Informal Vs. Formal: The Pathway to Education

Because I grew up in the Catholic elementary school system, my school in Brampton never had music lessons. Thus, for a really long time, I thought that my only musical training was the private music training I received from my private piano teacher. Even as I pursued music studies in university, I felt that I had been behind in my musical training because the other students had music classes throughout their elementary, high school, and private school experience.

It was not until researching into the concept of informal learning that I began to realize that I did in fact always have training in music – just not the type of training that may have been considered “classroom training.” Furthermore, I realized that from my experiences growing up in a lower income neighborhood, I also had training in different genres outside of classical music through my experiences with my neighbors and my friends from school. These experiences were just more “informal.”



Defining Experiences: Is It Really Informal vs. Formal?

In “Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs. formal and informal ways of learning,” Folkstead (2006) does a good job of providing possible definitions for informal and formal learning situations and settings. Formal learning is described as an activity “sequenced beforehand. That is, it is arrange and put into order by a ‘teacher,’ who leads and carries out the activity” (p. 141). Informal learning is described as “not sequenced beforehand; the activity steers the way of working/playing/composing, and the process proceeds by the interaction of the participants in the activity. It is also described as ‘self-chosen and voluntary learning” (p. 141). In many ways, the experiences I outlined beforehand fall into these two categories: the formal aspect being the instruction I gained in high school and university versus the informal aspect I learned from creating music with my friends for fun in elementary school.

However, the main concept from Folkstead’s (2006) work that I think is remarkable is that in music education “formal and informal aspects [are] not static, but rather shif[t] continuously.” In other words, although classrooms may seem formal, there always aspects of informal learning and informal settings taking place. Thus, informal and formal learning situations can be present and changing when in interaction with one another.

shutterstock_114113191Where Do These Classrooms Exist Today?

I think that Folkstead is correct to put forward this theory. While it would be easy to use Wright’s (2015) work “Now We’re The Musicians’: Using Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, capital and field to analyze informal learning in Canadian music education” due to Wright’s work in the Musical Futures initiative, I would instead like to support Folkstead’s ideas using an Australian context based example.

Marsh’s (2012) work “The beat will make you be courage’: The role of a secondary school music program in supporting young refugees and newly arrived immigrants in Australia” excellently displays how formal and informal situations mix together and allow for effective learning. In this work, refugee and immigrant students are involved in hip hop lessons guided by a teacher. However, students are encouraged to voice whether they have a preference to music, and to bring forth their own experiences and knowledge with music outside the classroom. In one case, a student actually puts forth a rhythm from a folk song from her country that gets added to the piece. In this way, students are interacting and participating in a community based compositional activity, which is close to what Folkstead defined before as informal.

From a Teaching Standpoint

I believe that integrating formal and informal practices into a classroom can be extremely beneficial to student learning. Just like the child in Marsh’s work, I believe that incorporating formal and informal learning situations allows students to have autonomy in the classroom. Allowing children to have autonomy in the classroom is important as “a music teacher never meets musically ignorant, untutored or uneducated pupils: on the contrary, when pupils come to school they al possess a rich and in some ways sophistic musical knowledge, acquired from a variety of outside – school musical activities” (Folkstead, as cited in Folkstead, 2006 p. 136).

As a private music teacher, there is many ways in which I have been able to experience informal learning when teaching students. One particular experience was when my student came for their lesson and began to play the Imperial March on piano. The student had been excited to play, but when they were finished they insisted that the song was not as important as some of the “classical” music they were learning with me. In situations like these I like to remind students that any form of musical creation and musical genre is important.  In this case, I had told my student that they could learn whatever piece they wanted, and that they should bring songs from different genres to the class. In this way, I wanted to integrate the informal learning that my students were involved in with their friends and with media so that they would be able to learn music in both formal and informal situations.  Furthermore, I wanted to provide my students with an opportunity to have more autonomy in the class by choosing music they felt was important to them.

fq72jolguu_1408949327266Concluding Thoughts

Encouraging the fusion of informal and formal practices in school settings is highly important. By allowing for more informal settings to be part of the classroom, teachers acknowledge that students prior experiences are important and relevant to their education. Also, it allows students with the ability to chose the music they want to learn, and therefore begin learning how to create musical goal sin which to achieve in the future.


