Everyone can and should be making music

I have a strongly held belief about musical talent: there is no such thing. Every neurotypical human is born with the ability to learn music, the same way the vast majority of us are born with the ability to learn to walk and talk. We still have to do the learning, though; otherwise the capacity doesn’t develop itself. When we talk about “musical talent,” we’re really talking about the means, motive and opportunity to activate innate musicality. When we talk about “non-musicians,” we’re rarely talking about the Oliver Sacks cases with congenital amusia; usually we mean people who for whatever reason never had the chance to develop musically.

The NYU Chorale

So what if almost everyone is a potential musician? Why should you care? Because participation in music, particularly in groups, is an essential emotional vitamin. We here in America are sorely deficient in this vitamin, and it shows in our stunted emotional growth. Steve Dillon calls music a “powerful weapon against depression.” We need to be nurturing musicality wherever it occurs as a matter of public health.

We have our work cut out for us. While working on my thesis, I read a paper by Geoffrey Lowe, Lessons for teachers: What lower secondary school students tell us about learning a musical instrument. It contains a horrifying statistic: among American high school kids who have access to elective music classes, only five percent choose to take them. In the United Kingdom, the equivalent statistic is closer to two percent. And those are the kids fortunate enough to have music classes available to them in the first place, a pool that is steadily shrinking. Why do kids abandon school music in such numbers, and what can be done about it? Should we blame the kids for voting with their feet? If the music classes available to them don’t offer what they want and need from music, aren’t they right to stay away?

A few days ago I had an experience that gave me hope. My friend Mara teaches music at Williamsburg Charter School, and they recently got a grant to build a sweet digital recording studio based around Logic Pro. She had asked me to come teach a guest class and help her get the gear set up. When the day came, there was a bad snowstorm, and I was afraid no one was going to show up.  Mayor de Blasio declined to close the public schools, but 55% of the students stayed home anyway. In Mara’s class, however, every seat was full. I get the sense that when she starts offering more sections, those will be packed as well.

Why is Mara succeeding at attracting high school kids to music when so many other schools are systematically turning them away? Some of it is is the fancy new studio, sure, but most of it is the content. You can compose or record just about any kind of music using Logic, but it naturally lends itself to the kind you can dance to. Mara is style-agnostic; she mostly wants to teach the kids about recording, MIDI, audio editing and the like. The stylistic choices will mostly come from the student musicians themselves.

I’m part of the majority of people who abandoned formal music. And like most non-classical musicians, I found my way back in through informal avenues. By the time I went to grad school for music, I was already thirty-six and had a fully formed musical sensibility. Rather than letting the drudgery of western theory classes get me down, I was able to grit my teeth and ace them. But most music students aren’t adults with many years of real-world musical experience. It’s all too easy for kids to be scared away from participation in music by their well-meaning music teachers.

The music academy has awkwardly welcomed jazz, but for the most part, if you’re studying music in a school, you’re studying theory and repertoire that would have been familiar to Mozart. The academy knows perfectly well that kids find eighteenth century European music to be boring. Nevertheless, the feeling is that the kids must learn the classical canon because we live in a coarse and vulgar age, and we need to carefully preserve and transmit the higher thinking of more enlightened times. This Quora question is an archetypal classical partisan’s lament: Do you think classical music will ever be as appreciated as it was when Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart were around?

Do we really live in a musical dark age? If we do, it’s not actually due to a lack of appreciation for Mozart, as Jaap Weel explains in his answer to the question above.

I think classical music is in some ways actually more appreciated today than it ever was before… A lot of the best classical music we have now was originally heard by very limited audiences. A lot of the older stuff predates not only recording technology, but also the mass production of sheet music. The occasional superstar, like Mozart, would travel around Europe performing music, but even then the audience was largely constrained to the very thin upper crust of a continent that until the industrial revolution was still stuck deep inside the Malthusian trap. The common music of the 18th century was folk ballads accompanied by such charming instruments as the hurdy-gurdy and the crumhorn.

The fraction of the population that appreciates classical music may not be large now, but it’s not clear to me that it was really all that much larger in Mozart’s day.

