Beyond Music Appreciation:
The Role of Music in the Undergraduate Liberal Arts Experience

Presented at
Challenge and Response:
Rethinking Key Issues in College Learning

September 23-25, 1999
Elon College, North Carolina

by Ginger G. Wyrick

Music and Liberal Arts

How have we come to a day in our so-called "civilized" world where a place deemed to procure the liberal arts would question the validity of its music department? Often administrators pillage music classes looking only for financial resolve. Are we, as institutes of higher learning, willing to mortgage the soul's of our children only to toss coins into our coffers?

Music has long been recognized as a core discipline for liberating humanity from the slavery of ignorance. The Greeks took great care to include music as a key element in liberal learning. The trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (mathematics, music, astronomy, and geometry) were necessary to protect Athens from the piranha states of the surrounding Mediterranean. Without the skills of freedom, better known as "liberal arts," the people of Athens as well as their society were sure to be consumed.

A "liberal education" by definition is what a free person should know. It separates the free from the enslaved. In the modern world, education maintains this quality of freedom for all who choose to embrace it. Aristotle, in his Politics, speaks of music claiming: "Music has the power of producing a certain effect on the moral character of the soul, and if it has the power to do this, it is clear that the young must be directed to music and must be educated in it."1 If public schools and colleges continue removing music and the arts from their curriculum, the souls of our children will be starved and our nation will quickly find itself under the assimilated leadership of droids.

Every culture on earth finds music at its roots. Since the pulse of the first rhythmic beat or the hum of a mournful chant, humans have grasped the ineffable power of music to define life. Music communicates. This distinctive claim rises from religion and myth combining songs, images, stories, and dance into society's cultural photo album. For the greater portion of history, the human story has been cultivated, recorded, and transmitted from generation to generation through song and storytelling. To this, Emerson adds "[Music] whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and to what, whence, and whereto."2 Music, therefore, is synonymous with being human.

Carl Orff, distinguished music educator and composer, reflects,

Elementary music, word and movement, play, everything that awakens and develops the powers of the spirit, this is the 'humus' of the spirit, the humus without which we face the danger of a spiritual erosion. When does erosion occur in nature? When the land is wrongly exploited; for instance when the natural water supply is disturbed through too much cultivation, or when, for utilitarian reasons, forests and hedges fall as victims of drawing-board mentality; in short, when the balance of nature is lost by interference. In the same way I would like to repeat: Man exposes himself to spiritual erosion if he estranges himself from his elementary essentials and thus loses his balance.3

The musical core of humanity begins with rhythm. An axiom of quantum physics is that

everything exists in a state of vibration. This rhythmic environment cradles life itself: the minutes and hours of time; the rising and setting of the sun defining day and night; the days and weeks of a celestial year; the ebb and flow of the tide, the seasons; a heart beat; breathing; birth and death. The rhythmic pith of daily life is reflected in music as time becomes structured in sound and silence. To classify humanity as musicians and non-musicians is in error, for all humans are musical by nature. Some may have experienced the loss of specific musical skills; however, all are capable of responding to the music of their culture.4

Music and the Brain

Considering the role of music in the undergraduate liberal arts experience, let us explore the vitality it brings to the learning process. First, recall the work of Dr. Frances H. Rauscher and her colleagues who led a study on 36 undergraduates who listened to Mozart for 10 minutes. Immediately following this activity, these students scored 8-9 points higher on the spatial IQ test (Stanford-Binet intelligence scale). The scientists concluded that listening to Mozart helps to organize the neuron activity in the cerebral cortex, especially those of the right brain. The act of listening to music functions as an "exercise" which enhances concentration and improves one's ability for intuitive leaps.5

Beyond listening to music, participating in music (or incorporating music into the classroom) has demonstrated positive results on motivation, learning, and behavior. In 1996, the College Entrance Examination Board reported that students with musical experience scored 51 points higher on verbal SAT and 39 points higher on math than the national average. A study conducted between 1983 and 1988 of approximately 7500 students from medium-size universities revealed that music and music education majors posted the highest reading scores of any students on campus, including mathematics, biology, chemistry, and English majors.6 However, the results are not limited to the collegiate student.