Australian Institute of Business. (2016). Why Teamwork is Important in the Workplace.   Retrieved from

Folkestad, G. (2006). Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs formal and informal ways of learning. British Journal of Music Education 23(2): 135-145.

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Quinn, C. (2009). Social Networking: Bridging Formal and Informal Learning. Retrieved from         and-informal-learning

Marsh, K. (2012b). “The beat will make you be courage’: The role of a secondary school music program in supporting young refugees and newly arrived immigrants in Australia. Research Studies in Music Education, 34(2), 93 – 111. Retrieved from   

Wright, R. (2015). ‘Now We’re the Musicians’; Using Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, capital and field to analyze informal learning in Canadian music education. In P. Burnard, J.   Soderman, & Y. Hofvander-Trulson, (Eds.), Bourdieu and the Sociology of Music, Music    Education and Research. Lower case except for first word  (pp. 79 – 98) Farnham:     Ashgate.


Memes and Music Education: Down the Internet Rabbit Hole

Both my mother and father heavily use technology and the internet. In fact, there are often times when my dad complains that I don’t use the internet as much as he does. For my father, having the internet available has allowed him to gain easy access to knowledge from various fields, which he never had access to when he was a child in Sri Lanka. For my mother, the internet, and the rise of Facebook, allowed her to have connections with friends back in Sri Lanka. For my siblings and I, having the internet has just felt like a normal part of our lives because we all grew up using it.

As a musician, having the internet available has opened many doors. For example, if I wanted to research a new field of musical study, such as a diverse cultures music, I could easily access information from Google or YouTube. Furthermore, as a musician I can upload videos of myself performing pieces on piano for my relatives to see on Facebook.  However, in music education and the classroom, the use of digital media has only started to recently become integrated. That’s why I was interested in reading Waldron’s (2013) work “User-generated content, YouTube and participatory culture on the Web: music learning and teaching in two contrasting online communities.” Waldron’s descriptions of user generated content and participatory culture allow for a great discussion on the use of digital media and music education. Specifically, it allows for me to deliberate on whether memes can be used in music education.

UCG and Participatory Culture

Waldron (2013) describes user generated content, or UGC for short, as follows:

“UGC is a term coined by new media researchers to refer to digital artefact created by ordinary people acting on their own belief – as opposed to corporations or commercial interests … Because it is made with the intention of uploading to the Internet for sharing with the general public, UGC can – and often does – function as a platform for participation and debate … ” (p. 258).

In other words, a UGC is a form of digital media created by individuals to share, manipulate, and discuss with other individuals in a “Participatory culture” (Waldron, 2013, p. 262). Individuals who come into contact with the digital artefact created can choose to create content based on the artefact. While Waldron describes UGC as internet videos and podcast, I was struck by a sudden realization: a meme can be considered a UGC as well.

dicaprio3-583e33155f9b58d5b19e3a00A meme is “an image, video, piece of text, etc, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations” (Oxford Dictionary). A meme is a joke shared and recreated by users on the internet as a means of sharing a funny idea or background knowledge in a creative way. However, unlike podcasts, and informational videos such as TED Talks, memes may not be the first idea in many educators minds to integrate into the classroom, because memes can often be crude, and too context specific to be understandable, especially across different generations.

But Why is this Related to Music Education?

As globalization and technological advancements continue, more students are entering into the classroom with years of experience browsing and participating in online communities. Thus, students are interacting with forms of memes on a daily basis. Finding a way to integrate memes into a classroom can allow teachers to use students already existing knowledge and experiences to help create opportunities for music education to flourish on a broader scale.

One particular meme that supports this point of view is the video of the son and father playing trombone and opening and closing the stove together. While the video is based off of an electronic song, users on the internet recreated and appropriated the video and created new content to reflect the video. One of the video’s that spiraled off this meme was this video: three music students from Berkeley recreating the video on brass instruments for fun.

While this was funny, I think it showcased an important point: music students using their musical and technical skills in a way that brought them joy, which was situated in their own daily experiences with the global world. In a classroom setting, giving students an opportunity to recreate musical memes found on the internet using the instruments they are learning in class could allow for greater learning to take place. Also, it could allow students to experience music education in a way that is closer to their experiences of digital media.

