When Bach met Dizzee Rascal


“Far from appearing universal, Bach’s audacious synthesis of all available culture- with Germany at its center – was not likely to have pleased many of his contemporaries, not even most Germans. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was canonised as representing pure order only after the semiotic codes on which his semiotic strategies had relied and their accompanying social contracts had become inactive. Universality was achieved only at the expense of specific, concretely articulated meaning. “

Talking Politics During Bach Year p55 Music and Society.


What does it means to be rigorous when studying music at A-level? To what extent is an understanding of Bach’s harmonic approach needed for a rigorous music education? What is lost in neglecting Bach and what might be lost in keeping Bach in the curriculum?

In considering this I look to Dizzee Rascal, Rober Walser, Susan McClary, Christopher Small and the recent discussion of Bach and harmony in teachtalkmusic.

Recently I read about Dizzee Rascal’s music teacher and how Dizzee developed musically. His teacher notes:

Dylan could string a complex rhythmic pattern together in 20-30 minutes, and then be quite happy to spend a week refining and editing.


He talks about how:


He could get information down very quickly, but what was most unusual was he would then spend a lot of time refining it. A lot of youngsters wanted to create music, but weren’t as interested in that total refinement of a sound.


Dizzee Rascal shows that the creation of a loop and beat is a process that takes time, knowledge and skill. He could improvise and get things down in minutes but at the same time he would need to spend weeks refining his work.

Dizzee himself talks about how:

As soon as I heard that riff I gravitated to it, because I liked rock, I liked heavy metal [like] Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana and Iron Maiden even before I liked hip-hop. I loved to see the mosh pits, I think MTV 1994 through 96, and the grunge era. That was my thing.


It might be that Dizzee Rascal is a genius in his ability to put down intricate beats in minutes and then have the skill and creativity to develop and refine these ideas. He is also able to take disparate styles and forms and blend them into his own unique style. It might be that his approach is not a million miles away from Bach’s. In Music and Society Susan McClary argues that Bach was not a composer who represented universal truths of harmony but in fact someone who was able to blend the various semiotic codes of French and Italian approaches to composition into his own unique style. Bach’s specific and creative appropriation of the music around him has become sacrificed at the altar of universality.


Dizzee Rascal is not considered a universal voice of music. It seems obvious that his music making is a specific and concrete response to the many and various styles around him. It seems obvious that his music is born from the culture and society that surrounds him. Maybe in decades to come his specific and particular adoption of styles and his musical response to our world will seem less obvious, controversial and challenging and all we will see is the voice of a musical genius. It might be that we see in him an Artist that made the rules for creating great grooves from which we all can learn.


As we listen to many contemporary forms of music – such as Grime – we begin to realise that harmony isn’t the centre of music as sometimes we can assume. Harmony isn’t the essence, core or underpinning of great music – it can be and indeed often is marginal. It could be that harmony is less important than we think. We might wonder if classical music any longer lays claim to authority in explaining and making sense of our lives in n these times when there is such diversity of musics.

Indeed writers such as Christopher Small argue:” by any reasonable reckoning of the functioning of music in human life, the Afro-American tradition is the major music of the West in the twentieth century.” He argues, “ Rhythm is to the African musician what harmony is to the European.”  His view is that the significance of music lies not in the music itself. The questions are not – what does this work mean – but what does this performance mean in this particular place and time and by this particular people.

He argues that harmony is not a central aspect of Afro –American music making: ”harmony is only a kind of underpinning for what really interest him, which is the melodic and rhythmic invention, as well as the inflection of vocal and instrumental sound.”


If this is true what implications might it have for the study of music at A level? Is it enough to consider that a rigorous education means the study of harmony? And what do we make of Small’s idea that actually it is the groove that represents the importance of music and not harmony? If we consider music as a cultural practice – the value of music lies not in the notes but in its value to us and in our relationship with we make with music when creating it.

Robert Walser discusses Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” He shows through a close analysis of the rhythms and rhymes a complexity comparable to the complexity of the harmony of Bach chorales.

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In discussing this groove he notes:

  • How the quaver kick drum from the first beat is used in the groove to push against the metre by being placed a semiquaver ahead of the pulse in its repetition.
  • And how the snare drum whilst appearing to be a simple reinforcement of beat 2 and 4 actually contains different sounds, layers of pitches and variations of the stereo field.
  • How cymbal and percussion strengthen the groove at the 8th note level whist providing their own accents and timbres.
  • How the bass is both reinforcing the groove and playing with the central rhythm and how it indicates the main tonal centre but is heard in counterpoint to other synth sounds that create a certain tension with the bass and an alternative tonal centre.
  • How the rhythm guitar adds a rhythmic counterpoint at the 16th level of 3 3 3 3 4
  • How other vocal sounds and inflections to pitches add further complexities to the groove

In short we see how rhythm and timbre supplant harmonic interest with a complexity of their own. A complexity that is not obvious until you start to analyse and pull it apart. Of course what music is deemed complex enough to study is already fixed by rules that privilege certain styles.

