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Opening the “Hermeneutic Window” in Popular Music Education
In recent decades, the acceptance of popular music (broadly conceived) as music worthy to be taught in formal music education settings in the United States has increased. This is evidenced by the variety of ways that students can engage with popular music in formal settings at the elementary, middle, and high school levels that were not available to students in the past. Such engagements include guitar classes, rock bands, a cappella groups, show choirs, and hip hop groups, among others. Despite these advancements in popular music education, many music educators and scholars argue that opportunities to engage with popular music in formal settings are not yet accessible to enough students. The large ensemble tradition, which includes band, choir, and orchestra and stems from European music traditions, still largely dominates the music education landscape in the United States. A limited number of schools in each state provide students the opportunity to be part of what has historically been the most recognized popular music ensemble: the rock band.
Recent advocates for popular music in schools have focused primarily on increasing opportunities for students to make or create popular music that are consistent with popular music making in the “real world,” whether that is by way of composing, improvising, or performing. In this chapter, I introduce another way students can engage with popular music “on its own terms” within the classroom. It is a way that focuses on what all students seem to already be doing with popular music—that is, listening to it.
I begin with a brief history of how popular music made its way into public schools in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century, highlighting possible reasons for the emphasis on popular music performance and production. Next, I provide an introduction and demonstration of an approach to teaching popular music that focuses on music listening experiences and music meaning, an approach that I have come to call hermeneutic exploration. Finally, I provide an argument for why hermeneutic exploration seems especially relevant for today’s students and lay out some advantages and challenges this approach has for incorporation into the classroom.
Since the 1960s and before, music educators have discussed broadening the types of music that students engage with in formal music education settings. Such discussions are motivated by the heavy emphasis on Western classical music and other traditional school musics stemming from the European tradition that music teachers and students witnessed and continue to witness in all levels of music education throughout the twentieth century and today.
The Tanglewood Symposium held in the Massachusetts Berkshires in 1967 is often cited as the first time this issue was addressed in a coordinated way. The symposium brought together a wide swath of scholars and professionals in the areas of music, education, and business and resulted in the Tanglewood Declaration. The second statement of the declaration is most important for our purposes here, as it incites music educators to broaden music curricula to include popular music as well as avant-garde music, folk music, and music of other cultures: “Tanglewood Declaration Statement #2: Music of all periods, styles, forms, and cultures belongs in the curriculum. The musical repertory should be expanded to involve music of our time in its rich variety, including currently popular teenage music and avant-garde music, American folk music, and the music of other cultures.”
While some aspects of the Tanglewood Declaration had profound and identifiable effects on the music education in the United States—for example, establishing music as a core part of the curriculum—the actions necessary to fulfill this statement have been slower to take effect, especially at the middle school and high school levels. This is partly due to a general suspicion in the music education profession of popular music’s value and sophistication compared to Western classical music.
Even as late as 2004, articles addressing the implementation of more opportunities for students to engage with popular music in the schools were necessarily prefaced with arguments for the value of popular music. We see this in the edited volume Bridging the Gap: Popular Music and Music Education (the title alone evidencing the state of affairs in the early aughts), where scholars repeatedly respond to arguments against the incorporation of popular music and its practices in the schools.
As music educators and researchers in the United States debated the value of popular music in schools during the first decade of the twenty-first century, music educators and researchers outside the United States developed popular music pedagogies for teaching and learning musicianship skills in popular music. For example, we have the Musical Futures project, inspired by Lucy Green’s research, which established popular music education programs across the United Kingdom that simulate the learning processes of popular musicians outside formal settings. Another example includes the state-funded cultural centers in Sweden that have provided all students access to instruction in the performance of popular music for the past two decades. Similar programs also exist in Finland. The systematic implementation of popular music and its practices within school music programs and/or within music schools that are freely accessible to the public has yet to be realized in the United States.
And yet, it is not as though popular music does not exist in the schools in the United States on a large scale. The existence of popular music is widespread in modified forms to accommodate its performance within large ensembles—for example, marching bands playing tunes from the Top 40, annual pops concerts, choirs performing raps, and so on. This has been true for decades. However, those who advocate for popular music in schools are advocating, more specifically, for its performance and production practices to be taught within the schools, whether they be the forming of garage/rock bands, mixing and editing recordings, writing songs in the singer-songwriter tradition, writing rap or freestyling, and/or digitally composing and producing music.
One of the main barriers to making popular music performance and production practices a widespread reality are the music teacher education programs themselves. Housed within college and university systems, they train preservice music teachers in skills associated with directing bands, choirs, and orchestras—very often to the exclusion of training them in skills associated with facilitating almost all other types of musical practices. As it currently stands, if music teachers want to incorporate popular music practices into their classrooms, by and large, they must seek the training to do so outside music teacher education programs.
