Tag Archives: music education

Creativity and music education

The following is an extract from the literature review of my thesis. Its the first section which deals with creativity in music education, considered apart from any use of technology. I am certain that there are hugely important references which are missing from this review, and so comments or suggestions from more enlightened beings are greatly appreciated! On the other hand, I had that strange mixed emotion of fear and excitement to learn that in fact I was not the first (to put it mildly) to think these thoughts.

Approaches to music education have varied greatly over the course of the 20th century. Viewed in isolation, these variations seem like they owe themselves to the idiosyncrasies of the pedagogues, educational theorists and composers who have proposed them. However, recent literature utilizes a more context-driven analysis, which attributes these variations to developments in much broader contexts.

In an article just after the turn of the 21rst century, Faultley uses the symbolism of Orff’s Wheel of Fortune in ‘Carmina Burana’ as a metaphor for the waxing and waning of the idea of ‘creativity’ in music education. He cites Grieg:

“To be too original is always a fault. Indeed, if any one attempted to produce a thing that should be entirely different in all its particulars from everything that had gone before, he would utterly fail; and supposing it possible for him to succeed, his production would be universally rejected.” (Grieg 1896, as cited in Faultley 2004).

Note in Grieg’s words the automatic assumption that a student’s composition is a work for the public domain, where it will be finally and absolutely measured as an artistic object, rather than be an exercise in understanding.

Eight years later, in his treatise on The Evolution of Harmony Kitson stresses that ‘The student must be compelled from the very start to think out his own chord progressions’ (Kitson, 1914) where ‘original work’ is one of the types of exercises that will ensure the student’s development as a composer. The two accounts are by no means incommensurable and their apparent disagreement arises from the ambiguity around the term ‘original’. What Grieg is denouncing is the attempt to be different just for the sake of it, and what Kitson is stressing is the need for students to think for themselves using what they have learned. They are both writing in the same artistic context, with slightly different conceptions of what is meant by originality in music education. However, in both cases the artistic product of the student is ultimately measured against the greater tradition from which the teacher is operating – a tradition now referred to by historians as the Western Canon, and which we will call the hegemonic influence on educational praxis.

Even new works by respected composers were judged and badly received because they did not align with the previous tradition. The well-documented public reactions to Schoenberg’s String Quartet No.2 (premiered in 1908) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) illustrate the hegemonic backdrop within which Grieg and Kitson were also writing (Burkholder et al. 2006, 801-824).

Throughout the 20th century ‘serious’ concert music developed into a variety of styles and approaches, many of which decidedly branched away from the received tradition, leaving music education as a conservatoire of inherited sacrosanct content and traditional methods against which a student’s progression could be measured. Breakthroughs were being made regarding the instruction of this content, with some new pedagogies designed to suit the mental development of young people (such as Orff and Kodaly), and a development into instrumental skills (for example Bela Bartok for the piano). Meanwhile, by the middle of the twentieth century, composers such as Varese, Cage and Stockhausen were questioning and recreating the foundations of Western music, influenced and aided by developments in technology (Beckstead 2001).

This misalignment between education and context inspired Klotman (as cited in Beckstead 2001) to estimate that music education in the twentieth century has been at least a generation behind real world developments.

By the 70’s, educational theorist and teacher John Paynter addressed this divide directly when he said “The musical techniques of our time are relevant to our situation because they grow from it. They must, therefore, have a place in the work we plan for our classes in schools” (Paynter and Aston 1970, 6). He offers the view that the preoccupation in music education with re-creative activities is a result of the tendency to view music as a ‘leisure activity’, accompanied by the belief that creative projects will only serve to slow the ‘more musical’ student down in his/her attainment of performance skills necessary to do well in public examinations. Paynter rejects this viewpoint and maintains that, in order for any such skill enhancement to be meaningful there first has to be an “understanding of the medium and its potential. We can only discover this through creative experiment” (ibid, 7). Much of Paynter’s creative projects involve playing with traditional mediums – extended techniques for traditional musical instruments, projects involving traditional notation, as well as graphical notation – which are supplemented with recommended listening from the contemporary oeuvre in which objects of the lesson were being used, such as Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique or John Cage’s prepared piano. There is also a project involving Sounds on Tape, which will be considered later in this review, as a ‘transformative’ implementation of technology in education.