Walser shows that rap offers a complexity that needs careful studying to appreciate – just as those who would study Bach Chorales find incredible intricacies each time they look. Walser seems to validate the comments made about Dizzee Rascal; rhythm and timbre provide the same sort of complexity that harmony does.

The right of harmony to be studied and analysed is often argued for persuasively – however it is rare to find the same demand for studying rhythm and timbre. Indeed do we know the rules for creating a good groove in the way we know the rules for harmonising a Bach Chorale? Why is this? Is this right?

At the same time does this pretence that Bach unlocks untold secrets really deny the importance of seeing music as part of our cultural practices? Do we diminish diversity and difference in our efforts to locate the beginning of harmony in Bach?


This is relevant as the A level syllabus may well be dumbing down its requirements in no longer requiring the analysis of Bach chorales. Jane Werry introduces a number of questions about the loss of harmony.


However I wonder if it is true to say:

  • In fact I would go a bit further and say that any student of music needs to get to know the beast that is Music – ignorance may be bliss for a while but it starts to smart eventually! It doesn’t matter whether you intend to be a radical avant-garde composer or a peripatetic instrumental teacher (no idea why they should be poles apart – just two different jobs!!) you need to understand how music works. Inside harmony and musical tone there is a world of scientific fact 
  • And the mention of jazz leads me on to the obvious element of the importance of bass line, so crucial in most popular music and found throughout Bach’s chorales.
  • I believe that in order to understand the ‘art’ of serial or minimal musical art forms or other types of musical genres, then individuals must have a secure grasp of the harmonic language that defines and structures most music
  • The Beatles had no idea what they were doing technically, but they did by having good ears. When you then analyse it, the basics are there. 
  • At KS5 I find nothing more thrilling than opening the students’ ears to inversions, chord progressions, voice leading and everything which comes with Bach chorale/Western classical language.
  • if their aim was to make the qualification more ‘rigorous’. I believe from my own experience that learning the ‘rules’ of Western tonal harmony is an essential part of becoming a good musician
  • Without understanding harmony how can you understand music – you simply become an appreciative observer – there is nothing wrong with this but to produce further outstanding performers, composers and musicologists then the basic foundation must surely be in place.

The implication is that harmony is central to music and other qualities – melody, timbre, texture, and rhythm are marginal.


Unlock harmony and you unlock music. I’m not sure about this.


And I’m not sure about reducing harmony to functional tonality – a very specific subset of harmony. If anything functional tonality is a marginal compositional technique. I’m not sure what William Earl “Bootsy” Collins might say about great bass lines and whether much is gained by arguing Bach got there first.


The valorising of Bach’s harmony runs the risk of neutralising an important figure – a great improviser, melody writer, and composer of complex textures. Bach’s use of pop tunes and hymns marks him out as a remixer that kicks ass.

Some would argue we neutralise Bach as some kind of bearer of great universal harmony when in fact he was heavily influenced by French and Italian approaches to composition. Is Dizzee Rascal really a lesser musician because he didn’t study the functional tonality of Bach? If Bach’s music is part of one cultural practice amongst many others what other cultural practices could we study?

I’m not sure about the way Bach’s approach to harmony is seen as the starting point and foundation for all other approaches. There’s a certain “whitewashing ‘” here. It may be that explaining Jazz harmony in terms of Bach chorale harmonisation is simplifying and ignoring many aspects of difference. By difference I am suggesting that jazz with its roots in Afro – American culture and tradition may follow different principles and rules that cannot only be explained as a deviation from our white harmonic perspective. Bach is not the centre from which other music’s are explained and defined.

Maybe this is a part of our loss. These days the plurality of voices laying claim to authenticity and truth is dazzling – it is hard to find an anchor for meaning. It might be that claims of Bach’s musical greatness are used partly as a symbolic confirmation of the superiority of whiteness. Decentring Bach decentres whiteness and our own sense of self.


Music interviews – some thoughts

Music interviews

Over the years I have interviewed lots of people for music jobs. Sometimes the decision has been difficult – so don’t loose heart if you are not selected. I can think of a couple of times when we would have appointed two people if we could.

By the way when filling in an application form address the job spec.

Here are a few thoughts on the process.

Not that I’m an expert at interviews – I’m pretty poor at them – so this isn’t advice or top tips – just my own point of view.

In my present school we observe a lesson, hold a student voice interview and then hold an interview.

