George Lucas Educational Foundation

Keeping Time: Music Is a Core Subject

Music education nourishes the mind as well as the soul.
By Wynton Marsalis
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Credit: Keith Major. All rights reserved.

School administrators facing budget cuts often look to eliminate what they consider "nonessential" programs. Invariably, their red pen lands on the same line item: music class.

It strikes me as strange that music is considered nonessential. More than simply being a source of cultural pride and listening pleasure, music represents a core ingredient in the education of our children.

Music, in its purest form, encompasses the very ideals that we want to impart to our children. Let us consider a few. Because music makes abstract thought concrete, it forces us to develop several important cognitive functions.

The first is memory. Musicians must memorize not only the melody of a piece but also the individual notes that make it up. Within that, music teaches us the language of expression. You and I and Martin Luther King Jr. could read the exact same speech and it wouldn't sound the same. The words are the same, of course, but why is it that Dr. King's voice and tone carried something beyond the words? It's the expressiveness of the performance. Similarly, three people playing a trumpet don't sound the same. They can play the same note or melody, but only some trumpet players have a feeling that touches our heart.

Music also teaches us how to get along with others. Consider the music I love: jazz. Each member of the group can improvise, but none of it works -- for a soloist or an ensemble -- if the musicians do not play in balance. If the drummer, who plays the loudest instrument, decides he wants to be much louder than the bassist, who has the softest instrument, you're going to have discord. This group dynamic teaches the importance of choice, and many choices require some form of sacrifice. You must listen. You must have a conversation. The group must work together to achieve its goals.

Jazz, in many ways, embodies our core democratic principles. The motto of the United States is "E Pluribus Unum" -- Out of Many, One. Likewise, in music we celebrate the skills of the individual, as well as the strength of the group. Playing music also allows us to interact with some of our greatest artistic minds. When you perform the music of Charlie Parker or Leonard Bernstein, you understand their world. With each song, we get a glimpse of the intellectual life contained within the artistic statement.

Today, I still get special joy from instructing children. I try to show them the many lessons of good musical craftsmanship, particularly because I feel that so little good music is available to them. The music our children hear on the radio may feel good, like a candy bar feels good, but it has no nutrition. We exploit their budding sexuality. We exploit their lack of sophistication. We equate decadence with hipness. We give them cleavage and the same beat on every song, almost as if we were going back to the plantation. We treat our children as a marketing segment, and it's embarrassing. But it is not our children who are at fault. We are.

Music must remain a core part of the teaching curriculum. Every school should have an orchestra, and it should play the music of this country -- Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, William Grant Still. We should have jazz ensembles in our middle schools and blues bands in our high schools. As adults, we need to say, "This is the America we know and love." Education works on many levels. It must inform and excite the mind, as well as nourish the spirit. Music is a key part of that education.

Wynton Marsalis is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in music for his work Blood on the Fields.

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mary K. Szeles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I greatly appreciate this article. I have sent it to my administrators and colleagues.

We need more great musicians as well as school admnistrators to articulate the vital importance music education must have in the lives of the children in our nation.

Thank you Winton Marsalis and EDUTOPIA!!!!

bob's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Tom Todd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the article, Wynton.

Kurt Wootton's picture
Kurt Wootton
Habla: The Center for Language and Culture

"Music must remain a core part of the teaching curriculum. Every school should have an orchestra, and it should play the music of this country -- Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, William Grant Still. We should have jazz ensembles in our middle schools and blues bands in our high schools."

Absolutely -- we need diverse musical programs in our schools, from jazz to blues and beyond. And after we convince districts to support music programs in their schools, we then need to focus on the type and quality of the programs. Growing up in Indiana, we did have music programs in our public high school, but they felt like they were created to serve the football and basketball teams. We memorized muzak versions of Prince and Beatles hits to play during half time. We learned nothing about how to create or improvise with our instruments. We were merely robots playing our small role in the sports program. Musicians like, Mr. Marsalis, are some of the most creative and culturally powerful people on the planet. Music in our schools must be liberating. Our young people need to know that they have a musical voice, and have the capacity to shape the world.

April Whitstone's picture
April Whitstone
4th Grade ELA/SS Teacher

So true! While (great) music stands alone on its own creative merit, there are many, many cross-curricular opportunities for music in EVERY classroom. Music speaks to us not only in verse, melody, and rhythm, but of history, culture, language/word play, math, and physics. Music also motivates reluctant learners to succeed. When my son discovered the joy of choir and performance, his whole attitude toward school changed. As a result, his grade point average significantly increased. As a parent in the great state of Texas, I know administrators would NEVER dream of cutting athletic programs, fearing public outcry. It is up to us as educators, community members, and vocal activists to keep fine arts in the curriculum core.

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Thank you for this great article. Naturally, we concur. We also agree with what Kurt said. The traditional way of teaching music works for some but also turns off many. How many kids do you know who quit piano because there teacher had nothing original up their sleeve to keep them interested? How about teaching our kids to write songs, to orchestrate, to dabble with putting soundtracks to the videos they create for fun with their friends.

We use our songs to teach SEL and are actually quite common core. Just imagine a perfect world where a student could take all kinds of music classes that meshed with other subjects and projects. No need for rigidity and old rules.

We will tweet, pin, fb this everywhere. Thank you, Edutopia, for inspiring teachers to stay creative and awake..

dancerella2015's picture

I agree that music should be in every school because a lot of cultures have music and children need to learn about other cultures other than there own.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.