How do we broker a truce between the classical preservationists and poptimists like me? Dr. Robert H. Woody describes the difference between what traditionally-minded music educators think “real music” is and what kids think it is.

[M]any in the world of formal music education consider classical music (or maybe jazz) to be the most meaningful, exemplary, and real music there is. This perspective, however, is not shared by the vast majority of people in Western society… Research suggests that many adolescents see music classes (like those in other subjects) as undertakings done to satisfy teachers and parents. School music is linked to the performance of non-preferred styles, using an analytical approach, and difficult or boring class sessions… In contrast, real music is associated with popular and familiar styles, using a subjective and emotional approach, and often a relaxed and fun setting with others. This conception of real music is much closer to that held by most people around the world. They turn to music for the emotional rewards it provides, and it is very often a part of deeply meaningful social interactions among people.

Pop, rock, hip-hop, country, rap, and others make up the native music of the students we serve. This is not a reason to ignore these styles—we require native English speaking students to take English classes throughout their schooling—but a reason to respect them. It’s also important to acknowledge people’s natural orientation to music, that is, the appeal it has through personal relevance, emotional investment, and social interaction… Especially important for children are collaborative experiences with other kids and adults. This is because human beings instinctively observe what others do and attempt to reproduce it themselves. Young people desire opportunities to experiment with music (including freely making mistakes), to be creative and expressive with it, and to find personal meaning in it. When these characteristics are present in school music activities, those learning opportunities are more likely to be viewed as “real music” experiences by students of all ages.

This last paragraph gets to the heart of why Mara’s music class is so fervently attended, while so many others are not. Mara herself is a skilled jazz trumpet player, and I’m sure she’d be delighted if her kids found their way to that music. But she’s wise to meet the kids where they live. Dr. Woody again:

I don’t believe that the long-term success of classical music depends on convincing enough of the general public that popular music is comparatively inferior. Similarly, attendance at jazz concerts will not likely grow through its supporters taking to Facebook to mock the musicianship of performers like Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. And toward the other side of the aisle, I’d say that no one is in a position to dismiss classical music and jazz as boring or weird before making an effort to understand the cultures, values, and purposes of these styles.

The thing is that according to the prevailing musical culture, classical music and jazz are weird. They’re written in foreign languages, so to speak, or archaic versions of English. But we expect kids to just “get it,” and call them dumb or lazy when they don’t. We wouldn’t expect high school kids to be able to get through through Shakespeare without extensive extratextual support. (I was a straight-A English student, and I could only make sense out of those plays after seeing the movie versions.) Kids need a lot of musical grounding before they’re ready for the “foreign” music of the past. They can get that grounding most effectively from music they know and like, and that they feel ownership over.

The goal of general music classes should be to get you to the point where you can make sounds that are pleasing to yourself and others. A creative teacher should be able to get any moderately serious student to this point. In the western world, we’ve developed this notion that music is best left to hyperskilled specialists. Not everyone is going to have the patience or the drive to play like Glenn Gould or Herbie Hancock, but if that fact scares away a majority of would-be recreational pianists, then we as music teachers have failed. I don’t know a small child that doesn’t like music and doesn’t take joy in banging on anything that makes an interesting sound. Somehow, we’ve devised a music culture that systematically grinds that joy out of most kids (or really all of them — I’ve never met a happy classical virtuoso, have you?) We can do better.

Getting Milo started right

Not everyone needs to be able to play or appreciate classical music. Maybe people just need to be able to sequence basslines for their hip-hop tracks, or play three-chord rock, or understand a little music theory, or play rumbly ambient one-chord drones. The kids who want to dive deeper and move on to more challenging material can still do so. If everyone else is engaged actively with music, the pros will find they’ll have a much bigger and more enthusiastic audience. And maybe America will be a little less emotionally barren.

