The Schoolification of Popular Music

April 1, 2019

Music education in America appears to have begun a paradigm shift. The reasons for this are multi-faceted, but among the most central is a push in the profession to acknowledge and affirm young students’ values through school-based popular music education (PME). I interpret PME to mean the teaching and learning of music with current or recent mass distribution and sales. We should keep this definition broad and open to many forms of popular music, and not fall into the trap of thinking of popular music narrowly along the often favored white, male or rock perspectives. For example, EDM, Hip Hop and R&B are as integral to popular music as is Rock.

While change appears to be happening more and more, it seems to have taken quite a while to establish momentum. With that in mind, not everyone is changing. Why is it that so much of our current 21st century music education culture is nearly identical to that of 19th century music culture? Here I am considering students, for example, imitating professional orchestras, choirs, bands and/or opera companies?

We should be mindful of the reality that college admission criteria often shapes and guides curricula. If we follow a conservatory model of performance auditions that prioritize the needs of large classical music ensembles, we do a disservice to the profession and large proportions of the population. We effectively ignore and marginalize students. As we perpetuate the past through our curatorial posture towards music education, we are enablers to institutional discrimination and oppressors through cultural privilege. Students who possess popular music-oriented music skills might struggle to be admitted to such programs. These omissions from the admission process impact the particular populations of students we include in our profession, thereby defining the musics that are valued, the colors of the musicians who get to participate and the sorts of teachers we produce to lead the future. Implicit to this discussion is that there are barriers to music education that can at best be described as exclusive and at worst be described as discriminatory.

In professional development contexts, traditional pedagogies continue to dominate the culture. Outdated and often recycled ideas remain staples in statewide Music Education Association (MEA) clinics or All-State events. Music instrument and sheet music merchants promote a particular style and way of making music. They, along with publishing companies, may not have potentially considered the social implications of the materials that are distributed. Those same conferences are also attended by students who have successfully navigated through well-established school music programs. Thus, we perpetuate particular kinds/genres/styles of musics and particular social/cultural values. This inbred and vicious cycle centers on traditional school music education practices. While there is generally plenty of traditional band, choir, and orchestra representation at statewide MEAs or All-State events, it is rare to find PME teachers/students or popular musics on display. It is equally rare to find PME materials or witness celebrations or displays of excellent popular music ensembles.

Perhaps the reasons for PME’s slow integration into schools and the music education profession is that popular music was established outside of schools, sometimes counter-culturally, sometimes promoting non-institutionalized habits or ways of being, and certainly often created in non-school/professional contexts aimed at non-educational goals. These reasons may explain why schoolifying popular music can be awkward. In short, perhaps popular music is too cool for school.

PME materials such as method books and curricular guides, while potentially helpful to teachers and students alike, might be ill-suited to capture the nuances of popular music. Language and social content of some popular musics might equally be problematic for school contexts with children of particular young and impressionable ages and stages of development. Imagine for example a Hip Hop method. While it may be useful, it might also be bizarre, potentially stripping out too much of the music’s message itself to fit into a bound teacher manual aligned to, for example, Student Learning Objectives and National Standards. It is my hope that PME can find a way to be included in the school music culture without mirroring the habits of traditional music education. For example, less reliance on method books, sheet music, curriculum, pedagogies, and other materials. PME might include more learner-led experiences and a decentralized teaching that puts the onus more on the students and less on the teacher. If adding PME to music education is truly revolutionary, then we ought to avoid reliance on prefabbed materials and particular pedagogies, otherwise we may be doing nothing more than placing old wine in a new bottle.

If we do PME in a manner that is school friendly, but not a mirror of traditional habits, PME might help lead us away from the schoolified world of methodolatry: an unquestioning devotion to a given way of practicing music education. For example, methodolatric music educators identify themselves by particular methods or pedagogic philosophies. Hopefully PME practices and materials will not manifest this way. They ought to be inclusive, diverse and not inspire legions of discipleship. Some of this is already happening in the so-called Modern Band Movement. PME practitioners should very carefully unpack pre-packaged curricula organized into pre-planned lessons that require little in the way of teacher innovation, student/cultural considerations and teacher supplemental planning. We should remain cautiously skeptical about the capacity, for example, that brief encounters at a daylong or weeklong workshop can have to truly satisfy the needs of a PME educator to be ready to teach. Additionally, curricula/materials for PME, particularly those promoted by profiteers and music merchants should be critically evaluated and disseminated with great care. We have much to consider as we break new ground in our profession.

While it is important to consider issues related to inclusivity and opening up the access points regarding who gets to participate in music education and whose music is affirmed, popular music education need not be the silver bullet that solves all these issues. Certainly popular music can include quick-start/easy-access music making, embrace approximation as a goal, and promote opportunities for greater student participation, but this should not be the only thing it does. There are at least two possible streams of popular music education: one that increases access and promotes musical amateurism, and a second that deepens the professionalization and musicianship of popular music making. 

While music education operates as a self-perpetuating cycle that is tightly knit, the power and attraction of PME might function as a puncture device to rupture the school music cultural bubble. It is my hope that more classroom teachers will be PME friendly. Teachers in those classrooms ought to potentially have strong backgrounds in popular musics such that they can go beyond recreating, approximating and mimicking popular music songs (depending on prepackaged curricula), but also encourage creation and development of new ones.

If we wish to keep the music education profession afloat, we ought to embrace PME. We should be reminded to promote values associated with cultural democracy and return music education to learners in ways that engage them through the wonderful varieties of musics throughout all times and spaces. The Schoolification of Popular Music is one such option with immense potential.


2249 Last modified on April 15, 2020
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