Anxious music education experts have been telling us for years that music is science, with its acoustics and frequencies. Music is math, with its fractions and subdivisions of notes and rhythms. Music is foreign language, with its Italian, French and German terms as well as its own unique form of shorthand. Music is history, in that it often reflects the culture, time and place of its creation. Music is physical education, in that playing an instrument and singing require tremendous coordination between the mind and body.
However, music is also … music. It has an inherent value all its own. We don’t need to justify the study of music by its positive effects on other disciplines.
My math scores weren’t on my mind as a child when I asked to take piano lessons with Miss Vincent, a blind, octogenarian piano teacher who lived down the street in a big, old house that needed painting. Neither did they occur to my mother, who scrimped and saved each week working long hours in a smoky bar to come up with the $3 required to pay for those lessons. All I knew was that I wanted to play Rachmaninoff like Liberace did on television. All she knew was that she wanted to give me that chance.
Why was an American boy in 1972 so moved by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Prelude in C-sharp Minor? Who knows? But it began my lifelong love affair with music and my future career as a music educator, composer and classical music broadcaster.
When I was in college during the 1980s, my fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, hosted some legendary parties at Syracuse University. I can still hear the music of Michael Jackson, Duran Duran and Laura Branigan blaring from the house’s speakers. Thirty years later, I’ve forgotten most of the people I met at those parties, but I’m sure none of us has forgotten those songs or how they made us feel at that time in our lives when we were all in full bloom, our whole lives ahead of us.
Even the youngest children make emotional connections to music. When our toddler son was upset, he would often find comfort in a favorite stuffed animal – the one that played Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Before too long, that sweet melody would lull him into contentment. He’s almost 8 now and claims he’s too old for stuffed animals, but “Special Bear” still seems to have a place in his room and, I believe, in his heart.
I’ll let the experts focus on the secondary benefits of music. They are important, and in some cases may help justify school music programs. I prefer, however, to focus on music’s primary benefits – the beauty it brings to our human existence, the feelings it allows us to express, the memories it jogs and the joy, comfort and otherworldliness it provides.
Music unites and excites us. It inspires and comforts us. It helps us see beauty, feel compassion and express feelings. It brings back memories, gives us hope for the future and even hope for eternity.
Still, no matter how hard I try, I can’t quite put into words the importance of music in my life and, I believe, in all of our lives. They say that music picks up where words leave off. I guess it’s time for me to break into song.