When Lucy Green met a Music Traditionalist and came to know deep values.*
TMT (traditional music teacher): I want to get straight to the point – all students deserve great music and great music teaching.
LG (Lucy Green): Who decides what counts as great music?
TMT: The teacher should decide. I have played in orchestras and I’m keen that all students are able to access the sort of amazing life changing experiences I have. Too many students are being fobbed off with second-rate music just because it is accessible and relevant. Too many people who know nothing about music think that young people don’t like classical music and only want to hear pop. That’s why its important to teach classical music and make sure students are equipped with the skills to read staff notation. We should not limit our students’ experiences of great music through low expectations.
I’m the diligent and resilient person I am due to classical music. I am worried poor people will miss out on the right sort of experiences and might not be able to develop the right kind of values. This is why everyone should be given the opportunity to read notation. If students are able to play music to a high standard and read notation this will release a much higher level of creativity than if they just played around with sounds or played pop music.
LG: Sounds like you are trying to maintain a strict hierarchical difference in values between classical music and popular music. No music is great on its own out of the context of the people who made it. The values you find important in music don’t reside in the music itself. The values you describe are found in our relationship with music and not everyone may see themselves and their values reflected in classical music.
TMT: I’m sorry but you sound like a Marxist. If we are not able to judge great music by its internal qualities then we just descend into the black hole and barbarism of relativism. There’s great music – which is obvious – and then there’s pop music. Most students are forced fed pop at home in council estates but don’t get the opportunity to play classical music – that’s why we must teach classical in the class room. It’s a well known fact that middle class parents will be ensuring their children have classical piano lessons from the time they are old enough to talk. I need to counteract the myopic inverted snobbery of lefties who teach relevance rather than great music because they are scared of being called elitist.
LG: Maybe Marx had a point? Maybe judging music by its internal qualities ignores a vital aspect of its importance. I argue that it is impossible to judge music by its internal qualities – to do so is a misunderstanding of musical meaning. People create music in particular historical circumstances. Music’s importance is contingent and social – not abstract and universal. To divorce music history and from how it is used by people is to deny a vital part of its importance; we limit our joy and love of classical of music by trying to pretend that its greatness last for all time – it reduces and contains music’s meaning. This is why classical music needs defending from its devotees.
TMT: I’m sorry but who can deny that Bach has created music that is universally loved and admired? Bach transcends time and history. All children should be given the opportunity to learn about the best that has been composed, arranged and performed. All children should be allowed to experience music of all musical genres. People’s preconceptions and ideas about music limit what our students are taught.
LG: In my book Music on Deaf Ears I have a lot to say about music and value. I talk about reification, fetishisation and ideology and how these limit the music education of students.
TMT: Oh dear – are you one of those academics who likes to impress people by using long words? I don’t need academics getting their theories in the way of truth and the practical considerations of the classroom. I like straight talking people who don’t hide behind words.
LG: Well it is true that some people found my first book a bit heavy as I discuss Hegel and Adorno.
TMT: I knew it! Another academic about to talk unnecessary theory. Some academics need to go back to the classroom – we’ll see how far their theory takes them.
LG: It seems some academics shed light on teaching. Many traditionalists enjoy the insights of cognitive psychology for example.
TMT: Yes but this is the right kind of theory and not one bogged down by ideology and reification. Cognitive Psychologists are specially trained Scientists unlike many educationalists and academics who take post-modernism’s claims as truth rather than the whacky, thought experiments of a privileged elite.
LG: I don’t agree with your separation of science and non – science but I actually agree with some of your points about notation and how the teaching of classical music is hindered by people who oppose the alienated condition of notation with a more natural immediate connection with the music itself.
TMT: Oh – okay, this sounds more promising. But I’m keeping an eye on too much non-scientific language and vague generalisation.
LG: In my book I argue that music meaning can be broken down into two parts: inherent music meaning (later inter-sonic as too many people got the wrong end of the stick with the word inherent) and delineated music meaning.
Inherent/Inter-sonic music meaning I take to be come about as a result of the way our consciousness is structured by music – how we perceive sounds and their relationship with each other through time. This is a logical step as we cannot have an “immediate” experience of music as just sound but we also perceive music as a social, historical object. This way music communicates social meanings and social relationships I call delineated musical meaning.
TMT: Okay – pretty obvious stuff really – there’s the notes and then there is what it means.
