Why Music Education is Vital to Humans

Why Music Education is Vital to Humans


norman lebrecht

July 21, 2017

A seminal lecture from the Deal Festival by Richard J. Hallam, past president of the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

Sample content:

Look at what is supposed to happen in primary school. Children in Key Stage 1 (5 to
7 year olds) should be taught to:
• use their voices expressively and creatively by singing songs and speaking
chants and rhymes
• play tuned and untuned instruments musically
• listen with concentration and understanding to a range of high-quality live and
recorded music
• experiment with, create, select and combine sounds using the inter-related
dimensions of music.

And in Key Stage 2 (7 to 11 year olds): Pupils should be taught to sing and play
musically with increasing confidence and control. They should develop an
understanding of musical composition, organising and manipulating ideas within
musical structures and reproducing sounds from aural memory.
Pupils should be taught to:
• play and perform in solo and ensemble contexts, using their voices and
playing musical instruments with increasing accuracy, fluency, control and
• improvise and compose music for a range of purposes using the inter-related
dimensions of music
• listen with attention to detail and recall sounds with increasing aural memory
• use and understand staff and other musical notations
• appreciate and understand a wide range of high-quality live and recorded
music drawn from different traditions and from great composers and
• develop an understanding of the history of music.
Is this a picture you recognise? Is this happening in the schools you know? Are
these the experiences young people are getting now? In some places the answer is
a resounding ‘yes’. This is why we have some of the best music education in the
world. But as report after report states, the situation is patchy. If, as I am proposing,
music education is vital to humans, what can we do about it? We can be clear who is
responsible and hold them to account. I don’t believe anyone sets out to do a poor
job. We have to find constructive and supportive ways to bring about change.

Read the full lecture here.



  • Peter Hopkins says:

    Music is vital to humans above all because it is an innate ability that seeks to be developed. Every human being possesses the ability to comprehend music. Unfortunately in western societies, we tend to approach and teach music as something external, to be learned through memorisation and analysis, rather than first cultivating the internal pre-programmed language of music inherent in all humans via sensations and emotions. Bartok, Kodaly and others understood this. As a music educator myself, I have been very pleased to recently see others approaching music education from this angle. I recently discovered a remarkable French online system for teaching music that has attracted a lot of attention all over the world and seems to be gaining wide acceptance. We need more of these initiatives in order to assure that every human being has the possibility to develop their natural musicality to its fullest potential. It will also help to fill our concert halls with future generations of people who speak and understand the language of music fluently.

    • Clive Dunn says:

      Classical music as we understand it is now a dead art form, it died on New Years day 1900. The last century has produced the most appalling caterwailing and tuneless wonders the world has ever seen and heard. Talentless trash. You cannot teach someone to be musical they either have it or not, you cannot teach anyone to be creative they must have the spark. As someone has already mentioned once home music making stopped real music stopped too. You need to get home music making going again, even if its just playing spoons and a wash board!

      • John Borstlap says:

        ´The last century…´ ? Ravel, Debussy, Fauré, Elgar, Strauss, Mahler, Stravinsky, Poulenc, Honegger, Prokofiev, Szymanowsky, Barber, etc. etc. the list is endless. It has been post WW II academia and modernist propaganda which have tried to get the message across that music should move into the desert. But melody and expression simply went on being written, only a musical establishment did not want that to be serious and ´relevant´.

  • Sean O Riada says:

    More importantly home music making should be encouraged, it has practically died out everywhere, except in a few places with a folk tradition, as the late Dietrich Fischer Dieskau pointed out in a radio interview. We in Ireland have a long tradition of folk music in the home.

    All my family started from an early age playing tin whistles, fiddles, low whistles, Uilleann pipes, concertina, banjo, guitar, Bodhrán, Cláirseach, (Harp), Tiompan ( Hammered Dulcimer), flute, recorder and piano and singing in Irish/English.

    Home music making is the first experience they have before going to school giving them a head start. They should set up a scheme to support home music making it is a great way to entertain and get the kids off their tablets, iphones etc ugh!

    Here is a clip from Seamus Ennis, who taught me the finer points of playing the Uilleann pipes, he was a great story teller too.