Observation lesson:

  • It is difficult to teach an observation lesson. However we are looking for how you build relationships in the classroom. We want to see some practical music making.
  • If things go wrong – don’t worry – be willing to adjust your lesson and try something else.
  • Observation lessons are tough – but generally we appreciate this. Feel free to contact and ask for clarification of task and be explicit about what you might need.


Student voice

They want to see that you are a warm, friendly, strong person who can do the business in the classroom. Show you are interested in them.

The interview

I’m surprised by how often people don’t answer the questions or don’t really take the opportunity to tell us what they can do.

I’m sure nerves take a part – but it might be worth rehearsing answers so that you give a full account with out waffling.

Questions and Answers.

Describe a good music lesson. Discuss your own lesson.

Surprisingly very few people answer this well. I think you should be willing to show your understanding of pedagogy here and outline the things you feel are important. I would like to hear something like:

Challenge/high expectations

Good explanations

Clear modelling to illustrate how to do the task

Good questioning which develops understanding.

formative assessment to support students in moving forward.


Alternatively you might like to talk about an immersive high quality musical experience which engages all the class .


Or indeed a mix of both.

When discussing your own lesson show your awareness of its strengths and areas for development.


What are your thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of a Musical Futures approach to music teaching? What experience have you had of the approach?


A slightly unusual question. But I want to know if you are open to the idea of student ownership of work and willing to take on board/explore student prior interests. I don’t think it would work for me if you just said I would never use Musical Futures. However that said you might have blown me away in your observation lesson in which case ultimately I want to hear some thoughts around pedagogy again and what you feel are the best ways to excite and enthuse students in music making.

What assessment strategies do you think are most effective in promoting progress and describe some examples of how you have used assessment?

I’m hoping for discussing of formative assessment – both verbally and also musically. I want to hear how you get stuck in when kids are playing and join in – offering suggestions and engaging in dialogue with students. I probably should be interested in summative assessment expertise but I’m not.

Many students at this school bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to their studies, some students lack a great deal of confidence in their abilities – what qualities and skills do you think you would need to work successfully with our students?


resilience, patience, sense of humour, tenacity, love, drive, energy, passion, empathy, support, understanding, high expectations, an ability to draw people in, compassion, firm boundaries, a belief they can do it, a willing to be inclusive and see potential in all, desire to see how students might be not how they are, good teaching, clear building up of skills, opportunities to be creative, warmth, a sense of fun, openness, unswerving belief that they can improve, creativity, innovative approach, willingness to make mistakes, consistency, a lot of self belief and confidence.   etc etc. etc

What excites you most about the Arts? What passions, interest and skills would you offer the Expressive Arts department?

 Let us know what musical skills you can offer. What would you want to do in the music department as an extra curricular – what excites you musically. Tell us a bit about your musical history and how this might be used to improve the musical lives of our students. What can you offer us – go on let us know!

 What are your strengths as a teacher and what are your areas for professional development?

Guaranteed to throw up weak answers – so give this sort of thing some thought.

Safeguarding question

Don’t promise confidentiality, don’t befriend students on Facebook….

So an example of some typical questions – here’s some more this time for dance and for a HOD post:

  • What skills and qualities would you bring to the post of Curriculum Leader?
  • What is the role of curriculum Leader in ensuring the quality and consistency of teaching and learning?
  • What does effective assessment look like in dance?
  • Describe what an outstanding dance looks like?
  • How would you develop and extend the extra curricular offer. What are your priorities and why?
  • Dance recruits relatively small numbers. What strategies would you use to increase take up?
  • Can you tell me about a time a student seriously challenged your authority, and put you under stress, how did you react, how did this make you feel?
  • Are there any questions you would like to ask us?.


Hope this helps. Of course this is just my point of view. Good luck.



When Lucy Green Met a Music Traditionalist and came to know deep values.

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.












The Importance of High Culture

Recently I have come across more calls to teach High Culture. The Cultural White Paper and many education bloggers (Martin Robinson et al) have taken up the cause of High Culture. It would seem its time for me to consider more carefully my curriculum and enable all my students to have the confidence to be comfortable talking about Bach and Beyonce.


When I think about it many of my students have been let down by me not insisting they engage more with High Culture. For example just a couple of weeks ago I bumped into an ex student whilst shopping at Lidl. He told me he was training to be a manager at Lidl and DJ’d in his spare time as well as looking after his kids. He looked tired. He lacked the inspiration of High Culture.


Speaking to him made me think of the opportunities he had missed in not studying Bartok or Stravinsky. I think being a DJ is ok as far it goes but just imagine how many more opportunities would have been opened to him if he had listened to Mahler. At the very least he might be working for Waitrose.