Recently, advocates for popular music practices in public schools have begun establishing programs that remedy the problem of the stalwart music teacher education and certification system in the United States. Such programs can be found both in and outside university/college degree programs. However, as of yet, they are few and far between.
The Performance and Production Emphasis
As I explained in the previous section, advocates for popular music have emphasized providing opportunities for students to perform and produce popular music in the schools, exerting considerably less effort on providing students opportunities to engage with popular music as listeners. I think it is worth exploring possible reasons for this emphasis. I do so in order to provide a fuller picture of how hermeneutic exploration, described in the next section, might be a novel contribution to the conversation about popular music education in the schools.
Since the 1930s, when the wind band and wind band competitions became a primary focus of music education in the public schools, the performance of music from the European tradition and the skills associated with it (e.g., reading music from a score) has dominated music education curricula in the United States. The wind band movement came just after a relatively brief period straddling the fin de siècle in which listening skills and singing skills were a dual focus. The focus on singing skills dates back to Lowell Mason’s work on establishing music education in US public schools. The focus on listening skills stemmed from a much later coordinated effort on the part of music industry professionals, music educators, music critics, and music scholars to elevate the American public’s taste and geopolitical status through the appreciation of Western classical music (which was really mostly German classical music).
In the middle of the twentieth century, the coordinated effort to promote music appreciation began to die out, along with its influence on the music education curricula. However, a related philosophy also rooted in the German tradition began to dominate the field of music education. Based on the work of first-generation German American philosopher Suzanne Langer, Bennett Reimer posited the first comprehensive philosophy of music education in 1970: aesthetic music education focused on aesthetic experience as a means to educate the emotions. For several decades, Reimer’s was the one and only philosophy of music education taught in preservice music teacher education programs. This was the case despite its emphasis on procuring aesthetic experiences through listening to “good” music, which seemed to run counter to the music education curriculum of the time, a curriculum that was almost exclusively centered on performance skills. For decades (1978–97), Bennett Reimer was chair of the music education department at Northwestern University just north of Chicago and founded the Center for the Study of Education and Musical Experience, exerting significant influence on music education research and philosophy.
The 1990s saw a paradigm shift in the philosophy of music education when, in 1995, David Elliott introduced his praxialist philosophy of music education. Elliott described praxialism as a philosophy in opposition to Reimer’s aestheticism in that it focused on music making instead of music listening. Elliott posited that music making was the best way to focus student cognition in a way that promoted or led to musical understanding, while music listening had limited potential, if any at all, for promoting or leading to musical understanding. Reimer’s philosophy, even though it also dealt with performance, was characterized as listening-centric. With praxialism’s focus on music making, or “musicking”—that is, music as an embodied musical activity through which embodied cognition occurs—Elliott affirmed much of what was already happening in public schools: music performance. Reimer’s response to Elliott’s philosophy came in his 2003 edition of A Philosophy of Music Education, in which Reimer identified a number of areas of convergence between his aestheticism and Elliott’s praxialism.
Starting in the early 2000s, Thomas Regelski developed his own praxial philosophy of music education. He characterized the praxial/aesthetic divide in this way: “Praxial theory redresses the imbalance the aesthetic orthodoxy has promulgated on behalf of listening, and reasserts the importance of musical agency through various kinds of amateur performance.” Thus Regelski took a similar position to Elliott with respect to listening. Regelski further characterized Reimer’s philosophy as a form of music education that is guided by music appreciation as aesthetic connoisseurship (MAAC), thereby linking Reimer’s aestheticism to the music appreciation movement that was listening focused and had a short-lived influence on school music of the early twentieth century.
So in the late ’90s and this first part of the twenty-first century, music educators and preservice music educators encountered a context in which both music education in practice and music education in theory/philosophy aligned to promote music performance over and against music listening.
It has been in this context that concerns pertaining to the relevance of formal music education and the gulf between formal music education and music in everyday life, with respect to both form and content, have surfaced in music education research. Empirical studies resulting from such concerns have illuminated the stark contrast between the types of music that students engage with in school and the types of music that students engage with in everyday life (which are primarily variations on the theme of popular music). And naturally, in this particular performance-focused context, the way toward bridging the gap between formal music education and music in everyday life has been to promote the performance and production of popular music. After all, advocating for popular music performance in schools has proven to be a formidable enough task, let alone advocating for listening to popular music in schools in what seems to be a culture of music educators that value the performance and production of music over listening to music.
Before I go further, it is important to note that in pointing out this emphasis on the performance and production of music, I am not arguing that advocates for popular music in schools should abandon their efforts. Instead, I am arguing that we should at least consider how other ways of engaging with popular music in schools, particularly those related to listening, might be beneficial for students of today.
