On the Nature of Musical Meaning and a Classical-Model Music Education – Part 2

Recently, I began to address the issue of a classical/trivium model for music education.  Here, I hope to explore more deeply what that model of education might look like when applied to today’s classroom.  I should begin, however, with some delimitation.

By a “classical-model” music education I do not mean in fact modeling how music was taught in a classical (ancient) education.  Rather, I mean modeling a contemporary approach to music education after the classical emphasis on a particular developmental progression and the classical educational mission of developing good citizens–with a sensitivity to and appreciation for questions of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.  To begin pondering music as a philosophical lens toward questions of truth, beauty, and goodness more robustly, the reader is encouraged to review a prior post on meta-musical inquiry.  This post will focus on the former issue–that of shaping various educational trajectories around the classical developmental progression in general and the classical concern with developing critical-thinking skills and rhetorical gifts in particular.  This, it would seem, is the first step necessary; for it provides the platform upon which a meta-aesthetic dialogue can take place.

In addition to clarifying definitions, it is also worth noting that this model, like music, is both inclusive and exclusive.  It is inclusive to any student that is ready to commit to its rigor.  It is, however, exclusive in the sense that not every student will want to be the independent scholar, lover of wisdom, or advocate of excellence that this model encourages.  It is for this reason, that classical schools tend, most often, to be private academies.  In short, parents appreciate more readily that for which they must pay.   Public schools that imitate the classical model are around and can be successful.  Alas, they face greater difficulty in dealing with potential ignorance and apathy of both student and parent–both mistaking education as a right rather than a privilege, resistant to the demands of excellence, and presumptuous in assuming education to be foremost about the personal experience and emotional pampering of the student.

As music itself–at least as the Romantics understood it–represents not a fixed stasis, but an organic process of becoming, so too the model I suggest is surely an unpolished motive in need of much development.  Nevertheless, I propose a purposeful progression in music education that models the overall trivium progression—from grammar to logic, and onto rhetoric.  While I have yet to envision all that this can be, I believe that the basic progression can be applied easily to a school-wide curriculum (K-12) and, at minimum, the foundational emphases on logic, rhetoric, and axiological inquiry can be easily and successfully applied to a single, public, high school general music course.  In this post, I will suggest an overall K-12 trajectory for an actual classical-model/trivium school, public or private.  In a future post, I will flesh out the Rhetoric-model approach more comprehensively, and I will suggest a hybrid model as a rigorous and rewarding approach to teaching high school General Music at a non-classical public school.

The K-12 Model

In the classical model that I am suggesting, the Grammar School introduces a depth of general music knowledge through a breadth of musical experiences: reading and performing basic rhythms; learning to hear and identify basic pitch; developing a general knowledge of historical time periods and relevant composers in art music history; singing songs from various traditions of art, folk, and world music; performing on non-pitched and pitched percussion; exploring various aspects of creative and discriminatory listening; improving coordination through music movement, and singing games. Grades K-3 function as one lengthy course, with different objectives mastered at different ages–the latter grades building upon the former.  In grades 4-5, students focus more upon the mechanics of proper singing functioning as group.  Sixth grade functions as a capstone to the K-5 progression, where students study the art of instrumentation—how to identify, classify, build, and perform basic instruments.  I have personally discovered that an Orff/Kodály hybrid method lends itself exceptionally well to the classical model at the grammar stage.

The Logic/Dialectic School emphasizes theory and composition. This includes the analysis of music as a language and the process of musicing as communication, and it requires students to break that language down aurally and visually in order to reconstruct it so as to communicate effectively. Many interdisciplinary connections between music and mathematics are also drawn during this stage.  I have personally discovered that this method of teaching theory at a time in which it coincides well with a student’s early exposure to the more comprehensive courses in mathematics is extremely useful for the student.  I have time and again discovered students that are struggling with issues in division or pattern identification; and this deficiency has been strengthened via theory and composition.  Music, after all, is number in time.  Students have also learned to appreciate the Fibonacci sequence more robustly.

In a survey of the western art music heritage, pop music subcultures, and indigenous music cultures from around the world, the Rhetoric School explores history, culture, interdisciplinary connections, philosophical issues, psychological variables, discriminatory listening analysis, and both creative and descriptive writing.  Although ensembles might prove rewarding as a supplemental course or extracurricular activity, the core mission of the music program at this stage is to develop what Plato called Philosopher Kings—students who approach music and the arts thoughtfully in order to engage their culture to look to Beauty and meaningful order beyond the arts.  In one sense, it is very much like an average music appreciation/musical humanities course–and yet it can be so much more.

I will flesh out this Rhetoric-model music education paradigm more comprehensively in a future post.  The main objective of this post has been to provide a skeletal outline of a basic music education developmental trajectory for the K-12 classical model.  The Grammar-school student, immersed in a plethora of musical experiences, learns to think more deeply and comprehensively about those experiences–developing key skills in audiation, as well as aural, visual, physical, emotional, and spacial discrimination along the way.  By the time they reach sixth grade, the basic elements of reading, writing, thinking, and feeling music are second nature.  In sixth grade, they take a significant step toward the logic/dialectical stage by studying the science of instrumentation and the art of excellence in craftsmanship and innovation.

The Logic stage studies music systematically as number in time, and evaluates closely the science and art of composition and symbolic communication.  The Rhetoric stage approaches music as much more than merely a science and art of well-communicated sound.  Music is seen as a significant voice in the history of the arts.  The arts are seen as a key voice in philosophy and theology.  Philosophy and theology are seen as bringing us face to face with those most important questions and several subset inquiries: What is true? What is good? What is valuable?  How then should I live?  Is it better to value form or freedom; science and rational deduction or experience and expression; legalism or liberalism?  Are these false-dichotomies?  Is truth relative to individual or culture?  Is beauty or rightness a universal truth?  If not, then neither can be its negation… So, is “evil” or “ugliness” a universal truth?  What do the arts offer the dialogue of ethics and politics? What does the study of music and the arts as worldview projection offer the philosophy of possible and actual worlds?

Artistically crafted, a Rhetoric-school music curricula encourages inquiry into the depths of meta-aesthetic/meta-ethical profundity.  So how might the eager advocate of this model actually implement such ideals?  More on this later…


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