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Dancing Interfaces: Response to Even Ruud's paper New Musicology', Music Education and Music Therapy

Brynjulf Stige

Editor’s note:

Upon invitation from the13th Nordic Congress of Musicology, Aarhus University, (August 15-10, 2000) this text is written as a response to Even Ruud’s keynote paper“New Musicology”, Music Education and Music Therapy.

The response will be included in the conference proceedings that according to the plan will be printed in the spring 2001.

|Introduction|  |Problems Shared?| | Boundaries| |Conclusion: In the Process of Creating a New Object?|  | References|


I have been invited to give a response to Even Ruud’s keynote paper ‘”New Musicology”, Music Education and Music Therapy.’ I am grateful for the opportunity given to comment upon Ruud’s paper, which includes several important points and perspectives. One can hardly say that the paper sums up Ruud’s interdisciplinary work and contribution to musicology, music education, and music therapy, but in a stimulating way it touches upon many of his contributions, and it is colored by his long-lasting engagement in and critique of these fields.

My own background for making this comment is mainly from the field of music therapy, but I am also trained as a teacher and I have been engaged in debates on music education and on the relationships between music education and music therapy. In musicology I may be considered more of an amateur, although my present position as a Research Fellow at the University of Oslo is within musicology. The topic of my doctoral thesis is meaning – or the signification process – in music therapy, which of course means that I am myself grappling with the relationships between musicology and music therapy.

I have been acquainted with Ruud’s work for about 20 years now. He has been my teacher, and he is my supervisor. He has for some years been a friend and colleague within Norwegian music therapy training and research. I feel obliged to inform you about these relationships, in case my contribution at points comes close to friendly praise, to attempts of patricide, or something of that sort. My intention though is not to focus upon these relationship aspects, but upon Ruud’s text. It is a text that deserves our attention, since it raises several important issues concerning interdisciplinarity and possible interfaces between musicology, music education, and music therapy. I will approach my task by focusing upon two meanings of the word interface: problems shared (among disciplines), and boundaries (an issue involved in all sharing)

Problems Shared?

Ruud asks; “Do we really share any common problems?” and then proceeds by contextualizing the question. He refers to networks of researchers within the fields of music education and music therapy (and also music anthropology and popular music studies) who have felt that traditional historical-analytic musicology has had little to offer. Then we are told that through an influence from anthropology, feminist studies, and cultural studies a “new” – and to the fields mentioned more relevant – musicology has developed. A brief criticism of (traditional I presume) musicology is then offered, by suggesting
that there is too much focus upon music as object and not enough focus upon context and relationships. Ruud suggests that this may be compared to the fundamental attribution error in lay “personology”: people attribute behavior to persons and not situations, much like Aristotle suggested that a stone sinks because it has the property of heaviness.

Situations do not behave, and stones do not sink if they are not heavy, and we are of course in the middle of the text-context debate, a debate that is shared not only by the three disciplines mentioned here, but by most disciplines within the humanities. And I suggest that it is within this broader context – the changing interfaces between several disciplines of the humanities and social sciences – that we will have to explore possible common problems and practices. If “new musicologists” and music therapists can meet in a shared interest in process, participation, and performance it is probably not because one of the “parties” has been sitting there as a wallflower waiting for the other to discover her. Rather I suggest it is because they have been approaching each other, maybe without knowing,
by listening to the same drum.

I want to illuminate my point by briefly summarizing some fragments from the history of music therapy. As Ruud (1990, 2000) himself has pointed out on several occasions, this history – from antiquity to present day – is characterized by an astonishing variety of interdisciplinary ideas and theories. “As new medical theories were evolving, music seen as therapy always seemed to find a place, a new articulation” (Ruud, 2000). These new articulations were of course made with a double edge: they were related to ideas about health and therapy, and also to notions of music. In some historical periods these edges seem to have met more easily than in others. More than one contemporary music therapist have “longed back” to the antiquity, where the theory of ethos seemed to link music and health in an organic way. In comparison the gap between modern biomedical theories and contemporary concepts of art and music is somewhat harder to bridge. But maybe these music therapists have been constructing history as harmony and present day as discord in an unjustified way? The suggested relationships between health and music have probably always been contested (Horden, 2000), and
this might tell us something about what kind of relationships we are talking about. They are to a large degree socially and culturally constructed and thus change over time.

