Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: Musical Engagement and ‘Need’

So, down to the next two sentences in the proposed definition of Music in the National Arts Curriculum proposed for Australian education, sentences 3 and 4. Here’s the full definition:

Music is the imaginative process of creating, performing, and responding to sound and silence for personal and collective meaning. Through the processes of creating musical works, performing with voice and instrument, and responding to our own and others’ music, individuals and groups communicate meanings, beliefs and values. Music engagement shapes our thought and activity, and is evident from the earliest stages of life. People turn to music at times of emotional, physical, and intellectual need. Music is a pervasive feature of contemporary life. In a mobile digital age, music engagement both underpins and accompanies many of our day-to-day activities and, marks the significant moments of individual and collective life.

Now I have no real quibble with sentence 3 (“Music engagement shapes our thought and activity, and is evident from the earliest stages of life.”). I agree with it almost entirely. Anecdotal evidence is surely strong enough to support the assertion that music shapes our activity (note how a party gets started with particular DJ choices, and extrapolate from there). But maybe one could go further in the first part of this sentence: neurological imaging shows that engaging with music shapes not just our thought but the physiological characteristics of our brains as well. Music doesn’t just shape the way you think, it changes the literal shape of your brain.

Maybe harder to support is the idea that music is evident from the earliest stages of life – more that music is a key component to development from the earliest stages of life. So yes, we could quibble over wording there.

It’s at sentence 4 that things get interesting. This definition asserts that: “People turn to music at times of emotional, physical, and intellectual need.

Let’s deal with the obvious clanger straight up. No, people don’t turn to music at times of physical need. They tend to turn to water when they experience the physical need of thirst, food when they experience hunger, and warm clothing when they experience cold. One could go on. Suffice it to observe that only someone with a mental illness would turn to music in order to rehydrate.

Could the writers have meant that humans have a physical need to experience resonance, vibration, rhythm? It’s possible, but it all sounds a bit loopy in its current verbal incarnation.

In times of intellectual need one might also argue that music is certainly not the first thing to which one might turn. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what the writers of this definition mean by intellectual need. If one is to draw an analogy from physical need then perhaps one experiences intellectual need when one is missing the intellectual skill set one requires for a task – for instance, the need for an understanding of principles of geometry when building something, or the need for powers of analysis when deciding which way to vote at an election. If one has the skills then one does not experience intellectual need.

Possibly ‘intellectual need’ is intended to reflect the need for intellectual stimulation, and music is certainly capable of providing that, if one is inclined to intellectual engagement with music. But I’d suggest that generally music is not the first place one turns in order to experience intellectual stimulation – one is far more likely to read a book (non-fiction or literary fiction, mostly) or even watch an art-house film.

I would be very interested to see what kind of research backs up this claim that “people turn to music in times of intellectual need”. I very much suspect there’s none at all, and that the writers of the definition didn’t want to discount the smartness of music by leaving out the word ‘intellectual’.

Finally, the claim that people turn to music in times of emotional need. Well, der.

Music is about the first thing people turn to in times of emotional need. Depressed? Listen to music. Stressed and want to chill out? Listen to music. Excited about heading out to a party? Listen to music. Got a crush on someone? Listen to music.

And even better if you can play an instrument – cheapest therapy in town, and you might even write a song or compose an instrumental solo while you are at it.

The power of music to mould our emotions is profound and almost beyond measure. The power of the performer to alter the states of those listening, the power of the musician to change his or her own emotional reality, the power of the DJ to clear or fill the dance floor is real and immense.

So we might just delete the extraneous and unsupportable elements of the sentence and end up with: “People turn to music in times of emotional need.”, only this belies the very many social reasons for turning to music, social reasons that go far beyond the individualistic implications of ’emotional need’. And that word ‘need’ is a problem in an of itself – sometimes people turn to music in times of emotional exuberance, for example. And this framing of the reasons why people turn to music erases the urge to beauty that prompts so many to musical engagement.

I suspect ‘beauty’ is an out-of-fashion term in the early 21st century, particularly in edu-crat-speak, but that doesn’t make it any less true. People do seek aesthetic fulfillment through music.

Connected to this kind of musical engagement is the most powerful of all reasons to engage with music: identity creation and affirmation. Sociological studies showing that music is the most effective and widely used means of adolescent identity creation, assertion and affirmation seems to be absent from this definition. And surely if we are looking to define music and its function in our lives as regards the education of children aged 4/5 all the way through to 17/18 we should absolutely be looking at this identity-formation aspect of musical engagement.

So let’s rewrite that sentence thus: People turn to music every day throughout their lives to create a sense of identity, to connect with others and to express, reflect and change their emotions.

Maybe it would it be too wild to suggest the addition of: People also turn to music for aesthetic reasons. I’d like to think in a curriculum document about the arts we are grown up enough to deal with the notion of the aesthetic – maybe not.

It’s terribly enjoyable to experience beauty, and hugely thrilling to risk epiphany. And these are two reasons of monumental substance and meaning (omitted by the curriculum definition) that people turn to music. Joy and wonder that overwhelm and unify your body with your mind and your mind with your emotions are amongst the fundamental lures of music, and we need to admit as much in our educational definitions.

2 thoughts on “Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: Musical Engagement and ‘Need’

  1. How much consultation occured, I wonder, before these curriculum sentences were set in stone. I much prefer your rewrites!

    • Rebecca, the document I am critiquing in these posts is the proposed curriculum document. Consultation is now ongoing with a final document to be released later in the year. We shall see how many changes are incorporated into the ‘set-in-stone’ form when that document is made public! Hmm!!

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