Music carries lessons beyond the world of words

WHY study music? Isn't music study, after all, just a thing of the leisure order, devoid of real scholastic meat, inferior to the likes of mathematics, physics, geography, economics? That's the question raised time and again when the budgetary scythe whistles through schools large and small, upper and lower. Music is so often the No. 1 victim of cutbacks that the question seems hard to avoid.

Yet music has long been appreciated in various parts of the world as a potent civilizing agent and as a builder of moral fiber - particularly in Europe and Japan. At a time when Japan's social and ethical culture is being looked at closely by the West, the high regard for music study and the top achievements of its advanced students are plain to see.

Chief among the scholastic defenses of school music study is what has longest been the most obvious. The Greeks were quite serious about their educational triplum: the sciences, athletics, and music. Even though their study of music was largely philosophical rather than aural, the implications of its rootedness with the two other subjects is hard to ignore.

But those implications may be difficult to pin down when relating modern-day children to the subject. Even in public schools that keep a modicum of music instruction, says veteran music educator Robert Freeman, director of the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, it ``is normally set up so that `general music' is taught in the [grade school] curriculum by music specialists who visit classrooms in the system where they are employed for 30 or 60 minutes per week.... There is a regrettable tendency for the music specialists to be treated by both classroom teacher and students as though music activities were more closely related to recess than to the work of the day!''

Some other reasoned responses:

What is basic to any sense of educational reform is not reading, writing, or computation, but thought. Quality thought. ``Quality cognition'' that begins with a stab at self-knowledge and keeps on going. An individual learning to play a musical instrument, even at the most elementary level, is dealing with challenge, accomplishment, and self-discovery. These are part of that process of unlocking the self, which the best of education marks as its goal.

The stretching between our world of speech and the nonverbal world of playing music is a healthy one for students, a keen exercise in getting a different slant on things. Becoming a more understanding thinker is something hard to measure with any kind of academic rigor, but concerned music educators agree that it is one of the most important developments fostered by music study. Mr. Freeman argues that ``the development of musical education can play a powerful role toward the development of cognitive intelligence.... Only a moment's reflection makes it clear that suasive speaking and writing are but the agents of clear thought and cogent analysis.''

Group musicmaking in bands, choruses, orchestras, and smaller units is perhaps the more obvious, noticeable aspect of school music. But just because it is widespread, it should not be undervalued.

Making music as part of a larger ensemble can have a lasting, telling influence on students' sense of cooperation, and teamwork, and even on widening the range of things in which they take pride.

The challenge will continue to lie, as it has heretofore, in convincing the budgeteers and the authorities who oversee our young people's cognition, memory, sense, achievement, teamwork - pride - convincing them that music study has a vital academic role to play in all these areas.

David Owens is a composer and free-lance writer living in Boston.

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