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. 

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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.

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