Justification: soft or hard?

Our ninth post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week focus on the tasks in John Finney’s chapter ‘The Place of Music in the Secondary School’. One more and we complete our two weeks with John’s chapter before we move to the Gary Spruce chapter two.

To what extent do you think this (on p. 14) is an adequate justification for music? Is the distinction between hard and soft justifications helpful? 

Alex Laing @KHSArtDirMusic

The prose introducing today’s questions is a much longer passage than usual and covers a lot of ground.  What we are being asked specifically is: can we just take it for granted that music is good for humans – including children – and use that assumption to justify its part in the school curriculum, or should we be more critical before accepting its key role?   Assuming it is good for you is the ‘soft’ justification of music as defined in the book.  The ‘hard’ justification is to look at music as having its own language that can (in some unspecified way) ‘engage critically with political and ideological issues’. 

This opens up more questions still.   Why is it a ‘soft’ justification to assume that music is beneficial to the development of the human being when increasing numbers of ‘hard’ scientific studies have demonstrated it?  And why is it better to have a different ‘hard’ justification for music when we have not yet examined the question of whether it should be music’s job to ‘engage critically with political and ideological issues’? 

Any ‘cultural’ study can be difficult to justify in some political climates – notably those where moneymaking and material progress are put first.  The sciences have their own justification – we must have doctors, dentists, architects, engineers, physicists and chemists to sustain our material lives – just as we need plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople.   Do we ‘need’ music, drama, theatre, art….. ?   The fact that (in spite of sometimes dire under-funding) the answer in this country has always remained ‘yes’, at least in theory, is witness to the persuasiveness of the soft justification.  This is I think because politicians too are humans, and it is an unalterable fact that music (as Swanwick is quoted in the book as saying)

‘is as old as the human race, a medium in which ideas about ourselves and others are embodied in sonorous forms, ideas that may be simple or complex, obvious or enigmatic. And insight into these ideas – as into any significant idea – can be intrinsically rewarding’.

I think there are advantages in looking at music as being a language of its own.  There are those that would say that we cannot think without language – in the normal definition of language as verbal communication.  Musicians and artists and mathematicians know that you can think a very great deal without words.  The fact that words and music, with or without the addition of acting, can be expressive on their own but also in complex combination is one of the wonders of the human brain and condition  – first to be able to create such works and then to be able to perform and appreciate them at myriad levels. 

I am very suspicious, however, of the statement in the hard justification that music should be able to engage politically. In situations where it has tried to do so it has often been in response to repressive or totalitarian regimes, which have tried to annex the country’s music and musicians to bolster the prevailing ideology.  Continued ‘engagement’ in such situations is carried out with restriction and often scarcely bearable stress – Shostakovich comes to mind.  It is not that music cannot or mustn’t engage in such things, but in my opinion such engagement should be neither its justification nor its only or main role.  

As for the so-called ‘soft’ justification, I think it is sufficient as long as it is understood that the goal of self-expression is not in itself enough.  Knowledge, comparative understanding, breadth of experience and – above all – techniques are crucial. Time and again the recent scientific studies have shown that the co-ordination of physical expertise with aural honing is what enhances the brain capacity and social skills of the practitioner of a musical instrument.  So I will finish (on Shakespeare’s birthday’ with my favourite quotation from Paul Tortelier: “If music be the food of love, then scales are the food of music”.

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

If these blogs are your first connection with me, then you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m obsessed with food. Well, you’d be correct. Today, we shall feast on eggs.

While indulging in a plate of scrambled eggs, I got to thinking about today’s reflective question. My family love eggs. We know that they’re good for us, and we know of the many benefits that come from eating them. Despite this collective love and appreciation of eggs, each family member justifies their love through different forms. I love scrambled, my daughter loves hard boiled, my wife loves poached, and my 11-month-old son loves eggs in whatever form he’s presented with. I also don’t question my wife for justifying her love of eggs through poached form, nor does she question the validity of my love of eggs through the scrambled form. Enough of eggs, for now.

Since moving to the UK in 2007, I’ve come to know the question of justifying music education to be a highly emotive one. Emotive to a level not experienced during my time living in Australia or the US. I wonder why that is? What I try to focus on is that we all passionately love music education and the benefits that come from engaging in it. Yes, there are ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ justifications for it being taught in schools, however the fact remains, we all agree that it should be taught in schools. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t study, analyse, reflect upon, and engage in the different types of justification, for as with anything, this brings a deeper understanding, connection, and ability to communicate. However, when our collective advocacy is diluted through the self-destructive act of bickering over which justification is of most value, then I feel we’re letting our collective cause down.

