Rock Guitar in the Conservatoire: The Confluence of Informal and Formal Music Education
Published online: 21 December 2017
- DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2017.57.sr.11363
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574461
Students of popular music and songwriting with a background of self-directed music learning practices often find it difficult to adjust to the university learning environment as they look to more deeply immerse themselves and formalize their study. Adaptive challenges are presented as student’s previous informal learning methodology is replaced; where purposive private listening, copying, noodling, and unfettered exploratory trial and error were once developed through free jamming with peers, they must now adopt the formal, written traditions of literary and notated music and institutionalized learning methods. A three or four-year degree in popular music or songwriting presented in a traditional, formal way and ignoring important tacit knowledge, informal learning techniques and oral traditions (as yet largely missing from the research literature), may precipitate a disconnect for students - between what they hoped to study, and what is being delivered in the curriculum. By presenting popular music and songwriting education in spaces that resonate for students at an individual, peer and social level; unsupervised noodle rooms, focused masterclasses, social media spaces, collaborative jam nights, and informal ‘drop-in’ mentoring times, the confluence of their informal learning with more traditional, formal education can be made smoother, and with greater student engagement.
Music education has had relatively little to do with the development of the majority of those musicians who have produced the vast proportion of the music which the global population listens to, dances to, identifies with, and enjoys (Green, 2013, p. 5)Green, P. L. 2013. How Popular Musicians Learn: a Way Ahead for Music Education. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing.
When the role and methodologies applied to popular music education in post-secondary and tertiary institutions is put under the microscope of review, it is revealed that there is a disconnect between student expectations and the course content delivery, due in part to the very informal and unique ways young musicians engage in the practice in the twenty-first century. In her book "How Popular Musicians Learn" Lucy Green argues that the most popular music on the planet is largely created not by formally-educated musicians, but by experts in the field who have gained their knowledge through informal means (2013, 5)Green, P. L. 2013. How Popular Musicians Learn: a Way Ahead for Music Education. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing.. Perhaps Green overstates the situation a little, as many great songwriters and musicians do have some formal education, however she is absolutely correct to identify the elephant in the room, that is, that young musicians for the most part, do not learn by formal music education. For many, the learning space was previously the bedroom (alone or with one trusted friend), the garage or rehearsal room (with peers), and the internet (YouTube instructional videos). This learning environment contrasts dramatically with the learning environment they encounter in post-secondary and tertiary institutions; large lecture halls, where lengthy audio-visual presentations and intense lectures are the order of the day. Further adaptive challenges are confronted in the formal, written traditions of literary and notated music they must now adopt, replacing their previous informal methodology of private listening, copying, noodling, unfettered exploratory trial and error, and free ‘jamming’ with peers. Lectures and tutorials have proven to be effective in disseminating knowledge (at least that knowledge which has been codified via academic writing), but a 3 or 4-year degree in popular music devoid of the tacit knowledge (Schön) and oral traditions (as yet rarely codified into the research literature) creates and establishes a disconnect for students. This laçuna is understandable - whilst socio-cultural responses to popular music’s impact abound in the literature (Burnard)Burnard, P. & Haddon, L. (eds. 2014. Activating Diverse Musical Creativities: Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. London, UK.: Bloomsbury., (Moore) Moore, A. F. 2003. Analyzing Popular Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.still missing is useful research at the "coalface of western popular music", examining the "daily everyday activity of songwriters and popular music performers (McIntyre 2003, 33)McIntyre, P. 2001. "The Domain of Songwriters: Towards Defining the Term 'Song.' Perfect Beat, 5(3), 100–111.. To redress this contextual/musical imbalance, we need to collect and filter data from musicians who operate at that coalface, and interpret it through the lens of expert practitioners who themselves have been immersed in the field and are familiar with its oral traditions. It is suggested that our formal popular music programs must therefore include not only formal education principles of theory, instrumental/vocal performance, and songwriting, but also build upon the tacit knowledge of field experts and the oral traditions of the popular musical realm.
The Western music notation system as we know it today, evolved long before the invention of the phonograph, radio, film, or television, and was for several centuries the primary music archival system for Western music. Since the advent of recorded media (wax cylinders, lacquer records, tape, digital tape, CD, digital files, etc.) over a century ago, printed sheet music is no longer essential to the archiving of the work, and songs are experienced not via sheet music in the parlor, but via radio, film, television, the internet, and more recently, social media. With the advent of tape recording, and especially into the 1960s, when domestic tape recorders became readily and cheaply available, the song’s first realization at the piano with pencil and music paper was replaced with a simple recording to tape. Peter Etzkorn identified the shift as early as 1963:
...songwriters tend to avoid the intermediary step of ‘writing’ a song. They actually perform their initial tune, and preserve this initial performance on a mechanical or electrical recording device.(McIntyre 2003, 100)McIntyre, P. 2001. "The Domain of Songwriters: Towards Defining the Term 'Song.' Perfect Beat, 5(3), 100–111.
