Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education

By Fiske, Harold E. | Notes, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education


Fiske, Harold E., Notes


Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education. By David J. Elliott. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. [xv, 380 p. ISBN 0-19-509171-X. $35.00.]

For the past thirty years music education philosophers have promoted the idea that a child's formal musical development should at the same time nurture growth in aesthetic sensitivity. Music-education-as-aesthetic-education (MEAE), which today is essentially considered a formal principle of music education instructional theory, is primarily attributable to the noted music educator Bennett Reimer (A Philosophy of Music Education [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970, 1989]). Held as an axiom in university music education foundations courses, music teachers-to-be learned to assume that highly skilled musical performance is insufficient evidence of worthwhile music education. According to MEAE, finding music's aesthetic content, whether performing that music or listening to it, represents a far more valuable educational outcome than merely learning to manipulate an instrument. With a few isolated exceptions this point of view remained unchallenged until about six years ago (see, e.g., The Quarterly Journal of Musk Tracking and Learning 2, no. 3 [1991]). But with recent (renewed) interest in multiculturalism, critical thinking, feminism, and other interests, music education theorists have begun to consider new principles and test older ones. Music Matters exemplifies these proposals.

David Elliott has three aims: "The First is to develop a philosophy of music education--a critically reasoned concept of the nature and significance of music education. The second is to explain what this philosophy means ... for the organization and conduct of formal efforts to develop musical understanding. The third is to encourage a disposition in teachers to think philosophically as a regular part of their daily professional efforts" (p. 12). Elliott's "new" philosophy rests on two premises: "The first is that the nature of music education depends on the nature of music. The second is that the significance of music education depends on the significance of music in human life" (p. 12). Quite sensibly, in short, a theory (or "the significance") of music instruction depends upon a theory (or "significance") of musical learning ("in human life") and a theory of musical learning depends upon a theory (of the "nature") of music. Elliott begins his philosophy by showing what is wrong with the old MEAE philosophy. Essentially he identifies what to him are four ill-conceived assumptions: "The first assumption is that music is a collection of objects or works. The second assumption is that musical works exist to be listened to in one and only one way: aesthetically. ... The third assumption ... is that the value of musical works is always intrinsic or internal. ... The fourth assumption is that [listening] to pieces of music aesthetically ... will achieve ... an aesthetic experience" (p. 23). Elliott contends that these assumptions represent the framework of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aesthetic theory, a theory that he says is outmoded and irrelevant for contemporary music education.

The central premise of Elliott's "new" philosophy, one that from his perspective must replace the outmoded search for objective aesthetic content, is that "music making ... lies at the heart of what MUSIC is and that music making is a matter of musical knowledge-in-action, or musicianship. Music education ought to be centrally concerned with teaching and learning musicianship" (p. 72). In short, the focus of music education philosophy, and thus music education instruction, should be "musicing" (Elliott's term) which can take several different forms: singing or performing on an instrument, improvising, composing, arranging, or conducting. Properly rendered, "musicing" in all its forms is active, involved, and ongoing rather than passive, objective, or simply observational. "In this praxial philosophy, the content of the music curriculum is musicianship.

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