we engage in and feel the results/benefits of music making and listening. In other words, “we make it true” that one or more musical values happen in/to us when we participate in musics.

5 reasons to advocate carefully for music education

Peter Greene’s blog post—Stop “Defending” Music Education (6/11/2015)—has been floating in the blogosphere for a long time. Some people “Like it,” others don’t, and some don’t read it carefully.

The gist of Greene’s argument is not that music educators should stop defending music education. He’s arguing that we should stop defending what we do by “touting the test-taking benefits of music education, defending music as a great tool for raising test scores and making students smarter.” In the end, says Greene: Don’t advocate like this!

We agree—which doesn’t mean we agree with everything he says in his blog. Some of his points are right on target, but some need deeper probing.

For now, we’ll spotlight 5 issues and/or mistakes that some music educators overlook when they automatically believe “pop” advocacy claims and/or disagree with Greene’s main point. But before explaining these issues, let’s review some obvious points.

In American schooling, literacy and numeracy, and standardized tests of math and reading, are highly valued, very often at the expense of other aspects of education. The message that some music teachers take from these facts is that if we want our music programs to survive, then we should surrender to educational policymakers, which means telling parents and administrators what they want to hear (“whatever works”) like “music raises math and reading scores,” “music boosts the brain,” or any other non-musical “added-value gains.” So, many music teachers use the “whatever works” strategy to support and save their music programs.

We understand why teachers feel this way, but we don’t support these assumptions and actions. Here’s why:

1. There is NOT a critical mass of excellent research that supports claims that music raises math and reading scores, or that music boosts the brain, etc. Scholars who’ve studied possible links between music and different forms of cognitive achievement for 20, or 30+ years haven’t developed anything approaching a consensus on these issues.

So if you’re a teacher who makes “added-value” claims, be ready for one of two results:

(a) Someday, a parent or administrator will challenge you to produce solid evidence to support your claims. If you haven’t spent a lot of time studying research, good luck defending your claims. If you have, you’ll find out that nobody knows for sure—not even close.

(b) Someday, an administrator might believe you when you say that music raises math and reading test scores. If so, s/he may start evaluating your music students based on their math and reading scores, not on their musical achievements. And s/he will start evaluating you on your students’ scores.

As we mentioned in a previous post, we have many school music-teacher colleagues in New York City and beyond who are being assessed on their students’ test scores in math and reading, and so are their students. If you decide to defend your music program with empty claims about the non-musical benefits of music, this could easily “kill the music” in your music program.

So let’s be very careful what we claim and wish for, which is Peter Greene’s point, too. Claiming that music “makes students smarter,” or better at math or literacy, could produce negative outcomes for music teachers.

2. A big issue many teachers fail to think about is this: What do advocates mean when they say “music” raises math and reading scores, or “music” boosts your brain? Do they mean Jay Z’s hip-hop music boosts your brain? Or do they mean West African drumming, Philip Glass’s minimalist’s pieces, or Shakuhachi flute playing increase cognitive functioning? Maybe they mean that kids who play Holst’s First Suite in Eb for Military Band—or Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, or sing “O Music, Sweet Music,” or play “Twinkle, Twinkle”—will get better math scores. Or maybe they mean kids will develop better language skills if they listen to Taylor Swift’s songs, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “Music” is hugely varied, which is another reason why researchers don’t know whether or not “music” has specific non-musical benefits.

For example, is there any solid research that demonstrates there is a one-to-one causal relationship between playing or listening to “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” and (a) a significant increase in (say) all 8-year-old boys’ math scores in Los Angeles (or any place), or (b) marginal improvements in all adolescents’ listening abilities in Harlem, or anywhere else? No. There is absolutely no valid and reliable research that indicates or “proves” any such claims. If you don’t believe us, read these researchers, who’ve spent their lives studying such things: Glenn Schellenberg, Ellen Winner, and Eugenia Costa-Giomi.

3. The eminent British music scholar Susan Hallam also questions the relationship between music and mathematical abilities. She asks: What math? All math? Specific mathematical principles? Geometry? Calculus?

4. One variable that people tend to omit when they talk about “music and the brain,” or “music raises academic scores,” is that TEACHERS play a huge role in whether or not music students succeed musically, or whether music motivates them to achieve more in school and life. A great—an effective, educative, and ethical—teacher, who is also musical, may improve students’ lives. But s/he can’t claim that there’s a causal relationship between her music teaching and better academic achievement because there’s far too many variables involved in students’ lives.

