Empathy and Music Education

The emotional significance of music has been a topic of scholarship for centuries. For example, Plato and Aristotle believed that happy-sounding music has the power to make people feel happy; sad-sounding music tends to make people sad.

But is this plausible? Yes. Research in the last 15 to 20 years by today’s top music psychologists—including David Huron, Patrik Juslin, and many others—affirm that musical sounds can arouse and express a wide range of emotions. Indeed, today’s top neuroscientists, sociologists, and music philosophers make the same arguments—but with broader and deeper explanations—about many kinds of musical emotions and relationships (see MM2, Chapters 5 and 9).

Skeptics (who tend to ignore current research) usually argue that when people listen to the sounds of instrumental music, there’s nothing to be happy or sad about, because nothing of human consequence has happened in the musical sounds that would cause listeners to feel happy or sad, or any emotion. But skeptics are wrong, because old, simplistic stimulus-response theories and abstract cognitive notions of the nature of emotions and emotional arousal have been replaced by more sophisticated understandings of the relationships between music, emotion, and personhood (see MM2, Chapter 5).

Part of what’s going on is related to the importance of empathy. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, pity, or feeling sorry for another person, or agreeing with someone to make them feel good. Empathy implies that we adopt (consciously or non-consciously) the perspectives or emotional dispositions of another person in an effort to understand and respond compassionately, responsibly, and ethically. Without empathy, people would be strongly inclined to act selfishly, and group cohesion and collaborations would be unlikely, if not impossible; and, at worst, psychopathologies would be common. Thus, many neuroscientists argue that human beings are hard-wired for empathy.

Experts in developmental affective neuroscience tell us that there’s increasing evidence that human infants are born with unified body-brain-mind systems that underpin our ability to develop naturally, informally, and formally the dispositions and abilities to respond empathetically to and for the benefit of others. So, empathy seems to be an innate human propensity. Why else would most parents automatically love and care for their babies, or bond together in families and groups?

In MM2, we discuss the importance of empathy in music teaching and learning. Why? Because in the big picture, music can make huge positive transformations in people’s lives and communities. “Senseless” violence (e.g., the recent mass murder of nine people in a South Carolina church), racism, and other inhuman acts are not “causeless.” These acts can be prevented partly, if not largely, through education. So, we should pause and consider whether we’re “doing fully and rightly by/for” our students and their worlds. Is it enough for kids to learn how to perform accurately, play iPad music, or improvise jazz? We suggest that all of us can and should being doing more.

Education(s) of all kinds, rightly understood, is the constant consideration of the persons in our care. If we truly care about our students and their worlds, if we educate our students towards respect and understanding, then we’d be better situated to help them develop and sustain a socially just commitment to others (see MM2, Chapter 4 and, for example, pp. 268-270).

What does this mean for music education? Being an educative and ethical music teacher includes engaging our students—though all forms of musical engagement—in situations where they can learn and feel reciprocal processes of self-other growth, and the ways their emotions are affected positively and negatively by specific performers, composers, (etc).

Sometimes musical emotions and memories ignite students’ energy, and/or make them feel sad, embarrassed, alienated, or disrespected. In the processes of music making and listening, students and teachers should discuss—from time to time, but never moving music from the center of music education—their musical emotions and the possible causes. The point—which is absolutely NOT about reaching a consensus about what emotions a specific piece of music may arouse or express—is partly about learning how and why musicing environments should be conceived as musical-ethical communities where everyone receives and enjoys respect, acceptance, and personal fulfillment in and through music making.

To build and maintain sustainable and resilient learning environments—to support and enhance students’ confidence, intrinsic motivation, and persistence—an understanding of holistic personhood (MM2, Chapter 5) is an essential part of knowing how, when, where, and how much to teach at any given time. And the key to unlocking these sustainable and resilient learning environments is compassion and empathy through musicing and listening (MM2, Chapter 9).

How? Listeners can, and often do, empathize (consciously and/or nonconsciously) with musical sounds. This occurs because individual listeners mirror, respond to, and simulate internally what they feel a composer and/or performer(s) might be attempting to express emotionally, visually, and so on (MM2, Chapter 9). Through empathizing, listeners may/can feel “as if” they are experiencing the same feelings as the composer/performer(s) themselves. Feeling “as if” may be bodily: for example, synchronizing to/with musical rhythms/feels propels this phenomenon. Sometimes, listeners imagine via empathy what the performer feels when performing and moving with the music (e.g., audiences at a jazz, hip hop, or Taylor Swift concert); sometimes a listener imagines via empathy what a composer in Western classical music or jazz seems to have felt when composing. Performers often experience the same musical emotions for the same reasons. These emotions may be real or imagined; such connections may be felt while we listen or after. In short, affective connections between self and music (whether as a listener or performer) are relational and are imbued with empathy.

