Understanding music and the tacit dimension

It’s a story of inept and corrupt local politicians, the enchanting and beguiling power of music, the possibility of perpetual childhood happiness, child abduction and the pain of separation creating a Billy-no-mates and a community bereft of its future.

Tell the story of the Pied Piper to young children and they will be engrossed: their feeling and thinking will have been engaged. Like all folk tales there is something that is ‘close to home’, something of great personal significance. Such stories have the power to provoke wonderment, ill- ease, puzzled questioning and a good many whys? Now, tell the story and at the same time embed it in the music of Peter Warlock played by musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra and there will be a worthwhile music educational event in progress. LSO animateur Hannah tells us that:

“Two hundred 5-7 year children sat entranced by the sound of a string quartet from the London Symphony Orchestra performing a movement from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. They understood the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive because such things had been given a context that provides for meaning and significance in their own lives. The young audience had been listening intently to the grief of hundreds of people from the town of Hamelin. They had experienced at first hand the pain the mothers felt as they witnessed the Pied Piper lead their children away into the mountain. There was no need to explain Warlock’s music.” [1]

‘They understood the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive because such things had been given a context that provides for meaning and significance in their own lives.’ [1]

In this instance the proposition made about the nature of musical understanding is worth holding on to and I hope it will help us to understand a little more about the nature of ‘musical understanding’, an idea of great complexity, a many-sided concept and one worth dwelling upon.

‘They understood the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive…’

So in what sense was there understanding?

In some part we can think in terms of a ‘tacit’ way of knowing and understanding, a way that can never be made explicit. Yet, a way upon which all other ways of knowing and understanding are reliant. That is the proposition to be explored here.

If this is the case then there will be implications for ways in which musical understanding is thought about and the kind of pedagogy that would need to be adopted if it were recognised and nurtured.

According to our speculation above, young children were getting Warlock’s music, not only getting it but in a way that was deeply meaningful and significant. Tacit knowing was at work. It is Michael Polanyi’s [2] claim that ‘tacit knowing’ both underpins and forms the bedrock of all other ways of knowing and understanding.

Tacit knowledge and understanding

To know how to ride a bicycle is not the same as to know that the Beatles’ first chart number 1 was …, that trumpets play fanfares. We tend to assume that all knowledge has the potential to be mediated through language, that it can be identified, named, taught, accumulated. To imagine that there exists a form of knowledge and understanding that is impossible to gain access to by means of the spoken word, or in written form, or even by silently showing, we call ‘tacit’ and it is this kind of musical knowledge and understanding, so the argument runs here, (and following Polanyi and Bowman [3]), that is foundational in all musical experience and all forms of musical knowing and understanding.

It is a form of knowing that is deeply felt and known and intensely personal. It can not be spoken of. It can not be verbally mediated. It is destined to remain hidden and without articulation. It is untranslatable. It is not convertible into any other form. It can not be captured or codified. It can not be made explicit. It is not waiting to be discovered, uncovered or revealed. Any attempt to do this is doomed to failure.

Some readers may wish to make a distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’. For Polanyi, in setting out the ‘tacit dimension’, understanding is knowing, is knowledge. It embraces our pre-conceptual powers and our ‘indwelling’ of the world and where our passions for all ways of knowing come from. It is where meaning emanates from, a profoundly personal form of meaning.

The case of musical performance

The example of riding a bicycle is frequently given but let’s present the case of musical performance.

We can not possibly speak of all that we are knowing in the act of performance. Our knowledge of what Polanyi calls ‘particulars’, all the elements experienced and ‘known’, can never be grasped in their particularity and their totality despite the fact that we can endlessly propose explanations, devise rules, codes and produce manuals that tell us about good musical performance, how the body and its posture is and so on.  There is always more within our knowing than we can say, more than we can tell.

Polanyi gives the example of hitting a nail with a hammer. Our focal awareness is on the nail but subsidiary to this is awareness of the hammer, how it feels in the hand and so on.

To recognise the tacit dimension acknowledges multiple perceptions of reality and multiple interpretations of reality. However, to acknowledge what is tacit as foundational in our current educational climate is problematic; for it flies in the face of so much of the rhetoric suroounding the idea of knowledge justified by the power of codification, concept forming, the naming of rules and conventions and all that can be thought of as explicit knowledge. That knowledge is made explicit is a fundamental expectation of a curriculum that provides evidence that a discipline is being mastered and that shows the acquisition of propositional knowledge. We know ‘that’…. It is to know this and to know that and of course this kind of knowledge is important.

However, tacit knowing manifest in the act of understanding is not to know this or to know that but something that is bodily felt and known. [4]


In the act of musical performance the knowing lies in the doing. It is embodied in two senses. First, it is literally of the body and secondly, it exists metaphorically embodied, that is, inside the experience of performing, composing and listening. The act of performing music may be one of the most outstanding examples of tacit knowing at work. In musical performance as in all other forms of musical ‘thinking and making’ we can experience multiple perceptions of reality. Polanyi speaks of ‘pouring ourselves into the subsidiary awareness of particulars’, to ‘indwell’. [4]

Would we be able to take a step towards setting out a pedagogy that takes account of the tacit dimension?

Is there a pedagogy that presupposes the significance of the tacit dimension?

More next week.


[1] Conway, H. and Finney, J. (2003) Musical Enchantment in the Early Years. Teacher Development, Vol. 7, No. 1, 121-129.

[2] Polanyi, M. (1973) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[3] I am indebted to Bowman, W. D. (1982) Polanyi and Instructional Method in Music. Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 16, No. 2, 75-86.

[4] Polanyi, M. (1958) Understanding ourselves. London: The University of Chicago Press.




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