A Music Teacher Describes How Copyright Hinders Music Education

(Translations: 中文)

Portait of Janet Underhill

Janet Underhill has been teaching music for 30 years at a private school in Chicago. She has taught piano, voice, guitar, recorder and general music to students of all ages, from kindergarten to graduate school. In this article, she tells how copyright prevents her from providing her students the best possible materials.

I teach general music. My goal is to engage all of my students in music making, to develop their musical skills, and then to send them on to their choice of band, chorus, private lessons, ensembles. Hopefully, my students will continue to connect with music, singing and playing, as part of their lives.

I need materials that are formatted for the elementary student that will foster the development of musical skills as well as provide the materials for enjoyable singing experiences. Such music should contain the changes that the beginning guitar student can handle. True, there are plenty of songs written expressly for the music classroom. They come with permission to copy for classroom use; they’re cute, clever, integrated with the broader curriculum, written in the service of math, social science, English — and have no connection whatsoever to the wider world of parents, grandparents, the community and the culture. The songs are disconnected, expressively flat, remarkably forgettable. They cannot be shared with parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. They don’t exist outside of the walls of the school. The children sense this, and do not take them very seriously.

What my students need is a good mix of children’s song literature, folk music, appropriate pop literature, Broadway songs, and songs from the American song book. Songs need to make connections across the curriculum, across the generations and across cultures. Freedom to choose these kinds of songs is crucial to my work as a teacher. Copyright laws restrict how I can use music from, say, the Beatles. The problem with simply purchasing the music is that it often comes in formats that don’t work with my young students. I need lead sheets with simple, hopefully mostly primary chords, written in a fairly big type, and with the words beneath. I want my students to connect with the notes as well as the words. Their singing experiences should be music reading experiences as well. I can’t find music like this. Any collection may contain one or two songs that are appropriate, but their format always presents problems for the young singer and student. They are often printed in keys that don’t match the vocal ranges of my singers. They are too difficult to read because they often come in voice plus piano accompaniment formats. The easy guitar song books often include changes that are far too complicated for my young guitar players. So, in an attempt to address these issues within the current copyright world, I went about writing to publishers with suggestions for song books for the elementary music classroom, well-tested songs from all these various musical traditions. The market for such materials is as huge as the elementary school systems. But market is not my consideration. Music education of the young is my concern. I bought and examined several publications from Hal Leonard, the giant in this field. There are many terrific books in their library that might serve the classroom purpose quite well. They all have problems that would need to be addressed in order to make them truly useable. I wrote to Hal Leonard, offering suggestions along the above guidelines. I got back a terse, impersonal response, which I will paraphrase here: No input allowed. We do not consider, review or accept outside solicitations. It’s a lock without a key. I have greatly reduced access to good music because of copyrights, all held by a few megacorporations. And I am shut out of the process that might result in materials that would serve genuine educational goals, that might actually connect the students to the very world of music these corporations wish to promote. It makes me wonder whom copyright is really meant to serve.

36 Comments on "A Music Teacher Describes How Copyright Hinders Music Education"

  1. It’s the concept of participating in the creative activities of the culture are at the center of this issue. Under current copyright provisions, we can only be audience.

  2. Completely agree. And not only that, the current system encourages a binary distinction between artist and audience, when we could, and should, have a continuum instead.

    I’ve been searching for an article I read a while back (probably more than a year ago) that had a lot of good data on the real-life economics of royalties. Among other things, it showed how most artists are, in their economic lives, not so different from their audiences. They don’t have a steady stream of royalties flowing in, it’s more a matter of getting piecework here and there. I thought the article was in FirstMonday, but I can’t seem to find it there. (If anyone knows what I’m referring to, please leave a comment, or just submit the article.)

  3. I was having a conversation with the PE teacher and we got on the subject of sharing music. Her description of the older basketball players, sitting in the stands, watching with approval, the youngsters on the court, copying the moves of their elders, cheering on the fact that what they had created and developed was safe in the hands of the upcoming generation. No copyrights to get in the way of culture transmission. Would that it was the same in music.

  4. It’s very unfortunate that copyright laws are restricting you from delivering a valuable learning experience to child education. I hope you can find a way around this.


  5. There’s lots of great PD and Creative Commons licensed stuff on ccmixter.org. Why not use that to develop more relevant music education materials? Why not recruit artists to develop music that works?

    Judging by how many artists attend these music education benefits, you could probably get a few of them to write songs expressly for music education purposes or to grant you a special license on select songs where they have the power to demand it.

