Why should Music be taught in Secondary Schools?

Updated: Jan 3, 2020

The purpose of this essay is to make a case for the place of music in the secondary school by examining various arguments in relation to it, i.e. if they stand to be true, rather than comparing each argument’s value against each other.

The reason that whether one argument may be stronger than another – meaning that one may prove on its own the place of music in the secondary school – will be omitted, is just because I simply see no reason in doing so; it’s like trying to find the one, best vitamin that a fruit might guarantee when you eat it in an attempt to make a justification for eating that fruit, instead of examining all the vitamins that can provide. Yes, there might be a vitamin that is better or present in a larger quantity, however omitting or describing the rest as not as important, would just reduce, in a pointless way, the whole value of that fruit – in our case, music.

A good starting point would be what Bowman correctly states about the notion of value: ‘The notion of value is always, I urge, value for something else. Value is a function of ends served. The claim that music is good ‘in itself’, then, is circular and self-contradictory’ (Bowman, 2013-14). Thus, claiming that anything has an intrinsic value is simply a false statement, as it suggests that something has value in it for itself, which does not really make sense. Anything that has value should be called – if there is a need to call it something – external value, i.e. value for human: ‘Music and its study are not ends-in-themselves but (always, and necessarily) means to other human ends.’ (Bowman, 2013-14).

However, extending this argument, I will argue that music has external intellectual values, i.e. helps our brain function with more intelligence, such as being better at numeracy or literacy, and then it also has external spiritual values, i.e. as a means of experience various feelings.

As Bowman comments: ‘When we divide human values into two distinct and opposing kinds, neither has much real worth: music’s intrinsic values are largely divorced from the day-to-day concerns of life and living, while its extrinsic values are not really musical‘ (Bowman, 2013-14).

I argue that there is nothing wrong in diving values into two groups; the argument that ‘extrinsic values are not really musical’ has been counter-argued in my introductory paragraph, whilst I fail to see why it’s a problem that ‘intrinsic values are largely divorced from the day-to-day concerns of life and living’. There is nothing wrong if spiritual values have a more philosophical nature; the fact that music has the capability to separate us for a moment from daily-life can make music to be all that much power. On this note, I would like to make a comment on what Philpott seems to argue. Talking about the intellectual value of music, he states: ‘the point is that transfer of skills, attitudes, techniques and knowledge from one discipline to another occurs all the time in everyday life and is, of course, a vital part of the educational process’. (Philpott, 2001, p.24).

I don’t see why just because this is part of the educational process, proving – with data – that music too can have this effect would be pointless. Actually, it is arguments of this nature that impose a risk for music, as they point to a direction of desperation, i.e. that we urgently need to find that one, strong point that will finally guarantee the case for music forever. Even worse, Philpott seems to go on contradicting himself in the next paragraph: ‘music programmes would only be considered to be successful if it could be shown that they had in some ways contributed to enhanced intellectual skills in subjects other than music’. (Philpott, 2001, p.24).

If this is then the case, given the first point of Philpott I quoted, then every subject under consideration should have to show that it is useful for any other given subject. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging any ‘vitamin’ that music might have.

However, going on to examine some intellectual values, Hallam seems to have some strong arguments. As Hallam mentions: ‘musical instruction can also increase verbal memory, which may support the development of reading skills (Chan et 01., 1998). Adult musicians have enlarged left cranial temporal regions of the brain, the area involved in processing heard information, and can typically remember 17% more verbal information than those without musical training.

As Hallam states: These findings have been supported in a study of boys aged 6-15 (Ho et 01., 2003). and appear to be causal - the longer the duration of music training, the better the verbal memory.’ (Hallam, 2010). This seems to be a very significant factor, as a fast and effective processing of verbal information means that students will have an easier time remembering what was taught in any lesson, thus giving more time to do other tasks, such as revision for exams, which is a crucial part of their school experience and not only, and this is only one example of how a good memory of verbal information could be useful in the secondary school experience.

As regards the argument that music and mathematics are strongly linked, Hallam states that indeed, ‘most research has supported the link between maths and music, using the NELS: 88 data, compared low socioeconomic-status students who exhibited high mathematical proficiency in the twelfth grade and found that 33% were involved in instrumental music, compared with 15 per cent who were not involved.’ (Hallam, 2010).

This is a good example of how music could be very useful to have as a subject in secondary school, as the found percentages are quite significant. Concerning the evidence that goes against the argument that music and maths have a positive relationship, Hallam correctly states that the musical training provided should be of a particular nature, for example, the length of time of musical exposure correlates to mathematical performance. Music seems to have a place to claim in helping children’s and young-adults' intellectual development as well.

As Hallam shows, ‘Schlaug et al. (2005) compared 9-11-year-old instrumentalists with an average of four years of training and a control group. The instrumental group performed significantly better than the control group on musical audition, left-hand index finger tapping rate, and the vocabulary subtest of the WISC-1I1. Strong non-significant trends were seen in the phonemic awareness test, Raven's Progressive Matrices, and the Key Math Test.’ (Hallam, 2010).

Koopman argues that ‘it should be stated that none of these has been demonstrated convincingly’, (Koopman, 1996, p.484). With arguments such as that there was a lack of a serious examination or that ‘with those effects that have been examined the issues turn out to be too complex to justify’. (Koopman, 1996, p.484). However, I find myself disagreeing with the above conclusion, as we have already seen, various experiments and tests were done with sufficient data. Koopman doesn’t seem to go on explaining why these have not been demonstrated convincingly. Even if the research is indeed limited, I find it unconvincing to undermine it, as it forms a basis for further research, something arguably needed in present times, also something that could be achieved, given humanity’s technological, scientific, and intellectual progress.

