Music and the Liberal Arts – A Guide to Musical Studies as Part of a College Program in the Liberal Arts

Musical studies student listening to music in bookstore

All art is an attempt to answer the question, what is life all about? And in order to do so, it must wrestle with pain and sorrow, celebrate life and passion, and embrace the complexity of the human experience. It must acknowledge who we are and what we can be.

For an individual, community, or culture, art provides clarity, comradery, and direction.

Whether we are aware of it or not, art impacts the way we think. It guides us through our interactions with the world and provides a sort of lucidity to it all. It is our barometer, and our compass. Even when – especially when – we least expect it.

The same can be said about music.

To understand how music and art influence the world is essential because, at its core, it is understanding humanity. And in order to understand humanity, we need to understand the art humanity makes. Music helps us do that. So too does a liberal arts degree.

Music Offers an Other-Worldly Experience

Satellite in deep space orbiting planetIn 1977, NASA sent Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 into space, in hopes that they may someday encounter life outside our solar system. On those two interstellar robotic probes they included two golden phonograph records that contain sounds and images that portray the diversity, complexity, and beauty of life on earth. To help fully articulate that beauty and complexity, they included music, including Johnny B. Good, by Chuck Berry.

To fully grasp and understand humanity, we must engage in the music humans create. From the primitive sounds of ancient people groups to the latest software of sound designs, understanding music is understanding the history, the here-and-now, and the future of humanity. As Nietzsche argues, music is essential to life.

How Music Improves Communication, Reasoning and Understanding

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Right hemisphere brain lit upMusic is arguably as old as – if not older than – language. For as long as humans have wondered this earth, music has accompanied them. From a mother humming her child to sleep and songs around an ancient fire, to the backyard jam sessions or sold our arenas, music has been essential to the life of humanity. The benefits of understanding music are therefore immense, and not just because it helps us understand the history of the world, but because it helps us understand ourselves and, most importantly, how to communicate ourselves to the rest of the world.

Music Education Improves Language

Studying music improves the left side of the brain, the side that is known to be involved with language, reasoning, and sequencing. Music structure and motor skills require the brain to be analytical and linear. It requires the brain to process new information in a systematic, step-by-step process. The same process is required for acquiring and processing language, both your native and second language.  

Learning a musical instrument provides you an opportunity to master and enjoy the sounds of a new skill, it improves how your brain understands and interacts with language and people. In short, learning music helps you communicate, both with yourself and others.

Music Education Improves Listening

While music can improve your ability to acquire language and communicate, it also teaches the brain to listen – an essential component to true and purposeful communication. To be a musician, you must learn to not only listen to yourself and the sounds you are making, you must also listen to and understand those around you. You must be able to hear their tempo and dynamics in such a way that allows you to properly and seamlessly align yourself with the greater harmony of the group. Studying music teaches us that we play a unique role within a larger group, that in order to play beautiful music – to succeed in life – we must play and live in harmony with others, not merely ourselves.

Learning a musical instrument, therefore, provides you an opportunity to gain a greater insight of others as it requires you to listen, to pick up on the rhythms of conversations and norms around you, with the purpose of understanding. Once understood, you are then free to join in, providing your own unique sound that is congruent with and compliments the greater piece – the song of humanity.

Music Education Improves Critical Thinking

Musical training has a positive impact on brain development, requiring it to work harder, producing a better, stronger, more adaptive brain. Students who engage in musical studies have consistently been shown to have an increase in neural activity, largely because it requires constant and purposeful use of both sides of the brain. Not only does learning a musical instrument require strong analytical and linear thinking, it also teaches and expects you to be creative, to work with others, and to be innovative.

Music and musical studies require that you are holistic in your thinking and open to new thoughts, ideas, and opportunities. It expands your understanding of norms, and asks that you openly yet analytically receive new information. It requires that you use your whole brain, not just half of one. Then, it asks that you contribute something beautiful to the group.