  • Jon H says:

    From the moment toddlers are dancing, they’re picking up rhythm, and a school not noticing that is not accepting what it is to be alive. Later children might pretend to play drums, or conduct – and schools not in touch with that are not in touch with children.
    There’s always been talk about why music education is important – but there seems to be a misunderstanding about why that’s important in schools. “All that pop music [we teachers listen to] involves artists with no music education, right?” It’s such a part of the vernacular of the culture.
    On the other hand, teaching C major scales and correcting wrong notes isn’t everything. The obsessive striving for perfection isn’t everything. Some of it is talent… The ability to play period instruments isn’t everything. The acquisition of Stradivarius instruments isn’t everything. And having that perfect acoustic (which doesn’t exist) isn’t everything.

    • Jon H says:

      And even if 85% of the audience can’t hear it, there’s a small percentage who know when an artist knows what they want, and is getting pretty close to that. It can be moving, it can just feel right, etc.
      What can a teacher teach you about that? Some teach music aesthetics, and that’s great. Others treat it like an alien force. Brain science is explaining more and more, and it’s nice to know it may have something to do with early childhood – although I still wonder how the artist on the stage (from another country, etc.) knows what my brain has wanted since the age of five. I don’t even know most of the time.

      • John Borstlap says:

        But a lot of things operate entirely unconsciously. In the human mind there is a receptive system that reacts to proportions, and this is why people find things ‘beautiful’- in whatever way. In music, the same dynamics of proportions is operating as in nature, where people seek restoration of inner balance. It is not pop music but classical music which has an ordering influence upon the deeper layers of the subconsciousness, where such perceptive frameworks are working, and hence the positive influence of music upon the brain. The organizing structures of the brain are based upon the same organizing principles as can be found in music. But then we do not talk about Xenakis or Cage or Ives, or the later Schoenberg which is organized disorder.

        It has all to do with our relationship with nature and our understanding of evolution:


        • Hilary says:

          John B: Cage isn’t the best example in your list of supposedly more agitated/disordered music! Take the piano piece “Dream”, or some of the Sonatas and Interludes.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Of course I meant the conceptual Cage, the stuff with which he made his mark. “Dream” is one of those very early pieces before he got into ‘new music’ and ‘pure sound’; it is a very simple children’s piece meandering on and on without demanding much musical perception. ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ – the prepared piano pieces – are nice experiments, but not serious art music.

          • John Borstlap says:


            The prepared piano pieces sound like what creative mice do in their free time.

          • Father Ted says:

            I would rather listen to “My lovely Horse”, than any John cage stuff.


    • Clive Dunn says:

      Some kids are born tone deaf, they will never play or sing a note.

  • Henry says:

    I think the most important cause of the ‘decline of classical music’ is the withdrawn and desensitized way the modern world makes us live. Everyday is fast paced, everyday at our jobs we are required to suppress most of ourselves, everyday our world is so full of noise and everyday we live constantly worrying about the future.

    Living the way most of us do, requires us to desensitize ourselves to all of our senses mental and physical. How can you really open your heart to anything if the world feels like a hostile noisy place. It’s not access to music, but the fact that most people are unable to enjoy classical music; and I think the reason why lies in a sociological explanation of the kind I tried to give.

    I see a lot people attend concerts and most look like they try to enjoy but they can’t for some kind of internal reason. Every other issue that does not address this (I don’t know how) is only cosmetic.

    • John Borstlap says:

      This is true. And the reason is often given that it is the music which is no longer compatible with modernity, so the problem is being located at the producing side while it is at the receiving side. This mistake then creates the next one: trying to adapt the music to the outside, modern world. The only justification of classical music in the modern world is its offering an alternative to modernity, an alternative where people can find something of themselves again. But that is only possible if the barrier of desensitization is somehow overcome and that could – maybe – be achieved through education, so mr Hallam is right, that is the way in which it has to be tried.

      This article in 3 parts explores exactly what the comment above touches upon:


    • Sue says:

      That doesn’t explain how music survived in Germany despite the destruction of Berlin and Dresden. One of the first things to happen was a concert from the Berlin Philharmonic in a make-shift venue. So, you cannot argue about the pace of life and its depredations being a reason why classical music is in decline. It’s about its VALUE to a culture, supported by that culture but, also very importantly, it’s about people being able to think about something for longer than 15 minutes and making a commitment to it from beginning to end. Art music asks you to do that; to sit, listen, think. The modern world is incapable of that much of the time.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Also true.

        The question is, till how far people let the desensitivation of modern life influence their mental and emotional capacities. Where there is not much culture and tradition, people are much more vulnerable to the negative influences of modernity.

      • TP McKenna says:

        Odd that Germany and Austria produced the bulk of the main composers from 1700-1900, but then they just dropped off the radar, I guess two world wars have worn them out completely as they do not produce many now. Modern music now seems to have no cultural centre like Vienna, Rome etc, where has it ended up?

