Research and Practice in Music Education: The Problem of Dislocation

October 1, 1982

To date there has been a dislocation between an abundant amount of research and teaching in music education. The meaning of the dislocation is to be found in the philosophical roots of experimental psychology and accepted methods of music teaching. Most music teaching is based on an image of man as creative, active, spontaneous and free. Yet the overwhelming amount of current psychological research in music education presupposes a mechanistic model of man: man is reduced to laws of behavior.1 It is requisite to examine the philosophical structure in which experimental research in music education is carried on. This will be followed by a comparative analysis of research and (how it relates to) practice.

Harre and Secord have noted that much of experimental psychology is based on three assumptions: (1) a mechanistic model of man, (2) a conception of "cause" which focuses on external stimuli and (3) a philosophical justification provided by positivism.2 Certainly not all experimental psychology can be characterized as such. At least two broad approaches—behavioral and cognitive—are evident in the literature concerning music education and thus should be clarified as to their respective positions concerning Harre and Secord's formulation. However, a cogent discussion of that distinction must await a more detailed presentation of the three assumptions presented above.

Psychologists are inclined to regard a human being as a highly complicated machine whose behavior can be explained in principle by a combination of the effects of external stimuli and bodily or organismic states. The reduction of man to predictable laws of behavior is manifest in the classical view of an organism which is subjected to a particular stimulus context, and which in turn responds in a predictable manner. This S-R (stimulus-response) model led to the S-O-R (stimulus-organism-response) model as learning theory became an integral part of experimental study. But even with the addition of the "O" in the model, while there may be a subject in experimental studies, often there is no "person." Man is viewed as a helpless reactor. Any spontaneity or consequential action by the "O" (the organism or man) is discounted. Isidor Chein, a noted psychologist, presents a lucid exposition of this approach noting:

. . . the prevailing image among psychologists whose careers are devoted to the advancement of the science and among astonishingly large numbers of those concerned with behavioral orthogenics . . . is that of Man as an impotent reactor . . . Response is at all times and at every moment an automatic consequence of the interaction of body and environment. Man, as such, plays no role in determining the outcome of the interplay between constitution and environment. He is implicitly viewed as a robot—a complicatedly constructed and programmed robot, perhaps, but a robot nevertheless.3

The third aspect of Harre and Secord's formulation is of course positivism's role as a philosophical ground for much of experimental psychology. In short, what the positivists did was to subsume the empiricism of David Hume and annex to it mathematical logic. Metaphysical questions were denigrated and labeled an empty or bootless pursuit. With the shedding of metaphysics there was a flight from traditional philosophical problems to those of method. Later, problems of method were reduced to those of language as conceived in analytical philosophy. The stress is now on operational definition with theory relegated to an organizational position or role.

All three of the underlying bases of much current experimental psychology—mechanization, S-R model of mind and a positivist philosophy—have come increasingly under question. As a matter of fact, an impressive part of the philosophy of science written over the last 20 years has taken these three conceptions to task. In as much as experimental research in music education has a basis in psychology, it is important to look closely at the implications of recent literature in the philosophy of science concerning such a psychological base. By doing so, the details of the dislocation between research and practice in music education may be identified.

With the advent of modern science and especially Newton's theories, the underlying logic for science increasingly came to accept that all things (animate and inanimate) can be analyzed and explained as machines (mechanization). Karl Popper notes:

[Newton's theory] explained precisely not only the movements of all the stars in their courses, but also, just as precisely, the movements of bodies on earth . . .

Most open-minded men, especially most scientists, thought that in the end it would explain everything, including not only electricity and magnetism, but also clouds, and even living organisms. Thus, physical determinism . . . became a ruling faith among enlightened men. . .4

For some 200 years it was believed that classical physics would allow scientists to explain the universe or any part of it, as a perfectly running "clock."5 All physical events would become predictable. This is possible because all things, including men, would be reducible to the logic of a machine. However, with the failure of classical physics and the rise of the new quantum theory (1925 to 1927) physical determinism was largely abandoned. But the underlying logic—that all things are machines—remained in much of experimental psychology since the 1930s. Behavioristic theories, for example, utilize the strategy of "formal reductionism"; man's behavior is reduced to the logic of a machine. Human responses hence become predictable through "laws" of behavior.

One might say that it is not that man is reduced to the laws of behavior but rather that the tasks required in research studies are reduced to the laws of behavior. Besides eclipsing the obvious human element, this evades the implications of the mechanistic paradigm in which much of experimental psychology fits. The issue of man reduced to the logic of a machine is uncritically and tacitly accepted and then converted into method. The result is a position in which the creation of method is "for the sake of" method.