5. Do you = your brain? No. Do scientists know everything there is to know about the human brain? No.

Neuroscientists aren’t even close to understanding everything about the brain. Scientists’ current knowledge of the brain is extremely incomplete. Imagine that the brain = Mt. Everest. From this perspective, the majority of scientists argue that our present understanding of the brain is only in the foothills of Everest. Scholars aren’t even close to the summit.

As neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran explains, the brain “is the most complexly organized structure in the universe.” The brain contains 100 billion nerve cells or “neurons” that engage in “something like 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons” all the time, which means the brain is entirely capable of making and maintaining about 100 trillion synaptical connections. Stated another way, “the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity … exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe.”

If each person is unique, and if it’s true that the current population of our planet is about 7 billion people, is it likely that today’s scientists know enough about the brain to be sure that every American adolescent hears, feels, interprets, and values Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst, or “If I Had Hammer,” in the same way? No.

Takeaway message: The next time you read an advocacy blog that says music boots the brain, or that music is good because it stimulates the right brain, or music increases math or literacy skills, it’s nonsense. Music is processed throughout the brain, the body, and the mind. Our experiences of music making and listening result from our unique conscious (and nonconscious) interactions with the world. Such interactions are extremely complex.

Summing up, scientists simply don’t know exactly how the brain functions. Accordingly, it’s dangerous to advocate for music education using music-and-math, and music-and-brain claims. However, we do know why music is valuable for its own sake—for the “goods” of actively engaging in music making and listening, as we explain in MM2 and elsewhere.

How old is music? Why ask?

Raymond MacDonald, an eminent music psychologist, asserts a widespread belief: “We are all musical. Every human being has a biological, social, and cultural guarantee of musicianship.” Music “is a universal behavior,” writes ethnomusicologist Alan Merriam. Ethnomusicologist John Blacking agrees: “Every known human society has what trained musicologists would recognize as music.” Is there any evidence that supports these views? If so, is it reasonable to say that music teaching and learning—in the most fundamental, non-formal and informal senses—has existed for an extremely long period of time?

Some archeologists believe that the oldest musical artifacts are stone percussion instruments found in Sweden, southern Africa, Kenya, Vietnam, China, and the Bolivian Andes, all of which are at least 40,000 years old. Others scholars say: “the earliest unambiguously musical artifacts identified to date are bone and mammoth-tusk ivory pipes dated to around 40,000 BP [40,000 calendar years ago, during the interval of the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition] found at Hohle Fels in southern Germany.” But Ian Cross, a distinguished Professor of Music at Cambridge University, draws on more recent research, which indicates that the German ivory pipes predate “almost all known visual art, and in any case a capacity for musicality (most likely vocal) would predate the construction of a sophisticated musical artifact such as a pipe, probably by a considerable period.

The Divje Babe flute, made from the femur bone of an extinct European bear, was uncovered in a Neanderthal burial site in Slovenia. Although some archeologists question whether the Divje Babe is really a flute, others believe it is and cite evidence that it’s somewhere around 45,000 and 82,000 years old. If it’s authentic, this Neanderthal instrument would be remarkable because it strongly suggests that music making is not only a universal characteristic of Homo sapiens sapiens (the technical term for modern human beings), but “music making may be a characteristic of the entire genus Homo.”

In early American, African, and Polynesian cultures, researchers document that rattles, drums, and other percussive instruments were part of the fabric of every day life (see MM2, Chapter 3). This strongly suggests that music-like activities were already part of the social-cultural practices of our ancient human ancestors before they moved out of their original African habitats. And even before any instruments were made and played, it’s reasonable to argue (as David Huron, Ian Cross, and other scholars do) that some kind of music-like vocalizing or “singing” existed 150,000 to 250,000 years ago. All this evidence (see MM2, Chapter 3) supports a major conclusion: “the great antiquity of music satisfies the most basic requirement for any evolutionary argument. Evolu­tion proceeds at a very slow pace, so nearly all adaptations must be extremely old. Music making satisfies this condition.

What does this say about the values of music making and listening, and, therefore, the values of music teaching and learning in the most fundamental senses? It seems fair to say that human beings haven’t been making and listening to music for thousands of years to raise math and reading scores.

Many scholars, including Laurel Trainor, Susan Hallam, and Robert Zatorre, use a massive amount of research from a wide range of fields to argue that music making and listening are immediate, embodied, and visceral experiences. These experiences provided our ancestors with the means to negotiate change together, as communities, and maintain essential group bonds and social practices. So music acted then, and acts today, as “an affiliative and non-conflictual means of interaction.” As ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl says, one of music’s functions across cultures is “to support the integrity of individual social groups.” Implicit in the latter is the fact that music is a communicative medium and has a significant role in “minimizing within-group conflict [and] … in collaboratively establishing a degree of social equilibrium.” Put another way, music qualifies as an adaptive human trait because musical actions are “optimal for the management of situations of social uncertainty [and] … collaboratively establishing a degree of social equilibrium.”

