Does a Focus on One Genre of Music Hurt Music Education?


It is no secret that music education in America faces many threats. Curricula have been narrowed and a focus on testing in core subjects has diverted many educational resources to science and math education. Some would say this is for the better. Others would say that our children need to be well-rounded, and arts and music education are central to maintaining our culture. Plenty of studies underscore the importance of music education and its beneficial effects on learning for other subjects.

Kids and teens have an almost inbred interest in music. Thanks to the wonders of file sharing, Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes, most of them have thousands of songs on their playlists. Having ear buds and cords coming out of their ears is as common to them as wearing shoes is for the rest of us.

Ask any teen what is on their song list and you’ll find a wide range of genres and artists. It seems that tastes in music have broadened quite a bit over the past couple of generations. The only thing you’ll find in common on these playlists is that one genre is specifically missing from most of them:  Classical music.

The decline in music education comes both from the supply side (schools not offering as many opportunities) and the demand side (kids not being as interested in playing instruments and parents not caring enough to press to save the programs). Perhaps the decline in participation is inevitable, but I have a feeling that if enough students and parents wanted them and clamored for them, music programs would be expanding and not contracting.

A key contributor to this problem may be the types of instruments we offer to students. Ask any teenager to name which instrument they would play if they had the talent and opportunity. The vast majority would play back to you what they are hearing on their iPods: electric guitars, keyboards, bass, drum kits, ever turntables and mixers. How many of them would respond with instruments like the violin, the cello, or the clarinet?

Yet for some reason those are the types of instruments we offer students in school. Almost exclusively. Why is that? I am not quite sure when it happened, but a long time ago classical music interests completely took over the direction of music education in this country.

Ray Charles (quoting someone else I believe) once said that there are really only two types of music: good music and bad music. He is right. We need to get over a snobby perception that the local Philharmonic is somehow producing better and more culturally significant music than the local hip-hop artist or the busker playing for dollars in the subway.

What matters for our children is that they learn to create and have an opportunity to work to improve their skill.  And ultimately contribute to our culture.

Music educators should learn from the changes in physical education over the past twenty years. In many districts, the physical education program is no longer seen as “play time” and as an opportunity to give students a quick break from their studies. Physical education is now seen as a way to expose young people to wellness education and to learn the value of teamwork. Its goal is to expose students to a healthy lifestyle and hopefully to impress the value of keeping fit well beyond their school years.

Why shouldn’t music education do something similar? We should be trying to spark young people’s interest in music. We can only succeed in this by incorporating instruments they like to hear and genres relevant to them into the curriculum. Expose them to a wide range of genres and help them understand the cultural significance of music. Classical music’s historical background is important to understand as it has played a key role in history. But, so has jazz, big bands, blues, folk, rock and roll, and hip-hop. In fact, a case could be made that these genres are not only more interesting to students than classical, but more directly tied to our history and culture because they are more recent.

It isn’t hard to see that these genres have a strong chance at igniting a lifelong interest in music and creativity, as they are what young people flock to on their own time. Our goal should be to get students motivated to play and appreciate music across their entire lifetimes.

We can only meet this goal by getting over a perception that some types of genres and instruments are superior to others. This won’t happen as long as the one genre children have an almost universal dislike for is the only one we teach.

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