Philosophy of Music Education

(As originally submitted to Dr. Roy Legette, University of Georgia – Hugh Hodgson School of Music – December 3, 2013 – Critical Issues in Education)

Introduction. I have difficulty remembering a time when music has not been a part of my life, in one way or another. My own musical education began at a very early age. In fact, I learned to read music concurrently with learning to read my first words in a story book at five years old. My father, as a music education professional himself, taught me my first piano pieces, as well as how to sing simple songs. Music has always been a part of who I am, and so it has always simply been accepted as an intrinsic part of my life. To consider the possibility of being without music, or even not understanding how to read or write music, is for me, as foreign a concept as being without air. But, not everyone shares that view, as I came to eventually understand after many years of growing and maturing. Music itself is unfortunately not held in high regard by many people. Some consider it simply as they do ambient background noise – something to fill the silent spaces in their lives. And likewise, in our society today, the value of an education that includes music is frequently and typically not fully understood, but is instead considered by many to be simply a nice thing to learn, if one happens to be so inclined.

Personally, I believe that the value of a music education is equal to that of the well understood necessity to read, write, and perform common mathematical operations. It is a core subject, in my opinion, and should be considered and taught as such in our schools. In the remainder of this paper, I intend to share the philosophical reasoning behind my beliefs, to explain why music is of such critical importance that it should be taught in the schools, to all students, alongside other core subjects. Also, I will describe the type of music education that should be provided to our students, and will address the skills I believe critical for all effective music educators.

Why music? Before addressing the more specific philosophy of the importance of music education, our priority first is to determine the importance of music itself. To someone like myself, who has rarely lived a day without music, this subject is so basic and the truth of music so self-evident, that speaking to the importance of music was rather difficult at first glance. But, as I reflected on what exactly makes something important, I realized that there are at least three aspects of music, as there are with all forms of art: the 1) creation of it (i.e., notation and/or performance), the 2) observation of it (i.e., listening and hearing), and the 3) understanding of it (appreciation). There are doubtless many other dimensions to each of these aspects, but each additional dimension can be understood to fall somewhere within these three aspects. And further, all three aspects are necessary to both establish the importance of and to maintain the long term vitality of the specific subject area of attention. Lacking the presence of any single one of the three aspects (creation, observation, or understanding), the subject area becomes of much less importance. For instance, if one creates a work of art, but nobody ever sees (or hears) it, it can quite easily be postulated that that specific work of art is of less importance. And likewise, if a work of art is both created and observed, but is never understood, the importance, longevity, and timeless attributes of the work are inherently less than otherwise. So clearly, when we approach art in general, and music more specifically, to search for evidence of these three aspects, it becomes obvious to even the most casual observer that countless hours have been spent over the years by many, many people in the creation, observation, and understanding of it. We can thus make the case that art and music are indeed very important.

But, to provide further evidence for the importance of music, we can see that the three aspects described above also exist for any subject area for which we already do not doubt the importance. For example, core subjects such as math, science, reading, and literature fit this aspect criteria. One might of course argue the relative merits of one subject over the other, for example by perhaps stating that math is more important than reading, or vice versa, but one does not doubt that each of these subjects is important. Throughout time, people have consistently, both independently and collectively, worked not only at creating the next great theoretical work of math or science, the next great work of literature, and also the next great work of art, whether it be music or otherwise, but also at improving their skills of observation and understanding of increasingly more sophisticated mathematical theorems, scientific hypothesis, and great works of art. Each of these disciplines are products of creative thought, and part of the essence of humanity.

Now doubtless, much of this creative progress has occurred without conscious thought towards improving the quality of output over the centuries, but regardless, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of people have an innate nature to want to improve, to perform better than their ancestors did, to understand more than their parents or grandparents did. We have obvious evidence of this constant state of progress, the need to improve, in math, science, and literature. But also, this evidence is greatly abundant in the arts, and music in particular. In an essay written by Bennett Reimer in 1959, titled “What Music Cannot Do,” this was put well (emphasis mine):

Any great discipline must, to be worthy of survival, make a unique contribution to a society and its members. That is the main point. And the fact that music is not only capable of doing so, but that its contribution is one of the most vital of all, makes our preoccupation with its lesser values a species of moral crime.[1]

Hopefully, we can each agree that music indeed makes such a vital and unique contribution to our society that its standing as a great discipline will remain unchallenged.

