Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: A Mobile Digital Age

And now to conclude this four-part series examining the proposed definition of music in the still-under-review National Arts Curriculum: the final two sentences. Here’s the full definition again:

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.

So we come to this assertion: ‘Music is a pervasive feature of contemporary life.’

My response is, “So?”

Pollution, political spin, high interest rates on credit cards, junk food advertising, the Wiggles and internet porn are pervasive features of contemporary life. I’m just not sure what the quality of pervasiveness is bringing to the educational table here.

Or maybe I’m supposed to be paying attention to the contemporary life angle of the statement. Maybe this sentence is staking a claim of contemporary relevance for an art form associated with Mozart, or, if I may indulge in mild cynicism here, creating an endorsed space for classes of kids jamming on the Smoke on the Water riff.

I’m quite certain that the best possible angle of this sentence is not what was intended by the writers: creating space in the educational program for music to be studied as a social phenomenon, not just as a performance art. How fabulous it would be if high school students engaged in learning activities that developed their awareness of how music works to manipulate their consumer behaviours, how music works as therapy, how music enhances and possibly facilitates memory (think how much easier it is to learn the alphabet when you sing it), how the phenomenon of entrainment creates group-think at music festivals and concerts, and so on.

But I have no faith that this is the kind of learning about music that this definition seeks to enable. As much as anything because I see little evidence, in New South Wales in any case, that either primary or high school music teachers have had any substantive exposure to the idea that music can and should be studied in this way. And with the start of the definition of music set up to create a one-third performing, one-third composing, one-third analysis kind of educational program it’s hard to see how studying music as a social phenomenon fits in: there needs to be an ‘observing’ category in which the personal response of the student is not part of the program.

Now to the final sentence: ‘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.’

Firstly, if music is so pervasive then let’s not hedge our bets by restricting it to only ‘many of our day-to-day activities’: pervasive means everywhere, not just quite a few places.

Secondly, you think humans had to wait for a mobile digital age before many of their day-to-day activities could be underpinned and accompanied by music? Before we could mark significant moments of individual and collective life with song?

If anything, the emergence of a mobile digital age marks the arrival of a new kind of musical engagement, a different kind of pervasive, a new and highly mediated means to an ancient end.

Once the music that permeated our everyday activities and marked our significant moments of individual and collective life was music emanating from our own bodies: we sang, we stamped, we beat drums, we blew through pipes, we struck, plucked or scraped pieces of animal gut, wood and metal. The music resonated from inside us because our bodies were where the music cam from.

In a mobile digital age what is significant is not that music engagement underpins and accompanies many of our everyday activities but that our music engagement has become passive, and just as many urban children have no idea that carrots grow underground or that eggs emerge from the rear end of a chook, so our experience of music is separated by many degrees from its physical origins.

This, this gulf between the music-making and the music-reception is the first notable aspect about music engagement in a mobile digital age.

But there is so much more about music-making and music-listening in a mobile digital age that this definition does not touch upon. Most notable is the ability of the individual to create complex sound documents (mp3 files, for example) without touching a musical instrument. Additionally novel is the ability of the individual to access freely musical performance which is outside the experience of that individual’s physical community/neighbourhood.

A mobile digital age allows for music-use to be utterly beyond the prescription of the composer or the community: if an individual wants to use music from a requiem as their ringtone there is nothing to stop them.

And in a mobile digital age knowledge becomes divorced from physical skill, and the mastery of an instrument and music notation are no longer sufficient for practical contemporary musical expertise.

Strictly speaking, and even not-so-strictly speaking,none of these observations about the consumption of music in a mobile digital age belong in a definition of what music is. We could just as easily rework the sentence to begin “In an age of consumerism….” or “In an age of social media…..”.

But these final sentences of the definition would be best reworked thus: Music is a pervasive feature of life. Music engagement both underpins and accompanies many of our day-to-day activities, and, marks the significant moments of individual and collective life.

Now, doesn’t that read true? And doesn’t that definition still leave educators endless scope for engaging with music, including ways our 2010 mobile digital age hasn’t yet dreamed of? Possibly a good idea for a curriculum document you won’t want to revise every time Steve Jobs has a press conference.

2 thoughts on “Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: A Mobile Digital Age

  1. I listen to mp3s while I wash my children’s clothes in the machine; my Grandmother sang hymns while she washed her children’s clothes in the copper. The “mobile digital” factor is just another way to experience music. I may not have seen a Horowitz documentary without Youtube, and I can video my students on my phone to show them their fingershape from a different angle. The potential for “junk food” in this context is the factor I am nervous about in a national curriculum. In literature study, watching a DVD of Pride and Prejudice should not replace reading and analysing several Jane Austen novels. In music study, I would hate to see 100 hours of orchestra rehearsal considered the same level of education as 100 hours of downloading ringtones.

    • I would think that watching a DVD of Pride and Prejudice is only useful as a study of adaptations, not as a reading-substitute. I’ve seen high school music teachers bung on a video (this was back in the mid 90s) of Disney animated ‘musicals’ for two or three periods and truly believe they are educating their students (or at the very least, take exception to parents who were concerned that this was a waste of their child’s educational potential). Bad teaching finds a way to assert itself through whatever medium it can!!

      100 hours of creating ringtones would be highly educational, in my opinion. But anything passive is an education fail.

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