Walter Bitner

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Universal Music Education

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Nashville School of the Arts Festival Choir in performance, May 13, 2013, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville (click images to enlarge)

As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, the time has come for music educators to stop pussyfooting around and advocate for Universal Music Education. Indeed, it is long past time. We should stop wasting valuable time – time that belongs to us and to the children in our care – we should stop seeking compromise solutions that merely seek to preserve music education’s place in school curriculums, a place that is in most cases completely upside-down, a place that has fallen into neglect and disrepute over that last decades, a place that was rarely or never ideal in the first place. It is time to advocate for what is truly needed by our children and our society: a comprehensive music education for every child in every school.

Music Education belongs in the life of every child, and this means: every child who graduates from high school should have received a music education that provided her with the skills to: sing fluently, play an instrument fluently, and read and write music notation with enough skill to participate in musical ensembles with satisfying results; have a working knowledge of music history and music theory that provides them with an appreciation of the art form and its place in human culture; and experienced the profound moments of social harmony and personal fulfillment that can arise from the rehearsal and performance process.

Universal Music Education is music education for every child.

Even in most schools that boast of robust music programs, participation is by a minority of students. In the cities I have lived and worked in, some with vaunted music education programs, only about one fourth of high school students enroll in any music class during their high school years.



Our Music Education System Is Upside Down

Despite the fact that we know that the developmental “window” during which children have the greatest aptitude for learning all of the musical skills described above – the “golden age” of the elementary school years between the “age of reason” attained around age seven and the onset of puberty – most elementary school music programs do not provide children with the significant achievement of any of these skills before they reach middle school. This is by design: most elementary school music programs are not set up to provide children with the frequency, repetition, or intensity required to develop these skills.

Most middle school music programs therefore begin with a severe handicap: students are introduced to the experience of ensemble music when the time has already passed at which they would most readily embrace it and develop the skills to be successful at it. For most children, by the time they are offered the opportunity for any real musical training, it is too late. Because of this situation, in their middle school years the majority of children are discouraged from pursuing musical activity in school, even if they are introduced to music classes during an “arts rotation” or some other introductory survey, and by high school most students elect not to participate in music classes at all.

This design for music education in our schools produces the current atmosphere of competition that dominates the entire music education culture, and perpetuates the myth that musical talent is a kind of giftedness reserved for a lucky minority of the population. The competition design is maintained, supported, and promoted by our professional music education organizations, whose primary activities are organizing competitions. (see Is Music a Sport?)

The exact opposite is in fact the truth. Musical talent is dirt cheap: everybody has it. The activity, solace, and joy of music is the birthright of every human being, and does not belong only to a select, “talented” few. Music is too important to be left only to the professionals – it belongs to everyone, and always has, in every culture, in every time and place. (see Is Music a Commodity?)


A Very Old Idea

The emphasis on music as a “core” subject which every student must study in school is not a new idea – it has been around for about three thousand years. The ancient Greeks included music as one of the seven essential components of a liberal arts education: grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium) and arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium). The founders of western civilization considered these skills – including music – necessary preparation for citizens to participate in a free society, with all of its attendant responsibilities. (see What the ‘liberal’ in ‘liberal arts’ actually means by Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post)


The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved
with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils

~ William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.83-85


This famous quote from the author generally regarded as the greatest ever to write in English (which I chose as the motto for Off The Podium when I began this website in 2015) describes the prevailing attitude about music education of the European Renaissance: those who have not received an education in music cannot be trusted.



The Purpose of Music Education

Opponents of Universal Music Education will protest that including music as a core subject is too expensive. But the costs to our society of not including music education as a core subject are much greater. Some 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated in the United States, more than in any other nation. Although I am not aware that a survey of the music education backgrounds of U.S. convicts has ever been attempted, it is a safe bet that only a small minority of those behind bars were given a comprehensive music education, and as children did not experience the positive social and emotional benefits that are central to music education. (See What Your Students Will Remember)

As I described in Wholehearted Attention, “students who sing in choir or play in band or orchestra must simultaneously perform a complex set of operations that call on more aspects of the human being than any other activity they face in school”. This wholehearted attention demanded by musical activity from every participant – complete absorption in the moment in which all other thoughts and concerns disappear – provides the rare opportunity for the child to experience the harmonious engagement of all parts of herself at once: physical, intellectual, and emotional engagement within a collaborative social context.


