School Music vs. Real Music

ImageWhen all the activities of the 2014 Super Bowl had concluded, many people agreed that the music around the NFL finale was much more interesting than the game itself. It included a wonderful breadth of style. The multitalented Queen Latifah sang America the Beautiful, operatic superstar Renée Fleming performed the National Anthem, and we were treated to a lively halftime pairing of Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Following Ms. Fleming’s breathtaking performance, I tuned back in to Twitter and saw some tweets about her singing the anthem. Most praised her rendition, but a number of music-oriented tweeters said things to the effect of: “For once we got to hear the anthem sung by a real singer.” Maybe this sentiment is just the letting off of steam by formally-trained musicians, frustrated by their preferred styles being left out of the big-time media spotlight too often. But I did note that instead of referring to the anthem’s operatic stylings as “my kind of music” or even “good music,” some people suggested that we finally got to hear some “real music.” Not surprisingly, I was disappointed that in complimenting Ms. Fleming’s performance, some felt the need to put down the previous offerings of other non-classical singers (consider checking out “My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship”).

Clearly many in the world of formal music education consider classical music (or maybe jazz) to be the most meaningful, exemplary, and real music there is. This perspective, however, is not shared by the vast majority of people in Western society. This includes the students that school music teachers are charged to educate. Research has confirmed that in the minds of many young people, there can be a significant disconnect between their conceptions of school music and what they consider to be real music (Boal-Palheiros & Hargreaves, 2001; Hargreaves & Marshall, 2003; Lamont et al., 2003). For music educators, this disconnect is more than just a nuisance, or a mark of immaturity that must be overcome. Learning of any kind is greatly influenced by students’ intrinsic motivation for the subject matter and their beliefs about its relevance to their lives.

Research suggests that many adolescents see music classes (like those in other subjects) as undertakings done to satisfy teachers and parents. School music is linked to the performance of non-preferred styles, using an analytical approach, and difficult or boring class sessions. Keep in mind, of course, that this broad perspective does not represent only the kids who have found a home in the school band, choir, or orchestra, but the comparative majority who elect not to take any music at the secondary level. In contrast, real music is associated with popular and familiar styles, using a subjective and emotional approach, and often a relaxed and fun setting with others. This conception of real music is much closer to that held by most people around the world. They turn to music for the emotional rewards it provides, and it is very often a part of deeply meaningful social interactions among people.

As alluded to above, this disconnect between school music and real music can cause many students to avoid music learning opportunities altogether once these class offerings become elective for them. And for the students who do continue in school music, many carry on musical “double lives” that prevent them from getting the most out of their childhood music experiences. I was a prime example of this myself as a kid. I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band, but outside of school, I was a heavy consumer of popular music (as a child of the 80s, I’m sure you can guess what fills my iTunes library yet today!). What’s more, like so many other music students, my musical divide was not just a matter of stylistic genre. My musicianship in school was limited to playing just one instrument, almost always from notation, and in preparation for a public performance. My out-of-school musicality was also quite limited, but in very different ways. It revolved around listening and singing to recordings, either alone or with friends, but never for an audience. I’m sure many others can relate with me on this, including a lot of our best young music students of today.

In no way am I suggesting that we’re doing it all wrong in formal music education, or that we should try to reproduce exactly in music classrooms the informal learning experiences that so naturally happen outside of school. I would, however, urge music educators not to dismiss students’ preferred styles of popular music as somehow less real or worthy of consideration. Pop, rock, hip-hop, country, rap, and others make up the native music of the students we serve. This is not a reason to ignore these styles—we require native English speaking students to take English classes throughout their schooling—but a reason to respect them. It’s also important to acknowledge people’s natural orientation to music, that is, the appeal it has through personal relevance, emotional investment, and social interaction. These things are not only part of natural musicality, they also can contribute to efficient learning (Cassidy & Paisley, 2013).

I believe that we in music education could benefit more from looking at how people learn music in the real world and incorporating aspects into our teaching activities. Constructivist theory in education tells us that people learn much through active involvement with their environments. Especially important for children are collaborative experiences with other kids and adults. This is because human beings instinctively observe what others do and attempt to reproduce it themselves. Young people desire opportunities to experiment with music (including freely making mistakes), to be creative and expressive with it, and to find personal meaning in it (Campbell et al, 2007). When these characteristics are present in school music activities, those learning opportunities are more likely to be viewed as “real music” experiences by students of all ages.


Boal-Palheiros, G. M., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2001). Listening to music at home and at school. British Journal of Music Education, 18(2), 103-118.

Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236.

