Composing in the classroom

The hippest music teachers help their students create original music. But what exactly does that mean? What even is composition? In this post, I take a look at two innovators in music education and try to arrive at an answer.

Matt McLean is the founder of the amazing Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop. He teaches his students composition using a combination of Noteflight, an online notation editor, and the MusEDLab‘s own aQWERTYon, a web app that turns your regular computer keyboard into an intuitive musical interface.

Matt explains:

Participating students in YCIW as well as my own students at LREI have been using Noteflight for over 6 years to compose music for chamber orchestras, symphony orchestras, jazz ensembles, movie soundtracks, video game music, school band and more – hundreds of compositions.

Before the advent of the aQWERTYon, students needed to enter music into Noteflight either by clicking with the mouse or by playing notes in with a MIDI keyboard. The former method is accessible but slow; the latter method is fast but requires some keyboard technique. The aQWERTYon combines the accessibility of the mouse with the immediacy of the piano keyboard.

For the first time there is a viable way for every student to generate and notate her ideas in a tactile manner with an instrument that can be played by all. We founded Young Composers & Improvisors Workshop so that every student can have the experience of composing original music. Much of my time has been spent exploring ways to emphasize the “experiencing” part of this endeavor. Students had previously learned parts of their composition on instruments after their piece was completed. Also, students with piano or guitar skills could work out their ideas prior to notating them. But efforts to incorporate MIDI keyboards or other interfaces with Noteflight in order to give students a way to perform their ideas into notation always fell short.

The aQWERTYon lets novices try out ideas the way that more experienced musicians do: by improvising with an instrument and reacting to the sounds intuitively. It’s possible to compose without using an instrument at all, using a kind of sudoku-solving method, but it’s not likely to yield good results. Your analytical consciousness, the part of your mind that can write notation, is also its slowest and dumbest part. You really need your emotions, your ear, and your motor cortex involved. Before computers, you needed considerable technical expertise to be able to improvise musical ideas, and remember them long enough to write them down. The advent of recording and MIDI removed a lot of the friction from the notation step, because you could preserve your ideas just by playing them. With the aQWERTYon and interfaces like it, you can do your improvisation before learning any instrumental technique at all.

Student feedback suggests that kids like being able to play along to previously notated parts as a way to find new parts to add to their composition. As a teacher I am curious to measure the effect of students being able to practice their ideas at home using aQWERTYon and then sharing their performances before using their idea in their composition. It is likely that this will create a stronger connection between the composer and her musical idea than if she had only notated it first.

Those of us who have been making original music in DAWs are familiar with the pleasures of creating ideas through playful jamming. It feels like a major advance to put that experience in the hands of elementary school students.

Matt uses progressive methods to teach a traditional kind of musical expression: writing notated scores that will then be performed live by instrumentalists. Matt’s kids are using futuristic tools, but the model for their compositional technique is the one established in the era of Beethoven.


(I just now noticed that the manuscript Beethoven is holding in this painting is in the key of D-sharp. That’s a tough key to read!)

Other models of composition exist. There’s the Lennon and McCartney method, which doesn’t involve any music notation. Like most untrained rock musicians, the Beatles worked from lyric sheets with chords written on them as a mnemonic. The “lyrics plus chords” method continues to be the standard for rock, folk and country musicians. It’s a notation system that’s only really useful if you already have a good idea of how the song is supposed to sound.

Lennon and McCartney writing

Lennon and McCartney originally wrote their songs to be performed live for an audience. They played in clubs for several years before ever entering a recording studio. As their career progressed, however, the Beatles stopped performing live, and began writing with the specific goal of creating studio recordings. Some of those later Beatles tunes would be difficult or impossible to perform live. Contemporary artists like Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams have pushed the Beatles’ idea to its logical extreme: songs existing entirely within the computer as sequences of samples and software synths, with improvised vocals arranged into shape after being recorded. For Missy and Pharrell, creating the score and the finished recording are one and the same act.

Pharrell and Missy Elliott in the studio

Is it possible to teach the Missy and Pharrell method in the classroom? Alex Ruthmann, MusEDLab founder and my soon-to-be PhD advisor, documented his method for doing so in 2007.

As a middle school general music teacher, I’ve often wrestled with how to engage my students in meaningful composing experiences. Many of the approaches I’d read about seemed disconnected from the real-world musicality I saw daily in the music my students created at home and what they did in my classes. This disconnect prompted me to look for ways of bridging the gap’ between the students’ musical world outside music class and their in-class composing experiences.

