The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Place of Music in Education.

by Fr. Niecks
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 579-589

[Frederick Niecks, 1845-1924, was a violinist who wrote about music, including the famous "Frederick Chopin, as a Man and Musician" and a music dictionary. When he wrote this article, he was single, but married three years later at the age of 62.]

The subject assigned to me for discussion is The Place of Music in Education. This is a problem as yet unsolved; indeed, a problem that has never been seriously considered. Although many of the great educational reformers have made some use of music, not one of them has taken full advantage of it--not even Rousseau, who was as much a musician as a philosopher, and Herbert Spencer, who wrote in so masterly a manner on the origin and function of music. Strangest of all, there has not even been a musical specialist who has done justice to the subject. If we look for the reason, and do it with a knowledge of the history of education and of the art in question, we shall find it to be ignorance of the nature and capacity of music. The educationists who advocate the use of music, not excepted the most enthusiastic, have the vaguest and most inadequate notions of its virtues. For the most part music is cultivated for recreation. Now the recreative power of music is undoubtedly a very valuable power, but it is neither the only nor the most important. In recent times, growing attention and respect have begun to be paid to drawing, painting, and modelling, because of the dawning comprehension that by their study the sense of sight can be cultivated. That the study of music can cultivate the sense of hearing as her sister the sense of sight is an idea that unfortunately has not yet reached the dawning stage. This difference of view is characteristic. Most people find it difficult to see in music anything else but a plaything. When the lively, go-ahead author of Mankind in the Making, Mr. H. G. Wells, enumerates the ingredients of a scheme of education, he mentions as a seventh item: "Drawing and painting, not as art, but to train and develop the appreciation of form and colour, and as a collateral means of expression." This is excellent. But when our author puts forward the eighth item, his confidence vanishes, and we get the halting statement: "Music (perhaps) to the same end." Why perhaps? Is the sense of hearing less important than the sense of sight? Or is music as a trainer of the ear inferior to drawing and painting as trainers of the eye? Or is it a mistake to regard music as a means of expression? Now all these questions must be answered negatively, and are so answered almost universally, although in different degrees of emphasis and comprehension. The points on which a large part of the value, of the educative influence, of music depends, is its expressiveness. It is here that the vagueness of the notions of music as an educational factor comes in. Although during the last three hundred years, music has increased its expressive power enormously, educationists make no use of this power, and are less aware of it than the educationists of the Renascence, Middle Ages, and especially Antiquity. That excellent English schoolmaster of the sixteenth century, Richard Mulcaster, placed music "among the most valuable means in the upbringing of the young"; and he knew not only that its harmonies had great power to stir emotion, but also that this was so because of "some close natural affinity to the constitution of the body and soul of man." It is, however, by the ancient Greeks that ethical power has been most emphatically claimed for music. We shall not waste our time if we recall a very few of their clearest and most striking expressions.

"Musical training," says Plato, "is a more potent instrument than any other because rhythm and melody find their way into the secret places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul graceful of him who is ill-educated." Plato says also: "The musical movements are analogous to the movements of the human soul." Aristotle points out the same fact when he says: "Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness and also of courage and temperance and virtues and vices in general, which hardly fall sort of the actual affections, for in listening to such strains our souls undergo a change." In Aristotle's Musical Problems we meet with the following consentaneous statements. "Rhythms and melodic successions, though consisting solely of sounds, reflect states of the soul." And "melody, even without words, has ethos" (i.e., acts on the mind).

If we turn, perhaps sceptically, from the philosophers of antiquity to the masters of modern music, we discover from their opinions and declared intentions that they appeal to the mind, to the heart and head, as well as to the ear. And the musical know from experience that the masters do not appeal to them in vain. Moreover, a physiological and psychological investigation of the problem confirms the beliefs of the ancient philosophers and modern musicians. Herbert Spencer held and demonstrated that music has its roots in the vocal sounds caused by feelings of all kinds, in fact, is the developed language of emotion. This, although not all the truth, certainly indicates an important part of it. In short, careful study of the question alone is required to convince the student that music has ethos, that music affects the mind emotionally and also in other ways; and consequently that music must be capable of being made a powerful factor in education.

