The Beginnings of the Sociology of Music Education

By Roberts, Brian A. | The Canadian Music Educator, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Beginnings of the Sociology of Music Education


Roberts, Brian A., The Canadian Music Educator


The sociology of music education is a relatively new discipline. As we reflect back on the occasion of this 50th year of the CMEA I thought it might be interesting to look a little of at the beginnings of this scholarly area.

The study of music in general falls typically under the umbrella of musicology. Most of us remember our days studying music as an undergraduate which included a couple of years of music history survey courses. This represents the basic centre of musicology. What was once a study of musical forms, lists of musicological periods with representative composers, their birth and death dates and long lists of repertoire has evolved over time and moved toward placing music in the social context of its time and place. As other world musics have become the subject of academic oversight, a large and important branch of musicological study has emerged known as "ethnomusicology". As the name may imply, there is a certain focus here on ethnography, which is, according to Wildpedia, "a genre of writing that uses fieldwork to provide a descriptive study of human societies. Ethnography presents the results of a holistic research method founded on the idea that a system's properties cannot necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other".

Ethnography is also a major methodology of sociology since it shares so many central tenets of the way a society ought to be understood. So serious sociological research is bound together with ethnomusicology and when one looks at the list of presentations at the most recent International symposium on the sociology of music education, it is clear that much of the research could easily be presented at an ethnomusicological conference. It is easy to see that these two disciplines have a symbiotic relationship and yet it is impossible to say how precisely each has influenced the other.

The first significant writings in the sociology of music education came from Max Kaplan in his book, Foundations and Frontiers of Music Education (1966). Music education research at the time was very singularly driven by psychological pursuits with largely quantitative studies. This was the trend in educational research in general and the time of many IQ tests and standardized tests for general aptitudes, among them music.

The first important writing on the notion of sociological research becoming important to music education came from Canadian Donald McKellar. Professor Don McKellar, now retired from a long career in music education at the University of Western Ontario, published a paper in the 1973 ISME Yearbook titled "Sociomusicology: The next horizon for music education". This paper is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, McKellar had actually never done any sociological research so he wasn't trying to frame his own work in any way. Secondly, it is unusual for a scholar to "announce" the beginnings of a discipline without at least a small body of scholarship from others that might define the area. McKellar writes that "a new and broad social dimension of music study and practical musical involvement must be created; an area of social and musical study which will be focussed on a meaningful examination of all and various national segments, socio-economic levels and cultural strata of our contemporary musical life. . . I propose that we name this new intellectual discipline "Sociomusicology" (p. 7374). It is clear later in his essay when McKellar writes that musicians must attempt through "well-defined sociological studies to gain knowledge about the nature and attitudes of the community" (p. 77) that basis for his new discipline will be a new branch of sociology.

McKellar also sets some expectations for this new discipline. One clearly important goal is for the new discipline to build itself on two foundational principles. The first states that "human beings desperately need the aesthetic experience" and secondly that "the great mass of humanity is capable of deeper fulfillment through aesthetic experience. …

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