It’s an axiom of constructivist music education that students will be most motivated to learn music that’s personally meaningful to them. There are kids out there for whom notated music performed on instruments is personally meaningful. But the musical world outside music class usually follows the Missy and Pharrell method.

[T]he majority of approaches to teaching music with technology center around notating musical ideas and are often rooted in European classical notions of composing (for example, creating ABA pieces, or restricting composing tasks to predetermined rhythmic values). These approaches require students to have a fairly sophisticated knowledge of standard music notation and a fluency working with rhythms and pitches before being able to explore and express their musical ideas through broader musical dimensions like form, texture, mood, and style.

Noteflight imposes some limitations on these musical dimensions. Some forms, textures, moods and styles are difficult to capture in standard notation. Some are impossible. If you want to specify a particular drum machine sound combined with a sampled breakbeat, or an ambient synth pad, or a particular stereo image, standard notation is not the right tool for the job.

Common approaches to organizing composing experiences with synthesizers and software often focus on simplified classical forms without regard to whether these forms are authentic to the genre or to technologies chosen as a medium for creation.

There is nothing wrong with teaching classical forms. But when making music with computers, the best results come from making the music that’s idiomatic to computers. Matt McLean goes to extraordinary lengths to have student compositions performed by professional musicians, but most kids will be confined to the sounds made by the computer itself. Classical forms and idioms sound awkward at best when played by the computer, but electronic music sounds terrific.

The middle school students enrolled in these classes came without much interest in performing, working with notation, or studying the classical music canon. Many saw themselves as “failed” musicians, placed in a general music class because they had not succeeded in or desired to continue with traditional performance-based music classes. Though they no longer had the desire to perform in traditional school ensembles, they were excited about having the opportunity to create music that might be personally meaningful to them.

Here it is, the story of my life as a music student. Too bad I didn’t go to Alex’s school.

How could I teach so that composing for personal expression could be a transformative experience for students? How could I let the voices and needs of the students guide lessons for the composition process? How could I draw on the deep, complex musical understandings that these students brought to class to help them develop as musicians and composers? What tools could I use to quickly engage them in organizing sound in musical and meaningful ways?

Alex draws parallels between writing music and writing English. Both are usually done alone at a computer, and both pose a combination of technical and creative challenges.

Musical thinking (thinking in sound) and linguistic thinking (thinking using language phrases and ideas) are personal creative processes, yet both occur within social and cultural contexts. Noting these parallels, I began to think about connections between the whole-language approach to writing used by language arts teachers in my school and approaches I might take in my music classroom.

In the whole-language approach to writing, students work individually as they learn to write, yet are supported through collaborative scaffolding-support from their peers and the teacher. At the earliest stages, students tell their stories and attempt to write them down using pictures, drawings, and invented notation. Students write about topics that are personally meaningful to them, learning from their own writing and from the writing of their peers, their teacher, and their families. They also study literature of published authors. Classes that take this approach to teaching writing are often referred to as “writers’ workshops”… The teacher facilitates [students’] growth as writers through minilessons, share sessions, and conferring sessions tailored to meet the needs that emerge as the writers progress in their work. Students’ original ideas and writings often become an important component of the curriculum. However, students in these settings do not spend their entire class time “freewriting.” There are also opportunities for students to share writing in progress and get feedback and support from teacher and peers. Revision and extension of students’ writing occur throughout the process. Lessons are not organized by uniform, prescriptive assignments, but rather are tailored to the students’ interests and needs. In this way, the direction of the curriculum and successive projects are informed by the students’ needs as developing writers.

Alex set about creating an equivalent “composers’ workshop,” combining composition, improvisation, and performing with analytical listening and genre studies.

The broad curricular goal of the composers’ workshop is to engage students collaboratively in:

  • Organizing and expressing musical ideas and feelings through sound with real-world, authentic reasons for and means of composing
  • Listening to and analyzing musical works appropriate to students’ interests and experiences, drawn from a broad spectrum of sources
  • Studying processes of experienced music creators through listening to, performing, and analyzing their music, as well as being informed by accounts of the composition process written by these creators.

Alex recommends production software with strong loop libraries so students can make high-level musical decisions with “real” sounds immediately.

While students do not initially work directly with rhythms and pitch, working with loops enables students to begin composing through working with several broad musical dimensions, including texture, form, mood, and affect. As our semester progresses, students begin to add their own original melodies and musical ideas to their loop-based compositions through work with synthesizers and voices.

