What Is Music For?

Improving standardized test scores, of course. Yesterday the kids had a school concert, the kind where the bright-faced pupils stand in rows and delight parents with their cuteness and euphony. The music teacher scoured the earth to find the dullest, worst songs. One, honest to God, was a barely-melodic, unrhymed list of apple types (Honeycrisp, Northern Spy, Gala, Red Delicious . . .) and then an injunction to eat more healthily. The older kids sang this gem, in which various children piped up (according to script) about the value of music. “It helps us get better grades!” “It improves our ability to take standardized tests!”

The song – which is not worth listening to, even out of morbid curiosity – seems to have been written out of desperation, the kind of demented desperation you exhibit when you’re trying to convince someone not to break up with you. Its message, not even thinly veiled, is: “I know everything now revolves around standardized tests about math and reading; but you really shouldn’t completely cut music out of the curriculum, because it has been traditionally a part of education, and in fact even improves those math scores in a roundabout way! So, see, you really shouldn’t break up with me!”

With songs like that, I think I’d rather have my kids working on their multiplication tables. I’m completely flabbergasted. Why pick these songs? Clearly, the ONLY reason to pick these songs is that they have a “good” message (eat your broccoli, work on math, be nice, use your imagination!, etc.).

What better principles are out there for which songs to pick for music class? Here are a few.

1. Simply pick a song, any song, that you yourself love. It wouldn’t have to be a masterpiece, or educational, or traditional, or anything else. Just a song you love to sing. It could even be kind of stupid. How about “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves?

Who doesn’t like singing that song?

2. Pick a song that your students love. Billy made a perfect suggestion: Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”

Billy’s vision is that half the students could be singing “oo – oo – oo – oo – oo,” while the other half are singing the lyrics. There’s also a nice part in the middle where everybody could be clapping. Beautiful! Plus, isn’t this a good-message song, not in the moronic way, but in a true-to-life way? “Please swallow your pride/ If you have things you need to borrow/ For no one can fill those of your needs/ That you won’t let show.”

3. The most obvious, traditional principle: pick songs of the American folk tradition. “Froggie Went a Courtin’,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Yankee Doodle,” “The Streets of Laredo,” etc., etc. – there are hundreds of such beautiful songs. What about “Old Dan Tucker” – “Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man,/ Washed his face with a frying pan,/ Combed his hair with a wagon wheel,/ Died with a toothache in his heel.”

These are the kind of songs that have been recommended by educationalists since the beginning of time. Confucius says that you need to know “the tones given off by the heart,” and such tones are found nowhere better than in folk songs.

4. Pick songs that are educationally adventurous. Do something that takes a little harmony. Or learn a great song in a foreign language. I understand that folks like Schubert wrote a few decent songs. But you could even go with something a little closer to home. What about “La Bamba”?

Just don’t pick songs that nobody in the history of the world, including now, has ever loved! Don’t pick songs that were written for specific grades! And, by the way, accompany the kids with an instrument other than a tape player . . .

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3 Responses to What Is Music For?

  1. Sara Paisar says:

    I love kids and I love my job. I love teaching music. I can’t even explain how small this post made me feel.

  2. Sara Paisar says:

    I follow up with, I know I am making a difference in the lives of the students that I teach. I will NOT let your post(s) make me feel that way ever again.

  3. I’m sure you’re making a difference; and you’re to be thanked for the effort you put into making a difference.

    What other posts made you feel down? Do you despise jazz or the Beatles?!

    What principles would you suggest for selecting songs?

    I’m particularly wondering if you yourself listen to these songs on your stereo at home, or if you play them on the piano or guitar to entertain yourself or your friends. If you do, then we simply have a deep difference in the kind of songs we deeply enjoy. It would never occur to me to buy a CD of these songs, much less to bother to learn them on my guitar so I could play them for my children.

    If one doesn’t care enough about them to play them regularly at home, then my point is, why teach them? I myself don’t like the idea of teaching music for the ulterior motive of improving test scores or even getting children to eat apples, though I do love apples. (Honestly, I don’t give a damn about test scores.)

    If I’m wrong, and these are the best songs that you know to teach children about music, then I apologize. Maybe “La Bamba” and Schubert’s Lieder and “Old Dan Tucker” are worse songs than “My Music – Don’t You Know?” Personally, I find that hard to swallow. If you don’t believe that the songs I recommend are more worthwhile or more enjoyable, then you shouldn’t take offense; you should simply think, “What a fool that he thinks we should teach folk songs or art songs to children?!” Don’t feel small if you believe in what you do!

    My main advice, however foolish, still remains: teach music you love – by which I mean, music you yourself regularly listen to. Short of that, teach music of our tradition. Do not teach music that you wouldn’t care if nobody knew ten years from now.

    Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should feel small. Tell me why.

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