As a private piano teacher, I was able to use the John Cena meme when I wanted to help my student with ear training exercise. Because my student knew the meme from using the internet, I had them try and play it by ear on the piano. The experience was enjoyable for both of us, because I was able to see how my student could transfer sound into notation, and my student was able to perform something that he found funny. Furthermore, later when we were discussing the concept of different keys, my student and I were able to see if we could recreate the John Cena meme in different keys.



Concluding Thoughts

Although memes may be considered crude, and not always appropriate for classroom settings, memes are a form of UGC that can be incorporated into music education. Allowing students to use digital media that they are familiar with can allow students the opportunity to learn more effectively. Furthermore, the participatory nature of creating memes allows students to interact with one another as a community.



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Diversity and Habitus: Teacher and Student Interactions

cultural-diversityAs a person of color, one of my favorites things to do is read articles about how music educators deal with cultural diverse students in the classroom. With issues of race present in society, I find it interesting to see how different authors acknowledge and seek to resolve conflicts that may arise through the instruction of music in classroom settings. Also, I am deeply fascinated with understanding how different areas in the world allow for both positive and negative instruction of music and the reasoning behind these observations. That’s why I was incredibly excited to read Silverman’s (2009) work “Rethinking Music ‘Appreciation.”

In Silverman’s (2009) work, one major argument Silverman details is how music educators appreciation of certain musical styles may differ from students, and how misunderstandings of appreciation can result in a negative learning environment.  One of my favorite passages from this work is the following:

“Many of them said they didn’t understand it, or that it all sounded the same … Nevertheless, the response that seemed most telling was when Angelique said: ‘That’s white people’s music. How is that going to help me?’ Indeed, what was this music ‘good for’ in these students’ immediate lives and cultural contexts” (p. 8).

Sociology and Habitus

What I love about this passage, and Silverman’s argument on differing musical appreciation perspectives, is how it relates closely to Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological concept of Habitus. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is the idea that individuals have “transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matric of perceptions, appreciates, and actionBusiness colleagues shaking handss” (Bourdieu, as cited by Hall, 2015, p. 46). In other words: everyone has a set of ideas and perceptions that are acquired through experiences from one’s past, present, and interactions with others, which influence how individuals act in the present and the future.

In Silverman’s (2009) case, Silverman had acquired a habitus that was based in “white, European, classical prejudices” (p. 8), which was different from the habitus of the students who were culturally diverse. Therefore, when Silverman tried to teach “classical” music appreciation, students were not interested. It is only when Silverman steps outside of this teacher habitus and classical prejudices, that “[Silverman] accepted the students and their musics ‘as they were.’ Perhaps it was because [Silverman] tried to find where the students were, and began the process of learning there. Overall, [Silverman thought] it was because [they] moved beyond the conventional wisdom embedded in traditional ‘music appreciation” (p. 24).

Present vs. Non Existent: Are Issues of Habitus Still Present?

As a private music teacher, I face issues of habitus constantly. When I first began teaching, I acted similarly to Silverman, as I tried to have students learn and appreciate only classical western art music. And, likewise to Silverman, my students did not always enjoy the lessons because they appreciated different types of music outside of the classical western art tradition. When I began to explore different genres and encourage my students to bring in music they wanted to learn, I was able to move beyond my classical perspective. Thus, in many ways, Silverman’s work deeply resonated with my own teaching philosophies on encouraging different perspectives in the classroom.

In regards to culturally diverse students however, one particular example from my private teaching experience resonates with me. A couple of weeks ago I had begun to teach two Icelandic siblings. When I began the students lesson, I had asked both students whether they already could play some songs on piano and whether they would want to perform them for me. At first the students refused. When I inquired why, I was shocked to hear that they thought I would not want to hear the songs. They thought I was a classical pianist and that I would not enjoy the songs they knew because they were Icelandic songs.

What I loved about this experience was that my students had assumed my habitus, and had tried to adjust their own to match. As a teacher, I found it was a key learning experience, because it made me realize that I carry the impression that I am only classically trained to those who do not know me. Also, in this case, I realized that that impression did not allow for a positive learning environment. In a way, it made me acknowledge my own placement in my students lives. In order to acknowledge this, I began to play both jazz and popular songs for my students, which allowed my two students to feel comfortable playing Icelandic folk music for me.

fq72jolguu_1408949327266Concluding Thoughts
I believe that Silverman (2009) was correct to acknowledge that misunderstandings about musical appreciation between teachers and students can create negative learning environments. As educators, we should encourage for multiple diverse perspectives to be able to be present in the room and to influence classroom lesson direction. Furthermore, I believe that educators should use these experiences of conflict to reflect on their placement in their students lives and how it affects learning. By understanding that we can learn from students just as much as students learn from us, we as educators can create positive spaces for learning and community.