        The UK has a huge Pop industry unlike Germany and Austria this is down to two factors language, Pop does not work sung in German, second, the UK had a vast Empire, which spread English about, it seems the lack of a musical education is no impediment to Pop success, as the market driven Spice Girls proved. Any fool can twang a guitar even badly. The question is which country/countries are going to provide what we generically term “classical music” in the future? PRC?

        • John Borstlap says:

          “The country that suffered the most from the postwar modernist revolution, was Germany. Its musical tradition was considered contaminated by the annexation of the nazis, especially romanticism was seen as a pool of evil and bad taste, and Wagner – the former icon of ‘Aryan’ culture and its antisemitism – became the symbol of everything that was wrong with tonality, expression and the so-called ‘humanist tradition’ in music. Postwar new music had to symbolize the birth of a new Germany, a country fully integrated into western democracy, and joining western modernity of which the USA were the leaders. In music, modernism became the flagship of German modernity, but a flagship that had left its original harbor for a sea where audiences did not want to follow. While new modernist music was supported and funded by the institutions, the central performance culture was restored as a museum culture, where the ‘dangerous’ masterpieces of the past could be enjoyed as objects behind the glass of history, and thus reasonably ‘safe’. The Bayreuth Festival with its famous theatre, set-up by Wagner for his operas where they could be performed in the best theatrical and acoustical conditions, was cleansed after the war by his grandsons who introduced a thoroughly ‘sobered’ presentation which focused upon the timeless aspects of this impressive oeuvre. German culture of the past being safely locked-up in the museum, its present incarnation: modernism, showed its negation, which carried the symbolism of safety as well: atonal, modernist Germans were good Germans, however ugly, barbaric and nihilistic the results.” Source: ‘The Classical Revolution’:


        • Clive Dunn says:

          You are right, Germany no longer produces the bulk of classical composers any more, a centre might be over in USA, they seem to be doing more contemporary music in the USA.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Agreed. And any compositional talent emerging in Germany or Austria – only statistically that should be a normal occurrance – will be wholeheartedly discouraged to explore its own traditions, which are supposed to be all dominated and defined by Hitler, all interest in the German musical past is taboo for being fascistoid. A modernist German is a good German. Strangely enough, German society has been thoroughly reformed on Enlightenment principles after WW II, but in the territory of new music, the Enlightenment has been locked-up in the museum culture of traditional concert life. Any triad is suspicious…. as are scales…. so, Germany let Hitler destroy their own musical tradition and install a fascistoid new art form in its place, generously subsidized by the state.

      • Blair Mayne says:

        I remember my father telling me when he came back from active service in Berlin in 1945, the Germans are very odd , they caused two world wars and then they sit down after its all over to listen to Beethoven as if nothing had happened.

        • John Borstlap says:

          That is nonsense; classical music was the last thing they had left after the total collapse of their society. After the war, Germany made enormous efforts to reform the country into a modern nation based upon Western Enlightenment values, which has succeeded. Beethoven was and is the most strong symbol of those values; one could say that Germany was Beethovenianized after WW II.

          • Funkmeister says:

            That’s a little harsh.

            It is worth noting that the Nazi’s loved classical music, ( listen to the audio samples in DIfferent Trains describing guards applauding a concentration camp inmate singing Strauss). And they banned Jazz as decadent and subversive. Like, it’s political culture, German music was democratized as much as Beethovenised post WW2.

          • John Borstlap says:

            To Funkmeister:

            This is a much too complex psychological and political subject to be treated in a blog like this. But I would say: the human mind is capable to put things in boxes, and where people are dehumanized for some reason, and put into the box of non-human, the rest of the mind seems to be able to function more or less ‘normally’. Denial is common with people, especially around sensitive themes. Reactions of nazi’s to art do not say anything about the art but everything about the sort of perception, or rather: of misconception, they suffered from. After all, in the name of Christ millions of people have been slaughtered and one could not possibly claim that the teachings of the New Testament were responsible.

          • Blair Mayne says:

            No Borstlop YOU are complete nonsense and arrogant to boot citing a non peer reviewed book, my father saw at first hand what they did in Belsen, he was in the RAMC. He saw them in the POW camps listening to Beethoven etc in a daze, they could not give a damn. As for the generation who sweated in the 1950s they did not want to discuss the war at all. The question you need to answer is why Germany/Austria is no longer producing any worthwhile music, that is music which will last to end of time and which we would want to hear repeated. Rihm is terrible stuff.