Not only has there been a significant shift in the way we archive our musical works in this multimedia age – via recordings rather than written sheet music, but compared to one hundred years ago, popular musicians learn differently, with learning methods that were impossible prior to the advent of recording and broadcast technologies. As Green points out, over the past eighty years young musicians have developed historically unique learning methods; in isolation, with no formal instruction or adult guidance (McIntyre 2003, 61)McIntyre, P. 2001. "The Domain of Songwriters: Towards Defining the Term 'Song.' Perfect Beat, 5(3), 100–111.. As a result, traditional music notation has been subjugated to an important, but less essential function, that is, a valuable source of specific harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, lyric, orchestration, and arranging detail providing performance directions and study texts for students. Traditional music notation lacks, however, the flexibility to inform in terms of nuance, timbre, volume, sound texture, or rhythm – the stuff of informal learning and oral tradition. For the purposes of explaining songwriting and performing practice, especially since the 1960’s, this Western music notation system is often difficult, inadequate, and increasingly hard to explain or justify in the classroom. As Allan Moore states: "we cannot afford the luxury of a theoretical exposition of rock’s musical practices which cannot be directly related to the music-as-heard" (1995)———. 1995. "The So-Called 'Flattened Seventh' in Rock." Popular Music, 14(2), 185-201.. For instruments like the electric guitar and bass, conventional notation has already been superseded to some extent by the far more accessible guitar tablature ("tabs") system that captures some aspects of informal learning and oral tradition, but also presents a new set of problems –students using tabs learn visually, spatially, kinesthetically, and aurally, but are unable to see represented on the page the rhythmic, harmonic or melodic context of the piece. Fortunately, the harmonic and melodic context is readily codified by lead-sheet style charts - a strength of jazz music notation. In the absence of a universal music notation that captures all, we need to embrace a confluence of traditional music notation, jazz lead-sheet, and guitar and bass tablature. It is argued that we should accommodate tablature specifically because guitar and bass instruments are major contributors to the art form, no less worthy than the orchestral horns of the nineteenth century with their Bb and Eb transpositions (and at the teaching coalface, we don’t actually need to teach tablature to many – very few popular music bassists or guitarists arrive without already possessing a useful familiarity with tabs in their learning toolkit, obtained through their own self-directed study. For Green, music notation does have a role to play for popular musicians, but as a supplement to a heavy mix of aural practices, rather than as a major learning resource (2013,38)McIntyre, P. Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." PhD thesis, Macquarie University Division of Society, Culture, Media & Philosophy, Department of Media and Communication, 2003. . However, her statement: "By far the overriding learning practice for the beginner popular musician ... is to copy recordings by ear" (2013,60)McIntyre, P. Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." PhD thesis, Macquarie University Division of Society, Culture, Media & Philosophy, Department of Media and Communication, 2003. requires qualification in the songwriting realm.
A musician or singer may be able to quickly learn to play or sing along with a recorded song, but the learning practice of songwriters requires some form of reverse engineering, deconstruction, analysis, and study beyond pure mimicry in order to begin emulating the song styles to which they are purposefully listening. Valuable to this endeavour is the skill of chart-writing for structural, harmonic and melodic analysis. The writing of charts and the use of formal music notation in some songwriting circles (Rock, Folk, R and B, and Electronic Dance Music, for example) is relatively rare and arguably inappropriate for three reasons: First, Western music notation, favored for the archiving of pianistic and orchestral composition for Euro-classical purposes, provides arguably inadequate performance instructions for the performance of such modern forms; second, in popular music, the recording itself (rather than the musical score) provides the text for study; and third, western notiation requires years of formal schooling to become adept at its reading and writing. Students may enroll having spent the past several years working on a computer screen with music represented not my notation, but by blobs of audio, keyboard views, piano roll graphs, and chunky structural time-lines; entirely appropriate for song and track production, but useless for explaining to a musician what they should play next. While the various established notation forms; jazz-style chord charts, the Nashville notation system (an expedient form that identifies chords by scale degree without stating a particular key), and guitar tabs have gained popularity among working musicians, the capacity to accurately notate melody using traditional, classical, and stave-based notation is still a valuable tool for songwriters when communicating performance instructions to vocalists and instrumental performers.
The Four ‘I’s’ of Informal Music Education
It is offered here that the informal aspects of music education might usefully be considered through the lens of the Four Is: Immersion, Imitation, Interaction, and the Internet. Immersion in the contemporary music domain and culture occurs by purposive listening to recordings, observing other music-makers, and experiencing live performances. Imitation (the act of mimicking song performances vocally or instrumentally) occurs in one’s room, the shower, at parties, soirees, jam sessions, and later in more structured band rehearsals, where peer instruction and knowledge is informally passed on. Interaction with friends, peers, more senior musicians, and private teachers or mentors feeds the enthusiasm, focus and sense of community and increasing cultural capital as learning increases. And lastly, the internet provides almost unlimited access to songs, tablature, lyrics, recordings, live versions, acoustic covers, interviews, and contextual reviews. Significantly, while tutorial videos abound, the content of a few are excellent, some are misinformed, and some are dangerously counterproductive to student learning.
