The ethical significance of music-making by Wayne Bowman

First published in Issue 3 of the Music Mark Magazine, Winter 2014.

The ethical significance of music-making

Wayne Bowman

Debates over the relative merits of music’s intrinsic and extrinsic values have a remarkably long history in music education. For the most part, however, these debates have generated more heat than light. Zealous advocacy movements have recently breathed new life into tired old debates about the relative merits of music’s ‘inherent’ and ‘instrumental’ benefits, most often without questioning the legitimacy of their segregation into mutually exclusive (intrinsic/extrinsic) value domains. Apparently, decades of argument have done little to clarify our muddled thinking about such affairs. One of the concerns of this brief essay is to urge that the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy is a perniciously false one, one that leads to all manner of confused thinking and action, to say nothing of wasted time and resources.

My other, more urgent concern is that we acknowledge and embrace musical experience and study as fundamentally ethical resources – as practices in and through which people wrestle with and seek to answer the vitally important educational question, What kind of person is it good to be? Where intrinsic and extrinsic values are held to be mutually exclusive, ethical concerns like this are relegated to the latter category. They are, accordingly, unfortunate diversions from the genuinely musical reasons for making and studying music. It is, I suggest, time we began thinking about issues like these in ways that are more productive and more useful.

The myth of intrinsic value
What are music’s intrinsic values? On this key point our thinking is frustratingly vague, evasive and slippery. Such slipperiness is a useful strategic tool where advocacy – the art of political persuasion, in music education’s case most often backed by lofty, unqualified claims about the global benefits of musical experience and therefore musical instruction – is concerned. However, like all tools, it has clear limitations and, I argue here, potentials for misuse and abuse. More specifically, the slipperiness that advocates find so useful turns out to be quite well-suited to rationalising the status quo: to justifying and sustaining current practice. After all, if music and musical instruction are intrinsically valuable, there is no particular need to wrestle with questions about the kind of musical or instructional practices at hand: they do what they do simply as functions of what they ‘are’.

These claims to intrinsic musical and educational value, then, handily exempt certain musical and instructional practices from critical scrutiny. Because their ‘goods’ are intrinsic, they follow regardless of how music is taught, or made, or experienced. Indeed, they apparently obtain regardless of what (or whose) music is studied or made or experienced. Intrinsic musical values follow automatically and unconditionally, it appears, from any and all acts of musicking. And because such benefits ensue regardless of what or whose music is studied or made or experienced, we need only assure that music and musical instruction are supported. Its benefits, being intrinsic, are inevitable results of exposure or experience.

This is all very neat: music’s intrinsic values are such that they accrue to any and all musical engagements. Music (all of it) is important because of things it (all of it, invariantly, because of its innermost nature) does that no other human practice does. And musical instruction, since the music with which it is concerned is intrinsically valuable, is likewise inherently and unconditionally good.

It follows, though not by logic I am inclined to accept, that values that are not intrinsic – those connected with ‘extra-musical’ concerns, say – are merely extrinsic, subsidiary, or derivative. Because the aims or ends they serve may be attained by other means, they are less important than the intrinsic variety. Thus, value claims are sorted into one of two opposed classes: those that are legitimately musical, and those that are only marginally musical, in virtue of their service to extra-musical ends.

Key to this formulation is a dubious partition between values that are strictly or purely musical and those that serve non-musical ends. Intrinsic musical values are ends in themselves, whereas extrinsic values stem from music’s service to nonmusical ends. However, when we divide human values into two distinct and opposing kinds, neither has much real worth: music’s intrinsic values are largely divorced from the day-to-day concerns of life and living, while its extrinsic values are not really musical. These ways of thinking marginalise many of music’s most powerful potentials, seriously undermining our efforts to establish the human import of music and music education.

The notion of value is always, I urge, value for something else. Value is a function of ends served. The claim that music is good ‘in itself’, then, is circular and self-contradictory. Worse still, it diverts our attention from issues that are critically important to our understandings of and approaches to music education.

The claims I am making here run counter to convictions that are widespread and comforting. They also challenge the status of practices generally exempted from critical scrutiny by claims that their value is simply intrinsic. It would hardly be surprising, then, if what I am proposing here were to encounter vigorous objections. However, we can get along nicely without claims to intrinsic value, and doing so strengthens rather than weakens the case for music and music education. Music and its study are not ends-in-themselves but (always, and necessarily) means to other human ends. Goodness is always an outcome of human acts of valuation: it consists, to put it in terms reminiscent of John Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism, in continuous acts of balancing and rebalancing ends-in-view – ends that are concrete, tangible, and demonstrably within reach. The idea of intrinsic value, then, is a mirage, or worse yet a smoke screen: an illusory byproduct of the continuous valuing activity in which all humans engage as purposive beings. To argue that all value is value-for, then, is simply to say that all ‘goods’ are instrumental, and to reject the assumption that there exists a contrasting, intrinsic realm of goodness. All value is instrumental. And the opposite of instrumental value is not intrinsic value but rather the absence of value. Something can be valuable only to the extent it is a contributory good.

