We are the knowledge rich music makers

Music of the Common Tongue published in 1987 has a sub-title: ‘Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music’. Here Christopher Small examines the search for identity and community of millions of Africans in the Americas through their encounter with a European tradition, taking from it what was needed to explore, celebrate and affirm who they were and who they might become. 

Small makes clear:

‘My first assumption is that music is not primarily a thing or a collection of things, but an activity in which we engage … the act of musicking is central to the whole art of music the world over. In most of the world’s musical cultures this is taken for granted without even having to think about it; it is only the dominance of the classical tradition that obliges us to state it so bluntly.’ [1]

This is 1987 the same year as Alperson’s ‘What is music?’ An introduction to the philosophy of music giving rise to wider interest in music as a social practice and David Elliot’s 1995 philosophy of music education.

In 2012, and quite by chance, a visit to my sister in the North East of England coincided with the Durham Miner’s Gala.  So, on the train to Durham, down the hill from the railway station and as the street narrowed there was the banner of Thirslington Miners’ Lodge, their brass band and a tightly packed crowd together ‘musicking’.  Here and now the music being lived, giving meaning to the lives of all those gathered. As the band came to the end of their piece they created a rumble effect, low quiet trilling and a signal to the crowd to urge the band to reprise the piece just played which of course they did to the delight of all. Meaning being made through acts of ‘self definition, an exploration, an affirmation and a celebration of one’s identity, of who one is’. [2]

Later I followed the band in procession to the cathedral – the preacher the turbulent priest Giles Fraser and we sang Jerusalem. I had heard it earlier in the day on TV coming from Trent Bridge cricket ground used as part of the pre-match phantasmajorics. And then I thought about how Parry’s setting had first been used by a Women’s Peace movement during the First World War and it will be heard again at the Last Night of the Proms. On each occasion understood differently, the music living within webs of meaning as Chris Philpott would say. [3 ]

A conundrum for me in the thinking of Small is his insistence that musicking has no moral dimension. It is not a matter of good or bad musicking. There is just musicking. The idea is ethically neutral.

Small’s insistence that musicking is to be seen as being beyond ethical consideration is out of tune with much contemporary philosophy of music education which sees music education as being essentially ethical in nature. Wayne Bowman, arguing for thinking of music education as induction into a set of musical practices points out that musical practices like ‘Human practices are places where we learn and rehearse right action: where we learn to formulate and address the fundamental human question, what kind of person it is good to be, what kind of people we wish to become. Practices, musical and others, are where we learn our most important lessons about who we are and who we aspire to become. On this account, human practices [including musical practices] are profoundly important ethical resources.’ [4]

But what could we take from Small into a music education that is in the institution of the school and sponsored by the state?

A little time ago at the  ISM ‘Guide to Progression, curriculum and assessment’ day we had plenty of opportunity to talk and think around the topic in the light of a new National Curriculum. This involved thinking about the values and vision that we hold for music teaching at Key Stage 3 (age 11-14).  

Before I sounded forth in our small group discussion I did say that I had had a long time to think about this. I should have added that I have enjoyed the privilege of bringing together the ideas generated by the classroom research of secondary school music teachers. This has involved a dialogue between my evolving ideas, their ideas and reflection on the realities of the classroom, what works and what might work better. And what is thought to be worthwhile in the name of a music education. Somewhere in this is the voice of Christopher Small.

1. Each class is thought of as a community of music-makers. The class take it as given that they will be sounding out music together for much of the time as singers and players. They will learn to ‘face each other’ musically. [5]

2. Great store will be given to the climate of the classroom where every person will be heard musically and known as a shaper of the curriculum that will unfold. This will involve establishing ‘voice protocols’ that contribute to the social dynamics of the classroom, the subtleties of pedagogy and the growing trust created between teacher and pupil, and pupil and pupil.  

3. The teacher will be instructor, facilitator and mediator. By mediator I mean that the teacher is respected for knowing good musical places to go, for being ‘the more knowledgeable other’ and the bearer of culture. The teacher brings to the classroom what will take pupils to musical places unimaginable.

These will be powerful stimulants all with human interest, provoking enquiry, curiosity and questions that will have no answers as the conversation continues, and as meaning is made through a relational pedagogy where teacher, pupil and what is being learnt enable all to say ‘this is who we are’. 

And we are the knowledge rich music makers with a window into beauty and truth.


[1] Small, C. (1987) Music of the Common Tongue. John Calder. Pages 50-51.

[2] Small, C. (2011) Prologue: Misunderstanding and Reunderstanding, in (eds.) Felicity Laurence and Olivier Urbain, Music and Solidarity. Transaction Publishers. Page (xi)

[3] See chapter 4 ‘The Justification for Music in the Curriculum’ in (eds.) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge: London.

[4] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/scholarly-paper-the-ethical-significance-of-music-making-by-wayne-bowman/

[5] On ‘musical facing’ see https://jfin107.wordpress.com/through-the-lens-of-levinas-practices-of-facing-in-the-music-classroom-and-beyon

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