A Focus on Songwriting
In his summary of the domain-appropriate skills acquisition of the songwriter, Phillip McIntyre includes: poetic skills (formal education), instrumental music lessons (compulsory schooling), private instruction (semi-formal), learning songs (as part of learning an instrument and for performance), access to peer information, ad-hoc mentoring, oral transmission of domain knowledge, familial influence, and access to popular culture transmissions (2013,168)McIntyre, P. Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." PhD thesis, Macquarie University Division of Society, Culture, Media & Philosophy, Department of Media and Communication, 2003. Such diverse immersion in the domain exemplifies the need for an inclusive view of domain acquisition, one that acknowledges informal oral traditions as well as more formal music and literary education. Any course dedicated to popular music instruction must consider the artifacts that drive popular music, that is, the songs themselves. Whether the curriculum is based on vocal or instrumental performance, music analysis, audience reception, socio-cultural implications, or some other aspect, when we turn our attention to contemporary popular music we are talking about writing songs, performing songs, singing songs, how songs affect and influence us, and how society influences our song-making and the artifacts themselves. McIntyre describes how popular music songwriters acquire their cultural capital, knowledge of the domain, and awareness of the unique conventions of style:
A contemporary Western popular music songwriter must be aware of the domain of songwriting, identified ... as lyric and melody, form and structure, rhythmic components, simple harmonic components, accompaniment, arrangement, and orchestration, and performance and production characteristics that enable their work to be manifest in a material form. It is this expanded set of components that constitutes the conventions of the symbol system, the knowledge structures, and the cultural capital residing in the field of works, that is, the domain that songwriters draw on to produce a contemporary Western popular song (2008, 47)———. 2008. "Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." Creativity Research Journal, 20(1), 40–52..
These nuanced observations, vital to the songwriter, are equally applicable to popular music performers, be they singers or instrumentalists. When being interviewed about their songwriting process, expert songwriters often have difficulty reflectively describing how they do what they do, when they do it. It is quite common, in conversation with songwriters, to hear them describe aspects of their process in vague terms such as, "I don’t know why, it just feels right." Those feelings echo McIntyre’s description of songwriters possessing a "feel" for how to write songs, having forgotten (effectively) how they came to make the creative choices they make <(2008)———. 2008. "Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." Creativity Research Journal, 20(1), 40–52. This is linked to Braheny’s use of the term osmosis:
I believe that many successful songwriters have acquired their craftsmanship unconsciously, by osmosis ... they go by feel, but behind it there’s a subconsciously developed analytical process. (2006, 18)———. 2008. "Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." Creativity Research Journal, 20(1), 40–52.
Green conceives of three ways of engaging with music; playing (to include singing), composing (to include improvising), and listening (to include hearing) (2013,22)McIntyre, P. Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." PhD thesis, Macquarie University Division of Society, Culture, Media & Philosophy, Department of Media and Communication, 2003. Songwriting, as one aspect of composing, also usually requires some singing and an extensive habitus based on a great deal of listening. Here, Green makes three further useful distinctions; purposive listening (suggesting a learning aim), attentive listening (not necessarily for learning purposes but simply to recall/archive, remember the song), and distracted listening (for simple entertainment, with attention level varying) (2013,24)McIntyre, P. Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." PhD thesis, Macquarie University Division of Society, Culture, Media & Philosophy, Department of Media and Communication, 2003. The first - purposive listening, is vital to the songwriter, and connected to the multiple discriminant pattern recognitions necessary to successfully create song artifacts likely to be deemed worthy by audiences and experts in the field (Harrison 2016)Harrison, C. M. "A Songwriter’s Journey From Little-c to Pro-C Creativity: an Applied Analytical Autoethnography." Doctoral thesis, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW, 2016.
In the evolutionary world of songwriting, nuances of style are paramount. Audiences immerse themselves in genres and sub-genres like Death Metal, Roots, Indie Pop, Post-Grunge, or Folk-Metal, and are highly sensitized to what is, or is not, appropriate or authentic in that style. For example, during the first week of the semester, I invite every songwriting student to highlight their favored styles, sub-genres, and artists. Validating each student’s choices demonstrates my own genre-agnosticism and establishes an inclusive and safe environment for students to reference course materials to their own music-making. A songwriter’s domain-specific skill-set must include the specific characteristics of creative style necessary to convince the listener of the songs’ authenticity within that sub-genre, or to convince the audience that a proposed subtle variation or development of style is analogous enough to be accepted as a worthy development. This idea is referenced by Weisberg when he states:
...not only are different skills important for creativity within subdomains, but as changes occur in style and taste, the characteristics required of those who would excel within the domain probably also change (1993, 257)———. 1993. Rock: the Primary Text. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press..
