Music Education and Moral Philosophy

Music Education and Moral Philosophy:

Some Ideas on Pedagogy

By Lars Rosager, MA

October 27, 2020

Edited 11/23/2020


It is as irrefutable to say that a great many effects of religion in general—as well as the greater religious community’s advances toward lasting peace, or lack thereof—are problematic, as it is to say that the history of music is inseparable from religion. These two statements are not immune to counter-positions, but proving them categorically false is not likely. Generations of specialized discourse in Music and Religion, both individually and in tandem, bear out this idea. Why is it then that the transmission of musical knowledge and skill today is not thoroughly intertwined with such an eternally pressing issue as how to best care for our natural habitat and for all human beings, ourselves included?

Perhaps not everyone’s mind instinctually connects religion to environmentalism and ethical social conduct; in fact, this is a symptom of historical ignorance. Nature-centered consciousness through astrology, mythical explanations of the natural world, rituals performed according to the schedule of natural cycles—all of these sit at the heart of organized religion. Moreover, one must recognize that spiritual wisdom has always been synonymous with some sort of earthly manifestation of one or another higher power. There is always a sense of presence and urgency with regard to what people—individually, jointly, and collectively—should do. In this light, it is no controversy to point out that religions have always been frameworks for social planning and administration, environmental and interpersonal management being central.

The primary distinction between what might be generically termed ancient spirituality and the modern state of human consciousness is the potential for global coöperation. One must concede that tribalism remains the default outlook for many, but expressing the need for pan-human efforts toward universal truth is worth the risk of being branded New Age, Hippy, or dear me, Eco-Spiritual. This world needs to reshape and redefine religion, spirituality, faith, mindfulness … humanity. It would be no mistake to make the core reformative goal simple and straightforward: harmony with nature means harmony among humankind. The inverse, while not so logically sturdy, is an equally pressing imperative.

The points below are my own conclusions in the sense that I have taken the present opportunity to present a summary of my thoughts and experiences, which results in a conversational, think-on-one’s-feet kind of synthesis, rather than a labyrinthine journey into a particular corner of academia or an exclusive line of research. I trust this will not render the ideas developed here dubious by default; at the same time, I invite any and all elaborations, dissections, or refutations.

  1. Human understands they exist within the scientific laws of the natural world.
  2. That which sets human apart from animal is the attempt to deny natural consequences or defy mortality (i.e., nature), in a most rudimentary sense through the quasi-eternity afforded by written language. Also, love and compassion make it possible for human to see past animalism; in sum, human can envision a liberation from science and the strictly survivalist modes of the natural world. In the above and more fantastical senses (myth, religious fantasy, magic), humans have cultivated the extra-scientific, in contrast to item 1.
  3. These two propositions must be examined through scenarios involving a) the individual, b) a pair of humans, and c) groups of humans.

This is our situation. Any discussion of fair and just human policy must address these positions. It is important to note that these statements do not evoke any specific context; it is thus by design. They must be applicable to the entirety of human society and to worldviews from throughout history. In this essay, it is clearly most germane to present the application of this philosophical outline through scenarios in Music Education.

The directness and detail with which music educators might involve moral philosophy with the sharing of musical practice, theory, and history should probably be tempered according to the age of the student(s). With the youngest students, it is enough to make music-making time as much about positive and socially healthy space as possible. This could involve singing in a nature setting and emphasizing the collective as it might support joint and individual music making. For example, take your class or private student outside and sit in the shade of a tree; share material that lends itself to solo, duet, and group singing (almost any music can be arranged so as to be convenient in this sense).

As students become more welcoming to structured discussion and answering questions toward group discovery, the educator must establish the notion of music as mood-setting force. Not only does this get straight to the crux of music’s ultimate function, but it also prepares the candid and unarguably necessary lesson of observing and relating to one’s surroundings, one’s environment.

How would helping a kindergarten student understand their impact on the world around them be politically controversial? For numerous reasons applicable to numerous academic settings and disciplines, as well as to family and leisure contexts, presenting the notion of environment as both ecological and interpersonal space is a seed that must be planted and nurtured. From these uncomplicated first stages, education in music can take various forms. One possible intermediate-age phase is laid out below.