    How about lobbying your congressman and senators to introduce copyright legislation with special exceptions for educational use within schools? How about starting a petition drive to back it up? Are you spending your weekends sitting outside a supermarket selling candy bars to raise money and get signatures?

    Aside from wrtiting to Hal Leonard and writing this article, what are you doing to effect change?

    I’m not hearing a decent argument against copyright. I’m hearing someone incapable of thinking outside the box, incapable of thinking big, and perhaps unwilling to actually make the sacrifices that change requires.

    Abolishing copyright isn’t anything that will happen soon. Even if a groundswell eventually drives it, it will take years or even decades to happen.

    In the meantime, what are you doing now to effect positive change?

  6. How do you think those groundswells that take “years or decades” happen? They happen because of people like Janet, writing articles pointing out the problems.

    Regarding your suggestions about getting musicians to write songs expressly for music education, Janet answered that already:

    “True, there are plenty of songs written expressly for the music classroom. They come with permission to copy for classroom use; they’re cute, clever, integrated with the broader curriculum, written in the service of math, social science, English — and have no connection whatsoever to the wider world of parents, grandparents, the community and the culture. The songs are disconnected, expressively flat, remarkably forgettable. They cannot be shared with parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. They don’t exist outside of the walls of the school. The children sense this, and do not take them very seriously.”

    So I don’t know what you mean by “more” in your suggestion of using CreativeCommons-licensed stuff to “…develop more relevant music education materials”. “More relevant” than what? Than the thousands of songs already out there that she already knows, that the children and their families have heard before, that have some connection to the wider world?

    I’m not saying the CC stuff is bad, but Janet’s point is about freedom: she wants to be able to draw on everything available, when teaching her students. That seems like a good goal for a teacher. Telling her that the solution is to ghettoize herself to a few small pools of free stuff is no answer.

  7. I used to sing “The Yellow Submarine” by the Beetles when I was in school… The real problem here is that earlier music was part of the culture. To gain more insight into one’s culture whether it be a different ethic group of people or just part of our history, access to music would greatly reduce ones understanding of the past. This music often helps to make a connection with different groups of people also, because their mother or father would have played it in the house while the child was growing up. Brad

  8. Yes, Virginia,

    There already is an exemption for your purposes

    The Statutory
    §107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair Use
    Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include –
    1.the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
    2.the nature of the copyrighted work;
    3.the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
    4.the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
    The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

    1. It sounds nice on paper, but in practice the exemption is not broad enough for many uses (partly because it’s open to interpretation, meaning that the teacher or institution must weigh the risks).

      For example, if a 30-person school choir wants to learn a piece that’s under copyright, they’d be ill-advised to make 30 photocopies. It’s not clear that it would be “classroom use”, even though it’s educational and it’s taking place in a school. (If it were clearly classroom use, most schools would gladly photocopy the stuff, yet they often buy the 30 copies.)

      The wording of the exemption is a bit slippery. Notice the odd redundancy:

      “…the fair use of a copyrighted work … is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include …

      But if the use were already a “fair use”, then the rest of the conditions wouldn’t matter. As it stands, it’s sort of saying a tautology: “fair use is not copyright infringement”, which is true, but not a very good guide. The text lists a number of circumstances that presumably make the determination of fair use more likely, but it stops short of saying that those circumstances are automatically fair use. Instead, the question is left up to a judge.

      Not exactly ironclad protection, if you’re a schoolteacher trying to avoid a lawsuit.

  9. A Slashdot article entitled “RIAA Forces YouTube to Remove Free Guitar Lessons”: http://yro.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/07/07/0330209.

    The title says it all. Note that these weren’t performances; instead, the teacher would play sequences of a few chords at a time, showing students how to make the shapes.

    Now, I don’t buy the argument that just because a publisher lost a potential sale, an injustice has been done. But even if you do buy that argument, there’s no excuse for this forced takedown, because no one who wanted to hear these songs performed would get them from these videos. From the description (which we have no reason to disbelieve), these are clearly educational videos, not listenable performances.

    In other words: first of all, commercial interference shouldn’t be an excuse for censorship, and second of all, there is no significant commercial interference here anyway!

    That record companies can do this with a straight face, and that many people even take their argument seriously, shows how far out of touch with reality copyright practice has become.

    1. I am oft blown away at how stiffly watchdogs or “police” do their soul-sucking jobs. They seem to be untouched when “pulling candy away from children.”

      Do not they see that the kids learning and playing these songs means the continued success of the song because it will live on forever – thus allowing them to reap more money from it’s continuing popularity?