Haiku Deck. (2015). Conclusion. Retrieved from           education-presentation-SS7EjYOzlq

Hall, C. (2015). Singing Gender and Class: Understanding Choirboys’ Musical Habitus. In          P. Burnard, J. Soderman, & Y. Hofvander-Trulson, (Eds.) Bourdieu and the Sociology of        Music, Music Education and Research. Lower case except for first word (pp. 43 – 60)       Farnham: Ashgate

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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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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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Tia DeNora and the Power of Music by Patrick K Feely

In the beginning pages of Tia DeNora’s book, Music in Everyday Life (2000), the author outlines her “Human-Music Interaction” theory and her interactionist critique of the semiotics of music. In this blog, I seek to understand her thoughts, to elaborate upon them, and to draw connections with them to contemporary society.­ In conclusion I illustrate ways that DeNora’s theories have informed my own guitar teaching practice.

DeNora’s Human-Music Interactionist theory is at once social, practical, and ethological (p. 32). Her theory focuses on the social context in which musical interactions take place and how how those agents believe that music moves them to action. To illustrate her theory, DeNora draws on Paul Willis’s “motor-bike boys” from his classic ethnography Profane Culture (1978). These English working-class motorcyclists listened to the early rock ‘n’ roll of the late 1950s. They preferred music that did not leave them “sitting there mopping all night” (p. 7). Instead, they listened to fast records that invited them to get up and do something, such as dance or go for a motorcycle ride. For these individuals, the music they chose to listen to alluded to aspects of the world around them – speed, vitality, and movement. They aligned and synchronized themselves with the music through action; skating, dancing, and motorcycling. This interaction between listener and musical artifact – and the actions that issue forth from this interaction – is essential to DeNora understanding of the “human-music interaction” theory. Here, in that moment, the listener ascribes meaning to the music.

Nested within this prosaic “human-music interaction” theory is DeNora’s critique of musical semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. In semiotic theory the symbol is known as the signifier, and the object the signified. The word “car” for instance, is merely a symbol for “that thing” that moves an individual from one point to another. It is also important to note that the symbol bears no similarity to the object – it is arbitrary. Music is also thought to be a signifier; a symbol containing meaning. DeNora believes that the semiotic decoding of music, by writers such as McClary and Adorno, rests on epistemologically weak ground. That is because these authors imagine that their transcription – conversion between signifier (music) and signified (the written word) – is objective. However, individuals are prone to decoding symbols through the lens of their own lived experience. The result of this faulty premise is a mapping that is more autobiographical than universal; they mistakenly imagine that their interpretation would be the same as everyone else’s. In his instance, the voice of the semioticitian is given privilege over the interaction between the listener and their music.

A musical example may help to illustrate. We can easily asses if a musician successfully transcribes a piece of music from iconic symbol (e.g., musical notation) to sound. We look at the musical score and compare it to what was heard. The difference between the musical sight-reader and the semiotician is that there exists an agreement about what the signifier and the signified represent (musical notation and auditory representations) – there is no such agreement about the meaning of sound, however. DeNora argues for a more isomorphic musical mapping; one that is more corporeal, situated in action, less cognitive by nature. She advocates that the activities generated by musical agents be recognized as the signified, and not the written word. Her theory proposes that, not only can music act on individuals, but that individuals can, through their own agency, act on music. People structure the use of music to their own ends; they choose what music to listen to, where to listen to it, and for what purpose. We see this embodied in today’s society when people use iPods at the gym, drive to work with the radio on, as well as to get them out of a bad mood.


