Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: To Conclude

I’ve been analysing the proposed definition of music in the proposed new National Arts Curriculum, one or two sentences at a time, covering with What Music Is, Values, Musical Engagement and ‘Need’, and finally  A Mobile Digital Age.

The proposed definition looks to have been constructed from a preferred teaching and assessing format rather than from a genuine effort to define what music is. This is no small thing: defining music by one’s teaching preferences ossifies and endorses current teaching praxis without leaving open the possibility of innovation and improvement let alone the recognition of educational failures in the status quo. Blind spots remain invisible, and the opportunity to remap the teaching landscape goes to waste.

As bad as it might be to define a subject by one’s preferred classroom activities and assessment rubrics, in this case I believe the curriculum definition is simply being determined by the way teachers have become accustomed to teaching music. Complacency is no friend of excellence; defining our subject should be taken more seriously than this.

Here is a summary of the problems both explicit and implicit in the current proposed definition of music:

Firstly, the definition prescribes that music (and therefore the study of music) divides into a creating or performing or responding experience. This is an insidious discourse, because once a teacher signs up for this tripartite approach to what music is then that teacher is committed to avoiding learning that takes place between or across these divides. Is conducting performance or response or creation? Is improvising on a theme a performance, creation or response? Is programming an iPod a response, creation or a kind of performance? And under which rubric would music literacy (learning to read and write music notations) fit in?

The second issue is the reduction of the role of ‘meaning’ to being something that is ‘communicated’. Sometimes meaning is ‘found’, sometimes meaning is ‘imposed’, sometimes meaning is ‘shared’, along with any other number of experiences of meaning. The use of the word ‘communicate’ implies a transmission model of meaning, where a fixed and uncontestable ‘meaning’ is (usually intentionally) conveyed by someone to someone else. Our use of language in a definition of music needs to recognise that in real life (real families, real communities) meanings are negotiated and contested as well as being celebrated and shared. This is not a trifling concern, but one that goes to the heart of musical expression.

A third problem is the assertion that music is a solution to (or a source of help with) a wide range of needs. This is a nonsensical component of the definition. A more specific wording is required if the goal here is to state that music is an essential part of being human. And there’s no need to pretend that music is a physical need. That’s just silly.

Finally, that furphy that the pervasiveness of music in our lives is a function of contemporary times, and recent mobile technological developments. Music has always accompanied human existence: work songs, lullabies, celebratory songs, songs for mourning, songs of love, and songs to inspire. To suggest that the mp3 format has allowed music to permeate human experience is to be ignorant of the development of human civilisation.

As I’ve gone through each of the aspects of this proposed definition I have suggested an alternative wording of each sentence (with the exception of the second post where I examined Values). Here I bring them together with a suggested alternative to the original National Arts Curriculum definition of Music:

Music is an immersive sonic and social phenomenon that is at once both physical and emotional. Communication takes place through the processes of musical creation, performance and response (processes which are by no means discrete from each other), and music carries multiple meanings, communal and individual, intentional and unpredictable. People turn to music every day throughout their lives to create a sense of identity, to connect with others and to express, reflect and change their emotions. Music is a pervasive feature of life. Music engagement both underpins and accompanies many of our day-to-day activities from our earliest years as well as marking the significant moments of individual and collective life.

Note that this is not my definition of what music is, this is my reworking of the concepts addressed in the original proposed definition.

But I think I like it.

And I think I would enjoy very much enjoy teaching a curriculum emerging from this definition of music, although it might be rather different to any curriculum I’ve ever worked from before.

Music teachers of Australia (and anywhere else in the world, for that matter) – what do you think?

4 thoughts on “Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: To Conclude

  1. This dialogue gives me slight tired head. It does not need to be overly academic. Playing music is fun, it is almost universally revered as an enviable skill and nearly everyone would agree there are very limited drawbacks. It’s time the teaching of music was packaged and presented in ways that current generations have come expect their information be delivered. It is an amazing commodity that people of all ages would want to access if they could. Professional music education needs to adopt entrepreneurial ideals for the future. Read more radical thoughts here:

    • So the suggestion you are making is this definition, perhaps: “Music does not need to be academic. It is fun to play music and everyone agrees that playing music is an enviable skill. Music is a commodity that people want to access throughout their life.” ?

      Or maybe you are suggesting that teachers ignore the curriculum documents they are legally obliged to teach to?

      These analyses have been academic and thorough, and many people (yourself included!) don’t find that kind of thinking anywhere near as much fun as playing music is! But if teachers are required to teach to a national curriculum there is a very real need to spend time grappling with the issues that are implicit in that curriculum, and to debate those issues before the opportunity for review is passed.

      I suspect that you are not one of the teachers who will be affected by this new National Arts Curriculum, for teachers who will be affected by it are still very interested in getting this definition right, even if it does give them a tired head in the short term.

  2. Ha – you are correct on all accounts! I especially liked you/our definition of music: “Music does not need to be academic. It is fun to play music and everyone agrees that playing music is an enviable skill. Music is a commodity that people want to access throughout their life.” CHEERS form the states 🙂

  3. An extraordinarily close look at an issue with countless implications for the children who are placed in the environment where the nationally imposed curriculum is, well, if not “everything” then surely the standard on which all decisions must rest – I do not know enough about this subject, and at present have other pressing issues on which to place my mind, but wanted to take this moment to commend you on your work in this direction-

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