Why should we value the study of music?

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

Why is the study of musicology and ethnomusicology important? Monash University recently announced its plans to cut over 100 subjects, including its musicology and ethnomusicology specialisations. Academic Peter Tregear published an insightful and succinct response to these cuts on The Conversation, explaining why these areas of study are far from superfluous extras. (If you wish to support the campaign for Monash University to halt these plans, you can find more information here).

Speaking candidly, the words ‘cuts to music programs’ and ‘lack of funding for musical education’ spark feelings of red-hot fury within me. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had to defend my interest in music, and the validity of my desire to pursue a portfolio career in the arts. (Thankfully not from anyone close to me).

And why do we even ask that question? There are many academic fields that I personally know next to nothing about, yet I’m not walking around questioning the legitimacy of the study of medicine, the study of mathematics, the study of science, the study of physics, the study of botany, the study of dinosaurs… the list goes on. These disciplines have led to a better understanding of our world, a number of practical ways to improve our quality of life, even life-saving breakthroughs. But so has the study of music.

I object to the idea that everything has to be reduced to numbers, or judged by its potential to lead to a high-paying position at a board table. But if you want to talk about purely practical applications such as aiding recovery from brain injuries, improving psychological wellbeing, and assisting with literacy and numeracy levels in children; music satisfies every requirement.

The evidence is far from anecdotal: the health benefits of music could sustain several PhDs. Music Therapy is a field which has gradually gained recognition over the last few decades. Music therapists can help improve the quality of life of people with physical and intellectual disabilities, severe mental illness, brain injuries, and degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s. It is not uncommon to hear of completely non-verbal people with Autism finding a way to communicate purely through singing and playing instruments. The dignity and independence music therapy can restore to these people cannot be overstated. Hospitals are beginning to establish dedicated music therapy and art therapy programs, as medical professionals have long since accepted that psychological wellbeing and physical health are inextricably linked.

Music therapy is its own field, distinct from musicology and ethnomusicology. But music therapy would not even have been conceived as a discipline without the research done by ethnomusicologists over the last one hundred years. Ethnomusicology emerged as a separate stream from musicology as it approached the analysis of music from a social and cultural perspective. This field of study helped to build the academic understanding that musical performance is not purely a method of entertainment. Many cultures around the world use musical performance during important rites of passage or as an expression of identity. Ethnomusicology is often concerned with (but not limited to) the study of indigenous and non-Western cultures.

These areas of study go far beyond staring at manuscript paper. Tregear notes that Prof. George Marshall-Hall (founder of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in 1913) wanted graduates to not only become “performers, but also historians, analysers, critics, and explorers of the musical culture they inhabited”. Learning music fires up the left and right regions of the brain. By the same token, the disciplines of musicology and ethnomusicology encompass history, anthropology, politics, mathematical pattern analysis… the list goes on!

I’ll leave you with an infographic completely disproving Monash University’s claim that enrollments in these specialisations were flagging. I hope you’re as incensed as I am.

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