Why music in the schools? Next, we will turn to the issue of whether music should be taught in schools. Music and the arts are indeed important, as I have stated above, but simply because a subject is important, is that reason enough for its inclusion in a school curriculum? The answer to this questions is of course, no. There are certainly a myriad of examples of important subjects which are not and have not been taught in school, many of which the exclusion and inclusion of has changed over time in sync with the various changes of social inclinations and disinclinations. Personally, I believe music should be taught in the school. But, to understand why, let’s consider one possible rationale behind the inclusion of another core subject, one which none question the importance of. This subject is reading. When we examine reading, we understand that when students learn to read, their minds are opened to worlds of possibilities, otherwise unknown. Reading provides almost unlimited opportunities for learning, and for personal growth. And the more one reads, the more understanding one has of the world in which they live. The same case can be made for music. In describing the praxial philosophy of music, David Elliott, renown professor of music education at New York University,[2] describes his own personal viewpoint:

The praxial philosophy holds that music has many important values. Self-growth and self-knowledge – and the unique emotional experience of musical enjoyment that accompanies these – are among the most important values of music and music education.[3]

These values of self-growth and self-knowledge, which Elliot describes as core values of music, are also core to the subject of reading, and for that matter, also writing. If they indeed are core to reading and writing, and these subjects are taught formally in school, it is a simple matter to logically extend this philosophy to music, and state emphatically that music also, since it provides these important values, and even provides a few unique to itself, should be taught in school. Distinguished music educator and scholar Bennett Reimer[4] appears to agree with this basic premise, but takes the concept even further, and perhaps even more dramatically, by illustrating in his groundbreaking book entitled “A Philosophy of Music Education” how the ability to read and write music provides the student with the ability to educate feeling, exactly as reading and writing advance the human race’s ability to reason.[5] Although Elliott and Reimer disagree on many aspects of their individual philosophies, they both agree, as do I, that music is a subject of critical importance that it should definitely be a formally taught subject.

What should we teach? Having established that music should be taught in school, let us turn to the subject of what exactly should be taught. For me, this is also a difficult subject on which to write, especially since I am currently in the earliest stages of formal training in music education. The discipline of music education is very large, with many multi-faceted dimensions, so in order to help focus my efforts, I turned to the music educational philosophies of Zoltán Kodály, a Hungarian composer and proponent of musical literacy.[6] Mark Williams, a noted Kodály scholar, presented an excellent summation of the Kodály approach at the founding conference of the Organization of American Kodály Educators (OAKE) in 1975.[7] In his presentation, Williams categorized the Kodály approach into five areas: Conception, Philosophy, Methodology, Methods, and Techniques. Of special interest to me was Williams’ breakdown of Kodály’s philosophy. According to Williams, Kodály believed that 1) singing was the “avenue to musicality,” that 2) the “folk music of a people should be the natural beginning of musical education,” that 3) “only the best music is good enough for the child,” and finally, that 4) the “literate musician must be able to hear what he sees and must be able to write what he hears.”[8] Williams also describes several other aspects of the Kodály philosophy, but I have not mentioned them here as they did not seem as relevant to the specific topic of what should be taught in the schools.

As I investigated, I found that I agreed with these four tenets of the Kodály philosophy, listed above. Although I have not yet been educated in the finer points of the process, it makes perfect sense to me that young children should be taught how to sing, and that such singing should begin with the learning of simple, yet high quality “folk-like” music. In regards to singing, author Lori-Anne Dolloff, in her essay titled “Elementary Music Education,” provides further impetus for vocally based instruction by encouraging music educators to seriously consider the breadth of opportunities singing brings:

Singing in the classroom is often underestimated for the richness of possibilities it holds. That is, when singing is the medium of music education there are numerous ways of expanding the singing-listening experience, depending on the musical style practice chosen (e.g., an Irish song, a Zulu song, a Bach chorale, or a jazz selection).[9]

And, in regards to Kodály’s philosophy of choosing high quality music, author Sheila Woodward provides further favorable evidence when asking, “What musical mode is an infant learning when he or she is daily exposed to a wind-up toy that is out of tune?”[10] She also relates this interesting anecdote:

A music professor at the University of South Florida, Tom Brantley, recounted how his two-year-old son spontaneously ran to the television in response to a particular jazz rendition of superior quality. The diversion of the child’s attention from his previous activity (during which other music had been playing), and his lengthy engrossment in this particular piece, was dramatic, leading Brantlley to speculate about his child’s musical understanding.[11]

I completely agree with the implications of Brantley’s story, in that we as music educators should always strive to place music of the highest quality in front of our students. And finally, per Kodály, and I completely agree, children should also be taught how to read and write music, at an early age. As to the specific process of this education, and how it might work, if at all, with students of older ages, my personal philosophy of methodology will need to wait until I have received more education in the myriad methods that are available to the modern music educator.