It is posited that such nuances of style are acquired not from formal instruction, but from informal immersion through listening, observing, and socialization in the culture or sub-culture.
Formal and Informal Music Instruction
Green highlights the traditional instruction model popular throughout most of the twentieth century;
For a large part of the twentieth century music education was almost exclusively concerned with classical instrumental tuition [instruction] outside the classroom, and classical music appreciation and singing inside the classroom (2013, 4)McIntyre, P. Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." PhD thesis, Macquarie University Division of Society, Culture, Media & Philosophy, Department of Media and Communication, 2003..
This instruction model was adapted somewhat in the latter part of the twentieth century to include jazz improvisatory performance and harmony, however the teaching of contemporary music songwriting and performance still labors unnecessarily under this obsolete model. Since the advent of contemporary song styles since the 1960s, including rhythm and blues, rock, funk, disco, soul, punk, dance, grunge, EDM, rap, hip-hop, metal, and a plethora of nuanced sub-genres, the twenty-first century has introduced an entire generation of students who create and receive their music in a virtual space. These autodidacts immerse themselves privately online, where instrumental skills are self-taught via YouTube videos or through peer-support in the garage band, and music appreciation happens via ear-buds walking down the street, or on the train, with a highly filtered and selective approach to music making and appreciation.
Alongside or instead of formal music education there are always, in every society, other ways of passing on and acquiring musical skills and knowledge (Green 2013, 5)Green, P. L. 2013. How Popular Musicians Learn: a Way Ahead for Music Education. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing.
The problem is, simply put, that these young contemporary musicians, composers and songwriters are interested in higher education in their area of interest because they have a high degree of intrinsic motivation to pursue knowledge – it is fun and a very satisfying pursuit. When they arrive at the post-secondary college, conservatory, or university with their electric guitar in hand and the nervous enthusiasm of youth, they understand and look forward to being challenged and to having their horizons expanded. After a semester or two, unfortunately for some students, their intrinsic motivation has been stifled; replaced by the extrinsic rewards of assessment marks and academic survival. The fun part – the interaction with enthusiastic peers, the freely expressed music-making unfettered by assessment criteria – has been forcibly shelved. The prime motivator – the impetus for their life passion – is replaced by learning outcomes that lead them instead towards formal, de-contextualized (and even irrelevant) materials drawn from the classical and jazz domains [...as lamented by an alarming number of students when I counselled them in year two or three of their degree]. The problem can be stated in this way: after an extended period of informal learning practices using the four I's ( Immersion, Imitation, Interaction, and the Internet), students enroll in the hope of expanding, enhancing or fine-tuning their knowledge acquisition through more formal learning methods —those “specific, conscious, focused or goal-directed activities designed to induce learning” (Green 2013, 16)Green, P. L. 2013. How Popular Musicians Learn: a Way Ahead for Music Education. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing.. The key here is that they do want to learn, and are happy to experience formal learning methods, but they want to be taught materials relevant to contemporary popular music, not how to write retrograde inversions of twelve-tone rows or how to improvise over Giant Steps at 160 bpm. To suggest that the study of classical twentieth century art music or jazz polyrhythms and "outside" harmonic improvisation are essential elements of a contemporary popular music course design highlights two things: 1) how out of touch those courses can be; and 2) how difficult it is to find scholarly works in contemporary popular music-making from which to teach (although music appreciation books abound).
Some private post-secondary colleges offer a continuation of informal music learning practices, taught by highly experienced music-industry professionals with little formal education themselves and often no academic qualifications. This poses a challenge for such institutions in satisfying regulatory requirements for higher education accreditation, where formal education benchmarks are identified and embedded in the academic qualifications framework. What they do bring to the table however (and this is highly valued by students), is performance expertise, a vast amount of tacit knowledge and an enculturation in the contemporary music realm that resonates for students and recognizes their own immersion and cultural capital. What is desirable then, is to provide a music education pathway that builds on the informal practices of the student immersed in the contemporary popular music domain and that introduces relevant formal methods and academic rigor. McIntyre argues that "domain acquisition occurs from within a variety of sources that ranged across both formal and informal sources," and that rarely could it be said that it was entirely oral or entirely formal (2008, 47)———. 2008. "Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." Creativity Research Journal, 20(1), 40–52.. While songwriters would rarely describe their immersion in terms of acquiring habitus (Bourdieu 1986)Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London, UK: Routledge.they do refer to a "feel" for the music or choices becoming "second nature" (McIntyre 2003, 291-292)Moore, A. F. 2003. Analyzing Popular Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.. In particular, those choices are based on discriminant recognition of stylistic nuances embedded in each subgenre acquired through informal learning.