This statement may be received by many with derision. And it would not be surprising if it gave rise to the taunt:--Show us the educational results of the enormous amount of music teaching that is going on at the present day. Well, there is extremely little to show in the way of moral and intellectual results. But allow me to point out that I merely said that music is capable of being made a powerful factor in education. So far from asserting that it actually is a powerful factor, I ruefully confess that it is as good as no factor at all. This, however, is not the fault of music, but of teachers and parents, and more the fault of the parents than of the teachers. The teachers too often don't know how and what to teach, and the parents as a rule won't have their children taught rationally and profitably--they insist on drill and discourage education. If the work of the teacher is to be improved, the views of the parents have to be enlightened. It is unfortunately no exaggeration to say that more than ninety-nine per cent. of our music teaching cannot rightly claim to be what it pretends to be, and is little better than a horrible, ghastly waste of time, energy, and money. What does the usual music teaching do? It does not cultivate the ear, it does not refine the taste and manners, and it does not improve the morals. All it accomplishes, if it accomplishes anything, comes to this: the attainment of some degree of mechanical skill, unaccompanied by the intelligence how to use it and of the knowledge of the thing for which it is to be used. Unless you call the memorising of dates history, and the memorising of the names of towns, rivers, mountains, capes, and seas, geography, you cannot call the customary unmusical drill, music teaching. But enough of these misconceptions, misdirections, and misapplications. Let us rather see in what ways music can be educative. But before doing so I had better first ask you not to imagine that I am going to deal with the question of the place of music in education as a specialist with a specialist's prejudices. On the contrary, I mean to deal with it as an educationist. I have no intention to contend, as so many scientists and teachers of Latin and Greek do with regard to their subjects, that my particular subject alone is worthy of consideration, or at least alone worthy of the chief and main consideration. As will be seen, my claim is more modest.

The uses of music in the home and school life of the young are of two sorts, educative and recreative, which latter, however, has indirectly educational significance. A more important division of the uses of music would be into hygienic, physical, aesthetical, and moral. The only sound foundation of a musical education is vocal music, which affords the healthiest practice of the art and the best training of the ear, besides various other advantages. A judicious vocal training strengthens and develops the capacities of chest, lungs, and all the vocal organs. Singing improves also speaking. Of course only good singing does so. Song is to speech what dancing is to walking. The cultivation of the singing voice affects the volume, quality, and modulation of the speaking voice, and also the pronunciation. Singing is well known as a corrective of stammering. That the training of the ear carries with it practical advantages quite apart from music is a fact almost universally overlooked. A musically well-trained ear implies a highly developed capacity of distinguishing pitch, measure, loudness, and quality of sound. Now, it does not require a great deal of ingenuity to discover that this capacity finds a wide scope for useful employment in many trades and in war and sport. And not in these alone, but also in our intercourse with our fellow-men. For does it not greatly help us to read the character, of which the subtle nuances of the voice are such marvellous, sometimes, indeed, such treacherous revealers?

If we wish to investigate the aesthetical, intellectual, and moral capabilities of music, we had best begin with an isolated tone. A tone is distinguished from a noise by its purity; and tones, apart from other differences, may differ in the degree of purity. Complex beings as we are, made up of body and soul, the effect produced on us is not merely a sensuous pleasure. The tone appeals also to other and higher faculties than that of hearing, just as does a pure colour, like that of snow, of spring foliage, or an Italian sky. But it is in combination that tone unfolds its full power, and becomes a great influence, a revelation, an interpreter, a language. This combination is manifold: tones of different pitch in successive and in simultaneous combination producing melody and harmony; tones of different length and accent producing rhythm. And, in addition to these kinds, there are combinations of different degrees of loudness and different qualities of tone. How is it that such combinations produce effects that go far beyond the sense impressions? How is it that they affect our aesthetic feeling, arouse our emotions, and move the intellectual and moral man in us? First of all, we derive gratification from the orderly rhythmical grouping on the one hand, and the orderly melodical and harmonical grouping on the other hand, giving us in the one case proportioned time, or duration, and in the other case proportioned space, or interval. Now these combinations, these orderly groupings, these proportioned arrangements can be made so as not only to be beautiful, but also to be expressive. The varying effects of rhythm are obvious, and their characters are by everyone recognised unmistakably as vigorous, languid, stirring, somnolent, majestic, tripping, flowing, jerky, running, trailing, even-paced, halting, easy, awkward, and so on. With melody it is the same; it is as infinitely varied in expression as it is in form. There is perhaps less obviousness about melody than about rhythm; but we can at once get a better understanding of it by thinking of melodies as sounding lines, what they in reality are--lines now continous, now broken, now straight, now curved, now serpentining, now zigzagging, now gradual, now abrupt, now gliding, now skipping, and so on.