The resultant S-R and S-O-R models that are utilized are incorrect because man is capable of "action" as well as "behavior." The distinction between "action" and "behavior" is widely accepted in the related literature.6 Remember the image of man that is presented above as a helpless spectator, driven along like an anchorless buoy by external (stimulus contexts) currents. This is the model of a machine. Thus it becomes clear that the first two conceptions in Harre and Secord's formulation—mechanization and S-R or S-O-R models—are interwoven in the philosophical view of experimental psychology. What is sadly lacking is a person who can "act."

For an alternative image of man, i.e. of man as an actor, Chein once again provides a lucid account:

Man, in the active image, is a being who actively does something with regard to some of the things that happen to him, a being who, for instance, tries to increase the likelihood that some things will happen and that others will not, a being who tries to generate circumstances that are compatible with the execution of his intentions, a being who may try to inject harmony where he finds disharmony or who may sometimes seek to generate disharmony, a being who seeks to shape his environment rather than passively permit himself to be shaped by the latter, a being, in short, who insists on injecting himself into the causal process of the world around him.7

It is possible for man to act upon his environment creatively, spontaneously and freely. Without such action we would be held hostage in a deterministic world which has been shown to be vacuous in its logical and philosophical argument. We in fact can act upon our future and direct it. The present is not severed from the future but flows into it. This existential fact, which common sense and experience corroborate, is theoretically impossible for a behaviorist model of man. Man is as unpredictable as he is predictable. Prediction in psychology can never be as precise as prediction in physics. The laws of behavior are not the laws of physics, and as in Newton's case for example, psychological prediction is not based differential equations. As Popper points out, "Every attempt to introduce such differential equations would lead beyond behaviorism into physiology, and thus ultimately into physics; so it would lead us back to the problem of physical determinism."8 If even physics cannot predict all physical occurrences (as the new quantum theory demonstrated) then how can psychology, an inexact science, talk with conviction about laws of behavior. So much for the pitfalls of an S-R or S-O-R model.

The last aspect of Harre and Secord's formulation to be amplified is positivism. The antipositivistic attack in the philosophy of science over the past 20 years has resulted in a devastating blow to positivism as a paradigm for science. As Alfred North Whitehead pointed out four decades ago, the positivistic conception of the world is a world without life and without man. It is in this sense that one can conclude that the philosophical foundations of much experimental psychology entail a normative rejection of man: its overall theory carries a reductionist policy either as a reduction of human behavior to biophysical laws ("substantive") or to cybernetic laws ("formal"). More recently, the major contributions to anti-positivism have come from physical scientists: for example, Michael Polanyi,9 George Thompson,10 J.B. Conant,11 and P.W. Bridgman.12 Leading figures in the philosophy of science are Jacob Bronowski,13 Marjorie Grene,14 and working with issues and concepts in the sciences, Susanne K. Langer,15 to name only three. Of course other writers already cited in this article are also representative of the antipositivistic revolt: for example, Chein, Harre and Secord, and Popper.

A dominant amount of research in music education is thus in the unenviable position of being grounded in philosophical foundations—mechanization and positivism—as well as psychological models—S-R and S-O-R—which began to be vacated by the philosophy of science soon after researchers in music education borrowed them. Much of the experimental research in music education is cognitive, however, and the distinction between behavioral and cognitive research can now be made. The Harre and Secord formulation and my embellishment of it refers most definitely to all behavioral studies in music education. Some cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, utilize an S-O-R model in which the "O" is an active, cognitive organism. These researchers could not be correctly characterized as representative of the kind of experimental psychology that Harre and Secord referred to. Yet insofar as many cognitive psychologists tacitly or implicitly remain committed to a deterministic view of science, the above critique would hold (for them as well as the behaviorists). In other words if a cognitivist psychologist is searching for cause and effect laws that explicate the S-O-R model, he is committing the same fundamental mistakes as a behaviorist.

The limitations of experimental psychology for research in music education can be demonstrated by presenting an example of creativity in musical performance. Creativity in this context is often characterized as spontaneity. Psychological theories which accept a reductionist strategy cannot encompass this mode of "action." Great performers "act" on the expressive and the technical elements in music. While some aspects of a performance can be explained as responses to stimuli, many inspired sections are due to the deliberate "action" of the performer. During his performance, a great artist commands and directs a highly sophisticated and judgmental process that is flowing with the performance and monitoring it. As a result of that monitoring matrix, the performer is freed to be artistically spontaneous and thus to raise his performance to the level of art. Performers practice and overpractice the technical aspects of a piece to a point of habit command. This permits the performer to monitor the complex technical habit he has mastered. What emerges is a tension between his "behavior," i.e., technical habit, and his spontaneous "act" of monitoring. A performer who does not "act" upon his "behavior" (technique) can never realize the level of artist.