We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.

~ John Dewey


Musical activity demands wholehearted attention and this state presents the child with opportunity and means to integrate experience, thought, feelings, and sensations in a complete and challenging way that no other school activity can provide. When the music education environment is carefully cultivated, the child is presented with material that assists her in reflecting on experience in an emotionally safe social setting, and she returns to the state of wholehearted attention on a daily basis. In this way a fertile ground is prepared for the development of consciousness, which in turn makes it possible for the child to become acquainted with conscience in a manner that is free, intimate, and sustained. (see Walter’s Working Model)

The development of this relationship with the inner voice of the psyche – this practice of return to ourselves – this is the purpose of music education. Universal Music Education is a call to conscience.



This article appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Choral Director magazine.

It appeared here on the website of Deborah Smith Music (Australia) on February 3, 2020.

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Related Articles:

Wholehearted Attention

What Your Students Will Remember

Four Practices

My Secret Experiment in Music Education

Is Music a Sport?

Inspiration and Music Education


  1. Ann Kay says:


    Thank you for this wonderful article articulating WHY music instruction should be mandatory in American schools. Now, HOW can we get our schools, districts and states to mandate daily music instruction for every elementary student? Unfortunately, policy change won’t work right now. Why not? Because first we need to “clean our own house”–our profession has a huge problem. Here are my suggestions about how to start.

    Colleges would need to prepare a workforce of teachers who are able to create joyful, rigorous classroom environments by teaching skills in a sequential way that leads to competence for every child. By providing auditory training using singing with moveable do solfege and rhythmic time names to memorize patterns, playing patterns and melodies on pitched instruments, reading and notating, students will be prepared and confident to continue music-making into middle and high school.

    This requires that every elementary music lesson is tied to the next one by a continuous sequencing of skill-building. (After teaching grad mu ed courses and workshops for hundreds of elementary music teachers since the mid 80s, I have found that few were equipped in undergrad to teach in a sequential way.) Students who love elementary music class, know that they are gaining competence will continue making music into middle and high school.

    When students love elementary music class and know they are gaining competence, music teachers can then use neurological research and other music-making studies that reveal how singing and music-making enable the brain* to back-up their request for daily instruction for every student.

    *Bibliography of current studies:
    *The Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern U has easy-to-grasp explanations of their brain research:

  2. Lila R Griffin says:

    As a former music educator, I agree heartily with your philosophy. Universal Music Education helps everyone.
    Even my deaf child, played the bass, in the elementary grades orchestra in Kirkwood, MO. Now as an adult special educator with cochlear implants, she longs to play the violin.
    This is my philosophy: Exchange Universal Music Education for the extra testing that seems to be the norm and watch the positive changes taking place with students and teachers and administrators.

  3. I was a Vocal and Instrumental Music Education major at Loyola University New Orleans out of high school when I was 18 years old. I could follow along a lot of good suggestions in your most beautiful writing, which words are hard to describe by… I actually switched, was a piano/organ major and now am doing a Bachelor’s in Violin Performance online at The Baptist College of Florida. I know kids need music and considered something that seems relative to what you suggested, that all children should play an orchestral musical instrument in any school they attend. I would go out and say playing music is one of the most amazing pastimes. 1 big suggestion you made was how big it was that kids maybe in the mid/later 1990s didn’t want to start a musical instrument because they didn’t get to do it when they were only 2. My story is I thought in my subconscious my dad/grandma would never let me. It might be because I kept telling my mom I wanted to just do gymnastics when I was 2 years old and nothing else when she wanted to introduce me to critical thinking or something about tying my interests in other things, like ballet, which she did as a child. I just knew gymnastics was the best, but she did it, too, you know, in high school and was #1 in Indonesia, born 1959. I struggled to keep up in ballet when I was 5 & 6 and 12-21; I even minored in it in college. You know, I think we were destined to at least meet here. This can go on and on. Thanks so much for writing this wonderful article!

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