In line with contemporary care ethics, empathy is receptive; it’s a non-cognitive assessment of another’s feelings, a state of being and feeling what another may be feeling.

Understanding empathy as an integrated response process of body-brain-mind, cognition, and emotion (and more) is important for education generally and music education specifically. Helping students reflect on why and how they empathize, or not, with various examples of music is a way of helping them to understand their emotional selves. Musically, self-other reflection helps students learn to “read” each other’s expressive musical actions (phrasing, slight deviations in tempi, etc.) in order to collaboratively interpret a piece of music. In jazz, for example, this would be called feeling and creating the “groove” together. When students are alert to each other’s musical contributions through empathy, this often leads to expressive and joyful music making.

Our concept of empathy in music education is a transactional concept of musical emotions, and music teaching-learning, that socially situates students’ efforts to “construct” their awareness (emotional, intuitive, bodily, reflective), as well as numerous musical skills, understandings, dispositions of compassion and empathy, habits of mind and heart, and ethical behavior in and through ecological relationships with their environmental circumstances—personal, familial, historical, social, cultural, technological, racial, gendered, economic, political, spiritual, and many other dimensions of life, whether inside or outside schools.

Because music has enormous powers and potencies for “capturing” us physically, psychologically, socially, cooperatively, and more, shouldn’t music educators teach-for these potentials by teaching empathy in and through musicing and listening?

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.”


A must-see for all music educators. Sir Ken Robinson gets it!

The great enemy of schooling today is standardization and all its offshoots—narrow curricula, high stakes testing, and a move to explain the value of the arts in terms of math, literacy, and other so-called “academic” subjects. Robinson explains why this kind of “reform” does not and will not improve the quality of education. He argues that education should be personalized and humanized, not standardized and measured. As we also say in Music Matters, the arts, and specifically creativity as developed through active making in the arts, should be at the center of education. It’s not enough to simply celebrate the fact that music is officially part of the Common Core, because this policy has no teeth. There is nothing in the Common Core policy that obliges administrators to offer the arts in schools. Robinson explains why society ignores the arts at the expense of our future in his new book, Creative Schools.


Music education, accountability, and responsibility? Words matter

If we don’t think about it much, there’s nothing wrong with being held “accountable” for what we do as music educators. But what happens when we think carefully about the meanings and implications of the word “accountable”?

When music educators have a moment to think about it—while being pressured by Common Core Standards to spend less time teaching music and more time prepping their music students for math and reading tests—they understand clearly that being accountable means being “answerable” for what their students achieve musically, but more and more importantly today, what their students achieve on high-stakes tests. Like all other teachers, they understand that “account-able” is related to “computare,” meaning “calculate.”……. Which brings us to the obvious but frequently overlooked fact that accountability entered the educational lexicon largely by way of business.

Over the last several decades—especially in the US—education has been reconceived as a business, so much so that educational policymakers and administrators today focus on the educational “bottom line(s)” (i.e., Federal, State, and district spending), as determined almost exclusively by simplistic, high-pressure standardized tests. As the eminent education scholar Michael Apple says: “For all too many of the pundits, politicians, corporate leaders, and others, education is a business and should be treated no differently than any other business.” Framed more largely, the notion that education = business is a major element (victim) of the American neoliberal economic and political agenda. Not surprisingly, then, wealthy investors who own shares in (for example) Charter School companies are reaping huge returns, and education publishing corporations (e.g., Pearson Education North America) “earn” billions of dollars a year selling Common Core curriculum and testing hardware and software. Once consequence of education = business is that, just as Wall Street banks and fund managers committed fraud during the years leading up to the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis, Charter School fraud has become more and more frequent and blatant, as (for example) the Ohio State Auditor recently declared…

So when today’s so-called reformers scream about the need to hold teachers accountable, they don’t mean that teachers are “responsible” for enabling students to achieve genuine intellectual, creative, ethical, and artistic growth over time. They mean students’ and teachers’ personal and educational “worth” are reducible to numerical data, to bottom-line test calculations. Today, American “children are tracked, analyzed and evaluated from birth—not only by corporations, but now, by the school system.”

