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Classical Music

Paul Boghossian
Michael Beckerman

Part I

3. Education and Classical Music

Michael Beckerman, Ara Guzelimian, Ellen T. Harris et Jenny Judge

Texte intégral

1The question of classical music education is broad and multifaceted; this chapter covers four significant areas, each of which plays a part in the creation of a “classical music culture,” and each of which may be instrumental in the evolution of this culture in the future. The first section, “Musical Education and Childhood Development,” examines the current state of research concerning the effects of musical education on everything from the brain to social systems; the second section, “Music Education in the United States,” provides an overview of the recent history of K-12 arts education (that is, education from kindergarten to 12th grade); the third part, “Educating Professional Musicians,” discusses traditions of conservatory training in the United States and North America; and the concluding topic, “Musicology in the Twenty-First Century” looks at developments in the way music is presented and taught at university level.

1. Musical Education and Childhood Development

2It is easy to forget that there was a time when the only way to hear music was to be present while somebody played or sang. In much of Europe and North America, the parish church was the only readily accessible public music venue for many: for reasons spanning the geographical and the socioeconomic, regular attendance at public performances was not an option for most. It was thus natural for the music-lover of modest means to learn to play and sing, and to ensure that the children of the household were given the opportunity to do likewise.

3But the advent of recording technology changed all that. The affordability of playback devices, and, in particular, the preponderance of high-quality recordings available for free (or close to it) on the Internet, threatens domestic music-making with extinction. Why bother stumbling amateurishly through a Mozart sonata, a jazz standard from the Real Book or some Beatles arrangements for Easy Piano when one could at any moment hear the real thing, in glorious high fidelity, for free? And more to the point: why pay for expensive music lessons so that one’s children can do likewise?

4It is clear that music lessons are no longer the obvious way to ensure the presence of music in the home. But does this mean that there’s no point in a musical education any more? A growing body of evidence from developmental psychology suggests that this is far from being the case.

5Musical training brings with it a range of perceptual and motor advantages, first of all (for a parallel view of this issue see Chapter 4). Adults that have had musical training are more sensitive to pitch (Tervaniemi et al., 2005; Micheyl et al., 2006) and duration of sounds (Musacchia et al., 2007), as well as more accurate at synchronising their movements to a beat than adults that have not had such training (Drake, Penel, & Bigand, 2000). These sensorimotor benefits are reflected in striking anatomical differences: the brain of a musician tends to have more gray matter in the auditory cortex (Schlaug, Jäncke, Huang, & Steinmetz, 1995), and also in regions involved in integrating multisensory information (Bangert et al., 2006). Musical training also seems to be correlated with enlarging of the corpus callossum (Schlaug, Jäncke, Huang, Staiger, & Steinmetz, 1995), which facilitates communication across brain hemispheres, and the arcuate fasciculus, a region that mediates between sound perception and vocal control. Evidence suggests that these advantages have already begun to manifest in the brains of six-year-olds (Hyde et al., 2009).

6While the widespread intuition that musical training can improve mathematical competence is probably baseless, there is growing evidence that music lessons can help linguistic and verbal skills. Those with musical training tend to be more sensitive to sequential and syntactic structure in spoken language (François & Schon, 2011), and remarkably, children that have taken music lessons for eighteen months tend to outperform their non-musician peers on vocabulary tests (Forgeard et al., 2008). Musical training is also correlated with enhanced verbal memory (Kilgour, Jakobson, & Cuddy, 2000), and associations between musical training and reading skills have been documented, even when the musical training involved does not involve learning to read musical notation (Moreno et al., 2011). In general, musical training is thought to lead to enhanced executive functioning—a set of processes involved in goal-directed planning, problem-solving, inhibitory control, working memory, and attention—though the precise nature of the interaction is still somewhat unclear.

7It is unlikely that musical training makes you “smarter” in the sense of IQ scores, despite the ballyhoo surrounding the initial reporting of the roundly-debunked “Mozart effect”. And many of the developmental benefits cited above are unlikely to be unique to musical education, still less a Western “classical” one. That being said, learning to play an instrument, or to sing, does afford distinctive advantages, and the quantifiable developmental advantages listed above may turn out to be the least compelling ones. Scholars have proposed that music-making evolved as a powerful tool for social cohesion. As our pre-Spotify forebears knew very well, playing and singing together, even in an amateurish way, is one of the most fulfilling and sometimes even profound experiences anyone can have.

