Theories of Harmony

The editor of Teaching Tolerance writes on music education.

Once again, science has caught up with common sense. Exposure to music in early childhood, researchers tell us, opens neural pathways that facilitate pattern recognition and other basic mental processes. Music is broadening, my grandmother used to say. Not just socially and culturally, it turns out, but in the very structure of our brains. Educators fighting the erosion of arts from the curriculum can now bolster their argument with CAT scans.

The State of Georgia is attempting to institutionalize the so-called "Mozart effect" by sending every newborn home from the hospital with a classical tape or CD. The idea raises provocative questions: Of what value is music for children beyond its power to boost IQs? What distinguishes the European focus in recent cognitive research on music from earlier "evidence" that we now call scientific racism? What resources -- at home and at school -- does a meaningful music curriculum require?

A St. Louis parent shared with us a story that reveals the elusiveness of easy answers. His daughter's high school offers an abundant music program. Her orchestra, along with the chorus, had scheduled a trip to Germany and Austria over spring break. He was calling because the proposed itinerary had caught him by surprise: There, amid the concerts and castles, was a day trip to the Eagle's Nest, Hitler's Alpine retreat.

The father called the orchestra teacher and found that no special preparation had been planned for the excursion. Nor was there to be a corresponding visit to a Holocaust memorial or concentration camp site. A group of parents similarly disturbed by the matter met to discuss their options. Pulling out would be a forceful protest, but it seemed more constructive to try to fill in some of the contextual blanks. A rabbi reminded them that the Nazis had forced Jewish musicians to play on train platforms at the camps, to reassure new arrivals. Imagine the music lesson a good teacher could make of that, this father said.

In the end, the Eagle's Nest was dropped and a death camp added, as well as structured emotional support both prior to and during the trip. A history teacher was recruited to provide perspective along the way. We hope that the young musicians discovered a deeper resonance in their art after all.

A recent letter from two Philadelphia educators suggests an alternative vision of both the means and the ends of music education. Their elementary school can't afford a music teacher. With the aid of percussion instruments and some local Puerto Rican salsa bands, they're helping culturally diverse, economically disadvantaged students explore the universal language of rhythm. It's a low-cost, high-context response to underfunding, but the spirit that drives it would profit any school.

Perhaps the measure of a "broadening" music curriculum is not in the size of orchestras, the extent of travels or the distribution of clinically tested tapes. The stated premise of the Philadelphia salsa project needs no scientific proof: "Qué triste sería un pueblo sin música -- How sad would be a people without music."

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