Music, Art and Democratic Education

Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not a preparation for life but is life itself.

This year, our school-wide (pre-school through 8th grade) intention, or umbrella project, will have to do with music and sound. Today I went to a meeting to discuss this topic, which is always a sticky one for me, a former punk rocker, collector of absurd songs and lover of all things rock and roll.

I might be totally wrong about this, but my question about music in school always goes back to democratic education. What I see in music in school is a preoccupation with "fine" music, and an exclusion of other music children really listen to at home, on the radio or on the music players they have. In choosing certain folk songs, 'children's music', etc.., aren't we giving a message that only some music is good enough for school? Often when pop music is played at school, it is something like the Beatles, which seems to be our pop equivalent of classical music these days. I don't love Carrie Underwood, Justin Bieber or the Black Eyed Pea's tunes, but many of the 4th graders I worked with last year do. Am I telling them that that part of life must be kept out of school? It all feels wrong to me.

I am grateful that the schools I went to opened their doors to our music. The hippies who ran them understood how crucial music can be to identity. see 'farewell to hippie high'

What I would rather the school say is that if school is life, then the music we talk about at school can include the music we love everywhere else. I can understand the perspective of musicians and educators who fight to preserve classical music, early music, 'etc.. They are fighting a tough battle in the world of Rianna. I fight too, really! 

But what I don't want to do is shut the school door on something that means a lot to many kids. 
In our discussion, Mary, an accomplished musician and Symphony performer, asked, surely there are some criteria and standards for good visual art in school?  Why not music?
This goes back to the visual culture debate in art ed., but really, in my studio, we look at the student's own art and a lot of contemporary art, which, with it's emphasis on ideas, now encompasses many media and techniques and has gone beyond drawing, painting and even, having to be beautiful. Whether it's how to represent a Circus performer as in the preschool last year, or how to show the concept of beauty in nature during middle school photography class, the criteria I use is, did this artist deal well with the same idea my student is thinking about?

So, when developing a music program, how do you reconcile children's personal music, the music that has deep meaning to their lives, with the 'fine'? How can we develop critical consumers of music, and how do we teach musical literacy when not a trained musician? How to emphasize ideas in music, the same way we do with visual art? Finally, how can we talk about music in a way that is both inclusive and expands perspectives?

We only think when we are confronted with a problem” -Dewey


  1. I feel very fortunate that my own daughter (now in 8th grade) seems to have received a very well-rounded musical education, although it didn't all happen in her school. Unlike what you mention, her middle school musical experience has focused almost exclusively on contemporary music (i.e., 60's-today). This year, the "big project" for the year involved studying Pink Floyd's "The Wall." She's been lucky, however, in that her grandmother was an opera singer and has been exposing her to classical music since she was a tot. They still attend the opera and symphony together at least once a month. Without that family "expert," however, she would never have had that opportunity.

    As person for whom music is like magic -- I love it, but really struggle when it comes to making it myself -- I rely on those folk songs because I can actually manage to croak them out and keep a rhythm.

    Good food for thought, Anna. Thanks.

  2. Hi Anna,
    Interesting thoughts all and your writeup has provoked more questions--always a good thing. In developing a music program it seems to me schools should ask what are the tools that students need to understand musical idioms? This leads us to basics like harmony, rhythm and sound...and then no matter the TYPE of music what are ways to explore those tools and learn to listen and make sound?

    Much of the quandary seems to come from the labels we give music. I see folk musical expressions as incredibly rich, provocative, accessible, sometimes simple but often complex and as varied as the cultures creating it....or am I talking about world music? When it comes to "fine" music I once had a composer teacher who said he hated the word classical music. Felt it a complete misnomer and instead wished we'd talk about concert music vs. non live. Why call classical music high art music and separate it into an untouchable place beyond our everyday? Wouldn't it be great if we could leave aside labels and focus on what students might be able to do, and what tools they might have in their pockets to have a literacy that helps them tune into a whole range of sounds. Thanks for the provocation!

  3. This is, like Mary said, a wonderful provocation. I sometimes think about my personal values that I communicate throught my choices in the classroom - it is inevitable. We are always listening to music, and I try to keep it diverse, but when a child came in with a High School Musical CD and asked to put it on, I said no. After I said it, I questioned it for hours. Why did I say no? Just because I don't like it, does that mean we shouldn't listen to it?

    I imagine that your students are going to listen to a wide variety of sounds and make a variety of sounds in your studio this year. Enjoy, and I look forward to reading all about it!

  4. Isn't the art of music like any other form of artistic expression.... pleasing in the eye/ear of the beholder? I've always viewed art, in any form, as a medium to examine and experience my life more fully... and to try and understand the life experiences of others. How can we say that one cultural representation of music is any more valid than another? Music evokes great emotions and sensations which can relate back to specific experiences and times... providing for reflection. I try and expose my children to a wide range of musical styles, and ethnicities, to help them hear the range of human expression. I welcome and support a program that explores different genres, and cultural perspectives.

  5. What a great exploration, I'm looking forward to following your posts. I too have been in a number of bands from my HS band to my adult foray into jazz, hip hop, and ska.
    That being said, there's more to music than the audible.
    My son is at The Berklee College of Music right now. What I tell him is that he has a great responsibility to humanity.
    When disaster strikes, what do people do? They gather and they sing.
    When there is a graduation, what do people do?
    They play songs that mark the time.
    Funerals, birthdays, celebrations, meditations.
    For the lifetime of all humankind, music has been the force that transports and transitions one into the "other."


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