Cassidy, G. G., & Paisley, A. M. (2013). Music-games: A case study of their impact. Research Studies in Music Education, 35(1), 119-138.

Hargreaves, D. J., & Marshall, N. (2003). Developing identities in music education. Music Education Research, 5(3), 263-274.

Lamont, A., Hargreaves, D. J., Marshall, N. A., & Tarrant, M. (2003). Young people’s music in and out of school. British Journal of Music Education, 20(3), 229-241.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: MTSOfan on Flickr Creative Commons


25 responses to “School Music vs. Real Music

  1. Hi Bob,

    A wonderful reflection. Raymond Williams said that good taste is power masquerading as common sense. I see that impulse behind the desire to label only some music as “real music.” Conceptions of “good taste” is used to beat up all kinds of people’s beliefs and passions, and it is sad that many teachers feel it is their right to do so. We need more in our pedagogic trick bag than put-downs!

    The other question looming within your essay has to do with the possibility of celebrating the musical lives lived by our students. I believe it is possible to have music education function in such a way that students do not feel that they live double lives, but rather flourish within music education that affords a generous sense of music.

    Thanks, as usual, for the inspiration,


    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Matt. I’m with you…there’s great benefit to be had in merging students’ in-school and out-of-school musical lives (if in fact they are divided).

  2. Not all public school music programs ignore the value of personal music-making! I, for one, spent a good part of my professional career developing a participatory program where students could select from a variety of instruments including banjo, mandolin, guitar, autoharp, pennywhistle, recorder harmonica, keyboards etc. That program became a model for many others that currently exist in New York and other states as well. I am not stating this for my own recognition ( I don’t need that ) but simply to point out that in the ensemble driven world of music education there are those who are meeting the individual needs of all students.

    • Rick – Thanks for sharing. Your program sounds great to me! I take comfort knowing there are folks like you in the profession doing these kinds of things. As I’ve said, I hope the large ensemble presence in schools stays healthy, and is supplemented more and more with the kinds of experiences you’ve described. Thanks again.

    • Hi Rick – great to meet you through your comment! I’d love to talk with you more about the program and method you describe. I’d be interested in having you write an article about your experiences for – a nonprofit encouraging kids to make THEIR music! Email me at:

  3. I’ll echo the kudos and thanks. I’ll also add another thought from Raymond Williams. Williams argued that instead of a static structure, hegemony is a dynamic process. The exclusion of some musical traditions in school settings is nothing short of the exclusion of the people associated with those traditions. Exclusion isn’t inherent to the structure of school, but it unfortunately is a common process. This isn’t just about music, it’s about people. It’s not just about what is valued, it’s about who is valued.

    I agree that questions concerning “how” might offer benefits for music education (or at least music schooling); however, to identify and engage with the processes of hegemony we also need to ask questions (as Sandra Stauffer has suggested) about “where,” “when,” and especially “who.”

    Thank you for your work!

    • Adam – I always appreciate your reminders that music—and music education—is primarily about the people involved. Your comment remind me of something…I’m going to send it to you if I can find it. Check your email…

  4. I too was glad to hear a “real singer” sing the national anthem. I was also glad to hear another “real singer” sing America. Although these two singers have different styles and generally sing a different literature, they have several things in common. They SING. they sing with good quality sound, in tune, and with appropriate timing. They both sing well. It was refreshing to hear two lovely women singers do the honors without a whole bunch of “studio magic” trying to make up for no voice. Renee Fleming in fact twittered that Queen Latifa was a hard act to follow.

  5. Wonderfully thoughtful post. If we want school music to be relevant to students, we simply have to use the “language” that they’re using, meaning their music. Both traditions (formal/informal) can learn and benefit from the approach of the other. Formal music-learning can benefit from a more socially informal sharing approach as well as the practice of performing the same songs a LOT. Musicians who learn outside of school in more informal pop and folk settings can learn a lot from some of the approaches to learning musical skills that many of them disdain.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Pingback: School Music vs. Real Music | Alison's Music Blog

  7. Yes, we have to strive to include the personal into the total. It is possible with some systems configuration that has timeline annotation possibilities. I notice that all school age children are also “social musicologists” in their own right, and of course performers in their many rights. The music chain, which sustains all of us, actually operates today based on their interaction, feedback and pet peeves – and not to us the music educators. Thisd divide will grow and eventually take its toll on music education as a profession. Many people are silently and separately developing formulae and structures to fit our selves in this “fast changing” world. One such institution is Indiana University. I have spoken briefly on Alison’s blog a long time about this and some of you responded. Indiana (Bloomington) has developed such a software that could help inclusiveness and it is called Variations AudioTimeliner. I use that with my students in Thailand and they seem to interact among themselves and with me better in the other usual teaching settings. Many institutions have looked at it but have not succeeded in creating the server systems to help it work in the way it was intended to. I see great possibilities for systems integration for music education needs. My colleagues and I (in Singapore) are at the final stages of server configuration which we call the Timeline Music Annotation Library (TMAL). I will release that at the ICTM-PASEA regional conference in Bali in June. I will also keep this blog informed about this.