It can be said that each successful popular song is somehow relevant, accessible to the audience, timely, expresses something of value, or is in some other way desired and appropriated by a large enough group of followers to have been deemed worthy. The leading musicians, artists, and songwriters in each subgenre have identified nuances, and made distinctions that capture the sub-genre successfully. While hundreds or even thousands try, only a handful succeed in making the critical distinctions as to what is important to include in the song and how to present it to the audience in a way that will be collectively embraced. This could be expressed via appropriate instrumentations, texture, lyric style, harmony, melody, or rhythm and the subtle nuances of each. Listening critically to multiple examples of songs is a vital part of the equation then; the music score is no longer the principle text for study purposes —it is the recording itself. The domain knowledge is contained within the song recordings to be studied and inculcated, as well as the books, videos, articles, interviews, and images of the domain that need to be acquired as a form of cultural capital that contributes to the ‘habitus’ a songwriter needs to obtain (Bourdieu, 1977)———. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press..
Whilst formal music education has welcomed popular music into its ranks, this is by no means the same as welcoming or even recognizing informal learning practices related to the acquisition of the relevant musical skills and knowledge ... For nearly a century, formal music education has turned its back upon the learning practices of the musicians who produce most of the music that comes out of loudspeakers. (Green 2013, 184 & 186)Green, P. L. 2013. How Popular Musicians Learn: a Way Ahead for Music Education. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing. [italics in original]
At post-secondary and tertiary levels, the audition subjects for admission to contemporary music courses may be low in sight-reading skills and formal theory knowledge, but many of these students bring a wealth of informal knowledge to the audition table —stylistic, nuanced, and sophisticated distinctions based on very deep and focused immersion in the contemporary music culture. McIntyre identified the problematic nature of researching songwriting and the necessity to investigate the wealth of material generated not only outside the field, but also beyond academia (2003, 22)Moore, A. F. 2003. Analyzing Popular Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.. This exists in the extensive biographies, autobiographies, interviews, and other primary sources like popular songwriting method books. Regarding the latter, McIntyre cautions:
...they do not, however, explain in any theoretical sense what is occurring at the coalface of western popular music. It is the related field of the study of creativity itself that does, however, offer far more possibilities for theorising the pragmatics of song composition. (2003, 33)Moore, A. F. 2003. Analyzing Popular Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.)
As we incrementally creep towards a better understanding of popular music performance and songwriting andragogy, gaps in the knowledge continue to appear. For example, formal music theory textbooks often lack relevance to the evolving domain of popular Western songwriting, and the existing popular literature appears shallow and often based upon a Romantic view of individual creative agency. This body of work also tends to ignore the field of experts, intermediaries, critics, and audience, while much academic research has been focused upon socio-cultural aspects. For Philip Tagg, tertiary music education in Western culture tends to partition into two schools: "nothing but the music," or alternatively, "everything but the music." For Tagg, teaching curricula focuses either entirely on how to (in this case, write songs), or entirely on what it means (song culture from a sociological perspective). In an email distributed to the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, he laments that popular music studies have:
...also failed to bridge two important epistemic and institutional gaps -  between knowledge in and knowledge about music, and  between music as culturally specific sonic materiality and the sociocultural context of those sounds. (Tagg 2015)Tagg, P. 2008. "Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method and Practice." Popular Music, 2, 37. and Graciela Paraskevaidis. 32.
Still missing is useful research into the "coalface of Western popular music," the daily everyday activity of songwriters (McIntyre 2003, 33)Moore, A. F. 2003. Analyzing Popular Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.. This has not come from academic scholars who have observed from afar and focused on the interaction of songs in the culture, nor has it come from Romanticist songwriters talking in terms of "channeling the ether." It is also missing from the research of scholars in the classical or jazz realms applying their own habitus borne of immersion in different domains. To interpret what it is that songwriters do at the coalface, we need to filter data from successful songwriters who operate there, analyze that information and interpret it based on the qualitative perspective available only to an expert practitioner. For example, award-winning Australian songwriter Don Walker of Cold Chisel describes his own ability to see the "insider" perspective in the songs of others, based upon his own experience of hundreds of live performances where the songs were tested in front of live audiences;
I do feel that I can hear, in musicians and songwriters, the ones that have spent a lot of their formative years in front of real people in a live situation. You can hear Thelonius Monk spent a lot of his formative years doing tent-shows with a gospel singer and that those conditions that he was playing in were quite primitive, the audiences were probably quite primitive, and the music was probably quite primitive and there’s an indefinable foundation of reality in what he does that a lifetime at Julliard cannot teach you. (Walker 2015)Walker, D. interview with the author on June 2, 2015 at Edgecliffe, Australia.