It is also worth learning from the practitioners and researchers from those countries that have established programs in the performance and production of popular music (United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland). In fact, some music researchers from those countries are beginning to question the heavy emphasis their programs place on performance, specifically that of rock band–type ensembles. For example, Eva Georgii-Hemming and Victor Kvarnhall have questioned the predominance of rock band ensembles in Sweden’s public cultural centers and have explored the role music listening lessons could possibly play in deconstructing the problems of inequality (gender, racial, etc.) that are reproduced when popular music performance and production practices are enacted within the context of a music classroom.
For these reasons, I am motivated to present an approach to popular music education that focuses on music listening experiences—not defined in terms of Reimer’s aesthetic experiences or other modernist approaches to music as an object or “musical work.” It is an approach that focuses on music listening while also sustaining the notion of music as a human activity. It thereby moves beyond the bounds of music appreciation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is an approach that works independently of the dominant performance and production approach to popular music education or one that could work alongside the dominant approach. In my mind, this is not an either/or scenario (or doesn’t have to be); rather, it is both/and.
Introduction to Hermeneutic Exploration in Music
Traditionally, hermeneutics is defined as the branch of knowledge dealing with interpretations and meanings, specifically of Biblical and literary texts. Through the work of such phenomenologists as Dilthy, Heidegger, and Gadamer, among others, it has become widely accepted that hermeneutic texts come in a variety of forms; contemporary scholars interpret nonverbal communications, multimedia, and even social interactions as hermeneutic texts. Thus hermeneutics has been applied to a whole range of areas beyond theology and literary criticism. Such disciplines include sociology, psychology, media studies, international relations, and most importantly for our purposes, music studies.
Lawrence Kramer was one of the pioneers in applying hermeneutics to music. By his own account, he has devoted his career to music and meaning. Four principles have guided his projects from early on and can be found in his book Music as Cultural Practice (1990). These principles can be summarized as follows: (1) works of music have discursive meanings, (2) music’s discursive meanings are “definite enough to support critical interpretations,” (3) music’s discursive meanings should not be considered “extramusical” but rather are integrally bound with the form and style of the music, and (4) music’s discursive meanings are part of “the continuous production and reproduction of culture.” Music is thus an expressive act with meanings that can be interpreted through reflection.
In recognizing and reflecting on an expressive act, we empower the interpretive process; we open what Kramer calls “a hermeneutic window through which our interpretation can pass.” Kramer’s three hermeneutic windows are as follows: (1) textual inclusions, (2) citational inclusions, and (3) structural tropes, which seem to be even more implicit citational inclusions.
When we engage in musical hermeneutics, we explore what music means in and through its contexts.
Guide to Hermeneutic Explorations in the Music Classroom
In order to get such explorations off the ground for teachers, I have adapted Kramer’s three hermeneutic windows for teachers to use to guide their own preliminary hermeneutic explorations.
HERMENEUTIC WINDOW 1: MEDIA INTEGRATIONS. Media integrations are explicit links between music and other types of media—for example, when music and video are explicitly linked in a music video. Text is also considered a form of media here. Song lyrics, as well as something as simple as a song title, provide us a hermeneutic window through media integration. An album cover, which typically includes text and visual art, is another example of media integration.
This window invites us to explore how the music and the other media forms relate with one another explicitly. For example, in a music video, how do the structural moments of the music and the video relate? Do the narratives and themes expressed through the sounds of the music, the text (lyrics or other associated texts), and the visuals of a music video seem congruent or conflicting?
HERMENEUTIC WINDOW 2: ALLUSIONS. Allusions are more implicit than media integrations. The general definition of an allusion is helpful here. Allusions are expressions designed to call things to mind without mentioning them explicitly; they are an indirect or passing reference. This window “includes titles that link a work of music with a literary work, visual image, place, or historical moment; musical allusions to other compositions; allusions to texts through the quotation of associated music; allusions to the styles of other composers or of earlier periods; and the inclusion (or parody) of other characteristic styles not predominant in the work at hand.”
For an example of allusion, consider Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the US national anthem, at Woodstock in 1969. In the middle of the performance, Hendrix plays intervals and rhythms recognizable as “Taps,” a simple melody often played at American military funerals. Through his allusion to “Taps,” Hendrix links patriotism (or lack thereof?) to death and warfare.
HERMENEUTIC WINDOW 3: ACTIONS. This last hermeneutic window concerns itself with the human activities and actions that are associated with the music. Using this window, we ask the following questions: When, where, and how do listeners engage with the music? Who are the listeners? When, where, and how is the music created? Who are the creators?
