Popular Music in Music Education–A Perennial Debate

The question of using popular music in school and studio music programs seems to come up frequently. Although there are many arguments for and against, a few assumptions seem to arise from all of them. One assumption is that some genres of music are worth a student’s time, and others are not. The trouble with this assumption is that it implies that all music of one genre is better than all music of another. The truth is, there is bad music, good music, and great music in all genres. For example, the lieder of Hugo Wolf and Franz Schubert is considered some of the best ever written, while the lieder of Mozart is seldom given any notice. Aaron Copland and Artie Shaw both wrote clarinet concertos, but of the two, only Copland’s is a masterwork, though both draw on jazz elements. Over the course of their music education, students will become informed listeners of a diverse repertoire of music from a diversity of cultures. Among the abilities informed listeners possess is the ability to evaluate musical works. This entails using or devising criteria with which to evaluate a work, and then weighing the merits of a work using those criteria. Each musical work, not the genre, must be evaluated individually. Excluding an entire genre from what is offered to a student narrows the scope of the education being offered, and may result in a student remaining disinterested in music studies to the point of dropping out. My son and his violin lessons serve as a good example.

My son usually practiced his assignments, and was making satisfactory progress playing the usual mix of folk songs and classical excerpts. Then one week, the song “Bile Them Cabbage Down” came up in his lesson book. Before I knew it, he was calling me up to his room to hear him play it, and soon after that, he had memorized the tag that was designated for the teacher to play. Weeks later, he was still practicing that song, always wanting to play it more accurately and faster. Because of his interest in the song, he learned technique that exceeded what he learned from playing either the classical excerpts or the folk melodies. Even more to the point, a fiddle tune provided the opportunity to learn technique just as effectively as a classical selection would have. It is not necessary to judge musical genres and limit student access to diverse musical idioms in order to teach technique.

The same approach is in order for developing a beautiful and characteristic tone. For my son, that did not come with “Long, Long Ago” or Dvorak’s “Largo.” It did come with “Londonderry Air” in a beautiful setting for solo violin. My son practiced that more and more as he heard his tone transform into a velvety and polished timbre. When he played that song in his recital, he was every bit as proud of his tone as he had been at of the speed with which he played “Bile” a year earlier.

Certainly, the classical repertoire should not be avoided; studying great classical music is necessary for developing high levels of musicianship.  On the other hand, classical music is not the only repertoire that offers challenges and opportunities for developing players. Some well-picked pieces from non-classical genres advanced my son’s playing considerably, and held his interest so that he continued enjoying playing his violin. If music is going to be an outlet for expression, then the performer must be able to identify with the music being played.

Another example can be seen in the following video.  Watch Timothy Lockwood play “Child O’ Mine” by Guns and Roses. Of course listen to him play, but watch him too. This young man is connecting with the music, and demonstrating a developing technique. For him the song is enjoyable, expressive, and challenging—three characteristics I believe are necessary for students to be profitably engaged with a musical work.

It is likely that Timothy Lockwood also has studied classical violin, has practiced his scales, and has classical pieces in his repertoire, and so he should. It has been said many times and is certainly true that the most accomplished jazz and popular musicians were grounded in classical training before achieving greatness in another genre. It is also true that those other genres offer learning and growth opportunities not found in classical training alone—improvisation and frequently syncopated rhythms among them. The best approach is one that is open minded and eclectic.

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2 thoughts on “Popular Music in Music Education–A Perennial Debate

  1. You make some excellent points. I presume you’re coming at this from the angle of US music education? It’s rather different in the UK, where pop takes its place amongst many other different styles, but music is compulsory up to age 14. I was lucky enough to observe some fantastic band and choral programmes in Canada on a research trip – it’s a very different system!

  2. Vicki, thank you for your comment. You are right, I am writing from my perspective as a music educator in the U.S.. Music is also compulsory here up to age 14. General music is required of all students, while band and chorus is voluntary. Students not in band or chorus are not likely to hear much music other than popular outside of music classes, so giving them a balanced experience, and helping them make connections between the various genres and their lives is important.

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