Educating the Whole Person–Ethical and Social Considerations in Music Education

2011Symposium_1_2In this, the third and final installment in my series on educating the whole person and music, I will discuss the social and ethical pathways identified by Comer, and the intra- and inter-personal intelligences that Gardner found. There is perhaps no greater purpose to music than for one person to relate to another through the expressive nature of music. While a student may spend hours, days, and months preparing a performance, learning many things—fingerings, bowings, rhythms, and pitches among them—these things in and of themselves do not get at the heart of music. Roesler (2014) has observed that musical goals get at the expressiveness of music, and are by nature interpersonal. The expressing of emotions and the sharing of a musical experience with an audience (interpersonal) or even with one’s self (intrapersonal) utilizes the social pathway, and helps with self-understanding and self-expressiveness. The goal of expression becomes the focus, and what were goals of developing technique are conceptually shifted so that they are now means to an end; technique in order to express.

Performance is not the only form of music making in which students engage, and it is not the only opportunity they have to Expectationsbe creative and expressive. Composing and improvising are powerful tools in teaching students to convey musical meaning. Composing is a largely untapped resource in American schools. According to findings in one study, less time was spent on learning activities related to composing then those related to other musical activities (Orman, 2004). When a student creates music, s/he is not interpreting music to ascertain the composer’s expressive intent, but is interpreting original ideas, thoughts, expressions and emotions with a relevance and immediacy that cannot be attained with another’s work. A composer is using music to communicate to another person what they are thinking, imagining, and feeling. People for whom the original composition is performed are connected with the composer in a potent and highly personal way. When interactive music making in involved, either by the composer’s design, or because two people are trading improvisations, that bond is even more profound, because response and feedback in a purely musical way is possible between both performer/creators. While a composer may also be the performer, with improvisation, the improviser is always the performer.

There is a side to performing and creating expressively that also utilizes the ethical pathway. One of the greatest challenges in teaching the children in my urban school district is the difficulty the children have with empathy. They do not appear to be able to understand what another person is feeling, or how their own actions affect others. Music is invaluable in helping with this. Because musical performance and composing is by design intended to communicate a feeling or elicit a response, the connection between what the performer does and the affect on listeners is accessible. Students can see first hand how what they create musically affects how others who hear their music feel or behave. Connections can then be drawn between music and other actions the students might take, and how they too affect others. There is a component of this concerning students as listeners, too. When student listen to music, they often are trying to modify their own emotions, either by changing how they feel, or understanding or confirming how they feel. This connection students have with music can be likened to the connection the students have with others. Just as they seek out music to help them feel better, they can be a force in the lives of others who can be sought out for good. The natural connection between an individual and music, and between an individual and others is important to healthy childhood development.

Music education is key in educating the whole child. Nowhere in the typical school curriculum is there a discipline that touches a child’s physical and psychological make-up in as many places as music. Music reaches the body, mind, soul and spirit. It elevates a person to a level only attainable by humans, and that largely because of the glorious invention and implementation of one of mankind’s greatest achievements: music.


Rossler, R. A (2014). Musically meaningful: the interpersonal goals of performance. Music Educators Journal, 100(3), 39-43


Orman, E.K. (2002). Comparison of the national standards for music education and elementary music specialists’ use of class time. Journal of Research in Music Education, 50(2), 155-164.

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