This window invites us to explore how the music might have different meanings when it is associated with different kinds of human activities and actions. For example, do the meanings differ when a person listens to a film soundtrack while studying as opposed to while watching the film, and if so, how do they change? Do musical meanings change when audiences have an influence on the sounds/creation of the music through social media or other technological means?
This third hermeneutic window is not included in Kramer’s original discussion of the hermeneutic windows but seems consistent with his other work. He writes, “In its modern form, the problem of meaning arose with the development of European music as something to be listened to ‘for itself’ as art or entertainment rather than as something mixed in with social occasion . . . or ritual.”
Outside this modern context, music is mixed up with all kinds of activities, like social occasions and rituals, among a panoply of other individual activities. I don’t see any reason for Kramer to disagree with this. It also seems that just like the interaction among music and other media can serve as a hermeneutic window, so the interaction between music and activity can serve as a hermeneutic window.
I will now demonstrate a hermeneutic exploration that I engage in with my students in a course titled “Cultural Study of Popular Music: 1970s to Present.” I guide the students through an exploration of M.I.A.’s (Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam) song and music video “Paper Planes” (2009). During the class session, I have the students first listen to the song without the video and then watch the music video with the music. I do this so that the class can first engage in a discussion about the sounds of the music and then discuss the music and the video in conjunction with each other.
I divide the hermeneutic exploration of “Paper Planes” into four stages for the students: sounds, lyrics, contexts, and a fourth stage where we “bring it all into focus.” This division has proven to be intuitive for the students, even though by the standards of the hermeneutic windows mentioned previously, contexts are technically explored during every stage of the exploration. I begin with sounds and move through each of the stages.
SOUNDS. After listening, the class engages in a discussion, during which I affirm the students when they recognize the characteristics of the song listed below. I fill in some of the details when the students are on to something good but seem to need a little extra guidance.
- A female vocalist who sings with a somewhat arrogant swagger.
- Children’s voices for the chorus (or hook).
- Sounds recognizable as a cash register opening and a gun shooting. The pressing of the cash register button sounds the same as cocking a gun. Violence and money and/or capitalism are thus linked through sound effects.
- Short, repeated (looped) accompaniment to the vocals and the downward melodic motive in the accompaniment on the scale degrees 1, 5, and 4.
- Beats divided into fours, a strong emphasis on the first beat with a bass drum thud and then emphases on the backbeats (2 and 4) through a variety of “brighter” sounds, one being the ding of the cash register.
- Repeated chord progression I, IV, V, I.
- Simple melody sung by the vocalists primarily on the scale degrees 1, 3, 5, and 7. The melody hovers around the tonic (home) and the leading tone (strong inclination back to home). In this way, the melody is reminiscent of many children’s songs. The simplistic nature of the melody and the use of the children’s voices call to mind the idea of innocence.
Also during this stage of the exploration, I bring to the students’ attention a musical allusion in the song. (Sometimes I ask the students if they have heard the accompaniment before in another song to see if they can recognize the allusion on their own.) I play for the students the beginning of a song by the ’70s band the Clash called “Straight to Hell.” Many of them immediately recognize it as the same looped accompaniment that they heard in “Paper Planes.” The musical allusion leads us right into the second stage of the exploration, a discussion of the lyrics of the songs.
LYRICS. First, I have the students look at the lyrics of “Paper Planes.” I have the students read the lyrics and talk in pairs about what they think is going on in them. When we come back together, the themes of “drugs and violence” are usually mentioned right away. I ask the students what lyrics tipped them off to these themes, and they commonly point to the lyric “get high like planes” or “some I murder, some I let go” and other references to guns. The perceptive students will recognize these themes as being linked through a unifying theme of illegal immigration, indicated by the second line, “If you catch me at the border, I got visas in my name.”
At this point in the exploration, I return to the musical allusion to “Straight to Hell” and describe how this allusion further solidifies the theme of illegal immigration. “Straight to Hell” itself is a song about the treatment of immigrants in the United Kingdom in the ’70s and ’80s. Like many of the Clash’s other songs, it is a protest song that calls out what the band members identify as social injustice. The link between the two songs, through musical allusion, not only solidifies the main theme of “Paper Planes” as immigration but also situates “Paper Planes” within a history of British protest music.
There are two other allusions that I draw the students’ attention to in the lyrics stage of the exploration. The first lyrical allusion is in the lyrics of the hook, “All I wanna do is (bang, bang, bang, bang),” which, for some, recalls the ’90s song “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-n-Effect. The lyrics of the hook in “Rump Shaker” are “All I wanna do is zooma zoom zoom and a boom boom”—it is all about the male gaze. The music video of the song shows male rappers zooming in on female body parts with a VHS camcorder. One of the differences in how Wreckx-n-Effect deliver the lines of the hook and how they are delivered in “Paper Planes” is that there is an upward trajectory implied by the melody and rhythm in “Rump Shaker,” whereas in “Paper Planes,” there is a downward trajectory implied by the melody and rhythm. I address the possible importance of this a bit later in the last stage of the exploration.
