by Ali Laing
(read aloud by Christy Simpson at Cultivate Night, November 28, 2017)
Of all the worthy subjects included in a Charlotte Mason education, music instruction was mentioned only a handful of times in Ms. Mason's six-volume Home Education series. This has created the impression for some that music falls as a secondary subject, something many of us put on the back burner in favor of more pressing academic learning. Unfortunately, this is a common viewpoint currently held across our nation, as we’ve seen a steady decline in public support for the arts in general. But Charlotte Mason actually elevated music education to a higher degree, recognizing it as an essential element in educating the whole child. Rather than including everything in her six volumes, she left the specifics of music instruction to the Parents National Education Union (PNEU) and the writers of its monthly publication, the Parents Review. Only recently, thanks to the efforts of volunteer transcribers, are we gaining access to these invaluable PNEU articles, many of which are now available at Ambleside Online and Charlotte Mason Poetry, and are filled with even more information on Charlotte Mason’s methods on all subjects. Turns out, the application of her music education program was more thorough than we initially thought.
Before diving into her methods, let’s take a quick look at what Ms. Mason didn’t know. In the past twenty years, the field of neuroscience has exploded due to technological advances that allow digital mapping of the brain. By attaching electrodes and observing real-time brain activity on people performing various tasks, researchers have discovered some interesting things about music. Whereas tasks related to things like math, science, reading, and language “light up” compartmentalized areas of the brain, for a person listening to music, the whole brain explodes in fireworks! It amazed researchers the first time they observed this phenomenon. Music simultaneously ignites motor, visual, and auditory brain activity in both hemispheres of the brain. Furthermore, brain activity in a person playing an instrument is the equivalent to a cerebral atomic explosion! Scientists have discovered that children who listen to music - particularly those who learn to play an instrument - have a larger corpus callosum, the central portion of the brain that acts as a connective highway for the right and left hemispheres, and which plays a central role in most cognitive functions. The implications of the effects of music on overall education are still being explored, however, scientists have already found a direct correlation between music exposure and I.Q. Statistically, music education before the age of seven raises a child's IQ by 7.5 points. Additionally, studies have shown an increase in what’s called emotional intelligence, the ability to show empathy. When we hear or perform music, our emotions are activated, connecting emotional responses with other areas of the brain. So think of music as a brain builder: the more our children are exposed - the more they hear and engage themselves with music - the more "brain exercise” they receive, having a positive effect on overall brain function and well-being. This is true, not only for children. A video circulating the internet shows an adult Parkinson’s patient with severely handicapped motor function. When music is played, the patient miraculously gains free movement of his body as he dances to the beat. One researcher from Australia, Dr. Anita Collins, who specializes in music education and brain development, noted that her daughter who struggled to read at age nine showed noticeable improvement after six months of piano lessons. Learning to play an instrument developed connections in her brain that equipped her to successfully learn to read! I have seen this exact scenario play out with one of my own children just in the past year. This is amazing! Charlotte Mason couldn’t have known this. Yet, she somehow knew that music played an essential role in overall education. She had a special discernment for understanding children and how they learn.
So what are the elements of Ms. Mason’s music education? Here we’ll explore folk songs, hymns, composer studies, and instrumental instruction. Last month, we learned that as God’s image-bearers, we have the privilege of “narrating” His image to the rest of Creation. One of the ways we do that is through music. Throughout scripture, we see the common thread of music marking celebrations and important milestones for God's people. Miriam praised God in the desert with a tambourine. David sang the Psalms with his lyre. In fact, every generation since the beginning of Creation has projected the most meaningful parts of their culture through music, defined at its most basic level by rhythm and pitch. We can watch some of today’s tribal cultures elicit deep-felt emotions simply by using drums and voices to tell their stories. And it isn’t just the gifted musicians who perform in their music circles. Everyone participates! We are unique in America in the sense that we reserve musical performance for a select and talented few. But we all have beating hearts. Every one of us has rhythm pulsing through our very bodies! God created us to experience and enjoy rhythm. That’s why when we hear music, most of us can’t help but feel the movement of it, especially those who’ve heard music from an early age. Likewise, when we hear a melody, we are drawn to listen further. Hearing words set to music gets the story of a culture into our heads, often bringing us into a participatory role in sharing that music, whether it’s tapping a toe, moving our bodies, or humming along. Those actions, because they tap into so many areas of the brain at once, actually help us remember the message of the words better. Almost every culture has a story to tell through music. Music one of the most effective ways of forming connections with whatever we are learning. So we teach our children music through folk songs, hymns, and other compositions!