Many experimental researchers use terms and criteria for evaluation based upon laboratory tests in which lower animal forms are the subjects of inspection. Noam Chomsky points out that terms borrowed from experimental psychology lose objective meaning when applied to language use.16 Though these terms may be precise when applied to some forms of behavior (for example to count or predict the number of twitches a pigeon might make), they are not precise when pertinent to human action. Behavior is operational within the context that machines operate. The behavioristic term, "operate," however is only precise when applied to behavior, which therefore is not and cannot be action. Here Chomsky's critical comment can be pinpointed by transferring it into a musical context.

The statements, "artists perform," "artists act," or "artists create" are natural enough. The statement, "artists operate" is unnatural and inapplicable. At best the term "operate" is exceedingly loose when applied to musical performance. Machines operate; they respond to signals. But performers and students in the applied areas are not machines. In fact the disparaging comment that a performer "plays like a machine" reveals the negative responses that listeners have to a performance that lacks spontaneity and creativity, i.e., that lacks action. The depreciation of comparable methods for music education is generally unanimous; no one would encourage music teaching that develops operant technicians and mechanics rather than artists and inspired listeners. The methods utilized by practitioners in music education are overwhelmingly based on a model of man as an actor rather than man as a machine. Especially in music appreciation classes, traditional formalistic and historical approaches are giving way to an expressive and at times philosophical account of music. In the studio great teachers in the applied areas, though they may not know the terminology, have for generations sought to develop a student's potential for artistic and creative action.


Here lies the telling dislocation between much experimental research and actual practice in music education. Accepted methods of teaching (at least in the applied areas and in appreciation classes) have a philosophical basis in man as an actor: creative, spontaneous, inspired and free. This view can never be compatible with the mechanistic model of man presupposed in much of the experimental research carried on in music education. This is not to denigrate all experimental studies. Cognitive psychologists doing research in music education can provide the field with important and useful findings concerning, among other areas, learning theory as it bears upon musical contexts. More correctly, the purpose of this article is to uncover the vexing philosophical disjunction between research and practice. This is a problem that practitioners complain about at conventions and that researchers speak "around" at those same gatherings. Psychologically oriented researchers in music education must not leave unexamined the a priori presuppositions of the larger scientific paradigm in which they are working. The experience of the power and artistic weight of a Beethoven symphony or a performance by a great artist give evidence that a mechanistic model or a positivistic paradigm—even if only for the purposes of research—can ultimately never integrate the concept of "creative action" imbued in great music. At both the composing and performing stages music must be shaped by a person who can act upon the qualitative problems inherent in his art. Without such action the music or the performance could not be brought to the level of great art. Any model of man that cannot account for a Beethoven symphony, or at its best relegates such a genius to the laws of behavior, cannot provide a conceptual umbrella under which most music educators can work and to which they can relate.

One direction of thought would seem to be clear. Over the last two decades literature in the philosophy of science has called into question the philosophical justification for many experimental modes of study in psychology. Rather than signal the end of such research, this new direction of thought demands a deeper understanding of the paradigm in which experimental studies are fitted. Furthermore, it suggests the possibility that there may be alternative paradigms of thought for future research.17 Specifically for music educators, the result might be the correction of the current dislocation as research becomes more relevant to practice.

1In some of the related literature in philosophy it is more fashionable to say that man's "mind" is reduced to laws of behavior. See Norman Malcolm, Problems of Mind (New York: Harper and Row, 1971). However, as R. Harre and P.F. Secord point out, ultimately we are talking about the actions of a "person." See their volume, The Explanation of Social Behavior (Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, and Co., 1973). In keeping with this part of the literature in philosophy (Harre) and social psychology (Secord) will use the term "man" rather than "mind."

2Harre and Secord, pp. 27-43.

3Isidor Chein, The Science of Behavior and The Image of Man (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1972), p. 6.

4Karl R. Popper, "Of Clouds and Clocks" in Objective Knowledge, An Evolutionary Approach (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 211-212.

5Idem, pp. 206-210.

6For example, see Harre and Secord, pp. 147-204; A.I. Meldon, Free Action (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961); Richard I. Bernstein, Praxis and Action (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1971); and Chein, pp. 161-298.

7Chein, p. 6.

8Popper, p. 226.

9Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). Also see Polanyi, The Study of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).

10George Thompson, The Inspiration of Science (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).

11J.B. Conant, Science and Common Sense (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951).

12P.W. Bridgman, The Way Things Are (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959).

13Jacob Bronowski, The Identity of Mind (New York: The Natural History Press, 1966).

14Marjorie Grene, ed., Interpretation of Life and Mind (New York: Humanities Press, 1971).

15Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972).

16Noam Chomsky, "Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior," Language, Vol. 35 (1959), pp. 26-58.

17For example, see George Willis, ed., Qualitative Evaluation: Concepts and Cases in Curriculum Criticism (Berkeley, California: McCutchan Pub. Corp., 1978).

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