by Emma Margutsch

Does education and knowledge give someone the “upper hand”? Does knowledge give people a means of power through which they can reassert and reproduce their ideals to others? A survey through history will affirm the concept that knowledge is in fact power. From as far back as ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Greece, and the formation of societal stratification, we see those who had the ability to read and write – i.e. priests/priestesses, community leaders, politicians, etc. – were the ones with considerable power in the community. Today, we live in a society were those who have ‘knowledge’ and a means of accessing it are in a position to reproduce their beliefs and reassert their knowledge to society. While we cannot assume everyone who seeks or provides an education is on a power-hungry quest for supremacy, there is an argument to be made in proposing that a motivation for knowledge is the quest for power. In fact, in Music, Society, Education (1997), Christopher Small – through the use of “western science” related paradigms – establishes the idea and supports his argument that the acquisition and search for knowledge is, in fact, also the search for power.

The ancient Greeks believed nature was alive and permeated the mind, which resulted in man having intellectual and spiritual supremacy over nature and all living creatures (Small, 1997, p. 61). Small argues that “knowledge gained by western science is by no means morally neutral; the worldview that animates it, the motivation for its acquisition and the method of acquiring it all serve to give it a particular character” (pp. 63-64). There seems to be a sociological connection here to Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of Habitus. Bourdieu (1977) defines habitus as “a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which… functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations and actions” (pp. 82-83). In essence, habitus is a series of objective structures that, through various means of acquisition, become embodied in the self. Is Small, referring to knowledge’s ‘particular character’ being a result of societal habitus (i.e. the greater worldview)?

Small argues that the implication of western science on society result from the fact it is bound by the assumptions and beliefs of its culture – as in many other systems of knowledge. So Small (1997) asks: “If knowledge is to be sought, the question may be fairly asked, Who is the knower and who is the known? And if power is sought, one may ask, Power for whom? And even Power over whom?” (pp. 70-71)

When compared to music education, attached to Western Art Music is this overreaching theme of elitism and power. Strongly connected to middle-class socioeconomic status and high-class cultural narratives, western art music has dominated music and music education for centuries. Both studio and public music education curricula are dominated by western art music. It is important not to undermine the value of western art music, because after all, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and all the other great composers have a lot to teach us, and their music is valuable. However, even just a quick glance into the guidelines of the Royal Conservatory of Music or the Ontario Music Education Curriculum will show that western art Music continues to dominate the world of music education.

Roe (1987) positions that the education system functions to teach what is considered ‘useful knowledge’ and to cultivate the necessary disciplines and attitudes for the functioning of the industrial system. So, what is useful knowledge? And why are we teaching it for the greater function of the industrial system? It seems that educational institutions are constantly reproducing the values of the dominant social group. This idea of useful knowledge and the particular character attached to it seem to be part of the ‘educational’ habitus constantly being reproduced. Therefore, it seems this knowledge – or rather, the constant reproduction of knowledge – is ultimately recreating a power system in order to maintain cultural hierarchies and societal distinctions.

Similar themes and questions have been explored by current researchers in music education. Wright (2012) argues the music education curriculum is “the result of ideologically impregnated policy through which it becomes filtered to enhance and preserve the cultural and economic interests of the dominant social group” (p. 23). It seems today that the historically scientific – very ‘black and white’ – worldview of music has continued to dominate and western art music continues to be the focus and form of music education.

In no ways am I implying that a piano teacher is intentionally teaching her student Beethoven to enculturate the student into middle-class society and ‘brainwash’ her. But decades and centuries of western art music being the only means of music education has narrowed and reproduced an indirect means of power and elitism. Centuries ago, knowledge of classical music, the ability to play an instrument, go to the opera, let alone compose, was reflective of the power and wealth one had in society – quite literally, knowledge was power! The mere pursuit of a formal education in music was a means of establishing a very elite position in society.

To learn and gain a knowledge of music in the west most often leads one down a path of music education dominated by western art music. Not everyone goes into music wanting to be seen as part of a club of ‘powerful’ musicians. However, it is possible the elitism and power associated with western art music entices people to gain an education in music because they know they will become ‘classically trained,’ which automatically has a respectable association. As a private studio music teacher, most of my students are from middle-class families who are able to afford private lessons. Parents, knowing I am classically trained, hire me to teach their students music so their children can one day also be called classically trained musicians.


Roe, K. (1987). The school and music in adolescent socialization. In Lull, J. (ed.), Popular Music and Communication (pp. 212-230). California: Sage Publications.

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

Wright, R. (2012). Policy and practice in music education: A sociological perspective. In Spruce, G. & Philpott, C. (Eds.), Debates in Music Education (pp. 20-32). London: Routledge.



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