Stand Up for Public School Music

Today the US Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education. Many educational experts, teachers, and parents believe, with good reasons, that DeVos represents a serious threat to the future of American public education, and, therefore, a threat to American public school music.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR’s lead education blogger, asks: “Now, the question is: How much will actually change for the nation’s 50 million public school students and 20 million college students? Perhaps her opponents should take a deep breath. The federal role in education policy is limited. Less than 10 percent of funding for K-12 schools comes from the feds, for example.” Then again, says Kamenetz, “DeVos’ department may take a leaf from Arne Duncan‘s book and set up a competitive grant program that encourages states to expand school choice. If so, we’ll likely be hearing more about the benefits of private, virtual, religious and for-profit schools.”

Dr. David E. Kirkland, professor of education at NYU-Steinhardt, says that he fears “she could badly hurt public education across the country and pull resources out of schools in need of federal funding. Her extensive conflicts of interest and record of diverting money away from vulnerable students and into the pockets of the rich make DeVos completely unfit for the position she was just confirmed to.”

What can music educators do? As Diane Ravitch says: “We are many. They are few. We will organize, mobilize and fight their attacks on our children, our educators, and our public schools. Together, we are powerful.” We’re not alone. Note this well: “The senators who opposed DeVos represent 36 million more people than her supporters.

Indeed, anyone who is afraid for the future of music education should do everything possible to RESIST. Public education is a matter of fundamental human and civil rights. We must find the energy to protest and be more proactive than ever! We must keep hope alive for our students, colleagues, and our profession.

Additionally, we must become more informed about daily and long-term efforts on behalf of public education. For example, subscribe to Diane Ravitch’s blog. Join and follow the Badass Teachers Association on Facebook. Join forces with The Network for Public Education (NPE). Follow Truthout for penetrating discussions of why and what is happening. We’re not alone!

Again: As Carol Burris of NPE said today

the opposition that the American public helped generate was so intense, that the Vice President had to step in to break the tie in order for her to be confirmed. Forty-eight senators held the floor throughout the afternoon and night, delaying the vote as long as they could. Your opposition to what DeVos stands for was nothing short of remarkable. Because of you, NPE generated a half million emails to senators. Over 100,000 also accessed our Toolkit and HELP committee lists—making phone calls, sending faxes, and visiting offices. You contacted our office by mail and by phone asking, “What more can I do?”

See and follow the NPE site for answers. Don’t let DeVos win this fight. Protest her agenda.

As music educators, we need to think about our short-term and long-term aims. In the short-term, securing the place of music in public education depends on being able to understand, articulate, and affirm to ourselves and others that MUSICS matter. Many national sources exist to help us. One international source, which may be unfamiliar to US music educators, is here.

The future depends on making music education more musical, socially relevant, inclusive, welcoming, caring, ethical, creative, and “respecting and valuing multiple styles of learning and multiple ways of knowing.” We must continue to explore ways to make all forms of music making and listening, at all levels, more achievable, accessible, and applicable to all students.

In the long-term, we need to mobilize everyone—students, parents, colleagues, administrators, community members, politicians…EVERYONE—to support the many ways public schooling can contribute to the full human flourishing of every student.

Take Away Message

Today, Hannah Arendt’s wisdom takes on new meaning:

Public education is “where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them [via DeVos’ vouchers and charter schools] from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” ~Hannah Arendt, The Crisis of Education (1954)

9/11 and Musical Artivism

September 11, 2016.

Fifteen years ago today, a great tragedy swept the nation and rippled around the world. We take this occasion to pause and wonder: Can/should music educators, music students, and community musicians put their creativities to work—in small or larger ways—to commemorate this anniversary, inspire hope for a better world, and/or celebrate the valor of those who bravely serve to protect our communities and nations? If so, why? If not, why not? If so, in what ways?

  • Should students perform and listen to musics that have been created to address and resist political/social tragedies
  • Should students compose music—e.g., songs, rap verse, performance/art pieces—that support people’s social rights and challenge wrongs?
  • Should students arrange musics that were specifically composed as tributes to victims of 9/11 and other tragedies past and present—e.g., Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” or “The Empty Sky”; Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You”; The Beastie Boys “An Open Letter to NYC”; and Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll”?

As you weigh these questions, we leave you with a music video that “performs resistance” and may inspire hope among some listeners and music makers. It affirms that people can make music toward change.

The video is based, in part, on Bob Marley’s “War.” Marley composed  the song in 1976. The lyrics are nearly identical to the speech that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie gave in 1963 at the United Nations General Assembly. It was the first time that a head of state spoke in the name of Africa at the U.N.  Selassie’s speech called for world peace.  Both Marley’s song and this video echo the need for world-wide positive change.

Maybe our music classrooms and musical communities can/should become—at appropriate times—sites of personal and social reflection and what we might call “artivism,” as practiced by amateur and professional artists in every domain.

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.

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! “Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these. We must use time creatively.”  Thank you, Dr. King.

10 works or composers I can’t live without

I’m not a tech-savvy person, so I don’t know why a tweet—“10 works or composers you never want to hear again”—from October 7, 2014 showed up on my twitter feed today. But it did. Norman Lebrecht, one of England’s most esteemed (and rightly so) music critics, replied with a list of the 10 works or composers he never wanted to hear again.

At first, I laughed. I scrolled down Lebrecht’s choices, and then I read most of the 150 comments. As I did, my laughter slowly morphed into something more distressing.

I started to feel hurt by some people’s choices. I went back to Lebrecht’s selection. How could he not want to hear Tchaikovsky’s music (except the last 3 symphonies and the violin concerto)? What’s wrong with Messiaen’s music? Bernstein’s Mass? And everything that Puccini created post-Bohème? Really? Is it because this music is overplayed? Badly interpreted? Or, in Lebrecht’s estimation, just poorly composed music?

