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Music for the Self: A Philosophical View of Music Education

Krystina SanGiovanni

Oregon State University



The research and thesis of this paper will focus on self-knowledge aspects of music education.

Viewpoints of famous music philosophers, like David Elliot and Bennett Reimer, will be

thoroughly expressed and cited throughout. These points include music as an art form to help

student know themselves, granting opportunities for students to express themselves in social

environments, and giving a student-centered music education that helps enrich the individual’s

quality of life. These three aspects aforementioned help inform the music student of their own

knowledge of life and music, and help connect the music to their own world. The author will

back up the thesis with theoretical and philosophical underpinnings from music and general

educators, researchers, and philosophers. This paper will cover historical, psychological,

sociological, and philosophical viewpoints from referenced sources to answer the following

questions: Why do we value music education? Who should teach music? Who should Learn?

How should music be taught? What sort of music should be taught? When and where should

music be taught? Though this paper heavily reflects the beliefs of the author, numerous

philosophers of music and general education have been referenced in support of the thesis.

Keywords: musical self-knowledge, musical self-expression, music education, music art


Music for the Self: A Philosophical View of Music Education

For decades, music has been seen as an extracurricular activity. Music, as well as the

other arts, has faced strongly negative opinions from large corporations, communities, and social

media, who have deemed music education unimportant. Indeed, this is not a new issue that

general and music educators have encountered. When a conflict arises in society, the teachers

and schools are usually the first under fire. Steven N. Kelly, an author and researcher that has

contributed significantly to sociological views of music education, states the following:

“Historically, when a problem has occurred in our country, society has at some

point looked to public schools to help solve the challenge….If music in society

is questioned, it seems reasonable to debate the need and purpose of music

education in our schools” (2009, pg. 29-30).

Often, distrust of music classrooms from parents and administration has led to several

challenges. Since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, established by George W. Bush, the

focus of education has been geared more towards standardized testing, resulting in many

educators often facing obstacles such as teaching to the test, cutting out entire units in favor of

test preparation, and a curriculum that is shallow on the surface and narrow in scope. (Kelly

2009, pg 41). Music is more than what lies on the surface. Music provides the deeper meanings

that students create and express through their own experiences. It helps them develop a sense of

empathy from music in order to better enrich their own lives. Music is an art form that can help

student to know themselves. It can provide opportunities for students to express themselves in a

social settings. Education in music should be student-centered, while enabling individuals to

better improve their own quality of life.


Why is music so important so important in schools? This has been a topic of wide debate

among educators and administrators for over a century. What can music achieve that the other

arts and subjects cannot? The answer is simple: music as an art form is one of the only subjects

that can lead to active emotional responses from the listener. In education, music assists in

student self-learning and positive experience and helps connect the music to a student’s own life.

One famous music philosopher, Bennett Reimer, expresses these fundamental values. He states,

“Music and the arts are unique in the values they offer, and these values are so fundamental to

any notion of the good life as to be unquestionable in their necessity” (Reimer 2000, pg. 9).

Music doesn’t teach the same exact value system as a general education classroom. If it did, then

music as a subject would be redundant. Music helps enrich the individual quality of life simply

in its own sake. It makes the student feel human and whole in their individual and social life, and

is the only subject that can help students achieve their self through active emotional responses

(Reimer 2003, pg. 28). Music helps the student achieve a sense of self, and as William Tomlins

states beautifully, “In bringing this three-fold power of the child into harmonious expression you

complete the circle of his individuality” (1966, pg. 151-152).

