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Revisiting the Aesthetic End of Music Education

A prominent philosopher of the mid-twentieth century wrote, “music is the tonal analog of the motive life” (Langer, 1957). This phrase sums up my life experience in which I have enjoyed increasingly wonderful aesthetic experiences with music. The more I have understood and the more I have learned about music, the greater has been my capacity to live more fully.

This is well illustrated in two different experi- ences with the same piece of music. At age 16, I had an All-State experience with “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from the Brahms’ Ger- man Requiem. I remember a mild experience, thinking the piece was nice, kind of pretty, but rather high in tessitura for my young tenor voice. Years later revisiting this masterpiece resulted in a radically different response. My musical and educational training and teaching experiences had afforded me the opportunity to experience the music in a very intensely differ- ent fashion. The suspensions and resolutions, the harmonic complexity and the combination of choral and vocal timbres contributed to dra- ma that surely referred to that which mirrors the tensions and resolutions of daily human experi- ence (Leonhard and House, 1972).

Although my youth gave me intrigue in the sounds I heard in music, I could not entirely sense the messages created by these elements due to very naïve and under-developed musi- cal understanding. I certainly learned a litany of songs and choral pieces in my public school upbringing but I was not formally educated in how the elements of music—rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, texture, dynamics and form— contributed to how I aesthetically responded to and performed music. Simple aesthetic re- sponse also comes to mind when remembering the looks in the eyes of former students play- ing or singing favorite pieces of music. These young people were affected in unique, varyingly intense ways by the power and understanding of their musical experiences.

As an undergraduate music education meth- ods instructor, I have read a multitude of “phi-

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losophies of music education”, all of which employed the words, “emotion” and/or “feel- ing” to recount students’ decisions to major in music in college. Although the prominence of the aesthetic argument for music education has waned in recent decades, it is my strong con- tention there is no more compelling reason for including music in school curricula. In recent years we have read much about the importance of music education in light of brain research and enhanced academic performance. I have never known a person who consumed, created or per- formed music chiefly (if at all) to develop their intellects. And yet we read more about these im- portant benefits of music education.

Caution must be exerted in encouraging students and their parents to support our music programs in the hopes that good grades or higher scores on college entrance examinations are possible. A flaw in this argument is the possibility that kids who do well in school just happen to be more inclined to choose music and other activi- ties. From a statistical perspective it is impor- tant to understand that the observed correlations between school performance and arts participa- tion do not indicate any cause and effect. Yes, it must be conceded that non-musical arguments such as the aforementioned can help our school music programs (as long as we are honest about the true implications of the statistics), but we must constantly consider how much aesthetic experience counts in our advocacy efforts.

Our collective professional conscience to en- sure that music education is offered to each and every child must also be carefully and frequent- ly monitored. Our revised national standards for music education (NAfME, 2014) essentially suggest four primary ways in which children and adolescents can be guided in meaningful experiences in music: performing, creating, re- sponding and connecting. In my opinion, there is an understatement of the aesthetic experience. Although the word, “aesthetic” is used (albeit sparingly), it is easy to become more consumed with whether or not students are performing well in certain core areas such as creating and



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