Studies in the very young (Neurological Research, February 1997: Rauscher and Shaw) and the very old (Journal of Music Therapy, Summer 1991, pp. 101-110: Prickett and Moore) reveal exciting evidence that music directly influences the learning process as well as memory retention. Dr. Frances Rauscher and Dr. Gordon Shaw took their research to preschoolers. One group had private piano and singing lessons, one group had private computer lessons, and one group had no training. Children receiving piano lessons scored 34 percent higher on spatial and temporal skills test than the other children. The results indicate that music enhances brain functions needed for science, engineering, mathematics, and chess.7 Prickett and Moore studied 10 patients with symptoms of Alzheimer's. The subjects were assessed for recall, both spoken and sung. The results indicated that words to songs were recalled far better than spoken words including rhymed speech. Even when the subject was unable to remember the songs, they tried to sing or hum the melody.8

Through research we are discovering the power of music to connect neural pathways between both sides of the brain. Frank Wilson, a noted neurologist, reports that brain scan studies at UCLA "indicated that music more fully involves brain functions in both hemispheres than any other activity the researchers studied. . . . . intelligence is increased when a child learns to play a musical instrument."9 The report also stated that 80-90 percent of the brain's capacity for motor control regulates stimuli to and from the throat, mouth, and hands. Wilson concluded that virtually the entire brain can be stimulated by developing highly refined control in these areas during childhood, thus expanding the capabilities.10

The majority of nerve cells are formed within the first year of life. They cannot divide nor replace themselves. In fact, after the age of 21, it is believed that nearly 10,000 neurons die each day. However, memory does not seem to be directly correlated to this loss. By connecting as many neurons as possible during the learning process, one increases the aptitude of long range memory. 11 The beauty of music education lies in its utilization of the entire brain maximizing the potential for neurological webbing. To talk about music, to study it, or analyze it requires distinctive use of the left brain. However, when the creative process of music occurs, the right brain dominates. Furthermore, when a student is practicing a piece, watching for the musical details, searching to produce the desires of the composer, the entire brain is involved. Unlike any other subject, music "actually rewires the brain to work more efficiently in all areas of thinking."12

Music and Curriculum

Educators and administrators must look for ways to include music and fine arts education into the general curricula of all students. Realizing the direct correlation music has with the learning process, we have a moral obligation to provide students with this resource. To be effective, advisors must become aware of the available class offerings in the music department and seek the advice and guidance of those instructing these courses. Each student must be given the opportunity to experience music as part of liberal learning.

Music Appreciation

The popular default class is music appreciation, a general overview of music involving study and critical listening. Students experience the basic elements of music including language and instruments. Further exploration includes visiting the various periods of music history through society, politics, the study of composers, and select musical listening examples. Creative instructors may augment this experience with concert attendance, topical papers, projects, and presentations. This generic course provides one music resource but should not limit the possibility of other classes.


Participation in an ensemble such as choir, band, or orchestra provides the student an opportunity to experience music in a way far greater than the sum of its parts. Even an inexperienced musician can exceed their own expectations when creating music with others. As an added bonus, membership in an ensemble mirrors the conditions of functioning within a civilized community. Members must learn to live and work together, understand and obey the laws used to govern the group, and work towards a common goal. Ensembles also represent a cross-section of the collegiate population with members coming from all disciplines. Students build camaraderie among their peers while developing a sense of loyalty and pride with their alma mater. Schools may choose to utilize the potential of this microcosm by allowing the ensembles to travel representing the school and its students.

Ensembles may also provide a healthy, educational alternative for collegiate student's need to belong socially. Schools across the country struggle with the dominating control of fraternities and sororities on student's time as well as the negative influences which may introduce dangerous behavior. Why not require each student to participate in a musical ensemble. Students build friendships, work towards a performance, serve as ambassadors of the school, fill the need for social acceptance, and provide education in a musical discipline.

Applied Music

Applied music classes (private lessons) afford the individual the opportunity to pursue study of an instrument. This may be a continuation of previous experience or the beginning of a new adventure. Whatever the motivation, learning an instrument (including singing) opens the mind and the senses. Study begins by learning the symbolic language of music coupled with technic and repertoire; however, music demands further understanding. Style, form, performance practices only begin to influence the expression of music. For singers, text and language must be analyzed for poetic and historical meaning in relation to the composition as well as the performance. Practice improves the coordination of the body, focused thought, memory, and self-discipline while improving hearing and seeing.

Anyone can learn to play an instrument or sing, with the understanding that the selected instrument requires certain physical abilities. Given six months of instruction, the average adult can achieve some level of success on an instrument. Even older adults share in this process as evidenced by the New Horizons Band. Dr. Roy Ernst, chairman of the Department of Music Education at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, started this ensemble of adults, primarily between the ages of 60 and 85, most of whom had no previous music training. Basic instruction and lots of encouragement cultivated a band which has achieved musical excellence and great fun. "It is never too late for music."13

Music History

Academic music courses usually reserved for the major may also provide an intriguing alternative for the undergraduate. Music history explores the Western world from the combined perspective of arts, politics, and society. Disciplines such as history, anthropology, sociology, English, visual art, and political science will benefit from this approach to the world, its people, and its cultures.

Music Theory

Music theory analyzes the universal language of music, seeking to find meaning in the symbolic. Compositions are dissected vertically, horizontally, and compositely. A unique visual image of the music is achieved through this investigative approach. Computer science, mathematics and related fields will discover parallels with the logical ordering of sound.


