Friday, April 28, 2017

Science Appreciation and the Study of Music

Remember shows like Mr. Wizard, Beakman's World, Bill Nye the Science Guy? These were designed to inspire the young into the joys of science and inquiry, with the hopes that they would grow into scientifically literate adults who, if they did not happen to pursue a career in the sciences, would nonetheless know and understand enough to recognize its importance to humanity and the world.

Today it is relatively easy to find such Science Appreciation demonstrations on video.  These range from hammering a nail with frozen banana, exploding hydrogen filled balloons to demonstrations of chain reactions with mousetraps and ping pong balls.

Take a moment to watch the video below:

Wasn't that cool!  Did it provoke an emotional response?  I mean really! All of those ping pong balls flying all over the place in such a cool explosion!  That was really entertaining.

...did you learn anything from the video?

It may be entertaining, but did this video provide us with any significant detail regarding the actual science, the history of methods which lead up to the ability to conduct the experiment and predict results, the weights, measures, formulae, the safety precautions etc..... In other words, did this video provide you with any value as to the NEED to study science as a curricular subject in school?

Should we include the study of Language if all the students read are trashy novellas? Math if all they learn are mathematical parlor tricks? Medieval History if they simply watch "Game of Thrones?"

From this perspective there seems little value teaching Science, Math,  History or English as a core requirement.  An observation of an exploding balloon makes for a fun extracurricular activity, but provides nothing which requires scholarly discipline.

Appreciation or Study
This is however exactly the all too familiar attitude faced by music educators on a daily basis. For just as the exploding balloon is to a Richard Feynman, Isaac Newton, or Albert Einstein; the pop song is to a J.S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, or Maurice Ravel.  In schools, we require all students to conduct lab experiments; to get inside the process of doing scientific experiments, but we routinely make instrumental music an elective.

Pop songs, like the science video above, are appreciated as passive entertainment.  Classical music is at best merely deemed worthy of appreciation for its beauty.  This makes for a convenient excuse for the misinformed to disregard proposals for the reintegration of the curricular Music programs. For whatever we think of "appreciation" it is ultimately a condescending term.  Would we ever think to offer English as an "appreciation" course and forgo its study of grammar, syntax, interpretation?

The fact of the matter is that the Study of Music is hard.  It ranks among the most difficult disciplines to understand and study as it does not simply involve just audible "music." Degree programs require a heavy dose of science, math, literature, foreign language and history.

Forgive me if I sound a bit defensive in this side track here: be considered for a graduate program in Musicology,  Not only must students be able to audibly identify a minimum of 1,000 works, genres and composers, within specific historical, regional and philosophical traditions from the past 2,500 years (based upon either a 5-10 second audio clip or a fragment of a musical score), but they must also be able to dictate music by ear (that is identify pitches, rhythms, instrumentation and transcribe into notation), read and sing from a musical well as improvise a harmony by sight during a piano proficiency exam.
When music has a text, one must be able to understand literary devices, religious and secular nuance and metaphysics -- how these concepts are set to music (if the music has a text).
For a Masters program in musicology, A student must have reading proficiency in at least one Foreign language, but its more beneficial to learn the big three: German, French, and Italian.  Plus if, like me, you desire to study medieval music, you must also know Latin, (Ancient Greek helps too).
Historical research methods, paleography etc., and deep understanding of Literature and interpretive methodologies is also required. In fact, many works of literature require musical knowledge to understand the full meaning a text.
-- I have not even touched upon the requirements for the  Ethnomusicology and Linguistic expectations for the degree)
Musicians must also have a basic understanding of room acoustics so that with the practiced technique of properly tuned fine motor skills, they are able to produce music with an appropriately informed musical performance practice. - For my electric bass performances, I routinely draw upon classical guitar and cello sources, but also the results of pedal technique used by professional organists.
This brief clip, with dialog from the movie "Amadeus" demonstrates the expectation of what is required of a Music major.

So when a musician speaks of the importance of music education, they are speaking from a much deeper and integrated understanding of music. This is quite a different perspective than one which thinks of music as the simply pop song, or the casual untrained person playing and singing in a weekend garage band -- who is almost certain to develop vocal cord nodes or tendinitis.

Some relevant links:
Music and the Brain
The Music Instinct
History of Music in Classical Education -

To provide just a brief glimpse on how all of these disciplines intersect, take some time to peruse one of the three (3) study guides I wrote for the Minnesota High School Music Listening Contest.  This was written to condense some of these more heavy subjects for an 8th grade reading level:

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