Without subscribing to a social constructionist position à la Berger & Luckman (1966) and without rejecting the possibility of “given” biological dispositions in humans to engage in musical communication as a dance of wellbeing (Trevarthen & Malloch, 2000), I suggest that the history of music therapy teaches us that we are talking about changing interfaces, and that these changes in a way could be understood as a dance between partners: sometimes moving towards each other, sometimes not, sometimes listening to the same rhythm, sometimes not. Gary Ansdell (1999) advocates
that while perennial music therapy could be described as a theory in search of a practice, contemporary music therapy could be described as a practice in search of a theory. This search – Ruud suggests in his present paper – must be based on a contextual understanding of music therapy, or the discipline will remain stuck to a speculative understanding outlined by Pythagoras and his contemporaries. There are of course other options available, for instance to ground music therapy theory in biomedical principles (Taylor, 1997). Without going into detail why I think this is so, biomedicine would be limiting as the sole strategy of legitimation though, and I agree with Ruud that a contextual understanding is necessary, if not for any other reason than that therapy is very much about meaning and meaning very much
about context.

We are back to the text-context issue, and this is obviously one of the crossing points for musicology and music therapy, as Ruud also illuminates in his discussion of analysis of improvisations in music therapy. My opinion is that music therapists have much to learn from musicologists here, “new” and traditional, in their text and/or context oriented attempts of guessing meanings and assessing guesses. “Much to learn” does of course not necessarily mean “much to transplant”. Although the problem of text versus context is shared, the differences in practices and their objectives are so large that quite rarely can methods of analysis developed within musicology be transplanted to music therapy (Stige, 1995b, 1996). By looking at musicology as a practice reflecting on the possibilities and problems of analysis, a good deal can be learned though, also from studying the history of “solutions and their rejections”.

What musicologists could learn from music therapists is maybe less obvious to most scholars. Oftentimes the musics created in music therapy are believed to be uninteresting objects of study, except for those who focus upon health and psychology. This is a generalization not necessarily based in realities; much music therapy music is quite interesting music, listen for instance to Colin Lee’s (1996) improvisations with a musician with AIDS. Out of the ordinary as artistic phenomenon is neither typical nor the aim for music therapy though. Meaning here is rather related to music and self in context, and music therapy may become worthy of note for scholars who take interest in music in the everyday life of human beings. See for instance DeNora’s (2000) discussion, which includes ethnographic studies of music therapy alongside studies of aerobic classes, karaoke evenings, etc. DeNora is not a musicologist though; as a sociologist she represents one of those “new drum players” that both musicologists and music therapists have started listening to the last few decades, slowly – and until recently probably unwittingly – approaching each other.


When parties approach each other questions of boundaries appear. Is musicology and music education in danger of being dissolved and turned into therapeutic endeavors concerned about human wellbeing in everyday contexts and forgetting about music as art? That is one of the questions that may be asked. This concern may also be fueled by a general fear of a medicalized and psychiatrized
society, a fear that has been brought forward in several critical texts at least since the 1960ies and 1970ies, see for instance (Szacz, 1960/1974) and (Carling, 1975). In his paper Ruud touches upon this issue by suggesting that “a hidden therapeutic agenda has evolved in music education”.

Boundaries are necessary, but not necessarily natural, and we need to examine them carefully to see when they protect and provide growth and when they protect and impede growth. Within academia such examinations have been conducted for decades already. The “natural” division of labor between disciplines such as biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology was for instance seriously questioned by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in the 1960ies, and as such as more than an abstract academic exercise. Geertz illuminated how the division of labor between these disciplines tends to support “stratigraphic” conceptions of man; the assumption that man is a hierarchical stratified animal with biological structures and processes as the foundation and motley forms of culture as the icing. Geertz advocated that without culture man is not a naked reasoner but a mind-less monster. Therefore the “stratigraphic” conception may be counterproductive in our search for knowledge, and Geertz proposed that we need a “synthetic” conception of man to be able to explore how for instance biological and cultural factors did interact in phylogeny and do interact in ontogeny (Geertz, 1966/1973).

The playing-ground and the issues at stake may be smaller, but similar discussions about division of labor could be asked concerning music education and music therapy. A brief look at this division in Norway the last three decades illustrates that there at times have been unproductive and artificial boundaries but also that the interfaces indeed are dancing and that the ground and the boundaries are constantly – and sometimes quite rapidly – changing. The Norwegian pioneers of music therapy were in fact quite often music teachers focusing upon pupils that most other music teachers neglected; those with handicaps and learning problems. In the 1960ies and 70ies music therapy gradually gained a foothold in institutions and special schools of all sorts, and music therapy programs of value and benefit for
these children were developed. For quite a few years though this development did not “speak back” to the field of music education, the field from where these pioneers started. Music teachers continued to neglect these pupils, and a division of labor seemed to be established: music with a handicapped child was “per definition” music therapy. Such a division and such a “definition” of music therapy was of course confusing and could also be seen as contributing to social stigmatization (Stige, 1995a).