A little more than halfway through the song, there is an important structural moment: much of the accompaniment drops out, and M.I.A. speaks instead of sings. She says, “Third-world democracy / Yeah, I got more records than the K.G.B. / So, uh, no funny business.” Here lies another allusion. The lyrics “third-world democracy” reference a book about Sri Lanka, M.I.A.’s home country, published in 1979. I tell the students to hang on to that allusion while we (finally) watch the music video.
CONTEXTS. Before watching the video, I tell the students to watch out for ways in which the images seem congruent or in conflict with what we have said about the song so far. I also tell them to watch so that they can talk to their peers about what they see. After watching the video, I have the students talk to each other in pairs about the images. When the class comes together to talk about the video, students typically make the following observation: rather than killing people, M.I.A. is selling sandwiches out of a food truck, buying ordinary items at a convenience store, and walking/dancing down an urban street with a group of other women. The students also notice the flying paper planes through the streets, which at the very end of the video appear to be descending on New York City. Finally, they notice the ominous-looking truck, which on the inside contains only the usual trappings of a food truck.
In this stage, I also ask the students to do a little of their own research on M.I.A.’s personal story. At this point, they already know that she is from Sri Lanka because of the reference to the book about her home country, but I tell them that there is more to her story that seems to be relevant here. After some quick Google searches, the students usually discover that her father fought with the Tamil Freedom Fighters, a terrorist group by the US government’s assessment. In her success as a hip hop artist in the United States, her residency in the United Kingdom, and her father’s link to the civil war in Sri Lanka, she is a bridge between the first world of the United States and the United Kingdom and the third world of Sri Lanka.
BRINGING IT INTO FOCUS. In this final stage, I ask the students to again consider how the lyrics, the music, and the video seem congruent or in conflict with each other. We discuss how one might expect to see drugs, guns, violence, and stealing in the video, but those are nowhere to be found. Instead, M.I.A. is selling sandwiches and buying things at a convenience store. We also discuss how the words and the music seem to be in conflict with each other. The simplistic nature of the melody and the children’s voices seem to be in conflict with the weighty adult themes expressed in the lyrics. I tell them it is at the site of conflict where we can begin to understand one of the major meanings of the song and the video.
The song is about perceptions and realities of illegal immigrants. The perception is that they are violent, stealing addicts who lack any interest in contributing to society; these perceptions are conveyed through the lyrics. But according to the video, the reality is that the vast majority of illegal immigrants spend time doing things like selling sandwiches to “get by” and are ordinary consumers just like the majority of legal citizens. The paper planes and the children’s voices can thus be read as symbolizing the fragility and innocence of illegal immigrants. Because illegal immigrants must negotiate society’s negative perceptions of them and the reality that they have limited resources as “illegitimate” members of democratic societies, they live in an in between bridge space—a third-world democracy.
To further help the students bring all this into focus, I ask them in what sense M.I.A.’s arrogant swagger might also be have a bit of a mocking tone to it—that is, I ask them whom she might be mocking. At this point, I see many students’ eyes light up. The references to drugs, murder, and stealing provide a caricature of the illegal immigrant from the perspective of legal citizens, who consider the illegal immigrant a “lethal poison to the system.” She is mocking the irrational, petty fears of the members of the “ruling class” who are preoccupied with people stealing their money and threatening their “way of life.”
The mockery seems to be intended to take back power and, at least momentarily, invert the power structure. I tell students that this aspect of “Paper Planes” places it squarely within the genre and history of hip hop music, the details of which we get to later in the course. If there is time left in the session, I help the students see another possible way the song engages with power structures. As a female rapper, M.I.A. places herself in a subjective role rather in the objective role, where women typically find themselves in hip hop culture. Thus the reference to “Rump Shaker” and the inversion of the melodic trajectory of the “all I wanna do . . .” hook could be read as an inversion of the traditional male/female power structure in hip hop culture. M.I.A. momentarily takes back power for women just as she momentarily takes back power for the illegal immigrant.