      Guess not. Business pundits usual talk about the choice businesses can make when they come to this inevitable crossroad – litigate or innovate, and how if you choose to litigate, you lose. Why does no one read history anymore? The big corporations have chosen to litigate – a very expensive – and losing position when faced with todays generation of duplicating tools.

      A new draconian law threatens Canada as of late too.

      As long as corporations’ mandate is to make money, and only that, they will never serve humanity.

      Bob Lefsetz of the Lefsetz letter holds nothing back when slamming the music industry for their bungling and lack of vision. A good read usually.

      Vintage Fender Guitars

  10. I had no idea that it was so hard to teach music with these restrictions. Well, I came onto the computer this morning to find out how to copyright or get my little song published but if nobody will ever be able to sing my song then it’s not worth it. In October of 2005, Hallowe’en was approching and I needed to find a way to teach my ten month old her body parts, so I wrote a song that is fun and easy for babies to toddlers, and beyond. So go ahead and use this if you would like and give to other teachers I want this song to be used=:)ENJOY!!!
    P.S. My daughter is going on three and she now sings this song to her six month old brother.
    Hold onto and/or touch the body parts while singing.
    Titlt:Body Candy
    Lollipop feet,
    Gumdrop toes,
    Lots and lots of kisses,
    Up to your nose.(Make kissing sound while touching nose)
    Licorice lips,
    Candy corn ears,
    Lets give ourselves,
    A great big cheer. (hold onto arm and raise above head) Marshmallow arms, (hold onto forearms)
    Candyfloss hair,(rub hair with their own hands)
    Ooh my, my I hear a rumble down there.(rub belly with their own hands and repeat the word “rumble”).
    Again Enjoy,


  11. Lisa, we need the tune! 🙂

    Seriously: you can publish it on the Internet, there is no need to attach restrictions. Choose a liberal Creative Commons license and post your song under that license.

    By the way, when you wrote:

    “Well, I came onto the computer this morning to find out how to copyright or get my little song published but if nobody will ever be able to sing my song then it’s not worth it.”

    …did you mean you did a search of some kind about copyrighting music and found our page? We’d love to know what search you did, if so.

  12. My wife teaches early elementry Special Ed. She is always looking for new ways to reach these special children and help them learn. Music is a powerful tool in her teaching toolbox. We recently had a discussion over the dinner table about this very issue. Material is few and far between and she has a moral obligation to follow the copyright laws, even though it’s a great hindrance. I hope solutions can be found that will help teachers use music to it’s fullest.

    D Tinney
    Learn Guitar Basic

  13. She has a legal obligation to follow the laws, and we don’t advocate that she break them. But the laws themselves are immoral; certainly her obligation to obey these laws is not a “moral obligation”!

      1. I’d like to press this distinction between legal and moral obligations, because it’s important for how people treat common culture and knowledge when embodied in copyrighted works.

        When a law requires you to do something immoral, is it still your moral obligation to follow that law? I’m thinking back to the days when racial segregation was the law in much of the U.S., for example. Or even farther back to the days when it was literally a crime to teach a slave to read. Or a crime to not hand an escaped slave over to a search party.

        My point is not that copyright is as evil as slavery, of course. It is merely that legal obligations are not the same as moral ones. In some cases the two can even be opposed, as above. In copyright, this is not a hypothetical question: medical texts are sometimes copied in countries too poor to afford the originals. In other words, those doctors have a moral obligation to violate copyright laws (or should they refrain from copying needed medical knowledge, whatever that implies for their patients?).

        Frankly, I think music education should fall into the same category as medicine, but then, I’m a musician :-).

        Anyway, there is a vast literature on the subject of legal versus moral obligations, usually found under the heading “civil disobedience”.

        For what it’s worth, at QuestionCopyright.org we’re careful never to download or distribute files illegally. But it’s not out of moral obligation, it’s just a tactical decision: we don’t want to be a target of an RIAA lawsuit, because that would distract from our mission.

        1. In my original post, I mentioned my wife had a “moral” obligation to obey copyright laws. Perhaps I used the wrong word. She recognizes the legal aspect, but for her and I, moral obligations supersede legal obligations. It violates our morals to break laws. I hope this clarifies my position.

          D Tinney
          learn guitar chord

  14. The right of an author or a composer to a fair return on his or her labour impinges upon this argument,

    Many composers may rely on the royalties that only come from the sale of sheet music.
    Is it enough to imply that because the intended use is for educational purposes it should thus be freely available?
    Not even the schools themselves recognise that argument because they have budgets especially for textbooks and, these days, software.

