Philosophy Scenario in Music Education


Music enriches human lives in many ways. While some people love to perform music, others find pleasure in tasks related to making music; still others enjoy writing about music and most people relish listening to music. Yet, music remains an enigmatic phenomenon; – its nature, function and why it should be part of education are all difficult to comprehend. Art has traditionally been considered to be imitative in nature. But music, particularly instrumental music is not mimetic art says Philip Alperson. Alperson points out that the study of music theory was included in the curriculum mainly because it was found related to the study of mathematics, metaphysics, and astronomy and often, education administrators regarding music education programs as a recreational opportunity that helps in calming unruly students (Alperson, 217). To find a meaning for music education, music teachers look to philosophy – to provide a comprehensive understanding of the nature and making of music. A good philosophy of music would make clear what needs to be learned in the realm of music, how they might be learned and how they might be taught. Like formalized philosophies of music, formalized philosophies of music education begin with conceptualizations of music. There are two main types of music education to be considered in this context – Reimer’s aesthetic education which conceives music in terms of aesthetic objects and Elliott’s praxial music education which conceives it as process, an action, something that people do. In aesthetic music education music is represented in the score and perceptions of its realization, while in the latter, music is represented in the ongoing active realization of scores, including improvisations. Both these philosophies address problems of music’s relevance in school curricula based on the unique and essential attributes of music relative to education (Gould, 17).

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Main body

In the aesthetic view, music is one among the “fine arts” – arts that lend themselves to the aesthetic experience. The aesthetic attitude, which is essential for the aesthetic experience, involves ‘disinterested perception’; – which is, “a pleasurable interest in something for the sake of its contemplation alone, apart from any personal, moral, political, or otherwise practical interest or purpose it might have” (Alperson, 219). Music education, according to the aesthetic perspective was pioneered by music education philosopher James Mursell (1893-1963) who believed that if music was to yield its educational value, then it must be taught and learned with a primary emphasis upon its aesthetic aspects. Bennett Reimer A Philosophy of Music Education (1970, 1989) was another proponent of this philosophy of music education and according to him, the aesthetic or expressive elements of music are rhythm, melody, harmony, tone color (including dynamics), texture, and form. He found that musical works carried inner meaning and value. Susanne K. Langer (1895-1985) connected music to feelings and said “the arts objectify subjective reality,” then “art education is the education of feeling” (Langer, 94)

In the aesthetic view of music education, attention is given to design, delineation, form or structure without reference to the concepts or practical significance of what is being expressed in the work (Alperson, 220). The aesthetic experiences gives pleasure through imagination and understanding, explains Kant. The formalist aesthetic has lead to the development of two basic strategies in music education – training the ability to produce aesthetic works that evoke an aesthetic experience and training the ability to respond in the appropriate way to aesthetic works (Alperson, 220). Reimer, who supports the MEAE suggests “an effective general music program must include significant involvement with notation as one means of enhancing musical understanding, exactly as it must include significant performance involvements as another means” (Reimer, 28). Philip Alperson points out that in both these cases, aesthetic qualities are construed as qualities of form (Alperson, 220).

Teachers following Aesthetic Philosophy of Music Education

Strict aesthetic formalism gives music educators a subject matter, a standardized vocabulary, and a methodology (Alperson, 222). According to Keith Swanwick, a teacher may formulate objectives and design curriculum in three main hierarchical categories with the ultimate aim of aesthetic response in mind: aesthetic appraisals that involves the activities of composition, audition and performance; skill acquisition and literature studies; and finally, human interaction (Swanwick, 66). According to Reimer’s views, music education programs of aesthetic philosophy are organized lessons with verbal concepts on elements, processes and styles of musical works. Reimer holds that “concepts about music” are the best tools for creating curricula in music education.

Illustrative Example: For example, students following the MEAE approach must be able to move beyond the idea that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony evokes anger and that his Pastoral Symphony evokes joy. However, when the students are made to focus on Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, first movement, fourth measure, there is some confusion as to how to react emotionally to the half cadence. Different people may react differently. While one person may want the music to linger on the dominant chord in the fourth measure and hold that fermata forever. However, the MEAE approach would require him to accept the idea that dominant chords convey nothing but a sense of tension and that tonic chord convey only a sense of resolution. This is a limitation of the MEAE approach as it denies the complexity of feelings.

