Music scholarship, music education and fresh thinking

Thomas Turino’s Music as Social Life: the politics of participation [1] is a fine example of musical scholarship and as such thought provoking. And, for me, this means that I reorder some of my conceptions of what music is, what it is for and just what is a music education. [2]

I often wonder to what extent music scholarship should shape the way we think about music education.

Thomas Turino is professor of musicology and anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign.

At the beginning of chapter 2 titled Participatory and Presentational Performance he writes:

‘Because we have one word – music – it is a trick of the English language that we tend to think of music making as a single art form. Certainly we know that there are different kinds of music. We have lots of words ranging from rather broad ones – folk, classical, world music – which are meant to encompass everything, to ever more specific labels – (rock) roots, psychedelic, alternative, grunge, glam, punk, (metal) heavy metal, speed metal, death metal. Musical categories are created by musicians, critics, fans, the music industry, and academics alike. These labels are used to distinguish styles and products, but they tell us little about how and why people make the particular music they do and the values that underpin the ways they make it.’ [3]

Turino is interested in why people make the particular music they do and the values that underpin the way they make it. In this way he is able to create two fresh categories, two frames for better understanding the nature and purpose of music making. There is the participatory and the presentational.

‘Presentational performance … refers to situations where one group of people, the artists, prepare and provide music for another group, the audience, who do not participate in making the music or dancing.’ [4]

On Friday last I was the member of an audience, mostly parents, appreciating the performance of thirty year 5 and 6 children in their choral performance. The ethic of presentational performance is a dominant one in many systems of music education.

On the other hand there is ‘participatory performance’.

‘… participatory performance is a special type of artistic practice in which there are no artist-audience distinctions, only participants performing different roles, and the primary goal is to involve the maximum number of people in some performance role.’ [5]

Turino’s examples are drawn from his field work amongst indigenous Peruvians, rural and urban Zimbabweans, and old-time North American musicians and dancers. The ceilidh, the silent disco, the Sheffield Christmas-time pub carolling are examples close to home. These are times when people gather knowing that they will in some way take part in a musical event (performance) in which all will take part. These events inspire participation because they welcome new timers and old timers alike. It’s like going to a party. You expect to participate.

Turino analyses participatory values. Unlike presentational performance values ‘the success of participatory performance is more importantly judge by the degree and intensity of participation than by some abstracted assessment of the musical sound quality’. [6]

The values and goals of presentational performance lead in the direction of abstracted assessment criteria relating to the qualities of musical sound.

I am reminded of my account of a school’s silent disco and implications for the process of valuing (assessment).

In another example a music teacher highlights the distinction between Turino’s two modes.

At the end of a recent GCSE recital an informal 45 minute jam broke out, led by the students (though after a while the teachers couldn’t help but join in). Students began to play and mash together various songs that they had studied at Key stage three – Seven Nation Army, Sweet Dreams, Thrift Shop. There was a sense that the students were claiming this music as their own. The outpouring of joy was palpable (although a small number of students did not feel that they could easily include themselves in this musicking and so left.)’ [7]

The GCSE recital exemplifies presentational musical performance while the jam shows something of the participatory ethic which is likely to have had something of the intensity that Turino speaks of. Were the jamming to become a reason for the players to come together in the future then this would more fully qualify as participatory music making.

I have tried above to set out in general terms the way music scholarship and the creation of fresh categories can open up new thought. I do of course recommend reading the Turino in full to compensate for my lack of depth.

Next week I will explore some possible inplications of Turino’s categories for music education.


[1] Turino, T. (2007) Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. The University of Chicago Press: London.

[2] I am a restless soul in this respect.

[3] ibid, 23.

[4] ibid, 26.

[5] ibid, 26.

[6] ibid, 33.

[7] Email correspondence.















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