[An ethical approach to media culture in music education]

Philip Tagg answers questions from Luca Marconi (2000)

Subsequently published in Italian as ‘Un approccio etico alla cultura mediale’ in Musica Domani no. 116 (EDT, Torino, 2000), pp. 30-31


Luca Marconi asked me the following questions.

[1] If a teacher encourages his/her pupils to bring along their favourite recordings to a music lesson, it is almost certain that most of those recordings would be of popular music. What should be the [educational] aims of playing those recordings in class?
[Poniamo che un insegnante faccia in modo che i suoi studenti portino in classe le registrazioni dei loro brani di musica preferiti. È’ prevedibile che gran parte di tali brani rientrino nell’ambito della popular music. Quali obiettivi si dovrebbe cercare di conseguire facendoli ascoltare?]

[2] Assuming the class listens the students’ favourite recordings, do you think that it is part of the teacher’s job to influence his/her pupils’ tastes and pleasure in listening to pop music? If it is one of the teacher’s tasks, how should it be handled?
[E’ evidente che, a partire dall’ascolto di una musica, il numero di obiettivi educativi conseguibili è pressocché infinito, ma in questo caso la questione cruciale è che vengono ascoltati i brani preferiti dagli studenti ai quali ci si rivolge. A tuo parere, tra i compiti dell’insegnante c’è quello di incidere sui gusti e sul piacere di ascoltare popular music dei suoi studenti? E se è uno dei suoi compiti, come si dovrebbe regolare?]

[3] When teachers talk of bringing popular music into the sclassroom, one of the most common complaints is that hardly anything usable has been published for such purposes: book stores mostly sell fan monographs and the very few musicological works available are usually far to ‘academic’ to be of much use in primary or secondary music education. What suggestions would you make to those who compain in this way?
[Quando si parla di affrontare la popular music a scuola, una delle lamentele che vengono spesso sollevate dagli insegnanti è che nell’ambito dell’editoria sono poche le pubblicazioni utilizzabili in classe: nelle librerie si trovano soprattutto scritti per i fan e qualche trattazione musicologica spesso di taglio troppo ‘accademico’ per essere presentata agli studenti delle scuole medie, inferiori o superiori. Quali suggerimenti daresti a chi esprime tali lamentele?]

[4] Finally, there’s the issue of actually making popular music in school. How should those working in compulsory actually go about such a task? And what sort of relationship should be established between making popular music in school and critical listening to that repertoire?
[Passiamo infine al versante del "fare popular music a scuola". A tuo parere, come dovrebbe comportarsi, in proposito, chi opera nella "scuola di base"? E quale relazione si dovrebbe impostare tra il fare popular music a scuola e l’ascoltare criticamente questo repertorio?]

I sent Luca the following by way of answer to his four questions.

Top of document  What is the point of pupils bringing their own records to class?

[1] Social. Talking about attitudes and tastes in music helps people to interrelate.

[2] Motivation. The enjoyment value of the exercise should not be underestimated. It’s definitely more immediate fun than having to listen to something you don’t like or having to react and have an opinion about something you don’t really know that well.

[3] Skills in verbal expression. Defending and speaking for the music you like, especially when others will be speaking for music you like less, motivates you to choose your words carefully. The fan of, say, industrial music will have to explain to fans of, say, tuneful ballads what is good about industrial music, and vice versa. The ability to talk about gesture, movement, feelings, etc. is also highly salutory in a mass media culture swamped with non-verbal messages coercing us to behave involuntarily (e.g. advertising). There is an ethical aspect to the acquisition of such skills: the advertisers’ messages of ‘consume this!’, ‘be greedy!’, ‘get more than the next person!’ etc. can only be confronted critically if you can put the non-verbal messages of advertising and propaganda into words. Talking about music you like and dislike is as good a way as any to start cultivating those skills.

[4] Learning about musical structuration. Familiarity, be it positive or negative, with particular sorts of music can also motivate pupils to learn about musical structuration: ‘What is it that appeals to me or disgusts me about this particular sort of music or about this particular piece?’ ‘If you were going to do it better, what/how would you play/sing instead?’

