Music Education as a shaping force in culture

The following is one of the founding beliefs in my philosophy of music education.  I have recently been mulling over the task that lies ahead of all music education in the responsibility to be a shaping force in our own culture.  There are a number of performing arts groups situated in communities that contribute to the culture that are faced with tough times ahead as our country suffers through an economic recession.  The ripple on the pond spreads quickly and the effects are felt in the distance.  We are faced with a situation where funding from the community for these groups have dried up, and to some extent impacts the ability of educators to have the proper resources as well.  Ultimately, our ability to function as a collective partnership in the profession to improve, shape, and positively influence the culture is negated by the volatile economy.  Do we have a professional responsibility to build, shape, mold, and improve the culture in which we teach? I firmly believe that we do.  If we are to continue our move forward as a profession, it behooves us to take this mantle of responsibility where we are and begin to rebuild the cultural connection in our own community.  Reimer readers rejoice – the good Doctor’s third edition was a heavy influence throughout this article.   

One of my more critical beliefs about music education is its responsibility to be an integral force in shaping, educating, and influencing culture and society.  Similar to the thoughts of Reimer (2003), I believe that music education has a responsibility to make our students aware that music is a universal experience, the meanings drawn from music are contextual to the culture in which they occur, and that through exploration and study of other culture’s musical forms and practices students can come to a better appreciation, understanding, and value of the music indigenous to their own culture.   While I believe that some exploration and study of music of other cultures is a worthy endeavor, we are limited by our shared experience of that culture’s music, and we must be sensitive that our instruction through the represented medium in our culture may in fact not accurately represent the accepted practices of the culture from which the music originates (Jorgensen, 2003).  If we can recognize this limitation and seek means by which we are able to bring a better understanding to our students through authentic representation or performance, we demonstrate our commitment to the universal experience that music offers.  The respect and inclusion of music from other cultures is a valuable undertaking, but the profession of music education must also consider the many traditions and social values of our own culture in the music that is selected for study.  As a profession, our goal should be to provide an authentic musical learning experience for all involved and, in some cases, requires us to extend our research of appropriate music to many traditions, eras, styles, and genres as it might better reflect the desires of the community in which we teach (Rideout, 2005). 

            As part of our responsibility to educate and influence culture and society, we must develop and provide creative, responding, and listening opportunities “including but going beyond those that are readily available within the culture” (Reimer, 2003, p.160).  I will first address the opportunities within music that are engaged by the majority of the population, and later will discuss the importance of the opportunities found in the music which is engaged by a smaller portion of the populace.  I believe each side, for reasons of authenticity, aesthetic appeal, history, performance demands, and relation with aspects of the culture, is worthy of study for students at every grade level.  When music’s ability to contribute to moral conditions, regulate behavior or social norms, integrate society, enhance personal relationships, and promote social and political awareness are considered in addition to the reasons listed above (Alperson & Carroll, 2008), it becomes obvious how deeply music is integrated and functional within society and culture. My goal here is not to make qualitative judgments or imply preference, but rather to view music of our own culture from a broad perspective and illuminate reasons why there should be a diverse selection of music included for study.  The majority of my teaching experience in my career thus far has been as a high school band director and teacher of instrumental music.  The nature of this teaching position has required me to prepare soloists, chamber and small ensembles, and large ensembles of a traditional school setting for numerous public performances.  An additional part of my teaching duties includes instruction to students in a general music classroom, and although this portion of the student population does not have aspirations to enroll in one of the curricular ensembles, they are just as deserving as ensemble students to be engaged in musically meaningful ways (Reimer, 2003). 

            There is a healthy balance that needs to be achieved between the objectives of professional music educators and desires of students and community members on the music that is selected for study in education.  When the demands of the community are prevailing over the insight and experience of professionals education can be stagnant, and conversely when community values are ignored and the choices of the profession are substituted a definite rift develops between the two groups (Reimer, 2003).  In considering Reimer’s discussion on this very idea in his third edition, I believe that one of the more significant rifts that occurred between community expectations and professional aspirations has involved the exclusion of popular music from classrooms.  Reimer (2003) notes that “popular music” is engaged by the vast majority of the American populace, yet it has remained largely unused in the music classroom or rehearsal hall by the profession of music educators who seek to help their students make a meaningful connection with music.  British philosopher Kevin D. Skelton (2004) offers an interesting perspective on the idea of engaging students in studying music that I feel would be beneficial for the profession to consider.  He says,

            “Unlike most disciplines, students continuing to post-secondary education in music are likely to have undertaken private instruction in their principal             instrument, if not also in history and theory.  For this reason, it is my rather extreme opinion that pre-university music education would be served better by catering to the average students.  Such a focus would encourage more people to engage with music at a level of some personal importance throughout their lives. By this I do not mean a ‘dumbing-down’ of the curriculum, but rather a shift in focus that could benefit the musically proficient as well as the musically interested.”

