36. Interculturality and Musical Education [1]

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Josep Martí
IMF-CSIC, Barcelona


Nowadays, ethnomusicology research interests stretch much further than when the discipline first emerged under the name of “comparative musicology” in the late 19th century. It originally focused on the study of non-western forms of music as well as music from European oral tradition. The development of the discipline, especially from the 1960s onwards, considerably broadened its scope, so that what defines it more accurately today is not the types of music it studies (any music can be studied from an ethnomusicological approach) but rather the way it perceives the musical act as a cultural and social phenomenon. This peculiarity involves the use of a conceptual framework and also specific, clearly defined non-disciplinary research methodologies that are applicable to both musicology and anthropology. This led to the point at which ethnomusicology is not restricted to just the study of organised sound (music), but it also takes into account the study of the social and cultural structure of this organised sound. Ethnomusicology is very aware that musical practices, as culture in the anthropological sense of the term, contribute to building our social reality.

By using the knowledge attained, the discipline in its aspect of applied ethnomusicology strives to contribute towards improving any socially important issue or problem. Thus, for example, ethnomusicologists cannot ignore the current processes of globalisation, one of the effects of which is to accentuate migratory movements. This means that their objectives must include investigating the role that music might play in the sphere of intercultural relations. Since schools are one of the most sensitive settings for respecting interculturality, it is not surprising that music and ethnomusicology teachers join forces to ensure that music teaching is not relegated to the sidelines of initiatives taken by our society to safeguard the satisfactory integration of our new fellow citizens.

At first glance, it appears that this task would not be a particularly difficult one for a music teacher. Today’s record market supplies music from all corners of the planet, so bringing a certain multicultural flavour to classroom music lessons does not pose a problem. Nevertheless, things are in fact more complex and this multicultural flavour, depending on how it is approached, can be ineffective or indeed downright counter-productive for what interculturality is trying to achieve.

In principle, we might suppose that introducing knowledge of the music with which we identify the immigrant population into the classroom would be a positive move. Such knowledge can contribute to the kind of ownership that interculturality defends. Nonetheless, we must always be very aware of the types of message we might be sending when we include music that is different to the western kind, as there is always the danger that we might be conveying discourses about alterity that are unhelpful for achieving an appropriate intercultural awareness.

Music is a powerful element of enculturation. However, this enculturing power does not come so much from what a sheet of music reflects but rather from its execution, that is, the set of social practices that make up its performance. In the specific case of implementing music material in schools, we need to take into account how we put together the two different levels of producing meaning: the musical product itself and the way it is presented in the classroom.

All musical products have socially attributed meanings. This is what we are referring to when we talk about the messages of music. A music speaks through the texts associated with it (song), through the type of style or genre we assign to it or through the highly specific meanings we give to certain pieces of music (a national anthem, for example). Not all texts are innocent, and not all styles possess the same social value, and some pieces are more appropriate than others for conveying certain messages. But the same performance with the symbolic elements and rituals that accompany it contribute to generating meanings. These elements, which could be described as the frame of what is heard, make up a real metalanguage that tells us how the music should be understood. Sometimes, the type of messages carried by these two different levels of meaning – that of the musical product itself and that of the performance – are the same or complementary to each other. The idea of elitism that we associate with a Händel oratory is reinforced by the kind of performance at which it is usually played. But on other occasions this is not the case, and then an inevitable complexity or even a semantic dissonance occurs. This is the case, for example, of popular performances of opera staged in huge stadiums.

All these reflections are important for the subject matter occupying us here. Wanting to portray the musical culture of African immigrants by listening to ethnomusicographic materials connected with ancestral rituals is not the same as listening to a recording by well-known Senegalese musician Baaba Maal, with all its contemporary aesthetic values. In both cases, the musical product can sound African to our students. But whereas the ethnographic document transports us mentally to a socio-cultural context that in the west exudes primitivism and atavism, listening to Baaba Maal is nowadays perceived as something much closer to our own life experiences.

