Culture, society and musical learning

Our eleventh post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week focus on the tasks in Gary Spruce’s chapter ‘Culture, society and musical learning’. This is week three of the collaborative blogging of the tasks in Learning to teach music in the secondary school. 

What do you feel is to be gained (if anything) from exploring music’s social and cultural context?

Liz Dunbar @HuntSchoolMusic

The way I was taught Music was …read it …play it ….sing it….and that was it. As a teacher, I’m a big fan of “the story”, and that’s because of the difference I have seen it make to students’ preconceptions, understanding and interpretation of Music.

Some students simply love Music – making it, doing it, getting it right, getting it wrong, and everything else in between. For others (and I’m talking right at the other end of the engagement spectrum) it’s ‘shop shut’, shutters up – determined not to be interested. This group of students will defend their inactivity with a dismissive ‘I can’t do Music’. It’s rare, but it’s there.

I’m just going to take those extremes and describe 2 settings where a bit of context makes all the difference.

Scenario 1: The great enthusiast.

This one is an easy sell, because to the great enthusiast everything to do with Music is interesting. This is an example of how knowing a bit about provenance, can deepen understanding and provide insight for a performer. It never ceases to amaze me how a competent grade 8 musicians will play all the dots on the page, and yet be absolutely clueless about when a piece was written, who would have played it, who would have heard it, what was the original instrument like etc. I regularly pop into practice rooms when I can hear students making a smashing job of something. A passing positive comment can fuel another 15 minutes practice, just as they were about to pack up and leave. One of the things I commonly say is ‘ Ooo, this is sounding really good, it’s come on a treat since last week. Who wrote it?’. It’s really interesting to see which students need to look at a piece of paper to get the answer. Then I might ask the student what genre the piece is, or what it is called – again to see if they have to look. And on I go with various (hopefully) friendly questions to find out if the student has actually thought about what they are playing.  

I went into a practice room recently where a really capable pianist was banging out Chopin ‘Berceuse Op.57 at a right old rate of knots. ‘What’s a berceuse?’ I asked. You can work out the rest of the conversation for yourself.


Scenario 2: The pessimist.

This is an example of how we use provenance in the classroom to draw ’no-can-doers’ into wanting to make sound, and wanting to ask questions about, how, and why, and when. This one just happens to be about how useful notation can be when you are trying to communicate something specific.

I’ve drawn it for you as 9 whiteboard illustrations, so if you’re bored of reading you can just look at the pictures.

This is how it works:

  1. Draw a load of dots on the white board. Ask the students to go and make what they see in sound. (30 seconds max)
  2. Discuss what happened when they turned the visual into the aural. What it sounded like, how much they cared about what it sounded like, what the limitation are with this kind of music communication, what freedoms it creates etc etc.
  3. Draw a red line though the middle of it and label it C (like a harp string). Move a few dots on the board so some are smack on the C line. Ask the students to go and make what they see in sound. (30 seconds max)
  4. Discuss what difference the red line made in clarifying or restricting their explorations. Ask how many times they looked at the board the first time, and how many times they felt to compelled to look at the board with the red line in place. How much did they feel that they aught to try to get it ‘right’?

I think you can see where this is going….. ( illustrations 4,5,6,7,8,9)

It’s a great way of getting the pessimists to engage, because in the early stages their comments are really usefully negative. ‘It sounds rubbish’, ‘you can’t even tell what that’s supposed to be’, ‘how am I supposed to be able to know what to do?’ ‘I can’t even read M…..’…….


You can tell the story, provide the context, and draw some really intelligent questions out the whole spectrum of students in the room. ‘Why does it stop at 5 lines?’, ‘why are there different clefs?’, why don’t we just use the alto clef the whole time then?’.

Notation reading can be viewed as a social divider. Lots of students have the misconception that if they can’t read conventional notation, then they’re not a proper musician. In other lessons we will explore other visual forms of communicating sound, but I’ll come back to this in Thursday’s blog, which is concerned with how different kinds of notation engender different kinds of musical learning.