I realise that High Culture is not specific to a white male Western tradition – some jazz musicians are pretty good too – we all know Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker and Miles Davies are talented musicians. It’s a shame they were heavy drug users. This doesn’t mean they can’t be an inspiration to our young – though taking drugs is obviously a bad thing. Their day-to-day struggles with life, drugs and racism can be separated out from their music. 

“There was a lot of dope around the music scene and a lot of musicians were deep into drug, especially heroin. People–musicians–were considered hip in some circles if they shot smack. Some of the younger guys like Dexter Gordan, Art Blakey, J.J Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, and myself -all of us–started getting heavily into heroin around the same time. Despite the fact that Freddie Webster had died from some bad stuff. Besides Bird, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons were all using heroin, not to mention Joe Guy and Billie Holiday too.   There were a lot of white musicians–Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Red Rodney, and Chet Baker who were also heavily into shooting drugs.”

Someone like Amy Winehouse (who hasn’t heard an Amy Winehouse cover in a school music concert!) isn’t High Culture – yes she was a good singer and yes she struggled with drugs but her music hasn’t Stood the Test of Time. And also she wasn’t really jazz or anything.

So Billie Holiday is in and Amy Winehouse is out!


However, replacing the simple-minded pop of Rehab and Valerie with the jazz of So What is just a first step. I need to re-evaluate my curriculum and remove stuff that does not develop my student’s ability to feel confident with the world of High Culture.


Lets talk about the Blues.


I always felt the Blues was a bit of a waste of time. The same three chords over and over again with some miserable singer moaning about life. Many Blues musicians haven’t really understood the nature of existence like Mahler did with “Das Lied von der Erde.” Blues musicians tend to sing about very specific and particular things rooted in their experience of life in racist America whereas Mahler was able to reach out to all humans with his symphony about the Song for Earth. Mahler sings a farewell, but his song of and to the earth is, at its close, a song of love and of life. Lets face it who speaks more powerfully about our existence? So the parochial Blues is ditched – in favour of the universal music of Middle Class High Culture – “Das Lied Von Der Erde”.

I’ve also wondered if my Stomp project is too rooted in progressive ideas of fun and engagement rather than real educational values like rigour and progress. Any fool can bash a few broomsticks together and pretend to be making “alternative music.” Really? Who is fooled by this nonsense – Stomp are a sell out West End phenomenon – their musical value is compromised by their need to make money. Something like Stravinsky and Rite of Spring would be much more rigorous – with those complex time signatures just blowing out of the water the syncopations and poly-rhythms of Stomp.


Also, just imagine the look of wonder on my students’ faces when I talk about how people actually rioted because of their horror at the dancing! They might also be interested in the story of a young virgin being sacrificed. Stravinsky notes:

The Chosen One dances to death in the presence of the old men, in the great “Sacrificial Dance”.

Hopefully this might connect with their fascination with blood and gore and reinforce patriarchal, misogynistic narratives. Hold on! This is clearly not the right tone for High Culture – the young virgin bit doesn’t really matter – what counts is the amazing tone colours and harmony. The Dance bits and sacrificing young women are not that important and really distract from the music. No, Stomp with its commercialism and silliness is out and the universal High Culture of The Rite of Spring is in!

I should really get rid of the Salsa, djembe and Taiko Drumming projects too. Its all very well trying to encourage students to appreciate different musical cultures and traditions but when curriculum time is tight they are missing out on the best that has been thought and said and wasting it on music which is really lacking in the sophistication and timelessness of true High Culture. Yes Taiko Drumming is a tradition of its own but is it High Culture? I know some people might think so but do they really know? They probably haven’t listened to enough Schoenberg to realise.

I don’t need to engage with the idea that Salsa is High Culture so tainted it is with its association with dance. As for using djembes – how many symphonies have you heard with a djembe?


So I’m nearly there. I’ve rid myself of some unnecessary world music and pop music. I really need to rethink the folk music and song-writing project.


Who thought a project on folk music was a good idea? Have you heard how many different chords they use? The only good folk song I heard was the theme tune from the Detectorists. I’m not sure all that political unrest and dissent in the lyrics is suitable. The Pogues protesting about the Guildford 4 and Birmingham 6 was not really music –just a bit of attention seeking. I know their TV performance was stopped and pulled from the air as it broadcast just before the contentious lyrics but did Shane McGowen really know how to sing in tune?

Folk music is out and Beethoven is in. Who better than to illustrate the importance of the individual finding a voice in an oppressive society? Beethoven knew that individual freedom was an illusion – something those Folk Singers with their petty social causes knew little about.

While I’m removing those projects that are not really musically challenging I think the rap project should go. First of all – is it really music? I mean do people really think it counts? Yes its popular, but does that mean anything? Okay so Kendrick Lamar wrote some of the most important songs so far this century but is it really music? I know there is a long list of musicologists who point out that the division between popular music and classical music is an artificial and meaningless divide but did they really mean to include “To Pimp a Butterfly” -probably not. I don’t think hip hop can count as High Culture – there’s something that doesn’t feel right.

