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  • Tim Hendrix

Why We Teach Music Appreciation

Playing music has been one of the most rewarding and enriching activities in my life. Beyond being a great way to simultaneously unwind and learn new things, it’s one of my favorite ways to meet people. Musicians for the most part tend to be very interesting people with a lot of stories to tell, and connecting with each other over music can manage to draw those stories out.

I carry at least one instrument with me wherever I travel, so I can sit and play with people in the airport, in homes, in pubs, and on back porches. It really is a great way to pass time meaningfully while getting to know someone else.

There have been times I’ve played music with people whose language I didn’t speak. After an hour or so of sharing emotions, musical cues, eye and hand signals, rhythm, and flow, we’ve found ourselves sitting back at the end of a session and blinking in confusion at not being able to understand each other’s words. But I know you so well, our awkward laughter says, how do I not know what you’re saying?

One of the goals of the music studies we’ve written and are writing is to try to help others broadly share in these kinds of experiences with music, especially for those who are not musicians.

I remember the inaccessibility to music that I felt when I was younger. Music felt too difficult and complex for me, and I really didn’t know how or where to get started. We’ve heard echoes of that sentiment from a lot of parents over time. Music can be a really tough subject to approach and to teach to your children when you’re really not sure how to approach it yourself.

Many times, because of what materials are available for teaching the subject, parents are left believing that only orchestral music counts as educational music. The perceived mystical complexity of music paired with a lack of personal connection to the sounds of orchestral music have often made music appreciation one of the driest, most tedious subjects for parents and children alike.

But here’s the good news: That’s not how music appreciation has to be. The benefits gained from learning music appreciation are not limited to any single genre of music. A multitude of genres are able to teach the concepts that will help children to understand, appreciate, and even produce music. And that means the study of music can be as engaging as your existing relationship with the music that you enjoy.

As with any subject, before considering the content that needs to be studied, it’s important to examine our goals first — why are we learning this at all? What are the goals of teaching music appreciation? For each family, it can be different, but by answering this question, you’ll be able to start answering the question of musical appreciation in your home. Here are some of the ones we identified for ourselves:

*We want to help our kids encounter a broad variety of musical genres, instruments, and techniques. This helps them to develop a wider understanding of what music can be. At the same time, it introduces them to the ingenious musical instruments that people all around the world have produced.

*We want our kids to learn to appreciate the music that someone else creates, even if it’s not their favorite style to listen to. Helping students to understand what work goes into music even if they don’t think it sounds “good” also helps them to learn to see and appreciate someone else’s skill and not ridicule music that’s outside of their common understanding.

*We want our kids to be able to identify different musical instruments by sound. While this is a bit specific as a goal, as a musician, I really enjoy talking with my kids about what individual parts each instrument is playing in a composition, and it helps a lot to be able to pick out the different voices of the instruments as we listen.

*We want our kids to be able to identify for themselves what musical genres they like to listen to and have the ability to express what they like about those styles. Ultimately, music appreciation should leave room for individual tastes, and we want to give them the tools to connect more personally to their own preferred musical styles.

Identifying the goals of music appreciation for ourselves really helped us to understand how to start teaching it and sharing the joys of music with our own children. And, for the traditionalists out there, it has not meant dismissing orchestral music. Our kids love orchestral music, but a large part of that love came out of providing them with the tools to understand and appreciate it. Instead of showing them the classics and saying “This is Good Music, learn to enjoy it,” we’ve helped them to piece together what makes good music, and then they can identify the elements that have made these compositions classics.

And as they’ve learned to appreciate music, both of our boys have started learning how to make music, too, on their own instruments.

Ultimately, the goal of all music is human connection.

Whether you are playing music to interact with other musicians or you just enjoy listening, on some level, you’re connecting with someone else’s emotions, rhythms, and cues. We've written our music studies to try to foster that connection. Whether you use our music curricula or not, I hope your forays into music appreciation help enrich your lives, expand your understanding of people who are different from you, and increase your capacity for creativity.

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