But there remains still unanswered the question whence the expression arises, why the various tonal forms affect us in various ways. The explanation has of course been hinted at in some of my own remarks and in the quotations from Mulcaster, Plato, Aristotle, and Spencer, which tell us that the harmonies of music have some close natural affinity to the constitution of the body and soul of man, that musical movements are analogous to the movements of the human soul, that rhythm and melody supply imitations of virtues and vices, that music has its roots in the vocal sounds caused by feelings of all kinds, is, in fact, the developed language of emotion. But although these are undoubtedly clear and strong hints, something more is required to make the matter quite patent. To be sure, to do that fully and explicitly would necessitate a lengthy course of lectures. Still, a few additional remarks may prove sufficient to indicate the factors implied. We might start with Spencer's remark that feelings demonstrate themselves in sounds and movements. Now, by imitating these sounds and movements, music becomes the language of the emotions. But let us see whether feelings really demonstrate themselves in sounds and movements. First consider speech. In conversational speech, where there are no feelings to be expressed, or where we hide them, we find little for our purpose. But "observe," as Carlyle says, "how all passionate language does of itself become musical." "Become musical." What does that mean? It means that passionate speech becomes melodic and rhythmic, that it makes use of a larger range of variation in pitch, in loudness, and in measure and rate of time. But in speech, however passionate, the expression of feelings is in a more or less measure restricted by the formality of the word language. The undiluted and unadulterated material of emotional expression you find, in all its force as well as in all its crudity, in the involuntary utterances of feeling, in what Taine calls the human cries--in sobs, sighs, moans, and all the accents and exclamations of tenderness, prayer, interrogation, joy, terror, despair, lamentation, and so on. These are the elements of expressive music. These, but not only these. For other elements you have to look to the chief sources of rhythm and tempo--namely, to breathing, the heart's action, the pulse, the circulation of the blood, and the movements of the limbs, all of which are modified by the emotions. Besides these natural sources of expression, there exist purely musical means, such as consonance and dissonance, harmony and tonality, which produce degrees of motion and rest, strain and relief, deviation and return, and light and shade. The principal means of expression may be divided and summed up thus:--(1) Imitation of the human cries and the accents of speech as regards pitch, rhythm, loudness, and quality of tone; (2) Imitation of the movements of the internal and external bodily organs that accompany the emotions; (3) Imitation of the sounds in nature, which are expressive directly or indirectly, indirectly by association; and (4) Certain musical means by which rest and motion, pleasure and pain, etc., are expressed.

Even without going further, even without examining and analysing the physiological and psychological processes involved, and without examining and analysing the results actually attained in musical compositions, we cannot but admit that the mere enumeration of the means at the disposal of the composer presents a convincing case of at least the probable expressive power of music.

Now, if music is expressive, it must be capable of communicating something. And if it can communicate something, it must be capable of exercising a moral influence. Let us suppose it can do no more than express nobility and vulgarity. Then if we make our children conversant with noble music, we shall cultivate their nobility; and if we make them conversant with vulgar music, we shall cultivate their vulgarity. But this is only one example. Music can do infinitely more. And now, what follows if music can exercise an influence on the character and the manners of the cultivator? This: that it deserves and ought to be taught in a way different from that in which it has hitherto been usually taught, and deserves and ought to have assigned to it a more important position in education than it can now boast of.

Now let us see what should and what should not be done if the learning of music is to be fruitful and worth the time, trouble, and money spent on it. To be successful and avoid waste, the first condition is to have an object worth aiming at and to keep that object constantly in view, that is, to choose the ways and means best adapted for the attainment of the end. Learning to sing by rote a limited number of melodies, or being drilled into playing a number of pieces, that is, being trained to imitate like a parrot or doing tricks like a dog, cannot be regarded as a worthy object; for it is either not educational at all or merely to an infinitesimal degree, and much better results can be obtained at less cost by mechanical contrivances such as musical boxes, pianolas, and phonographs. On the other hand, it is a worthy object to develop so important a sense as that of hearing both for general and for musical purposes, and to learn the tonal language both with a view to understanding and using it. Well, the usual teaching of music leads in the vast majority of cases to none of those ends; and if the ends are nevertheless attained in a small minority of cases, it is so thanks to exceptional talents and circumstances.

