The Problem of Music

Basic music fundamentals such as note-reading and singing a repertoire of traditional western-world folk songs, patriotic songs and hymns, are almost never included in our present-day elementary school curricula. Music, that basic aesthetic science as outlined by Aristotle and Plato, is in fact generally not even considered important in educational formulae and is usually treated by the schools and even listed in the catalogs of home school suppliers (who definitely should know better) as an elective.           

Federal, state and local governments provide little or no funds for music in the public schools, and the music education lobbies such as the Music Educators’ National Conference (MENC) have enthusiastically promoted the teaching of music (what remains after government cut-backs) as a hero-worshipping audience participation sport bolstered by videos, recordings and field trips to cultural events.  God forbid that in the precious few classroom moments remaining, the teacher would show the children how to sing music by reading the written notes of our traditional songs and melodies!            

The music educators who fail so greatly in their responsibility to teach then tap government resources which are readily available for research in the behavioral sciences, and thereby come to intolerably tiresome conclusions like: music study is beneficial in developing the cognitive skills required by mathematics.  Duh! Yes, of course - ask Plato!  Not being possessed of the intellectual skills of a Greek philosopher, however, they have merely demonstrated by their studies that children who memorize gobs of music to perform make better grades in math.  Of course the same groups of studies reveal that drama students who memorize even larger gobs of data to perform achieve even higher math scores.  So can you guess what the bottom line multi-million dollar conclusion is?           

But, wait a minute -- let’s look at this situation objectively without actually blaming the schools for all the irreparable damage that has been done.  Music in our present-day culture aside from the haute couture performing arts requires little education from its participants.           

The currently predominant music of the Catholic Church generally published in those throw-away pulp paper booklets we find in our pews requires little if any skill to execute (execute, that’s a good word) and the majority of us don’t or won’t sing it anyway (Catholics Can’t Sing is our cultural motto).  Would the churches be so bold as to invest time, talent and money in training up our youth to become competent and literate in music?  God forbid!           

Today’s entertainment (formerly known as pop) music is comprised mainly of inept vacuous tunes or tribal chants created by people who sing and play by ear and have little notion of music notation, both basic styles being easily approachable without any formal musical education.  Much the same can be said for our church music, minus, of course, the elements of anger and hate which are so prevalent there.           

Instrumental instruction as it is offered to our modern day youth is highly dominated by the Suzuki philosophy, a system which emphasizes quick and easy results in musical performance.  Students are taught by sophisticated rote methods reinforced by much bolstering of their self-esteem to rapidly learn to perform music, even before they have a basic grasp of any aspects of its meaning.  Imagine if you will this highly unintellectual approach being mirrored in the instruction in our native language (English?): teaching students to recite from memory portions of the Bible (where permitted) and standard  works of literature (where permitted) long before they have any knowledge of alphabet, sentences, syntax, etc., then hoping that by some miracle they would later discover the elements of language merely because they have been exposed to them by having superficial elements ingrained in their minds.           

Music in our schools is an elective subject unrecognized as having much value except for its minor abilities to contribute to higher math scores and increase self-esteem, and its major value as entertainment (Rock and Roll, Rap, etc.)           

Music in our churches reflects by and large the pop genres of Coffee House Folk Music and Light Rock and Roll.  Catholics don’t sing anyway, so what difference does it make?  The traditional Catholic music, Gregorian Chant which requires literacy on the part of its executants has for the most part been laid aside in favor of the People-type music.           

Instrumental music instruction dominated by the Suzuki philosophy requires little intellect and is easily learned.           

Our entertainment music contains few elements of intellect and can be learned, performed, and even created by people of modest skill who have no measurable knowledge of the musical language or of its notation.           

I have been teaching music and writing and publishing educational materials for over fifty years; I have taught the most brilliant and the dumbest students; the most motivated and the least motivated.  All of my students can read music at sight so as to participate in some way, playing or singing in a group or by leading a group.  They have all been exposed to and saturated with the great classical, folk, opera, march, ballet and hymn music of our western culture which comprises the basic materials of my publications.  They can all read the notes on a page and have some knowledge of their tonal and rhythmic implications.  Very few of them have become professional virtuoso performers.           

Based on my above analysis of our current musical climate, there is little need or room for the kind of students I produce; people who, by virtue of their ability to play music at sight, are able to enjoy first-hand the fruits of our great musical heritage, and to praise God in joyful song at the drop of a hat.           

Possibly, considering the current state of things, I should now turn my attentions inward, savor and enjoy the great treasure trove of musical creation I have inherited, and cease to buck the enormous wave of darkness and ignorance which threatens to engulf us all.

Alan Jemison

Editor’s Note: To find out more about Alan Jemison Music, and the fact that Alan  REALLY does want to teach music, check out his web site, and you will find a treasure of material for learning and teaching music.


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