Sacred Music

Sacred Music: How Neutral?




“I’ve always kept programs ‘neutral’ to avoid discomfort.” – Member response, NAfME December 2007 Question of the Month online survey

Selecting sacred music for school is tricky. It requires caution and good judgment. Is your concert program or curriculum religion neutral? Ask yourself these questions (courtesy of the NAfME  Position Statement on the Use of Sacred Music in the Schools)

1. Was the music selected on the basis of its musical and educational value rather than its religious context?
2. Does the teaching of music with sacred text focus on musical and artistic considerations?
3. Are the traditions of different people shared and respected?
4. Is the role of sacred music one of neutrality, neither promoting nor inhibiting religious views?
5. Are all local and school policies on religious holidays and the use of sacred music observed?
6. Is the use religious symbols or scenery avoided? Is performance in devotional settings avoided?
7. Is there sensitivity to the various religious beliefs represented by the students and parents?

Abraham Schwadron summarized the problems facing the music educator when using religious music in public schools:

“Obviously, the key to an adequate solution rests ultimately with the sensitive and well-informed music educator. Of singular importance is the development of the attitude that participation in actual performance produces a better grasp of the aesthetic import of great music than mere listening or nonparticipation.

“If it is possible to study Communism without indoctrination or to examine the ills of contemporary society without promoting the seeds of revolution, then it must also be possible to study sacred music (with performance-related activities) without parochialistic attitudes and sectarian points of view.”  –  “On Religion, Music, and Education,” Journal of Research in Music Education (Summer 1970), 157-66.

The MENC position statement can’t answer all specifics. Hopefully, with a combination of sensitivity to the issues raised, a careful understanding of legal aspects, and consideration for personal feelings, educators will use the full range of music literature in an appropriate contextual setting. For further details, see the MENC Position Statement.

Opposing viewpoints from MENC members:
There is enough religious or sacred music being heard in churches, temples, and synagogues. I trust that any of my students interested in music beyond my classroom and after school programs will be exposed to it. There is so much interesting music that is not religious that to tread, even lightly, in the selection of the music and then the discussion of language about god, would be VERY difficult and possibly inappropriate in the public school. I just don’t go there. In the History of Western Music elective I teach for the high school, we listen to lots of religious music—here the discussion is germane and appropriate.” – – MENC Member Nancy Brown, Global Learning Charter Public School, Massachusetts

“I teach with the understanding that all music is valuable. We do our students an injustice by not teaching them about where they come from; not only in a cultural context but also in a historical context. This is a multicultural world, but in order to provide students with a well-rounded education, they need to be exposed to many things. To exclude religious songs of any kind is to cut out a vast repertoire of music.” – – MENC Member response to MENC Question of the Month, December 2007

Abraham Schwadron, Chair of the Department of Music, UCLA; MENC member; deceased 1987

Sue Rarus, October 8, 2008, © National Association for Music Education