An earlier version of this post provoked some interesting responses from a music teacher named Victoria Williams. She maintains that you need the common practice theory training to make sense of any other kind of music. My experience makes me disagree; my earliest formal music theory training was in the jazz context when I was 20, and I didn’t formally learn common-practice classical theory until grad school when I was 36. I spent a lot of years in between as a working musician, getting paid to compose, arrange, teach and lead bands. I’m living proof that learning the eighteenth century rules is no prerequisite for making contemporary music.

Not every kid needs to come out of school a virtuoso or a pro. But everyone should come out feeling like they can participate meaningfully in music in one way or another. Our system is pretty good at identifying the future professionals and getting them on their way, but it fails everyone else. Starting kids with common practice theory is like starting them in English class on the grammar and style used by Benjamin Franklin. But that’s not what we do. Kids learn to read the language that’s common and functional now; only when they’re more advanced functional readers do we challenge them with more archaic language. So it should be with music.

Victoria also worries that giving the kids what they want will “dumb down” the curriculum. In the particular instance of music education, however, giving the kids what they want and what they need happens to be the same thing. I like common-practice classical music fine, I have Bach and Chopin in heavy rotation at home right now, and am glad that other people have the chance to discover them. However, it does not follow that classical music is the “best” music, and that it’s “better” than what the kids want to learn about. Western common-practice music is wonderful for melody and harmony, but it’s severely impoverished rhythmically. There’s more rhythmic interest in Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers than in the complete works of Mozart. Take a look at Charlie Hely’s hip-hop transcriptions for examples.

Furthermore, western classical is missing improvisation, which is just about the most fundamental skill we should expect from a musician, at any level. In fact, it’s weird to me how much classical pedagogy has abandoned improvisation, given that Bach and Mozart were famous in their lifetimes as improvisers. The thinking seems to be, if it can’t be written down, it’s not worth studying. But in the age of recording, improvised music is as accessible to rigorous study as notated music, if not more so. Finally, classical music is limited in its expressiveness in the areas of timbre and space. Electronic music and most of the pop on the radio put most of their expressive content there.

Victoria argues against pop in the classroom because “with technology these days [kids] can find out anything about whatever they want to know.” That may well be, but there’s no substitute for face to face teaching. I did okay giving myself an ad hoc music education, but it would have gone a lot faster and smoother if I had found the right teachers. I devoted a lot of my graduate studies to creating the kinds of educational experiences I wish I had had as a kid.

Sure, common practice period music is an integral part of Western culture, but so are jazz, blues, country, hip-hop, reggae, generative ambient, salsa and merengue and a million other things. It’s a cultural choice to privilege western European musical tradition over all of the other rivers flowing into our culture. There’s a toxic Eurocentrism at work in traditional music pedagogy, the idea that the dead white guys are the ones who Really Matter, that their music is the Ground Truth From Which All Music Springs. My classical music theory textbook in grad school uses the terms “music” and “common-practice western European classical music” interchangeably. That’s bad scholarship and bad politics, and again, kids are correct to be repulsed by it. It’s too bad, too, because the music itself is so beautiful, and really deserves better presentation.

If we want music not to be “dumbed down” we need to be honest about where sophistication lies. If you want to learn about functional tonal harmony, by all means go to the classics. If you want to learn about rhythm, go to Africa, the Caribbean, India, Indonesia and American dance music. If you want to learn about timbre and space, go to electronica and hip-hop. Pretending that all the answers lie in scores written by men in powdered wigs is the real dumbing down of the music curriculum.


10 thoughts on “Everyone can and should be making music

  1. Excellent article, Ethan.

    I agree that the classical vs pop issue is significant but I think the biggest barrier which keeps people from enjoying music-making is what you opened the article with: the notion that one requires “talent” to be a musician.

    Certainly music comes more easily to some than others. But it is the mindset that one either “is” or “isn’t” a musician which keeps many young people from exploring music. I bet that if you quizzed those high schoolers you mentioned who turned down the music elective you’d find that it wasn’t a lack of interest in music that held them back – but rather the idea that they were *already* locked out of the world of music, because they either lacked talent or hadn’t already learned to play an instrument.

    I’ve written a few times on our site about this issue:

    With the rise of easy music creation tools like DAW software and music-making apps, the need to master a physical instrument is diminishing. What remains to keep people out of the world of music is this misguided notion that one needs permission or formal training.

