International music

More about Tunis, following my earlier post on what I presented at the conference there.

This is about the group that presented the conference, the International Music Council. And about international issues in music.

The IMC was founded long ago, in 1949, by UNESCO. It considers international music issues, and advocates positions on them.

So what are the issues?

I won’t claim to be an expert, but I noticed two. One is music advocacy, which we’re certainly familiar with here in the US. And, in particular, advocacy for music education.

Here we run into the same problems, I think, that I’ve talked about in arts advocacy, which can include a sense of entitlement, and grandly specious claims made for the power of art. Especially its moral power.

So in Tunis we had (on a panel on music education), a hopeful presentation on the power of music, which the presenter (from an Asian country) felt could be a tremendous force for good. At one point he stopped to note that music education had to encourage not just love and knowledge of music, but also critical thinking, so that students could resist any use of music as propaganda.

Which, if you ask me, undercut his claims for music’s moral force. If music can also be used immorally, then why should we be so certain of its moral power? The speaker then went on to celebrate an event in which massed schoolchildren sang a song in the presence of his country’s leader — but probably without much critical thinking about the politics involved.

Two speakers presented terrific correctives to this. One was David Price, a consultant from Britain, who talked about music education programs he’d taken part in, which essentially were guided by the students. That is, you find out what music the students like, what use they’re making of music, and you try to build programs around that. Rather than, for instance, teaching them about the music you think they should care about. (Classical music advocates, are you listening?) These programs, Price said, were a great success, and I can well believe it.

The other corrective came from Wayne Bowman, professor of music education at the school of music at Brandon University in Manitoba. “All too often,” he said, “advocacy claims sound like last gasp efforts to defend instructional practices that have simply failed to keep pace with social and musical change.”

He challenged all kinds of conventional wisdom — music, he says, can’t honestly be said to make you smarter, to enhance critical thinking, to develop confidence, or to enhance communication. (In fact, anyone who sees how music works in the real world will notice that it often blocks communication, when people like widely diverse musical genres, and see someone else’s preference as a sign that the person isn’t worth talking to.)

I loved his paper, and Wayne very kindly agreed to let me put it online, which I’ve done. You can read it here. I highly recommend it.

Wayne, by the way, makes a pointed distinction between music training and music education. What’s the difference? A musician who can play the classical piano repertoire note perfectly, backwards and forwards, but who hasn’t heard even a single Charlie Parker recording is trained, but not educated. (My example, not his, though I think I can say he agrees with it.)

More tomorrow, about international music politics — more proof, by the way, that music doesn’t necessarily bring people together.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says


    Really love to see you talking about the weaker aspects of music advocacy. Lots of spurious claims making the rounds, and undermining the good stuff. Anyway, that’s not why I write.

    David Price’s example is indeed a powerful one at any age. I was an undergrad music major in a conservatory-style department about a decade ago, and for two or three semesters just couldn’t make music theory click. It was embarrassing. I was an arranger and scholarship vocalist, but for some reason, I couldn’t make theory click.

    A few years later, I enrolled at Berklee College of Music, and began my contemporary harmony studies with no small amount of trepidation. “I’m not stupid,” I thought. “I can get this.” And then the first lessons were taught using Steely Dan, Sting, and Stevie Wonder. And everything made sense in my ear, and in my mind. All of it clicked, and I aced the contemporary harmony curriculum straight through the chord scale and modal courses. It was amazing and infuriating.

    Then I took traditional harmony there and found it slightly–if not ultimately–easier, and wonder what gave? I wasn’t bridging the gap. A couple years later, in Nashville, I shared that experience with a friend who was getting his masters in composition, and asked him to explain a Neapolitan 6th… something that never really made an awful lot of sense to me. When he did, I was again a little miffed. “So wait… it’s just a sub-V acting as a subdominant? That’s it? That’s all?!”

    Just goes to show that even at a progressive school like Berklee, there still exist artificial walls between “classical” and “popular” music that are allowed to stand, and to negatively affect the education of who knows how many musicians? I know I’m not alone.

  2. Janis says

    There’s also a massive contradiction in the “music as force for good” thing:

    “… a hopeful presentation on the power of music, which the presenter (from an Asian country) felt could be a tremendous force for good. At one point he stopped to note that music education had to encourage not just love and knowledge of music, but also critical thinking, so that students could resist any use of music as propaganda.”