Here, the linguistic fecundity of music roots and begins blossoming. As students reach adolescence and teenage years, the rudiments acquired empower them to gain an increasing measure of independence. The responsibility of the educator at this stage, then, is to supply resources that allow young developing minds to make informed decisions because soon, these students will outgrow the constant shelter of their legal guardians. Concurrent to an incipient awareness of music history, an artistic understanding of how language operates through music promotes direct involvement with clear expression on the core issues of harmony with nature and humankind in terms of self, partner, and community—among less overtly philosophical themes, clarity of expression remaining a cornerstone anyhow.

In order to keep musical practice in the absolute foreground and provide an intimate look at compositional process, the instructor should demonstrate setting two poetic texts to melody—one on caring for nature, one on caring for humans. Let it be clear that composition is not the only goal. Along with getting to know the creative processes, varied and unceasing exposure to musical style is paramount. The student must listen, render and analyze. An instructor-led compositional example followed by points to consider:



The overarching question in terms of the technical details of musical composition presently is a matter of how linguistics informs rhythm (1), pitch (2), and form (3). To briefly explain this example as it might serve a pedagogical goal:

  1. The word “heaven” receives a spoken accent on the first syllable. It follows that the first instance of this word above is split into two unequal parts, one half-note and one quarter-note. At the end of the next line, the spoken accent is set differently, using the change of pitch to foreground the strong syllable (a slightly louder dynamic on Ti could be useful in instruction also). The use of poetic foot to teach rhythm is shown to be convenient and rich in meaning and affect—a more multidimensional alternative to the flat memorization of note values and time signatures.
  2. One possible approach to the treatment of pitch—it is doubtless a many-layered and dynamic subject—centers on setting grammatically weighty words with pitches consonant to the root, Do. Notice that the words most central to the poetic imagery (in order: Heaven, Earth, Earth, Heaven, Humankind, voice, sound) convey the notes of a Major triad from Do. A discussion on consonance versus dissonance in the context of tuning theory and its history provides a scientific view of music largely unexplored by popularly minded audiences today. Simply the notion of musical pitch as a mathematical truth of the natural world feeds into a moral philosophy. Understanding that the informed musician exercises artistic agency within the confines of a physics-based system brings into view an instructive microcosm. Applying this paradigm more broadly to an individual’s interaction with the natural world and with society is a point of departure toward innumerable vigorous discussions.
  3. Form is ambiguous and weak absent more dynamic and raw material, namely rhythm and pitch. Upon forming viable phrases, the same is true with regard to larger-scale organization.
    1. In the example above, phrases eight beats in length give structural continuity to the first two lines of poetry. The third line plays on a merging of two iterations of the eight-beat rhythmic pattern that defines each of the first two phrases. Thus, the simple observation that a recurring rhythmic cycle can both maintain uniformity and spawn phrasal variety proves to be a valuable lesson on form.
    2. Now to incorporate pitch as it might concern slightly larger-scale organization. Let it be clear that pitch is not necessarily better suited to a broader study of form; likewise concerning rhythm applied to narrower purviews. Here, a lesson on open versus closed endings is easily accessible. The first eight-beat phrase moves from Do to So, the second from So to Do. Over the course of two phrases, there is a question-and-answer effect. This idea may be taken further as students’ command of theory grows. One smooth extension from the above example would be to discuss alternatives to the cadence on “sound” that might bring about a greater sense of closure. Adding to efforts toward phrasal organization that give rise to more extensive form, the instructor would do well to show that the entire twenty-four–beat period can reoccur (altered according to different text?)—though now with a more closed ending, offering a more refined and complete phrasal scheme.
    3. It should be assumed that the most fully closed cadence would be on Do. The instructor must then demonstrate how So and Mi also provide a sense of finality, and compare that phenomenon to how notes other than those of the tonic Major triad affect openness or closure. While the approach of a given instructor will likely need to be customized to their teaching style and artistic tastes, the general goal at this point should be to demonstrate varying degrees of melodic finality in rhythmically delineated phrasal contexts. The notes of the Major scale will likely yield the most lucid first examples, but the concept can easily be taken to considerable chromatic heights.

