Through the lens of Levinas: ‘practices of facing’ in the music classroom and beyond by Kathryn Jourdan

ISME paper July 2016

Through the lens of Levinas: ‘practices of facing’ in the music classroom and beyond

Kathryn Jourdan

Download accompanying handout here

See also Kathryn’s completed thesis

  • Introduction

This paper aims to give a brief overview of my recent PhD research.   The central focus of the paper concerns the field work I undertook in a Scottish high school.

At the heart of my presentation is an attempt to briefly unpack two strands of Levinas’ philosophy, strands which provide tools with which to explore my observations in school. Through this lens, I present what I have termed pupils’ practices of facing which I conceive of as agential.  From these are drawn the paper’s conclusions, which propose an underpinning, ethical orientation to anchor a diversity of approaches within music education.

I aim to give glimpses of different stages of the research process through a small number of examples.


A series of questions emerged for me, as I went from playing in a symphony orchestra and working in inner city schools on creative projects, to teaching practice in the music classroom of an affluent rural secondary school:

‘How do young people encounter difference in the music classroom?’

‘What sort of responsibility does the music teacher have in these encounters?’

‘Is it even ethical to use another’s music in the classroom?’

Ten years after these formative experiences I went back to university to explore these questions.


For my Master’s fieldwork I visited a setting on the fringes of Britain where, for geographic and historical reasons, encountering difference has become a habit of daily life.  At Shetland’s main High School in Lerwick, and in the wider community, I observed some inspiring practice, where music-making, rooted in a thriving local tradition, provides a mode of encounter, enabling a welcoming–in of the stranger, bringing fresh sounds and perspectives which open up the world and enrich local musical expressions.


As I moved into doctoral study, I began to trace the development in the research literature over the past few decades of conceptualisations of music-making as relationship, then as ethical relating, which gives agency to the participants.


Christopher Small’s influential work on ‘musicking’ suggests that it is from within the local, situated set of relationships, which come into being when people make music together, that musical meaning arises, where ‘ideal’ relationships as understood by the particular community who are making music together are ‘modelled’.


More recently, Lee Higgins has drawn upon the work of Derrida – someone close to Levinas – to build a conception of community music-making as an act of hospitality, welcoming others in to cross the threshold, inviting them to come to belong.


Using the language of ‘virtue ethics’ Wayne Bowman sees experiences in music-making as ‘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?’

And critically, Bowman challenges the division between intrinsic and extrinsic values, between the inherent and instrumental benefits of music education, which have been debated since Plato’s time. Something can only be of value if it is a contributory good to human thriving.

Drawing upon these building conceptualisations from the literature I sought to investigate how ethical encounters through music-making might work.   And in exploring notions of ‘the other’ I came across the writings of French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and formed my first research question:

What light does Levinas shed on conceptualisations of music education as ‘ethical encounter’?                                                                                 

  • Levinas

Levinas is known for his exhoratation to us to ‘look into the face of the Other’. 


A rather clumsy term, the ‘other’ has long been used in social science to denote those marginalised or ‘othered’ by social practices.

Hegel was among the first to introduce the idea of the other as a constituent of selfconsciousness – the self needs the other in order to define itself.

So notions of the ‘Other’ have come to suggest ‘that which is not us’, whether it be the one we see face-to-face or the distant Other as radically different from our self, whose difference is crucial to the very formation of ourselves, our own subjectivity.


In Levinas’ philosophy the relation to the Other becomes the first concern before all else – pre-ontological, or ethics as first philosophy –  except Levinas uses the term ‘ethics’ not in a traditional sense as a code of morality or moral decision-making, but rather as a relation of our unending responsibility to the Other, in whose face we perceive an ethical call.

In his first major work, Totality and Infinity  Levinas draws out two contrasting orientations to the Other:

  1. In the first, Totality, we seek to make the Other the ‘Same’, categorising in order to control, and to dominate. It was in response to the dehumanising processes of the Holocaust that Levinas, sensing a ‘crisis of humanism’, was motivated to find a path towards a ‘new humanism’, seeing that the ‘totalising’ orientation of our Western philosophical tradition has led again and again to colonisation, oppression and destruction (Katz, 2012a; 2012b).
  2. Levinas exhorts us to take on a fresh orientation, where we perceive Infinity in the face of the Other. The Other is profoundly different from us, but for whom we are unendingly, ethically responsible, and who ‘teaches’ us, always bringing us ‘more than we contain’. Levinas talks of the ‘face’ to suggest a whole which overflows perceptions of features and which cannot be categorised or fully grasped. In the face of the Other we glimpse an infinity, he says.