IN M.I.A.’S WORDS. In the case of “Paper Planes,” we also have the artist’s commentary on the circumstances under which she wrote the song. I conclude the exploration with her words:
[The sample of the gun reloading and then the cash register ringing] was a joke. I was having this stupid visa problem, and I didn’t know what it was, aside from them thinking that I might fly a plane into the Trade Center—which is the only reason that they would put me through this. I actually recorded that in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy. I was thinking about living there, waking up every morning—it’s such an African neighborhood. I was going to get patties at my local and just thinking that really the worst thing that anyone can say [to someone these days] is some shit like: “What I wanna do is come and get your money.” People don’t really feel like immigrants or refugees contribute to culture in any way. That they’re just leeches that suck from whatever. So in the song I say all I wanna do is [sound of gun shooting and reloading, cash register opening] and take your money. I did it in sound effects. It’s up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I’m sure they’ll get it.
In general, the students seem to appreciate that our discussion concludes with a quote from M.I.A. that lays plain some aspects of the themes that came out through our exploration. However, I remind the students that as a cultural activity, music and its possible meanings always extend beyond what performers and composers say about them.
The Both/And Proposition
A natural extension of a series of hermeneutic explorations, as described previously, would be for students to create their own music in the styles and genres that had been explored. The courses that I teach do not contain this particular extension; rather, I extend these explorations by developing students’ English writing skills—I am required to do so in my particular context. But I see a great potential for students to move from (1) hermeneutic explorations of a few songs within a genre, to (2) compositional explorations of those same songs, to (3) a process where students compose, produce, or improvise their own songs within that same genre.
An advantage of this three-step approach is related to the high degree that popular music, and especially hip hop, incorporates musical reference, context, and allusion. Hermeneutic exploration provides students the opportunity to identify those features as “tools” to be utilized in their compositional, production, and/or improvisational processes. That being said, I view hermeneutic explorations as having music educative value on their own terms, independent of the two subsequent steps. I mention this because the second and third steps have a more tangible product and thus a potential, at least in the area of music education, to be elevated as more worthwhile. Related to this, I think the challenge for the teacher would be changing hats from interpreter (and facilitator of interpretation) to composer (and facilitator of composition), a requirement for moving from the first to the second step of the approach. This challenge, however, is one that certainly could be overcome.
Hermeneutic Exploration, Twenty-First-Century Students, and Music Literacy
Hermeneutic exploration seems particularly relevant for twenty-first-century students. Students today regularly encounter music in recorded (most often digital) forms. To demonstrate just how ubiquitous recorded music is, over and against live music, I’ll share a teaching experience: Each semester, I assign a short essay where students must write about a time when they experienced live music. Each semester, I have one or more students come to me distraught because they cannot recall a time when they heard music live. I remind them that they are welcome to write about any live music, not just a formal concert where live music was performed, including, for example, a street busker. As I try to jog the students’ memories with possible circumstances in which they might have heard live music, many of them begin to recall a time when they experienced such a thing.
What I aim to communicate with this teaching experience is the degree to which music is now inseparable from both media and technology. Digital recordings, the Internet, and iPhones are now more closely linked to students’ conceptions of what music is than live performances. Media technologies afford student engagement with music in tandem with other activities and art forms such as visual media, video games, movies, commercials, and so on. And let us not forget how music is integrated into students’ daily activities—like getting ready for the day, commuting to school, or playing some basketball. For many students, music accompanies virtually everything they do and experience, and those experiences are necessarily mediated.
Music and media are thus more entangled than they ever have been. Music education curricula that are relevant to today’s students should take into account this entanglement. It should also take into account the media-saturated and information-saturated nature of students’ lived experiences more generally. Students need the skills to navigate these experiences. In other words, students need skills that help them interpret the meanings of these experiences so that they can make choices about how to respond to them.
Hermeneutic exploration, with its focus on the ways music, activities, and media integrate to create meaning, is one way music educators can begin developing these kinds of skills within students. Hermeneutic exploration can be conceived of as a form of media education, the result of which is media literacy and, in this particular case, a new type of music literacy.
Traditionally, musical literacy has been associated with students’ abilities to read music from a score and demonstrating those abilities by playing or singing the notes on the page. The type of musical literacy that I am proposing here would instead focus on students’ abilities to read/interpret music and sound and as it relates to and is mediated through various technological, visual, and social contexts. Notation system(s) might sometimes play a part in building such abilities, but not always. There would also be a focus on students’ abilities to create meaningful music and sound as it relates to and is mediated through various technological, visual, and social contexts. As such, this is a type of music literacy that bears similarities to and falls under the umbrella of media literacy, which at present concerns itself with students’ abilities to analyze, evaluate, interpret, and create and participate in audio, visual, and print media forms. Furthermore, with this type of music literacy, the interpreting of music and the creation of music would go hand in hand, just as reading (interpreting) and writing (creating) go hand in hand in English language and literature classes.
Advantages and Challenges for Hermeneutic Exploration
There are several advantages for incorporating hermeneutic explorations in the music classroom. I highlight three in the following sections.