As they listen to musical exemplars, I try to have students listen for the musical decisions and understand the processes that artists, sound engineers, and producers make when crafting their pieces. These listening experiences often open the door to further dialogue on and study of the multiplicity of musical roles’ that are a part of creating today’s popular music. Having students read accounts of the steps that audio engineers, producers, songwriters, film-score composers, and studio musicians go through when creating music has proven to be informative and has helped students learn the skills for more accurately expressing the musical ideas they have in their heads.

Alex shares my belief in project-based music technology teaching. Rather than walking through the software feature-by-feature, he plunges students directly into a creative challenge, trusting them to pick up the necessary software functionality as they go. Rather than tightly prescribe creative approaches, Alex observes the students’ explorations and uses them as opportunities to ask questions.

I often ask students about their composing and their musical intentions to better understand how they create and what meanings they’re constructing and expressing through their compositions. Insights drawn from these initial dialogues help me identify strategies I can use to guide their future composing and also help me identify listening experiences that might support their work or techniques they might use to achieve their musical ideas.

Some musical challenges are more structured–Alex does “genre studies” where students have to pick out the qualities that define techno or rock or film scores, and then create using those idioms. This is especially useful for younger students who may not have a lot of experience listening closely to a wide range of music.

Rather than devoting entire classes to demonstrations or lectures, Alex prefers to devote the bulk of classroom time to working on the projects, offering “minilessons” to smaller groups or individuals as the need arises.

Teaching through minilessons targeted to individuals or small groups of students has helped to maintain the musical flow of students’ compositional work. As a result, I can provide more individual feedback and support to students as they compose. The students themselves also offer their own minilessons to peers when they have designed to teach more about advanced features of the software, such as how to record a vocal track, add a fade-in or fade-out, or copy their musical material. These technology skills are taught directly to a few students, who then become the experts in that skill, responsible for teaching other students in the class who need the skill.

Not only does the peer-to-peer learning help with cultural authenticity, but it also gives students invaluable experience with the role of teacher.

One of my first questions is usually, “Is there anything that you would like me to listen for or know about before I listen?” This provides an opportunity for students to seek my help with particular aspects of their composing process. After listening to their compositions, I share my impressions of what I hear and offer my perspective on how to solve their musical problems. If students choose not to accept my ideas, that’s fine; after all, it’s their composition and personal expression… Use of conferring by both teacher and students fosters a culture of collaboration and helps students develop skills in peer scaffolding.

Alex recommends creating an online gallery of class compositions. This has become easier to implement since 2007 with the explosion of blog platforms like Tumblr, audio hosting tools like SoundCloud, and video hosts like YouTube. There are always going to be privacy considerations with such platforms, but there is no shortage of options to choose from.

Once a work is online, students can listen to and comment on these compositions at home outside of class time. Sometimes students post pieces in progress, but for the most part, works are posted when deemed “finished” by the composer. The online gallery can also be set up so students can hear works written by participants in other classes. Students are encouraged to listen to pieces published online for ideas to further their own work, to make comments, and to share these works with their friends and family. The realworld publishing of students’ music on the Internet seems to contribute to their motivation.

Assessing creative work is always going to be a challenge, since there’s no objective basis to assess it on. Alex looks at how well a student composer has met the goal of the assignment, and how well they have achieved their own compositional intent.

The word “composition” is problematic in the context of contemporary computer-based production. It carries the cultural baggage of Western Europe, the idea of music as having a sole identifiable author (or authors.) The sampling and remixing ethos of hip-hop and electronica are closer to the traditions of non-European cultures where music may be owned by everyone and no one. I’ve had good results bringing remixing into the classroom, having students rework each others’ tracks, or beginning with a shared pool of audio samples, or doing more complex collaborative activities like musical shares. Remixes are a way of talking about music via the medium of music, and remixes of remixes can make for some rich and deep conversation. The word “composition” makes less sense in this context. I prefer the broader term “production”, which includes both the creation of new musical ideas and the realization of those ideas in sound.

So far in this post, I’ve presented notation-based composition and loop-based production as if they’re diametrical opposites. In reality, the two overlap, and can be easily combined. A student can create a part as a MIDI sequence and then convert it to notation, or vice versa. The school band or choir can perform alongside recorded or sequenced tracks. Instrumental or vocal performances can be recorded, sampled, and turned into new works. Electronic productions can be arranged for live instruments, and acoustic pieces can be reconceived as electronica. If a hip-hop track can incorporate a sample of Duke Ellington, there’s no reason that sample couldn’t be performed by a high school jazz band. The possibilities are endless.