Composition, writing music, affords the student a means of communication unlike any other. Through the medium of sound and time, the student has unlimited access of expression through music's non-verbal language. Mathematics and music are similar in that both are concerned with linking the abstract and creating patterns.14

Honors Conversation

Combining music with other disciplines can initiate dialogue and enhance the learning experience through multi-faceted exploration. Queens College offers Honors Conversations which involve the volunteer time of faculty exploring topics of interest. Students receive one credit following three conversations. No additional cost is incurred by the student as these classes are underwritten by the school honors program. Conversations represent a variety of majors and ages with freshmen to seniors who have interest in a subject attending. To participate, students must qualify for the honors program (3.0 GPA).

A popular forum is opera. Several faculty members who share a love of the medium join forces to bring insight and intrigue to this dramatic form. Recent conversations include "The Crucible," "Aida," "Don Giovanni," and "Madama Butterfly." The topic is generally chosen based on the seasonal offerings of Opera Carolina, the resident opera company of Charlotte. Once the season is announced, interested professors select the show of choice and begin developing the approach.

This past year, "Madama Butterfly," the timeless story by Giocomo Puccini, brought together professors from the Music, English, and Environmental Science Departments along with students representing music, biology, history, drama, science, math, and communications. The team of educators first sought to get the students out of the traditional classroom and second, get the students thinking and talking about the issues presented in the story. Once a general outline was established, the work was divided among the professors and their interests: Emily Seelbinder (English) introduced the story and background information; Connie Rhyne-Bray (Music) introduced the music and drama; and Reid Perkins (Environmental Science and father of an adopted Vietnamese child) discussed his visits to Vietnam as well as his experiences in an Asian country.

Two conversations took place at the home of Dr. Emily Seelbinder. Each meeting included a meal from the Pacific Rim: Thai and Chinese. The first conversation outlined the plot of story and included listening to parts of the opera. The libretto was placed on reserve in the library, and students were encouraged to read the text away from the music as foundational preparation for the performance. The hope is that the students will not be restricted to the supertitles during the actual performance and can be free to experience the opera as it was intended. The second meeting was attending the opera performance by Opera Carolina. Following the performance, students responded to the production, the singers, and further discussed the art form of opera. Prior to the third and final session, students prepared a reaction paper to their experience and the production. The conversation continued the discussion initiated by their papers and paralleled the stage production to real life. Parallels included similarities with the currently running Broadway show, Miss Saigon, America's presence in Vietnam, and the many unwanted American/Vietnamese children resulting from the Vietnam war.

The participation is always well received and enthusiastic from all who are involved. The desired results include acclamation to the art form, discussion of the subject, and the development of future arts patrons. 15

Why music should be integrated into the liberal arts curriculum

1. Music cultivates the whole person.

Music generates literacy in many areas while developing reasoning, intuition, dexterity, and imagination. It offers a variety of modes for expression and self-communication. Students of music discover many different ways of perceiving and thinking. Unlike the traditional linear path of thinking, music, more often, combines many paths including the senses allowing the student to trust insight as a valid source of knowledge.

2. Music brings understanding to the human experience.

Music reflects culture giving an historical account of society, politics, and the arts. For thousands of years, most teaching of human history has occurred through song and storytelling. It helps us to recognize our differences and similarities while cultivating tolerance and respect for others including ways of working, thinking, and expressing the self.

Music soothes. At the end of a busy day, we get into the car and turn on the radio or put on a favorite CD. Music relaxes, alters one's perception of time and mood, and can give energy.

Music bonds people. Performing music together creates a unity among the group members through the shared experience. It builds community through the ritual of the creative process.

3. Music identifies artistic responses to problem solving.

Music incorporates the analytical with the expressive to build a library of tools for every human situation. Thus, we have the "art." Because much of the process has no clearly defined result, music teaches the art of making decisions where no standard answer is possible. It kindles creative problem solving, develops individual and group work skills, and experimentation.

4. Music develops non-verbal communication.

Music is a universal language based on non-verbal communication. Through the use of a symbolic language juxtaposed with human expression, music tells a story, identifies a culture, and offers a mode of self-expression. Analyzing this information helps one make educated conclusions regarding product and issue.

5. Music adds excitement to the learning process.

Music allows for subjectivity and ambiguity in the exploration of knowledge. It draws our attention and helps us respond to its rhythmic patterns. Music also helps the student develop self-discipline, self-esteem, self-motivation, and cooperation, all necessary for participation in today's society.

