Musicianship/Listenership is Context-Specific

Musicianship/Listenership is Context-Specific

In the 15th century, Descartes put forth the idea “I think therefore I am,” spreading the idea of the duality of mind and body, or that the mind (and therefore knowledge/knowing) is separate from the body. In much of today’s music education philosophy, we find traces of this mind-body split (see, for example, Reimer, 2002). However, this archaic notion of the mind-body split calls into question the very essence of contextual personhood, and, therefore, musical understanding being context dependent. Therefore, in this paper I will show that both the teaching and practice of music is at odds with Descartes’ idea because it is inseparable from the “mind-body” and the musics and culture in which a person is practicing.  Since music is inseparable from the context of the human beings that create its sounds and from the context of the musics and culture that exist during, before, and after its creation, musicianship/listenership is context-specific.

Many people don’t necessarily need to know music theory or how to read notation in order to enjoy music.  As listeners, if they are absorbed in the “context” of their musical culture, many people say they are able to both understand and enjoy the idioms of their type of music.  According to Gary Marcus, “listeners don’t need to know the structural details of a song to enjoy it, any more than patrons of a magic show need to know how a magician can hide a coin in the palm of his or her hand” (Elliott & Silverman, 2015, p. 195).  How are these people able to still enjoy and understand these art forms? They are able to do this through the repeated listening of a variety of songs within the genres and idioms ubiquitous to their culture, which become very familiar to them. In this way, uninformed musical listenership is context-specific.

The case is no different for uninformed musicianship.  “Quite remarkably, many people ‘just pick up’ the abilities needed to sing songs they hear in everyday life, sing along well with recordings, and play instruments by ear, without informal or formal instruction”  (Elliott & Silverman, p. 196). One example I can think of off the top of my head is the Beatles, who were arguably the most popular original rock band of all time. They have stated in interviews that they could not read or write traditional music notation and instead invented their own form of notational “shorthand” used to remember the chords and lyrics of songs.  They also felt that if they could not remember a song the next day, it wasn’t worth “saving” and was probably not a hit song. Paul McCartney said, “we would write down the words and if we needed to we might write the name of the chords but we wouldn’t really bother too much. We had a rule that came in very early out of sheer practicality, which was, if we couldn’t remember the song the next day, then it was no good” (Miles, 1998, p. 37).  Therefore musical praxis of the “greatest rock band of all time” was context-specific to their “mind-body” as well as the idioms of their day.

There is also a directly biological component to being able to enjoy and reproduce music.  In his article, “Enacting Musical Experiences,” Joel Krueger (2010) discusses people with “amusia, an experience of pitch distortion occurring simultaneously with gradual hearing loss,” eventually leading to people who hear music as random noise  (p. 114). Eventually, some of these patients are able to recover part of their listening via sustained perceptual attention. As Krueger (2010) says later in the article, “within this sort of focused deep listening, we enact perceptual gestures that very literally change the structure of the piece-as-perceived” (p. 114).  This example shows how inextricably linked and specific music is to the context of the human body and its functioning.

An out-of-context verbal understanding and knowledge of something is different from the actual performance of that thing.  Consider the experience of an educator practicing a lesson plan alone versus practicing in front of students. Everything is much different when done in front of students.  The audience always changes the course of a lesson. In the same vein, when a band performs live, they may change how loud or soft they perform a passage or even change the next choice of song in their set list in response to the cheers (or jeers) from the crowd.  Just like the complete practice of teaching is inseparable from the context of the classroom, which includes the students, the school, the materials, etc., the complete practice of a musical performance is inseparable from and context-specific to the audience, the auditorium, the instruments used, and the social and cultural norms within which that music is performed.

Separate from but also in addition to music teaching, it is also difficult for music to exist outside of the technological advances of the time.  For example, it is unfathomable to imagine EDM existing without both computer technology and African loop-based musical forms. Furthermore, “musical instruments play a key role in our appreciation of many of the skills of music making”  (Alperson, 2008, p. 37). Imagine trying to play a pianissimo melodic passage on a harpsichord or a band trying to perform the chorus of “Good Vibrations” without a Theremin. It can’t be done. In this way music is context-specific to the instruments and technologies it is created with.

Similarly, being able to create and perform music effectively can only exist in relation to the “products, values, and cultural norms” within that practice of music and its culture.  For example, a jazz drummer is not necessarily going to be a proficient rock drummer. A wedding band drummer is not necessarily a proficient original band drummer. Each position with each group requires a different set of skills, ideas, beliefs, and decisions to be made.  

Moreover, when evaluating a music performance as “good” or “bad,” if such a thing exists, or evaluating a practitioner or teacher as “skilled” or “insufficiently skilled,” one cannot separate their evaluation from the context of the musical products they are attempting to demonstrate (Elliott & Silverman, 2015, p. 234).  Bruce Springsteen’s singing is an example of music making in which “pitch-matching ability” or “proper vocal technique” removed from the context of the musical style is meaningless. According to Marissa Silverman, “If we expect Bruce Springsteen to sound like Placido Domingo, we’d wrongly evaluate his singing (and vice versa).”  

Music performance and music educational praxes are also context-specific to the rules of being a good human being within one’s culture and the rest of the world.  “Of course, it’s very possible to perform and listen to “Daybreak Express” without understanding its cultural-ideological dimension and its relationship to the praxis-specific traditions of 1930s American jazz.  But to do so would be to overlook and “underhear” something significant” (Elliott & Silverman, 2015, p. 226). What would one make of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” without knowing about the Civil Rights Movement?

It follows from what has been stated previously that a musician’s “knowing” is evident not in what she says but what she does, and much of this knowledge falls outside the realm of Cartesian cold-cognition.  “True, many brilliant performers, improvisors, composers, and so on talk and write eloquently about music. But many others don’t.” “Knowing how to make musical judgments depends on an understanding of the musical contexts…”  In order to achieve this ability, “music makers and listeners acquire nonverbal impressions, or an affective “sense of things:’ while doing, making, and critically reflecting in specific musical situations” (Elliott & Silverman, 2015, p. 224).  

In conclusion, “knowing” music is inseparable from the context of the experience of and performance of itself and other related musics.  Artists’ knowledge is not reducible to propositional knowledge (Elliott & Silverman, 2015, p. 215). Musicianship/listenership does not exist outside the context of human beings, but lives and breathes within the body of humanity and connects to other musicians and music practices, other human beings, and human life and culture both past and present.



Elliott, J, & Silverman, M.  (2015). Music Matters: A Philosophy of Music Education.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Alperson, P. (2008).  “The Instrumentality of Music.”  Denver, CO: The American Society for Aesthetics.

Kruger, J. W. (2010).  “Enacting Musical Experience.”  Exeter, EX: Imprint Academic.

Miles, B.  (1998). Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now.  New York, NY: Henry Hold and Company, L.L.C.


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