Music as a Modern Foreign Language

A magical harmonic connection between all humans.

Music is a means of expression – it is a language. Anyone who’s seen a toddler dance at a wedding knows that we are born with an innate basic feel for music, just as we are sympathetic to the soothing tone of a lullaby, or can sense excitement or anxiety in a tone of voice alone. Music is universal.

Here, a group of Amazon tribesmen are watching Maria Callas sing Casta Diva:

The young warrior says:

“This music is not our culture. We do not know what it means. We can only watch and listen. But it is touching.”

Just like Modern Foreign Language teachers, music educators’ main goals are to help students to develop their listening and expressive abilities.

What is a tone, if not a word? What is a musical phrase, if not a sentence? By composing pieces with multiple sections, we are creating arguments, expressing more complex thoughts. A change from major to minor key is a twist in the plot – creative writing in a foreign language.

This post is supposed to ask the question ‘Is media-rich technology the answer for music education?’

Well, I will ask the question: ‘Is it the answer for teaching a foreign language?’

Let’s suppose I’m teaching Italian in a British high school. I want to do some listening exercises, so I play a CD so my students hear authentic accents. Is it appropriate?

I want to show my class the wonderful architecture of Rome, but we don’t have the budget for a school trip. So we watch a video on YouTube. Is it any less informative?

We have a writing assignment, but instead of using pen and paper, I take the class to the computer room so they can type it up instead. Is this any less educational?

If the teacher has a learning goal in mind, and technology is used appropriately to reach that goal, then I don’t believe it can possibly be detrimental.

I think that through the lens of a Western Art-Music based curriculum, the use of GarageBand to compose could be seen as somewhat flimsy.

But consider two students:

  • one composes a dubstep track, builds the tension carefully, and creates an exhilarating ‘drop’ at just the right time.
  • another composes a simple melody on paper, puts chords under it and ends in a final perfect V-I cadence.

Is either of these a more valid expression than the other? Is one more difficult than the other? The second is more intellectually rigorous through a traditionalist lens.

But will that student go home and spend hours writing 2 bar melodies? I think the first student is more engaged and excited, and she may even go on to learn about chord progressions and cadences of her own accord.

Carlisle (2013) found that the use of handheld technology in the Music room can:

  • scaffold students’ musical learning – through haptic and visual feedback on pulse, pitch etc
  • enhance self expression – for example by bringing exotic instruments into the classroom
  • enhance timbral relationships – providing a wide range of instrumental timbres with which to practise listening and composition

I believe that the appropriate use of technology in Music education is undeniably a good thing. Currently, 95% of students quit music education at their first opportunity. I believe this is a symptom of a backwards-looking, exclusive system, and that it’s our duty to serve these students better.

As audiovisual technologies improve, I hope they will be incorporated more widely to inspire these students to continue to speak the language of Music, and make that universal, magical connection more harmonious.



Carlisle (2013) Handheld Technology as a Supplemental Tool for Elementary General Music Education. General Music Today. Vol. 27 Issue 2, 2014.


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