I regularly try to justify and highlight the benefits of music education through Twitter. When I reflect on the responses received to tweets about both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ justifications, the responses have been equally agreeable and passionate. Additionally, when I speak to pupils, parents, staff, and school leaders about why music should be included in the curriculum, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ justifications are as effective as they are ineffective, depending on who I speak to. This highlights to me that there is meaning and purpose in both, as people have different and often strong connections to both, and with strong connections come strong opinions. With the provision of music education being questioned regularly, I feel there is greater benefit in harnessing our collective agreement of its benefits, rather than debating which benefits are more important. There is value in every benefit, whether hard boiled or scrambled. Let’s all agree that eggs cooked in multiple forms should all be on the menu. The more eggs the better, I say.

David House @House_dg

I have, today, had some students sending me Shakespeare quotations relating to music – they are excellent, and illustrate a range of approaches and thoughts on music from this particular class. It has been hard to pick one but this, from The Tempest, got my vote today: Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. That Shakespeare wrote so much about music, music making, the need for it, and effects of the lack of it [Oh, I need one more to illustrate this] this time from The Merchant of Venice: The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night, And his affections dark as Erebus. Let no such man be trusted.

By the nature of such quotations the place of music in our lives and in our education system for all is surely justified. Going a little further with Shakespeare on this special day, I will just share some of my favourite music inspired by the bard: in my teens I was impressed by Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture – not least as he composed it when just 17 – and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliette, later I sang in Chamber Choir performances of Vaughan Williams Three Shakespeare Songs a wonderful insight into his harmonic language and handling of vocal texture, more recently I have discovered Sibelius’ Suites of music for the Tempest – surely some of his best music. The paragraph from the 2007 National Curriculum for music does a reasonable job, but only that, reasonable. In fairness the essence of music, and reasons for its inclusion in life, cannot be put down in words – I mentioned this in a previous part of this blog in relation to the film Children of a Lesser God and the use of the slow movement of Bach’s Double violin concerto expressing that which words could not. I give another example today, from The Mission and the moment where the Jesuit priest played by Jeremy Irons communicates with a tribe in the depths of the Amazon by playing his Oboe – the music, by Morricone, is deeply moving and has since been taken up as a song by Il Divo ‘Nella Fantasia’. Music just is, and any justification for its study seems superfluous to me – even more galling when this justification is taken up that music is worth study “because it increases overall intelligence” or “because studies show that students of music also attain highly elsewhere”. The justification for music is music.

Sean Dingley @DGSMusicdept

The justifications for Music in the classroom always frustrate me – too often language related to why we should learn about music is woolly and lacks clarity. I strongly believe that all justifications for any subject should avoid things such as ‘self-esteem’ and ‘understand themselves’. These things are important but they are not the reason why we should study music.

For me, studying music is bout the following things:

  • Music is sound organised by someone who is trying to communicate something;
  • Sound is its own form of language;
  • Sound has an impact on what we think and how we interpret things;
  • Whilst we are affected by sound, we don’t always understand why that is or how we can recreate it ourselves and this is what studying music gives us.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I think that whilst the QCA justification of music for the 2007 National Curriculum is in some ways useful ( I’m thinking of the 2nd sentence ‘Music forms part of an individual’s identity’) I think whilst this definition avoids some of the pitfalls of hard justifications such as ‘improves the right and left sides of the brain etc’ there is much merit in it. It tries to put into words how culturally important music is in a slightly simpler way than Philpott’s critical engagement with political and ideological issue as well as talking about the personal expressions and emotional involvement that music brings to people.

I think that the distinction between hard and soft justifications is not useful and the hard justifications have become much more common in the last few years as music has fought for its place in the curriculum against the EBacc and curriculum narrowing at KS3 in some schools. I always feel that having to justify why a subject is included in a curriculum is a bit like trying to make a cake by substituting out or omitting certain ingredients. It might work as a cake but it probably won’t be as good as the original recipe. Throughout the history of education, most cultures have taught the same sorts of subjects, albeit in slightly different ways. When economic arguments (why should I learn music, I’m not going to become a musician; it won’t help me be a dentist etc) and future career options are brought into the mix by governments and education secretaries ( I’m looking at you Baroness Morgan) then music and other arts subjects start to scrabble around for hard data to justify their place in the curriculum. This then leads to the inevitable circular argument about economic value our cultural life has; I think that a society needs to be judged on its cultural life not in terms of economics but how citizens engage with culture and also how citizens create cultural forms. If in schools, pupils are creating music, dance etc then this in itself is a good enough justification for the subjects place in the curriculum.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

We spent so much time on autonomy when I was studying for my MMus and wrote a multitude of essays about music and its meaning including one about Wagner and the erotic impulse; I would argue with my musicological friends at other universities endlessly. Music can’t mean anything, I would profess. It’s just sounds. The sounds don’t contain anything. How can these sounds then be any good for us? 