    Nevertheless, a more flexible stance by publishers and a willingness to accept, or at least seriously consider, an offer to rearrange material such as Ms. Underhill suggested, would seem to have financial and educational merit.

    The alternative view, i.e. intellectual copyright protection as seen from the creator’s standpoint, is discussed in some depth in Protecting Your #1 Asset. It is an interesting and important topic – particularly if you are trying to protect yourself and your creation.

    Peter A. (no relation to the other Anonymice on this page :-))

    Books are like imprisoned souls till someone takes them down from a shelf and frees them.
    Samuel Butler (1835–1902)

  15. Peter, you seem to have read very little of this site. There are detailed counterarguments offered for every claim you make. We’re leaving your comment up, but if you’re going to post on a site like this, then please try to engage with what it’s actually saying, instead of repeating the very myths we’re taking such trouble to debunk.

    Thank you,
    -Karl (editor)

  16. When I read your comment, it strikes me as someone incapable of thinking from someone else’s perspective. You insult the author saying she’s “incapable of thinking outside the box” yet all you do is think inside your own much smaller box, refusing to even try to see her perspective. First of all, her very profession involves her having to meet others from their perspective every day. I admire her for seeking solutions by writing to publishers, posting here, wanting to follow copyright law, etc. The luxury of your “position” is that it allows you to avoid thinking, let alone truly empathizing with someone in one of our most valuable profession: teachers. Great teachers like the author by and large are given few resources to do what they are passionate about: making a positive impact on kid’s lives. They have to “think outside the box” on a daily basis to overcome the lack of resources more than you can apparently fathom. On top of it, there are people like you pointing fingers at them and insulting them. Give yourself permission to see a bigger picture here. If we don’t help our teachers help our kids, then we are going to have more people who are incapable of appreciating the amount of important work teachers do despite scarce resources. I thank Janet for bringing up this very important issue and I applaud her for doing things about it within her area of control. ———–

  17. It’s been obvious for a long time that for educational purposes there should be no limits on what is made available to use. It is ridiuclous how the exosure of great works are been denied by silly niggly copyright laws.

    Former teacher: Jack of Ambit Energy

  18. This is something I can relate to in every way. I am a guitar teacher and I am all too familiar with these strict copyright laws. You can’t even make a photo copy without getting an earful from the boss where I work.

    But with the digital age becoming more and more of an unpleasant reality for the Big Business Men of music, I feel that copyright holders are loosing ground. They can’t seem to get a grip on the online pirating.

    Top music corporations reported earlier this year that less than %35 of all music sale were from CD’s. Everything is being bootlegged off the internet. I am not sure what kind of effect this will have on the music industry, and music as a whole, in the long run but one thing is for sure…copyright holders are lashing out these days at whomever they can.

    I feel that songs should become public domain after a much shorter time period than it is now.

    I also feel that the copyright laws should have exceptions for schools and education, but provide incentives to copyright holders. Perhaps tax breaks for letting schools use your songs etc…

    On another note altogether, your student are lucky to have a music curriculum at all! So many of my students (I teach privately now) don’t even receive any musical education at all. What a shame!!!

    These days I just don’t know. Schools have enough money to hand out condoms to children but they don’t have enough money to have a music program. And we wonder what happened to all of the talented musicians. Where did they all go?

    One of the benefits of teaching from home is that I use whatever music I want regardless of copyrights. No one knows the difference but you can’t get away with that at a school.

    And this business of not allowing camcorders at school concerts?!?! I just can’t get into that one right now because I could literally go on forever.


    used fender stratocaster electric guitars

  19. Well there is your calling!

    Take on the big boys and find a way of meeting what the market wants. If there is honestly a huge demand for it, then you can fulfill your ambitions of giving the youth opportunity to learn from suitable material, plus make a tidy profit in the process.

    If there is a market, one that is profitable, there will be a way to make it happen. I’m a strong believer in educational institutions providing a good breadth of learning across the spectrum of academia, arts as well as sport. It rounds off the young as well as providing those opportunities to budding stars in whatever field they may ultimately excel.

    [link deleted]

  20. The market has already made it clear what it wants: the ability to copy freely. What prevents this is not “market forces”, but a monopoly law (copyright) that prevents the market from doing what it would otherwise naturally do.

  21. I didn’t realize that copyright laws can restrict the access of music to even teachers. Aren’t you free to use the music for educational purposes as long as you don’t reproduce or distribute it commercially(mp3, youtube, myspace…)?

  22. No, copyright infringement can happen even when there is no commercial intent; educational purposes are not automatically allowed.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.