Hip Hop is out and Schubert is in. He knew how to craft a melody and speak of things that really mattered.

The most pressing change though will be to my Musical Futures SOL. Who can imagine what good can come of allowing students to make music they love and identity with? Okay so my uptake at GCSE went from 40 to 120 students after the introduction of Musical Futures lessons but what does this really say?

The real message is that what students want is the easiest way to success. If students had been encouraged to study say Mozart and Bizet – there might be less students at GCSE but they would have been the right ones.

The students would be taking GCSE music for the right reasons. Not because they felt moved and empowered by their music making, not because in their music making they recognised something of themselves that gave them strength and confidence, not because they realised that actually music was for them and they could be musical but because they realised that High Culture opened doors that other cultures closed.

Ideology and consiousness

I was so engrossed in reading Martin Robinson’s blog and the response from Jon Finney I missed my stop and ended up at Penge West Station – a worrying wrong turn.

I think Martin is strong when outlining how capitalism and the market have created conditions in which knowledge and thinking are subverted so that we struggle to find an anchoring in meaning and truth. I think Martin’s short outline of the issues of capitalism and pervasive influence in structuring our ways of living and its impact on education is useful. However when he moves from this discussion to the way people make sense of this I feel he is much weaker. In moving from the details of the dilemma and issues to how teachers understand and develop pedagogy he fails to give teachers agency.

Martin is making a series of crude and reductionist statements about consciousness and the relationship to ideology and assumes that from outlining a stupid system we can call people stupid.

Just because we live in a crazy market where meaning seems to have been reduced to nothing does not mean that we have become one with the system. Martin seems to be suggesting that teachers are passive recipients of social structures and ideology – “consume with little thought”. In fact our consciousness is in continual mediation between self and the external world and we cannot assume the content of people’s consciousness.

We need a more complex and nuanced understanding of subjectivity and its relationship to power, ideology and social structures; we cannot read peoples’ consciousness from our understanding of the social structures. Martin’s blog here seems to betray a lack of respect for the dynamic way consciousness creates and is created by ideology in its relationship with the material world.

In my view Giroux has a more useful way of framing the pedagogy debate:


“In both conservative and progressive discourses pedagogy is often treated simply as a set of strategies and skills to use to teach prescribed subject mater. In this context, pedagogy becomes synonymous with teaching as a technique of the practice of a craft – like a skill. Any viable notion of critical pedagogy must reject this definition and its endless slavish imitations even when they are claimed as part of a radical discourse or project. Pedagogy in the more critical sense illuminates the relationship among knowledge, authority and power. It draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge. Moreover, it delineates the ways in which the circuit of power and authority are constructed within particular sets of social relations…. Pedagogy is simultaneously about the knowledge and practices that teachers, cultural workers and students might engage in together and the cultural politics and visions such practices legitimate.”  


For me Martin in his desire to stress the importance of what is of value – “Just as in an art world in which all can be art the most important thing to say is ‘well, that isn’t art,” he is missing the importance of a pedagogy that: “illuminates the relationship among knowledge, authority and power. It draws attention to questions concerning who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge.”


For example the cultural intellectual heritage that Robinson draws on is mainly white. He could have drawn on other writers – Fanon, hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and Spivak to make similar arguments – though its possible these authors may have taken Robinson in a different direction and enriched his argument. Whilst being able to say what is or isn’t art is important – although this is something I feel people do quite freely – other important questions need addressing. Such as – why this art now? And whose Art and knowledge are we studying? Who legitimises this as art?


It is not a matter of a choice between Beethoven or Beyonce; do we believe in tradition and meaning or the ephemeral and the relevant. These debates touch issues of power, control and agency and need framing with a belief in the ability of all to possess critical thought and all to be duped and manipulated. I feel we need to broaden our sense of pedagogy as Robinson argues with a sense of values and truth but one that does this with recognition to the way tradition limits and narrows by pretending knowledge is not socially situated.

The importance of the aesthetic – part 2

In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Walter Benjamin

The last 40 years have shown that what we used to call classical music no longer exists in any meaningful way – though it appears many of the music institutions and organisations connected with secondary education seem unable or unwilling to work through the implication of this. In this blog I continue thinking about the importance of the aesthetic and discuss why a grounded aesthetic is such a useful idea when considering music education. I draw on Andreas Huyssen’s work on postmodernism and Robert Fink’s discussion of musicology to help me.