Traditional understanding of human existence has been that it is primarily epistemological:  our higher understanding in the sciences, for instance, is grounded in our view of how we can know the world around us.  Levinas, however, grounds epistemological practices in the ethical condition that underlies human existence. It is our openness to the Other as we look into their face which is the condition for processes of ‘knowing’.  The encounter with the Other ‘calls us into question’ and through this process of interrogation, we can come to know.

The notion that radical otherness, diversity, is essential for us to be able to come to know is one that we would do well to dwell on in our current political times.

Levinas writes that language is born out of this relation; ‘The beginning of language is in the face’ (Levinas, 1988: 169-170).

To speak is to make the world common, to create commonplaces (Levinas, 1961: 76).

Language is understood by Levinas as a reaching out to the Other, a primordially ethical act before it is a communication of any specific meaning.

  • Levinas and education

So what might this mean for education?

Levinas  published his first major philosophical work after many years as a teacher, and saw teaching as transformative  – ‘the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality’ (Levinas, 1969: 171).

Philosopher of education Paul Standish’s view, following Levinas, is that the content of the curriculum may be seen as a form of relation to the Other.  He writes that

Subjects are language to the extent that they are ways of thinking and reasoning about the world that have passed down through the generations, where this thinking and reasoning essentially is language (Standish, 2008: 65).

The role of the teacher, according to Levinas, is not that of the Socratic midwife attending at the birth of knowledge in the learner.  The teacher’s role is rather to point beyond, drawing pupils further into the infinity of the subject and the questions it raises.

Standish writes, ‘To cast the teacher as the conduit to the Other in this way, through the language to which she gives the learner access, is to see herself oriented by her own relation to the Other’.

  • And music education…

So what does this mean for our understanding of music education and of music-making if we are to ground our practice in a profound responsibility for the Other, listening out for, and hearing the voice of the Other

And if we seek to eschew totalising practices in order to remain radically open to infinity?

What might such ‘practices of facing’ look or sound like in the music classroom?

  • In the music classroom: fieldwork

So I went into a local high school for one academic year building relationships with staff and pupils, following one class of thirteen to fourteen year olds, in their last year of statutory class music provision, in order to gain some insight into my second research question:

How do pupils encounter the Other through music-making?

A critical realist framework meant that my ethnographic investigation could be situated within a stratified social ontology, following the thinking of Margaret Archer, where properties and powers are identified as they emerge from different levels of social structure, so that it is possible to present something of the interplay between the structural pressure pupils and staff are under, and the ways in which individuals either acquiesce to these pressures, or resist and subvert them, exercising their agency.

Firstly, in order to investigate the wider social and educational context of pupils’ experiences of music-making, multiple interviews with staff members yielded perspectives which underwent open coding, along with notes from participant observation, from which themes emerged.  These themes were then re-examined through the conceptual lens of Levinas’ thinking.

Interviews with the participant class and in particular with each member of a smaller group of pupils, were similarly coded alongside observations, and emergent themes examined using thinking tools from Levinas.  The stories of each participant of this smaller group were told, and themes explored to draw out and identify their ‘practices of facing’.


  • Just two strands which emerged are presented here, to give a flavour of these analytical and reflective processes, represented in Figures 3 and 4 of the handout.
  1. One strand which became apparent through initial interviews with staff was the pressure to shape the music curriculum of the first two years of secondary school (equivalent to the first three years in England) in order to provide an efficient route into the specifications of the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s examination courses in the subsequent years.

One teacher commented that she simply had to ‘push out the unnecessary’ leaving in the curriculum ‘only what’s necessary to learn’ in order to pass the exams.

The effects of this pressure towards efficient curriculum delivery might be seen as part of the wider discourse of performativity within educational policy-making, where ever more efficient means need to be developed in order to produce defined outcomes.   This in the name of accountability, but a newer version of managerial, audit-based accountability rather than the older one formerly embedded in a professional ethic.

In the classroom, however, pupils did not necessarily accept the restrictions imposed by narratives of efficiency.  In a lesson led by a student teacher the class were being introduced to sounds of the Javanese Gamelan, and watched a clip of video showing a group of people playing together in a public space.  Here’s what I wrote after observing one pupil’s response:

Amez asks, ‘Is that not rude, Miss, that the older man playing the gong sometimes falls asleep.  Is it not rude while everyone’s playing?’  ‘An older man could teach a younger one to do it’.  He’s raising rich points for learning, here.  These are fundamental questions of about how this music operates in this place as part of this tradition.  It affects the way people relate to each other.  Amez is sensitive to this.

