Embodied Musical Knowledge

Knowing how to as practical knowledge embodied is the most powerful knowledge of all. We could then talk about a knowledge-led curriculum and that would go down well in important places.’ [1]

In last week’s blog I briefly illustrated embodied-knowledge with examples from Yehudi Menuhin and Steven Feld.

Below Gary Spruce engages with Michael Fordham on the subject of embodied musical knowledge. Michael is a history teacher and member of a school leadership team.

@mfordhamhistory @Johnfinney8 books.google.co.uk/books?id=VMSKB…. This does a good job, I think
 Link not working. But see

  1. http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781472419613 J. Murphy McCaleb, Kidderminster College, UK; Series: SEMPRE Studies in The Psychology of Music; Performing in musical ensembles provides a remarkable …

This is the kind of explanatory work we have to do in order to educate the wider profession about the nature of musical knowledge. The work needs to be disruptive.

And I met another visible example of embodied musical knowledge as I travelled by train last Friday. The young man across the aisle caught my attention through his dancing upper body as he listened to whatever it was on his audio device. It appeared as if his embodied musical knowledge was making the world his own.

(No knowledge independent of the knower. Discuss.)

This is knowledge and understanding that can’t be reduced to discursive thought. No, it is not there waiting to be revealed as knowing this and that. This is not to say that it can’t be reflected upon. And now the teacher has great responsibility.

Wait a minute, have you noticed? I have slipped from knowledge into understanding.

L. A. Reid points out that while a conceptual distinction can be made between knowledge and understanding, existentially they are the same. [2]

And having reached this point we can make a link to meaning. [3]

(No knowledge without meaning. Discuss.)

Why speak about engagement, skills, fun when we can speak about knowledge, understanding and meaning making?

Now, if we can have a more confident discourse around the nature of musical knowledge, we may be able to think more intelligently about assessment.

Without starting with the nature of musical knowledge assessment is left to run around like a headless monster.


[1] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/music-education-and-its-practical-wisdom/

[2] Reid, L. A. (1986) Ways of Understanding and Education. Heinemann Education Books.

[3] See Green, L. (1988) Music on Deaf Ears: Musical meaning. Ideology and education. Manchester University Press.













6 thoughts on “Embodied Musical Knowledge

  1. I think I might have to disagree with Reid about Knowledge and understanding being the same thing. For example, I know how to play the oboe, but I can’t get a sound of it – therefore I cannot demonstrate my understanding of how to play the oboe, because I can’t do it. Or, kids can know what all the major scales are on their instruments, but not understand the theory behind Tone-Tone-Semitone-etc. Or maybe even on an aesthetic level, one can know that Wagner’s Tristan is a great opera, and said person can quote you the Tristan chord, but not understand why Tristan is so great as they can’t stand it! Recently for me all the Bowie stuff, yes, I get all that, but the younger me was a ‘Yes’ fan, so Bowie passed me by!

    I’ve always said, semi-humorously, but with a grain of truth, that I don’t understand understanding! Maybe if I know I don’t understand it, then do I understand I don’t understand it? Think I need a lie-down in a darkened room!

    But thanks John, for making think about it!

  2. Reid maintains that knowledge and understanding are different conceptually but the same existentially.
    For Reid knowing and understanding music existentially is personal/aesthetic/experiential – a matter of cognitive-feeling.
    So conceptually any know how would need to be elaborated as know how to play the oboe with …
    Interestingly Polanyi takes an existential rather than a conceptual position in respect to his tacit knowing-understanding.
    Thanks for the response.

  3. ‘So conceptually any know how would need to be elaborated as know how to play the oboe with …’
    for it to cohere with the expereince of knowing how to.
    What about ‘know how-show how?
    This would make a valuable objective stem perhaps.

  4. On Musical understanding:

    The question of what it is to understand music continues to challenge scholars and policy makers alike. Philosophers of music education frequently defer to the idea and we note the recent work of Roger Scruton (2010) building on his distinguished earlier work. Beyond philosophy a cognitive psychology of music closely attached to musical educational thought and practice has interest too. For example, Robert Walker writing in the preface to Harold Fiske’s ‘Understanding Musical Understanding’, proposes that musical understanding is what the human brain is wired to do and the remarkable thing is that it gets on and does it. It is part of the everyday cognitive activity of the brain and this makes musical understanding something that is ‘personal, private, and intensely meaningful and special to each individual’ (Walker, 2008: xvi). And we might recall that John Sloboda had viewed musical understanding as a matter of mind endowing ‘musical events, collections of sounds, with significance: they become symbols for something other than pure sound, something which enables us to laugh or cry, be moved or be indifferent’ (1985: 1). But John Sloboda goes further maintaining that understanding music is a necessary pre-condition to being moved by it in much the same way that we wont get a joke unless we understand it. We have to be in the know as it were, know the language, know the syntax. And by way of enjoining debate, Anthony Kemp (1996) argues this doesn’t account for the way people make sense of music, are moved by it and ‘get it’ without the levels of cognitive complexity suggested by the analogy of getting a joke.

    So different perspectives on the topic with the conceptual vying with the existential.

    Eggerbrech writes that:

    ‘Understanding is a process by which something that is external to us loses its externality and gains access to our inner self. Object and self, self and object are drawn together and unite through understanding, in degrees of identity which correspond to the degrees of intensity of understanding. Understanding makes the world our own.’ (1999: 1)

    Eggebrecht, H. (1999) Understanding Music. Ashgate.

    Kemp, A. E. (1996) The Musical Temperament. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Scruton, R. (2010) Understanding Music. Continuum: London.

    Sloboda, J. (1985) The Musical Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Walker, R. (2008) ‘Forward’ in H. Fiske, Understanding Musical Understanding. Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press.

  5. Martin, perhaps what you have helped me to see is that we can distinguish between conceptual musical understanding from – well – musical understanding. Just been talking with my Jazz loving son to whom I gave a book on Jazz with a glossary of Jazz terms for Christmas. He has been reading it and says he would really like to go to New Orleans but he wont be taking the book when he goes to a Jazz Club and talk to others in conceptual Jazz terms. That wont help his understanding (existential not conceptual) he says.

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