But some music therapists “spoke back”, and had influence enough to be heard, Even Ruud obviously being the most influential. His books about music education (Ruud, 1979, 1983, 1996) all included chapters on music therapy, and when he in the 1980ies headed the committee that developed the plan for music as a subject in Norwegian schools (the plan was in force from 1987 to 1997) he clearly took use of his knowledge and experience as a music therapist. This plan was positively evaluated by many, but was also contested, one of the typical criticisms of it being that it was too “therapeutic” and pupil-centered; where was the focus upon musical knowledge and music as art? When Ruud in his present paper suggests that there now is a “hidden therapeutic agenda” in music education, and advocates more focus upon music as a field of intellectual learning, some interesting dialectics therefor are involved.

I consider Ruud’s call for alternative curriculums to be a creative and potentially constructive contribution towards a “new” critical music education. In my own (previous) work with children with learning problems and emotional problems, a job that included much supervision of music teachers in primary schools, I got more and more concerned about the destructive power of curriculums. Curriculums pre-defined in detail by the authorities tend to bind and blind the teacher, preventing her from seeing the child and the (music) community around her, and one is tempted to cry out: “Against curriculums”! Ruud’s strategy of promoting alternative curriculums is of course more constructive, since educators are obliged to mediate cultural traditions. This is not so only because of the needs of the society and
its institutions – which is often assumed -, but also because of the needs of the child. The teacher has a responsibility as a cultural mediator, because this stimulates the learning and the development of the child. Although issues of power and control are at stake, we should therefore not construct false oppositions between music-centered and child-centered education (Stige, 1995a).

In spite of the fact that I have read my Carling and my Szacz (see above), I am not so afraid of tendencies of therapeutic agendas in contemporary music education. First of all I do not think such agendas dominate the everyday of Norwegian schools. Most of the children experience – I believe – a practice of music teaching that over the years has changed much less than theories and plans for this practice. I do not have data to support my impression and I might be wrong. In any case I want to advocate that we should try to supersede the oppositions created between education about,
to, and through music. There is no natural antagonism between about, to, and through here, in fact – the best way of learning about music and learning to play music, is through musical experiences (which in a sense always are personal and social experiences). We may feel that in some way it makes sense to say that these oppositions “exist”. I suggest though that that is because we link about, to, and through to different conceptions of teaching; such as “to teach is to present information”, “to teach is to instruct”, and “to teach is to interact with the child.”

I advocate a stronger focus upon learning through interaction in music education (Stige, 1995a), but do not think that that necessarily creates a “therapeutic agenda.” It may create an agenda where music teachers discover they have something to learn from music therapists, but that is something different. One of the most characteristic things we can say about human learning – as opposed to for instance the learning of other primates – is that it is basically social of nature. We learn through other persons, not only from them, and this specific human capacity of intersubjectivity
is a foundation for all cultural learning (Tomasello, 1999). To be – as a music teacher – performance, improvisation, and communication oriented is therefor not necessarily to have a therapeutic agenda. It might give us a more pupil-centered education, but this is again not as a matter of necessity in opposition to music learning, theoretical reflection, and critical thinking.

A pupil-centered education will be more meaningful for the child, and as such will probably have an effect on her health. We still do not inevitably have a therapeutic agenda though. Health psychologists have realized that the school is probably one of the most important health institutions in the society, by promoting health or endangering the health of the children. To take this seriously is not to have a therapeutic agenda, but to take interest in education’s human and social role in society. It is more problematic if this is part of a hidden agenda, because hidden agendas mean
confusing boundaries and as such hinder autonomy and empowered participation. Therefore I suggest music teachers and music therapists openly should engage in debates on music education, its relationship to society, and its importance for children’s experience of meaning and quality of life.

Conclusion: In the process of Creating a New Object?

For the sake of brevity I have concentrated upon interfaces between musicology and music therapy when discussing problems shared, and upon interfaces between music education and music therapy when discussing the issue of boundaries. I will close my comment on Ruud’s interesting paper by quoting some words by Roland Barthes:

“Interdisciplinary work, so much discussed these days, is not about confronting already constituted disciplines (none of which, in fact, is willing to let itself go). To do something interdisciplinary it’s not enough to choose a “subject” (a theme) and gather around it two or three sciences. Interdisciplinarity consists in creating a new object that belongs to no one.” (Roland Barthes in “Jeunes Chercheurs”, quoted from (Clifford & Marcus, 1986, p. 1)).

We may have doubts about the relationships created, is music therapy a sub-discipline of musicology or is musicology a sub-discipline of music therapy? If you insist that there is only one legitimate perspective, we will have to choose. If we allow for multiple perspectives we can see that both could be the case. Given the differences in size between the two disciplines – music therapy still being quite small -, one might think that in one of the cases I am talking about a mouse giving birth to a mountain. I am of course not suggesting that music therapy in any way gave birth to anything in musicology, neither new or old, nor that music therapy and music education are sisters with musicology as their mother. The relationships are not as natural and stable as that. But although the interfaces are dancing,
we are able to share some rhythms, and could – as Even Ruud – do our best in creating a new object.


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