Teaching folk songs doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, it can be one of the most joyful parts of the school day, a moment of refreshment in the midst of harder academic learning. Charlotte Mason teaches us that children need variation in their thought processes throughout the day to keep learning fresh. What better way than to stop for a rousing chorus of Farmer in the Dell or Yankee Doodle as we simultaneously learn about our early forefathers? My children love hearing Celtic songs, which tend to have lilting melodies and interesting stories. We learned Skye Boat Song, a historical Scottish tune, with some of our friends one year. Imagine how overjoyed we were to hear it later at a Celtic festival we attended together. The kids belted out the lyrics, much to the amazement and amusement of bystanders. That was such a fun and memorable experience for them! Folk songs are even more enjoyable when movements are added. Choreography can be anything you make of it. Add motions to go along with your songs and you’ll have covered a bit of physical education as well.
Folk songs are defined by Merriam-Webster as “traditional or composed songs typically characterized by stanzaic form (multiple verses), refrain, and simplicity of melody”. Ambleside Online, YouTube, various CM blogs, and podcasts are all great resources, with song suggestions from all over the world. Some parents choose folk songs based on the country where they live first, then later based on the historical period they are studying. The key is to choose at least two folk songs per term, giving your kids a bit of background story to begin: author, country of origin, story of the song (if available), and a sheet with words printed. Sometimes songs have unknown authors, and that’s okay. Listening to the song together, then actively singing along, your family should be able to learn the song and sing it from memory by the end of a few weeks. As already mentioned, we’ve found so much joy by learning these songs with one or two other families. When our kids are playing together or hiking through nature, they have something to share with siblings and friends that builds camaraderie. I remember a recent hike in the mountains when all our kids sang I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad because they needed a song to scare the bears away. And it’s always been pleasantly surprising to hear these songs in other places: at concerts, in movies, or even hidden within other musical compositions. It touches back to forming relations with the world around us, which is a cornerstone of CM education.
Hymns are similar to folk songs in that they tell a story - the story of our Creator and His creation. They are rich in theology and praise, often containing portions of scripture and stories of what God has done for His people. Musically, they consist of well-written chord progressions with 4-part voicing (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), melodies, countermelodies, and multiple stanzas. They are usually more musically “meaty” than simpler folk songs. There have been periods throughout history which produced large numbers of well-written and theologically-sound hymns. Over time, the really great ones have found a permanent place within our hymnal collections. Many of today’s churches have abandoned older hymns in favor of simpler and more popular praise choruses, in which voices sing in unison and the choruses are repeated several times. I can only imagine that this plethora of new church music will one day be sifted down to a few great ones that stand the test of time. For now, we do our children a great service by instilling in them an appreciation for all the great hymns of our faith. What a rich feast we spread by gifting them a spiritual tool to express what their hearts yearn to sing when they don't have their own words. Have you ever been moved to tears of worship as you sang a beloved hymn expressing just exactly what was resonating in your heart? Our children need this, too! Hymns, like folk songs, can be sung together during school days, at least once or twice a week. Many families start their days with hymn-singing. What a great way to bring focus to the morning, gathering everyone in the school area, directing our thoughts toward God’s goodness and grace before we begin our lessons! Our family's most useful resource for hymn-singing has been YouTube videos. We find an enjoyable recording of whatever hymn we’ve chosen, talk about the author, context, time period when it was written, and any other interesting details. We might also read over the words a couple of times together before singing it. I really like printing hymns with music so my kids are exposed to musical notation as they study the words. Those who’ve had music lessons might even be able to sing a counter melody or harmonization this way. Within a few weeks, the goal is that everyone will have memorized the song completely. Some parents choose to make the lyrics to hymns and folk songs part of copywork and dictation as a way to solidify memorization. Hymn suggestions, like folk songs, can be found many places online. You might even find an old hymnal at a used book sale. The goal is to learn at least two per 12-week term.