Classical music has lost its authority as Art music.  The loss of its symbolic value as a definer of taste and cultural authority has resulted in a great deal of ideological work and material/economic work to try and maintain the illusion of its status. For example: the GCSE syllabus requires the compulsory study of classical music; A level is centred around classical music and is seemingly unaware of the radical de-centring of music – containing a whole section dedicated to Art music but limiting this definition to classical music since 1910; Hubs seem predicated on a priori attachment to the classical tradition and developing and maintaining orchestral provision; rich patrons throw money at classical music in schools – especially if they suspect poor people are around; the BBC hammers home the lack of symbolic importance of classical music through its repeated aims to educate the public with programs such as the 10 pieces series, and every 5 seconds someone on twitter will talk about the importance of tradition and “our cultural heritage’ or “the best that has been thought and said” without seeming to be slightly concerned that this coincides with mostly white male cultures, traditions and histories. (The recent A level music syllabus changes – in response to an online petition showcases just how male some people perceive the best that is though and said to be.That it was changed is fantastic – and well done to the student who made this happen – but that this needed to be done in 2016 is rather depressing.)

When popular music is accorded value and importance in Secondary School education, classical music and its values remain as an absent centre – framing how music is assessed and valued. (e.g. see my blog on assessment and whiteness)

In my last blog I argued that a conception of the aesthetic is important in appreciating that the value life and experiences hold cannot wholly be explained by reason. Art gives a powerful voice to this part of our lives. It is through aesthetic experiences that we mange to make sense of those things in life that cannot be reduced to the rational or objective. As Adorno argued- we need to first grasp what is ungraspable about art. To try and pin down our aesthetic experience and explain it through critical thought and (cognitive) science rather misses the point of Art.

However at the same time we need a theory of music that is able to understand it as a cultural practice. That is we need a grounded aesthetics (As Paul Willis argues – see an earlier blog) and a return to a sensuous view of aesthetics – an appreciation of fun and pleasure. Or as Susan McClary once argued an understanding of how music “kicks butt.” What we need is in music education is a stronger sense of the importance and value in the everyday use of music and its common cultural symbols as opposed to reifying Arts supposed abstract value. In this there is a need to historicise music and its contexts. As Small argued – music is one of the ways through which we explore our social relationships and identity.

What this points to is:” the work of grounded aesthetics may be in the holding and repairing (through meaning-making, creation and control, even in desperate seas) of the precariousness and fragmentedness of identity whose source of disturbance is outside structural and beyond the scope of individuals to influence.”  Willis

So what makes me think that Art and classical music are no longer synonymous? Is this really true? Is there really no such thing as classical music now? Are we really in a position were it makes more sense to look for Art in the music of the young rather than point to its formation in acknowledged cultural classics? Do I really believe that young people should be denied access to “the best that has been thought and said?”


Andreas Huyssen in his collection of essays called After the Great Divide defines the “Great Divide” as the kind of ideas, beliefs and thinking that is characterised by an attempt to make a radical break between High Art and mass culture.

In his view modernity defined itself in opposition to mass culture – as if exhibiting “an anxiety of contamination by its other”. The radical separation of Art from everyday culture was challenged from within by the Avant- Garde cultural movements – however this ended in reinforcing the divide.

Huyssen argues that postmodernism is a response to the Great Divide of Art and mass culture. It is understanding this divide and the cultural and artistic responses to this that is important for a historical and theoretical understanding of postmodernism.

He argues that blurring of boundaries between high art and mass culture is something that artists have been responding to for many years. This has happened in both directions – from “low” to high and vice versa. However many critics and we might add educationalists do not seem to have joined in with what our artists already know – that Art is no longer the preserve of the white educated middle classes. Indeed the recent death of David Bowie seems to have sparked a great deal of recognition that popular culture can be Art. I suspect many would hold Bowie as a special case. However there are many different musics, many different cultures and traditions all seeking to make sense of our experiences. Crucially, from my point of view, Huyssen argues:

“Today the best hopes of the historical avantgarde may not be em-bodied in art works at all, but in decentered movements which work toward the transformation of everyday life. The point then would be to retain the avantgarde’s attempt to address those human experiences which either have not yet been subsumed under capital, or which are stimulated but not fulfilled by it. Aesthetic experience in particular must have its place in this transformation of everyday life, since it is uniquely apt to organize fantasy, emotions, and sensuality against that repressive desublimation which is so characteristic of capitalist culture since the 1960s”


Musicologists have also been quick to point out that classical music no longer stands for Music. For example Robert Fink in Elvis Everywhere makes this case in his discussion of the relationship between musicology, cultural studies and popular music. He discusses a wide range of examples of how popular music borrows and adapts classical music but also how composers from the academy frequently use ideas from pop and rock to appeal to a sense of authenticity. In his discussion of musicians and artists he argues that it is rock and pop that continue to have a greater hold on the public’s imagination and that: “Really, postminimalism’s embrace of alternative rock/jazz culture is arty composers turning not away from artiness, but towards it. It is a tacit admission by university-trained musicians that they and their institutions have lost control of what constitutes “art music.”

