Researchers view music ed through new lens

Educators have always stressed music’s ability to transform individuals – especially youth. But this well-meaning approach has been delivered traditionally in a limited manner, one which promotes a particular set of musical practices and traditions.



This approach has alienated many children from music education opportunities, said Music Education professor Patrick Schmidt, Chair of Music Education & Dance in the Don Wright Faculty of Music.

Co-edited along with Western Music colleagues Cathy Benedict and Paul Woodford, and Gary Spruce of The Open University in the United Kingdom, Schmidt explores these themes in The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education, which came out late last year. Ruth Wright and Stephanie Horsley, who teach in the Don Wright Faculty of Music, contributed chapter submissions.


“Fifteen years ago, music education was band, orchestra and choir – that was that. In North America, the statistics say the average reach of music education as a subject within schools is between 15-18 per cent of the school population,” Schmidt said.

“This has been policy driven, with funding and other things, but also in other ways, it’s been driven by the field itself. For long periods of time, we were trying to create ‘good’ music education – education that was linked to Western art that had a long-term engagement with (tradition) so you could play in an orchestra, band or choir. Not very welcoming,” he added.

“When students have to choose an arts course, few choose music – not because they aren’t interested in music, but because there is no entry point into music. Some have to audition, or have previous knowledge in specific ways and instruments. That is the kind of exclusionary tradition that has been in place for a long time.”

This approach is slowly dissipating in North America. The traditional classroom environment isn’t the only place where music education happens in our communities; there are smaller groups, more peer-to-peer teaching and learning opportunities.

When it comes to social justice around the world, Schmidt stressed it is important to consider the entire community in these new approaches. Not all learners have the same opportunities for the connection, community and transformation music can provide. Economics, race, ethnicity, gender, ableism – “all these touch upon music education and affect music education somewhere, depending on where you are,” Schmidt said.

“We have a chapter talking about music education in penitentiaries. We have lots of conversation about what it means today to engage in multiculturalism – not just ethnic-based music, but also a much more embracing way of looking at music. We have more discussions about inclusivity and students who might have physical, mental impediments or disabilities,” he added.

Living in Canada, we may think music education is not an issue of social justice. But that’s not the case, Schmidt continued, noting a recent visit he paid to an arts school in Mississauga and comparing that visit to other Canadian schools in neighbourhoods of lower socioeconomic status.

“Look at the populations in those two schools; they’re radically different. It’s very clear the quality of the programming offered in (the arts) school had a direct impact or correlation to the socioeconomic status of the neighbourhood. People are very different in the other school’s population, and this is in a country that has the resources to have that not happen,” he explained.

“At the centre of the issue is youth and the possibilities they see through music, the psychological impact, the kind of communal impact, socio-cultural impacts, issues of possibility for engagement with the larger educational community and creating a pathway to education. This issue is huge and the nature of it is the same. It differs in degree, but in many ways, it does not differ in kind. There’s work to be done, no matter where you are.”