8A “classical” education in singing or performance is, of course, very far from being the only option on the table in this respect. In turn, it is undeniable that information technology, even as it undermines the case for learning an instrument as a way of ensuring the presence of music in the home, at the same time places a host of valuable resources at the disposal of the would-be domestic performer: YouTube tutorials, crowd-sourced guitar tabs, not to mention high-powered recording software for home studios. That being said, the emphasis on discipline and technical facility that the traditional pedagogical systems embody places one in a good position not just to play some of the greatest pieces of music written within the “classical” genres, but also to try one’s hand at jazz, folk and much more besides.

9The conception of music as something to be passively consumed is a very recent one. For most of our history, music has been something we do: a profoundly social activity that binds communities together. A classical music education is by no means the only way to learn to play music with others, but it’s a good place to begin.

2. K-12 Music Education in the United States

10A general consensus exists among educators, parents, and students in the United States that “many schools today are falling far short of providing students with a full experience of the arts” (PCAH, 2011: 3), but meaningful and detailed statistics are difficult to find. The US Department of Education reports that the percentage of public elementary schools offering instruction in music remained the same in 2009–2010 as in 1999–2000 at 94 % (Parsad & Spiegelman, 2012: 5), but this was based on self-reporting from the schools, “most” of which provided this instruction “at least once a week” (Ibid.: 6). Questions about the adequacy of instruction, preparation of the teachers, and student outcomes were left unaddressed. Further, as reported by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, “Recent results from a survey in Washington State show that 33 % of elementary students receive less than one hour a week on the average of arts instructions, and almost 10 % offer no formal arts instruction at all” (PCAH, 2011: 31). One is left to wonder how many of such schools are included in the stated 94 % of elementary schools reporting music instruction in the Department of Education report.

11The No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001 and signed into law in 2002, mandated the teaching of arts as a core education subject (Ibid.: 48, n. 31) but only required standards-based testing in grades 3–8 for English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. Because the results of this testing continue to determine future funding for the school or district, school curricula have increasingly focused on these tests to the detriment of other required core subjects (and, as some have argued, to the instruction in the subjects being tested). As a consequence of the “subsequent economic pressures on the finances of many school districts, music and arts education programs have been subject to significant budget cuts and de-emphases” (NAMM Foundation and Grunwald Associates LLC, 2015: 4).

12Substantive programs in the arts in K-12 education offer the possibility of a lifetime of inspirational listening and performing experiences. In addition, there are “substantial studies indicating strong correlations between arts education and academic achievement, especially for the country’s growing number of at-risk children” (Ibid.: 4). Unfortunately, the primary goal of No Child Left Behind to make American students first in the world in science and mathematics was not achieved, so that the subsequent national education plan focused K-12 education even more narrowly on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) without asking whether the lack of a strong arts component in No Child Left Behind may have played a role in its failure. Instead, taking no notice and making no mention of the arts or the humanities, the plan of the National Science and Technology Council seeks to “prepare 100,000 excellent new K-12 STEM teachers by 2020,” “support a 50 percent increase in the number of US youth who have an authentic STEM experience each year,” and “graduate one million additional students [from college] with degrees in STEM fields over the next 10 years” (2013: viii).

13It might be useful in closing, therefore, to consider the role of arts education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a premier American institution with a focus on STEM subjects. Not only do successful high school applicants to MIT present a very strong arts background (suggesting an important synergy of the arts and STEM subjects in K-12 education), but also the arts are viewed as a strong curricular partner at the Institute in innovation and creativity. L. Rafael Reif, President of MIT, could not have expressed these values more clearly (2013): “Today, unprecedented numbers of incoming students—80 percent—arrive at MIT with deep experience in the arts, especially in music [italics added]. In that context, the arts have never been more integral to the life of MIT nor more deserving of our focus and attention. We believe that our students and faculty in the performing arts deserve their own ‘laboratory’, an inspiring space for experimentation, collaboration, apprenticeship, and performance.”

