The “General” in General Music

Recently, students in my general music seminar at the University of Miami debated the use of the term “general” in “general music.” I thought it was worth reflecting on the term given its power to limit, define, confuse, or clarify.

Descriptions of general music have proved confounding and contribute to its ambiguity. It is not uncommon for “other” music courses—meaning courses other than large performance ensembles—to be clumped under the term general music. General music has been distinguished from other types of music education through various descriptors of exclusion, function, and character, such as “non-performance,” “avocational,” and “alternative,” respectively. Some of these descriptors “other” or marginalize general music, focusing on what it does not do rather than what it does. Furthermore, they have done little to clarify the concept and can be limiting in excluding certain music learning experiences. With that said, setting general music apart from other types of music education can prove useful, both theoretically, for critical reflection and philosophical discourse, and practically, for policy, curriculum design, and instruction.

The qualifier, “general,” has been thought to be problematic because it suggests generality over detail, depth, and specificity in the study of music. But is it as problematic as some might suggest? Referring to something as “general” has been embraced in other professions. For example, a general practitioner is a medical doctor who is not restricted by specialty, and is the primary care giver when someone seeks medical advice or routine health assessments. The work of this doctor is no less valuable to patients than other forms of medical care. A general linguist is an expert who studies elements of language rather than focusing on a specific language. While this linguist may not examine a particular language in great depth, the value provided is in the broad study of language as a system of human communication. These generalists serve a unique and important function in their respective fields. So too do general music teachers.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 11.21.23 AMThe general music teacher, by definition, is a brand of music educator who provides a learning environment for students to develop musical knowledge, skills, and understandings through a wide array of experiences—from performance to deep listening to composition to historical study of music. This is different from the generalist teacher (classroom teacher) who provides instruction in all subjects (sometimes including music) and does not specialize or necessarily have formal training in music. The general music teacher is typically afforded the freedom to construct a curriculum that is not restricted to any one form of music making and learning, or specific style and genre of music. This freedom and breadth can seem overwhelming, especially for the inexperienced general music teacher, but it also offers the potential for the development of students’ diverse musical intelligences, which can lead to more specialized forms of music instruction, if so needed or sought by students. The holistic approach applied by general music teachers is no less challenging, relevant, or important than the specialized approach applied by other music teachers (e.g., performance ensemble teachers or guitar teachers).

“General” can also be associated with people, as in “general population” and “general public.” Historically, general music has referred to courses that are offered to all students, rather than the more closed systems of music education, which may assume a background in music performance or require an audition. Though inequities of access and quality are a reality, it is a type of music education that has consistently strived to realize Karl Gehrkens’ 1923 call and the profession’s mantra of the 20th century, “Music for Every Child; Every Child for Music”. This reference to all people rather than a few or specific groups, is most appropriate for general music because it is a curriculum designed to serve all students, regardless of talent, background, or socioeconomic status. This, in part, though not alone, is a defining characteristic of general music.

Is “general” music just good music teaching or is it truly something different from other forms of musically educating?

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