His point that "a lifetime at Julliard cannot teach you," sums up concisely that there is far more to understanding songwriting than currently exists in the textbooks. As Green states:
Just because the musicians are not necessarily able to talk about or name musical procedures and elements in the early stages, it does not follow that they should conceive of themselves as ‘not knowing’ about them. Rather, they have ‘tacit knowledge’ of them. (2013, 97)McIntyre, P. Creativity and Cultural Production: a Study of Contemporary Western Popular Music Songwriting." PhD thesis, Macquarie University Division of Society, Culture, Media & Philosophy, Department of Media and Communication, 2003.
Acclaimed Australian songwriter Rai Thistlethwayte, when asked what successful songwriters do beyond what is in the textbooks, stated:
...they just do what they do and they’re already awesome and they’re just doing more awesome stuff; when they get the whiff of people are digging it... so they just keep going and then they break through the clouds if they’re happy to stay ahead of the pack by thinking different and following their heart... that’s what I think it is. (Thistlethwayte 2015)Thistlethwayte, R. interview with the author on April 27, 2015 at Specific Studios, Redfern, UK.
When Thistlethwayte states "they’re already awesome," he is not implying that they were born awesome or possess some genius that mortals do not. In context, what he is suggesting is that songwriters (having already enjoyed some degree of success), are more likely to continue to simply "do what they do." If they break through the clouds, they attempt to follow their hearts; repeating whatever successful actions facilitated them to stay ahead of the pack. Described in the lyrical language redolent of his craft, Thistlethwayte clearly sees the songwriting industry as highly competitive with rewards for effort somewhat elusive. This position reinforces the idea that aspirants to mastery won’t find those elusive elements in the available literature. The problem is in the lack of qualitative literature; that is, texts that describe in academic terms the elements of songwriting beyond merely quantitative analysis of melody, harmony, and lyrics.
The Cultural Space in which Songs Live
Contemporary popular music courses need to stay relevant to the changing cultural, geographical, historical, and socio-political environment of the songwriter and the song. Song culture can be considered to include the who, what, where, and when of the song’s origins, influences, antecedents, location, time of release, and the interdependency of all these factors (for the songwriter and the song) within the creative system. The prevailing environmental conditions, that is, the spaces in which songs are created, facilitate or hinder the songwriting process and powerfully influence the final recorded artifact:
The Romantic idealization of the solitary genius is so solidly lodged in our minds that to state the opposite - that even the greatest genius will not accomplish anything without the support of society and culture - borders on blasphemy. ...No matter how gifted a person is, he or she has no chance to achieve anything creative unless the right conditions are provided. (Csikszentmihalyi 1997, 94)Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1997. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.
Neil Finn of Crowded House talks in terms of ritual when describing his songwriting process, that is, the active preparation of time and space to make possible the creative practice:
What I’m interested in is the idea that ritual can be applied to creative endeavor in order to maximize the possibilities for resonance and reward, and also to give respect to the experience; you don’t want to approach it in a frivolous manner ... you have to create space and time and a consistent work pattern to get past the initial blockages that inevitably occur and then hit the moment. (Finn 2012)Finn, Neil. 2012. "Unknown Pathways: Neil Finn on Songwriting and Creativity." Filmed September 21, 2012. Yale Psychiatry Grand Rounds. https://medicine.yale.edu/psychiatry/education/grand/2012/0921.aspx
Finn’s creative perspective may be interpreted as highlighting a deep immersion and respect for creating a space in which intrapersonal, metacognitive presence is facilitated.
A Review of Learning Spaces
The creative space from which popular musicians and songwriters operate, in terms of location and within the music culture, can be viewed geographically and socially:
Being born to an affluent family, or close to good schools, mentors and coaches obviously is a great advantage ...the ownership of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’ is a great resource. (Csikszentmihalyi 1997, 94)Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1997. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.
For Csikszentmihalyi, the place where one lives is important for three main reasons: access to the domain (symbol system), access to novel stimulation (density of interaction), and access to the field (experts). From a systems perspective, merely producing good works is not all that is required for success in the creative worlds. Csikszentmihalyi describes the gates, barriers, and bottlenecks preventing access to influential persons who can allow or refuse passage, and remarks that "access to a field is often determined by chance or by irrelevant factors, such as having good connections" or being able to persuade the right people that your work is worthwhile.