    Depending on one’s definition of “good,” music-as-force-for-good and music-as-propaganda are completely indistinguishable. The supporters of that political figure mentioned later probably felt warm and fuzzy watching those kids sing their song and thought of it as a great example of “music as force for good” while the guy’s opponents seethed over how he was using music as propaganda.

    1) Music is a force. Good, evil, whatever. It’s a force.

    2) One person’s force for good is another’s propaganda.

    3) ANY AND ALL forms of teaching should include critical thinking, not just music. And not critical thinking about the teacher’s pet topic, or else that is propaganda. One person’s advocacy for good is another’s propaganda. Just critical thinking about the subject itself is all you need to teach. The students will carry the skill into other areas on their own.

  3. says

    It’s good to see people fighting the good fight. Even while I was getting my Music Ed degree, I was suspicious of how music could possible raise test scores. My test scores always seemed rather mediocre, but perhaps I missed the orchestra rehearsal that covered advanced trig.

    Of course music is always propaganda! what was the Q and A like for that paper?

  4. Stephen Soderberg says

    You all might want to take off a few days and read Plato’s Republic. You might find his views on music and education a little scary, but there is an advantage to measuring your opinions against the old guy: at the very least, his Socrates is no straw man.

    But the people Socrates talks to in the dialogues are straw men. They only say the things that help Socrates make his arguments.

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here, to be honest. Are you saying that we ought to use music in the ways Plato suggests, or that the line of thought being followed here runs the danger of doing that?

  5. John says

    As any product, musical performance can be used as a marketing strategy to persuade. Sex, sexuality, beauty, or relationships associated with a product, is the most widely used in US marketing campaigns.

    Musical performance bonds a community; bonds students to school; and can be used with core curriculum such as math and reading to enhance academic skills. This is nothing new in the world of academia. It has been presented to politicians who do not listen to the research no matter how often fresh information is presented to them

    Well, what binds a small-town community together better than the high school marching band? Maybe the football team does. But the marching band is an essential element in football.

    Which means that if we accept your argument, we should be putting resources into training marching bands. Which in fact is already being done. What do you think the thousands and thousands of music education students at big state universities are learning? Many of them are learning how to train marching bands, and teach the instruments those bands use.

    So maybe the politicians have more sense than you think. You come to them with a fancy argument about bringing the community together by teaching classical music — I hope I’m not misrepresenting you here — and they think, “But we already have music bringing our communities together.”

  6. Robert Berger says

    What would you say about a talented young

    Jazz musician who was brilliantly accomplished

    but had never heard any music by Bach,Mozart,

    Beethoven, Brahms and other great classical composers ?

    I suppose it’s a good idea for classical musicians to have some familiarity with Jazz etc, but isn’t it also a good idea for Jazz musicians to know some classical music,too?

    Duke Ellington was very interested in it and knew a great deal about it, for example.

    Howard Mandel, who commented on this, knows a lot more about jazz than Robert or I do, and makes an excellent point.

    But from my experience, I’d agree, Robert, that you’re not raising a real issue here. Jazz musicians know more about classical music, as a rule, than classical musicians know about jazz. I see that every year in my Juilliard classes. I get students from the jazz program, and while their knowledge of classical music varies, and some don’t know much about it at all, they know more about it than the classical musicians in my classes know about jazz.
    And something else worth noting — they know more about jazz, as a rule, than the classical musicians know about classical music. They tend to have a broad knowledge of jazz history, theory, and jazz musicians, while the classical musicians tend mostly to know the players and repertoire for their instruments. And not to know theory very well at all. The jazz players tend to have much better ears for musical details than the classical students do.

  7. says

    Mr. Berger raises a straw man– the talented young jazz musicians I’ve met have been exposed to classical composers, and the older ones have, too. As Henry Threadgill once told me, music training on all instruments except trap drums is done using classical examples — there is no training in “jazz” only via oral tradition any more. No jazz pianist gets chops hanging around whore houses like Jelly Roll Morton did (and Jelly Roll was an attendee at the New Orleans creole opera company, I’ve read; same goes for brass and reeds players, bassists, guitarists, etc. Ellington certainly was among those who made classical music knowledge desirable for the jazz musicians in his wake, but he was not alone doing that in the ’30s; cf Milt Hinton for a lesser-known but more typical example. American culture is suffused with the stuff of classical music — jazz musicians employ classical notions of harmony, read scores, etc. They may not know in depth classical repertoire, but I haven’t met any who don’t know who Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are, and they’re frequently aware of Bartok, Debussy, Russian romantics, etc., up to Elliot Carter.

