Teaching a critical approach to music

Many of us grow up understanding music — and the arts in general — as something nice to have. Music provides entertainment, it brings joy, it adds emotional dimension to events from dinner parties and weddings to major international sporting events. And when we think of music as a profession, we often think of performance or composition. We do know, as well, that music occupies a significant place in cultural and religious practices. I find that it is of utmost importance to draw out the idea that music is not simply ‘something nice to have’, and neither is it a simply a ‘cultural’ practice that we may only encounter in a religious setting or at an occasion. Music shapes, and is shaped by, individual and social identity — and getting students to understand the mechanism behind these complex processes is the essence of a critical and intellectual approach to music, and one which I firmly believe cannot be ignored in the classroom.

When I teach what is generally referred to as ‘world music’ to students of different ages, I face the question how to make something so removed seem relevant. How do African drums make sense to students of different ages, tens of thousands of miles away from a rural African setting? Partly, it’s about teaching students at a level that suitable for them: older students appreciate the social significance of polyrhythms that are always grounded in a basic beat, and younger ones are curious about how and why these instruments make music. But another part of this is encouraging students to apply their own life experiences to what they learn. How do they respond to music from their favourite bands? How does this help them feel like part of a social group — or if their taste in music makes them feel different from their peers, why is it that music is able to do this? How does singing Happy Birthday at a party help family and friends come together to celebrate something? The answers to these questions help students to realise that their lives are not so removed from a rural African setting after all.

We then begin to think about why people respond socially to music in these ways. What is it about the music itself that we can draw out? Here, musical vocabulary like key, timbre, instrumentation, pitch, tempo, dynamics, and so on, become important. What is it about the way people produce and interpret meaning, that makes a certain piece of music meaningful in a group? Here, we start to explore sociological concepts. The idea behind this approach is that as educators, we don’t start by giving students definitions and concepts to learn. We present these concepts as ways of responding to the questions that naturally emerge when they interact with music in a more in-depth, relevant way.

It’s at this stage that students come to the realisation that music isn’t just a way of making life more bearable or more beautiful — although it has the distinct power to do both. They realise that music is a living social force, as real as an economic practice, as relevant as a political system, and as important as any of the other factors that will shape them as young adults.