But also, as we know from contemporary research in music psychology and neuroscience, all kinds of music can arouse and express a wide-range of positive emotions, including joy, contentment, and a sense of personal meaningfulness. If anyone doubts that these experiences were not possible for early humans to feel, then a very recent field of research called bioarcheology provides considerable evidence to the contrary.

One take away message is this: Today, music making in small and large groups, in styles of all kinds, can—if taught and learned effectively and ethically—provide the same essential values that sustained and motivated our ancestors: social bonding, social wellness, positive emotional experiences, and human flourishing of many kinds (see MM2, Chapters 1 and 2).

What is music? Why ask? Who cares?

Why do music teachers need to think carefully about what music is? Can’t we stop “thinking” and just teach music?

Music is conceptually, culturally, emotionally, and politically complex, ambiguous, and ever-changing. This is why philosophers call terms like music “essentially contested concepts.” Contested concepts are culturally situated and value-laden ideas that resist conclusive definitions and consensus. So, if something is ever-changing, we need to keep up with the times and recognize how “it” has morphed, adapted, hybridized, evolved, and so forth. Especially, if we’re going to teach “it.”

And when we think internally or make public statements that speak about a contested concept such as “music,” it will always be open to a wide range of individual and group interpretations.

Complicating matters further, thoughts and actions are intimately and inextricably linked; our assumptions, beliefs, mindsets, and interpretations inform and drive our actions, and our actions feed back to and have an impact on our assumptions and beliefs. Every teaching-learning decision and action we carry out before, during, and after we interact with students is guided by what we assume, believe, or think about why, what, how, where, and when we do what we do, and the people we are doing it with and for.

Here’s one take-away message: If we want to teach as well-prepared, effective, educative, and ethical school or community music educators, we must think about the who, why, what, how, where, whether, and when of music teaching and learning, as well as how to implement these concepts in action.

So, back to the question, what is music? Here is one very popular answer we hear from our music education students: “Music is what I think it is!” This bold declaration substitutes an opinion for a critically reasoned and justified answer. Some people think that music is an extremely personal “thing,” and say, “If it’s music to you, great. If not, that’s your problem.” So, what’s wrong with conceptualizing music this way?

“In my opinion” statements pop up every day: “I don’t care what you think; I have a right to my own opinion!” Is this true? Yes and no. In a democratic society, everyone has a legal right to state his or her opinion(s). But this doesn’t mean everyone has an “epistemic right” to an opinion. An epistemic right is the right to believe (or not) a certain position or set of beliefs.  To have this right, we need to earn it by justifying our beliefs with a logical argument and supporting evidence. If we can’t defend our beliefs with solid reasons, we should give them up, or admit that we don’t have a sufficient defense. If we refuse, then we’ve abandoned the realm of logical thinking. As educators and community music facilitators, we have a professional and ethical duty to develop informed beliefs, scrutinize opinions, and challenge people—like a principal who says, “Music education is only for the talented”—who make claims based on nothing more than “I have a right to my opinion.”

This brings us to a difference between opinion-based thinking and critical reflection. An opinion is often nothing more than a “gut feeling.” People who say, “My opinion is just as good as anyone’s opinion” make a serious mistake. They fail to understand that some answers to important questions are more reasonable and logical than others, because statements can be evaluated as logically defensible or not according to the quality of the reasoning and evidence supplied. Opinion-based thinking assumes wrongly that there are no criteria for assessing a debate, dialogue, or argument as reasonable and valid or not. Philosopher John Shand calls opinion-based thinking “intellectual nihilism,” because trusting opinions overlooks our ability to reason our way to good decisions about what it is best to think and do.

As we say in MM2, opinions aren’t too helpful due to their subjective nature and the fact that they don’t establish the solid intellectual and ethical starting points we need to construct a reasonable concept of and curricula for music. When people claim the natures of music are a completely personal or subjective matter, then they’ve left planet Earth for a fairyland where nobody thinks carefully and everything is smoke and mirrors. Good luck with that, especially if you want to be an educative and effective music educator or community music facilitator.