Milo meets Beethoven

For his birthday, Milo got a book called Welcome to the Symphony by Carolyn Sloan. We finally got around to showing it to him recently, and now he’s totally obsessed.

Welcome To The Symphony by Carolyn Sloan

The book has buttons along the side which you can press to hear little audio samples. They include each orchestra instrument playing a short Beethoven riff. All of the string instruments play the same “bum-bum-bum-BUMMM” so you can compare the sounds easily. All the winds play a different little phrase, and the brass another. The book itself is fine and all, but the thing that really hooked Milo is triggering the riffs one after another, Ableton-style, and singing merrily along.

Milo got primed to enjoy this book by two coincidental things. One is that in his preschool, they’ve been listening to Peter and the Wolf a lot, dancing to it, acting it out, etc. They use a YouTube video that shows both the story and the instruments side by side, so Milo has very clear ideas of what the oboe, clarinet, etc all look like and sound like. When he saw them in the orchestra book, he recognized them all immediately.

The other thing is this weird computer animated cartoon called Taratabong, which is about anthropomorphic musical instruments. Milo has been watching it on YouTube a bunch, to the point of wanting me to pretend to be different characters and “talk” to him (which is an entertaining challenge for me–how do you have a conversation as a snare drum?) So Milo also recognizes different instruments in the orchestra book as Taratabong characters.

Milo has now voluntarily watched a YouTube video of the entire first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth conducted by Leonard Bernstein, several times. That’s like nine minutes of classical music, which for a three-year-old is equivalent to nine hours. He sings along to all the riffs he recognized, announces each instrument as he sees it, and tells me about how Leonard Bernstein is Grandfather from Peter and the Wolf. I want to emphasize that we haven’t pushed him into any of this. If you read this blog, you know that I’m an outspoken anti-fan of Beethoven. We just put this stuff under Milo’s nose, and if he hadn’t been interested, we wouldn’t have pushed it.

The classical music tribe expresses continual anguish about how hard it is to draw people into the music. Having inadvertently created a budding Beethoven lover, I have a few insights to offer. Milo got connected to the music through multiple media simultaneously, in multiple settings. He was exposed initially in the context of stories about animals and cartoon characters. That exposure happened in the context of acting and dancing, not passive sitting or being lectured to. And when he did start listening, it was via playback devices that he controls completely: YouTube Kids on the iPad, and the buttons on the book.

Of all these different music experiences, the Ableton-like sample triggering is the one that has most seized Milo’s enthusiasm. Sometimes he wants to read the book and play the sounds when the text indicates. Sometimes he wants to systematically listen through each sound, singing along and acting out the instruments. Sometimes he just jams out, playing the excerpts in different orders and in different rhythms. I suspect he’d be even happier if he could get the sounds to loop. He wants to sing along, but the little phrases are half over before he can even get oriented. If the phrases looped in a musical-sounding way, I bet he would dig in much deeper.

This is not Milo’s first experience triggering sample playback. Before he even turned two, we spent a lot of time playing around with an APC 40.


Milo adores the lights and colors, and instantly grasped how the volume faders work. In general, though, the APC experience was too complicated for him. It was too easy to make it stop working, to lose the connection between button pushes and the music changing, and to generally get lost in the interface. (I have some of those same problems!) The orchestra book has the advantage of being vastly simpler and more predictable.

There’s a page in the book that shows Beethoven with quill pen, writing the music. (Milo is continually disappointed not to see Beethoven himself in any of the performance videos.) Interestingly, Milo has started using the phrase “writing music” as a synonym for “playing music”, either from an instrument or from iTunes. He seems not to know or care about the distinction between playing back pre-recorded music and creating new music. This conflation of writing and playing music was likely helped by the time Milo has spent with the aQWERTYon, an interface developed by the NYU MusEDLab for performing music on the computer keyboard.

aQWERTYon screencap

Milo isn’t extremely interested in the musical aspect of the aQWERTYon. He calls it “ABCs” and is mostly interested in using it to type his favorite letters. He also enjoys singing the alphabet song while playing semi-randomly along.