In his paper titled “MEAE: Towards the Future”, Reimer says recent developments in technology have changed the music education scene. He points that computer technologies are making composing easy for many people. Hence composing music can be included as part of the curriculum in the future as composing involves a greater degree of creativity than performance. He suggests that the curriculum for music education should include the following three components: the required general music program devoted to developing musical literacy among students, the elective performance program and the elective composition program (Reimer, 1989b, 28).

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Praxial view of Music Education

Regelski points out that traditionally music teachers have been performance oriented and tended to focus on technique and repertory and completely neglected the vital aspect of contemplation (Regelski, 2). Hence school students who are taught music using the MEAE tended to look upon it as a social act while it did not carry any relevance to their lives. This is because the aesthetic view is idealistic and can be understood fully only in the light of life experiences. Regelski says it “is difficult to account for how school age students are supposed to recognize, associate, understand or identify with such profound and exalted kinds of life experiences (and, thereby, to value them) since they have not yet lived such supposedly rich and mature moments” (Regelski, 3). Moreover, the aesthetic view of music education neglects the nature and importance of music making and its educational aspects do not take into account vital aspects of music such as musical performing, improvising, composing, arranging, conducting, studying the link between music making and music listening and nature of musical creativity. The praxial philosophy of music education argues that music education must include music making, which involves a multidimensional form of thinking. Compared to the aesthetic philosophy of music education which is based on teaching children that music is a matter of abstract, aesthetic objects, the praxial philosophy urges educators to teach children through authentic music making that music is a diverse, human, participatory, social, and performing art. Music education scholar David Elliott took a critical view of the aesthetic philosophy of music education and suggested the praxial view. According to Elliott, the chief weaknesses are: MEAE depends on a cluster of blurred distinctions and oversimplified dichotomies that undermine its logical integrity; the basic premises of MEAE depend on a reductionist concept of music; and at its core, MEAE is only a cogent (convincing) explanation of Susanne Langer’s illogical theory of art (Elliott, 48). He further feels that MEAE limits the nature of music to symbolizing the forms of feelings. Hence he concludes that music education as aesthetic education is not a secure basis for music education (Elliott, 64). Elliott asserted that the nature of music education depends on the nature of music itself and that the significance of music education must depend on the significance of music in human life. He observed that music is basically a human activity involving a doer, some kind of doing, something done and the complete context in which doers do what they do (Goble, 26). Thus Elliott’s praxial view suggests understanding music in relation to the meanings and values experienced in actual music making and music listening in specific contexts rather than on aesthetic principles.

Illustrative Example: The Dance of Zalongou is most commonly referred as “The Greek Folk Song” in music education circles and used as a practice of mixed meter and Dorian mode. Students spend long hours perfecting the intonation and the rhythm without realizing its historical and cultural context. According to Maud Karpeles’s “Folk Songs of Europe”, the song refers to a horrific historic incident. A group of Christian Albanians, the Soulioties were living in isolation in the mountains of northern Greece. When the Turks trapped them in December 1803 instead of risk getting caught, the women preferred to dance to their death, each one throwing her children and then herself over the cliff (Mackinlay et al, 306). Without this background knowledge, the Dance of Zalongou is reduced to its constituent parts and denied its rich and meaning laden cultural significance. Thus shows that cultural position of music material as promoted by the praxial view is important to be able to understand music in totality.

Philip Alperson elaborates that “the basic aim of a praxial philosophy of music is to understand, from a philosophical point of view, just what music has meant to people, an endeavor that includes but is not limited to a consideration of the function of music in aesthetic contexts” (Alperson, 234). Such a praxial view of music education would increase the scope of music being investigated by including the production, study, and appreciation of music in contexts where the aesthetic qualities of music are less central to the practice and this means, situations such as music used in social rituals, music used as a heuristic device for scientific theories, music used as communication or part of social norms, music used as therapy and so on. The praxial philosophy of music education involves both the aesthetic and non aesthetic functions of music. For example in the case of jazz, while the aesthetic view will focus on recurring compositional patterns, harmonies, and performance practices, the praxial view will include the technical aspects that are associated with the marginality of the white or black community (Alperson, 234).


