A Call for Character Development in Music Education

April 1, 2019


The role of education in the moral development of youth is a subject that has been under consideration for thousands of years. Likewise, the role of music in education and character development has been debated and philosophized for centuries (Heimonen 2008; Mark 1982; Woerther 2008). However, contemporary research regarding character education in music education is virtually non-existent, and educators are hard-pressed to definitively determine and identify the connection between the two. One reason for this is that defining character, and therefore character education, has been an ambiguous endeavor. However, a synthesis of many existent definitions in the character education literature (Berkowitz & Bier 2004; Lee 2016; Lickona, Schaps, & Lewis 2014; Shields 2011; White & Warfa 2011) boils down to one basic theme: character education aims to foster conscientious and considerate individuals in preparation for them to participate positively in society.

I propose that music educators, particularly those who lead performance-based programs, are in a strong position to develop positive character in their students. I argue that many parallels exist between effective character education practices and performance-based music education programs. If applied properly, these parallels could lead to increased character development among music education students.


Historical Perspectives

Ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Chinese, and Greeks, viewed music as a powerful medium of moral influence (Heimonen 2008; Ho 2010). Confucius, Plato, and Aristotle believed music had the power to shape human character (Heimonen 2008; Ho 2010; Mark 1982; Woerther 2008). Centuries later, Charlemagne, Comenius, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Herbert Spencer, and Lowell Mason employed music education to stimulate moral and intellectual enhancement (Mark 1982). The aim of these leaders was very similar: to develop quality humans who contribute positively to society.

However, in the mid-twentieth century, the philosophy of music education in the United States shifted from primarily utilitarian roots to an emergent preference for an aesthetic approach to music education, which focused on the inherent and intrinsic values of art (Reimer 1970). For example, Leonhard argued that “[moral values] are not directly related to music and are not unique to music.” (Leonhard 1965, 43) The promotion of modern philosophies challenged the age-old assumption that music education could or should influence moral development; however, I propose that character development in music education should continue to exist in tandem with modern philosophies of music education and need not be mutually exclusive. As outlined below, structures and practices of performance-based ensembles already reflect many practices of effective character education.


The PRIMED Model: Applying Character Education to Music Education

Rather than overhauling current curriculum and practices to implement character education, I argue that music educators simply need to act more intentionally in their efforts to develop character. Furthermore, identifying effective principles of character education could help facilitate the understanding of their implementation in music education. Berkowitz, Bier, and McCauley developed a conceptual framework of six foundational principles of character education identified as the PRIMED model. (Berkowitz, Bier, and McCauley 2017) Each of these principles have direct applications to musical teaching and learning in music ensembles.

Prioritization of character must exist at the program’s forefront. Prioritization includes establishing core values, allocating time and resources, building a positive organizational climate, establishing appropriate structures to encourage character development (such as clear expectations and feedback), and relying on strong leadership. Music educators establish core values as they allocate time and resources to rehearsals in and out of the school day. Performing ensembles rely on clear expectations and immediate feedback from their director—a habit that translates smoothly to the prioritization of character. Indeed, performing ensembles rely on their director as a strong leader to establish priorities that could influence character development in the classroom and beyond.

Relationships should be strategic and promote healthy interactions between students and all stakeholders. To develop strong character, positive relationships must be intentional, interactive, taught explicitly, led by nurturing adults, and encouraged with families and community. Music educators can foster these relationships through peer-leadership opportunities such as ensemble presidencies and section leaders. In rehearsals, directors should model the nurturing relationships that students will in turn practice with each other. Directors who promote these relationship priorities through their regular communication with parents and students establish a culture of emotional safety where responsible risk-taking and growth are prevalent.

Intrinsic motivation promotes the internalization of core values and virtues. To encourage self-growth, teachers should instill intrinsic motivation through developing student discipline, praising effort rather than skill, providing a challenging curriculum, jointly setting and reflecting upon goals with students, and providing service opportunities. In the music classroom, students arguably develop discipline through their own individual practice and as they regularly work toward achievement and mastery goals (Bandura and Cervone 2000). Preparation for each new performance challenges students’ present abilities as they reflect on previous skills to develop further capabilities. Also, service learning and community service, which improve social development, competence, and responsibility (Billig 2016), are often components of classroom ensembles who perform in charity concerts, nursing homes, public schools, and at patriotic events.

