Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: Values

Now let’s take a look at the next sentence in the definition proposed in the new Australian National Arts Curriculum. Again, here’s the full definition:

2.3.4 Defining Music
16. Music is the imaginative process of creating, performing, and responding to sound and silence for personal and collective meaning. Through the processes of creating musical works, performing with voice and instrument, and responding to our own and others’ music, individuals and groups communicate meanings, beliefs and values. Music engagement shapes our thought and activity, and is evident from the earliest stages of life. People turn to music at times of emotional, physical, and intellectual need. Music is a pervasive feature of contemporary life. In a mobile digital age, music engagement both underpins and accompanies many of our day-to-day activities, and, marks the significant moments of individual and collective life.

At first glance there’s nothing too much one can take exception to in sentence 2. In fact, once one reworks the opening sentence to be a more inclusive statement of what music is (in my previous post I’ve proposed Music is an immersive sonic and social phenomenon that is at once both physical and emotional) this second sentence becomes a specific statement of musical processes that seems self-evident: it’s only through doing that one intentionally communicates meanings, beliefs and values.

Now let’s note that there are still living amongst us those who struggle to accept that music communicates anything, and then let’s move on; most of us have caught onto the fact that if music didn’t communicate anything humans wouldn’t be so into it, it wouldn’t move us to tears, it wouldn’t make us want to dance, it wouldn’t speak profoundly to our sense of identity in the way it does. Music clearly does communicate something. I do think that it might be a stretch to say that music communicates values, on the other hand.

For instance, could you argue that a piece of music communicates the value of thrift? I suspect not, and I’m fascinated by this assertion of musical values-communication in the National Arts Curriculum. Taking a quick look through the bibliography cited I can’t see any text or document related to music’s abilities to communicate values, but maybe I’ve missed a research paper.

Many of the studies in the field of ‘values’ end up positing a sequence of binary oppositions as a means of creating a map of the values of an individual, a community or a nation. So one measure of values looks at the importance of short-term versus long-term thinking. Another looks at self-expression versus survival, and another strong power structures versus weak power structures. Other studies divide values into modes of behaviour (such as courage, honesty, cleanliness, obedience, cheerfulness, broadmindedness, and so forth) and the goals a person seeks to pursue through their life (such as social recognition, self-respect, friendship, family security, a comfortable life and so on).

I’d like to suggest that our values map over our musical expression rather than being communicated through our musical expression.

For example, let’s say a student gives a performance of a movement of a Beethoven sonata. What are the values this act communicates? From one perspective it may communicate values of hard work, mastery, self-control, and discipline. A nice bundle of values (if you are a parent or a teacher). From another perspective it may communicate values of individualism and a desire for recognition (if you are one of the student’s peers). To someone unfamiliar with classical music it will communicate values of conservatism; to someone familiar with Beethoven that same performance might communicate values of innovation or disrespect for tradition. Whatever the student giving the performance is intending to communicate about values will be drowned out by the cultural noise of the values the audience brings into the reception of the work.

Rather than saying that music communicates values it would be far more accurate to state that music is a site where values are contested. By recognising that same performance communicates very different values depending on who is doing the listening we acknowledge that values are independent of the music: an exceptionally important distinction to make in a nation of so many immigrant cultures, where we cannot presume to know, predict or even understand the values that are held by all the members of our communities.

And what of that same student-pianist in that same concert playing an accompaniment for a choir? This performance communicates completely different values, and we don’t even know what the choir is singing. The values being expressed in the performance are communicated by the social organisation that facilitates the music, not the music itself.

But this is where the curriculum definition gets it almost right, and this becomes clear by restructuring that second sentence (without changing a word): Individuals and groups communicate meanings, beliefs and values through the processes of creating musical works, performing with voice and instrument, and responding to our own and others’ music.

And yet it’s still not right: the communication of meanings and beliefs (if not values) is immeasurably stronger when you are creating/performing than when you are simply applauding with the rest of the audience at the end of a performance. It’s simply nonsensical to equate ‘responding’ (here defined in opposition to performance or creation) with the act of deliberate musical praxis as regards the communication of anything, even if that response is a review or an essay (or a facebook page). ‘Responding’ (in the more limited sense that is intended once performing and creating are taken out of the notion of ‘response’)  is, however, the part of the musical experience where values get mapped onto the performance, the composition and the music. What sets ‘responding’ apart in this communicative process is that the values communicated in and through a performance will, as noted above, differ from person to person and have little to do with the intention of the performer or the composer.

Surely this second sentence defining music is framed the way it is because the authors of the document are already anticipating a particular assessment structure in which ‘responding’ is to be on an equal footing with ‘performing’ and ‘creating’.

And then there’s the issue of what it is that the process of performing and creating communicates. Yes, it is the process of performing and creating music that allows the act of communication to take place. And certainly it’s hard to argue that values are perceived anywhere other than in the process of the performing/creating.

But the bulk of the meaning isn’t in the process at all – that’s in the sonic reality of the music itself, a reality created by the performer and composer, but a sonic reality that is distinct from the process of creating and performing that music. It’s the way the guitar riff repeats, the way the melodic line fades away, the way the harmonic structure confounds expectation, the way the sound of the vibraphone hangs in the air – this is where the meanings of music can be found, in our ears and our bodies, and rather far away from the processes that support their existence.

ACARA, you can do better! Define music with less regard for politics and the past (and the desire for a standardised approach to teaching the arts) and with more regard for reality; this is the means to a foundation for exceptional and inspiring music education for all.

2 thoughts on “Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: Values

  1. Excellent analysis of a difficult subject. Instead of communicating values, I think of creating value in the experience of the listener, meaning each listener has (or lacks) their own experience of the value of music.

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