Perhaps the most notorious element of Charlotte Mason’s music education is composer studies. Often, this is where parents with no musical experience tend to cower away, almost eagerly setting this subject on the back burner. Even as one with a music education degree, I have been guilty of this from time to time in my haste to cover other subjects. However, after reading the latest research on music’s impact on the brain, and after discovering a brand new book published last year titled A Touch of the Infinite: Studies in Music Appreciation with Charlotte Mason by Megan Hoyt, I am even more intent on making music education an essential part of our daily learning. I’ve already discussed brain research, so let me tell you about this new book! You may have seen Megan’s name on Ambleside Online, as she is one of their regular contributors. She has also written other books, including Hildegard’s Gift, a picture book about the medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen. Megan grew up in a musical family, having rubbed elbows with many famous musicians even as a youth. She has no shortage of knowledge or exposure to numerous genres of music, having degrees in music, English, history, and theology. Simply stated, she knows her stuff! She has also been a CM educator for over twenty years, having educated and graduated her own children using CM methods. In that time, she has researched Ms. Mason’s methods, both as taught through her original six volumes and by researching the archives published during Ms. Mason’s time through the PNEU. What she has found is that the CM method for music education was even more fully developed and rigorous than what Ms. Mason herself described in her six volumes. Also, Megan has found the original musical resources, many of which are available for free online - piano books, music theory books, and music drills – used by the PNEU curriculum developers for Ms. Mason's programs. In her book, Megan has listed these resources together in one place with instructions on how to utilize them. Are you even more overwhelmed? Don’t be! She has done an eloquent job of laying out the basics and specifics of teaching music with this method. Her book, along with the supplemental resources she lists, is what I would call a one-stop shop for teaching music the Charlotte Mason way. She maps out a plan for kindergarten through high school, including explanations on how to teach all the elements of music. She even added updated musical styles, such as jazz. Her book is currently available on Amazon.com for about $16. It would be a valuable investment for every CM homeschooling family, a book to be used over and over. (disclaimer: I have not been paid or enticed to promote this author or her book)
So how should composer studies be taught, especially by a parent with little musical knowledge or experience? First of all, start with something familiar. Is there a famous musical work that you’re already familiar with? There must be a Beethoven piece you’ve heard before. Moonlight Sonata? Ode to Joy? Symphony #5? What about Handel’s Messiah with the famous Hallelujah Chorus? You could even listen to a movie score. All of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie scores were written by John Williams, as well as E.T., Jurassic Park, and Superman. How about Pirates of the Caribbean, written by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt? Find something you’re familiar with, that you’re pretty certain your children will enjoy, and start there. Families who aren’t accustomed to listening to classical music will need to start slowly, listening to short segments at a time. Don’t expect your family to sit still for an entire symphony in one sitting. Choose something like Flight of the Bumblebee for young children and let them run around pretending to be bumblebees, or close their eyes and picture a bee buzzing. Other great beginner works (which Megan Hoyt outlines in her book, and can be found on music lists at Ambleside Online) are Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This work was intended as an introduction to all the instruments of the orchestra. Find a YouTube video of a live performance so your family can see the instruments being played and identify them. Even better, attend a live performance! The Colorado Springs Philharmonic offers inexpensive educational concerts throughout the school year. They also provide free admission for kids at certain weekend performances. Another idea is to find a work of programme music, which tells a story through its melodies, such as Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. The easier it is for your family to visualize a scene as the music plays out, the longer they will take an interest. If you’ve been working on the habit of attention in other areas of education and home life, you may find an easier time of keeping them interested while hearing music. After you’ve listened to a segment of the music (remember, it doesn’t have to be the entire work), give them a moment of reflection, then discuss it together. Have them tell anything they noticed or admired. Once they’ve finished, ask them some questions, like “What was your favorite part?”, “Was the mood, angry, happy, serious?”, “Did you recognize any of the instruments?”. Once you’ve finished making observations together, add some information about the story behind the music: name the instruments for them, sing the main theme (melody) together, or share about the composer’s life and the context for when the music was written. It will help to do a little research ahead of time. Remember, Google is your friend! You don’t have to be an expert, but one or two interesting details will go a long way, and your kids might be surprised at your level of knowledge about music. Next time you gather to listen, let them dance, draw, or act out the theme. You don’t have to discuss the biography of the composer every time, but it helps to read a book about the composer, such as Beethoven Lives Upstairs or Handel at the Court of Kings. Read a short section of the book each time you do a composer study. Other ideas: sometimes we go outdoors and lay on our hammock with our eyes closed as we hear the rhythm of gentle music, or we might march to the beat of a rambunctious piece around the dining room table. Remember, music reaches all areas of the brain, so utilizing various sensory exercises while listening to music will help it resonate with your child more effectively. After you’ve done a few of these easier studies to get everyone on board, you might be ready to focus on one composer per term. Learn their biographies and listen to at least six of their works, becoming familiar enough to recognize the music if you heard it on the radio. Ms. Mason encouraged students to further their musical understanding by adding some music theory in the upper grades, learning musical structures, terminology, and styles as they listen and analyze the works of the composers. However, here is a strong word of caution! Don’t expect your family to do this overnight. Move at a pace that is manageable for your family, being careful not to squelch their love of music through excessively rigorous learning. As with any subject you teach your children, make it fit with your requirements, goals, and lifestyle. Stretch yourselves, but don’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole.