But before moving on, let’s think again about “music is what I think it is,” because to dismiss this as mere opinion may belittle the holder of that view. Philosopher John Corvino points out that making such a statement may be an act of humility. On the other hand, says Corvino, saying this “can have pernicious effects: it leads to a kind of wishy-washiness, wherein one refrains from standing up for one’s convictions.” Conceptualizing music is an ethical process, which is also practical because careful, critical thinking helps us decide what we do and what we don’t do within music teaching-and-learning.

Now, imagine overhearing this dialogue between a student and teacher.

Student: “Adele is my favorite. Can we sing ‘Someone like you’ in choir? Here is the music video. Isn’t it awesome?”

Teacher: “Well, Adele’s singing may be music to you, but in my opinion it’s not. So, we won’t be singing it.”

How might the student react or feel? It’s very possible that the teacher’s own thinking (or value-system, and, therefore, her curricular decisions) might cause her student to feel badly, which is not what thoughtful and caring teachers do. So, aside from the fact that “music is what I think it is” is not a logical and evidence-based—i.e., professional—way to construct a concept of music, it’s not a kind, respectful, or “care-full” thing to teach.

Please do not misunderstand us. We’re not saying that music teachers should necessarily teach Adele or Beyonce anymore than they should be teaching Bach, Mozart, West African drumming, taiko drumming, and so forth. What we’re suggesting is that the consequences of our answers to “what is music?” matter. Answers to this question not only mirror a teacher’s value system, they also impact whether or not teachers teach effectively and comprehensively, and affect their students’ sense of self and joy in learning and doing music.

To train or educate, that is the question

Why should we care about distinctions between “education” and “training”? Philosopher Peter Rickman gives important reasons: “A father is supposed to have said: ‘If my daughter told me she was getting sex education in school I’d be pleased. If she told me she got sex training I’d go straight to the police.’” Rickman continues by explaining the difference inherent in these concepts: “Training is about practice, about skill, about learning how to do things. Education is about fostering the mind, by encouraging it to think independently and introducing it to knowledge of the physical and cultural world. It’s about theory, understanding, and a sense of values. There is, of course, some overlap. Practice may require some theory and education may require some skills.” Consider all the fields where training is important: medicine, law, library sciences, all fields of research, biochemical engineering, the fine and performing arts, and teaching. Without skill-development, where would the do-ers of these fields be? But, consider the opposite: Can these fields move forward, advance in creative ways, or be ethical endeavors without education?

Rickman gives us a practical example: the study of history should be understood “not just as a listing of dates but of how things happen in time and why things turned out as they did and produced our present. One of the questions underlying a historical approach is whether there is any pattern in history, any meaning to be discerned, or just one damned thing after another, a tale told by an idiot … What is significant; what is causally effective in the passage of events. The answers divide idealists and materialists, religious believers and skeptics. We further need to sharpen our critical tools. What constitutes good evidence and how can it be tested? Can value judgments be avoided and if not how are they to be used?” So, yes, the skills of doing historical analysis are crucial, but critical reflection, thoughtfulness, understanding the past from multiple perspectives or, better stated, having an education in/with/through history, is equally if not more important that the skills needed for historical inquiry.

So, how might we understand the difference between music education and music training?

In MM2, we make the distinction this way. When a music teacher overemphasizes musical skill development at the expense of educational matters, then music “learning” is reduced to training students’ technical, notational, and aural skills, or stuffing learners’ heads with abstract concepts about music. In such cases, music training becomes purely subject-centered, rather than a continuous and harmonious process of integrating learner-and -subject experiences, which is what education includes, and much, much more besides. Training, says Peter Abbs, “invariably involves a narrowing down of consciousness to master certain techniques or skills.” Such skills, according to Abbs, “are known in advance and can be unambiguously imparted by the trainer and assimilated by the learner. What is transmitted is functional and predetermined, a set of skills matching a set of operations.”

Training, says Wayne Bowman, transmits skills related tightly to perpetuating the status quo: “it seeks to shape behaviors to pre-specified ends. Education, on the other hand, involves ‘an opening out of the mind that transcends detail and skill and whose movement cannot be predicted.’” What education should do is take the student “beyond the status quo into what is not fully known, fully comprehended, fully formalized.”

Returning to Rickman, “educational establishments are rightly and necessarily engaged in training, but it is not enough to pour information into receptive minds to meet the ideals of education. Of course we need skills and information but we also need – and this is of paramount importance – human beings who have learned to think, make judgments, appreciate the beautiful and the good. We need not only experts in choosing means, but people educated to decide on their goals. So to replace education by training is to threaten the human future.”

