Why Not To Learn Classical Music

There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.
— Duke Ellington

When you think about learning music, what kind of music comes to mind? If you grew up in the United States, chances are you immediately think of piano or violin lessons, reading sheet music, and practicing some Beethoven or Mozart piece to get ready for your recital.

At Edify, we think classical music is wonderful. It’s dynamic, expressive, complex, and full of history. But Western Classical music is just one tradition.

Humans have been making music for about as long as they’ve been recognizable as humans, and we show no signs of slowing down. In fact, with technologies making it cheaper and easier than ever before to find and create music, it’s likely that more music (and more varied music) is being made now than ever before in our history. So why does the music we teach skew so heavily toward a few centuries in Europe?

This is a difficult question to answer, since it hinges on a complex historical, cultural, and political reality. But it’s safe to say that part of the reason is inertia—we’ve been doing it this way for a long time. Inertia is a powerful force, especially when institutions are involved, and the conservatories where many of our music teachers study have focused on Western Classical music for decades or centuries. Even jazz, a tradition which is now around 100 years old, has only been widely taught in academic institutions for a few decades.

Teaching kids that Western Classical music is the one and only gold standard only reinforces the common misconception that a composer is by definition a long-dead European man. Composers come in all colors, types, locations, and yes, all ages.

Over the last year, Edify has user-tested our apps with over 100 kids. We’ve asked almost all of them about their favorite music. A good number have mentioned classical music, or named a classical composer or piece. But the most common answers we’ve heard are (unsurprisingly) contemporary pop and rock artists: Imagine Dragons, Taylor Swift, and Bruno Mars seem to be doing particularly well with the under-13 set. Many kids also mention the music their parents grew up with: The Beatles, Michael Jackson, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen.

At Edify, we believe that fun and learning go hand in hand. When you’re having fun you’re more likely to learn, and when you’re learning you’re likely having fun. If we’re trying to teach kids music, why not start with the music they’re already excited about?

This isn’t a novel idea. Pedagogues from Kodaly to Orff have stressed the importance of using music kids already know, particularly the folk music of their own culture. Kids are curious—once they’re excited about the music they know, encountering other styles will be exciting and empowering.

That’s why when we choose music to include in our app, MusiQuest, we side with Duke Ellington. We choose what we think kids will consider good music—both the familiar and the unknown—and skip the other kind.


Zack Sulsky is a musician, composer, and co-founder of Edify. As Director of Product, Zack drives Edify's product strategy, curriculum design, and agile processes. Making music is his favorite thing to do, and helping other people make music is a close second.