Another supposed fundamental problem for this kind of arguments, ‘is that they can at best justify only those musical activities that are directly related to the effect claimed,’ (Koopman, 1996, p.484). Giving as an example that ‘if we could prove that music contributes to the improvement of social skills, this result would justify only those musical activities in which pupils do actually cooperate’. (Koopman, 1996, p.484). Concluding that along these lines, the music curriculum would be severely restricted as to accommodate for the musical activities that would aid for the development of the non-musical effects and thus would not be balanced.

Whilst it may be true that it would be very difficult to achieve having this kind of curriculum, this doesn’t undermine the fact that even in a balanced curriculum, many of the activities included would be beneficial for these effects. I also do not see how the argument that having a centred and very focused curriculum is such a threat in itself. On the contrary, I would argue that having a more focused musical curriculum rather than a balanced one – whatever ‘balanced’ or ‘focused’ mean – could be a possibility to be examined further. Although I would lack the necessary knowledge to comment upon other subject’s curriculums, I would assume that they themselves might have a narrower curriculum, such as religious studies, or biology.

The next argument I would like to comment on is how Bowman places significance in the ethical aspect of music-making. As he suggests, music is a practice, and ‘Human practices are places where we learn and rehearse right action: where we learn to formulate and address the fundamental human question, what kind of person it is good to be, what kind of people we wish to become… On this account, human practices are profoundly important ethical resources. And obviously, I am urging that we understand musical practices as such.’ (Bowman, 2013-14).

It thus seems that one of our final and most important concerns should be addressing this particular question, of ‘what kind of person it is good to be’, and we can indeed learn this through engaging in practices, therefore, by living. Therefore, music is a practice that can answer this question, and there lies one of its values. In response to the question of why music, in particular, Bowman suggests that we should emphasise the ‘distinctly sonorous, corporeal and social nature of musical practices.’, (Bowman, 2013-14). That they are simply so engaging, that they earn a place in secondary education. It thus seems that music’s ethical aspect is a very important value of it, and I would place this as an intellectual/spiritual value.

To continue, I would like to comment upon what Koopman calls the ‘music as contributing to the completely developed person’, (Koopman, 996, pg 485) which is argued to have four different components to it. If I was required to state which of the arguments I have listed is the most important, then I would argue that this last argument is the one. I would also argue that this last argument is the most complex, with many components and sub-components entailing it, and due to the lack of room to write more in this essay, I will comment upon the third supposed component: the arts as cultivating feeling. Reimer (1989, p. 50) states: 'The arts are the means by which humans can actively explore and experience the unbounded richness of human subjective possibilities.'

Reimer goes on to say that 'creating art, and experiencing art, do precisely and exactly for feeling what writing and reading do for reasoning (1989, p. 33).’ (Koopman, 1996, pg487). Reimer goes on to technically explain how we can get hold of various feelings, and work with them in a technical way by improving a feeling via improving a melody. As Koopman correctly states, this ‘raises some urgent questions. Can feelings really be controlled in the same way as thoughts can? Is it possible to abstract life-feelings from the context in which they occur and transfer them to artistic media? If this is possible, is this really a procedure artists normally follow? Is the musical medium rightly pictured as a neutral device for moulding feelings that originate from a non-musical context?’ (Koopman, 1996, pg 487).

I would argue that there is no way to answer these questions. I would urge that it is not about controlling the feelings, rather than merely experiencing them. This in itself would lead to the third argument of Koopman, that ‘the value of musical experience can be experienced only; it cannot be conveyed with words’. (Koopman, 1996, pg 492). I would argue that this might be a wrong way of putting it, as probably a better way would be that an important value of musical experience can be experienced only; it cannot be conveyed with words.’ I would also urge that it might be possible to convey it with words, and Reimer’s argument could be a good starting place, i.e. ‘'The arts are the means by which humans can actively explore and experience the unbounded richness of human subjective possibilities.', without having to explain it better. It could also be argued that music is not an instant experience, but rather a journey.

The true experience of music is to be experienced the more one engages with it by discovering one oneself through music, and this is by experiencing various feelings which are hidden within oneself, which also makes it a valuable extrinsic value.

We thus end up with three different kinds of arguments: extrinsic intellectual, extrinsic spiritual, and extrinsic intellectual/spiritual i.e. ethical.

To conclude, I would like to comment upon the three things that Koopman believes should be demonstrated if music is to have a place in secondary school. As he points out, these are:

‘(a) the value of music is such that everyone should have the opportunity to engage in musical activities;

(b) musical abilities are capable of being cultivated and

(c) the school is the appropriate place for cultivating musical capabilities.’ (Koopman, 1996, pg 483).

I would argue that the first point has already been demonstrated throughout the essay, as when one examines music’s various values, they all add up to one irreplaceable good. The second point – although it can easily be proven that musical abilities are capable of being cultivated - seems to lose value in relation to every argument I have made i.e. it is not necessary for a cultivation to take place in order for the values to be achieved – especially the ethical one - and this means that the third point loses value as well. Thus, I believe that music should have a place in Secondary school as its values are irreplaceable.


References list:

1- Hallam, S. (2010) The power of music: its impact on the intellectual, personal and social development of children and young people. In Hallam, S. & Creech, A. Music Education in the 21st Century in the United Kingdom (London: Institute of Education)

2- Koopman, C. (1996) 'Why teach music at school?'. In Oxford review of education, 22(4), pp. 483-493.

3- Philpott, C. and Plummeridge, C. (2001) Issues in music teaching (London: RoutledgeFalmer)Chapter 2 PG 24

4- Bowman, W. (2013-14). The ethical significance of music-making. Music Mark Magazine, Issue 3 Winter 2013-14, pp. 3-6.

Written by Panayiotis Tsitsaros

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