What kind of subject is music?

In an engaging and elegantly written blog of December 3 (amusosmusings.wordpress.com/2013/12/…/is-music-an-academic-subject…) Muso asks the question ‘Is music an academic subject?’ This is in reponse to a headteacher who is not at all convinced that Music is like EBacc subjects History and Languages, for example. Muso proceeds to make the academic case by pointing out that Music, and unlike the other arts, has a long theoretical history (Plato’s generation of thought about dance, movement, poetry and Aristotle’s writing on Drama‎ seem to have been overlooked). Furthermore, so the argument runs, there was a time not long ago when musical analysis and more general thought about music were widely recognised as central to the subject’s identity, an identity to some extent lost so it is inferred.

Muso’s musings led me to respond by writing:

‘My definition of an academic subject is that engagement with it is intellectually demanding, that it is mindful. Improvising, composing, perfoming music are all intellectual behaviours calling on mind and body. There is a demand for thinking, thinking in sound and thinking about it-critical engagement with it. To bifurcate the making and the thinking is unhelpful.’

In response, Muso made the point that ‘academic’ is commonly understood as meaning ‘scholarship’ and for there to be scholarship thinking is not enough, a body of thought about the nature of music is required, and there is a history to this. But now the question arises ‘to what extent is it scholarly to examine this body of thought critically and to question its authority?’ Not to do so would seem to be un-scholarly. ‘Scholarly’, ‘academic’ can very quickly gain an aura of authority masking a particular world view rooted, in the case of music, in a particualr musicology, a way of thinking about and studying music.

In the current climate of political debate thinking of music as an academic subject all too easily becomes part of a wider ideological programme of cultural restoration enthusiastically and zealously enacted by the minsiter of state for education, and uncritically reflected in the Ofsted report ‘Music in schools: what hubs must do.’ That the report makes no reference to ‘critical engagement’ is telling.

The advocates of music as an academic subject often draw upon music’s relationship with maths and its abstract qualities. Like maths, music proportions time. No it doesn’t. It is people who proportion musical time in relationship to the tempo of lived experience as part of social and cultural practice.

Jonathan Hicks of Oxford University Music Faculty writing about contemporary music scholarship, tells about the shift from looking at scores, notes and their composer in the 1980s to thinking about music as something alive today in the world where there are people-listeners, critics, producers. ‘Music is experienced live and that is what matters to people.’

Such a view leads us to think of music as a set of human practices, demanding much critical thought.

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