Warning: this post is a detailed analysis that goes for nearly 5000 words. Excerpts from this analysis – covering specific issues in advocating for music education and in talking about how music works – will be posted in the blog separately over the next few days, but this analysis is included here in full for those who might be interested in reading it in its entirety.
TEDxSYDNEY is had its second outing this last weekend, and I was rather late to the party. The Sydney Morning Herald guide to TEDxSYDNEY the day or two before was my first notice that it was on. Glancing through the lineup of speakers I was thrilled to see that Richard Gill was featured in the second session of the day.
Richard Gill is a champion of music education in Australia, and he is a voice of reason in many a public debate about the arts. Richard Gill’s contributions to musical life in Australia range from leading the Victorian Opera as well as conducting and commissioning new works all the way through to working in classrooms with young children. He is much respected and, I think it is no exaggeration to say, beloved! His inclusion as a speaker at TEDxSYDNEY 2011 was both a no-brainer and a great surprise.
And this was his presentation:
The crowd loved it, and the response on twitter was fanatical! Richard Gill’s talk was universally acclaimed as one of the stand-out moments of the TEDxSYDNEY 2011 day.
So I felt a mixture of disloyalty and dismay to respond quite differently. My first reaction was one of immense disappointment; I felt that this amazing opportunity to instigate a change in the way people perceive the value of music education had been wasted, that the argument was not persuasively put.
Yet, since Twitter was thick with rave reviews, and the YouTube feed had a steady and exuberant stream of Richard Gill fan mail, ‘wasted opportunity’ seemed to be a substantial misreading of the situation. And people were saying to each other “music education is important”. Even if they couldn’t articulate why, for this week anyway everyone who saw this presentation has/had been persuaded.
The thing is I’m certain that after a week or so this idea worth spreading (that music education is important) will have stopped spreading. And that’s because Richard Gill’s talk was really a series of motherhood statements about music (and about children) juxtaposed with a selection of amusing anecdotes from the classroom. More than this, it was a description of how music education has been delivered in the past rather than a vision for what music education could become in the future.
It’s not fair to transcribe a live presentation and deconstruct it as if it were an essay – a great live presentation will be responsive to the audience, and a degree of non sequitur is discursively tolerable (even welcome) so long as the speaker does not deviate from his/her subject too far (or for too long).
But this proviso (that spoken presentations engage an audience in ways that are hard to communicate through a transcription) does not put a talk or lecture beyond analysis or critique. And with the greatest respect to both the audience who loved his presentation and to Richard Gill himself, who is an ongoing inspiration in engaging audiences with music, I want to analyse exactly what it was that Richard Gill put to us at TEDxSYDNEY this last weekend and to explore the implications of these statements and then the underlying view of the world and of music that buttresses these statements.
The main ‘idea worth spreading’ in Richard Gill’s talk was presented early: “Every child, I believe, should have access to properly taught music in the hands of a properly taught teacher.” And that “all of that creativity you saw on the stage today is the right of every child no matter where and no matter what the circumstance.”
My first quibble is whether this is actually an idea at all, because to me it sounds more like an assertion that could be as easily applied to any other subject as it is to music education (“Every child, I believe, should have access to properly taught woodwork/biology/algebra/Mandarin/cake-making in the hands of a properly taught teacher.”). And I’m not sure that the guy who believes that every child should have access to properly taught woodwork is going to get a look-in at next year’s TEDxSYDNEY.
So Richard Gill’s task at this point was to persuade us that access to properly taught music is of particular value, an especial case that makes this idea worthy first of examination and then of a commitment to its realisation. Other angles on his assertion really didn’t need exploring; no one is going to be so undemocratic as to argue that only well-off children should have access to properly taught subjects, even if in the case of music that is currently the status quo as a rule (and with some exceptions); no one is going to argue that children ought to be improperly taught any subject at all, and everyone hopes/assumes that all teaching is been done by properly taught teachers.
As it turns out these ‘unarguable’ aspects of Richard Gill’s idea worth spreading are actually the most challenging to current educational practice, where music is extremely poorly taught in most schools and done so by teachers who will be the first to tell you they have had inadequate to nil training in teaching music.
