Music Education: Oppression or Democracy?

As I explained in my last blog post, Freire (1970) discusses the problems faced by those that are oppressed in society and proposes a model of education (critical understanding of education) that inspires students to think critically and independently from teachers so that they can be active participants in the learning process. Freire (1997) particularly stresses the importance of encouraging students to reflect upon our society and its problems. This problem-posing education that fosters critical-thinking is, in Freire’s point of view, a counterpoint to the traditional models of education that he refers to as banking education.

In the banking education, the teacher is the only active participant in the educational process, therefore he/she deposits all their knowledge into students (empty) minds. There is no consciousness or questioning on the part of the student: her only job is to passively accept such knowledge, just like in a bank deposit. Now, the problem of such educational approach is that it is unquestionably oppressive and it limits students learning. In this blog post I argue that this is a fairly common approach to music education and that we can find a more critical and democratic approach outside of the formal teaching practices we are used to.

Teacher cutting thinking

Since the development of the music conservatories in Europe and especially with the development of aesthetic education in the 20th Century, the idea of banking education has been accepted as the standard in music learning. This educational model is so blindly advocated for in this field that questioning it makes many “serious musicians” uncomfortable. In this oppressive vision, the objective of music education is to reach perfection in performance or composition based on Western aesthetic ideals. In order to be a “real musician” one has to comply with its standards; everyone else is either an amateur or educated audience.

As Small (1997) discussed, the praise of the western-tradition music has been deeply rooted in our society ever since the post-Renaissance humanist movement and it’s never-ending search for culminated in the objective, scientific world view [for more about my opinion on that topic, please check this blog post]. What was initially one musical culture became the standard for musical practice. Centuries later, when music was being integrated into the public system and when teachers saw the importance of advocating for music education, once again a western value system was used to qualify education and music education became aesthetic education. Well said, Anurandi.

The aesthetic education movement arose in the 1940s and 1950s and “dominated the music education philosophy for the next four decades” (Woodford, 2012, p. 86); said movement valued the “power” of music and its “beauty”. According to Woodford (2005), “with the rise of the civil rights and aesthetic education movements in the United States, music teachers passionately believed in, and publicly voiced the importance of music education for all children” (p. 57), but they erred in assuming that “all children everywhere should aspire to and attempt to uniformly replicate ‘definitive’ expert performances of the western ‘masterworks”” (p. 58). For that reason, “music teachers failed to develop philosophical understandings, teaching models, and pedagogical strategies that would help them accomplish their democratic goals. Instead, they reverted to traditional performance-based models, repertoires, and pedagogies divorced from the real musical world and its social problems” (p. 58).

This “salvation discourse” regarding the purpose of music education is deeply rooted in our profession and many of us truly believe that the role of music education should be to rescue students from their poor musical knowledge and unrefined musical taste. As Williams (2014) explains, “we continue to believe there is only a short list of real musical instruments and of high-quality musical styles. We have convinced ourselves that it is our job, our duty, to keep these instruments and musical styles alive so school students can find musical salvation…Come out of your mire of unmusical clutter, and I will help you understand real music!” (Williams, 2014, p. 95).

It is extremely hard for musicians and music teachers raised in the western tradition to understand that there is more to music education than technique and aesthetic pleasing performances of “the classics.” The conservatory-style training or even the traditional music classroom practices that we are used to—where the teacher is the decision-maker and the guardian of the knowledge and the students are the ones “receiving” said knowledge—is simply another example of the banking educational model criticized by Freire (1970). But then the question is: How can we as teachers promote non-oppressive music education practices?

A possible “solution” could be to look outside of the formal learning and bring non-formal and informal musical practices into the classroom. While there are those who believe that informal practices can’t happen in a formal setting, Folkestad (2006) explains that there is space in the formal-informal continuum for informal learning to happen in a formal setting such as the school classroom. While a school the setting will always be formal (since there is a teacher), the learning that the student will experience doesn’t have to be formal if the teacher can approach the learning in the same way the student experiences learning in his everyday life. Lucy Green provides a good example of how to balance both her project Musical Futures.

In this project she attempts to “close the gap between two musical worlds: that of pupils’ musical culture outside school and that of the classroom” (Green, 2005, p. 27) by promoting musical experiences where the teacher is the facilitator, but not the one shaping the learning. The process starts by encouraging students to bring their own music into the classroom and then talking about it, later the students are divided in groups of friends (in order to facilitate the collaborative work). Those groups choose their own instruments and have freedom to “explore” the chosen repertoire in any way they want. Students are not told they can or can’t do something; they are free to make their choices and guide their learning.

This model challenges the power relations that we are used to and promotes students’ critical thinking and autonomy as suggested by Freire’s (1970) critical education. While Green (2005) recognizes that not all students will necessarily benefit in the same way from this experience, I do believe it is a good example of how one can promote democracy rather then oppression in music education. As a result, we might have students that are engaged and interested in musical education rather then oppressed by it.


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informal ways of learning. British Journal of Music Education 23(2): 135-145.

Green, L. (2005). The music curriculum as lived experience: Children’s “natural” music

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Music Educators Journal, 101(1), 93-98.

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History and Vision. In: Philopott, C,Spruce, G (Edts). Debates in Music

Teaching and Learning. New York, NY: Routledge. (pp.85 – 101)

Woodford, P. (2005). Democracy and Music Education. Bloomington, IN: Indiana

University Press.