The student teacher however was under pressure to deliver her predetermined learning outcomes for the lesson.  Instead, she hurried the class on, not able to attend to Amez’s enquiry, although this might have led to a rich, if unplanned exploration which might have drawn pupils further into hearing the voice of another, and perceiving the call to ethical relationship.  Instead, the class were required to turn their backs on each other, sit at individual keyboards, and this act of communal musical expression from a distant context, rich with social meaning, led into a practical task of reading pitch patterns from the board and reproducing them.  The rhythmically compelling features of the music which the class has responded to instinctively earlier in the lesson by drumming fingers on desks, were now forgotten, as only the parameter of pitch was being valued here, a convenient element abstracted from another’s whole.

  1. The commitment to inclusivity and ease of access to the music exams has shaped the written paper, where multiple choice questions and tick boxes have tended to proliferate, and complexity has been eschewed, allowing for ease of marking, in a drive for increased efficiency. This has in turn shaped the nature of the musical knowledge which the SQA values, as I found out one day early on in my year at the school:

The class is given a listening task as a lesson-opener.  Using a CD of examples from the exam board, with extracts of music from contrasting genres and cultural expressions, their music teacher poses questions.  An extract from the show ‘Riverdance’ is played.

Almost all the girls in the class, sitting apart from the boys, respond to the music by dancing in their seats. A frisson goes round the room as the castanets enter and two girls on the far table pretend to play them, hands held high in the air. Yet the task at hand is now to identify ‘which sort of music this is’, choosing from a selection of ‘concepts’ specified by the exam board’. ‘Folk’ most pupils suggest as they enjoy and identify with the ‘Celtic’ sounds underlying the music’s foreground. ‘It’s the rhythm they make in Latin America’ the teacher corrects, insisting on upholding the neat categorisation into which the exam board had squeezed this track. I empathise with the slightly dazed, deflated response to this outcome prevalent amongst the class. They have enjoyed the music. Some have responded physically and with pleasure, feeling that this was in some way ‘their music’, but they have reached the ‘wrong’ answer. Their responses must be corralled into one of the exam board’s own categorisations. The pupils’ openness to and encounter with the music has been shut down prematurely. The required answer is quite clear, it seems.


Here, the exam board’s categorisations of musical expressions from different places around the globe has brought about a totalising brand of knowledge, which allows no room for the pupils’ responses, visceral and joyful.  Nor does it allow for complexity, for multiple influences, But the pupils manage to allow infinity to break into to closed circles of totality in these two examples, exercising their agency and subverting to some extent the totalising practice imposed upon them.


These are just two examples of pupils’ ‘practices of facing’ drawn from many which I observed as pupils encountered the Other through class music-making, and of how they might be understood as agential in response to the layers of social and educational reality which shape their experience of music-making in school.

  • From pupils’ perspectives upon encountering the Other though music-making were drawn themes which were then developed using the lens of Levinas’ thinking, from which four strands emerged:

Music-making as a language

Music-making as complex and rich in context

The infinity of musical knowing

Music as an end in itself


The first of these took my study down an unexpected alley, and I present it briefly as an example of the to- and froing of the analytical process.

Two of the smaller group of pupil participants, Amy and Kirsty, had repeatedly alluded to music-making in terms of language – Amy talked of musical expressions around the world being ‘in a different language’, yet open to everyone to enjoy, if not to understand.  Kirsty commented,

‘Everybody has music.  Like languages.  You have languages to speak to other people.  But not everybody speaks a certain language but everybody kind of speaks the language of music because everybody has music’

Notions of music as a language have been fraught with difficulty over generations, and I was cautious of this particular path of enquiry.  But the emerging theme from the two girls’ interview material couldn’t be ignored.

I placed their perspectives alongside Levinas’ writing on language, where the act of looking into the face of the Other is born of the same ethical impetus to reach out to the Other that motivates the act of speaking in every language.  Levinas sees the use of language as an offering of the world to the Other, and writes of ‘speaking the world to the Other’ (1969:173-4). Before any meaning is communicated, language reaches out and puts the world in common. Using language is an ethical act which opens up a world between myself and the Other.

Dare we see music-making in these terms, I wondered? Levinas’ reorientations of notions of language powerfully expresses the vulnerability which music-making entails as we are ‘inserted into the world’ as we make music, with, he says, ‘all the hazards and risks of all action’, in a generous offering of the world, putting a world hitherto mine in common (1969:174).

