Have Schools Been Teaching Music All Wrong?

Even before the pandemic, music educators in schools had been lamenting about the budget cuts in the arts and how children’s music programs have suffered or even in some cases, disappeared. But the exodus and decline of music students in public education cannot be solely laid at the feet of budget cuts. For example, a seven-year study in Texas found an 80% drop out rate for band students, with the greatest attrition being between the first and second year of instruction.

Budget cuts notwithstanding, developing a love and knowledge of making music in children may have a larger systemic issue. Perhaps our approach to teaching music in schools is contributing to this decline. Have schools been teaching music all wrong?

Teaching Music to the test and not the student

In a series of New York Times articles, Grammy-award winning musician Sammy Miller argues that as with many other institutional education programs with standardized achievement testing, the same often applies to music programs.

Whether by choice or necessity, educators today often “teach to the test” so that achievement goals attached to funding can be reached. While the form of the achievement goal may be a bit different than in traditional classes, music instructors are often teaching to the Holiday Concert or Recital, where parents and administrators will see results. It is often said that music is a language, but many music programs are not teaching it that way. Much like language, music development should include listening, speaking (singing), reading, and writing. Emphasizing rigid reading and rote memorization misses the most important goal of a music program – to instill a lifelong love of music.

Teaching music like a language

It is not until pre-school age that many children are exposed to written language, although their vocabulary is already as many as a thousand words and phrases.

So how did they acquire this skill without formal instruction? By hearing language from their caregivers and siblings, repeating what they hear, and stumbling through ways to verbally (and physically) communicate. As their language develops, they begin to experience the joy of communication. It is not seen as a chore of rote memorization, but a feeling of community and connectiveness. Some early childhood music programs understand that teaching through musical communication establishes a foundation and understanding of the building blocks of music knowledge.

Many great pop music artists know that the secret of good music is simplicity in its foundation, with most chart-topping songs being a series of a few simple notes put together in a new and creative way. Approaching early childhood music education the same way we approach teaching language is a joyful way to instill a lifelong love and understanding of music.