In one section he reflects on how attempts to assert classical music end up as empty gestures or “third order simulacrum.” – Baudrillard’s term for the way obvious fakes disguise the lack of an authentic reality.

Fink shows that many of the debates and disagreements around musicology and what he calls new musicology arise from the continued attempts to separate popular music from classical music. In attempting to make sense of popular music he notes that we need a careful, critical and interpretative stance that whilst attending to the music is also aware of its historical construction and context. He is very aware that of the dangers of a musicology importing methods from its analytical toolkit onto popular music and in doing so dangerously distorting the musical object under discussion. Indeed he suggests Musicologists are in danger of being the  bad Elvis impersonators of popular music!   In discussing the divide between formalism and hermeneutics  he discusses Susan Langer’s “Against Interpretation” which points towards the importance of getting to know how music makes you feel rather than what it means.

What we have are academics both within music and outside of music arguing that it no longer makes sense to maintain the Great Divide between classical music and popular. Indeed they argue that contemporary music making seems no longer troubled by this divide.  The only people left doing upholding this divide seems to be music teachers and many of the organisations that exist to support the teaching of music to our young people. It seems to me that GCSE and A level music are no longer fit for purpose and they need replacing with something that reflects the status of music as a cultural practice. Otherwise it seems we music teachers are in danger of becoming the Elvis impersonators of education.

If we can wrest the classical tradition from conformism a first step will be in removing it from its revered status as Art. Whether it is possible to wrest music teaching from conformism is harder to know – given the constraints of teaching to exam success, increasing managerialism and the relentless pressures of accountability – non-conformity can come at a high price, for the teacher and student. In my next blog I want to consider in a bit more detail some examples of popular music being “decentered movements which work toward the transformation of everyday life.”






The Importance of the Aesthetic

The Importance of the Aesthetic


The misuse of notional objectivity is so obvious as to be banal to describe.“

Andrew Bowie Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy

Part 1

There is a lack of healthy suspicion in the process of myth busting on the part of many prominent educators to warrant too much faith that they do not replicate the failures they wish to correct; a surprising lack of recognition of the tensions in modern philosophy on the limits of truth and cognitive thought.

In this blog I consider how Adorno sheds lights on the limits of rationality and why the aesthetic is an important idea in illuminating the limits purely cognitive approaches hold for explaining our existence. To do this I am drawing on the work of Andrew Bowie in Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy. In some sense this is a comment on the recent discussion around traditional and progressive approaches to teaching – though I don’t try to define either.

It turns out (for those who don’t want to read the whole blog) that reason learns from music. Music and the aesthetic are central to a fuller understanding of cognition and reason. Music is far from marginal or something that lurks in the shadow of reason – indeed we come to a fuller understanding of reason through understanding  why the experience of the aesthetic is important.

It is unfortunate that those in education who defend the rational, logical and the unfolding of truth do so in a way that exercises power over the Other. Reason is used again as a way to reinforce a narrow conception of truth; seeking to correct the delusions of the teaching masses and rescue them from their own naïve understandings. Again and again the Western canon is “defended” – sometimes with a knowledgeable and kind Gatekeeper or sometimes because it is just too good to be left out. The neo-traditional teacher reveres knowledge – however it needs to be the right kind of knowledge, from the right kind of people.


The fetishizing of a particular kind of knowledge has lead to a lack of respect for the people who need powerful knowledge. The exclusionary forces of the past and present are downplayed, or ignored, in favour of a more liberal vision of our common human condition. The way power has worked to withhold many voices from the canon is held in secondary concern –indeed, if at all:

The classics from the past have been around for centuries, and have influenced countless authors who came later. If give our pupils a familiarity with these, they will have a richer understanding of any contemporary literature they choose to read. But when we are making the choice, we should be focusing on the older stuff. It’s just more important. “ Anthony Radice

There is a lack of respect for the symbolic resources of everyday common cultures. It is as if the canon of Great European Art allows access to a depth of feeling and wisdom unavailable from common culture. It is argued that we have restricted access to the canon for too long – however instead of consolidating the canon (a task which – as we shall see in part 2 – is really a redundant futility) we should work harder to promote discussion and understanding of the previously neglected powerful knowledge that comes from diverse groups of people and their experiences.

In everyday life we live with contradictory and often unresolved feelings and ideas about a wide range of issues and beliefs. We need an approach to understanding our experiences and judgments that is able to hold onto contradictions without necessarily resolving them – this is something the aesthetic is able to offer.

