In 1976 Raymond Williams, the Welsh cultural theorist, published the book ‘Keywords, A vocabulary of culture and society’. (1) It was revised and expanded in 1983. It is shortly to be republished. Raymond Williams had gathered his keywords and researched their provenance over a period of thirty years following the Second World War. The word ‘culture’ unsurprisingly has one of the longest entries. Each entry is in effect a mini essay through which Williams shows how words change their meaning over time and across contexts. Others have asked: how is it that words can have meaning? After all, many words can only be defined in terms of other words. (2) Rarely can definitions provide the meaning of a word or term. In this view reducing words to labels is the final act of meaninglessness.

In England it was about 1995 that words started appearing on music room walls. When asked one of those demeaning closed questions seeking out the saying of a word, pupils could be seen gazing bemusedly around the walls. This marked the beginning of a guessing game. What made it worse was that the words were often those monster words designated ‘the elements of music’, those wondorous abstractions far removed from the particularities of musical experience and the features in music that arrest attention (or not). As time passed these monsters came to be augmented by lesser monsters and often specific to a particular musical style or genre. As the prescribed vocabulary expanded the term ‘keywords’ became common currency. These had the advantage of being sub-sets of the monster words and genre specific. But still the guessing game continued and the practice of ‘coercive identity thinking’ flourished. (3)

As I observed the spread of ‘identity violence’, I became interested in another kind of classroom where there were no keywords on the wall and where the teacher talked to the whole class, groups and individuals in a register easily comprehended and into which were sprinkled unselfconsciously new and powerful words. They were at their most potent when this happened inside the discourse of music making, where they were no longer meaningless labels but context-bound and open to multiple meanings and interpretation, before arriving at some kind of consensus. Neither were these words necessarily categorisable into ‘technical’ or ‘expressive’ because there was a poetic quality to the discourse enabling meaning making to flourish.

In all this, from time to time, the pupils’ talk was nurtured through the use of ‘talking points’ (4) and as pupils’ productive talking became second nature so too did the expansion of the language used.

While I am consigning the idea of keywords prevalent in our schools to the dustbin we should perhaps seek to emulate Raymond Williams and discover a vocabulary of music and society. William’s task was to explore the actual language of cultural transformation. We must explore the actual language of music and society’s transformation.

(1) Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society, Raymond Williams, Fontana Press, 1983.
(2) See ‘The meaning of words’ in ‘What does it all mean? Thomas Nagal, Oxford University Press, 1987.
(3) See my Blog Teaching Music Website, May 5th, 2013
(4) See my Blogs Teaching Music Website, June 9th, June 16th, June 23rd, July 7th, September 22nd, September 30th and October 13th for an exploration of the role of talk in reframing music education.

2 thoughts on “Keywords

  1. ‘Neither were these words necessarily categorisable into ‘technical’ or ‘expressive’ because there was a poetic quality to the discourse enabling meaning making to flourish.’

    The idea of holding together technical and expressive language by use of ‘poetic language’ needs more thougt and explanation.

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