But what does this mean for music educators? DeNora herself does not address the question. We might begin by asking ourselves, “Do musicians interact with music in significantly different ways than non-musicians?” I think that they do – DeNora suggests the same. She highlights an important difference between musicians and non-musicians when she writes; “for those respondents over seventy and to those who were professionally trained musicians, the idea of music as “background” to nearly anything was antithetical. Music is something one either makes or listens to intently” (DeNora, p. 61). For DeNora, the function of music in society is utilitarian, pragmatic, domestic. For most professional musicians, however, (those who make their living from teaching and performing) music is more than that. They have a need to be involved in the creative music making process and to reveal themselves at a deep level. Musicians are people who become fascinated with certain sounds. They want to be able to reproduce those sounds. They gravitate toward a particular instrument and begin to practice. They have a desire to progress and to become better at what they do. To offer another analogy – most people understand the concept of money, however those who work with money as a profession, such as economists, understand money at a much higher level resolution than the layperson.

One way of integrating DeNoras ideas would be by envisioning the process of music education as a means to an end. This model would be student-centered; more egalitarian in nature. It would also be focused on practical music making within the community and how students use music in their everyday lives. This model would place significant challenges on the educator; requiring them to adjust their curriculum for each student. Some educators may rise to this challenge, while others may feel inadequate or overwhelmed, depending on the range of repertoire. The guitar, for instance, has a 500-year history that straddles two parallel universes – one in the pub, the other in the royal court. No other instrument has such a wide range of styles and genres. In England alone, the repertoire spans from the high Renaissance lute songs of John Dowland to the punk rock anthems of the Sex Pistols. A typical guitar student might come to a lesson intending to learn the latest Metallica tune from tablature, or how to improvise over blues and jazz progressions; they may want to “hum and strum” folk songs, learn flamenco dance rhythms, or even play a Bach fugue. To more closely align with Denora’s theory, I have changed pedagogical directions in my studio by focusing on the musical ethnography of my students. One student may request help learning a “cover songs”, because they are in a rock band. I show how to transpose chords to another student because the choir they lead on Sunday morning cannot sing in the prescribed key. These two instances show why it is important to teach with human-music interaction in mind. Giving appropriate musical tools to student’s enables them to be more in control of their individual musical settings. These students are aware of the powers of music, and freely allow the music to control and shape elements of their everyday lives. They consciously engage in musical participation in a way that is self-directed and enhances their everyday lives – socially, emotionally, and musically.


DeNora, T. (2000) Music in everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The Importance of a Positive Musical Identity for Adolescent Boys

by Emma Margutsch

Self-identity is a very important aspect to one’s choices, dispositions, actions, and thoughts. During adolescence, the importance of identity increases, as adolescence is particularly a critical time for identity formation and the creation of values and one’s own ideas. Adolescents are constantly surrounded by the values and standards of the world around them, and are “particularly vulnerable to cultural materials, and their imitation of them is presumed to be so automatic” (Bennett & Ferrell, 1987, pp. 345).

Specifically considering the importance of musical and vocal identity, Freer (2010) states “the process through which adolescents construct their personal sense of musical identity is [important]… because of the potential for self-perceptions to influence musical behavior throughout the lifespan” (pp. 17).

Most school and extra-curricular choirs are noticing a drop in participation by adolescent boys. From my first-hand experience working with some choirs, there is a clear difference in numbers between girls and boys. Even with my private voice teaching, I do not have any male voice students, but have a number of female students. Colleges and friends of mine are noticing similar trends in their voice studios, as well. So, why?… I don’t believe it’s a full removal from music, because adolescent boys are listening to pop music. Is it just ‘formal’ and ‘traditional’ music, adolescent boys are not interested in?

Research suggests there is an increasing reluctance for adolescent boys to participate in choral music. Koza (1993) defines this problem as the ‘missing males’ as there is a clear absence of participation by adolescent boys in choral activities. Adler argues this is the result of boys making a conscious decision not to sing in elementary and secondary school due to both sociological and psychological messages that it is not an appropriate activity for males past a certain age (as cited in Hall, 2015, p. 44). Research into adolescent identity also suggests attitudes towards singing are not only related to their perceived ability, but rather by gender, socioculture, along with other sociological factors (Hall, 2005, pp. 16).

So what exactly is causing the lack of adolescent boys in choral music? With Adolescence comes puberty, and the onset of puberty for boys brings numerous physical changes to the vocal tract caused by hormone changes.

With these physical changes to the vocal tract, the voice often becomes breathy and unstable, and ‘cracking’ often occurs (Freer, 2008; Welch, 2006), and these physical changes could easily cause emotional strain and feelings of self-consciousness.

