Using Symbolic Interactionism in the music classroom

Educators often face the challenge of introducing students to unfamiliar material such as a scholarly article in a journal or a musical practice from a cultural or social system far removed from their own. It is difficult to help students become invested in something that doesn’t make sense or means very little to them, so educators often fall into the habit of saying things like, “This is an important concept because it’s something you need to know; it’s significant in the field you’re studying; it’s something that’s fundamental to a big idea,” — basically, “this is important because it’s important.” But if we want to convince someone of something, we need to know how and why it’s important, not just that it is important. We need to examine how we can bring students through this process of understanding what we may consider ‘important’. 

One of the most significant gifts my parents ever gave me was my first proper classical guitar. I played and taught with it for years, and while I didn’t use it as my main guitar for formal concerts, it was the one I used most often. It’s battered and old today. It’s falling apart. Soon, it will no longer be fit for a purpose. To many people, it would just be a piece of wood — and not even a particularly expensive one. Anyone who sees it as a piece of wood which doesn’t really do what it’s meant to do anymore, would behave towards it in a way that matches this perspective. They may throw it away, or handle it with very little care. I handle it differently. I’m respectful towards it. Of course I do; it means something to me. It’s a strange little habit we humans have: attaching meaning and value to things that don’t seem meaningful to anyone else. We all do it; we have things with sentimental value. And it’s not just objects; we attach this meaning to practices, rituals, memories, ideas, places, even people.

One approach to understanding how this meaning is formed, shared, and negotiated, is the idea of symbolic interactionism. The term was coined by the sociologist Herbert Blumer in the 1930s, and suggests that what something means to someone will determine how they act towards it. 

Symbolic interactionism is an incredibly helpful tool in ethnomusicological study, and, in my experience, can be applied effectively in the classroom by music educators at all levels. The concept consists of three premises: 

  1. Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meaning things have for them.
  2. The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction one has with one’s fellows.
  3. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters.

(Blumer, 1969)  


Premise 1 is something we’ve seen already: what my guitar means to me determines how I act towards it. What it means to a stranger who’s never met me, and who doesn’t know its significance to me, will also determine how that stranger acts towards it. Premise 2 is demonstrated by the fact that a great deal of my guitar’s significance comes from the fact that it was a gift from my parents. If I tell a friend what the guitar means to me, it would take on a different meaning for this friend. If the guitar broke, I would feel a great sense of loss, and this friend, who has understood what it means to me, would understand that sense of loss as well. The way this guitar is handled by my friend would be very different to the way this same person would handle a random object. And that brings us to Premise 3: we are constantly modifying our understanding of what something means, through a process of interpretation when we interact with people and things.

We all do this, every day. Symbolic interactionism simply provides a theoretical framework to break this process down, and allows us to use this process in various other applications. In my experience as an educator, I have found useful applications in three main areas:

  1. Facilitating students’ understanding of a musical practice
  2. Facilitating students’ understanding of scholarly material
  3. Facilitating educators’ understanding of students


1. Facilitating students’ understanding of a musical practice

This involves helping students to enter into the minds of the people and practices they study: they can then see what is real and significant to those individuals, and as such what the perceived consequences of these practices are. Some questions that facilitate this process might be: What is the context of this practice? Why is it done this way and not another way? What does someone get out of this specific way of doing something? How does it create meaning for them, and how do they share this meaning with the people around them? What would be the consequence of removing, replacing, or changing certain elements of this practice? These questions don’t just have to be about cultural practices which are geographically distant; they can be applied just as effectively to something much more familiar such as the different ways in which audiences respond to musical performances — from raising smartphones to the sky at a concert, to continuing to eat or drink and only applauding at the end of a song by a live band at a bar, or even simply sitting on seats and listening to an orchestra in a concert hall (and, of course, not applauding between movements).


2. Facilitating students’ understanding of scholarly material

Scholarly material is often seen by students to be dry and difficult to understand, and the applications of symbolic interaction go a long way towards helping students engage with such material. Questions to ask students may include: Why do you think the author takes this point of view? What does the author mean with this argument? What is the argument responding to, and what does the author hope to achieve by making this argument in this way? Do you think there are other ways in which the author could have formulated this argument? The aim is not necessarily that students should be convinced by an academic argument (though it is possible) but to help students engage with the material more effectively, and see the obvious and less-obvious weaknesses and strengths in the argument. Ultimately, we want students to be able to articulate more effectively their own position with regard to scholarly material, rather than simply reading, accepting, and quoting the material in a paper for the sake of a citation.


3. Facilitating educators’ understanding of students

It is often said that empathy is an integral part of teaching. The ideas underpinning symbolic interactionism provide a useful framework for developing — or evaluating – our own levels of empathy as educators. We need to start by asking ourselves what the elements of a lesson mean to students, and how we can identify ideas and examples which are significant to students. These may vary based on the age group and profile of students. For example, younger students with less knowledge about music may attach more value to play, family, friends, or food. Older students at the secondary level may already have formed strong opinions on music, and much of it may be tied to aspects of their identity such as social acceptance, appearance, gender, or the notion of celebrity. Students who are already pursuing music in a serious or semi-serious manner may attach more significance to their own performance or compositional practices. I have found that lectures and lessons — whether at universities, preschools, or anything in between — are rewarding and effective for students and for myself, when I begin by understanding the real, significant value that something has to a student: whether that ‘something’ is a toy piano, a meme, a YouTube video, or a carefully-crafted artistic ethos.


It is only when we enter into the mind of someone that we can understand what matters to them, why it matters, and how they share this meaning with other people. This places us in a better position to understand people and their practices. And as educators, we will be more effective at convincing our students about the importance of engaging with unfamiliar or challenging material if we can guide them through that process — but also, if we can apply the same process to the way we relate to our students. 



Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.