Who should teach? Let us next turn to the subject of who should teach our students. First and foremost, I believe it is of utmost importance that teachers be individuals who have both a heart and passion for teaching. It is of course very helpful if this individual has been professionally and formally trained in the art and profession of music education, but it is not absolutely necessary. However, if such an individual has the intense desire to teach music, I believe their passion will drive him or her to pursue higher education, to enable themselves to be highly effective teachers, so that they can have a greater and much more positive impact on their existing and/or potential students. And, as part of that passion for teaching, it is equally important that each effective teacher have warmth, care, and enthusiasm for his or her students. In fact, in Anita Woolfolk’s text on the subject of Educational Psychology, warmth and enthusiasm are described as one of the key characteristics of effective teachers.[12] Undergraduate student Rachelle Fullerton speaks to this as well, in her article “A Most Influential Teacher,” where she describes her interview with her teacher, Mrs. Chamberlain, a highly trained voice instructor, with extensive experience performing, teaching, and directing music:

One of the things that has always stood out to me about my teacher is her relationship with her students. I always knew that I could come to Mrs. Chamberlain with any of my problems, music related or not. Boy trouble, homework help, frustrations with my parents, anything … Mrs. Chamberlain is no ordinary music teacher. During our interview I asked her what was her goal … with each student. She said that she realized early on that in order to capture a student you must “develop a trust relationship with them.” That is exactly what she did with each and every one of her students. Knowing that a teacher cares individually about you, and knows you on a personal level is so rare, but so important … Mrs. Chamberlain says that “the individual relationship with each student is what inspires them to learn” it “energizes the whole education process.” This was certainly true for me, I had this relationship with her, where I knew she cared, but I also had so much respect for her that I always wanted to work hard for her.[13]

The teacher that Ms. Fullerton describes above is a good model of the type of individual I believe should teach our students: a highly skilled and trained individual with an obvious passion for teaching, and someone that cares for, inspires and energizes each of their students to learn.

Who should learn? In this final topic of my personal philosophy of music education, we will briefly address who I believe should receive the benefit of our educational efforts. I have used the term briefly because this subject is, to me, the simplest of all: everyone. All students should be given the opportunity to learn music. It is a fundamental part of being human. We listen to music. We enjoy music. We make music. We feel. We emote. These are all connected, and integral to who we are. But, I was surprised to learn, in reading in Reimer’s discussion of Absolute Formalism, that all people do not necessarily share this view. Reimer explains the viewpoint of the Absolute Formalist, although he of course does not agree with it:

Perhaps the most widespread application of Formalism to music education is the policy of teaching the talented and entertaining the remaining majority. Music education in recent history has focused major effort on developing the musical skills of children with talent, and in this it has achieved a high level of success. And why, after all, should one worry about the general population, which is never going to be musically educated anyhow? As with all special abilities real achievement in music is possible for a few, and these are the ones who can benefit from serious music education.[14]

Like Reimer, I couldn’t disagree more with this viewpoint. Although it is true that many people will never become experts in the music field, everyone can indeed learn to understand music, and can also benefit from that learning. Music is an essential part of what it means to be human, and so to deny an education that provides deeper understanding of that essence is to deny a piece of our own humanity.