Choral singing is also often associated with femininity because it is perceived as being ‘for girls’ as western society promotes a strong sense of gender roles (Green, 1993). Is being associated with something ‘girly’ not ‘appropriate’ for boys?

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Picture of a Choir Singing. Retrieved from Choral Canada Website.

Since the ‘missing males’ issue is still prevalent, I have to wonder if we are doing enough as music educators to change the way choir and choral music is perceived? I believe we as music educators need to do as much as we can to create a positive musical and vocal identity for adolescent boys; they need to feel comfortable, enthusiastic, and have a positive self-image about music and signing in choir.  We need to build their confidence, not break it! The consequence of embarrassing and marginalizing boys during adolescence could worsen their  self-identity, and increase the negative perception and delineations associated with choral singing in subsequent generations.

But how can we do this? I believe we, the music teachers, should in a sense, go ‘back to school’. From experience in my own studio, one of the best way we can help our students is to know exactly how to help them because we have learned what they are going through, and educated ourselves to the greater issues within sociology, culture, and society. Being able to have the knowledge and tools to properly help our students navigate these physical changes, building their confidence in the process, also by breaking down these preconceived gender delineations is how we can create a positive music and vocal identity of these adolescent boys.

Another option that I believe could work well is to change the dynamic of choir and choral singing. Choral music often follows traditions, even if they are unintentional. Often, similar repertoire is chosen annually – like, Ave Maria or True Colours. Choral directors and music educators could choose more popular music as repertoire – like Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself, or even ask their students what songs they would like to learn, and follow through (provided there is an available choral arrangement). Giving students autonomy and allowing them to be involved in the decision making process has shown to increase their participation levels.

Overall, it is important that as music educators and choral directors we ensure we are doing everything we can not to increase negative self-identities for our students. We need to ensure we are ‘building our students up’ not ‘tearing them down’. Fostering welcoming, positive and inclusive musical environments will aid in the positive musical and vocal identities of our adolescent boys – and all of our students!



Bennett, H. & Ferrell, J. (1987). Music videos and epistemic socialization. Youth & Society, 18(4), 344-362.

Choral Canada.

Freer, P. (2008). Boys’ changing voices in the first century of MENC journals. Music Educators Journal, 95(1), 41-47. Retrieved from

Freer, P. (2010). Two decades of research on possible selves and the ‘missing males’ problem in choral music. International Journal of Music Education, 28(1), 17-30. doi:10.1177/0255761409351341.

Green, L. (1993). Music, gender and education: a report on some exploratory research. British Journal of Music Education, 10(3), 219-253.

Hall, C. (2005). Gender and boys’ singing in early childhood. British Journal of Music Education, 22(1), 5-20. doi: 10.1017/S0265051704005960.

Hall, C. (2015). Singing gender and class: understanding the choirboys’ musical habitus. In Burnard, P., Soderman, J., and Hofvander-Trulson, Y. (Eds.) Bourdieu and the sociology of music, music education and research (43-60). Farnham: Ashgate.

Koza, J. (1993). The “missing males” and other gender issues in music education: Evidence from the “music supervisors’ journal,” 1914-1924. Journal of Research in Music Education, 41(3), 212-232. Retrieved from

Welch, G. (2006). Chapter 16: Singing and vocal development. In McPherson, G. (Ed.), The child as musician: A handbook of musical development (pp. 311-351). New York: Oxford University Press.

Comparative Education: A Look into the Benefits

by Emma Margutsch

Why does it seem like so many people are reluctant to change? Do these people not want to change, because they like what is? Or do they not know how to deal with it? When investigating music education in different cultures in hopes of changing and developing one’s own music education system and practices, many people are often hostile and uncertain of what this could mean in the long-run.

Music education traditions have remained relatively unchanged for years. Take for example the Ontario Music Curriculum; while yes, there have been small changes in regards to content, the overarching policy has remained relatively unchanged. Rice (2014) in his study of ethnomusicology, argues musical practices are culturally embedded. Apple (2000) similarly argues curricula are deeply imbedded in cultural politics, and curricular development represents certain political agendas and educational values. While Rice’s and Apple’s arguments can spark an entirely different discussion related Christopher Small (1997) about how knowledge is power (see blog: Is the Search for Musical Knowledge a Means of Establishing Power), my focus in referencing these authors is to bring up a greater theme. Music education has remained the same for years – it is important that educators look for new ways to innovate music education to change its direction or renew its meaning and approach. Comparative education might just be the answer – or part of it!