This in turn implies that all musical value is contingent: dependent upon the success of its contributory function and the desirability of that to which it contributes. The value of music and of music study and of musical experience (and on and on) are not simply ‘given’ or inherent, the inevitable outcomes of having engaged in things musical. They are good only to the extent they contribute to human, or, in music education’s case, educational ends. No value (no, not even musical value) is ultimate, unconditional, good without regard for situational particulars or ends served. If and when music is good, that goodness is always a function of its contribution to ends beyond itself. The same is true of music education.

Does this mean that the distinctive features of musical experience are somehow irrelevant or dispensable to our accounts of its value? Hardly. It just means that its value depends on how its potentials, powers, and affordances are actualised in service of other important human ends. Is this much ado about nothing? Again: hardly. These are distinctions that make significant practical differences. If we cannot retreat to intrinsic value in defense of our actions, we are professionally obliged to judge the desirability of rival courses of action in terms of their discernible benefits (or ends-in-view). Claims to the benefits of musical experience and musical study are thus inextricably linked to considerations like what or whose music we have in mind, how it is taught or experienced, and what observable evidence there may be that claimed benefits are indeed being realised.

Surely, though, some ends are more momentous than others? Of course that is so. Denying the existence of intrinsic value does not reduce all questions of musical value to questions of popularity or matters of mere political exigency. Some of the ends served by music are clearly more humanly desirable than others. And if there is one end that trumps all others, one to which all value claims must ultimately be contributory (but which does not depend upon its own contribution to some further end), that end is human thriving – or, as the ancient Greeks called it, eudaimonia. Thus, the best musical or educational practices are those that contribute to human thriving. And yet, there are many ways in which humans may thrive, none of which follows inexorably or universally from a given musical action or practice.

It follows, I think, that although music in itself does none of the things advocates are fond to claim for it – it does not automatically or invariably make people smarter, or more sensitive, or more perceptive, or more considerate, or better citizens – certain musical practices, under certain conditions, undertaken in certain ways, may indeed effect outcomes that are more desirable than others. The point is that it all depends. And my further point is that this does not compromise or trivialise the value of music or music education. Acknowledging that music’s distinctive power may be used or abused – may be contributory to ends that are humanly desirable or undesirable – does not detract from music’s educational potentials. It only means that they are not guaranteed, and that we are obliged as professionals to attend with the utmost care to the numerous and diverse ends served by musical and instructional practices. We must choose responsibly.

In short, ‘music’ names a tremendously diverse and powerful set of human practices that may serve ends both desirable and undesirable, both beneficial and detrimental. Whether the value of a given musical or instructional practice is good or bad depends on whether, how, and the extent to which it enables its practitioners or beneficiaries to thrive. And that determination is best guided by informed professional judgment.

Music, human thriving, and ethical discernment
Those familiar with virtue ethics may see that what I am arguing for are understandings of music (and approaches to music education) that construe them as diverse human practices, practices whose value depends upon whether and how they distinctively enable their practitioners to thrive. As I have said, though, there are numerous ways in which humans may thrive, none of which follows automatically or necessarily from musical engagement. The values afforded by music-making depend on the kind of music at hand, the ways we engage in it, and the uses to which that experience is subsequently put. We cannot escape the contributory nature of human value or the ethical nature of acts of human valuation. And musical value is no different than any other value in that regard: all value is value for.

I have not argued against the notion of intrinsic value with the intent of vindicating any and all value claims for music and music education – with the intent of defending the many spurious and sometime silly claims made on music’s behalf. To insist that all value is grounded (is value for) is not to declare all values are equal. Indeed, choosing musical and instructional practices with a view to the ends to which they promise to contribute is among our more pressing professional obligations. It’s just that we cannot rely upon a dubious intrinsic/extrinsic sorting system to make professional choices and decisions. We must ask, rather, which among the various ends to which a given musical or instructional practice may be suited we choose to pursue, and why. We must ask how that pursuit directs the actions in which we engage and what constitutes credible evidence of successfully reaching the ends we pursue.

