by Ariana Riberio

In his book Music, Society, Education, Christopher Small (1997) deliberates about multiple topics that are still relevant today. He starts his book by evaluating post-Renaissance western music and the construct of “scientific thinking.” He then questions the existence of a hierarchy in music, as well as the supposed superiority of western music, that has been advocated in our society for so long. This is not an “easy read”, but it is certainly one that is worth one’s time. The most interesting part of the book, in my opinion, was when the author talks about the development of tonal harmony and how it is a consequence of the discourse of the time.

Small argues that the post-Renaissance society and the humanist movement culminated in a never-ending search for objectivity. In order to be valid, anything needed to be “scientific” at the time (even in the arts). Societies then and now were indoctrinated to believe cultural biases – like the superiority of the European (and, centuries later the American) culture. The development of tonal harmony was, according to Small a result of the “scientific world view.” Tonal harmony made music more seem scientific. Music was not about feelings or expression, it was about numbers and “formulas”; and there was a “right” and “wrong” way to it.

For centuries now, we have been immersed in tonal harmony. As a consequence of this conditioning, we tend to believe that the western tradition is the “right way” and that good and valuable music follows its standards. This well-spread myth ignores the beauty and complexity of music of different cultures by deeming them unworthy.

These values are still present in our society, and the superiority of the western tradition’s discourse is still propagated using the same “scientific” view. For example, in this TED Talk from 2008, Benjamin Zander talks about the “transformative power of classical music” and how it is not doomed to disappear (as he said is the popular belief).


As we can see in the video, when trying to prove his point to the audience, Zander started with an anecdote to conclude that the fact that not a lot of people enjoyed classical music nowadays could be an opportunity, rather then a problem. The anecdote, however, had a colonizer tone to it. They have no shoes? Great, we can save then! You don’t like classical music? That is all right, I can teach you about its power.

While arguing his opinion (that classical music is powerful) Zander exemplifies many of the points raised by Small (1997) when discussing how those in western society are “trained” to understand harmonic sequences and expect cadence resolutions. It is fascinating to me how his “experiment” with the audience provides a great example of the enculturation described by Small and our need for harmonic resolution. Before reading Small’s book, I would have thought that is was “cool” that those people could “feel” the “need” for resolution, but now I can only think that it is nothing extraordinary considering that all of them went through the same process of enculturation.

At the end of the video, Zander tries to prove that classical music is powerful because, according to him, it “makes us feel,” it “moves us.” However, he specifically tells the audience what to think about in order to “be moved” by the music. That idea was also challenged by Small in his book, as he states that the compositions, ever since the development of tonal harmony, were mere mathematical sequences that tried to delay the harmonic resolution by creating more and more tension (like the video also exemplifies).

When I first read Small’s book and realized how we have normalized the “scientific world view,” I realized how it is deeply related to music education, curriculum, and how we teach it. It really reminds me of an article called “Repositioning ‘The Elements’: How Students Talk about Music” by Rose and Countryman (2013). In this article, the authors talk about how music teachers – enculturated in the western tradition – fail to engage in meaningful teaching because they are concerned about teaching students “the elements of music” rather than exploring the multiple ways that their students listen to and understand music. These students did not yet believe in the superiority of traditional western music: they had their own relationship to it, and listened to music differently than we musicians usually do.

In the text, the authors exemplify this idea by saying that their students didn’t think about the melody, rhythm, or the dynamics of the music; they were listening for timbres and how the songs “groove.” They propose a music education that finds a way to promote student individuality. Now comes the question, “how can we do that”? How can we learn from Small (1977), Rose and Countryman (2013), and even Zander (2008), and still teach the curriculum we are supposed to?

As an early childhood music educator, I have an aggravated situation: the goal of early childhood music education is to promote the enculturation I am criticizing. Most of my teaching involves making young children aware of the elements of music. Of course, that is not the main goal of my music program or the area itself, but the contradictions are still present. When I apply for a new teaching position and I am asked what is the goal of my program, I answer: “to promote valuable musical experiences to students.” And again, whose values? It is certainly not easy to think about music education that way, but I know not everything is black and white. I do believe in music education, and I don’t think that the solution would be to get rid of western music altogether, like Small suggested. But I believe that, as music educators, we need to be even more careful not to foster in children a limited understanding of the world that only reflects our own values.

I still believe in my work, and I will certainly continue to advocate for it’s positive effects in children’s lives. In my experience as a teacher, I can see a very noticeable difference in certain musical abilities between children that have been enrolled in music classes all their life and children that start formal music lessons when the school curriculum makes it mandatory. With all that in mind, I believe that the “solution” begins with fostering in children the idea that no music is superior to another, only different. When I bring songs from other cultures to class the children love them: they can hear the difference, but they don’t perceive any hierarchy. Our job is not to contribute in the dissemination of said myths in young children’s minds, but to bring them repertoire from various cultures, always contextualized, so they can hear, feel, and understand the differences (simply as differences and nothing else).


Bergland, C. (2014). Does playing a musical instrument make you smarter?

Retrieved from:


Enculturation (n.d.). In Meriam Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from:

Levinowitz, L. M. (1998). The importance of music in early childhood. In General Music

Today. 12(1): 4 – 7

NAFME (n.d.). NAFME’s position statement on early childhhod music education.

Retrieved from:


Rose, L. S, and Countryman, J. (2013). Repositioning ‘the elements’: How students talk

about music. Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 12(3): 45–64.

Small, C. (1997). Music, Society, Education. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University


Tonal Harmony (n.d.). In Weekpedia. Retrieved from:

Zander, B. (2008, February). Benjamin Zander: The transformative power of classical

music. [Video file]. Retrieved from:



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