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Blog post Part of special issue: Transformational Further Education: Empowering People & Communities

Music education and social justice

Tim Cain

Music education and social justice was the subject of a symposium at the 2016 BERA conference. Entitled Social Justice and Music Education in England and Scotland, and the symposium reported on studies of, a) the impact of music education policy in England, b) ethnographic research into an inclusive instrumental music tuition programme in Scotland, and c) a case study of an individual drum teacher in England. Papers were presented by Tim Cain, Diljeet Bhachu and Ian Shirley; Vicky Duckworth was the respondent.

The discussion which followed the presentations explored the distinction between music pedagogies which, in the conscious or unconscious pursuit of social justice, focused on individual children as music makers, and those which focused on transmitting the discipline of music. Essentially, this distinction is the well-known and much-debated distinction between what used to be called ‘child-centred’ and ‘subject-centred’ teaching. Some teachers (including those who were reported on in the research papers) seek to discover the innate musicality of each person and to help develop this musicality as an intrinsic good, because to become more musical is to have more choices about how to spend time and live a satisfying life. However, music pedagogies are more usually characterised by an approach which assumes that there are established, correct ways to master the discipline of music: to hold an instrument, to master technical challenges such as scales and arpeggios, to read music and so on.

What became clear in the discussion is that this distinction hinges, at least in part, on the teacher’s understanding of music. For some, music is something that people do. It is a way of being together, of communicating something of importance, of understanding something of the self and the world. In this understanding, to think of music as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is inappropriate. Rather, musical genres have their own standards of quality and these are in constant flux as musicians push the boundaries of the genres. In this understanding, music is an art. For others, musical theory has established a basic grammar which must be learnt as a foundation for music making. It includes understanding and performing rhythms, melodies and harmonies of gradually increasing complexity. The path to musical excellence is both defined and assessed by graded examinations such as those of the ABRSM. In this understanding, music is more like mathematics.

The difference between these understandings is an ontological one, established in formal and informal education. In the case of music teachers, this education usually starts at a young age. To move from one understanding to another is to make a profound switch – a paradigm shift. Nevertheless, the research literature shows that some teachers, despite their own formal training, can move from a focus on music as a discipline, to a focus on students as developing musical capability. Perhaps this shift can best be prompted by asking music teachers to consider the social justice implications of their practice.