I like what Frith says, as quoted in Tia DeNora’s book ‘the question we should be asking is not what does popular music reveal about “the people” but how does it construct them’. (p. 5 in Music in Everyday life, 2004). I like how she writes that ‘popular music studies have always been concerned with the matter of how music is experienced by real people’ (p. 23). DeNora writes how ‘we can see music providing a resource [for young people] in and through which agency and identity are produced’. She quotes Sarah Cohen who suggests ‘focus upon people and their musical practices and processes rather than upon structures, texts or products illuminates the ways in which music is used and the important role that it plays in everyday life and in society generally’ (p. 7). DeNora writes ‘in the course of daily life, many of us resort to music, often in highly reflexive ways. Building and deploying musical montages is part of a repertory of strategies for coping and for generating pleasure, creating occasion, and affirming self- and group identity’ (p. 16). I prefer all this ‘soft’ justification for music as it affirms what I feel; I gain my identity and connections in and through music-making, and these feelings of agency and connectedness are what I want pupils to feel and gain through music teaching. 

Pre-MMus studies I was far more concerned with the ‘hard’ justification for music; the people behind the music were less of a concern whilst I grappled with the musical data and what it ‘meant’. But I can see how the two are connected. We can form connections with the feelings and connectedness through our ‘soft’ justifications with the musical data to gain an insight into some of the musical choices that have made to achieve the effects we witness as a performer or a listener. As a composer I want to harness those connections so I can bring about the softer justifications with the seemingly blunt tools. 

 

 

6 Comments

  1. As Alex Laing has already highlighted, Swanwick writes that

    Music is a part of education because ” it is as old as the human race, a medium in which ideas about ourselves and others are embodied in sonorous forms”.

    Looking at this through a constructivist lens (warning I don’t really know what I’m saying) that as humans we create the world around us, we form or own knowledge and meaning is constructed with this knowledge. This leads me to think about how identity and learning are strongly connected and the importance of Music and culture generally in identity forming, something Steven also mentions..

    “I gain my identity and connections in and through music-making”.

    That’s the justification right there.

    Therefore we need to be providing relevant meaningful music-making experiences with our students and by relevant I mean musically relevant to the students.

    If you want to think and learn more about this then Week 1 of this online course I wrote- #MFlearn19 covers a lot of this ground…

    https://canvas.instructure.com/courses/1584678/pages/week-1

    1. “I gain my identity and connections in and through music-making”.

      I am attracted to this idea of music being who I am and who I am with. Meaning is made through Christopher Small’s ‘Musicking’. It doesn’t reside in musical works, for example.

      My reservation in the context of a compulsory music education (schooling) is that this justification doesn’t cohere very well with the curriculum as a whole and the more general aims of education. Perhaps this doesn’t matter.

  2. Steven Pinker: “music is auditory cheesecake”
    Ian Cross: “the human capacity for musicality is integral to the human capacity for culture”

    I’ll go with Ian’s definition! 🙂

  3. If we accept Swanwick’s proposition that music is a part of education because ” it is as old as the human race, a medium in which ideas about ourselves and others are embodied in sonorous forms”.has proved itself to be a great symbolic form then there can be a next step which addresses the soft-hard justification question.

    The hard justification presented by Philpott, where music is viewed as being in culture, something lived and practiced in the world, historically, globally and contemporarily, and where its meanings float, embed, melt … and are open, it is reasonable to observe that it possesses not natural goodness, but is prey to the being tribal, dangerous (Plato), manipulative, gendered, propagandist … . This how it is and not a matter of how it ought or ought not to be. Plato was on to something.

    A music education, in recognising this, might have a stronger justification than those softer justifications that can diminish music as a great symbolic form and its significant place within the cultural life that is human existence.

  4. Corrected version:

    If we accept Swanwick’s proposition that music is a part of education because ” it is as old as the human race, a medium in which ideas about ourselves and others are embodied in sonorous forms”, then there can be a next step which addresses the soft-hard justification question.

    The hard justification presented by Philpott, where music is viewed as being in culture, something lived and practiced in the world, historically, globally and contemporarily, and where its meanings float, embed, melt … and are open, it is reasonable to observe that it possesses not natural goodness, but is prey to being tribal, dangerous (Plato), manipulative, gendered, propagandist … . This is how it is and not a matter of how it ought or ought not to be. Plato was on to something.

    A music education, in recognising this, might have a stronger justification than those softer justifications that can diminish music as a great symbolic form and its significant place within the cultural life that is human existence.

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