What Music Means to Students and Why That’s Important

Much has been written, (and unfortunately fallen on deaf ears) about the benefits of music in people’s lives, and especially in the cognitive and emotional development of children. Often, this research has been used by music education advocates to garner or boost support for local music education programs, which seem to always be threatened by budget cuts in some place or other. It is odd that what one learns in Algebra, Calculus, Physics and any number of games played in Physical Education classes are almost universally held to be necessary life skills, while the learning from Music classes are not. Truth be told, I cannot recall a day when I have put to use anything from Physics, Calculus, or a shirts versus skins game of crab soccer or broom hockey in the gym, whereas I would be hard pressed to remember a single day in which music did not figure prominently. I don’t think this is just because I am a music educator. I think most people would count it a serious loss if they had to go long without music in their lives. So how is learning music less important than learning those math and science items?

The place music has in the lives of people goes deeper than the uses it may have in daily living.  Researchers have found that there is a relationship between identity formation and music. “Listening to and performing music facilitates the articulation, shaping and acknowledgement of a particular cultural or ethnic identity” (Lidskog, 2017). As people move from one country to another, they bring their culture and therefore music with them. That music helps transplant their native culture into their new setting. As elements of the new culture mix in, the new mix helps the newcomers assimilate the two cultures, with each being changed and enriched. 

On a more local level, students claim and identify with the music of their generation, which has a culturally unifying and clarifying benefit for them. This was demonstrated by Sarah Donnelley, a music teacher for the Wilcannia Central School, in New South Wales, Australia. She produced a video of her students singing with a recording of “From Little Things, Big Things Grow” by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody. The video was made during the Covid-19 lockdown, and went viral. It demonstrated that community involvement through music can be a powerful way of uniting rural residents suffering under the weight of isolation brought about by a pandemic.

Ms. Donnelley explained that 

Songwriting is an important part of the music programs I run. Exploring the lyrics of songs well-known to students is a great entry point to literacy activities, particularly for reluctant readers and writers. Unpacking the meaning, whether individual or part of a political or historical narrative, is not only powerful for learning but demonstrates to students the power of voice. Supporting students to write their own songs, in any genre, empowers them to explore their own culture and identity. Amid COVID-19 restrictions as teachers we were feeling so strongly the lack of connection with our students. I missed my weekly music lessons, and my team knew we needed to do something to show students and their families that we were still connected. By re-writing the lyrics to a song that we as a school knew well and loved, we were able to send a strong message to our students, while also giving them something that they could be a part of. (Henebery, 2020)

In a recent study, researchers found that music improved students attitudes toward classmates from different cultures. (Aldeguer, 2017). Working from the hypothesis that “musical activities had a positive effect on their attitudes towards other ethnicities in the music classroom,”Aldeguer found that “when the children shared them cultures with the peers, relation change between them. …peer rejection was reduced after work together with music activities and the performance of the last educational concert.”   

Music has meaning and importance to students that goes beyond the academic benefits of improving performance on non-musical educational tasks. Music is a product of human invention. It is something that does not exist in the natural world, but is the result of human manipulation of aural material into something that can be performed by people for an expressive (emotive) or self-preserving purpose. Musicality includes the “underlying biological capacities that allow us to perceive and produce music” (Savage et al, 2020). In other words, we are hard-wired to create and perform music. It is an innate human capacity. The implementation of that capacity in each individual is a quality that defines and clarifies who we are to ourselves. 

Generational culture is an interesting facet of this discussion. Children and adults have separate cultures, yet the adult culture tends to heavily influence the child culture because children are surrounded by and live with adults (Ardipal, et al, 2019). The differences in those two cultures can be seen in distinctions such as children’s songs/nursery rhymes compared to songs and literature an adult is likely to consume. Songs born out of adult culture express adult themes which are of little interest or outright undesirable for children, whereas adults have little interest in reading children’s literature or reciting nursery rhymes unless it is to their children. But giving children opportunity and space to take in and express and create through artistic work of their own childlike culture is important, and it is important regardless of whatever residual benefit it may have on their performance in other academic areas. Artistic creative engagement not only helps children establish their own identity, it also helps them relate to each other by becoming an object that can be shared and enjoyed in groups. 

Everyone will respond to a given piece of music based on what it means to them, which is informed by the degree of familiarity one has with that particular musical genre. Personal meaning and the ability to generate musical ideas and works will always be highest for genres and cultures with which one is most familiar. So if, for example one is going to teach students how to drum, a teacher could give students a band method book, teach them how to count and read music, how to hold drum sticks and strike the drum properly, and proceed teaching the student to play the drum in the usual, notation, Western European tradition. Or, that teacher could give the student a pair of drumsticks and a bucket, and tell them to play a beat. Use whatever the student plays as the starting point, and have fun improvising conversational rhythm patterns. Students are well versed in hip-hop rhythms and will often amaze the unsuspecting teacher with what they can play. That is teaching from the students cultural perspective instead of the unfamiliar teacher’s cultural perspective. When music is allowed to work in the lives of students in the ways they need, and objectives to the contrary are abandoned or revised to help rather than hinder students in meeting those needs, music education will be more tightly valued by all. 

Notes

Aldeguer Santiago Pérez. (n.d.). The influence of students’ cultural music and classroom music activities on their attitudes towards their multiethnic peers. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 3471–3475. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.01.786

Ardipal, Fuji Astuti, Dewi Pebriyanti (2029). Teaching music based on student’s culture in elementary school. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 464, 106-113.

Henebery B. (2020). How music helps student explore culture and identity. The Educator Australia. December 3, 2020. https://www.theeducatoronline.com/k12/news/how-music-helps-student-explore-culture-and-identity/274590. Accessed August 25, 2022. 

Lidskog R. (2016). The role of music in ethnic identity formation in diaspora: a research review. International Social Science Journal 23–38. https://doi.org/10.1111/issj.12091

Savage P. E. Loui P. Tarr B. Schachner A. Glowacki L. Mithen S. & Fitch W. T. (2020). Music as a coevolved system for social bonding. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 44, e59:1-22. doi:10.1017/S0140525X20000333

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