Zooming in on the localized spaces where young musicians experience, interact with, create, and practice popular music, we see [based on my approximately 600 student audition conversations] that it often begins in private spaces (or the private spaces of close friends), or if they are fortunate, a dedicated music space in the home. As they progress with their self-directed informal music immersion, public transport provides valuable time for purposive and attentive student listening, and (again, if they are fortunate), the teaching space of an industry professional acting as mentor provides a more highly focused individual learning experience. Rehearsal spaces including garages, basements, and temporarily-converted bedrooms allow peer support and collaborative music-making (either performing songs or writing them), but the most dramatic change to learning practices over the past two decades has been through the internet. The spread and popularity of internet access has opened up possibilities for peer collaboration on a scale never before possible —through file-sharing, song collaboration, and asynchronous recording whereby arrangements are layered by various contributors in various global locations (Harrison 2016)Harrison, C. M. "A Songwriter’s Journey From Little-c to Pro-C Creativity: an Applied Analytical Autoethnography." Doctoral thesis, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW, 2016.). In terms of higher education, it is worth considering where contemporary popular musicians operate as they practice their craft, and how those real and virtual spaces can be replicated, for example in unsupervised noodle rooms, focused masterclasses, social media spaces, collaborative jam nights, and informal "drop-in" mentoring. Having taught at a variety of undergraduate institutions in my career, I have seen successful instances of each of these informal spaces operating.
Focused Listening - small room
Focused listening can occur outside the dedicated study space (through ear-buds on public transport, for example), or in the car where songs are played repeatedly to embed songs in aural memory. As is the practice of many vocalists (myself included), singing enthusiastically while driving is a time-efficient way of learning lyrics and developing vocal nuances. Instrumentalists can also supplement their aural memorization in this way, however, their physical practice requires a dedicated quiet space, typically a small sound-proofed room for purposeful study.
Purposeful Study - small room
Purposeful study, where melodic, rhythmic and harmonic analysis, observation, discriminant pattern recognition, and theorizing occur, requires a space where the music can be heard clearly without large amounts of background noise, and substantially louder than at background levels to discern the detailed nuances. While libraries provide very quiet reading and research (visual spaces), music students need soundproofed areas for listening to music or practicing it (aural spaces). A dedicated room is likely to be needed for this function, either at home, or, as is often provided at a learning institution in the form of an unsupervised ‘noodle’ room where chart reading and writing, instrumental and vocal practice, and detailed listening can be performed simultaneously. Such rooms could be designated separately for the purposeful study of drums, guitar, bass, piano, or voice/horn/winds; each with different sound-proofing needs and equipment requirements.
Mentoring - small room
Under the tutelage of a music industry professional, the suburban teaching space provides for informal and semi-formal music mentoring, especially for the transfer of tacit knowledge; showing, explaining, giving context, demonstrating, directing attention, and prioritising study practices. Even in the absence of theoretical knowledge or explanation (by student or mentor), nuances of music-making can be transferred effectively simply by mutual interaction, discussion, and demonstration. This type of instruction can easily be replicated in the institution, either in one-to-one directed teaching, focus groups, small ensembles, or large group tutorials and masterclasses. A "drop-in" mentoring program, where students may request time with an instrumental, vocal, or songwriting tutor for extra support beyond their scheduled program, offers potential to provide supportive counseling for academic or performance challenges whilst providing feedback for those delivering and designing courses.
Immersion – small theatre
Deep immersion in the popular music domain is a feature of the live concert experience situated in a small to medium performance space within the institution, where analysis, observation, and discussion can occur before, during and after the event to drive student aspirations and motivation. Theories based on such informal observation discussion can be tested by rehearsing with formative bands and usefully applied playing live gigs, and by further replication in the institutional environment, such theories can be contextualized and situated within the formal knowledge. Song-specific discussion, analysis, and engagement can provide important context and the stimulus for the future directed practice of students, and opportunities for visiting industry luminaries to perform, talk, demonstrate, and otherwise interact with students provides vital context and connects the course materials to the ‘real-world’ experience of industry leaders, adding momentum and making relevant the institutional experience for students.
Popular Music Theory – lecture space
As highlighted by Green (2013), many musicians have progressed professionally and contributed music to the popular music domain not through formal, institutionalized music training regimes, but through informal learning practices. For many of these musicians however, the purpose of enrolling in tertiary music education is to gain accreditation and formalize their music knowledge, theory, concepts, principles, procedures, and practices. Lecture-hall presentations are valuable as a means of providing factual, conceptual and procedural knowledge drawn from the available scholarly literature, and become especially effective if integrated with and confirmed by industry experts drawing from their own acquired habitus (Bourdieu, 1977)———. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. and tacit knowledge (Schön, 1983)Schön, D. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.. For students whose prior immersion was exclusively informal, self-directed, and explorative, this is where the institution can provide the rich diversity of knowledge they need to form their own distinctions related to their specific genre preferences. The confluence of what we know (as scholars), with what we have experienced (as experts), can be presented in the lecture-hall, and referenced to critical thinking, understanding contextual examples, recognising basic principles, historical knowledge, tacit knowledge, and the depth-perspective of industry luminaries.