Hermeneutic exploration brings popular music into the classroom on its own terms rather than in terms of another tradition. It does so by recognizing popular music’s performance and production practices as part of popular music’s constellation of meanings. In this way, hermeneutic exploration and advocates of performance and production of popular music in the schools are in alignment. Both work to limit student encounters with popular music in terms of the large ensemble, European classical music–inspired tradition. I have already provided examples of this; however, I will remind the reader again: this is when members of a choir rap together and learn the rap from sheet music. Groups of people do not, or very rarely, rap simultaneously within the hip hop tradition.
Hermeneutic exploration validates student engagements with music in their everyday lives as listeners. And since virtually all students already engage with music as listeners, this approach has the potential to reach a large number of students. A smaller number of students engage with music as producers or performers in their everyday lives. It is reasonable to think that those students who do not engage with music as producers or performers might more readily entertain exploring music in the classroom if at least some of the focus were on listening than if the focus were exclusively on production and performance.
Teachers can facilitate hermeneutic explorations in settings where resources are limited. No expensive instruments, computer applications, or mixers must be purchased. Instead, a single computer, simple amplification system, and projection equipment are all that are necessary. Such technologies are available in most classrooms.
The advantages I have highlighted all relate to inclusion and validation of a wide variety of musical genres and experiences that exist outside of the classroom. Because of this, there is an ethical argument to be made for the incorporation of hermeneutic explorations into the music classroom—I will make that argument elsewhere. Of course, there are also challenges associated with incorporating something that seems to be new to the curriculum, especially in K–12 settings. I identify the two main challenges for incorporating musical hermeneutics into K–12 music classrooms and respond to them in the following sections.
As it stands, preservice music educators are not taught to explore musical meanings or how to facilitate them in the ways outlined previously. A similar problem faces those who advocate for the performance and production of popular music in schools. But solving this problem for hermeneutic exploration seems a bit more manageable than solving it for the performance of popular music because many music departments already have the resources to begin tackling this problem. A number of musicologists and music theorists, and some performers, have developed hermeneutic skills in music in their graduate programs. Their expertise is a resource that could be tapped for developing within next generation of music educators skills associated with facilitating hermeneutic exploration.
The content of the music and visual images in popular culture is sometimes questionable and/or offensive. This is a problem that has faced advocates for popular music in schools since the 1960s. Roger Scruton, Heidi Westerlund, and Randall Allsup explain the problem this way: popular music can be “violent, misogynistic, homophobic, and miseducative.” For some, these attributes render the music of youth culture unsuitable for the classroom. Westerlund and Allsup think otherwise, viewing criticality and agency as important features in the response to this problem: “Perhaps agency, the manner in which young people adapt, feel ownership, and transform the cultural knowledge they construct and create both in and out of school, may provide a way of negotiating the tensions around youth culture.” Hermeneutic exploration, as I have described it, capitalizes on student agency and criticality in precisely this way.
Throughout this chapter, I have explored hermeneutic exploration as a way music educators can include popular music in curricula, thereby fulfilling one of the statements of the Tanglewood Declaration. I described how recent popular music advocates have focused primarily on providing students more opportunities to compose and perform popular music. To situate this focus, I provided a brief history of how the philosophy of music education began with an emphasis on music listening and music as an object and moved toward an emphasis on the creation of music and music as an activity. The hermeneutic exploration described subsequently is an example of how teachers can focus on music listening in the classroom while also upholding the praxialist definition of music as an activity. As such, hermeneutic explorations restore a degree of importance to music listening, bringing pedagogy in line with “real-world” practices of students who regularly listen to popular music several hours per day.
Without mention, I have also been exploring a way to fulfill a second statement of that declaration. This statement gets much less conversational traffic but, in my mind, is no less important. The first portion of the statement reads as follows: “Programs of teacher education must be expanded and improved to provide music teachers who are specially equipped to teach high school courses in the history and literature of music, courses in the humanities and related arts.” Hermeneutic exploration is well suited to incorporation into the secondary education and encompasses history, literature, the humanities, and related arts. It does so in a way that takes into account the media-saturated lived experiences of the twenty-first-century student. Hermeneutic exploration, thus, has the potential to fulfill not one but two statements of the Tanglewood Declaration.
3. Wayne Bowman, “‘Pop’ Goes . . . ? Taking Popular Music Seriously,” in Bridging the Gap: Popular Music and Music Education, ed. Carlos Xavier Rodriguez (Reston: Music Educators National Conference, 2004), 29–50.
5. A capella groups are the rare exception where a school music ensemble actually has become a phenomenon in the “real world” of popular music. School a capella groups now reflect performance and production practices of the “real world” of popular music.