In a way Richard Gill’s idea worth spreading was that in Australia we should no longer accept generalist teaching for all subjects in primary schools, for that is absolutely the content of his message; but this core component of his idea was left undeveloped in his short talk.
So, on to Richard Gill’s task of persuading us that music, properly taught by properly trained teachers, ought to be part of every child’s education. He began by stating that “when the musical imagination is ignited in a group circumstance we have the most extraordinary power to change lives with music and to involve people with music” but then did not go on to provide examples of how lives have been changed with music. He also did not bother to explain why an individual circumstance might not lead to powerful change once the musical imagination is ignited without the presence of others, even though his statement seemed to exclude individual imaginative engagement with music as part of the transformative benefits music can provide.
His next statement, again without evidence or direct anecdote, was that “it should start with very, very, very young children – not teenagers”. This statement borders on a motherhood statement (what monster or moron would deny music to very, very, very young children?), but regardless of its apparent self-evidence this statement needs back-up if monumental change in the delivery of education in Australia is going to be achieved. Why should it not start with teenagers? Don’t we know that music education can be transformative for adolescents who find themselves at odds with their families and their communities? Don Spencer’s Australian Children’s Music Foundation (for example) will provide example after example of teenagers who have found their way through music; amazing, real, contemporary stories of kids in detention centres and in Australia’s least resourced communities whose lives take on a sense of purpose once they have the chance to make their own music and whose ability to communicate with their peers and their families is transformed once making music is part of their everyday life.
Richard Gill really made no case for why we shouldn’t leave it til adolescence to introduce music making to children. Instead he began to explain to us how music education (presumably in the hands of a properly trained teacher) actually works. “With children we begin with imitation – the most powerful way of teaching.” And he went on to ask the audience to sing back a phrase that he had just sung. “When you do that with children you’re engaging them in their first aural experience – they need to listen and as a result of the listening they repeat. And it requires focus…. And with children the idea that repetition and putting them into the circumstance of offering ideas is vital.”
Well, for starters, if being asked to sing back a melodic fragment in a classroom is a child’s first aural experience then the health system is letting down the kids of Australia rather badly. Because it beggars belief to think that a mother who never sings to her child also has no access to a radio, television, mp3 player, CD player, cassette tape player, the internet, the movies, DVDs, never takes her child into shopping centres or other public venues where music (OK, muzak) is played and never has spent any time in any one else’s home where recorded music of any kind has been present. The only possible reason that a classroom singing exercise would be a child’s first aural experience is if they just had a cochlear implant and decided that this was the moment to switch it on.
Much more accurately, when a teacher asks students to sing back a phrase they might be engaging the child in their first ever formal music learning experience, but the child is bringing into this classroom/learning environment four or five years of intense listening and an immense repertoire of songs and musical listening experiences.
If we look at the constituent parts of this aural experience that Richard Gill describes (the children need to listen + they repeat) it’s clear that any child who has learned to talk has been having aural experiences for some years prior to this classroom activity. “It requires focus” is true of everything a child does for the first three years of their lives, whether it’s feeding, crawling, learning to bring their fingers to their mouths or pulling up a zip. Focus is not so much what is needed in early childhood as it is its modus operandi.
Possibly the major challenge of the education system is to bring that focus to the subjects it wishes children to focus on, and I think that what Richard Gill was getting at (ever so obliquely) here is that children naturally do focus – they do engage that attentiveness that is so vital for learning anything – when musical activity is involved. This (that music delivers focus and engagement) is a massive reason why music should be integrated into all early learning experiences – and this goes far beyond Richard Gill’s quite modest idea of every child having access to properly taught music by properly trained teachers.
The last sentence I quoted above (“And with children the idea that repetition and putting them into the circumstance of offering ideas is vital”) was made with no supporting evidence or anecdote as to why it might be vital to put students into the circumstance of offering ideas or to engage them in repetition. Is it vital for the student? Is it vital for the future of their education? Is it vital for classroom management? What?
Richard Gill’s next point did come with some support, however, in the form of three pieces of music that referenced the idea of ‘night’. That point was that “Music is important for the following reasons: It is abstract. It doesn’t mean anything outside itself. So when we play a sound you can interpret that sound as you wish.”