  8. Pingback: The Ethan Hein Blog › Everyone can and should be making music

  9. In regards to the Rene Feming tweets, perhaps what they meant by “real singer” is that she sang the national anthem live and didn’t mime since every Superbowl from the last several decades has featured mimed performances of the National Anthem.

  10. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Westboro Mass in the (ahem) 70’s where they put an emphasis on art and music. What made the difference however was NOT the great music education I received, but the teachers who – cared about us as kids, and we knew it. I recently attended my 35 high school reunion. There are many of us who make music our lives – both teaching and performing. But an overwhelming majority of my classmates remember with great admiration their time in band, jazz band, marching band, choir, and orchestra etc. And they continue to be patrons of music, consumers of music, aficionados, critics and hobbyists. You really can’t ask for more than that. And future administrators and music educators would do well to copy that kind of model. It would be good for everyone.

  11. Pingback: School Music vs. Real Music | Stan Stewart's Non-Blog

  12. I was one who rejoiced to hear Renee Fleming singing the Anthem and I remain unconvinced that this is a bad thing. My objection is that too many artists want to make singing the Anthem some sort of “personal statement” rather than just singing the song. They don’t realize that it is not about them – it is about respecting the country that the Anthem represents. I say this as one who LOVES many styles of music and tries to include them in my teaching. However, there is a time and a place for everything and too many performers don’t seem to understand that anymore. I loved Queen Latifa’s performance because, although it was different in style, it was still respectful and appropriate to the situation.

  13. I’ve enjoyed your thoughts and all of the conversation that has followed! Would you be open to writing a similar article (or allowing me to repost this one) for young people and parents on blog? You can reach me at Thank you!

  14. Thank you for a thoughtful article. I am so sorry that your music education was so one sided. My experience was quite different. In the 50s and the 60s, when I was in school, music ed was taught from a classical as well as a popular angle. We always included singing and playing a wide range of easily accessible instruments (mostly rhythm). I was also blessed with an incredible ensemble experience, both in orchestra and choral groups, which prepared me for very high level playing in the NJ state orchestras. In the 35 years I worked in the Greece, NY school district, I observed highly effective, wide ranging music education. Music educators, many of whom are the ONLY teachers to reach certain kids (as are phys ed and visual art teachers, but that’s a whole other post!), of course use the easily accessible, popular genres that kids enjoy. But if they don’t introduce them to more difficult, classical (real??!!What IS real anyway?!) music, where will kids be exposed to it? And, at school, it’s FREE! How will students be able to acquire a taste for it if it’s not taught to them? How will they learn how to read music? We are lucky, we earthlings, to all be surrounded by music. All over the world!
    I will never make money as a musician. But I have played in orchestras and chamber ensembles, and have sung in various groups, all amateur, for the last 45 years of my adult life. I thank my public school music teachers for that. And yes, I listen to the more accessible popular music that surrounds me also. Lucky me. Lucky us.
    Thank you, music teachers, all over our country!

  15. Thank you for this article. I have been working with this situation for my entire career (43 years and counting) as a teacher of singing. It’s great to have an ally and I am delighted to find you.

  16. Robert – What an excellent and refreshing read. Bringing modern world styles to music education is exactly what my new company, PlayTheGroove, is setting out to do. Imagine individuals and secondary rhythm-sectioned based bands and music classes actually learning and grow through music they can actually relate to. Really! Buckle up!

  17. Hi, I am a self taught music theorist and singing teacher involved in local gigging and applied mp3 selling studies (YouTube). Students are invited to play out with me and perform at open mikes and bars to get more traction in their music employment as well. I found your blog by searching for students who somehow subconsciously keep themselves at 10 ft. distance from (outwardly) demoing their true musicality. It seems when things are demoed successfully in the session, they are nearly forgotten the following week. All I have realized about these very few students is that no one passed on real communication to them early in their development. I learned what I did from a lucky childhood friend in the inner city. Basic sychopation and blending your voice with anothers using both thirds (intervals) is like voodoo. It truly humbles me that I got these basic things to start theorizing- like Willy Nelsons grandma who taught “music theory and singing” to him…

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