Local Knowledge this Christmas Time

Better try over number seventy-eight before we start I suppose?’ said William, pointing to a heap of old Christmas carol books on a side table. [2]

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, like much of his writing, contains references to music-making. Hardy’s interest in the social conditions of his characters is matched by interest in the social conditions of their music-making.

For Hardy music is social practice. Musical meanings and musical knowledge are made here and now together and bound to the meanings made through the relationships of those participating. And all this in relationship to their place in the social order.

In the case of Under the Greenwood Tree there is the story of the Melstock choir, a band of local musicians playing and singing in the west gallery of their village church. Their music is silenced by the installation of the organ and a well-tutored organist. The imagined mediocrity of the locals is replaced by the imagined more refined and civilising sounds of the organ and the organist’s playing.

The musically disenfranchised locals inhabiting Hardy’s rural Wessex had come to enjoy in Michael Gove’s words:

… a shared appreciation of cultural reference points, a common stock of knowledge on which all can draw, and trade, in a society in which we all understand each other better’. . . [3]

Well, of course, I am being a little facetious, for Michael Gove was not referring to local traditions, such as Hardy’s musicians and their customs held in common, but to the proposition that:

… there is such a thing as the best. Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding – intellectually, sensually and emotionally – than, say, the Arctic Monkeys’. [4]

Or shall we say, not the Arctic Monkeys but the carollers on the western edge of Sheffield  whose singing this Christmas-time makes connections with that nearly lost repertoire of Hardy’s childhood time and now lost to the Christmas canon. [5]

Ah! ‘the best of the musical canon’, where have I heard that?

Here are two utterly different conceptions of what music is, what it is for, how it is educative; what culture is and what it is for.

While there is the knowledge of the powerful [6] exemplified in the edicts of our cultural administrators, it may be the carollers at the Sportsman Inn who will be in touch with incomparably more knowledge of music as a human practice and perhaps, just perhaps, of humanity too.

Number seventy-eight was always a teaser – always. I can mind him ever since I was growing up a hard boy-chap. But he’s a good tune, and worth a mint o’ practice.’ [7]

Wishing you a very happy Christmas!


[1] First published Christmas 2014.

Readers will find a number of previous blogs dealing with the idea of culture. This blog connects well with ‘How culture counts for music education’ https://wordpress.com/post/jfin107.wordpress.com/1038

[2] Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy, London, MacMillan, 1964 page 24.

[3] Gove, M. (2011) The need to reform the education system. Speech made at the University of Cambridge, November 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Pubs preserve the carols dusted away by the Victorians. Guardian, Monday 15 December 2014 page 5.

See http://www.localcarols.org.uk/sings.php for this year’s programme of singing.

[6] Michael Young contrasts ‘The knowledge of the powerful’ with ‘powerful knowledge’. See http://www.fpce.up.pt/ciie/revistaesc/ESC32/ESC32_Arquivo.pdf I have simply appropriated the phrase ‘powerful knowledge’ here and don’t necessarily imply anything of Young’s thesis, interesting though that is.

[7] I do concede that I am in some part a romantic. Philosopher Michel Foucault notes that nostalgia can be a rich source of critique should readers think I am indulging.

What was your take away?

A couple of weeks ago some three hundred music educators gathered for the annual Musicmark conference.

Matt Griffith tweeted:

Main observation was a collective will to innovate & change. Informed by & with young people, their lives in music, and acting on the school challenges we face. We can stand still, observe & moan or step up & transform. I’m totally for the latter

I responded:

I took away from the conference the continuing need to debate and determine the purposes of music education; the extent to which those [purposes] relating to music in school as part of a general education differ from those beyond the school, for example.

Let me explain.

My perspective as a former secondary school music teacher comes from within the school, the traditions of music as a school subject, its debates and vigorous contestations over the last century and a half and the enduring commitment to musically educate all children and young people as part of a general education. Yes, a general education, not a specialist one.

In this view a music education is not something apart. It is called upon to have allegiances with the aims of education as a whole, that is, a general education for all children and young people sponsored by the state and which is compulsory. In this view it has a responsibility to the whole educational endeavour to which all children and young people are entitled. Otherwise, why include music in the curriculum?

Have you heard these kinds of sentiments?

Put the child at the centre of music education;

Release the musical potential of all children;

Ensure all children develop a strong musical identity;

Become and be musicians;

Ensure musical health and wellbeing for all.

These are the kinds of beliefs that come to be expressed as the purposes of music education. They frequently become translated into advocacy statements and at that point too easily becoming promises that can’t be kept.

But while all being admirable and desirable, are the sentiments above sufficient if music is to be a subject of the school curriculum, a dynamic part of the whole that is a general education?

What if we started from a general educational aim.

John Beck offers one such worthy aim.

‘Equipping young people to understand themselves, both as individuals and as members of complex, rapidly changing societies …’ [1]

It wouldn’t require much tweeking to create a worthy music educational aim.

But we might note that here the individual child is held in relationship to society. Education is more than for the benefit of the child.

Beck goes on to point out that such an aim is grounded in a concern for children as future citizens in a democratic society. So straight away there seems to be rather more depth to the project that is educate than heard in music education advocacy statements.

And further still, that to do this effectively ‘would involve empowering students to see through the various forms of distorted communication that shape everyday consciousness …’ [2]

Well, this is stronger stuff and might well inform the kinds of aims we set forth in respect to a music education as part of a general education?

I am not sure. What do yo think?

Well, at least we have travelled beyond the popularist sentiments relating to ‘placing the child at the centre of music education’ and its tendency towards rhetorical advocacy; and perhaps opened up some space in which the aims of a music education for all children and young people as part of a general education (represented by the school) might be debated and determined, and distinguished from, compared with and perhaps harmonised with the purposes of music education from beyond the school.

Oh, and did anybody else think that much of what was being described as research at the conference was oddly research that was built upon the sand of not knowing what was already known? Is this really a good basis for innovation and change?

And to end three questions for debate.

1.What does it mean to be musically educated as part of a general education for all children and young people to age 16?

2.To what extent should the purposes of music education address the nature of music as a human practice historically and contemporaneously manifest in the world? (Ontology)

3.What kind of knowledge and ways of knowing should a music education be most concerned with? (Epistemology)


[1] Beck, J. (2013) Powerful knowledge, esoteric knowledge, curriculum knowledge. Cambridge Journal of Education Vol.43, No. 2, page 187.

[2] Op cit.