How culture counts for music education

In my blog of November 7 I cited the work of philosopher Roger Scruton with reference to his book ‘Culture Counts’. [1] I suggested that Scruton’s conservationist perspective on culture (‘the best that …’) had been influential in recent policy making in England.

A number of examples come to mind. There is the newly made National Curriculum for Music with the call of the canon and its great composers. And then the newly formed GCSE for Music with its centrally determining 1700-1900 Area of Study making other areas of study indeed ‘the other’. [2]

But wait a minute, there are other ways of thinking about culture. The anthropological perspective, for example, sees culture as ordinary and embracing the whole range of lived experience. This means less attention paid to cultural objects, canons and works of art detached from time and place and, in the case of music, more interest in the ways in which music is lived out in different contexts by different people and where music is thought of as a practice rather than aesthetic object. From this perspective Scruton’s ‘culture’ as ‘the best’ is at best partial and at worse hegemonic.

The idea of ‘the best’, and if this means as I think it does, ‘the one best’, moves away from diversity and the possibility that different musical practices might be to a considerable extent incommensurable and requiring different kinds of value judgments.

‘The one best’ gives rise to a restrictive hierarchy of works, a ‘one best’ way of listening to music [3], of analyzing music, of defining creativity, of finding music’s so-called intrinsic value, of championing certain forms of complexity over simplicity, the abstract over the concrete, the transcendent over the material, the unworldly over the worldly, the beautiful over kitsch and so on.

Or to take another perspective: according to Zygmunt Bauman we live in the age of Liquid Modernity where nothing is fixed or stable. [4] Everything is fluid, changing and temporary. In this view culture can be thought of as being in flux and in the case of music without boundaries defining genre and tradition, in an endlessly fluid state of becoming something different. It is no longer possible to create new styles of expression, instead we see the past endlessly reused and for pastiche to be the most obvious means of expression. Amy Winehouse’s use of Klezmer is an example. This is not fusion but ‘mashing’. [5]

Now we might imagine a GCSE Area of Study opening up questions about contemporary musical practices and their provenance and a curriculum opening minds about culture and the struggles to claim it. [6]


[1] Roger Scruton (2007) ‘Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged’. Encounter Books: New York.

[2] See Chapter 8 ‘Musical Ideologies, Practices and Pedagogies’ in Debates in Music Teaching (eds.) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Routledge: London. Here Gary Spruce and Francesca Matthews discuss the dominant ideology of western art music.

[3] See below the case of ‘Proper and Improper Listening in the Draft GCSE for Music’, Blog August 27.

[4] Zygmunt Bauman (2007) ‘Liquid Modernity’. Polity Press: Cambridge.

[5] I am not sure about this. We may need a category somewhere between fusion and mashing. Any ideas?

[6] For a comprehensive consideration of the history of the idea of culture see


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s