Top of document  What sort of attitude should teachers adopt towards the sort of pop music pupils like?

Teachers cannot possibly become experts in every style of music that happens to be popular with a group of students. However, assuming the music teacher has a reasonable musical ear (otherwise he/she wouldn’t have the job), it is possible to help students identify the means of expression used in any style of music. Of course, teachers have their own opinions/tastes and should make these known to the pupils on, if possible, a reasonably egalitarian basis. In other words, teachers should have to motivate their OWN musical preferences as part of their interaction with pupils, and in order to provide a model for how music can be talked about. When it comes to ‘regolare’ in terms of assessment a whole can of worms opens up. This issue is far too complex to answer briefly, so I won’t answer it at all now!

There never will be much notation available in the recorded popular music sphere because such music is neither conceived of, nor stored in, nor distributed in the form of musical notation. Musicological writings in this sphere are mainly academic because the basic methods, approaches and theories of conventional music analysis are still in need of radical reform which must be academically rigorous in order to provide a thorough critique of conventional musicology in all its detail and to establish a much more solid ground for understanding the workings of music in modern society. It is a slow process, but we ought now, as academics, to be in a position to popularise much of our findings. The only problems are time, money and the law. I often ask myself if I will ever find the time and opportunity to make all the teaching materials I would love to be involved in.

Another problem is the music industry and its copyright avarice: authors of books and articles on popular music already have enough problems quoting popular music as lyrics or in notation. The problem gets even worse with CD ROMs and other teaching materials where recorded music needs to be duplicated for teaching purposes. Music teachers need to get involved in the fight for the right to make popular recordings readily available for teaching purposes without publishers parasitically creaming off huge percentages. It’s a matter of basic human rights in my opinion. By 2004 I should have finished a more popularly orientated book dealing with popular music analysis: one for music students (first-year at university or in music college), the other for ‘non-musos’ (students of cultural studies, media studies, etc.). I have also done educational programmes (which won the Japan prize for educational radio) for 13-15 year olds (produced by Netherlands radio in Hilversum). These need updating and providing with voice-overs in other languages than Dutch.

Unfortunately, though, music teachers will have to make their own arrangements in the meantime. However, if music teachers, say across Europe, got together and exchanged transcriptions, analyses, etc., etc., the situation could be alleviated considerably.

Top of document  Making popular music in schools (il ‘fare musica’)

Fare musica (=making music) is, when it comes to popular music, a real problem in schools. The most important help teachers can give to pupils in this area is twofold: [1] by providing opportunities to acquire skills; [2] by providing opportunities to make music in a real social context.

What music can be made in a school context will inevitably depend on several factors, for example the teacher’s abilities and preferences, school intake in terms of population basis (gender, age, economy, local culture), financial status of the institution, degree of involvement from the outside community, etc., etc. It is therefore impossible to advocate any particular type of music as more suitable than any other when it comes to music making in a school context. However, one area of increasing importance, almost to the degree of becoming the new ‘folk instrument’ is, I think, the ability to use MIDI and computing skills for composition and recording purposes. Nevertheless, it is in my opinion much better for a school to have a functioning choir or small orchestra (conventional or not) which makes music of social use to the surrounding community than to have no musical activity whatsoever in the school. Besides, the enthusiasm and dedication of teachers to their pupils and to the music they like best is going to be much more inspiring, motivating and thought provoking than the work of teachers who follow an updated or ‘modernised’ curriculum with little or no enthusiasm at all.

The analysis of popular music should, where possible, be related to music making: ‘how does this music work?’, ‘how can we make those sounds?’ ‘how can we change it, make it better, make it different?’ It should also be related to other subjects, especially to ethics, media studies, visual arts (film, TV, video, video games). One area in which teachers really can motivate and help students to understand and gain control over some aspects of the media saturated society they live in is by running lessons about music in film and TV.

Top of document