In the specific case of music teaching in schools, the teacher’s presentation of the different examples of music will be particularly important as an element that produces meaning. Depending on how this presentation is done, it will either contribute towards developing an appropriate multicultural awareness or have entirely the opposite effect. Interculturality involves sharing. But it is not just what is being shared – music– that is important here, it is how it is being shared. If we are unaware of this fact, it is possible that the teacher may contribute to sending out a contradictory negative image in terms of intercultural relations with alterity. In this latter case, the main negative consequences of presenting musical materials from cultures different than our own might be the following:

  1. Exoticisation. The act of portraying certain cultures through music that might possess ethnographic value but is not the most socially acceptable music for these societies. For example, would a Catalan girl today feel identified with an ancient modal style scything song collected in her country by ethnomusicology?
  2. Undervaluing. In our society nowadays there is still a unilineal evolutionist perception of human history that understands the different expressions of cultural diversity as the survival of previous stages. This leads people to easily label cultural diversity as backwardness, and given the importance our society attaches to the notion of progress, it is easy to see how cultural backwardness is regarded as being something negative, something that automatically entails undervaluing any culture that falls outside the western evolutionary line.
  3. Misunderstanding. In any process of intercultural communication, the occasional misunderstanding is quite normal and should also be taken into account when teaching. The act of incorporating a musical product from another culture into our own particular view of the world frequently results in misunderstandings. Ideas such as music as art or autonomous music, for example, are typically western ones, and it is clear that, if these ideas form the lens through which we view and value other music, their features are bound to be distorted.
  4. Pigeonholing the immigrant. By identifying immigrants with the culture of their birthplace, pigeon-holing them into the cultural context we attribute to them, makes it difficult for us to see them as true participants in our own social arena. Plus, there is also a tendency to want to see an immigrant (and their children!) as always being an immigrant. We expect this immigrant to know –for example– how to play the darbuka if they are from North Africa, but we do not expect them to be able to play Bach or their new home country’s music competently.

Understanding cultural products –and therefore understanding the people who carry this legacy– through a lens distorted by exoticism, ethnocentric undervaluing, misunderstanding and pigeon-holing means defining these people on the basis of expectations of social discourses characterised by their notion of a society with a hierarchy based on presuppositions about ethnicity. It is possible that to children of immigrants, the samples of music collected by the ethnomusicologist in their parents’ home country seem much more alien than we might think. This is something that teachers must take into account. Undervaluing can only be neutralised with a heavy dose of ethnomusicological relativism. We need to bear in mind that the idea of music we normally operate with is the result of the history of a very specific society –western society– but the meanings, functions and values associated with music are hugely diversified depending on the culture in question. Misunderstandings can be avoided by not only delving into our knowledge of the music culture in question but also by knowing well –and playing down– the intracultural assumptions by which our society understands and values music. Lastly, we need to be aware that the cultural abilities and expectations of the immigrant population, especially the children, are already no longer those of their original society. It is more likely that a Catalan adolescent with Moroccan parents will be dreaming of appearing one day in a music talent show on television than of becoming a renowned performer of Andalusian Nuba music.

To conclude, in order to ensure there is adequate multicultural sensitivity in our music classrooms, we should take the following into account:

  1. It is important to be aware that by teaching music, we are contributing towards building our society’s young individuals so they can be integrated into the social system. The explicit classroom teaching objectives should not be limited to wanting to impart socially neutral knowledge –which in fact never will be– but should also include strategies that contribute to students’ overall education. In the specific case under discussion here, such strategies should be about absorbing values that foster multicultural coexistence.
  2. What is said about other musical cultures is just as important as how it is said. If we are not aware of this, the effect of the end message can be very different or even contradictory to what was meant.
  3. Real pluricultural sensitivity is developed not only from knowledge of cultures other than western culture, but rather from going through a process of examining our own music culture that enables us to deconstruct its ethnocentric components.

Music cannot be separated from many of the social problems that cause us concern. Apart from its aesthetic purposes, we also use music to build society. As a consequence, the relationship between music and social issues and, more specifically, between music and interculturality, is highly meaningful.


[1] For an in-depth discussion of this issue, see: Josep Martí, “Ensenyament musical i sensibilitat pluricultural“, in Cristina Fuertes (ed.), Músiques del Món, Barcelona: Generalitat de Catalunya, 2002, pp. 53-64; Josep Martí, “Músic and Alterity Processes“, Humanities 3/4, 2014, pp. 645-659.