Liz Gleed @MrsGleedMusic

As I reflect on this question I am conscious that I start so many topics I teach with contextual learning. Ideally via discussion and a musical activity too, but whether year 13 set work analysis or year 7 composition there is a context heavy slant to my opening lessons in the scheme. I agree wholehearted with the following argument cited in the chapter that ‘music does not have an autonomous existence…but rather its existence and value derive from the contexts in which it takes place and the purposes to which it is put’.

Understanding the social and cultural context of music is to understand it at its core. I believe gamelan is enriched so greatly by understanding its spiritual purpose, the connections to dance plus the rituals present within the music. This learning then becomes about so much more than facts and identifying musical elements. It can also greatly impact engagement. Berlioz himself added his own preface and programme notes to his Symphonie Fantastique explaining the context of his programme in order to heighten the quality of musical experience for the audience.

Being able to make connections between a range of composers, historical circumstances and social issues is something that is given a higher value at GCSE and A Level now and while this has come with challenges, I have seen much deeper musical learning experience for students. The challenge that can arise as I see it is that these connections should be live and changing. As a teacher I do aim to constantly evolve how I connect pieces together so music history does not become too fixed and cliched in its repetition. I do believe that understanding this social and cultural context allows musicians to connect with a piece of music at its truest level. Having said that I do not agree it should be a sole or separate focus. On reflection maybe I need to explore where I place this understanding within a scheme, looking at creative ways to thread it through the learning more evenly than more at the start and revisiting. Worth a thought.

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

When I reflect on my time in curriculum music, my memory recalls specific concepts and dates – facts, if you will. I don’t recall a broad understanding of the context or meaning behind the repertoire studied, in fact, I can’t even recall any of the repertoire studied. All that I can recall is the elements of music, the historical periods, and their associated dates. That’s all. Therefore, on reflection, I feel there’s a lot to be gained from exploring music’s social and cultural context. I certainly wish I’d had the opportunity to do so when I was a pupil. What is to be gained by doing so? I don’t believe that music is created, performed, or experienced in a vacuum. Life happens, and music is created, performed, and experienced within that life and while that life is happening. Therefore, to ignore or neglect the social and cultural context is to ignore that which inspires and influences the music in the first place.

With a ‘new musicology’ hat on, I would’ve relished the opportunity to know why I was studying and learning the music that I was. While I can’t remember the specific repertoire, I can remember that it was Western Art Music. Why was that specific music in the curriculum? Why was it deemed important more so than others? With an ‘aesthetic ideology’ hat on, this is where my classroom music education was grounded. Reams and reams of scores, which were listened to while following along and annotating them, pulling out the ‘sonic objects’ and trying to remember them in the context of the score – not the societies or cultures in which they were created – just the scores. With Swanwick in mind, my classroom education involved a lot of the ‘about’ and ‘how’, and not a lot of the ‘of’. Finally, with a ‘praxial approach’ hat on, I can briefly remember learning about Jazz and Blues, almost as a side note, to the other styles and periods studied. It was approached, as discussed in the reading, by presenting excellence in Jazz and Blues as being underpinned by different musical values to the other repertoire studied. Even at the time, I remember thinking this presented a contradictory approach.

To summarise, I believe it’s important to gain an understanding of the social and cultural context in which a piece of music is created. After all, music doesn’t occur in a vacuum. I also believe it’s important to gain an understanding of the ‘sonic materials’ that have been used, how they’ve been used, and why they’ve been used. And finally, I believe it’s important to gain an understanding of the ways in which people use music, and the meaning they ascribe to it, through particular musical contexts, practices and traditions. Essentially, I believe a broad, holistic, and meaningful music education sees a blending of the three approaches mentioned. As I said, music doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and neither should music education.

David House @House_dg

Sean Dingley @DGSMusicdept

One of my most overused words in Music lessons, particularly at GCSE is ‘Why?!!’ – my classes (and department) find it very frustrating but I am always pushing students to consider why a composer has done something or why a particular musical device has an effect. The fact is that all music, regardless of style or tradition, was written with some form of purpose or in some type of context. I think, therefore, that trying to think about music without considering the social and cultural context behind it is impossible. It also makes studying the music significantly less interesting to think of the key features in isolation; it’s much more exciting to say ‘Beethoven does this because of this’. This was one of the changes I loved in the new GCSE – the old spec was too much ‘This is homophonic’ and the new spec encourages you to talk more about context.