3. Educating Professional Musicians

14The modern history of advanced degree-granting education for musicians in the United States dates to the mid-nineteenth century, with the founding of the Peabody Institute in 1857, the Conservatory at Oberlin College in 1865, and the New England Conservatory in 1866. The most ambitious effort centered on the National Conservatory of Music of America, founded in 1885 by Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, a crusading philanthropist with the mission of establishing a federally funded national conservatory (chartered by Congress in 1891) dedicated to creating “a national musical spirit”.

15Like most American institutes of musical education, the newly formed National Conservatory modeled itself on a European standard (in this case, the Paris Conservatory) and Mrs. Thurber scored a major coup by enticing one of the most prominent European composers of the era, Antonín Dvořák, to serve as its director. The National Conservatory was most unusual in its time for its progressive admissions policies welcoming women and African-American students.

16Despite this attempt to create a uniquely American institution, much of the history of American musical education relies on the presence of great European teachers and musicians well into the twentieth century. To take but one example, the violinist Franz Kneisel (1865–1926) is emblematic of so much in the transference of European tradition to American music life. After his formative education in Europe, he was appointed concertmaster of the Boston Symphony in 1885, formed the Kneisel Quartet (which gave the premiere of Dvořák’s “American” Quartet in 1894), founded Kneisel Hall in 1902, an immersive summer school focused on chamber music which continues to this day, and, in 1905, became the first head of the violin department at the newly founded Institute of Musical Art in New York City, which later evolved into the Juilliard School.

17Great European musicians like Kneisel occupied key leadership positions in most of the major American orchestras, became highly influential teachers, helped define the leading conservatories by validating their stature, and created summer programs and festivals which are central to American musical life. A subsequent infusion of musicians fleeing war and persecution in Europe in the 1930s further solidified this European core of American musical education and concert life. Again, one need only look at even the smallest sampling of influential teachers and performers from this era—Rudolf Serkin, Ivan Galamian, Artur Schnabel, Gregor Piatigorsky—to measure the centrality of these artists to American musical life.

18Inevitably, a major focus of American musical education well into the twentieth century was the preservation and continuation of this great tradition, a direction which has created an inherently conservative or, more accurately, conservationist approach. Much of the teaching relied heavily on the relationship between teacher and student, master and apprentice. The relatively small number of major conservatories and university-based performance programs combined with the striking growth of American orchestras, opera companies, and teaching positions provided a relatively stable pipeline to employment opportunities.

19But there also existed a narrow, rather monastic approach to the schooling of musicians in many places. It was assumed that by locking a young musician away for hours in a hermetically sealed practice room or studio, enough devotion and hard work would eventually lead students to success in a world ready to receive them. The iconic triumph of Van Cliburn at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition greatly heightened this sensibility. Music theory and musicianship skills were taught only as needed to enhance performance. A major divide existed between the superb musical scholarship found in the academic programs of major universities and the successful practitioners of the art itself in conservatories and university performance programs.

20In the past forty years, there has been significant progress in the best practices of the most forward-looking institutions, moving towards a broader, more comprehensive approach to educating a “complete musician”. There is a greater presence and integration of significant music history and liberal arts curricula. A focus on arts advocacy, social engagement and the role of citizen-artist continues to grow. The core repertoire, once focused tightly on Bach to the mid-twentieth century at best, has expanded to include early music and period instrument programs on one end of the historic spectrum to thriving new music ensembles at the other. There is far more meaningful interaction between scholarship and practice.

21We are witnessing an expansion of important programs for the education of musicians, with major new schools (i.e. the Colburn School), much expanded and invigorated programs at existing schools (i.e. the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University) and substantially improved scholarship or tuition-free programs at long-established schools (i.e. the Yale School of Music). Paradoxically, there has been a contraction in the traditional career outlets, with orchestras and opera companies facing serious financial challenges, some reducing their scale of operation and even shutting down outright.

22The growth of a more entrepreneurial model for present-day musicians has been a necessary response. The most progressive schools now teach, encourage and, in some cases, even fund student-created musical initiatives. These newly created collective ensembles are often nimbler and more wide-ranging in their programming, more imaginative in their choice of venues (witness the emergence of alternative and often intimate concert spaces in several major cities), and less bound by burdensome fixed costs. It’s no surprise that enterprising ensembles such as The Knights (Juilliard), ICE, and Eighth Blackbird (Oberlin) all began as once-student initiatives at their respective schools.