  8. says

    The real educational advantage of musical education – especially instrumental training – is that a person realizes that if he practices at something he can get noticably better at it. It physically reinforces success by playing and hearing – unlike, say, mathematics – and increases, I believe, one’s ability to concentrate.

    Seems like sports or ballroom dancing — the tango, for instance — would do the same thing. Or juggling. Or magic tricks (using sleight of hand). Or skateboarding.

  9. bronwyn says

    I really believe that some of the issues around the current state of classical music audiences is that many music students are far far too isolated in the world of classical music, and these are all too often the ones that go on to be programmers, players, administrators etc.

    Because they have a deep and intense knowledge and love for the classical repetoire, it’s really difficult for this group of people to see why everybody doesn’t, and why people such as myself don’t want to go along to a concert where 10 minute work by a living composer is a mere afterthought to something straight from the canon.

    I could name lots of people from my study days who can tell you everything about Telemann, but would struggle to tell you anything of Rhianna or Green Day or whatever else the kids are listening to these days. Rather depressingly, it’s most of the people I studied with who did have a broad (and deep, often, as well) knowledge of the spectrum of music are not playing, or writing, or managing groups. Most of them couldn’t find a place to do this because they didn’t fit in with the norm, and have filtered off to do something else.

    To me, if you’re a musician, you’re interested in all music. You don’t have to like it all, but you should be interested in it, and know the essential elements of it. Otherwise you run the risk of being a trainspotter – standing on a platform in an anorak talking to the three other people who share your interest.

    So, yes, a rather long winded way of saying the difference between trained, and being educated can be vast!

    Great comment, Bronwyn!

    The classical music world, more or less as a whole, has this problem. It doesn’t know (or acts like it doesn’t know) what the world outside it is like. And so its appeals for new audiences fall flat. Of course they work a little bit. A few people are drawn in. And that blinds the classical world to its larger failure. We don’t set our goals nearly high enough. We’re satisfied with attracting a few people to a few concerts, or large numbers of people to the occasional stadium or outdoor event, but we don’t try to attract a repeatable larger audience of smart people who currently listen to other kinds of music.

  10. says

    General point: Most advocacy argumentation of any kind is specious. (I’m thinking of the “We need more support for the arts/horse racing/autism/whatever” kind of argumentation when I say advocacy argumentation.) It proceeds first from what should be the conclusion – “Music is a worthwhile investment of public funds” – and then goes in search of data to back up the premise. No advocacy argumentation with which I am familiar ever looks at the other options available for a certain amount of resources and then calculates how spending that money on the arts/horse racing/autism/etc. would be better than spending it on something else. (“Better” would be tough to define, admittedly, but no one even tries.) It’s not just music.

    If music advocates were able to make such an inquiry, and show that music was indeed a good investment of public funds, they would be in a really awesome position. The constant appeal to intangible, unprovable qualities and to anecdotal evidence suggests that no one wants to make that inquiry because we all know what it would show.

    A related problem, or maybe another description of the same one. Many people think they can prove that music education is a good investment of public funds. Maybe the arguments are hollow, but let that go for a moment. Assume that the arguments work.

    What’s missing then is any demonstration that music is the best investment of public funds. Prove, to your satisfaction, that music (for instance) improves students’ test scores. Then someone comes along and shows that some other program improves test scores more. Now music loses out. Once you’ve argued for music education by invoking some external benefit, you’ve actually made yourself very vulnerable.

  11. David says

    I understand the merits of a student-guided music education program, such as more likely student interest, but where does music as an academic subject enter? Doesn’t the study of music involve historical and theoretical learning on top of performance and enjoyment-listening? Student-guided learning in other education disciplines like history or math would seem to create problems. Many students don’t care about division or Thomas Jefferson. Aren’t we teaching more than music appreciation? How about music knowledge?

    The students guide the general direction of the program — that is, they tell the teachers what they want to learn. But then the teachers really teach them, which means imparting knowledge. And the students are eager to learn that knowledge, because it has tremendous practical use for them.

    And this doesn’t only happen with high school kids, or the British equivalent, whom David Price worked with. It happens also with college students in the US, who resist introductory music courses in which nothing but classical music is taught. Broaden the approach, though, and teach all kinds of music, and then they’re more than happy to learn about classical as well.