Paynter’s Canadian contemporary R. Murray Schafer is a little more radical in his call for change in music education:

“The basic vocabulary of music will change. We will perhaps speak of ‘sound objects’, of ‘envelopes’ and ‘onset transients’ instead of ‘triads’ ‘sforzando’ and ‘appogiatura’ … Students will perhaps be trained to describe music in terms of exact frequencies or frequency bands rather than in the limited nomenclature of the tonal system” (Schafer 1969, 3).

In The New Soundscape Schafer deals much more with music as sound, diverting attention away from its notated representation, in a discursive style of teaching where he explores concepts with the students rather than lecture to students about them.

Pockets of ground-breaking pedagogy such as this were accompanied by ongoing debates within the field of psychology from the 50’s, when Guilford expressed a need for research into divergent thinking in education in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association. Constructivism was also coming to the fore in educational research, with it’s roots in the works of Piaget and Dewey, stressing the importance of activity-based learning; the students’ construction of their own understanding; and a reassessment of the teacher-student relationship to one of partnership rather than instruction. Despite these debates, the surrounding educational environment remained cautious. ‘Creativity’ in an educational context was still being avoided due to problems with definition and criteria, and possibly as a result of previous ‘unscientific’ attempts (Webster 2009).

Webster discusses some of the recent developments in research for the teaching of music and creativity against the backdrop of this slow and reluctant uptake on the part of schools and institutions in North America. Webster notes the increasing presence within the modern educational research literature, of the post-modern tendency to question inherited conceptual systems; to favour more the analysis of the surrounding social contexts; as well as the use of qualitative methodologies. Although the positivist approach is still important for curricula and teaching praxis, Webster observes a shift in educational theory from the assessment of composed pieces as final products to the learning process itself. Meanwhile, Webster notes the tendency for music teachers in North America to concentrate on musical performance rather than composition, focusing mostly on students who exhibit some talent for performance in the first place, while according to his account the Australian and English systems had apparently incorporated a more balanced approach.

However, in the UK, Faultley (2004) documents how the reformative campaign in music pedagogy in the 70’s went into a gradual decline, as educational institutions found it increasingly difficult to incorporate it into their ever more exacting curricula. The exploration of sounds, so bravely put forward by Paynter and Schafer, seemed to show no signs of progress in a young persons’ education. Such unregulated experimentation and lack of evaluative criteria tarnished the word ‘creativity’ in the minds of those who were drafting the national curricula for England and Wales in the 90’s. They replaced ‘creativity’ with the word ‘composition’, with all the connotations of creating artistic objects more aligned with the older ‘proven’ tradition of composers, as it reflected better the rest of the internal structure of curricula at the time. The hegemonic influence embodied in the writings of educators like Kitson became a touchstone for training in harmony, which at its best enabled students to write passable imitations of Bach chorales.

Such a rigorous transformation of creative exercises into quantifiable summative assessments is observed by Faultley (2004a) as resulting in the neglect of the student’s qualitative interaction with the music. For example, if a piece made use of an ostinato rhythm it didn’t really matter what it sounded like or whether the student liked it, as long as the student could identify it as an ‘ostinato’. Driven by the need for formative assessment, and a noted climate of fear in this regard from the Office For Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED), teachers developed different strategies for intervention into the group creative work based on the requirements of the lesson, rather than trying to engage the students in open-ended creative work as such.

Atkinson (2000) discusses the possible repercussions of an educational system that relies heavily on quantifiable goals. A narrowing of focus, driven by a desire for results, utilizes an approach of ‘what works’ – resulting in the increased centralization of content and delivery across the board. She cites the National Literacy and Numeracy strategies in the UK, of 1998 and 1999 respectively, as examples of this blanket application of practicality that have only the semblance of a solution. The database for classroom practice offered by OFSTED in 1998 is another point in case – where it was claimed that further educational research might be unnecessary due to the supposed scope in the database of possible classroom situations. Atkinson describes a counter move to this situation based on the ideology of post-modernism.

The unsettling of accepted frameworks in all disciplines drives the particular focus on education in post-modern thinking as the site for challenging the inheritance of out-dated ideals. Atkinson offers the ultimatum that educational practice will either narrow further down along the line of ‘what works’ and ‘best practice’ to the point of alienation of the students from the process, or else broaden to a policy of embracing multiple voices and perspectives. The obvious danger of the latter is the so-called ‘balkanization’ and loss of standards/quality in education and culture, but this has to be weighed against the erosion of differences “in the quest of national standards” (Atkinson 2000).