23It remains to be seen if the field of advanced education for musicians can respond to the many challenges of a changing environment. Applications and admissions remain robust and even growing at many major schools. But the financial burdens, in particular the troubling growth of student debt, loom very large at a time when employment opportunities may be declining and are certainly less immediately remunerative in the case of entrepreneurial ventures. Although the best of the schools have endorsed the important value of social engagement, diversity and inclusion remain unrealized hopes at best. It is essential that America’s great schools of music constantly question and reimagine how the education of a twenty-first-century musician must continue to evolve.

4. Musicology in the Twenty-First Century

24Up until the 1960s, academic programs in musicology (the research-based study of music) reliably contained an in-depth sequence of classes on the Western tonal (major–minor) system, its modal predecessors, and written notational practices in parallel with a similar sequence focusing on the written musical record from medieval chant (or even the musical systems of classical Greece) to the present as understood through a sequence of great (mostly male) composers (Léonin to Boulez).

25As with so much else, the 1960s ushered in a thorough examination and re-evaluation of this approach that continues to evolve and develop. Poststructuralism (or deconstructionism) shifted the focus of study from “the music itself” to a broader contextual and societal approach, and Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” meant that deciphering the “intent” of individual composers through detailed source studies of sketches and individual notes was increasingly supplanted by studies of societal meaning and audience response.

26Much of this shift was inflected by the growth of ethnomusicology, the study of worldwide musical systems, many of which were older and more sophisticated than Western practice (such as those of India and China). Ethnographical and anthropological approaches were widely adopted, placing Western music in its global context. That is, Western music was seen less as a “universal language,” than as an example of a universal desire for music as part of community structure and social fabric. To some degree, scholarly interest in world music had been previewed at the beginning of the twentieth century by the growth of global (and also folk) musical traditions as a significant force in Western composition, making an understanding of non-Western music necessary even in the study of Western composers: Debussy (pentatonic scale), Stravinsky (African rhythmic patterns), and Britten (Japanese Noh theater) are only three of the most obvious examples.

27There can be no question about the worth and importance of this broader focus in music scholarship, except that some older and valuable forms of close reading have been largely given up or even discredited. One of the great ironies of this change worldwide is that while many music departments in North American institutions of higher learning are eliminating any requirement for the specific study of Western music (Harvard University is only the most recent school to adopt this approach), the history and practice of Western music is increasingly fundamental to the study of music-making in China, Japan, and parts of Africa to the same extent that the global study of music is necessary for an understanding of Western classical music from at least the beginning of the twentieth century.

28The issue before us is not how to reinstate in North America the practice of music study from before 1960, which would be to adopt a blinkered approach that would make it difficult even to understand the rich diversity of contemporary classical music, but whether higher education can (or should) preserve a way to interrogate musical value and understanding within a global context.

Realities and Fictions

29Our investigations in these matters are not helped by the reality that, as has been noted, “classical music” is essentially a fiction. Referring to it as a coherent body of material, is, in fact, a “classic” example of a set with fuzzy edges; it contains both miniatures and works of monster length, compositions intended for the most serious contemplation and light dance pieces; works created for amateurs and those intended for virtuosi—there is hardly a generalization about it that will hold.

30Further, as we have noted, “education” in relation to classical music involves at least four strands: training for those intending to be professional musicians; serious musical study for those engaging with the subject as an important part of their education (everything from piano lessons to theory courses); music as part of a general college curriculum and more “incidental” uses of music in K-12 settings; and the kinds of music education involving arts organizations and institutions— program notes, pre-concert talks, etc. Each of these has played some part in the creation of what might broadly be described as a “classical music culture,” and each of these may play a significant role in how this culture unfolds in the future.

31On this matter we also raise the question of whether some current trends in higher education that associate classical music negatively with everything from elite high culture to structural racism and a shifting focus to other genres and international musical traditions will necessarily have a dampening effect on audiences, or whether something more dynamic and challenging might evolve that rather situates the Western classical tradition more broadly as part of world culture.

