J. Scott Goble

Scott Goble

J. Scott Goble is Associate Professor of Music Education at the University of British Columbia, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses and supervises work of M.Ed., M.A., and Ph.D. students.  A specialist in vocal and choral music, he taught music in public schools near Seattle, Washington, later serving on the music faculties of Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges, Boston University, and San Francisco State University.  Scott has conducted choirs and orchestras in educational, professional, church, and community contexts throughout North America.  His book What’s So Important About Music Education? is published by Routledge.


Music is not one: A new model for praxial music education

In 1991, philosopher Philip Alperson challenged the philosophy of “music education as aesthetic education” held by music educators in the United States, Canada, and other democratic nations throughout the modern era, advocating instead for what he termed a praxial approach, according to which, “[t]he attempt is made . . . to understand [musics] in terms of the variety of meanings and values evidenced in actual practice in particular cultures” (Alperson, 1991, 233). Asserting that aesthetic conceptions of music should be regarded as but one way of understanding and engaging with music, he argued that music educators should open the curriculum to include all forms of music making, including the musical practices of all the world’s cultural communities. Alperson recommended further that music educators take into account in their teaching the sorts of reasoning and critical thinking that musical practitioners in different cultural traditions use for getting “right results” for the benefit of people in their respective cultural contexts (Alperson, 236).

Alperson’s argument stimulated Canadian music education scholar David Elliott to advance a new philosophy of music education based on the notion of “music as praxis,” in his book Music Matters in 1995. In Elliott’s view, persons who make music (or “musicers”) should be regarded as practitioners of “MUSIC,” a diverse but universal human practice that consists in many different sub-practices—or “Musics”—worldwide. But while Elliott acknowledged that students may learn “to make music well through deeper understandings of the beliefs (artistic, social, and cultural) that influence music making and listening in different practices” (Elliott, 1995, 293) in school music classes, he gave little attention (even in the 2015 revision of his book with Marissa Silverman) to the dissimilar human motivations that give rise to the disparate musical practices undertaken in different cultural contexts or to their broader personal and social effects; he emphasized instead certain universal psychological benefits of “musicing” as a basis for music education.

Alperson’s argument also motivated American music education scholar Thomas Regelski (1996) to advance a new philosophy of music education grounded in the notion of “music as praxis.” Emphasizing the prudent “reflection in action” that guides any genuine musical praxis toward the results it is intended to realize, Regelski asked: What is music “good for” in each situation in which it is present? Regelski asserted that it is intentionality that defines a particular praxis as music, and, in contrast with Elliott, he emphasized that persons who engage with a particular musical praxis assess it as “good” only when it conforms to the individual, social, religious, and/or other cultural meanings it is intended to serve.

But neither Elliott nor Regelski fully followed Alperson’s recommendation, exploring how the particular musical practices of different cultural communities are understood by the members of those communities as having pragmatic efficacy within their respective cultural contexts. While sociologist Tia DeNora arguably took a step in that direction with her book Music in Everyday Life (2000), exploring the pragmatic efficacy of musical practices in an aerobics class, karaoke events, music therapy sessions, and as a sonic background in retail stores, the scope of her research was relatively narrow, culturally speaking, and she provided no recommendations from her findings for the practice of music education.

Many of the musical practices and attendant conceptions of music that predominate in the public forums of modern, democratic nations (e.g., on radio, television, and online) are advanced by media companies, and they tend to be commercially driven; they also strongly influence the practice of music education in schools. By contrast, the musical practices undertaken by the diverse cultural groups that comprise such nations are often integral to the psychological and social well being of their members. Among those groups, present adherents of religious communities— descendants in spirit of the traditional societies from which modern nations emerged— undertake their long-held musical practices for the unique pragmatic benefits they provide them.

Stephen Prothero, in God is not one (2010), observes that past generations of religious studies scholars–e.g., Aldous Huxley (1945/2009), Joseph Campbell (1949/2008), Huston Smith (1958/1991)—characterized the world’s religions as different paths to the same God, largely in the interest of advancing religious tolerance. In contrast, Prothero has argued that religious traditions must be understood on their own respective terms according to the central human problem each serves to solve, and he has presented a model for fostering such understanding. Since musical practices undertaken by the adherents of different religious traditions are conceptualized by them as spiritual practices, have pragmatic efficacy within their respective contexts, and are manifest in the lives of students in culturally diverse school music classes, Prothero’s model may serve as a conceptual foundation for music educators wishing to follow Alperson’s original conception of praxial music education and helping students “to understand [musical practices] in terms of the variety of meanings and values evidenced in actual practice in particular cultures” (Alperson, 233).

This paper will establish an historical frame for music educators’ consideration of Prothero’s model, introduce the model, demonstrate how specific musical practices have pragmatic efficacy in selected religious traditions, and present implications for teaching music according to Alperson’s original conception of music as praxis.