6. Heidi Westerlund, “Garage Rock Bands: A Future Model for Developing Musical Expertise?,” International Journal of Music Education 24, no. 2 (2006): 119–25; Robert H. Woody, “Popular Music in School: Remixing the Issues,” Music Educators Journal 93, no. 4 (2007): 32–37, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4127131.
7. To my knowledge, the following institutions have begun to adapt their preservice music educator programs to address this problem: University of South Florida, UCLA, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, California State University (Long Beach), and Ithaca College. Little Kids Rock is a nonprofit organization that introduces music teachers to the core instrumentation and genres of the “rock band” using a curriculum called Modern Band. The organization is primarily geared toward teachers in underserved school districts in the United States.
12. John Sloboda, “Emotion, Functionality and the Everyday Experience of Music: Where Does Music Education Fit?,” Music Education Research 3, no. 2 (2001): 243–53; Kari Batt-Rawden and Tia DeNora, “Music and Informal Learning in Everyday Life,” Music Education Research 7, no. 3 (2005): 289–304.
13. Other ways to bridge this gap have been suggested beyond the performance and production of popular music. But here I am focusing on the response of advocates of popular music in the schools to the problem of incoherence between formal music education and music in everyday life.
14. Eva Georgii-Hemming and Victor Kvarnhall, “Music Listening and Matters of Equality in Music Education,” Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning/Swedish Journal of Music Research (STM–SJM) 97 (2015): 27–44.
20. Hendrix’s Woodstock performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” is a rich site for hermeneutic exploration. Here I use it to simply convey the concept of allusion in music without going into the full complexities of the possible meanings of the use of “Taps” or the other allusions within this performance.
23. This is an introductory lesson intended for a group of roughly ninety undergraduate university students. For a smaller group of students, I would likely develop different types of activities for this same exploration. It is also important to note that in successive lessons, students choose their own music to interpret and participate in self- and/or group-guided explorations.
24. “Video+Interview: M.I.A., ‘Jimmy,’” Fader, August 7, 2007, http://www.thefader.com/2007/08/07/video-interview-mia-jimmy.
26. Randall Allsup, Heidi Westerlund, and Eric Shieh, “Youth Culture and Secondary Education,” in The Oxford Handbook of Music Education, vol. 1, ed. Gary McPherson and Graham Welch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 537.
- Allsup, Randall, Heidi Westerlund, and Eric Shieh. “Youth Culture and Secondary Education.” In The Oxford Handbook of Music Education, vol. 1, edited by Gary McPherson and Graham Welch, 460–75. Oxford: Oxford University, Press, 2012.
- Batt-Rawden, Kari, and Tia DeNora. “Music and Informal Learning in Everyday Life.” Music Education Research 7, no. 3 (2005): 289–304.
- Bowman, Wayne. “‘Pop’ Goes . . . ? Taking Popular Music Seriously.” In Bridging the Gap: Popular Music and Music Education, edited by Carlos Xavier Rodriguez, 29–50. Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference, 2004.
- Elliott, David. Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Georgii-Hemming, Eva, and Victor Kvarnhall. “Music Listening and Matters of Equality in Music Education.” Svensk tidskrift för musikforskning/Swedish Journal of Music Research (STM–SJM) 97 (2015): 27–44.
- Heimonen, Marja. “Music and Arts Schools: Extra Curricular Music Education in Sweden: A Comparative Study.” Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 3, no. 2 (2004): 2–35.
- Kramer, Lawrence. Interpreting Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
- ———. Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
- M.I.A. Interview by Alex Wagner. Fader, August 7, 2007. http://www.thefader.com/2007/08/07/video-interview-mia-jimmy.
- Regelski, Thomas. “Praxial vs. Aesthetic Philosophies.” In Praxial Music Education: Reflections and Dialogues, edited by David Elliott, 219–47. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Reimer, Bennett. A Philosophy of Music Education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970.
- ———. A Philosophy of Music Education: Advancing the Vision. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.
- Rodriguez, Carlos Xavier. “Popular Music Ensembles.” In Oxford Handbook of Popular Music, vol. 1, edited by Gary E. McPherson and Graham F. Welch, 878–89. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Scruton, Roger. Culture Counts: Faith and Reason in a World Besieged. New York: Encounter Books, 2007.
- Sloboda, John. “Emotion, Functionality and the Everyday Experience of Music: Where Does Music Education Fit?” Music Education Research 3, no. 2 (2001): 243–53.
- Westerlund, Heidi. “Garage Rock Bands: A Future Model for Developing Musical Expertise?” International Journal of Music Education 24, no. 2 (2006): 119–25.
- Woody, Robert H. “Popular Music in School: Remixing the Issues.” Music Educators Journal 93, no. 4 (2007): 32–37.