Formal instruction in music begins as a rule too early, informal training too late. In fact, the latter cannot begin too early. This first training should be no more than assisted natural development, all play and no work. The sole duties of the teachers, that is to say, of the mother and the nurse, are to furnish the baby with materials for experiments and examples for observation and imitation. Attention, habituation, and imitation, always the principal means of education, are the only ones in early childhood. This initial training should comprise perception of quality of tone, pitch, and rhythm. Let the little one hear beautiful tones produced from various substances and instruments, and let him produce himself such tones from them. Bars of metal, glass, and wood that can be struck, and flutes that can be blown, make good playthings. A small wooden flute, with a mouthpiece at one end and a few finger holes, is a joy forever, and opens a wide field for experiments, as, besides having a pleasing quality of tone, it is capable of emitting tones of different pitch. However, of all the means for cultivating the musical faculty, the singing of mother and nurse rank foremost. One point must be carefully remembered. Music for the baby, whether vocal or instrumental, should be aways simple in melody, rhythm, and every other respect. Even if complicated music pleased the youthful auditor, it would not serve our purpose, as it could not be educative, owing to the necessarily confused impression made by it. Rhythm deserves special attention. It can be practised apart from melody by silent movements, by taps, and by clapping of the hands. Froebel remarks: "By regular rhythmic movements--and this is of special importance--the mother brings this life within the child's conscious control when she dandles him up and down on her hand or arm in rhythmic movement and to rhythmic sounds . . . An early, pure development of rhythmic movement would prove most wholesome in the succeeding life-periods of the human being . . . It would be easier for him to compass the legitimate, proper measure of his life. Much wilfulness, impropriety, and coarseness would be taken out of his life, his movements, and actions. He would secure more firmness and moderation, more harmony; and later on, there would be developed in him a higher appreciation of nature and art, of music and poetry." Froebel then continues: "Even very small children, in moments of quiet, and particularly when going to sleep, will hum little strains of songs they have heard; this, too, has not escaped the attention of the observant, thoughtful mother, and should be heeded and developed even more in the education of little children as the first germ of future growth in melody and song." (The Education of Man.)

We now come to that stage of the musical education when the professional teacher of music should be called in. The time of this step is determined by the physical and mental development of the child. Although it is generally held that at this stage the choice of teacher is of little importance, the very reverse is the case. It is true the teacher need not be a great virtuoso, but he must be a well-trained musician and teacher. The choice of incompetent persons as teachers, and the desire of parents for specious results, are the causes of the tragi-comedy called music teaching. That what is taught is badly taught is deplorable enough. But it is a real calamity that what is most vital and least dispensable is hardly taught at all. Music, which appeals to the ear, is taught without training the ear. This, however, is far from being the only preposterous omission. And one may very well ask: What can be the use of music teaching if it does not make the pupil musical, if it does not give a knowledge of and a taste for music? At this stage, the child should not all at once be troubled with notation and instrumental technique. The main attention should be given to a more systematic development of the sense of hearing, especially of the perception of pitch and time relation, a development less systematically carried on during babyhood. This can be done best by vocal music. And here the tonic sol-fa method proves very valuable; for, besides other advantages, it helps to form clear notions as to the relations of the notes of the scale to each other, and as to the relations of intervals generally. The teaching of instrumental playing which mostly constitutes the whole of music teaching, is, in the case of very young children, more harmful than profitable. Their fingers neither have the requisite strength nor are under sufficient mental control. From this results that, owing to the unavoidable violent and awkward manipulations, the pupil gets into bad habits. The teacher of the young should above all be careful never to ask from his pupils what they are not physically and mentally capable of performing without excessive effort. But even where the training of the ear and the physical capacities are properly attended to, equally important matters are generally ignored--namely, the aesthetical and ethical aspects of the art. From the very first, the pupils' attention should be directed to the beauties of form and the characters of expression. There is no insurmountable difficulty in this. Simple music calls only for simple explanations. And let us not overlook that by such explanations the lessons are made more interesting.

Most of the defects of elementary music teaching mar also advanced teaching. What parents most desire and teachers too readily supply is drilling into the performance of songs and pieces. Everything else is either entirely neglected or perfunctorily dealt with. And thus it happens that the mass of music students have no ear, are unable to read at sight, and do not understand music. They know nothing of the structure of the art, and nothing of its expressive power, which is tantamount to saying that the cultivation of music has neither refined their taste nor improved their manners and morals. Now all those desiderata can be acquired. And they can be acquired even with ease if they are taken up early and pursued continuously and methodically.

In schools, too, little is done for music; and there so much could be done. Through the recreative power of the art, more time spent on music, instead of being a loss, would turn out to be a gain to the other studies. There can be no doubt that several short musical interludes in the daily school work would prove very beneficial. But the main point in school as in other music teaching is the quality--the teaching must be a training of the ear, the taste, and the manners and morals. To train the taste, beauty of tone in the singing has to be insisted on, and the beauties of melodic lines, harmonic combinations, rhythms, and structure, have to be pointed out. The training of the manners and morals is effected partly by the same means, and partly by the choice of songs, which should be beautiful in form and pure and noble in sentiment as well as appropriate to the age of the singers.

What parents, then, ought to aim at in their musical provision for their children is not the ability of performing a few musical tricks, but a knowledge of and a taste for music. But to attain that aim parents ought to fix upon a competent teacher, and give that teacher a free hand; and further, ought to take an interest in their children's music, not by exhibiting them at parties, but by listening to them and encouraging them in private.

Notwithstanding the inadequacy of my remarks, I hope they have clearly vindicated the legitimate claims of music to a place in education, and also demonstrated the impossibility of satisfying these claims by the present methods of teaching.

Typed by Danielle Driscoll, August, 2023; Proofread by LNL, August, 2023