LG: Well – I argue that you cannot separate the two meanings out. When you experience music you experience both simultaneously – they are in a dialectical relationship if you like. Many common ideologies around music are to do with the way we prioritise one aspect of musical meaning over the over without realising.
TMT: So what has this got to do with teaching great music?
LG: Everything. In my understanding of dialectics….
TMT: Is this really necessary? Do teachers need a lecture on dialectics? Teachers are not stupid – well at least traditional teachers are very well read. I can’t speak for progressives – they seem to have read one book by Freire and nothing much else.
LG: Hopefully by explaining my philosophical approach you might understand some of the reasons that I am concerned with your view on teaching music. I see dialectical thinking as as one that recognises that there is a tendency to view the surface appearance of things as an explanation of them. It isn’t enough to try and explain things in their isolation – as they look on the surface. Instead we need to see how things relate to each other and how they relate to history.
We experience our world in a fragmented and immediate way and so tend to mistake this partial fragmented view as the whole explanation of things. Dialectics recognises the historical nature of our experience and thinking.
So for example musical ideologies often position music as the spontaneous output of individuals – a unique fragment of music. However it becomes great music because it transcends this individual creation to become ahistorical, universal and timeless.
In my book I show how supporters of classical music tend to value what they see as classical music’s ability to express the natural and eternal qualities of the human condition. Pop music supporters tend to point out its immediate and universal expression of feeling and emotions.
I see this as ideology reifying music. We no longer understand how music is a social and historical object but instead wish to see it as either universal or timeless or immediate.
Both views of music are actually based on the same belief that great music “leaps from the heart.”
The issue is that both supporters of great classical music or popular music continue to reaffirm the divide between the two styles of music. This dominant ideology actually works to strengthen classical music’s apparent separateness from popular music. So as I see it the good work done by students learning to play music in the classroom can be undone by supporting ideological beliefs that suggest music’s values resides in the inherent meanings themselves.
TMT: As I see it the dominant ideology in education is that classical music is far too hard for inner city students.
LG: That idea is an issue as I discuss in my book – however the underlying ideological belief in music education and wider society is that great music is autonomous and expresses the natural and eternal qualities of the human soul. Classical music is then always positioned within this ideology as superior to popular music – which is seen as having more obvious social roots. (You can see this idea in books about music, GCSE syllabus and many aesthetic theories of music) This does both a disservice. In my book I show that actually all but a very few teachers teach classical music – as they feel it is necessary and important – popular music is included for less musical reasons. As I show in my research Classical music’s place in the curriculum is really not in doubt by far the majority of teachers. However I believe that more important are the ideologies that put classical music in pole position – these are still held by most teachers.
Most people understand music as existing by its own natural and ahistorical laws. This leads to people seeing styles as a natural expression of music rather than a learnt and historical construction.
TMT: What if classical music just is better? Maybe people see it as better not because of ideology but because they can hear that its obviously better music.
LG: Well I see this as problematic as there is nothing “obvious” about classical music superiority. You are no doubt affirmed by its inter-sonic meanings and celebrated by its delineations however this view is one that rests on viewing musics importance as outside of history and relationships. You are assuming classical music superiority and that it has naturally arisen to its valued position. A more productive view is one that recognises quality in both classical and popular music and so teaches about both sensitively.
TMT: I’m thinking that students are already saturated by pop but are unfamiliar with popular music – why not teach them the stuff they don’t know and leave pop for now?
LG: This would continue the ideological rift between what counts as music for the classroom and what doesn’t. You would be communicating to pupils that classical music is better and hence undermining what you are setting out to do.
TMT: I could tell them it isn’t better and explain that it is just different but that for now it is important to study classical music in the classroom as it gives them access to knowledge they would not normally have. This knowledge will allow them to compete with other students who gain this knowledge from home.
LG: I’m feeling I have heard this argument before. It sounds like an argument Hirsch has advanced. It is argument that has its own ideological issues.
You are still preventing students from important musical experiences and understanding in service of an ideological view of education. It would be wrong in a multicultural society to ignore the many musics and traditions that young people are aware of and listen to and live with. Students come from diverse backgrounds and traditions – not to access them is to devalue these traditions. Whilst some students may well find themselves affirmed by classical music, some may not – what appears to be a lack of musicality may well be their inability to respond to the delineations of the music. In short a teacher that teaches classical music in preference to popular music for the musical good of the students undermines their own aim.
