Not Just a Matter of Style: Addressing Culturally Different Musics as Social Praxes in Secondary School Music Classes

Authors: J. Scott Goble
Publication: Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education
Publication volume & date: Volume 9, No. 3 October 2010
Link to full text: http://act.maydaygroup.org/articles/Goble9_3.pdf

This is a highly engaging article which discusses philosophical reasons for “attending to the social origins of different forms of  music-making and exploring their respective, culturally-situated values” and also gives practical suggestions for how to include these topics in the classroom.

The portion of the article I found most interesting was what the author called “context-particular  meanings of music.” Essentially, his argument is that “style” can only be considered within a cultural tradition. In our modern western view, we see music (and, it seems to me, most arts) as avenues for self-expression. Goble gives a couple of examples of other cultural traditions in which this is not the case.

In one example he discusses the shakuhachi flute and its use by some Japanese Buddhists as a meditation tool. He gives the example of a traditional piece called “The nesting crane” that requires the performer to imitate the sounds of a crane. He says “…if you did not recognize the sound of the shakuhachi as imitating a crane’s song, that disciplining oneself to play the song of the crane on the shakuhachi was a spiritual practice historically undertaken by Buddhists in Japan, and that the sounds produced by that spiritual-musical practice had become tacitly adopted as part of the traditional music of Japan, you wouldn’t know what makes those sounds a sign of Japanese traditional music. In fact, you might conclude that the unique quality of what you were hearing was just a matter of ‘style.'” For this reason, Goble says, musics of different cultures must be appreciated in their own context, and the urge to compare styles across cultures must be resisted.

While I certainly don’t disagree with Goble, it seems to me that this is only one possible perspective. His is the perspective of the parts, but what about the perspective of the whole? How can any action that a human being takes not express humanity? How can any music not be an expression of the consciousness that created it? If every action we take is an expression of a self– a human self– isn’t that another basis on which to compare musics?

I emailed the author and asked him these questions, and he was kind enough to send me a very thoughtful response. To make a long story (or email) short, he referred me to his new book What’s so Important About Music Education? for the answers. As soon as I can afford it, I’ll check it out and post what I find.

In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out his article at the link above.

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