Here’s one more way that words matter. Notice that calling a policy change a “reform” movement effectively hides “a wolf in a sheep’s clothing” and, thereby, dupes the public into thinking that so-called “Common” Core Standards are a good thing for children—”Hey folks, Common Core is just common sense!” As Launce Rake explains, “if you want to take apart the teachers unions and make it easier to fire teachers, don’t say ‘make it easier to fire teachers.'” Call it “education reform.” If you want to make music a serious school subject, “reform” music education—that is, force music teachers to spend more time on academic test prep and less time on music.

But what happens when we change the rhetoric of “market place education” by replacing accountability with “responsibility,” which Nel Noddings, a former Stanford University Dean of Education, urges us to do. When we’re responsible for others, we care about them, we care for them. When we’re being responsible music educators, we do so for our students, and for the numerous values that music and music education can provide—not for corporate concepts of education, and not under pressure to succumb to the Common Core Music Standards published by the National Association of Music Educators (NAfME). When we’re acting responsibly, it’s because we’re teaching our students in relation to thoughtful answers we’ve developed about questions such as “What kind of music educator is it good to be?” “What is best— musically, personally, and ethically—for music students in our democratic music classrooms?”

“Responsibility” has some things in common with “accountability.” Responsibility also asks people to be “answerable,” but in the very different sense of being “reliable and trustworthy.” “Response-ability” is a personal and ethical disposition, it’s a matter of personal and ethical integrity, it’s a quality of mind and heart. As opposed to account-ability—i.e., knowing how to test and calculate students and teachers according to top-down Standards and tests imposed by policymakers and education publishing corporations—responsibility goes to the heart of what teaching and learning are all about: human relationships in situ.

When we’re held accountable, we’re unable to empower our students to achieve the values at the heart of musical participation: communal joy, intersubjective fellowship, collaborative artistic expression, creative musical generation and selection, deep and transformative musical-emotional experiences, and all other dimensions of what Aristotle—who emphasized the necessity of music education—called eudaimonia, or a life well lived. When we’re responsible music teachers, we’re concerned with providing our students with the musical skills and understandings they desire and need for life-long musical particip-action. When we’re responsible music teachers, we aim to foster understanding and respect for others and others’ musics and, thus, mutual respect among the students in our care. When we’re responsible music teachers, we provide instruction that’s intimately tied to the formative assessments we make during, after, and beyond musical instruction.

Let’s end with the words of Wittgenstein—”The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”—and Einstein—”Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Your brain on music

Neurologist Oliver Sacks stated the following in 2009. It is worth repeating.
“… our exposure to different types of music, and hence our musical literacy, has certainly expanded, but perhaps at a cost. As Daniel Levitin has pointed out, passive listening has largely replaced active music-making. Now that we can listen to anything we like on our iPods, we have less motivation to go to concerts or churches or synagogues, less occasion to sing together. This is unfortunate, because music-making engages much more of our brains than simply listening. Partly for this reason, to celebrate my 75th birthday last year, I started taking piano lessons (after a gap of more than sixty years). I still have my iPod (it contains the complete works of Bach), but I also need to make music every day.”

Below, watch a talk with Oliver Sacks on music.



Is the musical medium the message, or not?

The Canadian philosopher and public intellectual Marshall McLuhan famously posed the idea that “the medium is the message.” In brief, McLuhan means that the way in which we choose to communicate something has as much meaning as that which is being communicated. Sometimes this is true; other times, it’s not.

Consider large ensembles, specifically the wind ensemble. Participating in a wind ensemble (concert band, symphonic band) can be, for many, a richly rewarding musical-social activity. In discussing the history of the American wind band, Roger Mantie (2012) writes that “‘Banding,’ as it was (and occasionally is) sometimes called, was a social activity originally aimed, at least in part, at the perceived worthy use of leisure time” (p. 69). Mantie notes that through a careful investigation, we find that the “bands of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were … of the people and for the people” (p. 69). Hence, the American band movement was built on a foundation of democratic ideals, civic engagement, and community transformation. In other words, the concept of a group of people “banding together” seems unabashedly social, personal, communal, and liberating. However, when the band was “appropriated” for use in school music, its original aims were more or less compromised. Thus, many contemporary music education scholars and practitioners believe the large ensemble within school music is inherently and automatically a space of/for undemocratic processes and values.

As someone who never particularly enjoyed her large ensemble experiences throughout elementary and secondary school—likely due to my own issues of introversion, not “fitting in,” combined with being singled out by my teachers as “better than” the others—I find it odd that I don’t agree with many of these critics. Indeed, because I didn’t enjoy my formative large ensemble experiences, I, too, should have an aversion to ensemble participation as a whole. Yet I don’t. (In contrast, David’s band experiences were extremely positive due to the exceptionally musical, educative, and ethical qualities of his band teachers.) Why?