Tutorials – large room
In professional practice, playing in a band with more experienced musicians can accelerate progress exponentially - having access to an expert mentor for hours at a time in the rehearsal space or recording can be an exciting, validating, and rewarding experience. To replicate that exhilarating experience, the tutorial space should not simply be a room full of chairs, desks, and a media projector. Students need to be encourage to learn with their instruments in hand – to immediately and personally engage with the chord, melody, rhythm, or other principle being discussed by the tutor. If music campus coffee shops are filled with animated students singing, jamming, noodling, and discussing music making concepts (spontaneously and without the need for prodding), then creating that type of informal, cacophonous learning environment might usefully form part of the tutorial experience, where individuals, pairs, or like-minded break-out groups explore each topic.
Supervised Rehearsal – large ensemble room
Band ensembles where performance skills can be honed and consolidated under supervision can usefully replicate professional practice and provide opportunity for immediate formative assessment. The range of skills addressed in this environment is wide and includes; repertoire development, performance excellence, stage confidence, textural awareness, rhythmic accuracy, interpersonal skills, instrument tuning and intonation, equipment management, volume/stage balance control, chart reading and writing, song arranging, orchestration, and more. Easy access to dedicated rehearsal rooms with the space for three to seven musicians to operate, suitable equipment and sound-proofing, are vital as demand for these spaces is high, especially as summative assessments approach. Social media use can facilitate the ensemble process (as happens in professional practice) – closed groups enable private discussion, booking rehearsals, interchange of ideas, file-sharing, links to song or performance references, and logistics.
Concert Practice – large theatre
Larger on-campus performance spaces where assessments can be conducted and audiences can be engaged allow for assessment, comment, critique and experience away from the critical gaze of the raw (and potentially unforgiving) public. Off-campus performance spaces allow students to test their expertise in the real-world of less-supportive audiences, perhaps in competition with loud conversation, clinking glasses, sports broadcasts, and unfavorable acoustics. And between the on-campus and off-campus performances, informal jam nights run by the students themselves can be used for networking beyond their allocated ensemble members providing opportunity for music-making free from the constraints of assessment, compulsory repertoire and the critical ears of lecturers and tutors.
Songwriting – multiple workstation laboratory
Spaces conducive to songwriting practice differ from those of performance practice. Beyond principles of harmony, melody, and rhythm, the lecture-hall content for songwriters would need to include such essential topics as lyric-writing, creativity, song species, song structure, evolution, norms, patterns, accepted practice, trends, and genre-specific nuances. The type of spaces necessary for songwriting to occur should enable both solitary and collaborative process to occur, that is, working in isolation on headphones at a workstation, in a quiet lyric-writing space, or with one or two collaborators in a quiet writing room. Students are likely to enjoy their own creative process privately at least until they have the confidence to work collaboratively with others or to present their formative song ideas in ensemble situations for performance. Drawing together formal and informal learning practices, the presentation of a cluster of learning experiences in a variety of appropriate spaces paves the way to a more immersive and relevant student experience.
There is a need for a revised epistemology of music that bridges the divide between classical, jazz and contemporary music practice. Scholars have for some time discussed the Euro-classical bias of music institutions struggling under epistemic inertia and reluctance to embrace non-Western, modal and popularist conventions (Burnard)Burnard, P. & Haddon, L. (eds.). 2014. Activating Diverse Musical Creativities: Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. London, UK.: Bloomsbury.; (McIntyre 2001)McIntyre, P. 2001. "The Domain of Songwriters: Towards Defining the Term 'Song.' Perfect Beat, 5(3), 100–111.; (Moore)Moore, A. F. 2003. Analyzing Popular Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ———. 1993. Rock: the Primary Text. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press. ———. 1995. "The So-Called 'Flattened Seventh' in Rock." Popular Music, 14(2), 185-201. . While jazz pedagogy does provide an expedient and logical method of tonal organization harmonically, attempting to view contemporary song practice through the lens of jazz music theory leaves a great deal unexplained, or at least dismissed as yet another "exception to a particular rule." Much of that laçuna could be addressed if we acknowledge and draw attention to the tacit knowing identified by Polanyi (1966) and Schö (1983). In order to reflect professional practice in the design of popular music performance and songwriting courses, it is worth considering a confluent approach that: 1) identifies and incorporates the tacit knowing of field professionals; 2) acknowledges and builds upon the informal learning practices of the self-directed learner; and 3) introduces formal institutional learning methodologies to propel the student toward a much greater understanding of best practices, principles, and theoretical understandings. By bringing these elements together, course materials will become more relevant, applicable, and desirable to students. And by creating a virtual coalface of music performance, songwriting and appreciation in the classroom; students are more likely to perceive their study as a logical extension to the self-directed learning that has preceded it. A cluster of learning experiences designed to tap in to intrinsically motivated enthusiasm might include; purposeful study, focused listening, mentoring, immersion, theory, rehearsal, concert practice, and songwriting, each with their own appropriate spaces conducive to the diverse ways in which popular music is created and performed.
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Last modified on Friday, 08/03/2019