In closing the discussion on middle- and high-school–age students, it is fitting to reiterate that music is a process of creating environment. Now further along toward adulthood, students are able to begin building command over the mechanics of composition. This growing proficiency in science and art parallels increasing independence in, and influence over, the world more broadly. Music instructors must not leave this correlation masked. Rather than sets of rules or terms or theory puzzles to which formalist music education quite often still clings, a focus on affect and how it is effected offers a liberating pragmatist experience. Analyses of works by renowned composers (including less crystallized and canonized improvisatory traditions) as well as of creative efforts by both teacher and student(s) must promote engagement with music as a living art-science and a mode of individual, joint, and collective expression—not a vainly intellectualized system of flawless verbatim imitation that fails to situate music in any socially pertinent modern context.

The study of music in adulthood should not be just a matter of more demanding performance material or more wildly complex theories behind more wildly complex compositions. An adult learner’s more mature appetite for history and sociological context is a perfect opportunity for music educators to present creative takes on historical musical symbolism that tie in to central questions regarding the natural world—both ecological and societal. What attempts at moralizing can music history show, and how have these efforts evolved into the present? How can research-driven reports or creative projects be informed by the development of philosophy presented musically? As a starting point, one must have a clear idea of why a given piece of music has been composed and what its social intentions are.

It is difficult to generalize with regard to how instruction is carried out, but one must stress the value of vocal music anyhow. Higher education in music thrives on poetics. Texts, both set to music and those that discuss musical disciplines as systems of meaning, serve to bring music into a position of greater historical potency. The expressive intentions behind sound are brought into focus through sung text, a perfect opportunity for eternalizing that which, in performance, is a most transient phenomenon. Literature on music, not notated music per se—especially on ways in which music both vocal and instrumental can serve similar goals as language does—holds as a primary utility the ability to decipher and contextualize a given musical style.

Given the power of written language to further moral philosophy, one looks to the bibliographic nature of university education. Yet the rigor of written language—semi-formal and informal instruction might tend to lean less on the canonized sources—is not an absolute solution to the problem of music education as a vector for moral philosophy. There are significant gaps, however easily mended, in the accepted understanding of theory with regard to rhythm, pitch, and form alike. Imitation of authoritative compositions or improvisation upon purely numeric slices of theory—points of contention inherent to Classical and Jazz educational tracks, respectively—cannot substitute such clearly affect-driven systems as the cantus tradition (as opposed to a purely range-based conception of the Modes) or the rich history of key characteristics (as opposed to the notion of absolute transpositional freedom). Likewise, lively engagement with word painting and motivic or phrasal meaning must not be treated as advanced concepts, but rather as foundational resources. Upon a foundation of expressive potential—again, music as an ability to create environment—the adult learner conceives of music as multi-dimensional process more complete than some set of techniques or intervals or equations that fail to justify their own applications.

In sum, this essay advocates an approach to music education that, through more pragmatist than formalist modes, instills a sense of sociological empowerment in the student(s). By appreciating the notion that the history of music is largely religio-moral in nature, and by taking advantage of creative opportunities to participate in music making as a crossroads between scientific inquiry and human expression, students learn more fully and colorfully than they would by vacuum-packed numerics or simple copycatting. A few key topics for further exploration: anti-consumerism and material minimalism in Music, intangibility, conservationist instrument building, the overtone series, musica universalis, the scala naturae, tripartite notions of the divine.

Glimpses into early-childhood, adolescent, and adult educational phases have served to suggest some approaches to instruction in Music that share the important common thread of conveying interest in moral philosophy. As opposed to relying on general implications of style or associations between sound and national, socioeconomic, or genre-related context, music in a post-nationalist world can serve to express the gamut of human sentiment in a more self-contained yet far-reaching manner. It is often said that music is a universal language; the finer points behind such a statement constitute the building blocks of essential educational currency.