When aligned with aims that serve the needs (e.g., musical, social, emotional) of the students, school, and community, the large ensemble for music education can be just as rich and rewarding as any other configuration (i.e., iPad ensemble, West African drumming, “Barbershop” quartet) that serves those same needs. The opposite is also true. When NOT aligned with aims that serve the needs of the students, school, and community, the large ensemble for music education can be just as ineffective and uneducative as any other configuration that does NOT serve those same needs.

While it’s important to critically reflect on the aims and values of any/all music education classrooms and musical mediums, perhaps we are doing a disservice to our students by assuming that small ensembles = better educational experiences; that music technology automatically provides richer and more rewarding educational experiences; that today’s “Top 40” hits make for more inclusive educational experiences. Perhaps the large ensemble is not the problem. Perhaps we are trying to force blame in the wrong place.

If the outcomes of a specific instance of a musical “education” include the absence of freedom, creativity, critical thinking, social engagement, and edification, then this is due to the teacher’s failure to develop critically reflective aims and to possess an understanding of what education should be (as we propose in Chapter 4).

In MM2, David and I write that the claim that all large school music ensembles are inherently exclusionary, undemocratic, or restricted to the classical repertoire is simply absurd. Thousands of school music students have benefited deeply from the artistic and educative instruction of dedicated, ethical, and compassionate band, chorus, string orchestra, and symphony orchestra teachers/leaders. And depending on the learners and situations involved, performing classical and classically-oriented music can certainly be a valid, meaningful, and highly satisfying form of musicing. But it depends. It depends on the degree to which a classically-oriented school or community music teacher is musically educative and ethical. It also depends on the degree to which such a teacher or leader or conductor is willing to make available to students balanced access to other musics and musicing. Moreover, it depends on the degree to which such teachers provide students with opportunities to participate democratically in contributing suggestions about why and how such pieces can or should be interpreted and performed. Such is necessary to foster musical understanding and musical independence.

Another common misconception is that large ensembles serving school music programs are always and only engaged in matters of robotic-technical skill training. This point deserves a combination of qualified acknowledgment and protest. First, and yes, we all know music “directors” and so-called artist-performers whose “teaching” is dominantly technical, strictly a matter of performance problem reduction, as opposed to musically expressive problem solving. Some technically oriented “directors” just don’t get it; they fail to understand that “fixing” students’ technical difficulties is not music teaching. It’s more akin to plumbing.

Although it’s true that learning how to perform can be reduced to skills-and-drills (just as improvising, composing, conducting, and musicing-dancing can be reductive), it’s unreasonable to misrepresent all large ensembles in school music programs on the false assumption that all instances of such performance-teaching are nothing more than—and incapable of being more than—technical exercises. Many music teachers are musical, educative, and ethical; some are not.

Unfortunately, some critics who are fond of problematizing large ensemble performance programs usually fail to provide a significant amount of valid research to support their claims. And they almost always fail to present balanced perspectives, because they don’t problematize the actual and potential weaknesses of small and informal school music ensembles (e.g., school rock bands).

All ensembles, all forms of old and new technologies, and all forms of teaching have potentials for musical and educational abuses. It’s up to educators to be aware of the potentials and pitfalls of and within musical “mediums,” the context of music education, and to adjust their teaching accordingly.

Here’s the take away message: it depends. It depends on the individual teacher, the quality of her music education philosophy, and her musical, ethical, and educative dispositions. If the medium is the message, perhaps the medium we should be most concerned about is not the large ensemble, but rather the music educator.



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.

Personhood matters

In MM2, we write about the nature of personhood. One among many points we make is that “the kind of care that was needed to make us who we are…is, in turn, the kind of care we owe, or will owe, to each other.”

Yesterday, npr.com posted the following story:

Trapped In His Body For 12 Years, A Man Breaks Free

What would you do if you were locked in your body, your brain intact but with no way to communicate? How do you survive emotionally when you are invisible to everyone you know and love? 

This is the story of Martin Pistorius, who fell into a mysterious coma as a young boy. He had only one thing left as his mind began to function again — his own thoughts. Here’s a glimpse into his story.




Music Education and Advocacy

My father was an exceptionally good jazz pianist. He was a self-taught amateur. He played every night at home after his daily work and at sing-along parties with our neighbors on Saturday nights. And he composed songs for his own satisfaction and for the delight of his friends. I loved the sounds he played, improvised, and composed.

