Does Music Lie?

Albert Tuba

“Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.”  Jimi Hendrix

But what is music? That might sound like a ridiculous question, but I wonder how our history might have been different if Standards Based Music Education had been the focus of schools in the 1940s or ‘50s.

I can only imagine what “standards” would have been imposed on little James Marshall Hendrix. Who would have been selected to write the standards? Certainly not the musicians that led the way in jazz, blues or bluegrass—Duke Ellington, McKinley Morganfield and Bill Monroe need not apply. The more likely candidate — Will Earhart, a music educator who you’ve probably never heard of. Earhart was convinced that the “beauty” of music should be appreciated by all students. Appreciate beauty? Great idea, isn’t it? But how would it be measured or described? Earhart’s standard for beauty clearly excluded the amplified instruments used in rock and roll or the loose approach to rhythm that characterizes blues music.  Jimi would have failed according to such standards—his playing was frequently ahead of or behind the beat, his amplifier distorted, with feedback shrieking. Some music educators today might still side with Earhart.

Standards tend to be written by academics, and the standards they produce are essentially conservative—they preserve the status quo rather than encourage learners to challenge accepted practice or extend the boundaries of a discipline. A standards-oriented musical academic of that era might have told Jimi, “You’re right, music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, it better happen outside of music. And what you’re doing isn’t music.”

History has spoken on that subject. Jimi changed the face of popular music, and had to do so entirely outside of the academic scene. How many other “Jimis” have been made to feel inadequate, unwanted, or inept at school because their interpretation of content, concepts or skills lay beyond an accepted academic norm?

If you’re a parent of a student, consider the impact that a standards-based education may have on your child’s ability or desire to “think outside the box.” The more we reduce knowledge or skills to a list of arbitrary standards, the more likely that we pre-empt constructive and creative change because we lie to students—we lead them to believe they have “mastered” a subject if they can check off the various boxes on whatever list we proffer.

Does music lie? No. Neither does mathematics, history, or any other field of human endeavor. The truth is that no field of knowledge will ever be complete, nor can a list of “standards” encompass any of the disciplines. When we reduce knowledge to a set of “standards,” we not only encourage students to view education as a finite experience, but also encourage teachers to eliminate anything that didn’t make the cut.  Education then ceases to be that open-ended journey that both students and teachers might contribute to.

Don’t lie to students. They deserve to explore the truths we have discovered thus far, and to add their discoveries to the ever-flowing river of learning.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

3 thoughts on “Does Music Lie?

  1. How do you measure creativity? Ask any judge whose had to give an interpretation score at an audition or contest. It can be highly subjective, but there is such a thing as performance practice, an accepted way of performing that is adopted by a culture. Guidelines are followed in the learning process. Otherwise, learning would be a random, chaotic event. That is not to say that learning cannot take place when there is no order–yes, eventually, Jimi Hendrix would have emerged because an artist of his calibre must find his voice. However, Jimi did not appear out of a vacuum. Jimi never would have found a voice without “some” influence from his predecessors in blues. Whether he learned in a “conventional” or non-conventional way dos not negate the need for him to have learned basic skills.

    One cannot break rules if the rules have not been established. Teachers need to provide a balance: opportunities to experience learning based on required elements and the environment to apply these elements in innovative ways.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I find myself nodding in agreement to your basic argument that structure is typically a prerequisite to creative expression. Indeed, Jimi acknowledged his debt to previous generations as he expanded the vocabulary of his instrument and blazed new trails in rock and popular music.

      I’m not convinced, however, that the current fad for “standards” will offer teachers the opportunity to create an atmosphere for balance between requirements and innovation, as you suggest. Instead, the CCSS and other standards usually function to preempt individuality and creativity. They are reductionist tools created by anti-democratic bodies whose primary goal is to strip educators of the professional discretion necessary to promote that balance.

      As I stated in the “Declaration” posted earlier, “…a democratic society sustains itself by practice of its ideals within the educational environment.” For democratic education to thrive, we need to establish an atmosphere where an uninhibited exchange between teacher and student occurs regularly, with utilitarian “outcomes” a backseat passenger rather than driver of the vehicle.

      David Sudmeier

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      • “I’m not convinced, however, that the current fad for “standards” will offer teachers the opportunity to create an atmosphere for balance between requirements and innovation, as you suggest. Instead, the CCSS and other standards usually function to preempt individuality and creativity. They are reductionist tools created by anti-democratic bodies whose primary goal is to strip educators of the professional discretion necessary to promote that balance.”
        I whole-heartedly agree. I hope it does not appear that I am suggesting the CCSS will facilitate balance. The more convoluted and restraining the standards, the less freedom. This is the reason that I do not construct lessons based on my state standards for music. I find them too specific, unrealistic, and inflexible. Do I include the state standards in the written plan? Yes, but I do not base my lessons on them. Instead, I utilize the national music standards as developed by NAfME. They are simple and few in number.

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