The slow re-admittance of ‘creativity’ in education, according to Faultley (2004), arrives at:

“the post-creative stage, which could therefore be regarded as post-postmodernism. Rejectionism has itself been rejected. Non-hegemonic relativism has been replaced by ideas of inclusion, wherein different musics are valued in their own right. The tacitly understood notion of creative music, that music could spring fully-formed from inexperienced pupils, has been replaced by notions of progression in learning” (Faultley, 2004. 346. My italics)

No longer do the creative exercises by students necessarily have to be weighed as artistic objects according to a tradition, but as signs of some progression in learning, which also may be valued independently. ‘Pluralistic Developmentalism’ is a key term suggested by Faultley to describe this new version of creativity which celebrates many forms of music-making; seeks to help pupils to learn; and ultimately allows students to move along what he describes as a ‘novice-expert continuum’. There is a hint of this continuum in Paynter’s work from the 70’s, as he suggests further listening at the end of each creative exercise, where the student can hear a contemporary composer using the same techniques covered in the lesson. The need for quantifiable goals in subsequent years of educational practice drove the composers/experts out of the sphere of influence, replaced by a curriculum that presented the same techniques merely as something the student had to do to progress in a system of learning, devoid of its original artistic context. Open-ended learning, with interaction between novices and current practitioners of the subject or art, is proposed by Faultley as a possible antidote for the blanket approach of standardized curricula.

While a ‘novice-expert continuum’ may be facilitated by schemes whereby a composer works with groups to help create a piece of music, as described by Kaschub (1997), the ubiquity of alternative influences on a student in an age of information presents both a threat to the validity of formal learning as well as an opportunity for engaged learning.

Giddens (1990) suggests three basic characteristics of the late-modern era that may account for a replacement even closer to the individual student than that of standardized curricula. The detachment of time from space, as a result of a dependence on high-speed information; the disembedding mechanisms of late modernity which displace institutions (cultural and otherwise) from their place in local society to a more centralized and global stage; and lastly the resultant prerogative of the reflexive project of both institutions and individuals in such an age where information is ubiquitous and constantly updated.

At no other time in our historical review has the incongruity of context between education and its surroundings been felt to such an extent as the present, ‘late modern’ or ‘postmodern’ age. For example the students in Paynter’s class would generally have had to be informed by the teacher of the likeness of their projects to compositions of the avant-guard, such as Stockhausen. Student access to these resources were facilitated in the 70’s by magnetic tape technology. Now, with the ubiquitous presence of influences (musical and otherwise) provided by Web 2.0, and young peoples’ engagement with those influences on that platform, we have a situation where the student already has a long list of influences that inform their evaluation of presentations made by the teacher.

Partti and Karlsen (2010) offer a description of the kinds of musical engagements that might preoccupy a young person outside of their formal education. The list goes from constantly listening to his/her iPod in many different situations (such as travelling on the bus, or ‘creating their own space’ while studying in a noisy environment); to playing music-orientated games like Guitar Hero; to playing a gig in Second Life. Examples like these are not only recreational, but tend to be instrumental in the construction of a young persons identity.

The importance of identity, and of the relationship between motivation and identity, was illustrated by a study carried out by Macdonald et al. (2002). In the introduction to this study, music is identified as a crucial part of our identities, as identity construction is increasingly a need of our time. A continuing lack of clear social hierarchy opens up more and more choices for us to make, unlike traditional society where much of this was decided for the individual. Macdonald et al. identify music as a crucial part of this reflexive process, especially as it is facilitated in different ways by online Communities of Practice and music sharing websites like YouTube. The study, however, deals with communities of practice not necessarily mediated by the internet. Instead Jazz music as a profession is taken to be an example of a community with which one identifies, and within which one constructs and identity. A focus group involving professional Jazz musicians was held in order to collate individuals’ experiences of the profession in both a strict sense (summarized in the study by the title ‘Jazz is’) and in the broad sense of a lifestyle (‘Jazz life is’). Among the findings was the idea that identity construction is the result of negotiation with other identities, and that where a conflict of identities arose ‘hegemonic influences’ came into play.

