What value should we give to a music education?
At this time we hear much about the idea of an academic curriculum. We are reminded that schools are for learning, the learning of academic subjects. Government policy makes clear that some subjects are more academically significant than others. Beyond academic subjects there are vocational subjects. So where is music in this? Its identity, like the other arts, is full of contradictions. Music commits a cardinal sin and offensive to the idea of the academic. You see music involves the body, essentially so. In the pressure cooker of the academy music becomes a place to let off of steam, music is cathartic; music thought of as a perfect counter-weight to the hard edge of the academic. And now music can be seen as good for all kinds of things. The list grows ever longer.
In promoting Music The United Kingdom Association for Music Education’s website trumpets ten things you should know about music. Did you know that:
1. It boosts pupil and social development
2. It improves learning skills
3. It fosters team work
4. It underpins better behaviour
5. It encourages creativity
6. It builds life skills
7. Music is for life
8. It is an educational building block
9. It is fun
10. It is for everyone
These are of course designed to be selling points and sound to me like promises, the kind you get on an advert for a product in a supermarket, and they are promises that can’t be kept. This approach presents music as a kind of currency easily exchanged for just about anything including employability and economic productivity? In this view Music is good for something, good for just about everything. What could music not be good for? But what if music were good for nothing?
In 1998 Ofsted published ‘The Arts Inspected’ setting out examples of ‘good’ teaching in the arts and of interest here, ‘good’ teaching in music. Not outstanding teaching we note, just good. The writers begin by telling the reader why teach music and the arts? No not because the law requires them to be taught as part of the National Curriculum. No not because involvement in music leads to higher achievement in other subjects. Instead, music and the arts can be valued for their own sake. To quote:
‘They mirror the whole repertoire of human experience, and are worthy of study in their own right. It is difficult to imagine the world without arts…[without music]’
Music good for itself? No purpose?
What other activities are good for nothing, activities that have no purpose? There is one example that I think can help the argument I am advancing. Play.
Play, whether child’s play or the game with rules, no one knows how a game will end or quite what will happen as the game is played. What matters is what happens when the game is in-play and this is the same with music-making. Its value lies in the process of making where time is forgotten but which is a time of fulfillment in-itself, where a life is being made as well as music, where I can reflect on existence, where I can ask ‘who am I?’ (not what am I? what level am I?), and ‘what is the most excellent version of myself?’, ‘how can I transform myself and the world?’
So, Music, no not soft nor for that matter hard, but fundamental and certainly not currency to be exchanged. A musical education is far too valuable for that.