How do we balance the distinction between education and training within music teaching-and-learning? We might begin by developing and advocating a concept of music education that bridges the gap between pure idealism and pure functionalism. Although “music education” has come to mean many things (see MM2), the essence of it suggests that our efforts ought to focus on the full development of people in/with/through musics. Music education seeks to develop students as persons rather than music “producers,” as we explain more fully in our article, “Music, personhood, and eudaimonia: Implications for educative and ethical music education.”  As we described in detail in MM2, and as Clive Beck reiterates, education is for life: education ought to be conceived for life as a whole, not just for one aspect of life such as work, or schooling. These thoughts point us toward more realistic perspectives on and the potentially transformative purposes of music education.



Educational “Reform” Measures the Wrong Things

Steven Nelson (via Diane Ravitch), Head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, makes extremely important points when he says that so-called Educational “Reform” (e.g., Common Core “Standards”) is not intended to make deep and lasting improvements in education, but to “measure” students and accumulate “data” for the purposes of deciding the amount of funding schools will get and to make it easy for huge Corporations (e.g., Pearson) and Wall Street investors to reap huge profits:

“It is not coincidental that the education policy and reform business is highly profitable. Public education is estimated to be a $600-700 billion market. Those who drive the measuring and testing industry are first in line at the trough. Pearson Publishing, for example, has its greedy tentacles in nearly every school district in America. All the iterations of reform—No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and, more recently, the Common Core— are driven by (and driving) the collection and interpretation of data.”

So it’s not only that “what gets tested [using high-stakes tests] is what gets taught,” it’s “what makes money for corporations and investors is what gets taught.”

Because music education has no immediate, short-term, hard-currency profits or products that narrowly educated business people and policymakers can measure—music is often eliminated to make room in the curriculum for math and literacy test prep that’s not “educational,” because standardized test scores are neither valid nor reliable indicators of deep mathematical and literary understanding. Or anything else.

Well-educated, experienced, and ethical teachers, says Diane Ravitch, “seek development, not accountability. What matters most cannot be measured.”

Nelson puts it this way: “Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors. This simple statement succinctly characterizes why the American education system continues beating its head against the wall.”

The same goes for music education. It’s exceedingly important for music teachers—and NAfME advocates—to keep in mind that “reform” policies were not developed by expert educational researchers. They were initially developed by economists and corporate employees who conceive education as a business; instruction as input, output; students as widgets. These business-based (e.g., Pearson) “educationalists” are not well-educated assessment experts—not even close.

Not surprisingly, then, reform policies have done irreparable harm to students, parents, and school systems across the U.S., and to public school music teaching and learning at all levels.

As music educators know, the irreparable harm of “reform” includes a national assault on arts education that’s resulted in the elimination of countless excellent school music programs and expert and dedicated music educators.

Therefore, as well as advocating for the intrinsic values of music making and listening of all kinds, it’s equally important that music educators join the ranks of thoughtful scholars, teachers, and parents who are resisting reform efforts, boycotting testing, and fighting for holistic curricula.

Music will become a central component in every child’s education if and only if public stakeholders push back hard against undemocratic corporations, politicians, and policies. Music educators must help other educators break free from narrow, ill-conceived concepts of education such as Common Core.

Let’s join and support perceptive, courageous, and well-informed parents, teachers, testing experts, and scholars, and the Badass Teachers Association who have valid reasons for being anti-testing and anti-Common Core Standards; people like Fred Smith, a veteran testing expert who worked for the New York City Board of Education. Smith warns parents that Pearson will be administering field tests in the schools in June. He provides a list of schools where the field tests will be given. He urges parents to opt their children out of the field tests.

The opt out movement is proving to be the most powerful tool that parents have against the whole agenda of test-and-punish “reform” that is being foisted on children and schools, benefiting no one but the testing industry.

As Diane Ravitch reports: “Long Island is the national hotbed for opt outs. It is a model for the nation. Parents are organized and active; they have the support of many principals and superintendents.” Their message is: “We are taking back our schools.”

Sadly, the music education profession has a long and destructive history of jumping into bed with every new state and federal “educational” policy that comes down the road (e.g., NCLB, Common Core)—without first analyzing and anticipating the potentially harmful consequences these policies will have for music education. Too many music education advocates are obedient followers, not reflective and wise leaders. NCLB didn’t result in the addition of more and better school music programs, and neither will Common Core. So, why is NAfME supporting Common Core? It might make some sense in the immediate political environment, but not in any truly educational sense.

Nelson’s last points are equally applicable to music education:

“After nearly 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced of this simple statement: ‘Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors’ is at the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave.

“Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

“Measuring the right things is more complicated and less profitable. But if we measured, even if only in our hearts, the things that we should truly value (creativity, joy, physical and emotional health, self-confidence, humor, compassion, integrity, originality, skepticism, critical capacities), we would engage in a very different set of behaviors” among which he includes music—“reading for pleasure, boisterous discussions, group projects, painting, discovery . . .music, cooperation rather than competition.”


The Activity Gap

Kudos and congratulations go to The Atlantic writer Alia Wong. In her article “The Activity Gap,” Wong rightly analyzes many of the issues we find in public schooling today, particularly social inequalities that disrupt students’ equity and access to a quality education. Wong writes: “Income-based differences in extracurricular participation are on the rise, and these differences greatly affect later outcomes. This disparity exacerbates the already-growing income achievement gap that has kept poor children behind in school and later in life. While upper- and middle-class students have become more active in school clubs and sports teams over the past four decades, their working-class peers ‘have become increasingly disengaged and disconnected’…”

While we agree with this author in many ways, may we respectfully suggest that the arts, physical education, etc, should not merely be “extracurricular.” They should be a regular part of daily school life for all children. This was the case until NCLB and Common Core were born and enforced. Because of their narrow concern for testing math and literacy, schools, through misguided polices, have made the arts and other “soft” programs inaccessible for millions of students. And they have led to the termination of hundreds of school music, visual arts, and physical education teachers. Cost-cutting is what these policies are really about, not education.

If we’re supposed to be living in a democracy, which includes equal educational opportunities–through public education–for all children, then the idea of “extracurricular” programs for a limited number of kids is fundamentally undemocratic, no?

It astonishes us that United States policymakers fail to grasp the obvious: ALL students in this democracy deserve and would benefit in many ways from equal access to balanced school curricula for the whole child, which includes equal access to physical education, arts education (etc.) during school hours (not simply after school). And here’s a related issue. Try learning to play or sing music expressively, or learning the techniques and strategies of basketball. We’re not talking about becoming a pro. We’re talking about becoming a competent music maker, etc. If administrators and policymakers actually did these things, they’d quickly realize that learning to make music or play basketball reasonably well requires much more than simple, “soft” skills and understandings. Such pursuits are appropriately challenging, creative, rewarding, and provide significant “life vales.” There’s a growing body of research that supports the conclusion that learning so-called extracurricular subjects is very effective in empowering kids to make a life as well as a living. And now ask yourself this: Does it make sense to assume or assert that education means doing little more in school all day, every day, than study math and reading in preparation for standardized tests? The surprising thing about U.S. schooling today is not that so many kids leave school as soon as possible; the very surprising thing is that more kids don’t leave the highly restricted and humanistically impoverished environments of many schools.

Music = ax2 + bx + c. Huh?

As music education professor and music psychologist Don Hodges says  “we should teach music for all the wonderful humanizing benefits that accrue, and if—big “IF”—academic achievement is affected positively, that is extra value added.”

If you’re tempted to believe all the hype about how music education definitely, actually, absolutely increases the likelihood that students will achieve higher scores on standardized tests of math and reading, consider three counter arguments by top scholars who’ve spent their long careers researching relationships between music education and achievement scores: Dr. Ellen Winner, Dr. Glenn Schellenberg, and Dr. Eugenia Costa-Giomi.

1. Ellen Winner is Professor and Chair of Psychology at Boston College and a Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. She directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children. Winner is the author of over 100 articles and four books. In 2000 she received the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Research by a Senior Scholar in Psychology and the Arts. Winner has devoted her long and distinguished career to supporting and improving school arts programs through copious scientific research on relationships between the arts and intelligence, thinking, and creativity, and the “invaluable habits of mind that arts education teaches us.

Winner rejects the claims of arts advocates when she says “there is NO definitive evidence that music improves math.” To take one example, her research team studied “mathematicians’ self-reported musicality” and compared them to people in other fields: “We asked over 100 PhDs in math . . . to self-report on all kinds of measures of their musicality. And guess what we found? No difference.” People in other fields “are just as likely to report being musical (including playing an instrument) as people in mathematics.”

2. Glenn Schellenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has spent decades investigating possible relationships between music, math, and reading. After one (among many) large meta-analysis of correlation studies, Schellenberg concludes that if music lessons correlate with improved math abilities, this does NOT mean that music causes improvements in math abilities. It may only mean “children with high IQs (who perform well in a variety of test settings) are more likely than other children to take music lessons.

