Defining Music in the new Arts Curriculum

Here in Australia we are going through a process of creating a national curriculum. For all these years the education system of one state has mandated a completely different curriculum to that of the next state, and children in different parts of the country can have enormous difficulty moving from one system to another should their parents decide to make the move to another part of the country. Teachers also face barriers if they should choose to move and, besides this important logistical consideration, there is a sense that a national curriculum would also have the advantage of bringing together the best of each currently operating curriculum.

That’s the thinking, in any case.

I’m not about to analyse the case for a national curriculum (I happen to think it’s a splendid notion), or to discuss the broad brushstrokes of the process of its development.

What I am about to do (over the next few months) is to engage in some very specific discussion about the role of music education in the new national curriculum, and today I want to explore the proposed definition of music in the new arts curriculum.

Because a definition determines what’s in and what’s out it is terribly important to get it right, or at least not wrong.

Here’s the proposed definition as it stands in the first version of the national curriculum.

2.3.4 Defining Music
16. Music is the imaginative process of creating, performing, and responding to sound and silence for personal and collective meaning. Through the processes of creating musical works, performing with voice and instrument, and responding to our own and others’ music, individuals and groups communicate meanings, beliefs and values. Music engagement shapes our thought and activity, and is evident from the earliest stages of life. People turn to music at times of emotional, physical, and intellectual need.  Music is a pervasive feature of contemporary life. In a mobile digital age, music engagement both underpins and accompanies many of our day-to-day activities, and, marks the significant moments of individual and collective life.

Let’s break it down. In today’s post I’m simply going to confine myself to the very first sentence:

Music is the imaginative process of creating, performing, and responding to sound and silence for personal and collective meaning.

This is quite true. But there are other statements we could make about music that are almost certainly more true than this particular statement (and we’ll get to those alternatives in a moment). This statement claims that music is an imaginative process, as compared to any other kind of process. And that music is a process, as compared to any other kind of thing. There’s a lot in this claim, and I like the active energy both these words bring to the definition.

On the other hand, much music (and much that is enjoyable about music) isn’t particularly fueled by imagination, but rather by repetition (from a music analysis point of view) and something the music scientists call entrainment (a social human phenomenon related to experiencing aspects of music, notably rhythmic, in the same way as other people do – i.e. being able to clap along to a beat). In fact, this social aspect of music is so fundamental – being able to clap along with others – as to suggest that imagination is merely a solitary and even secondary aspect in defining music. Repetition is related to this social phenomenom of entrainment, in that music works because people have a sense of what’s coming next, even if, at the most basic level, this knowledge is simply where the beat will be. It is this entrainment aspect of music that makes it so powerful in terms of its mobilisation in any number of different social settings, from warming up a private party (dance music) to firing up a sports crowd (national song) to terrifying a movie audience (thriller/horror movie music).

Which brings us to the noun ‘process’. Music is so much more a phenomenon than it is a process. We experience music primarily in our bodies, sometimes when we sing, but more frequently when we find ourselves surrounded by music as we go about our lives (the examples of party, sports event and movie are excellent, but only the very tip of the social situations we find ourselves in with music). This pervasiveness is mentioned further along in the definition, but the point here is not that music is pervasive, but that the processual aspect of music is an academic abstraction somewhat removed from the primary of physical experience.

Music is physical. We experience it in our eardrums, in our fingertips, in our core. It surrounds us and inhabits us. It is only through the use of physical barriers that we can limit its entry to our bodies, and even the profoundly deaf experience this beyond-sonic aspect of what music is. Music is literally inside us. All of us. Whether we like it or not. Or in curriculum-speak: Music is profoundly immersive, and it is a phenomenon each and every human experiences from the day they are born.

Of course, immediately that our bodies encounter music that physical experience becomes emotional. And again, this element of experiencing music is not optional. Humans communicate emotion astonishingly directly when music is the medium, and this extremely nuanced emotional content of music is almost impossible to relate via language.

The catch? This emotional language is not universal, but cultural (with some profound similarities shared by many cultures of the world). The fact that the emotional expression of music is substantially learned, as compared to the physical experience of music which is simply a reality of humans being embodied, is enormously significant when we are looking at music education (what it is and what it should be). Ignoring or downplaying this utterly foundational experience of music results in a stunted music education. And reducing the role emotion plays in the experience of music to the all-inclusive but bland term ‘meaning’ (at the end of the first sentence of this curriculum definition) suggests the authors of the definition simply don’t believe (or understand) how intrinsic emotion is in what music does.