Researchers like Grant, Horsley, and Kertz-Welzel have spent significant research time considering the benefits of comparative education and educational transfer. Kertz-Welzel (2008) argues that “in the twenty-first century, an exchange of ideas means a dialogue between teachers, scholars and students of various traditions of music education in order to find a better way of teaching music” (p. 439). Comparative education could provide educators with the means to innovate music education, to see if other countries are having similar struggles, and to even break down these policy struggles and political agendas.

My interest in comparative education started with my Slovenian heritage and the interest in music most children in Slovenia seem to have. How are they so interested? Why do they love it? What is fostering this interest?

Video of a young Slovenian boy Singing.


I wanted to see (and am still trying to explore) if there was something in the music curriculum that was sparking and fostering the interest and investment in music. And if it was something in the curriculum (or even if it wasn’t), I wanted to know what it was, to see if there was a way to transfer this over into the Ontario music curriculum – or even in my own private studio teaching. This idea of ‘borrowing’ – or educational transfer – as discussed by Grant (2000) is said to be one of the most valuable contributions; “not only can they set forth a range of alternative ideas and practices but, intelligently applied, they can help distinguish what can reasonably be imported from what cannot. By examining educational practices in context they can help indicate the kind of adaptation needed to fit them into another system” (p. 315).

But like Kertz-Welzel states, “comparative music education is often considered to be an unnecessary subject because there seem to be more important issues for research than studying music education in various countries” (2008, p. 439). I can personally attest to the opposition. On my recent trip back to Slovenia, I had a few meetings with educators to discuss the music curriculum. One teacher I met with was very blunt in expressing his hostility towards the idea, asking me ‘why’ I was interested in this – I said, why not?

If researched correctly, and properly implemented comparative education and educational transfer can prove very effective, the process does not come without it challenges. Comparative education is not simply taking a theme from a curriculum and applying it, but rather, entire educational systems, policies, histories, and relations need to be examined because any and all parts of an educational system are inter-reliant (Grant, 2000, p. 312). Terminology, structures, policies, and cultures are not the same between counties, as similar as they might seem.

Regardless of how daunting a process comparative education and educational transfer might be, shouldn’t we as researchers and educators, ‘take the plunge’? There is always the possibility that a look into another country’s music education curriculum and policy might provide us with no insight or inspirations to change our own policies, or it might just simply disappoint us. However, comparative education and educational transfer could inspire us to change our own policies and methods of teaching; “At its best, educational transfer can help to improve educational systems, policies, and practices worldwide” (Kertz-Welzel, 2014, p. 97). With the endless problems we have with stakeholder education and policy makers controlling our curricula’s, and with how students are either not enjoying, connecting, or learning much from current music education practices, a look into outside practices could contest our own practise. Heck – our entire education and all of our training, too! But dialogue is the outcome – a dialogue that could change the way we think about music education. And a dialogue that could very well, change the way we think about music education, our policies, and the way students learn! And isn’t that our purpose as educators? To help our students, and to do what we can to inspire a love of music? So… let’s change, and ‘take the plunge’!



Apple, M. W. (2000). Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age. New York: Routledge.

Grant, N. (2000). Tasks for comparative education in the new Millennium. Comparative Education, 36(3), 309-317. (3), 309-317.

Kertz-Welzel, A. (2008). Music education in the twenty-first century: A cross-cultural comparison of German and American music education towards a new concept of international dialogue. Music Education Research, 10(4), 439-449.

Kertz-Welzel, A. (2014). The policy of educational transfer and international music education. In Gouzouasis (Ed.) Policy and media in and for a diverse global community (p. 93-98). The Commission on Music Policy: Culture, Education, and Media for the International Society for Music Education in conjunction with the University of British Columbia. Retrieved from

Rice, T. (2014). Ethnomusicology: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Social justice in Music Education: Negative Rights And Positive Rights in the Society

Social justice in music education is an important issue that is widely discussed in the current society. Horsley (2015) explores how negative rights and positive rights are reflected in the field of music education in today’s neoliberal world. She explains that negative rights, on the one hand, are “tied to the right of parents to make educational decisions about what they consider best for their children” (p. 3). On the other hand, positive rights “guarantee that certain provisions and standards of living will be provided to all individuals within a state” (p. 3). In the process of today’s individuals’ pursuit of negative rights, as well as the educational policies that are made and implemented to ensure citizens’ educational positive rights, banking education is something that can hardly be avoided because educational oppression occurs within, as Freire (1970) defines.

