Critical Thinking for Music Makers

Music is one of those aspects of human life about which most people have an opinion. Often, when interpretations and meanings clash and collide, it is the music maker’s viewpoint that many consider the most significant, whether it’s the intention of the composer, the interpretation of the performer, or the musical leadership of the conductor.

We know, however, that music is much more than a set of pre-determined meanings. Programme notes providing analysis and interpretation, a caption accompanying a video on a singer-songwriter’s Instagram account, a website detailing the philosophy and mission of an ensemble — all these are part of musical meaning-making, but far from all of it. 

In 1968, the French poststructuralist Roland Barthes declared the Death of the Author, stating that the primacy traditionally ascribed to the creator of a work is giving way to the interpretations of the receiver of the work, as well as to the work’s relationship to other texts. In a similar way, music makers, performers, composers, and practitioners must come to the realisation that anyone interacting with their work is entering into a conversation where there are many voices and many opinions.

Whose point of view is valid then? Do we accept the analysis of the scholar with decades of experience and a long list of publications to their name? What about the music critic who writes a review in a magazine with a small but loyal following? Or is it the member of the audience whose opinion we should take seriously, because their Facebook post about a concert had a great deal of engagement? 

These questions become even more important when discussing forms of music which are not generally considered ‘serious’, like popular music, folk music, or musical theatre. Why do many people find it difficult to take seriously the discourse surrounding an acoustic cover band? And how can musicians who have chosen to practice in these genres engage with their ideas in a more effective way?

There are three steps required to address these questions.

The first is the acceptance that all music — any music — is worth serious, academic study. Every performance, every genre, every iteration of a work, deserves attention because it exists within a context of existing knowledge and experiences, and it is a site where meaning is created.

The second step is to equip music makers with the skills to engage with their work in this rigorous, serious way. This means learning how to construct an argument, understanding what logic is, identifying fallacies in their own thinking and in the thinking of others, and presenting their viewpoints in a clear manner with supporting evidence that is based on scrupulous methodology.

The third step involves introducing musicians, particularly young undergraduates, to these ideas and frameworks in a manner that is relevant and empowering. Asking a music undergraduate to take time off from composing, practising, or interacting with music in a practical way, and spend time instead on what they may consider dry and boring — like the difference between a deductive and an inductive argument — is a challenging task. This is why critical thinking methodologies often get de-prioritised by students of music. It comes down to how we, as educators, engage with students, how we can make these skills matter to them, how we can show them that these concepts help them answer some of their own questions about their work and about themselves. Most importantly, it’s about how we can give them the confidence to talk about their work intelligently, to defend their ideas, to question their notions, and to become more discerning and insightful musicians who are prepared and able to contribute to a body of knowledge.