To repeat: correlation is not the same as causation. Just because two things occur together doesn’t mean that one thing (e.g., music making, or music listening) caused the other, even if it seems to make sense—or even if we desperately want to say something like “musical participation will raise math scores.”

3. The renowned music education researcher Eugenia Costa-Giomi (University of Texas-Austin) argues that there is not a single study” supporting the claim “that classical music improves young children’s cognitive development.” Like Schellenberg, Costa-Giomi acknowledges that even though there might be “a strong relationship between music participation and academic achievement,” she warns that “the causal nature of the relationship is questionable.” Why? Again, because what NAfME and other music education organizations’ advocacy bloggers often fail to understand is that statistical correlations “do not necessarily mean that arts instruction produces [or causes] achievement gains.”

In fact, it may be the other way around because “it is known that students who choose to participate in the arts are more academically inclined than students who choose not to do so.” In addition, considerable research does not support claims that musical participation might improve academic achievement because, says Costa-Giomi, “it’s difficult to disentangle the true effects of music instruction from the effects of many other variables [e.g., a student’s capacity to concentrate during music teaching and learning interactions; her family’s income; the social dimensions of her musical experiences in her band, rock band, choir, etc.; the positive emotional effects she experiences during her teacher-student interactions] that mediate participation, persistence, and success in learning music. And this is why we must be cautious in our assertions about the long-term intellectual benefits of music instruction.”

It follows that any claims we read about music improving any specific dimension of cognitive functioning are premature at best, and invalid and unreliable at worst.

Let’s take a moment now to put these points in the broader context of American educational and political policymaking.

This past summer, the eminent NYU educational scholar Diane Ravitch wrote: “I don’t know about you, but I am sick of the test score obsession. I think our schools need to have a prolonged testing moratorium so we can figure out what education should be about and how to reduce our dependence on testing.” We couldn’t agree more. And we’re very concerned about what today’s testing obsession—and music advocates’ manic drive to link music and academic test scores—has done and is doing to music education.

For example, as we write this post, many music teachers in our hometown of New York City are preparing their math lessons. Wait, what was that? Yes. In a growing number of public schools in NYC (and in other places across the U.S.), music teachers are being told to set aside a considerable amount of time in their music classes—including their band, choral, general music, pop music, and other music classes—to teach math and literacy skills. In addition, many music teachers are being notified that a percentage of their evaluations will be based on their students’ standardized test scores in math and literacy. And this trend is currently moving upward in the form of “report cards for teacher education programs,” as Dr. Anne Whitney explains. 

Which brings us to the first of two takeaway messages: Be Very Careful What You Wish For! Why? Because the more administrators and policymakers are persuaded that “music makes you smarter” and that “music raises math and literacy scores” (etc.), the faster music students and music teachers will be evaluated NOT on their musical achievements, but on students’ math, reading, and other achievement scores.

One of the engines powering this obsession is called the Common Core or the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Common Core is a recent U.S. school “reform” initiative that outlines quantifiable benchmarks in English-language arts and mathematics at each grade level from kindergarten through high school. On the surface, it seems reasonable and necessary. But, look more carefully—go below the surface of official U.S. documents and uninformed journalism—and you’ll see that this policy is deeply flawed.

Why and how? Ravitch, other scholars, and thousands of teachers provide detailed explanations of how the Common Core is reeking havoc on many aspects of education in the United States—and why it’s becoming a serious threat to music education. For constant updates, see Diane Ravitch’s blog and read her book: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Schools. Know, also, that Ravitch values the importance of music making as an aim of schooling.

In fact, she once said to David in person that she wished all teachers would teach as effectively, educatively, and joyously as the best music teachers she’s seen.

Books and blogs by Ravitch, Michael Apple, Alfie Kohn, and many likeminded scholars and parents explain why NAfME’s well-intentioned support of the Common Core is highly problematic—NAfME’s adoption is politically correct, but it’s educationally injurious nevertheless, as was MENC’s quick and uncritical adoption of NCLB in the 1990s.

Time for a reality check: Is it fair to say that music teachers are and should be primarily educated to teach music? Is it true that most music teachers are not fully (or even partially) educated or certified to teach math or literacy? Is it right to say that it takes a considerable amount of skill and content knowledge to teach math and literacy well? If so, why not leave the teaching of math and literacy to math and literacy teachers? We’re not saying that music students should not engage in cross-curricular experiences if/when appropriate. But this is for each music educator to determine in his/her class.

