John Havelock: Music is no frill; it's fundamental to our lives

commentDecember 13, 2013 

Wasn't that Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade grand? So full of what we like most about America: peaceful, humorous, energetic and inventive. Remember all those young people in bands? So different from the sometimes unwholesome image of youth prevailing on TV. Soon all of us will join in the Christmas musical crescendo.

Residents can be proud of the Anchorage School District's extensive program introducing students to musical instruments. Yet music history and appreciation are also an essential part of the character building that should be the central purpose of early education. Musical attention and vocalization are a genetic part of each person's communication capacity. The average American, in a lifetime, will hear more music and sing or hum more than he will speak or be spoken to. Everyone benefits from knowing the basics. Adapting a cliché, "Unless you know where we have sung, you can't know where you will sing."

Music course work should be available through high school and strongly encouraged at least through the sophomore year, when for some a greater emphasis on vocational subjects or college preparatory is justified.

Yet despite its importance, music, like art, is among the first topics labeled "unnecessary" when budgets are tightened. This choice reflects a basic misunderstanding of what is going on in the adolescent mind, which prioritizes, not so much specific fact learning but the mind-sets of character.

Music, like poetry, is a fundamental aspect of human genetic history. During the thousands of years before writing, the rules of society passed from generation to generation through stories, memorable because they were rhymed and supported by changes in tone and rhythm -- that is, by chanting and other early musical forms.

From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the messages of institutional Christianity dominated but underlying folk songs also carried their own message of unity in feeling. The hymns that supported the Protestant revolution brought a dramatic and sustaining departure from the Latin and its authority.

Music, distinct from religious messaging, lies still near the core of each person's spiritual life, legitimizing emotional feeling and expression, even through contemporary pop, rap, etc.

Since the rise of science, silent reading, writing and mathematics have fueled the engine of societal evolution. We now feel the mid-20th century electronics revolution pushing us back toward reliance on visual and oral clues. TV, radio and now the Net signal music's role as gaining, not losing.

Some very specific virtues are built into music, the paramount being the cooperative spirit. Yes, music has a role supporting the solitary self, as, when alone, we listen or sing to favorite recordings or radio music, in the shower as some have it. But even when we listen alone, the music is reminding us of the profound benefits of the cooperative and disciplined life.

Whether modern or classical, music is a result of people getting together for the play, each taking a role, stepping out of script in improvisation, only to comment on what has been played. Musical performance requires and suggests the virtues of hard work and sensitivity to the role of others. With or without a conductor (a late-developing role), the symphony illustrates the virtue of each of us playing a designed, disciplined role to produce a beautiful, harmonic result. It is not hard to see that musical education enhances intellectual capacity while building character.

Even on a popular TV series like "The Voice," a supposedly solitary performance is supported by a musically educated composer. In every case, the history of musical development is a background to what is sung. While we cluck about the consumption of marijuana that attends many rock concerts, whatever that effect, the feeling generated by the music is the truth of humankind's unity.

Musical education is not frivolous. It addresses a core element in the growth of a useful personality, including the consciousness of community membership with its attendant pleasures and responsibilities. To omit it from our educational system is a grievous error.

While you hum along to the performances drenching the coming season, keep the greater role of music in mind.

Semi-retired lawyer, educator and public administrator John Havelock stays tuned to KLEF. He lives in Anchorage.

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