Mike Morgan @MikeMMusicEd

“What is the point of this music?” is a question I have heard when sharing a piece of Western Classical Music. Whether that was meant tongue in cheek or as an statement remains to be seen, but there was a need from the pupil to know the ‘context’. After explaining that the piece of music was written for a music hall in Harlem during a time where speaker systems was not invented, and showing a comparison of the pupil playing the music at a party/club, they, maybe reluctantly, agreed that there was actually a point.

There is a need of knowing where things come from. Young people are curious like this. Some of my most memorable discussions in the classroom have come from playing music and discussing the meaning behind music. What is it written for? What do you feel when the music is played? What is the composer trying to make you imagine? Why was this written? Without discussing the social and cultural context, pupils are only getting half of the story. Why do the Blues have a flat notes? What affect does that have? Without knowing the context of the Blues and the history, can we really articulate the answer of ‘why’? The question is, where does this question fit in? With so little time in the curriculum, and the emphasis on pupils having the opportunities to create and perform (especially evident in my own practice), where does cultural and social context fit in.

I don’t think the question is ‘What do you feel is to be gained (if anything) from exploring music’s social and cultural context’, but more ‘how should we place the importance of social and cultural context in our teaching?’ It is definitely a question I will ask myself.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I think there is a lot to be gained from exploring the social and cultural contexts of music. It is not an essential principle to enjoying music but it can enhance the listening pleasure or experience to know for example about Stalin’s attitude to Russian composers in the post WW2 period for example or why Bach or Haydn scored music in a certain way due to the players they had at their disposal. However as teachers we need to be careful that the social ad cultural contexts (the historical and knowing bit) does not outweigh the musical learning in a lesson; knowing that Beethoven liked to have tea at 5pm does not gives us much of an insight into his music apart from when her probably didn’t compose it. The social and cultural aspect of music can be especially powerful when teaching about music from different cultural backgrounds. It can help pupils with both their performing and musical understanding if they know the social contexts of African drumming for example. This better understanding of the music they are performing or studying can then help develop their own all round musicianship which is a benefit for everyone.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

A common starting point for analysing popular song is that there often is no score; or rather, the analyst works with a transcription they have made themselves. And yet the ‘music itself’ is no less an object for reflection for the lack of an original score; it is a sonic conceptualisation… 

I’m quoting Michael Spitzer above, from his position statement at a panel debate that was hosted at City University. He goes on to say ‘musicology has been attacked for a generation for its apparently inadequate social and cultural mediation’, and asks ‘what is so wrong with ‘formalism’? Don’t songs have form? Isn’t it useful, even enjoyable, to explore how an artist or composer crafts and finesses musical materials?’. 

Ian Pace’s position was to see some ethnomusicological approaches as ‘musicology without ears’.

This requires little in terms of traditional musical skills (in whatever tradition), and I believe the more this achieves a dominant or hegemonic place within contemporary musical education, the more it contributes to what I have referred to elsewhere the deskilling of a profession (meaning the loss of many skills specific to that discipline). Musicology can become little more than a more elementary sub-section of sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, but rarely with the breadth or depth of methodological awareness to be found in some of those other disciplines …

We do like to create these opposing positions and to place them as far apart as possible. But I have quite enjoyed sharing various anecdotes when introducing music to pupils, and the quirkier the bet to grab their attention. Music leaps off the page when we start to untangle the story behind the sounds, and unpick the decisions made and connect to the context of its creation. As a composer I’m fascinated by choices, particularly when they help guide my assumptions about the musical decisions made in a work (such as the avoidance of certain registers on an instrument and the realisation such registers didn’t exist at the time of writing). I’m fascinated by how musical ideas are organised, particularly when these structural decisions might be congruent with other art forms in a culture (such as Indonesian gamelan). By being fascinated by the socio-cultural context of the music we explore we gain more questions, such as ‘why would they use that instrument like that’ or ‘why does that instrument start?’. I think we gain increased curiosity and increased interest if we open up the scores as cultural windows. 

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