The Hidden Oppression of Social Justice and “Reverse Discrimination”

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Feire (1970) discusses what is still a serious issue in society; oppression and how education can either eradicate it or perpetuate it. According to Freire, oppression happens when a wealthier upper class undermines an economically lower class in order to maintain its power (that being its economical, political, or social power or some combination of them). This oppression can happen in two different ways: in the first—an external top-down approach—the oppressors are constantly reminding the oppressed that they are ‘less’ because of their socioeconomic status. In the second, oppression is disguised as the status quo, and the oppressed are led to believe they are immersed in the ‘real world’ where oppression is expected and accepted as normal. Thus, these citizens are often unaware of their own oppression.

As Freire (1970) explains, the oppressors see the oppressed as tools and not necessarily human beings. By objectifying the lower class and deeming them as unworthy, lazy, or stupid, the higher classes justify their actions and perpetuate the oppression. For Freire, a possible solution for this problem would be an education for the oppressed classes that promotes critical thinking and awareness. He believed that by understanding their place in society and the oppressive situation in which they were immersed, the oppressed would then be able to challenge and question their oppression and find a way to change it. Freire saw education (or critical pedagogy, to be more specific) as an important tool in this process. (For more about Freire’s ideas, please watch this video). His ideas go hand in hand with the ideals of social justice.

Social justice is a concept used to refer to actions “in support of various groups perceived as marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged, as a convenient shorthand for those sharing similar interests and concerns, and, for some academics, as a goal for all education” (Woodford, 2011). When advocating for social justice, one often faces challenges, especially as it relates to respect for those we want to have included in our society. Topics such as prejudice, stereotypes, and authenticity are often discussed. For that reason, it is important to know how to advocate for social justice in order to promote change rather than perpetuate the oppression to which Freire (1997) refers.. In this blog post, I want to point to one of these practices that might promote oppression rather then social justice: the vocabulary we use in our everyday conversations and academic work.


In Silverman’s (2009) study report Rethinking Music “Appreciation” I came across an example of said vocabulary misuse. In this study, the author explores “the strategies developed in teaching music appreciation in a large urban secondary school” (p.1), where her students came from diverse backgrounds. When discussing her praxis, the author mentions her student’s assumptions that “Western classical music [was] music for ‘rich people’ and ‘white people’ who ‘live in mansions’” (p.18) and concludes her thoughts about their “labeling” of said music with the following statement: “Whether this is an example of ‘reverse discrimination’ or not, it is not the issue” (p. 19).

As an educator, Silverman (2009) advocates for social justice and feels “a professional responsibility to broaden […] students’ personal and musical identities” and the responsibility “to protect and enhance their abilities to develop musical expressions of their self-identities, as these are manifested in their local, racial, gendered, socio-economic, and political circumstances” (p.11). However, she seems to do it from the point of view of someone who feels great sympathy for her students, but who hasn’t personally experienced many of the injustices from which she wants to protect her students. As a consequence, she uses expressions such as “reverse discrimination,” that, in my opinion, are complicit with the oppressive discourse.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary Online, reverse discrimination is “the act of giving advantage to those groups in society that are often treated unfairly, usually because of their race, sex, or sexuality.”(Retrieved here) Although this definition seems reasonable at first glance, I argue that the simple belief that it is possible to reverse discriminate is a problem on its own. The word reverse means “change to opposite” in the British definition and “the opposite direction,” and “defeat or failure” in the American definition of the same Cambridge Dictionary Online. But what would the opposite of discrimination, or even the “failure” of discrimination be?

Discrimination has many definitions that include “worse treatment,” “seeing a difference,” “different treatment” (Cambridge Dictionary Online, n.d.). So “reverse discrimination” should, in my opinion, refer to something positive such as equality or even equity. Yet, it is used to describe possible injustices against those who are usually not seen as disadvantaged in our society. For those who believe in such idea, “reverse discrimination” is the oppression of the oppressor. One considers it “reversed” because the “normal,” or correct direction, would be to oppress those that we refer to as “minorities” (another one of those interesting terms we use in the social justice discourse).

My argument here is that by using terms such as “reverse discrimination” we are actually being complicit with those who believe that the norm is to oppress and discriminate “minorities.” Please note that I am not saying that those who use such terms (or other terms that in my opinion are oppressive) agree with such injustices. However, I am arguing that if we don’t consider injustices from an oppressed point of view, we might promote oppression while fighting against it. As Serres (n.d.) explains, the way in which we communicate is “influential in shaping human values and ideas.”

While advocating for social justice is absolutely important, it might be time for us to rethink the vocabulary we use to advocate for it, and to take action in promoting these ideas. One possible strategy was given by Silvelamn (2009) in the same paragraph that she talks about “reverse discrimination”: to encourage students to “challenge stereotypes of all kinds” (p.19). In the music classroom we can take action by using mindful vocabulary, promoting critical thinking, and constructing with students learning experiences that really respects different values. Hopefully, critical pedagogy can help us in this task so more of those who are usually “oppressed” can be active agents in the process of challenging oppression and fighting for equality from an empathic rather than sympathetic point of view.


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Teaching and Learning. New York, NY: Routledge. (pp.85 – 101)

The Normalization of the Scientific World View and Music Education

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).


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