A New Vision for Music Appreciation

Version 2In my post, “Essential Questions that Matter to Students,” I placed a great deal of importance on building value and relevance for students through the use of essential questions. Today, I would like to extend that conversation into the area of music appreciation. Music appreciation has been, by and large, a concept whereby those with little or no musical training are taught through a mix of music history, theory, and aural examples, the signposts of musical works composed by Western European composers from the Middle Ages up to the present time. These courses tend to privilege so called “classical” music, promoting the idea that the “classics” are, like Shakespeare, Milton and others, something every well-educated person should understand and come to enjoy if they don’t already.

In the twenty-first century, this conceptualization with its narrow focus on Western European art music, has become archaic and in need of a new vision. Just today, I cam across a writer who articulated as well as I have encountered such a vision and I would like to share his thought with you here.

In his essay, “Why Music: Music Appreciation for the 21st Century,” Frank Fitzpatrick proposed some essential questions of his own that quite aptly can drive our re-envisioning of music appreciation. Fitzpatrick asked, “how we can better use music to improve the quality of our lives and wellbeing, to enhance performance in other academics or careers, to improve our relationships, or to help us stay balanced during life’s more challenging times?” To render his point more useful, I have broken this question down into several more focused ones. How do people use music to improve the quality of their lives? How does the study of music enhance performance in other areas of our lives, including other academic subjects and careers? How does music help improve our relationships with others? How does music help us cope with life’s challenges?

I have found that many of my students are already aware of using music for mood modification, and to enhance their relationship with their friends by listening, dancing, singing and talking about their mutually favorite songs. They are less apt to be aware of benefits of music in other academic classes or as an aid in coping with life’s challenges. Fitzpatrick directs our attention to research that supports the multidisciplinary benefits of music. “Science has already shown, and continues to demonstrate, how music can improve human development in countless ways. It is a megavitamin for the brain, the ultimate mood enhancer for emotional balance, a golden key for unlocking creativity, the secret code behind health and longevity, and the connective fiber between human beings of all races, nationalities and generations” Mindlin et al (2012).  Anthems such as “We Shall Overcome” or works such as John Adams “On The Transmigration of Souls” are examples of the latter. Probing these questions builds both value of music in their lives, and raises awareness of roles and contributions that music could play in their lives if it isn’t already. Fitzpatrick wrote, “shouldn’t the first level of understanding a subject matter, especially such a powerful form of intelligence, be an insight into why it has value? If we knew the ‘why’ of music, and recognized the value and potential benefits already available to us, wouldn’t it naturally increase our desire to learn more?”

This whole idea of the value of music to each of us cannot be enacted from only one cultural perspective and context. To presume that gaining an understanding of one musical idiom suffices to elevate music to relevance and worth in anyone’s life is an illusion. The fact is, music inhabits every culture on earth, and the essence of humanity and humanness is embedded in all those musical cultures, articulated in different ways according to the life and times of the people who are products and purveyors of those cultures.

To appreciate music cannot be limited to understanding sonata form, tonality, or even 12-tone systems. No, to appreciate music must mean to gain entry into the musical existence of people everywhere; not to become so immersed in all musics of the world that we are as one from all cultures, for that is impossible, but to acquire sufficient familiarity with many if not all musics of the world to an extent whereby we can appreciate each within their own cultural context; to understand why the music sounds the way it does, what purpose the music serves to those for whom it is intended, and how, within its own vocabulary of common practices, it communicates the ideas and emotions of the people of that culture. Relevancy depends on usefulness. No music can be relevant unless it shares cultural attributes with the person to whom it might be relevant. The more we know about world cultures, the more we can understand the relevance of their music to them, which in turn allows us to appreciate, that is to understand the value of, their music.

Why is drumming so prevalent in Western African countries? Why are some non-Western rhythmic structures so much more complex than those of Western art music? What musical element(s) are favored in American popular music? In Western classical music? In West African folk music? The different answers to these questions helps illuminate the purposes and differences between these idioms, and sheds light on the cultures from which they come. Its is likely that for some or even many students, the dance music of Latin America will be more relevant than the symphonies of Beethoven. It is also more likely that the classical music of George Gershwin will be more relevant to many students than the classical music of Bach or Mozart simply because the musical world of Gershwin, with its blues and jazz influences, is closer to the students’ own musical worlds than those of seventeenth or eighteenth century European composers. Amid a desire to “teach the classics” we must not forget to educate our students in the musics being created, enjoyed, and culturally embraced right now, in our own lifetime. As with other disciplines, the past can shed light on the present and inform the future, and so there is value in studying them all, but the importance of  appreciating music of our own lifetime cannot be overstated.

Fitzgerald finishes his essay by stating this eloquently, and I will leave you with his words. “We are desperately in need of a new kind of music appreciation program — one that offers everyone the “why” of music, impresses upon us its deeper values, and helps people better understand how we can most effectively harness its tremendous benefits and better integrate those into our daily lives.” I believe that ought to be the goal of music appreciation.

Mindlin, G., DuRousseau, D., & Cardillo, J. (2012). Your playlist can change your life: Ten proven ways your favorite music can revolutionize your health, memory, organization, alertness, and more. Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, Inc.


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