The MusEDLab’s work is motivated by the fact that computers make it enormously easier for total novices to participate actively in music. If Beethoven symphonies can be played with as toys, participated in as games, and connected to meaningful stories and activities, then it’s inevitable that kids are going to want to get involved. If I had experienced Beethoven as raw material for my own expression, I’d probably feel quite differently about him.

Music education at the grownups’ table

I was asked by Alison Armstrong to comment on this Time magazine op-ed by Todd Stoll, the vice president of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Before I do, let me give some context: Todd Stoll is a friend and colleague of Wynton Marsalis, and he shares some of Wynton’s ideas about music.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis has some strong views about jazz, its historical significance, and its present condition. He holds jazz to be “America’s classical music,” the highest achievement of our culture, and the sonic embodiment of our best democratic ideals. The man himself is a brilliant practitioner of the art form. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him play live several times, and he’s always a riveting improvisor. However, his definition of the word “jazz” is a narrow one. For Wynton Marsalis, jazz history ends in about 1965, right before Herbie Hancock traded in his grand piano for a Fender Rhodes. All the developments after that–the introduction of funk, rock, pop, electronic music, and hip-hop– are bastardizations of the music.

Wynton Marsalis’ public stature has given his philosophy enormous weight, which has been a mixed bag for jazz culture. On the one hand, he has been a key force in getting jazz the institutional recognition that it was denied for too many years. On the other hand, the form of jazz that Wynton advocates for is a museum piece, a time capsule of the middle part of the twentieth century. When jazz gained the legitimacy of “classical music,” it also became burdened with classical music’s stuffiness, pedantry, and disconnection from the broader culture. As the more innovative jazz artists try to keep pace with the world, they can find themselves more hindered by Wynton than helped.

So, with all that in mind, let’s see what Todd Stoll has to say about the state of music education on America.

No Child Left Behind, the largest attempt at education reform in our nation’s history, resulted in a massive surge in the testing of our kids and an increased focus in “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math). While well-meaning, this legislation precipitated a gradual and massive decline of students participating in music and arts classes, as test prep and remedial classes took precedence over a broader liberal arts education, and music education was often reduced, cut, or relegated to after school.

Testing culture is a Bad Thing, no question there.

Taken on face value, Every Student Succeeds bodes well for music education and the National Association for Music Education, which spent thousands of hours lobbying on behalf of music teachers everywhere. The new act removes “adequate yearly progress” benchmarks and includes music and arts as part of its definition of a “well-rounded education.” It also refers to time spent teaching music and arts as “protected time.”

That is a Good Thing.

Music and arts educators now have some leverage for increased funding, professional development, equipment, staffing, prioritized scheduling of classes, and a more solid foothold when budgets get tight and cuts are being discussed. I can almost hear the discussions—”We can’t cut a core class now, can we?” In other words, music is finally at the grown-ups table with subjects like science, math, social studies and language arts.

Yes! Great. But how did music get sent to the kids’ table in the first place? How did we come to regard it as a luxury, or worse, a frivolity? How do we learn to value it more highly, so the next time that a rage for quantitative assessment sweeps the federal government, we won’t go through the same cycle all over again?

Now that we’re at the table, we need a national conversation to redefine the depth and quality of the content we teach in our music classes. We need a paradigm shift in how we define outcomes in our music students. And we need to go beyond the right notes, precise rhythms, clear diction and unified phrasing that have set the standard for the past century.

True. The standard music curriculum in America is very much stuck in the model of the nineteenth century European conservatory. There’s so much more we could be doing to awaken kids’ innate musicality.

We should define learning by a student’s intimate knowledge of composers or artists—their personal history, conception and the breadth and scope of their output.

Sure! This sounds good.

Students should know the social and cultural landscape of the era in which any piece was written or recorded, and the circumstances that had an influence.

Stoll is referring here to the outdated notion of “absolute music,” the idea that the best music is “pure,” that it transcends the grubby world of politics and economics and fashion. We definitely want kids to know that music comes from a particular time and place, and that it responds to particular forces and pressures.

We should teach the triumphant mythology of our greatest artists—from Louis Armstrong to Leonard Bernstein, from Marian Anderson to Mary Lou Williams, and others.

Sure, students should know who black and female and Jewish musicians are. Apparently, however, our greatest artists all did their work before 1965.

Students should understand the style and conception of a composer or artist—what are the aesthetics of a specific piece, the notes that have meaning? They should know the influences and inputs that went into the creation of a piece and how to identify those.