While this statement is not meant to dismiss the value or heritage of existing performance ensembles within the school, educators must recognize that many students are already deeply immersed in some styles and types of popular music.  Providing opportunities to create, listen, and respond to music the student can identify with because of its familiarity creates a learning atmosphere that is energizing, refreshing, and responsive.  Skelton (2004) further advocates that our profession should seek to recognize the role music plays in each student’s life, and our classroom and curriculum should also seek to promote an increased and more diverse role outside the limits of school.  As Woodford (2005) suggests, students should be reminded of the significance of expanding their musical and social perspectives, while learning to live in a society where people’s values, morals, and beliefs differ from their own.  It is through the study of this music that we can challenge students to consider cultural, political, social and moral issues that have been central in many different styles of popular music, and come to a better understanding of the performance practices and traditions that have set it apart from other styles of music in our culture. 

            In my role as an instrumental music educator, I select music for educational study with opportunities for creating, listening, and responding going beyond what is provided by the culture utilizing music of various folk traditions, instrumental music of Western classical traditions, and Jazz music traditions.  From a historical and cultural perspective, this music has always been associated with the repertoire of music for school bands, and those ensembles retain unique characteristics that demonstrate its virtues.  The virtues of this ensemble are found as you examine its home within the school structure, the youthful spirit and energy of its members, the constant educational process eventually growing into a public product, and psychological/emotional needs of the participants as novices who are confronting complex musical challenges to their emerging self-image (Reimer, 2003, p.283). By examining the significant and meaningful music of previous generations of music educators and incorporating them into instruction, it instills a sense of the heritage that instrumental music has created among performers, conductors, and listeners.  As a profession, we should continue to preserve and present music that best represents this heritage in our instruction, and also seek new examples that extend the spirit and contribute to the advancement of our heritage.  In our search to present repertoire that answers this calling, we should also, as Reimer (2003) points out, not force our ensembles to study a “varied repertoire of music” at the expense of compromising our artistic integrity.  Over the past ten years, there has been significant collaboration among conductors, composers, and educators to identify individual pieces within the repertoire of Western bands that represent authentic, well-crafted, educational, and culturally and stylistically diverse literature that should be considered for study.  The efforts of projects like, but not limited to, the Teaching Music through Performance in Band series, Composers on Composing for Band, and Bandquest have yielded a considerable educational resource to those in our profession that are charged with educating, preserving, and advancing the heritage of instrumental music.  

            The short end is that this is not a process whereby we will see the results in one year.  I am distressed over the number of colleagues I have already known that have left the profession because it was a fight in which “they didn’t know where to start”.  We must find ways to retain members in the profession so that in time they see the fruit of their labor.  I am distressed when I learn of concerts and programs where musical expectations are far removed from the community in which it is situated.  We must find ways to preserve the heritage of instrumental music as it exists so that our audience is rewarded aesthetic, educational, and entertaining moments.  We cannot always fight the war of financial support for music education, though it is one which we should be aware.  We must be advocates that build knowledge, respect, and appreciation for our fine and performing arts programs within the schools.  We must take the responsibility to educate our communities on our value so that no school administrator or board of director for a community group will ever think “well, we have to have this music program”.  I want them to NEED this MUSIC program like a fish needs water.  This issue is bigger than me, and even bigger than the ME Blogger Movement.  But we need to be having this conversation with our colleagues about this responsibility. I’m in. How about you?


Alperson, P. & Carroll, N. (2008). Music, mind, and morality: Arousing the body politic.  Journal of Aesthetic Education, 42(1), 1-15.

Camphouse, M. (Ed.). (2007). Composers on composing for band.  Chicago: GIA.

Jorgensen, E. R. (2003) What philosophy can bring to music education: Musicianship as a case in point.  British Journal of Music Education, 20(2), 197-214.

Reimer, B. (2003). A philosophy of music education: Advancing the vision (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rideout, R. (2005). Whose music? Music education and cultural issues. Music Educators Journal, 91(4), 39-41.

Skelton, K. D. (2004). Should we study music and/or as culture? Music Education Research, 6(2), 171-177.

Woodford, P. G. (2005). Democracy and music education: Liberalism, ethics, and the politics of practice. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

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1 Comment

  1. Travis-

    I’m so glad I had the pleasure of stumbling upon your site this afternoon! You have fantastic views of music and education, composition, and advocacy! I will be sure to keep an eye out for future posts you make here!



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