Having said this Richard played a teensy excerpt from Clair de Lune, A Little Night Music and the Moonlight Sonata. These were evidence that the music had nothing to do with the night, and therefore proved his point. Only his point wasn’t that music was abstract, but rather that music’s not meaning anything outside itself was why it was important.
These musical excerpts did nothing to bolster that particular claim, and I would also argue they didn’t even prove that music is abstract.
Hell, let’s lose the subjunctive – I will now argue that these musical excerpts do not prove that music is abstract. Firstly, it was a false premise to say they are ‘about’ night. Two of the works are not about night at all, they are about the light of the moon, and that’s a far more specific thing to be about than simply the part of the day when you can’t see the sun, and then we should note that Beethoven’s sonata didn’t get called “The Moonlight Sonata” til 31 years after it was composed, and then not by the composer (who had already been deceased for five years). So we have a work by Mozart designed to be played as music at an evening social function, a sonata by Beethoven designed to communicate the longing of unrequited love, and a piece by Debussy designed to depict the light of the moon in music in an analogous manner to the impressionist (non-realist) painters who were his contemporaries.
If you want to say that these three works all are ‘about’ night and then play three different sounding works to prove that they are not about night at all (when none of them actually are about night) then that’s fine so long as you are presenting to an audience with limited musical knowledge/powers of logic. What the Moonlight Sonata is about is longing, longing that will never be fulfilled. What A Little Night Music is about is small talk, flirting and having a pleasant night out. What Clair de Lune is about is the elusive and recurrent nature of moonlight. But we can’t ‘hear’ these examples as evidence of abstraction because each one of them has been used in so many other contexts that we hear them not as signifiers but as symbols – maybe as symbols for a motor vehicle the music has advertised, maybe as symbols of a particular approach to love, but none-the-less they come so loaded with meaning that we cannot possibly hear this particular music as meaning nothing.
Richard Gill’s real point – that music’s abstraction renders it important in a child’s education – did get another look in when he said “in each person that sort of music, any music, will evoke a different response” and “music opens up the mind of a child in an extraordinary way”. These are both comments alluding to the openness of musical texts to meaning: music that reminds you of happy times might bring tears to the eyes of someone else; music that makes you think of elephants might make someone else think of economics.
But this is a somewhat dated way of thinking about meaning, and it’s not over-controversial these days to look at any text as possessing considerable openness, and this is a change from the days when authorial intent was not just a small part but rather the main focus of the study of works of aesthetic consideration. Roland Barthes’s acknowledgement that the author is pretty much the least of our worries (that is, that the author is dead) was the moment the argument that musical texts hold a privileged space due to their semiotic malleability lost its currency.
Even if these new ideas about how meaning is made and how meaning comes to be made were not part and parcel of contemporary thinking, Richard Gill’s point still fails: whether you can second-guess the composer’s idea of what the music is about is not the proof of the value of music in the education system, and it’s also not the proof that music is abstract. In The Carnival of the Animals Saint-Saens is superficially writing about a swan and elephants and so forth, but in each case his real subject is the qualities of these creatures in our imaginations – so The Swan is about gliding and about grace and about the appearance of effortlessness, while the elephants in the carnival are about heaviness and about humour, and the music for both these well-known works references cultural loadings Europe has given to the meaning of these creatures.
So maybe in arguing this I am supporting the idea that music is abstract, in the sense that qualities and words that have –ness as their suffix are not concrete. But I am certainly not supporting the idea, Richard Gill’s assertion, that music doesn’t mean anything outside itself. If music truly did not mean anything outside itself then it would have absolutely no value in the curriculum; arguing that something utterly self-referential is the right of every child in every circumstance seems completely daft if you don’t know that you’re talking about music. And that’s because we all know how deeply meaningful music is, and we might accept as a philosophical conceit that music doesn’t mean anything other than itself, but none of us take it seriously for a moment.
I suspect that Richard Gill is mistaking one part of the semiotic process for the other, and I’m going to refer to de Saussure’s ideas about how a word works by way of explanation.