In believing the purpose of education should be to make us cleverer we restrict what counts as knowledge and ways of knowing. We need a view of language and knowledge that takes us from privileging the syntactic and discursive to acknowledging the importance of expression and feeling as part of the way we make sense of education and ourselves.

It is difficult to see how music makes you cleverer.   In this view of knowledge music makes no contribution to the purpose of education and would seem to be a distraction at best. This only follows if the conceptions of knowledge you have is one that is able to discount the importance of feelings, emotions and ignore an understanding of how life is enriched by the Arts. However, we all know those moments when listening to music we are somehow struck with a sense of beauty, sadness and joy that we cannot explain. The beauty, fragility and complexity of life are held in sharp relief in our aesthetic experiences.

In “Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy” Andrew Bowie argues that one of Adorno’s strengths (he has many idiosyncrasies) was in recognizing the arts fulfill a function that can’t be explained by conceptual reason. If we could explain the whole truth about art – through say philosophy or close criticism – we no longer need it. Indeed instead of marginalizing the arts because it does not improve our cognitive abilities we need to reclaim what Art tells us about the nature of cognition.

That art matters – despite the efforts to marginalize its importance – is without doubt.   It matters as it sheds light on who we are – it gives meaning in ways that no other way of being is able to. We do not spend a day without proclaiming how great this film was or how terrible that TV program was or how amazing these pieces of music are.

We cannot exhaustively describe Arts importance. The problem of Art highlights that any perspective that reduces things to the purely cognitive is not really a perspective that is going to shed much explanatory light on who we are and how we know. Andrew Bowie argues the constant desire to fix meaning and the nature of reality   – the desire to create an epistemological theory that gets to grips with reality – is really a symptom of the lack of use purely cognitive approaches hold for explaining our existence.

Art gives voice to what is not known, to the other, to the neglected and marginal – to things that might be. This is its power – it offers hope because it goes beyond “what is” and is able to articulate a sense of what might be. A profound aesthetic experience provides knowledge of a world beyond what we know. Art can shed light on experiences that have been previously neglected by the official and accepted discourses. Andrew Bowie argues that Adorno suggests the need to give suffering a voice is a condition of all truth. The aesthetic because it articulates a sense of the unknown is vital to a concept of reason – there are some things that lie outside of reasons grasp. The aesthetic is essential in holding reason to account. The lack of inherent objectivity means it can be a source of fresh insight – it is reminder that reason may not be able to fully aware of all aspects of experience. We need to focus on our blindness not our rightness.


Bowie shows that what we share is this sense that negotiating differences are rooted in our most fundamental responses to the world – this is the importance of the aesthetic.


The limits of objective rationality in schools are obvious. The audit culture is a well-known issue leading to many SLT devising lengthy and intricate quality assurance procedures valuing the quantitative over the qualitative. Learning is somehow separated out into separate components and then this learning is counted and measured. At the same time what cannot be counted is relegated to the realm of the subjective. For example these three blogs are really useful in exploring the limitations of books looks and highlighting the issues of quality assurrance:

(http://www.learningspy.co.uk/leadership/the-sane-way-to-monitor-books/ https://martinrobborobinson.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/when-things-go-mad-the-destructive-power-of-ideas/ http://wp.me/p3X3By-od )

The bureaucratic standardization of practices in institutions can destroy patterns of trust and good-will developed in a particular context over time. These patterns are what enable people to make complex judgments involving factors which often can only be analytically separated at the expense of what constitutes their real substance.”   (Andrew Bowie)


However we see in the aesthetic a different kind of understanding. Adorno is at pains to point out that the aesthetic whilst involving the subjective – this subjectivity is grounded in a kind of objectivity due to its being a part of the wider ways in which we make sense of the world – a part of our shared cultural understanding.


In our music lessons we come across people every day who recognize the importance of the aesthetic – they are negotiating the differences and complexities of the world and trying to make sense of it. Young people have a great deal of investment in popular music – music that engages with the complexities and contradictions of modern life. Young people understand that knowledge of the world is not limited to what can be understood cognitively and recognize the importance of expression and feeling in music.

Our challenge as music teachers is to work with young people who are coming to grips with the aesthetic and allow them to work with models and songs that are beginning to speak to them. The challenge is to find ways to allow students: “to give suffering a voice.”

To recognize that in music we offer the chance for alternative stories and alternative visions of beauty. This can’t come from the canon – but as I argue in part two – popular music and our common cultural symbolic materials offer young people a chance to think through the contractions of life in ways that are more useful than attempts to revitalize and rejuvenate the classical canon.


As teachers we need to resist the claims that the purpose of education is to make you cleverer – if that means there is no place for contradiction, emotion, feelings and difference. Our understanding of the world is severely diminished without the aesthetic.