Concluding Remarks

32The unrealized hopes of classical music education gained overwhelming urgency in the summer of 2020, as the deep underlying fissures of American society burst unstoppably with the brutal death of George Floyd, another moment in centuries of such horrifying incidents laying bare the disease of racism. At the time of this writing, classical music in America is facing a reckoning of its neglect of Black composers and performers, as well as a broader neglect of women composers and composers of diverse ethnicities and national origins beyond the European tradition.

33In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has forced a painful pause in virtually all in-person musical performance, with musical education largely moving to an online format. It is a time that severely tests the capacity for innovation and flexibility in these institutions. And yet, there have been glimmers of successful adaptations to digital transmission that may offer different avenues forward to complement the return to live performance.

34The urgency of the moment makes it essential that America’s great schools of music question and reimagine how to educate an evolving twenty-first-century musician.



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Is Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor and Collegiate Professor of Music at New York University where he is Chair of the Department of Music. His diverse areas of research include Czech and Eastern European music; musical form and meaning; film music; music of the Roma; music and war; music in the concentration camps; Jewish music, and music and disability. He is author of New Worlds of Dvořák (W. W. Norton & Co., 2003), Janáček as Theorist (Pendragon Press, 1994), and has edited books on those composers and Bohuslav Martinů. He is the recipient of numerous honors, from the Janáček Medal of the Czech Ministry of Culture in 1988 to an Honorary Doctorate from Palacký University (Czech Republic) in 2014, and most recently the Harrison Medal from the Irish Musicological Society. For many years he wrote for The New York Times and was a regular guest on Live From Lincoln Center. From 2016-18 he was the Leonard Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Is Artistic and Executive Director of the Ojai Festival in California, having most recently served as Provost and Dean of the Juilliard School in New York City from 2007 to 2020. He continues at Juilliard in the role of Special Advisor, Office of the President. Prior to the Juilliard appointment, he was Senior Director and Artistic Advisor of Carnegie Hall from 1998 to 2006. He was also host and producer of the acclaimed “Making Music” composer series at Carnegie Hall from 1999 to 2008. Mr. Guzelimian currently serves as Artistic Consultant for the Marlboro Music Festival and School in Vermont. He is a member of the Steering Committee of the Aga Khan Music Awards, the Artistic Committee of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust in London, and a board member of the Amphion and Pacific Harmony Foundations. He is also a member of the Music Visiting Committee of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.
Ara is editor of Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (Pantheon Books, 2002), a collection of dialogues between Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. In September 2003, Mr. Guzelimian was awarded the title of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for his contributions to French music and culture.

( B.A. ‘67 Brown University; M.A. ‘70, Ph.D. ‘76 University of Chicago, is Class of 1949 Professor Emeritus at MIT and recurrent Visiting Professor at The Juilliard School (2016, 2019, 2020). Her book, George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends (Norton, 2014) received the Nicolas Slonimsky Award for Outstanding Musical Biography (an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award). Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas (Harvard, 2001) received the 2002 Otto Kinkeldey Award from the American Musicological Society and the 2002-03 Louis Gottschalk Prize from the Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. December 2017 saw the release of the thirtieth-anniversary revised edition of her book Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas. Articles and reviews by Professor Harris concerning Baroque opera and vocal performance practice have appeared in numerous publications including Journal of the American Musicological Society, Händel Jahrbuch, Notes, and The New York Times. Her article “Handel the Investor” (Music & Letters, 2004) won the 2004 Westrup Prize. Articles on censorship in the arts and arts education have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Aspen Institute Quarterly.

Is a philosopher and musician whose work explores the resonances between music and the philosophy of mind. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Cambridge and is currently completing a second doctoral dissertation in philosophy at NYU. An active musician and songwriter, Judge performs and records with jazz guitarist Ted Morcaldi as part of the analogue electronic / folk duo,” Pet Beast”. Judge also writes philosophical essays for a general audience, exploring topics at the intersection of art, ethics and technology. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Aeon, Medium’s subscription site OneZero, and the Philosopher’s Magazine. Selections can be found at
Judge also works as a music writer. She regularly collaborates with flutist Claire Chase, most recently authoring an essay for the liner notes of Chase’s 2020 album ‘Density 2036: part v’.


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