Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Pedagogical Musings: Music Preference & Social and Cultural Identity

As we all explore ways to be more diverse and inclusive, I want to share a few thoughts.

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There is a 2002 study by Angela Turton and Colin Durrant called “A study of adults’ attitudes, perceptions and reflections on their singing experience in secondary school: some implications for music education.” In that study, the overwhelming number one reason that female-identifying respondents said they did not enjoy singing in school was “Didn’t sing my style of music” – nearly 100%. Male-identifying students’ number one reason was that they were insecure with their voice (I can relate with that!).

Music choice has a huge impact on our students and its psychological. It relates to what researchers call musical and cultural identity. In 2016, Karen Thomas published “Music Preferences and the Adolescent Brain: A Review of Literature.” In the paper she discusses why adolescents are drawn to certain types of music. the limbic system, which is involved in emotional processing and is associated with the reward and pleasure center, matures before the prefrontal cortex during adolescent brain development. Adolescence can be a very emotional and passionate stage in development, and intense connections between emotions and music can be made during this time due to the developments occurring in the brain.

Many teenagers identify with others who like similar music and tend to group themselves accordingly. Social cliques are often formed in high school among teens with similar music preferences. For example, teens who prefer heavy metal music are more likely to socialize with those who have similar tastes, as opposed to socializing with teens who may prefer different styles, such as jazz music (North, Hargreaves, & O’Neill, 2000). Many teens feel a strong need to fit in and be accepted socially, so their musical preferences may change depending on their social situation. Adolescent music preference sometimes serves as an outward identifier to other teens, indicating to a certain extent their ideals and personality. North et al. (2000) stated, “an expressed preference for a particular style may carry an implicit message to other adolescents regarding a range of attitudes and values” (p. 258). While teenagers are developing their identities, their emotional and reward systems in the brain are at peak development, which often takes precedence over their cognitive reasoning. Their musical preferences may have a lot to do with their urge to take risks or to find a means for emotional release.”Teens are drawn to music to fit in with others, to express their emotions, and oftentimes for catharsis. “adolescent music listening motivations can be categorized into two systems: (a) satisfaction of individual needs, such as regulation of emotions and (b) satisfaction of social needs, such as social or musical identity.” We learn more and more about mental health all the time, but now that we are learning music choice plays a role, we need to think about the psychological aspect of rep choices as well as the pedagogical value.

As we continue to explore Diversity and Inclusion, we also have to discuss cultural identity. If a student is raised in a home where one type of music is part of their cultural identity and we tell them they must learn another style to take lessons, we are telling them that their culture is not worthy of study. I’m not saying this is everyone’s intentional motive, but it can easily be perceived that way by people from marginalized communities. In this country, with very few exceptions, we tell BIPOC youth that they cannot become a music educator unless they adopt white European music to gain admittance to a university music education program. But they are not coming from European households. So we are telling them they must abandon what is important to them and accept what is important to us, the gatekeepers. That’s called acculturation.

“Acculturation is a process of social, psychological, and cultural change that stems from the balancing of two cultures while adapting to the prevailing culture of the society.” This is how we have operated in higher ed since the beginning of music education and now its failures are coming to light more than ever before. We have students who desperately want BIPOC faculty, but we all struggle to find teachers to hire for R&B, Gospel, or Hip-Hop styles because artists from those backgrounds have no pathway to earning a terminal degree in our current system. So they are barred from contributing to the education of the next generation.

There is no singular person to blame for this, but its been happening for too long and it has to change.This country will be majority non-white by 2045, which means we are becoming a country where the majority will not identify with European cultural identity. Our schools of music will collapse if we shut out half of our population from our field over the next couple of decades. But even worse, we are stopping students from being exposed to powerful music from other cultures that is just as important as Beethoven and Mozart. In this time of crisis we are all reevaluating a lot of what we do and considering how we may have unintentionally shut others out.

I want to encourage everyone to re-think traditions we’ve clung to, to study what we are learning about music preference, social and cultural identity, and adapt. Its time. Vocal function is taught through exercises and applied through repertoire. We can still teach great singing through any rep, we just have to be open to definitions of “great” that are different than what we were taught when we were students. None of these conversations are easy and this is not meant to single anyone out, we were all raised in this system and it is all that we know. But there has never been a better time to change than now and reimagine what vocal training can and should be in the 21st century.

There are many shades of gray to everything in this post and I know everything is not as cut and dry as what I write. But this post is meant to initiate conversations, to lead us all to reflect on the past and the future, to build a better world for ALL musicians. Please feel free to contribute to the conversation in the comments section, I look forward to hearing your perspectives.

Thanks for reading! ~ Matt

2 comments on “Pedagogical Musings: Music Preference & Social and Cultural Identity

  1. Cathy Harris
    August 28, 2020

    I started teaching in a school 12 years ago where I was told to teach classical. I quickly realised the students were not going to relate to classical, so started introducing R&B. When I was playing a song from Brian McKnight I had the captain of the senior boys rugby team look in the window and ask what I was doing and could he come in. Next week I had 15 boys come to class.

    Using the kids style of music has not only taught the students better but has also taught me a lot. I love seeing their faces when I pick a song they love. I have one rule though, if they can’t sing the song to their nanna, they can’t sing it for me.


  2. Ann Schoenecker
    August 28, 2020

    Thank you, Matt!!


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This entry was posted on August 28, 2020 by in Misc. Thoughts.

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