More than finding your musical voice

According to Biesta one of the factors preventing the arts (music) from being properly educational is that the arts are promoted as an opportunity for children and young people ‘to express their own voice, to give their own meaning, to discover their own talents, to enact their own creativity, and express their own unique identity …’ [1]

In the light of an overbearing system of accountability where an audit culture rules, where opportunities for self-expression appear exceptionally constrained, this positioning of music education as antidote is attractive. Engagement, creativity, the child’s unique expressive voice easily become an unqualified starting point and end point of a music education.

While recognising the opportunities provided by a music education for children and young people to express themselves, to have a voice, or as Biesta puts it, ‘to appear as individuals in the world’ [2], expression in itself is never enough.

Biesta develops his argument by considering what it might mean to exist as a subject, a person who doesn’t simply do what they want to do, or who is concerned merely with shaping their identity, but one who learns that ‘to exist as a subject means to exist in dialogue with the world’. [3]

Biesta uses the image of infantile existence as opposed to grown up existence, the one placing ourselves at the centre of the world, the other in dialogue with the world. And it is in being in dialogue with the world that we learn not simply to follow our desires. [4]

I hope readers will bear with me for leading them into questions of what it means to exist, to be in the world, and in dialogue with it. But I do think it relevant to questions about what makes music education educational and what it might mean to be musically educated.

To be in dialogue with the world, (and now let’s say the world that is drenched with music and inhabited by music makers), involves learning responsibility for that which is different and strange, alienating and other.

In this way the musically educated person will be the one with an altered musical outlook rather than the one who has merely learnt to express themselves.


[1] Biesta, G. (2017) What if? Art education beyond expression and creativity. In (eds) Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole. Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education.  London: Routledge. Page 14.

[2] Op cit

[3] Ibid, page 15.

[4] I am reporting Biesta’s argument in an extremely concise way and in danger of barely doing it justice. However, I hope something of its character is communicated.

3 thoughts on “More than finding your musical voice

  1. Chris Philpott

    Hi John – as ever you open up such a rich vein of thought with an economical use of words. I would like to make four short comments:
    1. Biesta does have a point but his is only a partial account of the problems faced by the arts being viewed as ‘properly educational’;
    2. For example, in the case of music the insidious and persistent creep of ‘music is good for you’ (and especially good music is good for you!) as an educational justification, has done far more damage;
    3. I am not sure how aufait Biesta is with the wealth of theory and practice in arts education (not least in your own work), which presents a far more sophisticated view of being properly educational.
    4. However, I do concede that populist accounts of the arts have done us few favours over the years.

  2. Hi Chris, yes it is very partial and he is unlikely to be aufait with the world of theory that we are familiar with. I think he does offer a broader view elsewhere. His point is very basic and a useful bottom line as it were. I am thinking self-expression necessary but not sufficient.
    My motivation in drawing on his point was my own disquiet with the populist view that centres on the pupil’s expressive voice, full stop,

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