Music develops critical listening. While music may be a pleasant experience, it offers the challenge of attentive listening as a motivation to learning. 16 Music offers joy. To this, Goethe adds "People don't sing because they are happy, they're happy because they sing." 17


How can anyone deprived of the experience of music be recognized as liberally educated? Music extols life and gives to it meaning. Music which is truly great outlives its creator while giving us insight into the person, the period, and the place. Music draws together those whose paths may never cross in any other circumstance. Music unites a divided world through its universal language of sound. Music communicates the soul and provides a non-verbal medium to express the inexpressible. Music gives us hope.

  1. Aristotle, Politics.

  2. The Report of the National Commission on Music Education, Growing Up Complete: The Imperative for Music Education (Reston, Virginia: Music Educators National Conference, 1991), p. 4.

  3. Don G. Campbell, Introduction to the Musical Brain, 2nd ed. (Missouri: MMB Music Inc., 1992), p. 7.

  4. Donald A. Hodges, ed., Handbook of Music Psychology, 2nd ed. (San Antonio, TX: IMR Press, 1996), p. 59.

  5. Don G. Campbell, The Mozart Effect, (New York: Avon Books, 1997), p. 16.

  6. Ibid., p. 177.

  7. "Music Beats Computers at Enhancing Early Childhood Development," Teaching Music, June 1997, p. 42.

  8. Carl A. Prickett and Randall S. Moore, "The Use of Music to Aid Memory of Alzheimer's Patients," Journal of Music Therapy, vol. XXVIII, no. 2 (Summer 1991): 101.

  9. Marjorie R. Lehr, "Music Education," Teaching Music, vol. 6 issue 3 (December 1998), p. 40.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Campbell, Introduction to the Musical Brain, p. 15.

  12. Lehr, p. 41.

  13. MuSica Research Notes, vol. 3, issue 1 (Spring 1996) "Music, Development, Aging and the Brain: It's Never Too Late for Music."

  14. Anthony Storr, Music and The Mind, (New York: The Free Press, 1992), p. 177-8.

  15. Interviews with Dr. Emily Seelbinder and Connie Rhyne-Bray, Queens College, Charlotte, North Carolina, 29 July 1999.

  16. National Standards for Arts Education, Dance, Music, Theatre, Visual Arts: What Every Young American Should Know and Be Able to Do in the Arts, (Reston, Virginia: Music Educators National Conference, 1994), pp. 6-7.

  17. Claudia E. Cornett, The Arts as Meaning Makers: Integrating Literature and the Arts Throughout the Curriculum, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1999), pp. 330-333.


Campbell, Don G. Introduction to the Musical Brain. 2nd ed. Missouri: MMB Music Inc., 1992.

Campbell, Don G. The Mozart Effect, New York: Avon Books, 1997.

Cornett, Claudia E. The Arts as Meaning Makers: Integrating Literature and the Arts Throughout the Curriculum. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1999.

Earl, Archie W., Sr. "The Effect of a Truly Liberal Education on Society." Presented at the International Conference on General and Liberal Studies. Indianapolis, IN (October 21, 1989).

Hodges, Donald A., ed. Handbook of Music Psychology, 2nd ed. San Antonio: IMR Press, 1996.

Lehr, Marjorie R. "Music Education." Teaching Music vol. 6, issue 3. (December 1998): 40-41.

MacDonald, Christine. "Teaching the Arts Can Improve Academics." San Diego Business Journal vol. 20, issue 18 (3 May 1999): 9A.

Monk, Martin, and Poston, Mark. "A Comparison of Music and Science Education." Cambridge Journal of Education vol. 29, issue 1. (March 1999): 93-101.

"Music Beats Computers at Enhancing Early Childhood Development." Teaching Music (June 1997): pp. 42-43.

MuSICA Research Notes, vol. 2, issue 2 (Fall 1995) "The Nonmusical Outcomes of Music Education."

MuSICA Research Notes, vol. 3, issue 1 (Spring 1996) "Music, Development, Aging and the Brain: It's Never Too Late for Music."

MuSICA Research Notes, vol. 6, Issue 2 (Spring 1999) "Can Music Really Improve the Mind? The Question of Transfer Effects."

National Standards for Arts Education. Dance, Music, Theatre, Visual Arts: What Every Young American Should Know and Be Able to Do in the Arts . Reston, Virginia: Music Educators National Conference, 1994.

Plato. Politics.

Prickett, Carl A. and Moore, Randall S. "The Use of Music to Aid Memory of Alzheimer's Patients." Journal of Music Therapy vol. XXVIII, no. 2 (Summer 1991): 101-110.

The Report of the National Commission on Music Education. Reston, Virginia: Music Educators National Conference, 1991

Seelbinder, Dr. Emily, and Rhyne-Bray, Connie. Queens College. Charlotte, North Carolina. Interview, 29 July 1999.

Storr, Anthony. Music and The Mind. New York: The Free Press, 1992..