Rebecca Rinsema

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Rebecca Rinsema, PhD, is Lecturer of Music in General Studies at Northern Arizona University where she teaches courses on popular music and the analysis of music from the listener’s perspective. Her research interests lie at the intersection of music listening experiences, music technologies, and general music pedagogy. Her book, Listening in Action: Teaching Music in the Digital Age, is currently in production with Ashgate/Routledge and is scheduled to be released in October 2016. She is also a singer specializing in the performance of early music.


De-sacralizing the European: “Artistic Listening,” Music Appreciation, and Music Listening Today

In this paper, I point out ways in which music educators in the US have sacralized the European tradition not only in terms of musical style and genre, but also in terms of the ways in which people engage with music. I reveal how vestiges of the music appreciation movement, i.e. college-level music appreciation textbooks published in the 1960’s and 70’s, take an “artistic/experiential” turn when describing music listening. Such a turn signals the beginnings of the de-sacralization of the European classical music on stylistic merits alone, but continues to reify the sacralization of the European tradition as a whole by sacralizing its music listening practices.  I also situate the “artistic/experiential” turn within the context John Covach’s discussions of the emergingly “flat” cultural world in which our students encounter and engage with music.

Drawing from Thomas Friedman’s bestseller, “The World is Flat,”[1] John Covach recently argued that we are living in an emergingly flat musical world—one where musical styles seem to exist on the same plane of privilege rather than on a hierarchy. According to Covach, digital technologies and globalization have contributed to, “…a reshaped cultural environment in which many listeners and scholars no longer view classical music as more sophisticated than other styles.”[2] This cultural reshaping represents the unraveling of a centuries old highbrow/lowbrow cultural hierarchy in the United States that sacralized European classical music as intellectually, morally, and spiritually superior to other musical styles.[3]

The cultivation of “music appreciation” in the American middle class during the 19th and early 20th centuries perpetuated the highbrow/lowbrow culture as well as the sacralization of European classical music. Musicologist Julia Chybowski views this cultivation as a bona fide movement, motivated by the aim of elevatimg the American public’s taste as well as the geopolitical status of the US.[4] By the 1960’s and ‘70’s, music appreciation as a movement had largely burned out, but textbooks written for college-level music appreciation courses continued in its tradition.

By taking a look back at the rhetoric used in music appreciation textbooks in the 1960’s and 70’s, we can see the beginnings of the unraveling of the stylistic hierarchy, as identified by Covach. The following excerpt from the introduction of John Gillespie’s 1968 textbook, The Musical Experience, demonstrates this trend: Music in different manifestations exists all over the world, and each type has its special value…The adjectives “classical,” “serious,” “concert,” or “art” music attest to the inadequacy of present-day musical terminology.  If one type of music is serious, are all other types frivolous?  And do we not have jazz concerts as well as chamber music concerts?  The term “art” cannot be applied to just one type of music, for there are several kinds of music that qualify as art music.[5]

In these Gillespie’s text and others, the stylistic hierarchy, where classical music is hailed as superior to other styles of music, is replaced with an engagement hierarchy of music listening, which hails European concert-hall listening as superior to all other forms of listening. Textbook authors propose that there is a difference between “Artistic Listening” and ordinary music listening, where artistic listening is intellectually, morally, and spiritually superior to ordinary music listening. This is most efficiently demonstrated in the following extended quote from Wink and Williams textbook, Invitation to Listening: The first step in developing the art of listening is learning to concentrate on the music…Background music (original emphasis) inhibits learning the art of listening because it is meant to be ignored rather than listened to.  It actually trains us to be non-listeners…The concert hall is different. There we find the most effective situation for listening to music.  Instead of being surrounded and lulled into inattention by constant and subdued Muzak, we go to the concert hall with the express purpose of listening to a particular program.  All other distractions are minimized; and there is even a suspenseful moment of silence before the conductor or performer enters which further heighten our anticipation and interest.[6]

In the Wink and Williams textbook, among others, artistic listening and the concert-going experience are further linked to biblical texts, spirituality, and morality. Aspects of this link between morality and music listening recall Bennett Reimer’s philosophy that music education is an education of feeling, first published in his 1970 book, A Philosophy of Music Education.[7]  Though Reimer never says it explicitly, the implication is that a person with educated feelings might also aspire to a moral life.

The idea here is that while the engagement hierarchy represents a step a way from the bald claims of classical music’s superiority, it also sacralizes the listening practices of the European classical tradition in a way that surreptitiously keeps the stylistic hierarchy largely in tact.

In music education scholarship, the engagement hierarchy remains prevalent through the promotion of such practices as “attentive listening” and “structural listening” as more sophisticated than all other ways of engaging with a listener. Thus, in closing, I argue that if progressive music education scholars aspire to a “flat” musical world, then scholars must work to flatten both the stylistic hierarchy and the engagement hierarchy within the realm of music.