Looking Back in Time: On Being a Music Education Historian

Article excerpt


In educational research today there is certainly more acceptance of both qualitative and quantitative methods than ever before. In 1990 these were known as the "humanistic" and "social-scientific" methods. The paradigms behind these two methodologies are diametrically opposed. Where the humanist seeks to document unique experiences, the social scientist is problem oriented, looking for uniformity of behaviors across a population in order to predict the solution to the problem. The humanist tends to prefer small-scale, individualized interpretation to the social scientist's documentation of variations from the norm of a population of individuals. The humanist writes in a flowing, narrative style, while the social scientist uses the structure and language of an experimental report.

These same polarities occur in music education research. Although the first publications of Journal of Research in Music Education were heavily historical, research in music education developed primarily through the methodologies of the social sciences. Today researchers have breached the quantitative world of "The Effect of __ on __," and opted for the direct observation and narrative writing style of qualitative methods. There are even a few working in that middle ground who employ both methodologies for a more balanced view of the research problem. Some researchers even recommend methods from other disciplines to help better understand what happens in music education classrooms. (1)

Like the historical disciplines of other subjects, historical studies in music education have always been predominantly a qualitative field. Indeed, most of the literature about historical music education research solidly defends the humanistic approach. George Heller and Bruce Wilson emphasized the need for the narrative form. (2) They stated that music education history does not seek to isolate causes but "to explain complex relationships." (3)

However, there are various way to try to "explain complex relationships" and qualitative methods are only one of them. While not many in number, there are quantitative research articles in music education history. (4) This change in methodology parallels the research of historians across the country. To help understand the methodological possibilities, this research paper compares the approaches described in Charles Tilly's article "How (and What) are Historians Doing?" (5) with applications in historical music education research. Some of the examples Tilly cited do not have exact parallels in music education research. In those cases, I found studies that employed a similar approach, or otherwise fit into Tilly's categorical descriptions. To further develop this comparison, I also describe various methodologies for historical research (immersion/saturation, oral history, content analysis, collective biography, and the use of genealogical and government sources) and apply them to music education research, as ways to document music education history--to look back in time.

Approaches to Historical Investigation

In 1990 Charles Tilly described various types of investigative modes available to the historical researcher, each of which represented a valid, but alternative, view of history. To help clarify his ideas of alternative histories, he divided research into four areas or quadrants, one for each approach to uncovering history. These are: small-scale, humanistic; large-scale, humanistic; large-scale, social-scientific; and small-scale, social-scientific. (6) To better understand these quadrants, Figure 1 is a comparison of research in historical music education with the examples in Tilly's article.

Tilly first addressed the small-scale, humanistic approach, represented by Carlo Ginsberg's The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. (7) This is essentially a study of one man, a miller named Dominco Scandella, in one place and time, an Italian village of the sixteenth century. …