Modeling of the core values and desired behavior by the teacher and older students fosters “buy-in” from younger students. Modeling also includes mentoring and intentional display of role models and exemplars. Leadership structures are vital: the director must serve as a model to all students and especially to student leaders, who in turn model the program’s core values to their peers. Recognition of any students modeling desired behavior encourages replication of that behavior.

Empowerment allows students, parents, and all stakeholders to act as co-owners in the educational process. Empowerment requires shared leadership, a democratic classroom, a culture of collaboration, and fairness to students. In performing ensembles, ample opportunity for democracy and empowerment exists in student leadership structures and in a culture of collaboration. Collaboration in the music classroom exists as individual students contribute to their sections and as sections contribute to the ensemble. Student empowerment is also evident when directors afford students the opportunity to progress by ensemble or by chair through fair and respectful individual assessment and feedback.

Lastly, a developmental pedagogy emphasizes the need for explicitly teaching character, setting high expectations for growth, and allowing for authentic practice of the desired qualities. The music teacher must overtly and verbally promote the core values of the program. High expectations and authentic practice of these expectations are hallmarks of both successful ensembles and character development. The repetitive nature of rehearsals affords multiple opportunities for the practice and re-practice that is necessary for such development.



Many of the structures and practices of effective character education are seemingly built into performance-based music-education programs. Realizing this, music educators should feel empowered and act urgently to more intentionally develop positive student character without compromising other established priorities or goals. This present article thus serves as an invitation for further research and discussion regarding the potentials that character education could provide to music educators in the development of their students as musicians and citizens. If we can accept that participation in a music ensemble may serve as a model for engaging with our broader society, then we may further argue that music educators would serve the larger society well to sharpen their focus on producing conscientious and considerate musicians who are prepared and empowered to contribute positively to society.



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Berkowitz, M. W., and M. C. Bier. 2004. “Research-Based Character Education.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 72–85. doi: 10.1177/0002716203260082.

Berkowitz, M. W., M. C. Bier, and B. McCauley. 2017. “Toward a Science of Character Education: Frameworks for Identifying and Implementing Effective Practices.” Journal of Character Education 13, no. 1: 33–51.

Billig, S.H. 2002. “Support for K–12 Service-Learning Practice: A Brief Review of the Research.” Educational Horizons (Summer): 184–189.

Heimonen, M. 2008. “Nurturing Towards Wisdom: Justifying Music in the Curriculum.” Philosophy of Music Education Review, 16, no. 1: 61-78. doi: 10.2979/pme.2008.16.1.61.

Ho, W. C. 2010. “Moral Education in China's Music Education: Development and Challenges.” International Journal of Music Education 28: 71-87. doi: 10.1177/0255761409351351.

Lee, A. 2016. “Implementing Character Education Program through Music and Integrated Activities in Early Childhood Settings in Taiwan.” International Journal of Music Education 34, no. 3: 340–351. doi: 10.1177/0255761414563195.

Leonhard, C. 1965. “The Philosophy of Music Education—Present and Future.” In Comprehensive Musicianship: The Foundation for College Education in Music. Washington, D.C.: Music Educators National Conference.

Lickona, T., E. Schaps, and C. Lewis. 2014. Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education, edited by R. Sipos and L. Maupin. http://www.character.org/uploads/PDFs/ElevenPrinciples_new2010.pdf

Mark, M. L. 1982. “The Evolution of Music Education Philosophy from Utilitarian to Aesthetic.” Journal of Research in Music Education 30: 15-21. doi: 10.2307/3344863.

Reimer, B. 1970. A Philosophy of Music Education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Shields, D. L. 2011. “Character as the Aim of Education.Phi Delta Kappan, 92, no. 8: 48–53. doi: 10.1177/003172171109200810.

White, R., and N. Warfa. 2011. “Building Schools of Character: A Case-Study Investigation of Character Education’s Impact on School Climate, Pupil Behavior, and Curriculum Delivery.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 41, no. 1: 45–60. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00701.x.

Woerther, F. 2008. “Music and the Education of the Soul in Plato and Aristotle: Homoeopathy and the Formation of Character.” Classical Quarterly 58: 89–103. doi: 10.1017/S0009838808000074.


2811 Last modified on April 15, 2020
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