De Saussure revolutionised thinking about language when he broke words down into different functions: he described a word as a sign made up of a signifier and signified. The signifier might be the sound “tree”, but what that sound signifies will alter depending on which language you are speaking. In other words, the sounds don’t mean anything outside themselves – the speaker and the listener bring their own arbitrary (but, if they speak the same language, shared) meanings to the sound “tree”. So just because a German speaker doesn’t think of branches and leaves and a trunk when they hear the sound “tree” doesn’t imply that the sound “tree” is without meaning beyond itself. Context (language being spoken, position in a sentence, accent of the speaker, etc.) will modify the possible meanings the listener attributes to the sound “tree”, but that doesn’t mean that the sound lacks meaning beyond its own expression.
Richard Gill demonstrated individual pitches on a keyboard to support his assertion that music was abstract. He played a sequence of single notes not belonging to the same scale pattern and without any rhythmic or dynamic shaping. This is the equivalent to proving that language has no meaning beyond itself by pronouncing phonemes like “ffff” “ga” “sss” “ch” and then saying “see?”, and to me it was a proof that he had not thought through how it is that music creates meaning, how it is combination that creates the opportunity for meaning to be communicated in language as in music as in art as in anything, how context renders everything comprehensible, and without considering the fundamental meaningfulness of timbre (amongst a host of musical meaning-making dimensions).
A big reason why music education is vital for children is because music is the most direct means of emotional, qualitative, connecting communication humans have ever developed. Music can make a room full of people burst out laughing and it can bring a room full of people to tears, music changes our perception of time – and there’s no magic in it at all if you know how music creates and communicates those meanings. And that’s because it isn’t magic – it’s music! It feels like magic, but so does literacy to a tribe without it (and let’s be honest, so does a microwave to the tribes of us with them). Stuff we don’t understand feels like magic. Finding out how stuff works is a major part of the miracle of education, whether it’s learning the rules of a team sport, how to divide multiple digit numbers, or what photosynthesis is. And if we are going to argue for music education then we need to argue that it’s important to find out how music works, how it accomplishes its acts of communication and involvement.
Richard Gill made the interesting observation that the title is ‘the way in’ rather than having anything to do with the music. Now, I disagree with this, in that I do think the title is very much to do with the music, but I also agree that the title is ‘the way in’. The title is a part of the communicative enterprise that is musical writing. Composers aren’t always very good at this part of the communicative enterprise, and that’s why so many compositions end up getting nicknames assigned by other people (critics, performers, impresarios, teachers) years after the composer has died. And these nicknames stick because the words allude to the truths in the music, the words capture something of the essence of what the music means. That is to say, the title is a fleeting conjunction between the parallel worlds of music and language, where two monumental human meaning-making processes touch fingertips for the merest moment.
Richard Gill twice said in his TEDxSYDNEY talk that music evokes, and I don’t disagree with that – music is not a transcription of linguistically communicable meaning; music can only evoke what language can say. But it works the other way, too: language can only (and only rarely) evoke what music can say. Language can only ever allude to the deep and direct meanings that music communicates. A failure to be able to be translated is not the same thing as a failure to mean. Richard Gill’s flawed insistence that music means nothing beyond itself is built on the premise that the proof of meaningfulness is the capacity to be translated, a premise that is not sustainable.
But Richard Gill’s notion that music allows children to enter into a really special way of thinking is spot on. And it’s spot on exactly because music is about things other than itself – it’s about the things that language struggles to communicate.
So when we withhold music education from children we deny them access to fluency in this second and almost certainly more primal meaning system: music, where entrainment means that we experience togetherness and community when we make music together, where identity formation is most potently realised and expressed, and through which emotional reality is most directly communicated.
When we withhold music education from children we deny them a whole layer of what it is to communicate as a human being. And we deny them the one human activity that mobilises pretty much every part of the human brain, and denying holistic neurological activity seems like a fairly ridiculous choice for an education system to make.
Music does “open up the mind of a child in an extraordinary way”, but it’s not because music is abstract – it’s because music connects emotional and sensory experience, and because it is a vehicle for expressing clearly things that children (and adults, for that matter) struggle to articulate in any other way.
