by Anurandi Norbert

As a Sri Lankan Canadian student, I found that navigating cultural norms can be difficult. However, belonging to two different cultural groups has allowed me to be able to understand and appreciate music from different cultures through a pluralistic perspective. Although my pluralistic perspective has allowed me experience many forms of music, it still took me many years to understand issues with western art music and how a scientific musical view negatively affected my perceptions of music from around the world. Furthermore, it took me many years to find music that incorporated elements of different genres.

In Music, Society, Education, Christopher Small exposes these issues with western art music. Small describes the western scientific approach to music education, performance, consumption, and how it greatly affects a music educator’s ability to teach music students. While Small can effectively support this point in many forms, the following blog post will focus on one example: the western scientific imposition of pitch and logical relations as an elite understanding of what constitutes a successful piece of music on to music educators and students.

According to Small (1997):

Logical, and logical relations, are in fact key concepts of western art. The work of art is logically explicable and ultimately knowledgeable: nothing in the relationships which it contains can be left unclear or resistant to analysis . . . the listener to the music can ‘hear his way’ through the sounds, and understand the processes at work, even if he cannot put a name to them. (p. 8)

As a result, a western classical musician verifies whether a piece is successful musically on how well a listener can understand, and navigate, the musical composition’s form. But if successful music is based on an understanding of form, what happens when a western classical musician hears a piece outside of the classical paradigm, such as music from other cultures and genres?

An effective way to understand this phenomenon is to look at Green’s (2005) theory of inherent musical meaning. Green states that inherent musical meanings are “[the] relationships which are perceived in the mind of a listener. For example, the listener might notice features such as patterning, opening and close, whole and part, beginning and ending, repetition, similarity, different and so on . . . the flow of musical materials through time is organized in such a way as to cause listeners to anticipate future sonic events” (p. 79). Therefore, if a western classical musician listens to music from another culture or genre that does not follow the scientific viewpoint of pitch and logical relation, they may perceive the music as unsuccessful because they are not able to understand the inherent musical meanings in the piece. For example, these individuals competing in The Sing Off demonstrate the challenges in confronting their own inherent understandings of music genres and how they might be reconciled with their own perceptions of what makes music “good.

This is problematic, as musicians may then perceive music from other cultures and genres as a lesser form of music. Bradley (2009) exposes this issue in the following statement from a student interview:

I could tell that Africans were a more primal society than a sophisticated society like Victorian, because I can hear that in the music. Like when I hear the Boboboii stuff—it’s the kind of thing that makes everyone in the audience want to sing right along, even if they don’t know the words. But in a sophisticated society, like with Mozart and stuff, people in the audience will just go quiet and listen to it. (p. 111)

Despite my bicultural background, and similarly to this student, when I first began teaching, I also evaluated music from other cultures as “lesser” in comparison to western art music due to my perception of inherent musical meanings. Though it is not directly related to world music, one way I negatively perceived music outside of the western art genre was when I was teaching private piano students music. Because of my scientific view of music, I was not able to understand that genres, such as a popular music and jazz, would be suitable to teach to students. Instead, I tried to impose the classical music tradition, because I felt that western art classical music was a more “elite” form of music. If a student wanted to learn popular music, I would often articulate how it was “simple” and “repetitive.” Thus, this led my students to adopt a view of classical music as a superior form of music.

Becoming aware of the negative effects of the scientific view of music on music education has lead me to alter my philosophy of music. In this case, I now try to allow my students more freedom to choose what pieces they want to learn in their lessons. Furthermore, when students bring music from genres such as popular music, I try not to use derogatory words that may imply a negative connotation about their musical choice. Instead, I try to help students understand the different inherent musical meanings in every genre that is brought forth in each lesson. This allows the students to perceive different genres of music as equal rather than assuming the classical musical form is superior.

Altogether, as a music educator, I believe that we need to help students gain a pluralistic musical viewpoint by exposing the western scientific viewpoint of music that Small (1997) describes. By helping students understand that the inherent musical meanings behind western classical music are not universal, music educators can teach students how to appreciate music from diverse cultures and genres. Furthermore, by helping students gain a pluralistic musical viewpoint, diverse forms of music with influences from numerous genres can be created.

Lindsey Stirling performing a fusion of “classical” violin with electronic music known as “dubstep.”

References

Bradley, D. (2009). Global song, global citizens? The world constructed in world music choral publication. In E. Gould., C. Countryman., L. Rose Stewward (Eds). Exploring social justice: How music education might matter (105 – 118). Waterloo, ON

Green, L. (2005). Musical meaning and social reproduction: A case for retrieving autonomy. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 37 (1). Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2005.00099.x/epdf

Small, C. (1997). Music, education, society. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

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