          • John Borstlap says:

            To Blair Mayne:

            You confuse the lack of understanding music’s implications with the nature of the music itself and the attempts to put things right. And generalizing entire nations will not contribute to the understanding of war atrocities. Young German children in the first postwar years got history books under their nose with explicit photos of gassed corpses and concentration camp atrocities, to rub it in that certain things won’t happen again. Imagine: children of 5, 6 years old, most of them traumatized in one way or another, who had not done anything to be defined as war criminals.

            When, in the war, and at both sides, traumatized civilians scrambled along the ruins of thier bombed cities to cold halls to hear some classical music – in most cases the same at both sides – they wanted to be reminded, for a short while, of what it means to be human.

  • Dubliner says:

    You folk have entirely missed an important trick. You have forgotten that up to the turn of last century, folk made their own entertainment at home, there was no TV, radio, CD, the recording industry was just getting going. Before he passed on DFD made the point in a BBC radio interview that house music was dying out, in Schubert’s day lieder was not sung in great big concert halls, it was sung in drawing rooms with friends.

    Ireland still has a lively folk tradition of home music making, my family all could play instruments (fiddle, tin whistle, Uilleann pipes, flute, recorder, Tiompan (hammered dulcimer) Clairach (Harp), concertina, banjo, guitar and Bodhran, well before they started school. If home music making were supported in other places like UK, it would augment what is learnt at school. The other thing is that there are kids who are naturally tone deaf, no matter how much they try, they either have it or not. I must say home music making is great for keeping them away from iphones, tablets and other digital toys!

  • Edgar says:

    I feel heartened by both lecture and the discussion here. I like to quip that, if each trading day at the New York Stock Exchange would begin with one hour of music making, the world (and certainly America) would be a better place. Quip aside, what I think is one important fact in today’s modern culture: the avoidance of silence. Yoga retreats, ashrams, etc. – all kinds of places of the kind are booked eons in advance. Yet: cultivating silence begins right at home, there where one is and lives. There is, I think, a “horror vacui” which prevents people to sink deeply and without fear into the Silence out of which Music is born. In fleeing the former, they miss much of the latter, even when surrounded by it almost incessantly. None of us is required to live like monks. Yet: I highly recommend the film “Into The Great Silence”, documenting life in the Cartusian monastery La Grande Chartreuse, released several years ago (the monks took more than a decade to positively reply to the filmmaker’s request, proposing he stay at least 6 months with them before filming). It lasts about three hours, yet for the one willing to expose her/himself to the experience, time becomes an instant, or, better, is suspended. Absolutely revelatory.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I have seen that movie – entirely unique. And the rest of the comment is all entirely true. The horror vacui often begins already when children are young: every corner of the diary being crammed with activities, so that the impression is created that ‘normal life’ = activity. This means that adapting classical music to the pace and ‘liveliness’ of the modern world, excludes exactly the special value that the art form can offer: interior experience.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    Hallam’s comments are welcome but nothing new here. Apart from pockets of excellence- specialist music schools like Menuhin & Purcell & a few others.. junior departments of London Music Colleges etc- the state of music education in this country is woeful as alluded to by Daniel Barenboim in his thought- provoking speech. Children are nowadays generally illiterate of Classical music- they’d struggle to name a great composer let alone identify a piece by them. Who’s to blame for this malaise?- the schools, the parents with their lack of a broader cultural understanding or the uninpsired teachers (not all of them)- probably all of them to a greater/ lesser extent. As a trained teacher myself- always thought that the National Curriculum in music was very poorly designed. 2 major problems- it doesn’t focus on reading music notation (which really suggests that whoever drew it up- considered most kids too stupid to do so) & thats its too broad- with its silly emphasis on multi ethnic music- probably in an attempt to keep in tune with modern political correctdeness. The most absurd thing is to see children messing around on dinky electronic keyboards expected to be composers & creative before they know the first thing about music. Utterly ridiculous. Bringing back free instrumental music lessons in schools is one answer- but no government want to pay for it.

  • Stacey Marmolejo says:

    All of this is so true. Yet our public school systems continue to cut the arts from the curriculum, thus restricting music education to only those who can afford music lessons for their kids. If music education is important to you, I encourage you to donate to Ovation Music Fund (http://www.OvationMusicFund.org); a national 501(c)(3) that provides low income children under 18 with music scholarships so they may attend any approved after-school music program in the US.