Quite apart from the merits of teaching music for its own sake, there is a view being increasingly voiced among education researchers that music can be used to promote critical thinking in children. This was a topic that surfaced in the 1990s, with the view that asking questions about music can stimulate a deeper understanding of art and communication than just learning the external facts.
Well it has come up again. No doubt this has been prompted by a growing recognition that learning music in the school classroom or in private lessons can all too easily become narrow in its focus, concentrating on performance outcomes rather than thinking. And it comes hand-in-hand with a long-held view that music is a practical activity that lies outside core school subjects that do depend on critical thinking. Yet at the same time, and quite paradoxically, there is also now the popularly-held view, albeit unproven, that music lessons can make a child smarter.
Educationists are trying to change this. “As music offers the repeated challenge of situations in which there is no standard or approved answer, it can promote critical thinking,” writes May Kokkidou in the Journal for Learning through the Arts. What it needs, she suggests, is for “teachers and learners [to] engage together in a process of understanding life and the world”. Daniel Johnson in the International Journal of the Humanities puts the case similarly, saying that critical thinking has a natural place in teaching music, because as “a universal human endeavor, [it] offers a unique perspective on studying the humanities. Studying music combines the intellectual and emotional meaning listeners make from music, engaging them in aesthetically focused-activities”.
The way it can be done is via active music listening, writes John Kratus in Music Educators Journal. He describes this mode of listening as “a creative activity in that the listener constructs a uniquely personal musical experience”.
Johnson concurs, lamenting how today “the act of listening to music has often taken a secondary role in music education” due to the way teachers too frequently focus on “performance preparation and instrumental skills through drill and practice”. Ultimately, applying these activities as an instructional methodology can create “independent thinkers and autonomous learners who actively make their own meaning of the world”, he argues.
A question-and-answer style of teaching (the Socratic Method) that promotes thinking and reflection can help achieve this, believe Susan Mackey and Rose Ann Schwartz. In Visions On Learning Differences, they suggest that his can consist of students critiquing each other’s performances, comparing recordings, and sharing their visualisations and thoughts of the music, for example.
Pre-schoolers need not miss out either. Singer Julie Andrews has just released her new TV series, Julie’s Greenroom, which aims to bring similar ideals to an even younger audience. Says her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton, who co-wrote the series: “My background is in arts education and we know, absolutely for a fact, that there is no better way for kids to learn critical thinking skills, communication skills, [and] things like empathy and tolerance.” Julie’s Greenroom has started screening on Netflix.