Has Music Education Lost Its Way?

Depending who you ask, rock and roll originated some seventy years ago. Jazz is about a hundred years old. Even Rap is pushing fifty. These are musical art forms that predate young music students, today in their middle teens, by many decades. They’re not new art forms and they’re old.

The first generation practitioners of all of these musical genres are now dead or retired. This is dead composer music too. There’s nothing modish or faddish about them and no reason to doubt their cultural contribution, their aesthetic value or longevity. They’ve gone the distance and stuck around, having entertained literally generations of listeners, adding meaning and significance their lives.

Classical music began some four hundred years ago and it is generally thought that it ended two hundred years ago, or there abouts. In other words, it ended only twice as long ago as jazz began, three times as long ago as rock and roll arrived and only four times as long ago as rap emerged. On a millennium time scale, all of these musical forms are near neighbours. To my way of thinking, that gives them all roughly equal validity as art worthy of study and preservation.

Music education, with its heavy bias toward teaching and reproducing the classics, peppered with a little jazz, if it’s radically “contemporary” in its ambitions, ignores rock and roll and rap (and hip hop and dance music) myopically, in the main. But there is nothing contemporary about jazz. It’s an historical artefact. Why the bias?

Music educators, in my view, overthink music. They intellectualise it, focusing on how clever it is, how structured and how surprisingly intricate. Their fascination is with trying to reverse-engineer the thinking that went into its creation, in the mistaken belief that if you can figure out how it was constructed, you’re a true musician and a human being that can smugly assert their musical, intellectual superiority over other musicians that merely entertain, because they’ve unlocked the arcane secrets of dead composers. This approach is worthless.

First and foremost, music has always been about entertaining. It’s power derives from its ability to reach the deepest emotional states of the people it was written for. Music creates a shared, empathic experience, drawing communities together. It was always there to make people feel better and to create a sense of belonging. Music fulfills primal human needs.

Understanding the construction of a piece of music tells you very little about the zeitgeist that prevailed, when it was created, or what aspects of the music had the capacity to move audiences emotionally. It’s like understanding how a building was designed, without any reference to the landscape it was built in, or the lives of the people that inhabit it.

Secondly, being able to take something apart does not make you capable of conceiving, designing and constructing another. Ask any five-year-old that has disassembled an alarm clock. While you might gain insight into what makes it tick, it doesn’t instantly turn you into a clockmaker, even if you can successfully reassemble the clock. It definitely doesn’t give you enough insight or ability to innovate in the field of timepieces. For that, you’d also have to work on your imagination and a range of precision craft skills.

Here’s what I think modern music education misses. It shows you how to deconstruct, reproduce and reassemble particular types of clock (to continue the analogy), but ignores more up-to-date solutions, such as quartz crystal driven devices, digital timepieces and atomic clocks. In other words, it only addresses a small subset of the music that exists.

Musical education, as it is currently presented, does not adequately prepare young musicians to innovate in the creation of new music, because it ignores the cultural context of music made for the past seventy years, deeming it unworthy of study, analysis and emulation. There is no focus on how it is that music entertains and emotionally affects audiences, being too wrapped up in its own self-satisfaction at how clever and ingenious some forms of music were. 

There is very little attempt to understand why contemporary music has meaning and moves so many. It is not well-represented in musical instruction materials, for example. This aspect of the musical experience is almost considered an irrelevance, by music educators, whereas I would argue it’s the very point of being a musician.

You seldom see courses of instruction in exercising musical imagination with the structural knowledge gained from analysis of extinct musical movements, nor of applying what is known about musical construction to progressively innovate with new and pleasing structures, as yet unknown. Music education leans too heavily on reproduction and not nearly enough on origination and authorship. There are musicians cranked out of music schools that know everything about Mozart, but who cannot write a note of fresh, relevant, exciting, moving music for their contemporaries. That, to me, is very sad.

Accomplished players, when asked to improvise, often experience total paralysis. They don’t know how. Their dexterity on their instrument is polished and graded, yet when asked to take a solo, they freeze up and don’t know what to do. Their ability to conduct a musical conversation with other musicians and their audience is constrained because they only know how to speak the musical equivalent of Latin, not the contemporary, colloquial lingua franca they’d need to know, in order to participate.

The simple act of song writing offers a rich field of study, but it is little respected or taught. There’s a lot involved in writing a good song, but you’d never know it, from the graded piano and music theory syllabus. In fact, you could attain the highest grades in both, with distinction and still not know the first thing about writing a song as beloved, involving and poignant as Witchita Lineman.

Is music education’s purpose largely archival, or should it be dedicated to progressing the state of the art? Is it a shrine where dead composers are religiously worshipped, or should it be a forge where modern cultural experiences are wrought? Judging by the curriculum of what they teach and what they examine and seeing the very obvious holes in music education around creativity, imagination and innovation, I’d say they’re training custodians and curators of the past, not the composers that people will study in two hundred years’ time. That’s a tremendous waste of young musical talent and a huge missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, the people that really advance musical culture will tend to emerge in spite of formal musical education, rather than because of it. That’s a damning indictment of any field of scholarship. Imagine if engineering faculties did not consistently produce the best and most relevant future engineers, or if university medical schools produced nobody capable of originating future medical advancements. Music education is failing young musicians, largely because of its wrong-headed, elitist snobbery. It remains essentially clueless about teaching the aspects of music that matter to people most.

It’s long past due for reform.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to Has Music Education Lost Its Way?

  1. I’m not musical at all, at least, not being able to strum further than the basics of C, D, G, and A on the guitar. I’ve never had an interest in learning histories of styles of music. But I really enjoyed this blog post! I never really thought about when what genre overlapped or was separated altogether from another genre. As an English major, I find it interesting that a lot of your thoughts on teh matter can be translated over to literature as well. Thanks for the great read!

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