The second focus group held and presented in this study centered around musical pedagogy – the relationship between musical identity and motivation. Focus groups comprising of teachers, parents and students helped clarify that the construction of a positive musical identity is a deciding factor in a student’s motivation to learn. Children with internal motivations, such as self-interest, displayed ‘mastery’ behavior, where obstacles to their learning were seen to be surmountable. Children with external motivations, such as seeking to please parents, were observed to display ‘helpless’ behavior, where the situation was out of their control.

The value a student places on a lesson was further broken down into Value; Expectancy; and Affective components (Eccles et al, 1983, as cited in Macdonald et al. 2002). Value components include attainment value (the value to the individual of achieving the task); utility value (the usefulness in future applications of what they are learning); perceived cost (as measured in time which could be spent doing other activities); and intrinsic interest (the joy and absorption in the task itself, for its own sake). It is this last component which is identified as most important and most conducive to creativity in a given subject (Amabile, 1996).

The particular example as studied by Partti and Karlsen (2010) is the Finnish website Mikseri, an independent music sharing website which encourages large discussion threads of comments on each members’ work. Aside from the more recreational functions a website like this provides such as ‘mood regulation’, it is a veritable playground for the construction and presentation of identities as well as being a site for informal learning-by-doing. Some of the example threads cited from the website exemplify the belief that learning of a more specific and applicable kind takes place there:

“I haven’t had any instrument lessons mainly because my own enthusiasm would have dropped right at the start if my parents had put me through piano lessons. I am simply not interested in studying ready-made stuff; I actually just want to come up with new things” (Mikseri member, as cited in Partti et al 2010, 374).

Although a sample of the members’ work would be interesting, the statement itself is a clear example of an education carried out mainly by self-directed activities, and motivated by an identity constructed primarily online. It is also a perfect expression of antithesis of what Wenger decried as the ‘obsessive focus on curricular content and test scores’ (Wenger 2006) of the present educational system, which discourages students from personal engagement in learning.

Examples such as this, and the fictional day-in-the-life account cited above, are offered by Partti and Karlsen as posing a threat to formal learning and universally applied curricula. The tendency towards the ‘destabilisation of cultural cannons’ in late modernity, as construed by Giddens (1990), along with the structural problems a rigid system faces in an increasingly fast-changing environment of information, both contribute to the danger of traditional learning being made redundant.


In summary, during the course of the 20th century, concepts like ‘originality’ and ‘creativity’ in musical education have surfaced and resurfaced in various forms. The presence of an unquestioned musical tradition influenced Grieg and Kitson to take a restrictive view on a student’s ‘originality’. Theoretical and technological advancements being explored by modern composers in the 70’s influenced educators like Paynter and Schafer to take creative and experimental approaches to teaching, also incorporating the new techniques and technologies in their lessons. The subsequent need for standardization then took elements of both of these schools of thought, but implemented rigorous controls which disembedded them from their original context, be they hegemonic or experimental. Faultley (2004) and Atkinson (2000) also observe this implementation to be part of a nationwide sweep of standardization. A longitudinal study by Bromley et al (2011) of social science text-books from 73 different countries over a 40 year period, demonstrated a similar correlation between the over-arching political climate and the general teaching styles employed in the schools.

However, an even more widespread disembedding mechanism, a characteristic of the ‘high-modern’ information age, has created a ubiquity of alternative influences for the student. The range of possible influences online is now so great that they present a need to create an identity, in what Giddens calls the ‘reflexive project’ of both people and institutions. In one century, a student-centered approach in musical pedagogy (and education in general) has gone from one cautiously considered to one which may be necessary if formal education is to survive in any meaningful way.

The present study will attempt to draft a student-centered teaching method for musical instrument pedagogy. By presenting the instrument as a creative tool, with which the student can construct their own understanding of music, there is a possibility that the reign of influences from either side (teacher’s or student’s) is kept at bay for the sake of a more open-ended approach. Rather than simply importing the content of a student’s influences from the internet into a music lesson, this study proposes ‘creative experiments’ with the means of production behind these influences – much in the same way as Paynter presented the new techniques before supplying the recommended listening. As such, the instrument will be presented as a creative tool among others, in a learning process that also employs digital tools for the creation of music.

Use of web-based technology will facilitate a more active learning that has an asynchronous element which allows students to add to their own projects in their own time in the intervening week between lessons, utilizing the high-modern condition of ‘separation of time and space’ as construed by Giddens.