Richard Gill mentioned that “the neurological evidence for music is in in a big way”, but he didn’t dwell on it. The neurological evidence for music (and music education, as a result) is really one of the most substantial ideas to emerge in relation to music in countless centuries. What was anecdotal about musical activity is now scientific; what we suspected we now know; what used to be written off as feely-touchy, namby-pamby can now be measured and quantified and analysed within the realm of science. And it turns out that our suspicions and anecdotes were just scratching the surface. Musical meaning is made throughout our whole brain, not primarily in one hemisphere or the other, not just where language gets processed – but everywhere. This is an idea of indescribable proportions, and this idea should be changing the way we approach education full-stop, not just how we mandate an hour a week, if we’re lucky, to teaching music.
Richard Gill’s point, reiterated throughout his talk, that children must make music, that they must make their own music, is well supported by this avalanche of neurological evidence. Richard Gill didn’t bother to articulate why children should (or must) make their own music – apparently this was a self-evident truth, or a position to be accepted on faith – but if one does look for support or evidence, there is plenty. It’s in the making of music that children become fluent in it as a meaning system, and the making of music (even someone else’s, as it turns out) changes children’s brains and increases their IQ. There, I said it. Making music makes you smarter. And it absolutely does, as long as you keep on making music. Stop playing your instrument and your IQ goes right back to where nature intended it be….
Richard Gill did say that children make music best through singing, although he provides no support for this assertion. It might depend what you mean by ‘making music best’ as to whether you’ll agree that happens via singing; but any musician will tell you that vocalising musical ideas is an integral aspect of developing the ability to audiate (hear music in your imagination), and audiating is key to musical creativity. So it doesn’t really matter which way you approach it, singing is foundational to musical education (whether or not you think it is the best way for children to make music). Further, singing is accessible to every child without needing to spend a cent – every single child is born with this particular musical instrument as part of their physical apparatus.
A story was shared in the talk about how singing is used in music education with young children, and I don’t know that it really communicated Richard Gill’s point: that singing is an embodied (and therefore all-engaging) means of experiencing music and of developing a range of musical literacies and understandings. But that’s what the anecdote about the child knowing about crotchets and quavers was supposed to express (even if the story ended up illustrating the challenges of managing a mixed-knowledge class of young children).
Then Richard Gill went out on a limb: “music, in my view, is at the top of the food chain” after noting that “there was a movement which said all the arts work the same way…. That is simply not true, the arts function in different ways.” For those not in the education sector you really have no idea how much this would have pissed off the visual arts teachers.
There are all kinds of reasons why visual literacies are vital/essential, and maybe one day the neurological evidence will be in for the visual arts the way it is already in for music, but in 2011 I’m happy to agree with Richard Gill’s bold assertion that the world is not flat. Music does stuff the other arts only do in part, it works bits of the brain - including emotional zones and areas of self-control – that the other arts don’t trigger, and it is a sphere of meaning that invites the other arts in – music is endlessly collaborative and ceaselessly cross-disciplinary. But maybe it’s not at the top of the food chain – it’s at the bottom: it feeds absolutely every other art form, and without it they cannot flourish. Just putting that thought out there – I’ve got nothing to back myself on this one, other than the vibe of the thing.
I’m going to quote the ending of Richard Gill’s talk verbatim:
“But what I want to say is that the power of the creative thought transferred from music to all other areas of learning is hugely potent. The evidence – the neurological evidence for music is in in a spectacular way. That’s a bonus. Music is worth teaching for its own sake. It’s worth teaching because it is good. It is worth teaching because it is unique. It is worth teaching because it empowers children spectacularly.”
I’ve already explained why and how I disagree that music is worth teaching for its own sake, and I can’t understand why anyone would try to argue this point. It’s worth teaching because it makes life so freaking wonderful; your brain works better, you have a better understanding of yourself and your emotions, you create community when you play or sing with others, it gives you an alternative to words for when you have something to say, and it’s a way of connecting with others not just across cultures but across time as well. This list is impressive and important.
“It’s worth teaching because it’s good”, as already noted above (only Richard Gill didn’t explain what it is that makes it good or in any way persuade that music is, in fact, good – beyond the questionable goodness of its abstraction). “It is worth teaching because it is unique”, an argument that falls apart the moment you think about the unique things you wouldn’t like to see in the curriculum.
But then the crux of the matter: “It is worth teaching because it empowers children spectacularly”.
That it does.
And this one reason is why Richard Gill’s idea is really worth spreading.