    I focus on teaching the listening skills because I believe that understanding what you’re hearing in music is a powerful way to become confident and feel musical. Add in some basic voice control or a synth app, and presto: you have a musician.

  2. Amen, brother! Well written, and thoughtful. The Western classical genre is in no way the be-all and end-all of musical styles, and it surprises me that the fallacy persists, especially in the academy. It’s so obviously untrue and limiting, even harmful. There is so much to be gained by approaching and learning music from more “informal” genres: deep listening, playing by ear, improvising, and on and on. What really hit me about your article was the back-and-forth about the necessity of some sort of theoretical base for “appreciating” music. Reminded me of Robb Dunn’s work on formal v. informal listening. Very insightful stuff. I think he’s published a model illustrating the differences between the two listening styles somewhere.

    In response to Mr. Sutton and the opening idea in this post of “talent” as some sort of natural ability (a stance I also disagree with and am interested in researching). I’d recommend reading psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets. A few researchers have adopted her work and applied it to “talent.” In a nutshell, people hold one of two beliefs: talent/intelligence is innate and fixed, or intelligence/talent can be grown. Which view we adopt and hold profoundly affects how we approach learning in general (intelligence), and music-learning in particular (talent). Those with the fixed mindset believe that they have to “prove” they “have it” and as a result choose easy tasks, and avoid challenging ones. Those who adopt a growth mindset (talent/intelligence can be increased through work), tend to take on challenging tasks for the learning that will result. Even more illuminating is that when failure occurs, the person with a fixed mindset sees this as evidence they “don’t have it,” and give up or plateau, whereas the growth mindset person will see it as a learning opportunity. Brett Smith has a good paper that tests the connections between Dweck’s theory and how mindsets affect practice (Smith, B. P. (2005). Goal orientation, implicit theory of ability, and collegiate instrumental music practice. Psychology of Music, 33(1), 36-57.)

    Anyway, thanks for the great post. It’s good to see more of us educators challenging the Western classical paradigm in a thoughtful way.


  3. I am an elementary music teacher. I have been trained in the Orff-Schulwerk method of teaching music to children. It never ceases to amaze me how students truly make their music “their own” during class. Students will decide a piece needs some movement, or an improvised section, or a new set of words, and they will do it. First graders have composed music within given parameters.
    I am so surprised that folk music was not included in your list. I use a variety of music in my classroom. However, I do not use very much pop music because so much of it is poorly composed, from a music theory point of view. Also, the music you have mentioned in your article is such a small piece of the musical pie. As an educator, my job is to meet the students where they are, and then open their eyes to the bigger musical world. An English teacher would not give a diet just based on Shakespeare. So why would a music teacher teach just what the kids are listening to on the streets? As far as the comment that music classes are boring, the “boring” word is a an overused word that talks about feelings, not knowledge. We taught our own children that if they were “bored”, it reflected poorly on them; that they were unable to find anything interesting in the subject.
    Yes, I am a classically trained musician. But I listen to all genres of music. Classical music is a good springboard for teaching form, notation, dynamics, expression, pitch, and composition. And, yes, my third graders did learn how to play Beatles songs on their recorders!