So at this point I’m rewriting the definition to read: Music is an immersive sonic and social phenomenon that is at once both physical and emotional.

Now, what I’ve missed out is something key that the curriculum writers have embedded in their opening sentence: there’s no talk in my sentence of creating, performing or responding (per se). My sentence is all about the responding. And not reasoned, analytical response, no! It’s a physical, emotional, potentially messy (but always human) response. And schools don’t know quite what to do with responses that are physical and emotional. Schools much prefer responses to be double-spaced and spell-checked, and this preference cannot help but steer the curriculum (writers).

So here’s the thing: performing and creating are in themselves responses to music. I’ll say it again: when you perform a piece of music (either an existing work or something you’ve just made up) you are responding to music. You are responding to what music does in your body and with your emotions. You are responding to the way music does the same (or at least terribly similar) things to the bodies and emotions of your friends, your neighbours, your family, even people you don’t know (yet). And when you compose a piece of music you are doing exactly the same thing: you are responding to music, a way of expressing that which lives in your bones, in your heart and in your memory.

In addition to asserting that performing and creating are responses to music, not an activity separate to response, so I would like to point out that performing without creating is no performance at all. To posit performance and creating as adjacent musical experiences is impressively deep-down muddleheaded. Of course, performance is a kind of physical engagement with music that is of a different nature to the immersive experience of purely hearing it, but this physical engagement with music via an instrument (even if this instrument is the voice or the body) is a creative engagement, and I’m sure that the curriculum writers would not want to argue that it was not.

So why are performing and creating presented as being different? Because the format of this opening sentence pays hommage to the curricula of the past which have established three ways of assessing musical learning: through performance, through composition and through analysis. Choosing to define music this way entrenches existing assessment task-oriented thinking, rather than providing a solid foundation for the best education we can provide Australian children in the 21st century. Deliberately fudging these words at this point creates a structure it will be hard to unbuild, a structure that does not value many of the lessons music can deliver.

I beg ACARA, can we start with a genuine effort to define what music really is and to then build our curriculum on that, rather than defining the ways in which we (the teaching profession) are already comfortable teaching music.

4 thoughts on “Defining Music in the new Arts Curriculum

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that we as a profession need to think outside of the box as opposed to continuing to proceed in ways that we “are already comfortable..”. One of the main ways we can begin this process is to be adaptive of technology and more inclusive in our approach. Why for instance have we put the health of our entire profession on ‘school music programs’ much to the exclusion of anyone older than 18? We abandon music makers and enthusiasts at the very moment they are becoming adults and making money enough to support their aspirations and dreams. I believe one component of this paradigm shift should include entrepreneurial music educators. Those who design curricula and teach outside of academia. To that end, I submit http://www.discoverlearnandplay and the Dallas School of Music as models for future educators to consider.

    • This debate is actually about defining what music is prior to any discussion regarding the best means of or media for teaching music. And I’m guessing that submitting this particular website is not of much relevance to the drafting of a curriculum for classroom music!

      Many educators do struggle to adapt to the new possibilities for learning that technology allows, but I can’t see classroom teachers abrogating their role to an online tutor, and the kinds of tuition offered in the website mentioned differ markedly from the kinds of music education one would hope to see classroom teachers deliver, most especially in the K-3 years, but really across the board.

  2. How eloquently argued Elissa! I’m in New Zealand, and not a school teacher, but reading you I have this sinking feeling that the old ‘tried and true’ (heh!)thinking will prevail.

    With all my heart I hope not.

  3. To define performing and creating as responses to music is a most interesting concept. Indeed it is to be seen each time a child starts to dance to a tune. The desire to move to music is certainly built in and is there whether or not a pre school parent prompts it or not. It is also a vital concept in playing instruments. Whether a drum or a more complex instrument, a student surely responds to the sounds and rythms they produce. And as a performer learns to play the music rather than the notes they are surely responding as well as creating. For the listener early responses are surely pure emotion. The intellectual understanding will only come later and is anyway is unnecessary for basic enjoyment of music. Just feel it and all else will follow. It doesn’t need to have “meaning”

    The emotional aspect is likewise part of personality development. From a mother singing a lullaby or a father mouthing an apparently tuneless hum, a child’s musical and social development is being guided through the calming influence and pure emotion of sound.

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