The final element of music education to discuss is instrument lessons. This could be any instrument: piano, guitar, violin, flute, trumpet, drums (not a parental favorite), or voice lessons. As already discussed, the effects of music on the brain are observed more acutely for children who are learning to play an instrument rather than just hearing it. Lessons don’t have to be expensive. Start with an inexpensive recorder, a small glorified flute with finger holes. This is an introductory instrument used by many elementary teachers and band directors, but you could teach it yourself. Some parents I know have taken the opportunity to learn alongside with their children. Because it is fairly simple to play, it works well for teaching kids how to read music and usually comes with an easy-to-understand lesson book, preparing them to play more difficult instruments later. If you have access to a piano or electronic keyboard, and you have the resources to pay for private lessons, do it! Ms. Mason encouraged parents to find the best teachers they could afford in the arts. But if you cannot afford piano lessons, there are websites offering them for free, such as through the Hoffman Academy. An added perk to the Hoffman Academy is that Joseph Hoffman includes solfege instruction, a lesser-known element of music education which Ms. Mason included, also known as sight-singing. Remember Maria from The Sound of Music, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do? That’s a win-win.
Remember, as with all subjects of home education, you need not be an expert to successfully teach your family music appreciation. And your child doesn’t necessarily need to become proficient on an instrument or develop an affinity for music. The goal is simply to spread the feast and allow your children to form their own relations with music. Some will naturally embrace it, but you have not failed your family if they don’t swallow it whole. You have not failed your family if you decide not to incorporate every element Ms. Mason outlined. It’s more about exposure and appreciation. You and your children don’t have to love hearing a Beethoven symphony, but after studying him, you’ll surely recognize he had a special ability which could inspire your family to excel in other areas of life. But hopefully, as with so many children, early exposure to music will instill a lifelong love and appreciation for it, giving them an outlet for expression and worship of our Creator and an appreciation for quality, artistic beauty.
“What if every child had access to music from birth?’ Tedx, Anita Collins
“The Importance of Emotional Intelligence For Kids: How Does Music Help?”
“Unlocking Neuroscience with Music” Tedx, Ardon Shorr
“Music on the Brain” TedxWaterloo, Jessica Grahn
“Mason Jar #32: Megan Hoyt on Composer Study”
“Worship, War, and Musical Drill” by Heidi Buschbach
“Parkinson’s Disease – Music Magic”
The Charlotte Mason six-volume Original Homeschooling Series
“A Touch of the Infinite: Studies in Music Appreciation with Charlotte Mason” by Megan Elizabeth Hoyt
“This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” by Daniel Levitin
“Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development from Birth to Adolescence” by Dr. Jane Healy
Music Method books in the PNEU programs:
“The Listener’s Guide to Music” by Percy Scholes
“Studies of the Great Composers” Sir Hubert Parry
“The Enjoyment of Music” by Arthur Pollitt
“Elements of Music” by Davenport
“The Teacher’s Guide to the Pianoforte Method” by Annie Jessy Curwen
“Fifty Steps in Sight-singing” by Arthur Somervell
“Story Lives of Master Musicians” by Harriette Brower
The Oxford Song Book