The joy and excitement that swirled around his music making at our family and neighborhood musical get-togethers was infectious and socially transforming. I wanted to be like him; I wanted to be able to do what he did. So after starting me out at age 4 with informal jazz piano lessons at home, he took me to a local community music school in Toronto for regular lessons with Vincent Cinanni, a professional jazz, pop, and classical pianist and composer—a wonderfully artistic, creative, and kind man. I was five-years-old. Soon I began to play at our musical gatherings, surrounded by supportive adults who sang and played along on guitar, harmonica, and violin.

Although my K-6 elementary school music education was unsystematic, with infrequent opportunities to engage in music making, I was asked to play piano at many school and community functions. These little gigs started to build my musical-personal identity as “the musician” among my peers and teachers.

During my middle and secondary school years, two deeply talented musicians-music educators—Glen Wood and Bob Cringan—worked diligently to involve my peers and I in all forms of music making and listening. Because of them, I became involved in band and jazz band groups as a performer, arranger, composer, conductor, and a novice teacher of my peers.

These rich and varied experiences allowed me to take leadership roles in my school music programs and in many community music groups, including my own professional dance bands and jazz bands. And so it was—with a rich and joyful foundation of musical experiences—that I began to study music at the University of Toronto and that I made a commitment to music education.

All of these experiences formed the bedrock of the praxial philosophy of music education I wrote in the first edition of Music Matters (1995) and, now, in MM2, with Marissa Silverman.

Advocacy in Action!

My point in relating my personal story is to suggest that although verbal statements about the values of music education are necessary and fundamental forms of advocacy, the most powerful means of making our case are the processes and social settings of musical particip-action that yield deep satisfactions for participants of all ages and ability levels.

For example, a parent engaged in joyful music making and listening usually means a child engaged in music making and listening. A school principal, politician, or business person involved in personally and/or social satisfying experiences of singing, playing, composing, and listening is likely to support school and community music education.

So in addition to teaching our students, we need to find more and various ways to provide meaningful musical experiences for our students’ parents and friends, other teachers in our schools, and political and business leaders in our communities. And we need to find ways to create community music groups and school-community partnerships that provide opportunities for parents, colleagues, and others to engage in joyful music making and listening and witness our music teaching expertise in action.

So what about written and verbal advocacy? Yes, of course, it’s imperative to consider scholarly views about the values of music and music education as a basis for evaluating advocacy statements and as material for valid and reliable advocacy claims. But it’s essential to keep in mind that music education advocacy (or MAD, for short) and music education philosophy (or MEP) are fundamentally different. Why? Because MAD too often focuses on the “short, fast sell” using fluffy sound bites, incomplete or “pop research,” and t-shirt slogans (“Music Raises Math Scores!”) tailored to fit the latest “school reform” mandate (e.g., Common Core Standards). Thus, MAD blogs, ads, and articles often “dumb down” the complexities of our profession, mislead parents, and demoralize excellent music teachers. This is why it’s so important to approach MAD cautiously and critically, and to teach future music educators to do the same.

By the way, I’m terrible at math. TERRIBLE!

MEP is about thinking very carefully about what people say and do, being skeptical when reading MAD claims, and asking: Where’s the large body of recent and excellent research that we must have before we can be confident in saying music education can raise math and reading test scores, or music education improves academic achievement?” MEP is about combining scholarly sources in many fields—and the informed, practical wisdom of experienced teachers—to carefully formulate our professional aims, goals, objectives, curriculum content, teaching strategies, and assessment procedures.

But, and……….— here’s the takeaway message—long before I started to read advocacy statements and scholarly discussions about the natures and values of music, music education, and community music, I experienced over and over again—in my childhood and adolescent years—the creative and emotional powers of music through active music making and music listening. This probably holds true for many people, including most music educators and community musicians.

If so, then our concept of “advocacy” should include but go far beyond words. We should—we must— put our musical, educational, financial, diplomatic, and social skills and understandings to work to make it possible for more people in our communities to experience the joys and satisfactions of music-making and, therefore, to “make a life in music” to the extent they desire.

The future strength and security of school music programs depends not on using music for MAD purposes, but on our ability to combine valid, evidence-based verbal and written explanations about the values of music education with our best musical actions toward achieving much wider and more varied approaches to music instruction inside and outside schools.

We must find ways to engage more and more people of all ages, in all walks of life, in personally and socially meaningful, satisfying, and joyful musical particip-action.

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.