Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Western Classical Orchestral Music: A Peculiar 'Indigenous' Music? Implications for Learning Composers

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Western Classical Orchestral Music: A Peculiar 'Indigenous' Music? Implications for Learning Composers

Article excerpt


The Western classical orchestral tradition is a very particular, peculiar and, in many ways, an 'indigenous' musical practice. Its core work is re-creation of European repertoire from the 18th through early 20th centuries--repertoire that is at least 100 years old. The professional orchestral industry in Australia and many other countries is characterized by short preparation periods for frequent formal concerts at a high level of technical perfection. In order to deliver technically proficient, and ideally, expressively moving performances with little rehearsal, orchestral musicians must come to the task equipped with knowledge of the repertoire, musical language of the period, orchestral etiquette and working procedures, and excellent reading ability--coupled with the knowledge to add what is stylistically required but not indicated. Composers typically work away from the orchestra, their works subject to the same rehearsal constraints as well-known masterworks, yet without the affordance of performer fluency in their compositional language. Thinking globally, this is an unusual musical practice.

Music educators have been broadening curriculum to include more music from many other styles and traditions. As Western classical music's territory recedes, what should its place be? Acknowledging that it is not a universal practice and that its traditional transmission and pedagogies facilitate learning technique and repertoire not necessarily required for other musics is a start. It is a start that must be followed with a redefinition of Western classical music's legitimate place in the curriculum and consideration of whose responsibility it is to prepare its practitioners. This paper does not address all of these issues but it offers a few steps toward such redefinition, highlighting some of the idiosyncrasies from the perspective of the Western classical orchestral notated-music composer. Particulars of orchestral composition transmission are considered in light Schippers (2010) Twelve Continuum Transmission Framework.

The question: If Western classical music was regarded as an 'indigenous' musical practice with inherent transmission and pedagogical practices, could its hegemony in music education be reduced while, at the same time, more effective ways to teach it be opened up?


'Indigenous' is commonly used to distinguish a people or culture as not Western/European; people who have a close and defining relationship with their land, history and culture, and who have suffered and survived invasion. I do not presume to apply those rich implications to this discussion. We don't need to steal that as well. I do want to consider where this music--Western classical orchestral music--might be grounded: its cultural place and space, even it is if no longer a physical place. I am using 'indigenous' to convey the sense of originating in and belonging to a particular, historically grounded culture with values and practices that are natural and inherent to it and the people who find their identity in it.

Semali and Kincheloe (1999) point out that indigenous knowledges are focussed on relationships with each other and with the ecosystems in which people live. 'Such an emphasis on relationships has been notoriously absent in the knowledge produced by Western science over the last four centuries,' they write (p. 16). This absence is treated with great depth by McGilchrist (2009) whose analysis of Western culture describes a significant decrease in the value of relational and contextual thinking over the past four centuries, and an increase in the value of abstracted, decontextualized thinking.

In using 'indigenous' I do not want to appropriate the term and dilute its strength; I believe it offers a way to continue to challenge assumptions that Western classical music is a universal standard, either for performance or for teaching--an assumption that serves other musics badly but also dilutes the particulars that give Western classical music its distinctive kind of power and beauty. …

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