Conclusion. Music education is certainly of great value in our schools, and it is unfortunate that music educators today are forced to devote a great deal of time and energy away from actual teaching by advocating for the continuation of their programs.[15] In some school districts, these programs have actually been eliminated, which is a tragedy for the arts. However, math teachers, or literature teachers, on the other hand, do not have to spend any time worrying about whether their particular area of specialty will be removed from their school. The importance of their subject areas are simply understood to be, without any controversy. Hopefully, a day will come soon when music is considered in the same light, with the same consideration and importance as other core subjects are considered. And when that day has fully arrived, I am hopeful that there will be outstanding music educators available to fill all needed positions, teachers full of skill, enthusiasm, warmth and care for their students. Teachers that will be fully prepared to teach their students how to listen, make, perform and appreciate music of many different types. We are not completely there yet, but there are signs that we are drawing closer. In Grove Music Online, authors McCarthy and Goble tell us that philosophical discussions regarding the “diverse meanings and functions of music in human societies” are expanding in recent years.[16] I believe that this is a positive development for music education, since more discussion and debate regarding a topic is generally a sign that interest in the topic is alive, healthy and well. Hopefully, we will eventually see a great outcome in the years ahead.


[1] Bennett Reimer, “What Music Cannot Do,” in Seeking the Significance of Music Education, edited by Bennett Reimer (Lanham, Maryland: Bowman & Littlefield Education, 2009), 11.

[2] Jere T. Humphreys, “Elliott, David J.,” in Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online, 2013, (accessed November 30, 2013).

[3] David J. Elliott, Praxial Music Education: Reflections and Dialogues (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 10.

[4] John W. Richmond, “Reimer, Bennett,” in Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online, 2013, (accessed November 30, 2013).

[5] Bennett Reimer, A Philosophy of Music Education (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), 33.

[6] László Eősze, Mícheál Houlahan, and Philip Tacka, “Kodály, Zoltán,” in Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online, 2013, (accessed November 30, 2013).

[7] Mark Williams, “Philosophical Foundations of the Kodály Approach to Education,” Kodály Envoy 40, no. 1 (Fall 2013): 6 – 9.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Lori-Anne Dolloff, “Elementary Music Education: Building Cultures and Practices,” in Praxial Music Education: Reflections and Dialogues, edited by David J. Elliott (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 285.

[10] Sheila C. Woodward , “Critical Matters in Early Childhood Music Education,” in Praxial Music Education: Reflections and Dialogues, edited by David J. Elliott (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 251.

[11] Ibid., 251.

[12] Anita Woolfolk, Educational Psychology (New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2013), 508-509.

[13] Rachelle Fullerton, “A Most Influential Teacher,” Canadian Music Educator / Musicien Educateur au Canada 49, no. 3 (Spring 2008): 15-16.

[14] Reimer, A Philosophy of Music Education, 25.

[15] Kevin Tutt and Marc Townley, “Philosophy + Advocacy = Success,” Music Educators Journal 97 (June, 2011): 60-63.

[16] Marie McCarthy and J. Scott Goble. “Music Education, Philosophy of” in Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, 2013, (accessed November 30).


Dolloff, Lori-Anne. “Elementary Music Education: Building Cultures and Practices.” In Praxial Music Education: Reflections and Dialogues, edited by David J. Elliott, 281-296. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Elliott, David J. Praxial Music Education: Reflections and Dialogues. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Eősze, László, Mícheál Houlahan, and Philip Tacka. “Kodály, Zoltán.” In Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online, (accessed November 30, 2013).

Fullerton, Rachelle. “A Most Influential Teacher.” Canadian Music Educator / Musicien Educateur au Canada 49, no. 3 (Spring 2008): 15-16.

Humphreys, Jere T. “Elliott, David J.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed November 30, 2013).

McCarthy, Marie and J. Scott Goble. “Music Education, Philosophy of.” In Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, (accessed November 30).

Reimer, Bennett. A Philosophy of Music Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970.

Reimer, Bennett. “What Music Cannot Do.” In Seeking the Significance of Music Education, edited by Bennett Reimer, 5-11. Lanham, Maryland: Bowman & Littlefield Education, 2009.

Richmond, John W. “Reimer, Bennett.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed November 30, 2013).

Tutt, Kevin and Marc Townley. “Philosophy + Advocacy = Success.” Music Educators Journal 97 (June, 2011): 60-63.

Williams, Mark. “Philosophical Foundations of the Kodály Approach to Education.” Kodály Envoy 40, no. 1 (Fall 2013): 6 – 9.

Woodward, Sheila C. “Critical Matters in Early Childhood Music Education.” In Praxial Music Education: Reflections and Dialogues, edited by David J. Elliott, 249-266. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Woolfolk, Anita. Educational Pyschology. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2013.