Very good idea. I’m a strong believer in the evolutionary biology model of music history. Rather than doing a chronological plod through the Great Men (and now Women), I like the idea of picking a musical trope and tracing out its family tree.

There should be discussion of the definitive recording of a piece, and students should make qualitative judgments on such against a rubric defined by the teacher that easily and broadly gives definition and shape to any genre.

The Wynton Marsalis version of jazz has turned out to be a good fit for academic culture, because there are Canonical Works by Great Masters. In jazz, the canonical work is a recording rather than a score, but the scholarly approach can be the same. This model is problematic for an improvised, largely aural, and dance-oriented tradition like jazz, to say the least, but it is progress to be talking about recording as an art form unto itself.

Selected pieces should illuminate the general concepts of any genre—the 6/8 march, the blues, a lyrical art song, counterpoint, AABA form, or call and response—and students should be able to understand these and know their precise location within a score and what these concepts represent.

Okay. Why? I mean, these are all fine things to learn and teach. But they only become meaningful through use. A kid might rightly question whether their knowledge of lyrical art song or AABA form has anything to do with anything. Once a kid tries writing a song, these ideas suddenly become a lot more pertinent.

We should embrace the American arts as a full constituent in our programs—not the pop-tinged sounds of The Voice or Glee but our music: blues, folk, spirituals, jazz, hymns, country and bluegrass, the styles that created the fabric of our culture and concert works by composers who embraced them.

This is where Stoll and I part company. Classical pedagogues have earned a bad reputation for insisting that kids like the wrong music. Stoll is committing the same sin here. Remember, kids: Our Music is not your music. You are supposed to like blues, folk, spirituals, jazz, hymns, country and bluegrass. Those are the styles that created the fabric of our culture. And they inspired concert works by composers, so that really makes them legit. Music that was popular in your lifetime, or your parents’ lifetime, is suspect.

Students should learn that the written score is a starting point. It’s the entry into a world of discovery and aspiration that can transform their lives; it’s deeper than notes. We should help them realize that a lifetime of discovery in music is a worthwhile and enjoyable endeavor.

Score-centrism is a bad look from anyone, and it’s especially disappointing from a jazz guy. What does this statement mean to a kid immersed in rock or hip-hop, where nothing is written down? The score should be presented as what it is: one starting point among many. You can have a lifetime of discovery in music without ever reading a note. I believe that notation is worth teaching, but it’s worth teaching as a means to an end, not as an end unto itself.

These lessons will require new skills, extra work outside of class, more research, and perhaps new training standards for teachers. But, it’s not an insurmountable task, and it is vital, given the current strife of our national discourse.

If we can agree on the definitive recording of West Side Story, we can bridge the partisan divide!

Our arts can help us define who we are and tell us who we can be. They can bind the wounds of racism, compensate for the scourge of socio-economic disadvantage, and inoculate a new generation against the fear of not knowing and understanding those who are different from themselves.

I want this all to be true. But there is some magical thinking at work here, and magical thinking is not going to help us when budgets get cut. I want the kids to have the opportunity to study Leonard Bernstein and Marian Anderson. I’d happily toss standardized testing overboard to free up the time and resources. I believe that doing so will result in better academic outcomes. And I believe that music does make better citizens. But how does it do that? Saying that we need school music in order to instill Reverence for the Great Masters is weak sauce, even if the list of Great Masters now has some women and people of color on it. We need to be able to articulate specifically why music is of value to kids.

I believe that we have a good answer already: the point of music education should be to build emotionally stronger people. Done right, music promotes flow, deep attention, social bonding, and resilience. As Steve Dillon puts it, music is “a powerful weapon against depression.” Kids who are centered, focused, and able to regulate their moods are going to be better students, better citizens, and (most importantly!) happier humans. That is why it’s worth using finite school resources to teach music.

The question we need to ask is: what methods of music education best support emotional development in kids? I believe that the best approach is to treat every kid as a latent musician, and to help them develop as such, to make them producers rather than consumers. If a kid’s musicality can be nurtured best through studying jazz, great! That approach worked great for me, because my innermost musical self turns out to have a lot of resonance with Ellington and Coltrane. If a kid finds meaning in Beethoven, also great. But if the key to a particular kid’s lock is hip-hop or trance or country, music education should be equipped to support them too. Pointing young people to music they might otherwise miss out on is a good idea. Stifling them under the weight of a canon is not.