Banking Education

Negative rights and music learning

Parents’ pursuit of negative rights has been a kind of considerably common behavior throughout my music learning and teaching. This educational phenomenon also indicates that how individuals are making effort on gaining personal interests, as well as how music is embodied as a part of cultural capital (Moore, 2008) and be exchanged to other capitals.

When I worked as a piano teacher in a studio in Beijing, a mother brought her 6-year-old son to us and said that she wanted him to learn the piano. When I was talking to that child, I found that he had little interest in music. Instead, he was concentrated on reading an astronomy magazine on the shelf of the studio. His mother told me, “He loves astronomy. He knows a lot of astronomy knowledge that I do not know. But I love music. I just want him to learn to play the piano. That’s my dream in my childhood.” “But he prefers exploring astronomy,” I said, “why not providing him with more educational resources on his own interest?” “But I worry that he is going to become a nerd then.” She insisted.

Educational oppression

Such cases are pretty usual during my music career. Generally, Chinese students are not empowered to decide what to learn. In terms of learning music, students’ interest is not the main concern of their parents. Instead, gaining a diploma, a decent job, and higher social status motivate them to oppress their children. In Gaokao, the fierce competition of University Entrance Exams in China, a student only needs to have nearly 60% of the scores than others if he/she is going to major in arts major, which is considered as a “shortcut” by those who believe they cannot get a relative high score through Gaokao. In addition, because of the high tuition fees of music instrument learning, many Chinese parents believe that learning music is an approach for their children to have a better life when they grow up. Thus, parents’ banking education happens. In this situation, music education is considered as “a form of economic investment” (Spring, 1998, p. 159) of achieving educational excellence in the neoliberal society (Horsley, 2015).

Positive rights and cultural pluralism

While school music education was often neglected during my childhood, after I grew up and became a music teacher, the situation seemed to be changed. When I taught as a music teacher in a middle school, the students’ music class time was strictly ensured (two classes every week). This was because the local Bureau of Education inspected the outcomes of students’ music learning every year. However, in this context, banking education also existed. For example, neither music teachers nor students were empowered to decide what they could learn. Instead, the students were rigorously required to learn a song from their textbooks every week, including singing it without reading the score or lyrics, as well as knowing the meaning of the song, which were the content of inspection. Unlike how Silverman (2009) explores to “teach for multicultural awareness, social justice, and critical pedagogy” (p. 4) in her music appreciation class, the way I was asked to teach in my school music class was more like educational oppression: putting music knowledge into students’ brains.

The standardized assessment system in school curriculum

In terms of the course content of school music curriculum, the policy maker has considered the culture pluralism to a great extent. Various music genres from different cultures are compiled into the school music textbooks (Ho & Law, 2015), such as western music, Chinese ethnic minorities’ music, Chinese revolutionary music, and popular music, etc. One day, when I taught my Grade-7 students to sing Schubert’s The Trout, I found something interesting on the students’ understanding of the music they learned. They all laughed after I told them that Schubert was a composer in the Romantic Era, because the term “romantic era” reminded them of Li Bai (701-762), a Chinese poet who was considered as the representative of the Romantic scholars in ancient China. As Chinese students, they were more familiar with Li Bai rather than Schubert when they were talking about the word “romantic”. This connection of two different term “romantic” the students made indicates that there exists ambiguity in learning cultural pluralism in different contexts. While students’ positive rights are ensured in school music education, the culture and contexts behind what they are learning are something that educators and policy makers should be aware of.

li bai
A picture of Li Bai


As two parts of social justice, the educational democracy in music education and family education, along with teaching music in the multicultural discourse concern the promotion of our societies and cultures. Either the negative rights we pursue to achieve individual excellence, or the positive rights which are implemented to guarantee the quality of education both have their limitations, but reproduce the society economically and educationally. Thus, social justice issues in music education are not only about developing cultural diversity, but also about making effort on respecting of every single human being and his/her culture through music engagement (Horsley, 2015).

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