One last point—a second take-away message. What few people realize is that the Common Core movement, and Bill Gates’s initiatives, are powered by a socially and educationally damaging economic-political movement called neoliberalism. Among other things, neoliberalism aims to privatize all areas of social life, including education. Today, education is “Big Business”—education is not about education in the deep sense, it’s about preparing “job-fillers,” not well-rounded citizens—as the eminent critical pedagogue and cultural critic Henry Giroux explains in his commentary on education, social justice, and neoliberalism.

In short, the Common Core is the tip of a very ugly economic-political iceberg.

Given today’s corporate, Wall Street priorities, many politicians and policymakers fail to value music education because learning how to make and appreciate music and the other arts is not immediately “profitable,” meaning that music is not directly related to preparing kids for jobs, and money-making, and future consuming. Here’s another reason why many advocates and teachers are knocking themselves out trying to explain why music education improves math and reading and why some advocacy “stuff” tries to persuade parents that if their children participate in music, they’ll make higher salaries as adults.

What does all of this mean for students? It means the steady erosion and elimination of meaningful school music programs, musical experiences, and the end of many music teachers’ careers.

Music, personhood, and eudaimonia

Educative and ethical music making and teaching based on a praxial philosophy of music education can be carried out in a variety of ways that create places and spaces in schools and community settings for a variety of human values or “goods.” These human goods, benefits, life-values, and life-goals include, but go beyond, making and listening to classical instrumental and vocal music, or any other kind of music, for “the music itself.”

A fundamental premise of MM2’s praxial philosophy is that musics do not have one value; musics have numerous values, depending on the ways in which they are conceived, used, and taught by people in different personal, historical, cultural, political, and/or gendered contexts in specific musical praxes.

For example, when music education is ethically guided—when we teach people not only in and about music, but also through music—we achieve what Aristotle and many other great thinkers consider the most crucial, rewarding, significant, and intrinsic set of human values that Aristotle summarized in one word: eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia is a multidimensional concept we explain in great detail throughout MM2 in relation to the natures and values of music and music education and, briefly, in this recent article in The Journal of Transdisciplinary Research in South Africa.

In our view, eudaimonia should be at the center of music educators’ thinking and doing—the numerous values this term integrates should anchor the “why, what, and how” of music teaching and learning in schools and communities.

Following an examination of three community music settings—in Ireland, New York, and Uganda—that exemplify educative and ethical musical interactions, our article builds a concept of personhood that draws from embodied, enactive, empathetic, and ecological concepts of personhood put forth by many of today’s most eminent cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, and philosophers of mind. Our discussion of personhood leads to an examination of two major constituents of eudaimonia—or full human flourishing—that are often omitted from discussions of music education: happiness and wellbeing. Since music and music education are, or should be, major sources of human happiness and well being, as hundreds of thinkers across the world have argues for 6,000 years, it’s extremely odd that teachers and advocates omit these values from discussions from the why, what, and how of music education. As our article explains, happiness is a complex and highly robust concept and reality. Thus, it’s something we as music teachers should understand as fully as possible and place at the heart of our aims, strategies, curriculum development, and assessment.

Our discussion ends by integrating the above themes with explanations of praxis, praxial music education, and the implications of all concepts in this article for school and community music education.

Artistic Citizenship From Beyond the Iron Curtain?

In 2000, Russian French horn player Arkady Shikloper and American French horn player Tom Varner joined forces with the Vienna Art Orchestra on tour. Why? It wasn’t only because of an artistic desire to integrate two distinctly different jazz traditions. These musicians shared a commitment to “putting their musical abilities to work” for the advancement of mutual cultural, humanistic, and political understanding.  After the Cold War and the continuation of a “cold” relationship between the United States and Russia, these two jazz musicians and the Vienna Art Orchestra demonstrated in action “what kind of musician is it good to be” both artistically and ethically. In MM2, we call this “artistic citizenship.” There, we raise the following questions: Do music makers (amateurs and professionals; youth and adults) have a social-democratic responsibility to put their music to work for positive community transformation, including taking steps toward peace and political reconciliation? What kind of music maker is it “good” to be in relation to the natures and values of any musical-social praxis? In the vast complexity of, say, US-Russian relations during and after the Cold War, what role did musicians play, or should they have played, in helping to resolve international misunderstandings? Watch this Youtube video and consider these questions for yourself. (Great thanks to French horn player Dan Remme for bringing this group to our attention.)

Can you think of other examples? If so, let us know and we’ll post them on this blog site.

For a further discussion of the nature and values artistic citizenship, see David’s article in the Music Educators Journal and our discussion in MM2 (e.g., pp. 268-270).