Most of what has been discussed involved music in the schools, but should music

education be restricted only to the school setting? Not at all. No matter where someone is at in

the world, no matter what age, race, religion, ethnicity, or otherwise, music should be available

to everyone. All people, regardless of any factor, should have access to learning music in formal

and informal learning environments. Everyone should explore as many genres as possible to aid

in the connection of the music in their own lives. Music develops personal meanings and culture,

therefore all humans must be able to learn and listen to music. In the schools, music should be a

part of every child’s education, and treated as equally as the other subjects like math or biology

(Winner and Hetland, pg. 164). Music researcher and professor Dr. Wayne Bowman describes

music as a totally human experience. According to Bowman, “Music is without a question a

ubiquitous presence in human societies, and musical propensities are clearly along the more

remarkable and distinctive attributes of the human animal...inessential though music may be to

life, it is indispensable to a life lived well, or to a life worth living” (Bowman 1998, pg. 1). The

power of music to enrich lives is undeniable, so why is music still being denied in some schools

or seen as unnecessary? The act of listening to music, both alone and in groups, is socially and

culturally humanistic. Learning and listening to music will help people gain new perspectives

while developing their own. This informs their own thinking, gives them new ideas, and

develops tolerance of varying musical preferences (Mark 1998, pg. 107). To summarize this

point with David Elliot’s philosophy, “All students of all ages should be apprentice musical

practitioners” (Elliot 2015).

Everyone has the right to learn music, but should everyone teach music? The hopeful

answer would be yes, but realistically it is not possible. There are some people who would excel

in the teaching profession, but others who would sorely lack the experience and skills in order to

effectively teach. The ideal music teacher should love teaching and learning about music,

actively seeking out new opportunities to learn and teach to the community and school setting.

Music teachers should have extensive background in the subject, so they can teach their material

effectively. They must be able to be flexible: plan accordingly, yet improvise quickly if the

situation calls for impromptu decision making. The teacher must be confident in themselves to

teach, so they can be a model for to the students to find confidence in themselves to learn.

Reimer states that people who know exactly what their goals are as professionals know why

those goals are important, and can back up their goals with the help and support of other

professional teachers (2000, pg. 4). To be a good music teacher, the individual must have, “a

high degree of musical sensitivity and pedagogical experience" They should also possess both,

“a broad foundation in music and an area of specialised focus” (Reimer 2003, pg. 97). Teachers

are people that students look up to for help, so the teacher must be able to answer any questions

that students may have. This means that teachers must be informed about what they are teaching,

and be able to teach what they know efficiently. Elliot states that music teachers should have an

appropriate level of musicianship, and be at the very least competent. An effective music teacher

should be able to improvise and reflect on their teaching practices in order to develop students’

music learning and practice (Elliot 2015). Besides knowing how to teach, music teachers must

love what they teach. According to Reimer, “The strength of the field ultimately depends on the

conviction of its members…” (2000, pg. 4). This implies that a music teacher must be dedicated

to their subject enough to want to teach their community. In order for teachers to teach

effectively, they must be confident enough in their own learning, and not be afraid to consult

their colleagues and research to better their own teaching. This not only improves the teacher,

but it improves students and student learning, and if the teacher shows confidence in their

teaching, it will reflect back on the students, who will start taking initiative in their own learning.

Are there music pieces or genres that should be taught over others? Music teachers

frequently choose music that they deem themselves as valuable, so their classroom usually

reflects music of their own bias. However, not all music teachers stick to the same repertoire.

Some music teachers may want to expand their music library and practices, so that students can

gain access to new information and experiences. This means that the music teacher ultimately

decides what is deemed appropriate for their own classroom. Music in the schools should not be

limited by genre, and music instructors should teach as many different genres as possible. Elliot

believes that music performance and, “authentic music making” should be the primary means of

education for all music students. He sees music education as multicultural by nature, with no one

music idea, philosophy, or practice that is more or less valuable or worthy than another musical

practice. (Elliot 2015) Instructors should aspire to cover all forms of music. However, teachers

should be careful to not include music that is deemed inappropriate, harmful, and/or derogatory

in their lesson plan. Some music practices are more appropriate than others for the music

classroom. For example, it is more appropriate to sing a piece written for choirs, than to sing a

piece that is only written for a string orchestra. Music teachers must take the style of the music

and make appropriate lessons around it so the students can gain new and better experiences