This reorientation would have profound ramifications for an understanding of the ‘aesthetic’ which would regain its ethical moorings lost in post-Kantian thinking, as making music (and creating art) would be primarily a response to seeing the face of the Other, and would seek to put a world in common.

What, I began to wonder, would the music classroom be like if we regarded music-making in this way?

What might my own corner of the music profession look like if we embraced this ethical understanding of what we were doing as we made music?

So a series of ‘What if?’ questions shown in Figure 5 of the handout, led into my final research question and a presentation of the study’s conclusions

What might characterise ethical music education?

Firstly, how might the insights developed through my study contribute to thinking within music education?

How might practices of facing within a Levinasian looking into the face of the Other provide a robust ethical underpinning for thinking about and for reorienting practice in the music classroom?  See Figure 7 in the handout

This ontological basis generates a plurality of epistemological approaches which enable and explore different aspects of music-making, but which all spring from the initial ethical impulse of music-making as ‘putting a world in common’

This recontextualises competing ideologies of aesthetic versus praxial, for instance, as represented in Figure 6.

Aesthetics regains its ethical moorings, where making music is primarily a response to seeking the face of the Other, seeking to put a world in common.

The development of musical practices, competencies and skills is conceptualised as ethical endeavour oriented towards drawing others into a world made common and into the infinity of music and of music-making

  • So what might the implications be for classroom practice if we look through the lens of Levinas at what we do? See Figure 8 on the handout
  1. The teacher learns alongside the pupils
  2. The teacher is responsive
  • Complexity is embraced
  1. Early closure is avoided.
  • What might be the implications for educational structures in the light of Levinas?
  1. The model of knowing prescribed by exam boards and policy-makers is an ethical issue
  2. Room must be allowed for the messiness and costliness of ethical encounters in learning
  • There is a ‘Taking of responsibility’ rather than ‘managerial accountability’
  1. Assessment will be non-totalising







  • And finally, What might be the implications for conceptions of music-making in the light of Levinas?

Figure 10: Music education Otherwise: An ethical basis for music education in the light of Levinas

  • The primary orientation of music education would be to bring pupils into an encounter with the Other, enabling ‘the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality’.


  • ‘The Other’ indicates a spectrum from:
  1. my immediate neighbour: the pupil next to another pupil in the classroom, the pupil in relationship with me as teacher, the neighbour who teaches Amez the drums


  1. the more distant Other of the ‘world music’ lesson, whose musical expressions are brought into the classroom, and into an encounter with whom the teacher seeks to draw the class


  • the infinite Other that is music-making as a social activity, a discipline, an area of the curriculum and a ‘musical work’, which teachers seek to draw pupils further into, and into which teachers themselves seek to enter further, with no end to the processes of learning.


  • This ontological basis generates diverging epistemological approaches.
  1. Aesthetic models of music education emphasise the development of aesthetic sensitivity as pupils they look into the ‘face’ of  the Other through music-making, or into a piece of music functioning as an Other, with form and expressivity, through which the voice of another may be heard.  As aesthetic sensitivity develops pupils are more able to discern the face, or the ‘voice’ of the Other and to be responsive to the ethical ‘call’ they find there.
  2. Praxial models of music education emphasise the learning of skills within a tradition of music-making which enable pupils to ‘offer the world to the Other’, ‘putting in common a world’ hitherto their own. The pursuit of excellence in performing and composing allows pupils to come into encounter with the Other more fully as they become more proficient in drawing in their audience to the ‘world’ they share with them.
  • A radical openness allows pupils to encounter the music of other cultural settings without needing to colonise or dominate. The voice of the Other is allowed to speak within their own rich, cultural context and leaves a ‘trace’ which changes pupils, musically and ethically.
  • In this journey of encounter and responsivity pupils don’t ‘return to the same place’, as Levinas points out Ulysses did, but find themselves changed, in a different place as Abraham did, deeply challenged, able to experience a transcendence of their own situation and circumstances, finding new musical worlds, new strengths or sensitivities, deeper relationships and responsibilities.
  • The hospitality of which Lee Higgins writes is a response to the ethical call in the face of the Other. Shared cultural forms allow the Other to come to belong as well as to remain distinctive, different.
  • The outward-turning nature orientation grounds musical experience in terms of relationship with and responsibility towards the Other. It reorients the intention of self-expression towards a ‘putting a world in common with the Other’, giving a fresh rationale for developing technical skill and excellence.






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