A Musical Life Is A Meaningful Life by Doug Hanvey


“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy … in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music….” –John Adams

Founding Fathers like John Adams understood that a meaningful life must include music and other arts. Unfortunately, while many more children study music now than in Adams’ time, our country hasn’t yet risen to our second president’s exhortation that his descendants should have the right to study the arts above all else.

Adams was, understandably, future-focused. Living at a time of great upheaval and relative poverty, when the average family could not imagine giving their children an education in the arts, Adams could only hope that future generations could do so.

Ironically, music teachers like myself often justify studying music for the benefits it might bring in the future, just as Adams justified the study of “politics and war.” Yet in either case, music remains secondary to something that seems more important, whether it’s the grand task of establishing a new nation, or of helping our children to succeed later in life.

There are certainly many proven benefits to giving children a musical education, among them: goal orientation, improved concentration, enhanced task focus, and the development of not just musical intelligence but also social and emotional intelligence.

Yet ultimately, I don’t believe that the study of music needs to be justified. Benefits, no matter how wonderful, are for the future. Music (like life) is experienced and enjoyed now. If we are always so focused on the future that we can never appreciate the present, are we truly alive?

An unsung yet profound “benefit” of music education is that it orients our attention to the present moment and the beauty that unfolds there, whether musical or otherwise.

Music is a way of expressing our humanness, of creating and appreciating beauty, of feeling deep emotion, and of falling so completely into the present moment that we feel truly alive.

Need it offer us more than that?

Doug Hanvey is a piano teacher in Portland, OR.

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