In 2015 the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham called for character education to be embedded in UK curriculum. The report linked strong character traits such as resilience and perseverance to higher educational achievement, employability, and social, emotional and physical health. Character matters. It is critical for personal happiness, maintaining relationships, and essential for an ordered society. Character strengths help people to thrive and become the best version of themselves. But how is it taught, cultivated and nurtured? UK Education secretary Nicky Morgan, in her quest to help schools build character, says one way to learn character traits is to learn a musical instrument. The Education Secretary is correct, of course. The Jubilee Centre study found that students involved in choir/music or drama performed significantly better on character tests than any other school-based extra-curricular activity. Interestingly, evidence that sporting activities build character was lacking. This is perhaps surprising given the widespread public belief in sport as a character builder.
There is nothing new in this modern-day appeal for character education to be embedded in schools, nor in the relationship between character formation and musical learning. In particular, the views of Confucius, Pythagoras and Aristotle are worth noting. Confucius (551–479 BC) believed the real purpose of education was not to get a job, but to become a better person. The ‘cultivation of the self’ should be a ‘daily renovation’, and is a life-long process, requiring constant work and practice. Confucius considered music education to be indispensable for character cultivation:
Wouldst thou know if a people be well-governed, if its laws be good or bad? Examine the music it practises.
Because of the deep influence music exerts on a person, and the change it produces on manners and customs, the ancient kings appointed it as one of the subjects of instruction
A man who is not good, what can he have to do with music?
Hence Confucius suggested that the teaching of music, along with poetry, history and ritual, be the foundation for teaching moral behaviour. This view is supported throughout history, for instance from Napoleon Bonaparte: “A moral book might change a person’s mind but not his heart, and therefore, not his ways. However, a piece of moral music would change his heart, and where the heart goes the mind will follow and the person’s ways will change.” To be a person of character is a choice from less virtuous alternatives, so according to Napoleon, the moral choice would be arrived at through a change of heart influenced by music.
Aristotle (385-322 BC) believed that character is formed by doing. For example, one can only learn about commitment by being committed to a cause. One learns to delay gratification by exercising the patience and experiencing the possible discomfort that comes with the act of waiting. Aristotle believed that developing character strengths took time, but nevertheless could be taught and learned through practice. The repetition of the act becomes a habit, resulting in consistent patterns of action.
Human excellence, in morality as in musicality, comes about as a result of habit. – Aristotle, Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics
Therefore, a person cannot be considered a “good person deep down” unless character traits are in action.
Pythagoras (570-490 BC) may well be the first person on record who employed music as a therapeutic agent. He believed that beauty and truth combined in music and that music could “quell the passions of the soul”. In his philosophy, medicine and therapy were based on music. He believed that an appreciation of beauty aided recovery from illness, a position now supported by modern-day research. He called the medicine obtained through music ‘purification.’ Hence music played an important part in Pythagorean education because music could purify both manners and lives. Those who committed crimes were prescribed “pipe (possibly the panpipe) and harmony” to shape the mind so that it became cultured again. At night Pythagoreans sang certain songs to produce tranquil sleep and induce sweet dreams. In the morning they sang different songs to awaken and prepare for the day. Sometimes the music was instrumental, played on the lyre alone. Pythagoras considered the study of music essential for a rational understanding of God and nature. If education is about integrating thought, Pythagoras and the Greek thinkers who followed him led the way.
Contrast the esteem of which music was held by the Ancient Greeks (and classical China) to the Roman Empire that followed. Music was not valued beyond entertainment, and became peripheral in education and culture. Rather than science, arts and intellectual thought, Rome’s focus was toward conquest and pleasure. Interestingly, one of the main reasons attributed for the decline of the Roman Empire was a decline in moral character. Confucian would have said “I told you so”.
Music is the only one of all the arts that does not corrupt the mind. – Montesquieu, 1689 – 1759, French Philosopher
The family is the first place where moral cultivation begins. If adults wish to raise children of good character, they should start by showing them through their own actions.
Children may not listen to their parents, but they never fail to imitate them. – James A. Baldwin, 1924 -1987, American, social critic.
Schools also play an important part in developing character. Whilst there is no definitive set of character traits, consider perseverance, commitment, and self-discipline. That learning a musical instrument contributes to developing these is threaded throughout my book Learning Strategies for Musical Success. Learning music is a long-term project requiring years of disciplined practice. Incorporating some of the most complex physical skills human beings are capable of executing. Perseverance and stick-at-it-ive-ness are a must. To master difficult musical passages, musicians learn to overcome setbacks and self-doubt. Successful musicians do not give up. Learning music is a long-term commitment requiring self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and an ability to resist distraction. Clearly, music plays a unique role in the education of character. Many people desire to learn music but give up too early without ever fully exploring their potential. Often, they give the reason as ‘lack of talent’. A more likely reason is the lack of character traits required for the musical journey. Being a musician is in itself a testament to character.
Almost 2500 years ago Plato believed that “music training is a more potent instrument than any other”. Hopefully the world will again give music the place it deserves in education. There are positive signs. In April, 2015 it was announced that for the first time in USA education history, music will be a core subject in draft federal education policy (Every Child Achieves Act of 2015).
Listening to music has long been argued as a method for developing children’s listening skills. Listening to classical music boosts concentration, self-discipline, listening power, social intelligence, and aspiration. (Hallam, 2014) Equally, another study found that listening to music with lyrics about alcohol makes people more likely to drink. (Primack, 2014). Yet another study found a link between music embodying aggression, sex and violence, with antisocial behaviour. Listening to particular types of content in music has an effect on behaviour. (Coyne and Padilla-Walker, 2014) These studies might serve to argue against the popular contention that there is no such thing as good or bad music.
Michael Griffin will be speaking in schools and at music-service conferences in the UK Sept -Nov, 2015.