(Elliot 2015). Music of varying cultures need to be explored in order for students to gain new

perspectives and inform the self, gaining new knowledge from a wide variety of sources in order

to make informed decisions about the types of music they like. From the 1960s, schools in the

US have tried teaching diversity, and the curriculum now is reflects the various cultural values

and traditions (Mark 1996, pg. 9-10). Patricia Campbell states that music teachers and

professionals have given more of their attention to, “matters of musical repertoire authenticity,

cultural representativeness, and the appropriate age or grade level at which to present and/or

perform it” (1994, pg. 65-66). Students must be allowed to experience a wide variety of different

music, so it is up to the teacher to choose their repertoire carefully to help develop a students’

musicianship and musical self.

Is there a right or wrong way to teach music? Usually, music teachers have a role model

that they learned from, and model their classroom after how they were taught. Alternatively,

some music teachers have had terrible role models, and wish to create a classroom that is the

exact opposite of how they learned. As well as what should be taught, teachers are ultimately

responsible for how they teach music in their classroom. Because music can help develop a

student’s social skills, students must learn in groups with their peers. This is a value heavily

aligned with Elliot’s philosophy. He believes, “...the socially determined and shared ways of

thinking we call musicking and listening tend to link self and others in community" (2015, p.

192), and that musical practices and musical works are "among the most fundamental ways in

which human beings express and impress cultural values and beliefs" (2015, p. 185). The social

environment, which includes parents, family members, peers, and teachers, are the foundation of

our own educational development. From the social interactions, students should be able to think

critically about their own music knowledge, and relate their own experiences to those of their

peers to gain perception (Hargreaves and North 1997, pg. 315). Students must discover music

together in shared experiences, so that they may relate the music to themselves and others.

According to Woolfolk, “Through discovery, students should be put in situations where they will

be challenged to understand, but where support from more experienced students and teachers is

available. Motivation occurs when individuals support others to attain understanding and achieve

a goal” (1998, pg. 91). Instruction and repertoire should be decided by the teacher, but students

must make their own meanings of the music. Though a teacher can guide their students and

classroom, ultimately musical decisions must be made by the individual student (Benham 1964,

pg. 54).

Music learning and experimenting is essential for primary school, but musical experience

should begin as soon as children can hear. In some cases, this can be as early as childbirth, or

even when the child is still in the womb. Repertoire should be chosen based on the stages of

child cognitive development, detailed by Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive

development. According to Piaget, there are four factors to cognitive change. These factors are

biological maturation, activity, social experiences, and equilibration (1950, pg. 4). Through these

factors, students mature and interact with their peers and environment to develop cognitive

abilities. In music, a child can gain experience as early as they can hear, and when parents

interact musically with their child in early stages of development, it can lead to growth and

positive experience (Vygotsky 1978). Kelly backs up Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s view by stating

that, “All students have some capacity to learn if material is presented in a manner that can be

understood during the appropriate time in development” (2009, pg. 90). Music educators must

work with their colleagues to provide opportunities for all people. Teachers must create

meaningful musical experiences beginning at the earliest age possible so that students seek to

continue musical learning throughout life (Choate 1968, pg. 139). If music is regularly practiced

in the household and community, as well as in the music classroom, then there is a greater

chance that students will continue to seek opportunities to grow themselves musically.

Education grants students the necessary knowledge to be independent thinkers and

achievers. A good education provokes student individual thoughts, ideas, and opinions that can

be shared and expressed. It is a way of learning concepts that are unknown or unfamiliar, and

expands upon knowledge that is already known. Music, much like general education, provides

deeper thoughts and understandings to help guide students to think independently. However,

music does this is a way that general education does not: Through active listening and

participation, music provides a unique approach that taps in to human emotion, thought, and

feeling. Music brings students to their own self-knowledge, letting them reflect on what is known

and what is unknown through their own social and personal experiences in the music classroom.

The musical experience is a gateway to the self, to better the lives of all listeners simply in its

existence, and reinforces the student’s own knowledge of the self and the musical world around



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