Then I stepped back and asked myself, Why be bothered by this? I sat and thought about this for a while, and then I realized how and why this “game” turned into a stab in my heart. It wasn’t because I’m overly sensitive. It was because many of these pieces and composers are intimately sewn into the fabric of my personal and musical identities.

There’s a large amount of social and psychological research that examines why and how music and identity are deeply intertwined (see MM2, Chapters 3 and 5).

So part of my hurtful response to this “little game” has to do with my personal attachments and lifelong musical experiences with pieces, styles, and composers that are part of my-and most people’s- emotional, everyday, and autobiographical narratives.

By way of an olive branch, and because I don’t want to seem like a “bad sport,” let’s change the game. I’ll start. Here’s my list of the “10 works or composers I can’t live without”—at least for today. Ask me tomorrow and my list might change.

  1. Mahler’s Song of the earth
  2. Debussy
  3. Bill Evans’s “Some Other Time”
  4. Van Morrison
  5. Prokofiev’s Cinderella
  6. Brahms Ballades Op. 10
  7. While not a composer or specific work, EVERYTHING Jordi Savall performs
  8. Cole Porter
  9. Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” (Headhunters)
  10. Schubert’s “Swan song”

What’s your list of the 10 works or composers you can’t live without?

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.

9 important questions every music teacher should ask

While I was browsing my bookshelf yesterday, I found my old copy of Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, 1969). Before becoming professors in New York City, both men had been elementary and secondary schoolteachers for many years.

I’d read the book about 15 years ago. As soon as I saw the big red apple on the cover, I was reminded of the book’s impact on me in 2000, and the many reasons why it was so influential in the 1970s, 1980s, and thereafter.

When I mentioned Subversive Activity to David, he told me he’d read it in 1975, just after he started teaching in the music education department at the University of Toronto. He said:

It made me question all the ways I was teaching my music education students way back  then. Some things I remember clearly are how it emphasizes democratic teaching and learning, the reasons why teachers and students need to develop critical thinking, good “crap detectors,” and a healthy skepticism about assumptions. It was especially important because it explains “ecological classrooms,” and “mind-ing.” Am I right? I remember thinking at the time that, even though these ideas go back to Plato, Aristotle, and all the way up to Dewey and others, the way they [Postman and Weingartner] explained these “new” ideas so clearly meant a lot to many teachers, including me and my students, in the ‘70s.

As I revisited Teaching as a Subversive Activity, I arrived at Chapter 5: “What’s Worth Knowing?” Even though I’d asked myself the same question many times in the past—and even though David and I ask this question on page 1 of MM2, and many other times in our book—I knew immediately that I had to redouble my efforts to help my music education majors think carefully about and practice “minding” two questions: “What’s worth knowing?” and “What’s worth knowing musically?” These questions go right to the heart of the nature(s) and values of music education, community music, and lifelong musical participation.

Postman and Weingartner suggest that to decide whether any question should be asked and answered—by ourselves and/or our students—we should begin by asking questions of the question itself, and continue doing this before and after we teach.

For example, teachers in every subject area would be wise to ask themselves:

1. Will my questions increase learners’ passion for learning?

2. Will they increase their capacity to learn?

3. Will they boost their confidence in their ability to learn?

4. Will they motivate them to ask deeper follow-up questions that require alternative modes of inquiry?

5. Will they inspire learners to search for alternative interpretations of the material they’re learning?

6. Are my questions likely to increase students’ feelings of self-worth, persistence, and resilience?

7. Are they likely to produce different answers if/when learners ask them again at different stages of their educational development? Are they likely to develop students’ critical thinking, “crap detection” abilities, and a healthy skepticism about common sense assumptions?

8. Will students’ participation in “minding” empower them to develop thoughtful answers, and become more collaborative and creative?

These questions are extremely important to ask and think about, because to ask them is to take major steps toward achieving a central aim of all forms of education: developing students’ abilities to find meaning in the world:

There is no learning without a learner. And there is no meaning without a meaning maker. In order to survive in a world of rapid change there is nothing more worth knowing, for any of us, than the continuing process of how to make viable meanings. (Postman and Weingartner, 1969)

How can we connect these questions to music teaching and learning? If we tweak these eight questions in relation to some (but certainly not all) issues involved in teaching music in some localities, regions, and/or nations, we might ask:

1. Will this style of music and/or this type of musicing (e.g., singing, playing instruments, composing with new music technologies) increase learners’ joy in and passion for learning?

2. Will this style of music and/or musicing increase their capacity to learn how to make music and listen to music and find personal and musical meaning in the world now and in the future?

3. Will this form of musicing boost their confidence in their ability to learn how to perform, improvise, compose (etc.) more expressively?

4. Will this kind of musicing motivate them to ask important questions about how to make music more effectively and creatively, which will require alternative modes of thinking and feeling?

5. Will this type of music and musicing inspire learners to develop alternative interpretations of the music they’re performing, improvising, composing, etc?

6. Is it likely that my music teaching strategies will increase learners’ sense of self-worth?

7. Will my ways of teaching music motivate learners to continue making music after their elementary or secondary school years are over?

8. Will my ways of teaching music and musicing enable students to become more thoughtful, sensitive, collaborative, and creative music makers now and in the future?

And there’s one more very important question:

9. Will my ways of teaching music motivate my students to pursue the lifelong goal of full human flourishing, which includes happiness for themselves and others, fellowship, health and well-being, a sense of personal significance, and other “arts of personhood, which include individual and shared capacities and dispositions to act justly toward others” (MM2, p. 52).

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.