    I’m fascinated by the suspicion implied here — that if students are given any kind of say in what they learn, that then they won’t want to learn anything. Seems to me that the opposite is true.

  12. says

    @David – I’m certain that most “academic” musical subjects can strike a balance in terms of the context in which they’re presented. At least from a theory/harmony standpoint (and I’m sure historical, though I defer to those with a deeper knowledge), you can just as easily teach harmonic progression/analysis in Bach as you can in The Beatles, and I’m convinced that it’s usually beneficial to present the material in both manners. Some students simply don’t hear it in the former until they’ve identified it first in the latter.

    It’s no different than the exercise I go through in tutoring high school geometry, having to try 3 or 4 explanations until one clicks for each student. We are still teaching music “knowledge”, but I think we need to arm ourselves with as many different contextual approaches as possible. It’s good for them and for us. It’s always good, I think, to break down artificial walls.

  13. Janis says

    No jazz pianist gets chops hanging around whore houses like Jelly Roll Morton did …

    Which may explain why most jazz musicians are all men, huh? Except the singers.

    Honestly, if that’s the first metaphor to get raised in terms of how one gets “chops” in jazz, then I’ll pass, thanks. Classical is a less “macho” culture lately in a lot of ways, especially since most orchestras are doing blind auditions. When I went to see LACO a few weekends ago, all but one of the violins were women, the concertmaster was a woman, and the rest of the orchestras was half-and-half with the exception of both bassoons (both men) and a timpani was a man.

    It wasn’t always like this, but it’s gotten so much better — especially in Baroque, classical’s answer to the “jazz == improvisation” canard.

    Seriously. Can I just ask once that all the men who celebrate the Great Jazz Legends stop and remember of how many of them were, to put it bluntly, a little too quick with their fists around women? I can either immerse myself in that world (whorehouses? no thanks), or else go watch an orchestra that has a ton of women musicians in it and is led by a woman, and a subgenre of classical music that also features a ton of women performers and musical decision-makers. You can’t find a Baroque ensemble that isn’t majority women.

    When we all love to talk about “diversity,” we should keep in mind that that means different things to different people. Class and gender diversity also count — try looking at your favorite non-classical genre as well and see how it measures up. Does it feature women as leaders and musicians, or just the pretty face behind the microphone?

  14. says

    James wrote: “you can just as easily teach harmonic progression/analysis in Bach as you can in The Beatles, and I’m convinced that it’s usually beneficial to present the material in both manners. Some students simply don’t hear it in the former until they’ve identified it first in the latter.”

    Really? I know several music theorists who would disagree. I mean, sure, you can pick and chose through the Beatles repertoire, finding an authentic cadence here, parallel periods there. But can you really boast of an analytic frame that can engage all of the beatles the way you can engage all of Bach’s music? Btw, we can’t really theoretically engage all of Bach, either.

    For what we can learn from studying the Beatles’ harmony, see “The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles,” an astonishing 700+-page tome by Dominic Pedlar. One of the best and deepest books ever written about music, with an entire chapter on the opening chord of “Help.” Starts with a 19-page chapter on dominant chords in Beatles songs. Whether harmonic analysis is an adequate analytic frame — for the Beatles or for classical music — would be a different question. But there’s an enormous meal of analytic meat waiting in the Beatles’ songbook.

    Now for the bigger question: should we rely so on our theoretical methods when thinking of teaching music? So much criticism has been raised among musicologists and theorists that I am suspicious of the benefits implied.

  15. says

    Greg, I’m not arguing that people haven’t theorized the Beatles. I’m just saying that comparing theoretical analyses of the Beatles to Bach is like comparing apples to bananas. I do not think teaching the former is necessarily as straightforward as the later.

    And I would also say that teaching theory on Bach (or really anybody) isn’t very easy anyway. It seems to me that a great deal of prescreening occurs in theory classrooms. Students in college and advanced high school classes typically enjoy considerable familiarity and literacy with WAM’s printed music technoculture.

    Definitely they’re prescreened. They can read music! Would be fascinating to imagine a music analysis class that was done by ear, instead.

    It’s hard to go further with the Beatles vs. Bach (in a music theory context) without both of us (and anyone else who joins in) being more specific. And I certainly didn’t prove anything by talking about how long the Beatles book I mentioned is!

    I do think that book shows that the music-theory analysis of Beatles songs can go very deep. And, maybe, that it covers some of the same territory that Bach analysis does (though the rock and roll style of the Beatles book may obscure that).