Thoughts on Music

The in-depth and devoted study of music is perceived by many as either fluff or irrelevant to today’s education and world. It is neither. Archeological excavations have discovered various musical instruments that predate historical society, and every human culture, without exception, has some form of musical expression. Music, in particular classical music, is a discipline based entirely upon rigorously applied mathematics, requiring intellectual and physical abilities developed over a period of years. Music has been a key element in culture and politics for at least 50,000 years, and cultural musical achievements are inseparable from a culture’s political, economic, and even military power.

Yet, even today, some politicians and educators question the value of music as a subject of educational study, assigning higher priorities to everything from driver education and athletics. After all, with American Idol, the message is that anyone can sing. With such skepticism and ignorance about the disciplined study of music, one must ask the basic question: Is music important to a culture, and if so, why, and to what degree?

The music enjoyed, played, and composed by a culture defines the soul of that society, and how music is taught in that culture, and to whom, not only illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of its education system, but foreshadows the fate of that education system — and of the society itself.

Aristotle called music the keystone of education. In practical terms, more than any other single discipline, music improves intellectual functioning, emotional intelligence, and understanding of and ability to integrate multiple intellectual and physical activities. PET brain imaging studies show that sight-reading and performing engages more areas of the brain than any other activity.

As noted by a number of scholarly presentations over the past decade, music increases emotional intelligence, and as pointed out by the neurobiologist A.A. Anastasio [Decartes’ Error], intelligence devoid of emotional content is an impaired and reduced intelligence. It is not exactly happenstance that Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein were both violinists, or that a high percentage of physicians have musical talents and abilities.

Ensemble musical performances also require cooperation and coordination under time pressure. This is a useful skill in a society that exalts individual success at any cost, particularly since we live in a complex society that rests on cooperation. One has only to look a various third-world societies or Middle Eastern cultures — or even western situations such as Northern Ireland or Basque Spain — to see the devastating impact of societal divisiveness.

Although it is scarcely politically correct to declare so publicly, all music is not equal, either within a society, or in comparing music from different societies. Because almost every human being can do something that can be called music, all too many humans equate what they like with excellence. Such popular personal taste does not necessarily recognize or reward technical expertise and genius. As in many fields, understanding and appreciating excellence in music takes education and talent.

In terms of the larger implications for American society, all too often overlooked and obvious is the fact that for the past 600 years western European music has been the most advanced, most technologically diverse, and most multifaceted… and that western European culture dominates the world — politically and in terms of economic and military power — and has ever since its music developed in its present form. The only cultures that have been able to challenge western-European-derived ones economically, politically, and militarily are those that have adopted — if by adapting — western European music.

Music is indeed complex. Like all of the most worthwhile disciplines, it requires study, long hours of practice, and is expensive to teach. But… as in all matters, what is cheap and popular does not survive. In that sense, it is far too expensive for the future for universities, especially state universities, NOT to teach music. Americans live in a nation that is increasingly polarized by two opposing straight-line, single-value camps of thought. Americans also live in a nation whose popular music has been degenerating technically and compositionally as this polarization has increased. This is scarcely coincidence or mere happenstance correlation.

Likewise, music teaches its students how to handle multiply faceted values and inputs, a skill more and more valuable in a complex and multifaceted world. Because music does increase intellectual and practical abilities, eliminating and/or reducing the study of music at state schools is another critical factor in effectively limiting, if not destroying, the position of the United States as the principal dominant society of the world.

That is because music will only be taught at elite state and private universities, and, when taught at other schools, educators are increasingly pressured to simplify and dumb-down the curriculum, because true musical education on the collegiate level is anything but easy, and difficult courses are less popular and have lower enrollments. This combination of exclusivity and content degradation will only help to increase the division between the privileged and the rest of the population at a time when the economic gap between these groups is already increasing. In addition, it will contribute to other trends already reducing the proportion of the population with the range of skills necessary to analyze, manage, and innovate in a complex world society.