Muted approach to music education makes no sense

Music improves discipline and social skills. Juanedc/Flickr

Despite savage public sector cuts, the British government has ring-fenced money for musical education. While music may not appear to have as significant a hold on the Australian cultural imagination as sport or literature, there are many good reasons why our government should follow suit.

The Henley Report is credited with helping to persuade English ministers to dedicate funds to music education from primary school through to high school and beyond.

Following Henley’s recommendations, students’ access to, and experience of, music in and out of the classroom will be taken into consideration in developing a new national strategy for music education.

The report also makes specific suggestions concerning the desirability of a system of professional qualifications for private music teachers, as well as a programme of inducements to encourage our best music practitioners into the classroom.

The underlying assumption of the Henley report, and in my view its most important, is that music education should ultimately be about questions of value. Music education should be encouraging all of us to ask what, exactly, is worth listening to, or playing, and why.

This is because it considers Music should be ultimately, and I believe properly, conceived as a humanities discipline in the broadest sense.

This is no mere taxonomical finding, it has policy implications for education departments and our universities in particular.

Music has, without doubt, become one of the most highly regarded and sought-after disciplines in our primary and secondary schools.

Buttressed by evidence drawn from numerous empirical studies, it is now generally accepted that active participation in music improves a student’s discipline and social skills.

It also has beneficial flow-on effects in areas such as numeracy, literacy, language attainment and mental health.

It is not for nothing that musicians feature heavily on brochures promoting the country’s elite private school.

Nor is it coincidental that so many of them have made multi-million dollar investments in music facilities in recent years.

Music is a key factor in the proposition of added value that these schools represent for parents of prospective students.

But the current federal government is reluctant to include music as a stand-alone subject mandated in the national curriculum.

This suggests that in Australia, at least, access to quality music education and quality music educators will remain substantially determined by a pupil’s social and economic circumstances.

This should be of general concern for us all.

For the value of music education to Australian society extends beyond just student skill sets and school buildings.

Even if we accept that music does not currently inhabit our public discourse with the potency that characterises many indigenous or immigrant societies, it has arguably been never more significant a social phenomenon.

It now inhabits most of our waking hours, from the moment our radio alarm clock goes off, through what we absorb during the course of a day, whether that be from our iPod, or the musak pumped into the supermarket or nightclub. It could also be the soundtrack to the film or television programme we might be watching, or what we play through our car stereo.

A mind that can appreciate music, but is yet unable to create it, reflect on it, analyse it, or judge it, is a mind that remains at the mercy of this sonic reality of modern Australian life.

Indeed, music education provides one important way through which a society can think and reflect on what makes life worthwhile.

There is a strong case, then, for the federal government to make specialist music education a educational priority for all Australians.

Our universities should ensure that our tertiary education system continues to provide courses of the requisite breadth and depth.

These courses should concern themselves not just with the heritage of Western music, but also its contemporary realities.

Universities need also to lobby for public and philanthropic funds to ensure they provide adequate infrastructure to support them; music facilities on campus often compare very poorly with those offered at local secondary schools.

They will then be best placed to provide the nation with not just a new generation of performers and academics, but also music teachers of sufficient quantity and competency.

In short, policy makers need to look to the Henley Report.

The ultimate value of music education, like any system of education, lies not only in its capacity to increase our economic prosperity, but also in the extent to which it improves our ability to understand, reflect upon, evaluate, and negotiate, the conditions of existence.

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