Musical Studies Provides a Way For Us to Learn About the World and Its People

Tribal dance and music at Bhimthadi festivalMusical studies does not merely mean learning a musical instrument. It also means learning about music. It’s origins, its influence, and it purpose. Music and musical studies are very generic terms, offering a multitude of course options, depending upon your unique interests. But some basic courses that will be found in most if not all liberal arts colleges are as follows:

Music in American Culture

Music can often define a culture, and visa-versa. Learning about American music, then, is essential to understanding American culture – both past and present. In this course you will spend time understand the different musical groups in America (African, Native American, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and European) and analyze their unique origins and impacts upon the culture and ideas of America.


World Music

In order to better understand people and people groups, we need to understand their music. In this class, you will spend a great deal of time listening to the sounds, rhythms, and harmony of other cultures. You will then relate those sounds and the instruments that created them to the land, the people, and the culture from which they came. Through music, you will gain a broader and deeper understanding of the world.

Contemporary Music

In this course, you will explore the foundations of American music, as related to current artists, and analyze the connection between the current music scene and pop-culture, politics, and religion. You will be able to connect the ideas and struggles of the past and its influence on our current culture. You will be able to answer the question, “Where has our current music come from, and where is it taking us?”

Liberal Arts and Music – Why You Should Choose Music Courses as Part of Your Liberal Studies Degree Program

Girl listening to music in libraryLiberal arts colleges pride themselves on preparing their students for a broad range of careers by investing in their critical thinking, problem-solving, and intellectual curiosity. Liberal arts colleges focus on human nature, communication skills, and ingenuity – the kind of mindset and skills that today’s employers are looking for.

Liberal arts colleges also provide students a unique culture that supports and encourages purposeful learning and experiential opportunities. Features of liberal arts colleges often include:

Small Classroom Sizes: Large state universities can have up to 200+ students in a single classroom, providing limited time with the professor and almost no hands-on, dynamic teaching strategies. Liberal arts colleges, however, typically have 15-20 students per class, allowing for a more intimate learning environment that allows personal experience with the professor and the content. Smaller classes also mean a smaller, more connected faculty. This often-times overlooked benefit not only allows professors to communicate their content clearly, it ensures no gaps occur throughout your learning career as the professors are often times more in tune with each other’s teachings. A smaller faculty and student body also provides a more relational, more connected atmosphere to the college and learning community as students begin to see one another more often, sharing classes and activities, and engaging in opportunities together.

Rigorous Curriculum and Objectives: Liberal arts colleges pride themselves on providing a deep and meaningful education. Their goal is to not merely see you to graduation, but to ensure that once you leave their school you will be prepared and confident to enter the world, ready to make an impact. To do so, it is not uncommon for liberal arts colleges to require a larger academic workload than their state college counterparts. Adding musical studies to a liberal arts degree, therefore, is not uncommon as it falls within the focus and context of obtaining a liberal arts degree. At a liberal arts college, you will be provided a unique experience that requires you to gain a deeper understanding of music as it relates to other academic disciplines, ensuring a holistic and well-rounded education and outlook upon the world.

Quality of Life: No one ever regrets learning a musical instrument. What they do regret is never learning one. Earning a liberal arts degree with musical studies courses not only makes you uniquely qualified for certain jobs across America and the world, it provides you the security of knowing no matter where you are or what you’re doing, music will accompany you. With music comes endless opportunities to entertain, engage in creativity and expression, and bring people together. It provides a quality of life that cannot be measured in grades or finances.

A liberal arts degree provides you the necessary knowledge and skills to sustain a quality and meaningful life (for you as well as others). Combined with musical studies, you will be equipped to personally engage in the things that we stay alive for: romance, beauty, love, and hope.

If you are considering a liberal arts degree, if you hope to impact the world by engaging with the beauty and complexity of humanity, adding musical studies to your repertoire of classes is not only beneficial, but also potentially crucial to developing your skills in critical-thinking, analysis and communication.