People often wish to teach classical music and encourage a kind of aesthetic affirmation. Teaching classical music can often be based on our belief it is transcendent in quality and contains something that is universally appealing. It is what I call attributing “universal subjective validity” to music. However the other side of this music ideology is the way as individuals we come to respond to the message of the music. The individualised response assumes listeners who will want to raise themselves above reality. There is no space for alternative views or political beliefs. The ideology removes society from music and the listener. We erase society difference. It is my view that this is problematic.
TMT: Really? I think that students will appreciate being empowered by learning about notation and great music. Sorry music. I think once they realise I am teaching them classical music for their own good then they might not worry too much about needing to include their musical traditions into the classroom. Anyway isn’t all this a bit patronising? Can’t everyone no matter who they are learn to enjoy classical music with a bit of effort? Surely people are put off by the delineations – that it appears difficult and serious – once students start playing in my lessons they realise just how good classical music is!
LG: To me this is a big issue. To teach as if everyone should share my own values and in fact turn their back on their own value system is totally wrong. This is education as indoctrination. Which is the furthest away from our starting point of education for all.
However, I like the idea of teaching about and through music. It strikes me that you are mainly teaching through music in the belief that everyone will in the end appreciate the inter-sonic meaning of music. This is a kind of musical fetishism.
I argue Musical Fetishism is the way we talk about music so that the delineations about music take the place of the inter-sonic meanings. If we talk about music as if it’s greatness is an inherent quality and we do not talk about the sounds and notes but only about the delineations then we fetishise music. We also fetishise music when inherent musical meanings are reified and delineations are excluded from discussion due to the delineations being considered undesirable additions. The only appropriate musical response it would seem is a pure unmediated experience of music.
The ideology of autonomy makes it appear that music gains its existence by virtue of its own internal ahistorical laws. Great music needs to appear eternal and natural and universal. Poor music is rooted in society. This dichotomy is unhelpful and needs challenging in education. I would argue that part of your role is to challenge this kind of unfounded ideological belief in the natural superiority of classical music. I believe you should recognise that different people value different musics and so try and value this in the classroom. The issue of cultural capital is really one that is misused. I don’t think people really have understood Bourdieu.
I would say that the problem is with judging music as an eternal, universal and absolute expression of the human condition and in purely musical terms rather than in viewing musical meaning as being historically based. I argue that the attribution of universal subjective validity to art has now become common sense. This common sense means that time and time again people expect everyone to enjoy the inter-sonic meanings of classical music no matter who they are. It might be that some students even when they are familiar with the style still do not change in their appreciation of the value of the music. It might appear because of this difficultly they are unmusical.
TMT: I disagree. No-one thinks they are unmusical in my class. They walk out with smiles on their faces and joy in their hearts. I don’t think it really matters as long as you teach them well.
LG: Well I also suggest in my later books that the pedagogical style of teaching reinforces many musical divisions. I encourage teachers to try out different pedagogical approaches that give more ownership and choice to the student.
TMT: Let me stop you there. You are not going to convince me on this one. I have heard about Musical Futures – its just about letting kids mess around on their own and playing pop music.
LG: it’s a little more complex than that.
TMT: Of course you would think so. No I’ve no time for this. I think its time up for this discussion. Besides your book is really old and probably out-dated now.
LG: It’s no older than the ED Hirsch classic people seem to find so attractive. In fact my book was published around the same sort of time. I agree that some more qualitative research around people’s ideological beliefs on music would be useful.
TMT: I’m not so sure – we need more proper scientific understanding of music – something like the research of cognitive psychologists. Anyway I need to make an arrangement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony for my class for next week. I’m just getting to the good bit. I’ve arranged some parts for the staff choir so we all learn together – We’re really getting to grips with inter-sonic meanings. I’m hoping to have taught all nine symphonies by end of next year and be the first primary school to release their own Cycle of Mahler’s Symphonies. Simon Rattle has even expressed an interest in conducting the music for a CD release and thus raising the self esteem of all students and staff through the universal voice of classical music. You won’t find any progressives doing that.
*With apologies to Lucy Green and all traditional music teachers.
My next blog will report back what happened when Christopher Small met a traditional music teacher. Fortunately he was a ghost and came to no harm.