Music education programs based on the praxial view aim in educating students about musical practice in a holistic way by including in the curriculum – the history and kind of appreciation appropriate to the musical work of art and the nature and significance of the human skills involved in the production of music. In the praxial view, the motives, intentions, and productive considerations of the agents who are responsible for the production of music must be studied in order to fully understand music. This also means the inclusion of the study of productive aspects and the cultural contexts in which the music is created, deployed and enjoyed. Hence the curriculum for music students should be a progressive introduction to artistic skills, concepts, theories, and cultural studies. The praxial approach to music education will also indirectly affect the composition and performance programs as there will be increasing focus on the social, historical and cultural conditions associated with the music. David Elliott’s praxial view of music education requires that students experience music through personal performance. The rehearsal and performance of ensembles needs to include the what, when, where and why kind of questions so that the students begin to understand the music they are producing (Cooper, 362). The praxial music curriculum is deliberately organized to engage learners in musical actions, transactions, and interactions that closely parallel real music cultures. The praxial curriculum requires students to actively participate in music making projects that are based on traditions, lore, landmark achievements, languages, etc. The music teaching-learning environment plays a key role in the educational process. The praxial curriculum is by itself, informative. Regelski explains that the spiral of a praxis-based curriculum includes realistic examples and practical challenges and skills develop according to “the progression of technical and musical demands as instruction gradually becomes ever more ‘real life’ in the kinds and conditions of musical praxis addressed” (Regelski, 17). Students are encouraged to perform and performing is supplemented with improvising, composing, arranging, and conducting projects. All music students are regarded as apprentice musical practitioners (Regelski, 17) and are taught how to find and solve problems in music through conversation during the process of making music. Students hereby acquire greater knowledge in musicianship. Thus this philosophy focuses on providing an artistic curriculum-as-practicum for all music students.

Works Cited

Alperson, Philip (1991). What Should One Expect from a Philosophy of Music Education? Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 25, No. 3, Special Issue: Philosophy of Music and Music Education, (1991), pp. 215-242. University of Illinois Press.

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Cooper, Graydon Lynn (2004). Teaching Band & Orchestra: Methods and Materials. GIA Publications, 2004.

Elliott, J. David (1991). Music Education as Aesthetic Education: A Critical Inquiry. The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning, Volume II, Number 3,1991, pp. 50-65.

Elliott, J. David (1995). Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education. Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.

Goble, J. Scott (2003). Perspectives on Practice: A Pragmatic Comparison of the Praxial Philosophies of David Elliott and Thomas Regelski. Philosophy of Music Education Review, Volume 11, Number 1, 2003.

Gould, Elizabeth (2007). Thinking (as) Difference: Lesbian Imagination and Music. Women & Music, Volume 11, 2007, pp. 17+.

Langer, K. Susanne (1958). The Cultural Importance of the Arts – In (Aesthetics and Problems of Education, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1971, p. 94).

Mackinlay, Elizabeth; Collins, Denis and Owens, Samantha (2005). Aesthetics and Experience in Music Performance. Cambridge Scholars Press, 2005.

Regelski, A. Thomas. Implications of Aesthetic versus Praxial Philosophies of Music for Curriculum Theory in Music Education. 1-18.

Reimer, Bennett (1989a). Music Education as Aesthetic Education: Past and Present. Music Educators Journal, Vol. 75, No. 6, 1989, pp. 22-28. Web.

Reimer, Bennett (1989b). Music Education as Aesthetic Education: Toward the Future. Music Educators Journal, Vol. 75, NO. 7, 1989, pp. 25-32.

Swanwick, Keith (1996). A Basis for Music Education. Routledge Publishers, London, 1996.

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