What is music? Why ask? Who cares?

Why do music teachers need to think carefully about what music is? Can’t we stop “thinking” and just teach music?

Music is conceptually, culturally, emotionally, and politically complex, ambiguous, and ever-changing. This is why philosophers call terms like music “essentially contested concepts.” Contested concepts are culturally situated and value-laden ideas that resist conclusive definitions and consensus. So, if something is ever-changing, we need to keep up with the times and recognize how “it” has morphed, adapted, hybridized, evolved, and so forth. Especially, if we’re going to teach “it.”

And when we think internally or make public statements that speak about a contested concept such as “music,” it will always be open to a wide range of individual and group interpretations.

Complicating matters further, thoughts and actions are intimately and inextricably linked; our assumptions, beliefs, mindsets, and interpretations inform and drive our actions, and our actions feed back to and have an impact on our assumptions and beliefs. Every teaching-learning decision and action we carry out before, during, and after we interact with students is guided by what we assume, believe, or think about why, what, how, where, and when we do what we do, and the people we are doing it with and for.

Here’s one take-away message: If we want to teach as well-prepared, effective, educative, and ethical school or community music educators, we must think about the who, why, what, how, where, whether, and when of music teaching and learning, as well as how to implement these concepts in action.

So, back to the question, what is music? Here is one very popular answer we hear from our music education students: “Music is what I think it is!” This bold declaration substitutes an opinion for a critically reasoned and justified answer. Some people think that music is an extremely personal “thing,” and say, “If it’s music to you, great. If not, that’s your problem.” So, what’s wrong with conceptualizing music this way?

“In my opinion” statements pop up every day: “I don’t care what you think; I have a right to my own opinion!” Is this true? Yes and no. In a democratic society, everyone has a legal right to state his or her opinion(s). But this doesn’t mean everyone has an “epistemic right” to an opinion. An epistemic right is the right to believe (or not) a certain position or set of beliefs.  To have this right, we need to earn it by justifying our beliefs with a logical argument and supporting evidence. If we can’t defend our beliefs with solid reasons, we should give them up, or admit that we don’t have a sufficient defense. If we refuse, then we’ve abandoned the realm of logical thinking. As educators and community music facilitators, we have a professional and ethical duty to develop informed beliefs, scrutinize opinions, and challenge people—like a principal who says, “Music education is only for the talented”—who make claims based on nothing more than “I have a right to my opinion.”

This brings us to a difference between opinion-based thinking and critical reflection. An opinion is often nothing more than a “gut feeling.” People who say, “My opinion is just as good as anyone’s opinion” make a serious mistake. They fail to understand that some answers to important questions are more reasonable and logical than others, because statements can be evaluated as logically defensible or not according to the quality of the reasoning and evidence supplied. Opinion-based thinking assumes wrongly that there are no criteria for assessing a debate, dialogue, or argument as reasonable and valid or not. Philosopher John Shand calls opinion-based thinking “intellectual nihilism,” because trusting opinions overlooks our ability to reason our way to good decisions about what it is best to think and do.

As we say in MM2, opinions aren’t too helpful due to their subjective nature and the fact that they don’t establish the solid intellectual and ethical starting points we need to construct a reasonable concept of and curricula for music. When people claim the natures of music are a completely personal or subjective matter, then they’ve left planet Earth for a fairyland where nobody thinks carefully and everything is smoke and mirrors. Good luck with that, especially if you want to be an educative and effective music educator or community music facilitator.

But before moving on, let’s think again about “music is what I think it is,” because to dismiss this as mere opinion may belittle the holder of that view. Philosopher John Corvino points out that making such a statement may be an act of humility. On the other hand, says Corvino, saying this “can have pernicious effects: it leads to a kind of wishy-washiness, wherein one refrains from standing up for one’s convictions.” Conceptualizing music is an ethical process, which is also practical because careful, critical thinking helps us decide what we do and what we don’t do within music teaching-and-learning.

Now, imagine overhearing this dialogue between a student and teacher.

Student: “Adele is my favorite. Can we sing ‘Someone like you’ in choir? Here is the music video. Isn’t it awesome?”

Teacher: “Well, Adele’s singing may be music to you, but in my opinion it’s not. So, we won’t be singing it.”

How might the student react or feel? It’s very possible that the teacher’s own thinking (or value-system, and, therefore, her curricular decisions) might cause her student to feel badly, which is not what thoughtful and caring teachers do. So, aside from the fact that “music is what I think it is” is not a logical and evidence-based—i.e., professional—way to construct a concept of music, it’s not a kind, respectful, or “care-full” thing to teach.

Please do not misunderstand us. We’re not saying that music teachers should necessarily teach Adele or Beyonce anymore than they should be teaching Bach, Mozart, West African drumming, taiko drumming, and so forth. What we’re suggesting is that the consequences of our answers to “what is music?” matter. Answers to this question not only mirror a teacher’s value system, they also impact whether or not teachers teach effectively and comprehensively, and affect their students’ sense of self and joy in learning and doing music.