Alternative dimensions of music

Recently, I took part in a discussion about the ‘dimensions of music’, which feature in the current English National Curriculum for music and also in the proposed new one.

In this discussion, there was quite a mixed set of views. Some people thought there was nothing wrong with them, others said that teachers are pretty used to them and up-rooting them would cause more harm than good. A third group said that the publishers would be pretty fed up if they were changed because they’d have to go around tweaking all of the books and resources (or, at least, the schools would have to go and by a whole load of new ones).

Here they are: pitch, duration, dynamics, tempo, timbre, texture and structure. Apart from the fact that there is some pretty fuzzy overlappinesses between some of them, my main criticism is that they are far too narrow. They’re about music that is a collection of notes, probably on a page to be learnt and analysed, rather than music that is an ephemeral collection of organised sounds produced by some collection of (probably) people. They’re about music as discrete works of art (you might say, pieces), rather than music as culture, performance, sound or experience. They’re about a very dispassionate approach to what is fundamentally a vehicle of creativity and human expressiveness.

You might think that my objections are impractical, lofty, arty-farty, philosophical etc. and perhaps you’d be right but what got me thinking about it was architects. I’m not an architect, I have to confess, but I’d assume that architects don’t view or design or critique or walk through buildings thinking about bricks, pipes, fittings, decorations and steel frames. They think about what the building looks like (or will look like), who will like it, what they will do in it, how you could improve that section there, they think about the micro and the macro, the community impact, the detail and the overall impression. They will think (with engineers, foremen, builders, plumbers, decorators, social anthopologists etc.) about other things too, including bricks and paintwork.

But why do we want our musical architects to focus just on the bricks? Do we want young people to make and think about notes or to make and think about music?

So I had a think about what might be my alternative dimensions. Here they are. I’ve also put in some example questions about how these alternative dimensions could be used in music learning and music making.

  • Association: how do sounds in music recall other sounds, events, emotions, externally or within a piece of music? How can I play with associations?
  • Reaction: how do people (performers, creators, listeners, watchers) react to music and the sounds and shapes within it? What are their expectations? How can I create a reaction?
  • Experience: what is the overall experience that this music is creating, or part-creating? What, apart from notes, is making up this experience for the audience, the observers, the participants? How can we influence that experience?
  • Creation: what is the process that creates music, in my head, in your head, in the air? Is it just writing down notes, or playing notes, or getting my participants to sing their ideas, or listening to the traffic in the silent passages?
  • Collaboration: working with other people. Am I stealing someone else’s ideas or building on them? Am I singing better than my neighbour or in tune with her? I’m expressing myself but if my listeners don’t like it, should I change it?
  • Participation: taking part and engaging others. Is it as simple as the composer composes it, the performer performs it, the listener listens to it? How might we all participate more meaningfully or whole-heartedly, or not?
  • Function: doing something. What is this music for? How might it serve that function more effectively? Is it doing something else I don’t realise?
  • Form: taking shape through time. I can’t see the shape of this music so how can I build up a perception of it as a whole? How is it built or put together – in a head, on paper, in a group? It works in time so how does it manage shape, balance, proportion, contrast, self-reference? Is it short, or long, and what’s going on in the middle?
Please post your alternatives!

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