Implicit in what I have been arguing is a fundamental conviction that music is not a ‘thing’, a uniform entity, or an object. It is, rather, a highly diverse family of practices – modes of human action. What counts as appropriate or authentic instances of human practices cannot be wholly prescribed because, in the first place, practices consist in patterns of human action: they are living affairs that take their meaning at any given time from the beliefs and attendant actions of their practitioners. And because they consist in constellations of human actions that are flexible, diverse and variable, they are also always subject to change. How much or how radically an individual practitioner’s actions can diverge from those for whom the practice exists is an open ethical question. Practices are diverse constellations of action whose diversity is crucial to their continued vitality and evolution. At the same time, such diversity is not limitless: there are restrictions as to what counts as a genuine instance of a given practice. Negotiating these porous boundaries is a crucial ethical task in which all authentic practitioners engage. Deciding what kind of actions are appropriate – are true to the ends the practice exists to serve – and which are not, are fundamental concerns for every practitioner, even if the grounds for such decisions can only be formulated tentatively or conditionally.

This is admittedly a rather abstract way of putting things, but I have in mind something with which most musical practitioners will be intimately familiar on some level. What kind of musical actions are authentic or appropriate to a given musical practice is a question that cannot be definitively or exhaustively stipulated. We honour those who stretch the boundaries of accepted musical practice in imaginative ways while we are critical of those who violate them with impunity. What constitutes acceptable musical practice in, say, mainstream jazz? Who are its authentic practitioners, those who are truest to the goods the practice exists to serve? And who, on the other hand, are the poseurs: those who mimic the practice without engaging the nerve at its heart – those whose misguided efforts degrade the practice?

I pose these questions rhetorically, as examples of the kinds of deep ethical discernment that guides all human practices – whether musical or other. At issue for those who engage in practices are fundamental questions about what constitutes action that is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, virtuous or base. Because such questions cannot be answered unequivocally, once and for all, irrespective of situational particulars, they invariably implicate further questions about what kind of person it is good to be. Acting rightly in situations like these is not something decided in deliberative states divorced from the action demands of the practice. Thus, the actions of a person who is deeply devoted to a practice are deeply linked to her character – to action habits that have been developed in service to the goods of the practice, goods that are enriched by those actions.

The point of what may seem a fairly convoluted account is actually fairly straightforward. 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 are profoundly important ethical resources. And obviously I am urging that we understand musical practices as such. I am suggesting, furthermore, that this is a considerably more potent argument for making and studying music than (say) the development of aesthetic gratification – one of those ‘intrinsic’ claims of which I am wary. I am also suggesting that it is precisely the contingency of human practices that necessitates the deep personal engagement that is linked to character.

Why musical practices, though? After all, these potentials attend all practices. This is where we would do well to invoke the distinctly sonorous, corporeal and social nature of musical practices. Music is not just another practice. Musics are highly distinctive practices that engage us more deeply and more powerfully than many others. That, I believe, is where we should turn in defense of its educational importance.

In Conclusion
I have argued against the idea of intrinsic musical value here, not with the intent of vindicating extrinsic value claims, but rather to suggest that this way of bifurcating and partitioning values is fundamentally misguided. I have expressed serious misgivings about the validity of the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy and the practices it privileges and marginalises. My further and more pressing concern, however, has been to advance an understanding of music and musical instruction as practices: as rich ethical resources for exploring and developing potentials of character, identity, and selfhood. It would be a significant mistake to characterise these potential values as extrinsic – as if there were a realm of intrinsic values to which they are somehow inferior. Like all values, their importance is a function of the differences they make: the ways they enable people to thrive.

Whether these musical and educational potentials are realised or not depends fundamentally upon what music is taught, how it is taught, and the evidence by which we gauge the success of our instructional actions. Such concerns, I submit, should lie at the very heart of professional knowledge in music education. And they, too, are ethical.

Bowman, W. (2012) Music’s place in education. In G. McPherson and G. Welch (eds) The Oxford handbook of music education Vol 1.New York: Oxford University Press.
Dunne, J. (2005) An intricate fabric: Understanding the rationality of practice. Pedagogy, Culture and Society 13 (3) 367-390.
Elliot, D. (1995) Music matters: A new philosophy of music education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Higgins, C. (2011) The good life of teaching: An ethics of professional teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
McIntyre, A. (1981) After virtue. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press.
Small, C. (1998) Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.
Williams, B. (1985) Ethics and the limits of philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wayne Bowman is Professor and Chair of Music Education at Brandon University, Canada. He is former Editor of the online journal Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education. In addition to numerous book chapters and journal articles, he has published Philosophical Perspectives on Music (Oxford University Press 1998) and the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy in Music Education (Oxford University Press 2012).

8 thoughts on “The ethical significance of music-making by Wayne Bowman

  1. Robbie Mitchell

    Really thought provoking – and essential – balance to many unexamined precepts about cultural / arts education. George Steiner put it well many years ago, when he pointed out that the crisis in 20thC culture is that since 1945 we now know that someone can spend an evening listening in rapture to Schubert & Bach, and then go to work the next morning shoving innocent people into gas chambers … It’s not what you teach, it’s how you teach it, that truly matters.

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