According to Martin Luther, “Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” Though these words remain true, sadly the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in America have given birth to a modern form of industrialized education, where the goal is to “get a job” rather than to “nourish the soul.” To paraphrase musicologist Dr. Carol Reynolds, the digital “dulling” of children continues to be on the rise, as more people become consumers of artificial, electronic sound, and less are able to play an actual acoustic instrument and experience the full involvement of the senses and grand unity it provides. Most agree that studying music requires a considerable amount of discipline and diligence. Leaders in classical education would say it’s a core piece of the educational puzzle, while many others see it is a trivial luxury or a resume filler. The fact is that in order to be fully human as God intended us to be, music must remain an essential part of the curricula. People should study music for five main reasons outlined as follows: Music is powerful, music is therapeutic, music improves the mind, music communicates across cultural barriers, and music was created by God for His own glory.
1) Music is Powerful
Have you noticed that a musical backdrop is placed into almost every meaningful activity in which we engage ourselves? Think of restaurants, stores, and movies. It’s almost as if our very lives have their own soundtracks. This music is placed strategically because music is truly a powerful force. Entire cultures are even defined by their music. Beethoven proclaimed that “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” As one of the seven liberal arts, music takes its rightful place in the upper division called the “quadrivium” with the other math-based sciences of astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic. As I have heard Martin Cothran of Memoria Press explain, music has mathematics at its base, and deals with relationships between quantities, so music is quantitative. However, it also deals with language and beauty and is therefore qualitative. This combination of the quantitative and the qualitative gives music the unique ability to reach straight to the soul of man. In the case of Odysseus, when he had to be strapped to a ship to avoid the song of the sirens, it was unfortunate. But for the Israelites, when they blew their trumpets and the walls of Jericho came down, it meant triumph. Think of how the wrong kind of music can affect a person’s behavior, and the immoral themes in some of the music of modern culture. On the other hand, consider the ethereal quality of Bach’s simple Prelude in B-flat minor, which lifts the soul. Aristotle believed that music had the power to form a person’s character. The power that music possesses makes it crucial to be a student of music with a discerning ear for truth.
2) Music is Therapeutic
In I Samuel 16:23 we read, “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” Music is therapeutic. God created human beings to be drawn to the beauty of it, and to be refreshed by it. When a person listens to or creates music they enjoy, dopamine is released into their bloodstream, rewarding them with feelings of happiness. Music therapists are employed to soothe terminal and other ailed patients with melody and harmony. A baby is lulled to sleep by the low, lilting lullaby of its mother. As Shakespeare once said, “If music be the food of love, sing on.” The master of music himself, JS Bach, stated that music is “for the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” I have to wonder if the rise in mental illness among children and teens could be somewhat thwarted by immersing our youth in an environment of making and listening to beautiful sounds. There have been countless times when I have played the piano to soothe my soul. Music equals therapy.
3) Music Improves the Mind
It has been known for decades that studying music correlates with higher academic performance. Music for All, a national organization which promotes music education on a national level has claimed that students participating in school music programs scored an average of 107 points higher on the SAT, and were at higher math levels in high school. Playing an instrument, reading a score, following a part in choir, and trying to do so while counting makes you think and use your brain. As a matter of fact, music is one of the rare activities that actually stimulates one’s entire brain. Studying music improves your memorization and thinking skills, sharpens mathematical abilities, and uses logic. Studying music teaches us to truly listen, to the point of recognizing that a note is a quarter of a step sharp or flat, or hearing the return of the A section in a sonata. Physically, fine motor skills are improved by playing an instrument. Also, learning to sing puts you in harmony with your own body, as you discover how to make your breath support the tone. Studying music improves your mental and aural capacities.
4) Music Crosses Cultural Barriers
A fourth reason to study music is that it breaks through cultural boundaries. Music, which utilizes the same staff and symbols worldwide, is considered to be a universal language. It can convey the same thoughts and emotions in Asia as it does for someone listening in North America, all without words. A large group of people participating in the same music together shares a sense of unity replicated nowhere else. Families are drawn together by singing and creating music together. I read a story by Carol Reynolds of a famous pianist named Panos Karan who took a break from touring because he felt that only the “elite” could experience his music in the concert hall. He wanted to see if the same response was evoked by randomly playing for people. He traveled through the Amazon jungle with an electric piano playing the music he normally reserved for the concert hall. The response to the centuries-old, Western Baroque music among the native people was one of sheer delight and captivation. It was all new to them, as if it had been the year 1700. Music, therefore, had the power to connect two very different cultures. Another experience we can almost all relate to is the one of being in a house of worship with our family and friends, and hearing the sound of our voices joined in unity, praising the Lord. Music has a unifying power and allows us to communicate, even without words.
5) Music Was Created by God for His Own Glory
One of the questions I ask my music class each week is "What is the chief purpose of music?" Their response is, "The chief purpose of music is to glorify God and worship Him forever." The fifth and most important reason people should study music is that music was created by God in order for us to glorify Him. David, the musician of the Bible, outlines in Psalm 150 the way in which we should praise God, and it instructs us to “Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals...Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.” All humans, whether they believe in God or not, are worshippers. We will all worship someone or something. We were created for worship. We are also created in God’s image, and one aspect of that is the ability to imitate him by being creative. I am fortunate that music has been an avenue I could always use as a means of service to the Lord. Music unites talent with faith. Psalm 96 challenges us with “O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth.” We do not have to be virtuosos like Bach to use music for the Lord. We meet Him with the ability He has given to us, and it is our responsibility as humans to do so.
In summary, music is proper for study because it is powerful, therapeutic, academic, communicative, and glorifying. The true question about our child’s education and even our own is whether we want to simply “pass the test” and “get the job”, or whether we want to be “fully human”, and “nourish our souls”? Are a sense of wonder, delight in beauty, discernment, search for truth, and appreciation of God’s creation important in your child’s education? Removing music from the curricula would be like chipping away at the development of a complete person made in God’s image.
*This article was adapted from an essay written by Melissa Surman in the summer of 2017.