General Music – The Core of Music Education

Rob Lyda • April 2023NAfME Neighborhood • April 2, 2023

When you think of general music what immediately comes to mind? Do you think of children singing or using solfege? Do you imagine children playing Orff instruments? Do you think of movement experiences or folk dances? Do you think back to your experiences in general music education classes? When you think of general music education, do you only think general music with elementary aged children? One final question. What exactly is general music education? 

In all honesty, I imagine most of us reading this magazine are music educators because of our secondary music education experiences. We chose music education because of the way performing in band, orchestra, or choir made us feel. For some of us, our secondary music teachers were the reason we chose a career in music education. Our performing experiences shaped us into who we are today. There is nothing wrong with admitting our career intentions were based upon positive experiences with performing ensembles. In fact, we should celebrate the power music has to change hearts and minds and provide students with positive experiences in their human development.  

We’ve all had positive outcomes with secondary music education; however, there are thousands of students who didn’t have the opportunity or chose not to participate in secondary music education. Since the 1960s, researchers, professional organizations, and authors have continuously written about music education serving only around 20% of the overall secondary student population. This is not a condemnation of what we are currently doing in music education. We should never discredit what music education is doing for the 20%. Our profession should ask what we can do to open music education pathways for the other 80% who are unable, or unwilling, to continue music education in secondary schools.   

Let’s return to my original question. What is general music education? As it stands now general music education is primarily found in elementary schools. General music is, in most elementary schools, compulsory. General music is also a nebulous term that has been used to describe a variety of learning situations, conditions, and approaches for elementary music education. General music is the only place in music education that provides a space and place for all teachers and all students. While many of these statements might be true, general music is and should be much more to the music education ecosystem. 

General music should exist because it is beneficial to the development of students. We could cite research that supports this claim. However, the most powerful testimonies will come from students and adults who experienced the transformative power of music education. We all know music education has both intrinsic and extrinsic value. Our advocacy usually focuses on the extrinsic value of music education – collaboration, higher test scores, school pride, work ethic, and many other factors. However, music education has benefits that aren’t easily qualifiable. We need to find ways to advocate for music for ALL students – that includes advocating for general music beyond the elementary school and exploratory courses in middle grades. 

General music should be the core of all music education experiences. A well-worn mantra in most educational circles is that all teachers are reading teachers because we all use reading to learn in our respective disciplines. I would argue that all music teachers should be general music teachers. Every music experience whether it’s in band, orchestra, choir, music production, popular music, guitar, or music appreciation should provide students with opportunities to perform, respond, create, connect, and think about music in ways that are transferable to students’ personal experiences. If our goal is to create students who will interact with music throughout their lives, then we must teach all students skills and knowledge to enable them to be lifelong musicians. 

We often fall into the trap of seeing every earlier level of music education as a feeder program for later levels. Music education is not compulsory in most secondary schools; this leads to gaps in instruction. Think of how powerful our music education system could be if we provided students multiple opportunities to build knowledge, skills, and experiences that empowered them to want to continue to explore other music education opportunities. Secondary general music could be the on-ramp to a variety of music education experiences and propel students to life-long music making. 

General music might need to rebrand. As comfortable as many of us are with the term “general music,” I know many people make assumptions about the type of education based on the term. Many people think general music is akin to a survey course that provides students with a variety of music experiences. What if we viewed general music classrooms as incubators of student curiosity? My hope is the general music classroom is a place where all students are actively engaging with music in multiple ways. Providing an engaging, sequential, and comprehensive general music education should prepare students for a life full of interacting with music.  

To provide music teachers with the best professional development, the NAfME Council for General Music Education, in collaboration with other national general music organizations, will host the first NAfME General Music ZOOM Conference April 29, 2023. We will host sessions representing a multitude of general music approaches and methods. Please look for registration information on NAfME’s social media channels (@NAfME), publications, and e-mail newsletters during the spring semester.

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