  4. Hello Ethan,
    Well it was a surprise to find myself quoted in your article!
    Sadly I think you have fundamentally misunderstood me, so please let me clarify. I have never said and do not agree that Western classical music is the be all and end all and that it is the only kind of music which can or should be studied in schools. My position is that ALL music has value, and the purpose of music is unique for every individual. Whether it be to have fun, express emotion, connect socially or any other reason, ALL music means something to somebody.
    I believe that children in schools should be exposed to a broad range of musics from across the globe and have NEVER said that the dead white guys are superior to anyone else. Music theory developed very slowly over several centuries and to just start kids off by looking at the 20th century onwards is ignoring too much of what is important. It is also true, whether you like it or not, that music theory as in “written notation” as we know it, was invented by dead white guys.
    There was no theory before notation- you can’t talk about music in detail if you can’t see it. Once they had figured out how to write music down, musicians began to make rules – based on what they thought sounded good. This is how the rules of harmony, for example, developed. It is enormously difficult to talk about music in a meaningful way unless that music is notated. While jazz and music from some non-Western cultures is complicated and interesting in many ways, it is almost impossible to talk about that music without referring to some kind of written notation as a point of reference. Which notation? In most cases it is the notation perfected in the common practice period.
    In the UK kids learn about music at primary (elementary) school by messing about with percussion, singing, learning the recorder, and generally taking part in lots of fun stuff. At secondary school (high school) the emphasis moves on to a more world view on music but no theory is taught – kids are not even taught how to read music. Only kids who learn an instrument get this knowledge, mostly from private instrumental teachers. It is an elite system and only those who can afford it can take part.
    It is my view that the school curriculum in the UK should include teaching kids how to read music and basic music theory (and by this I mean the things that became standardized in the common practice period, you know stuff like key signatures and time signatures!) The rules and terminology laid down in the common practice era ought to be studied because they provide a vocabulary and structural understanding which can be applied to any other kind of music. When you are armed with some basic knowledge you can talk about ANY kind of music.
    I also do believe that the emphasis should not be on pop music, because as Diane mentioned above, much of it is “poorly composed” – this does not mean by any means that I think it should be ignored completely though – in fact it can be immensely educational to pick apart a rubbish pop song and be able say WHY it’s poor. Kids without music theory have strong opinions about songs, kids WITH theory can say exactly what it is that they like or don’t like, they can use that theory to write their own songs.
    Whether you like it or not, the common practice period is our historical culture. I speak as a European, and my views are based on my geography. In other parts of the world the emphasis should (in my opinion) be based on the historical culture in that location. We are doing our children an enormous disservice if we ignore our heritage.

    • You and I certainly agree that there should be a lot more music in school, with a wide and varied curriculum. My concern is that even the kids who are lucky enough to have that access are not availing themselves of it, in horrifying numbers, and in spite of the fact that almost every kid cares about music intensely. Whatever it is we’re doing, it is not working.

      I think notation is an important thing to learn, but we start with it too early and place too much emphasis on it. It’s like teaching kids to write before they can talk. And I strongly disagree that western common practice music is a prerequisite tool for understanding all other music. I spend a lot of my music teaching life trying to get classically-trained musicians to swing, and they are uniformly terrible at it. And why not? Rhythm is not a big priority in their musical upbringing. Same goes for improvisation. Different skills are served by different media. Absolutely, complex melodies and harmonies are best learned from notation. But rhythm and improvisation are best learned by ear from recordings.

      Right now the common practice period is being taught like it’s the only part of our historical culture that matters; everything else is peripheral. Here in the US, at least, that’s not true; Africa and the Caribbean weigh as heavily, and in some communities much more so.

      Why only “rubbish” pop songs? There are plenty of good ones to choose from. They could learn from picking apart rubbish classical compositions too, but we don’t make them do that, we stick to the best stuff. We could do the same with pop, jazz, country, reggae, experimental electronica…

  5. In the UK the emphasis in schools in most certainly not on classical music, and no child is taught notation unless they take up an instrument privately (or teach themselves, as I did age 7).
    And although UK kids are given a curriculum of pop, tech and world music, most of them think music at school is boring too.
    I guess you can’t please everyone, is the moral of the story!

  6. Just what I needed. I am curious how you feel about traditional notation in general music classes…when and where it is appropriate to introduce…if ever. I teach elementary and have not said the word staff once this whole year! Sort of a rebellion I am going through.

    • I think notation is a fine thing to teach in general music, but only at a more advanced level. People have to have an aural sense of what the symbols refer to before the symbols themselves will make sense. Sort of like how we teach people to speak before they learn to read and write.

  7. Gary-My two cents is this: Bravo! Long live the revolution! A more sound-based approach is needed, especially for young kids. Starting to teach notation too early is like teaching a kid how to spell words before he/she knows what they sound like. Just doesn’t make sense. Kudos to you!

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