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Praxial Music EducationReflections and Dialogues$

David J Elliott

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780195385076

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195385076.001.0001

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Listening Reconsidered

Listening Reconsidered

(p.123) 7 Listening Reconsidered
Praxial Music Education

David J. Elliott

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Historically, music listening became a part of music education curricula when broadcasting and recording made both live and recorded performances widely available to school students. David Elliott claims that the most expert form of listening is listening within the act of making music. This chapter explores where Elliott places music listening in the context of the praxial philosophy he articulates in his 1995 book Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education, the implications of his writings about music listening for music educators and music students, and other models and thinking that can contribute to the professional dialogue about music listening. Throughout his book, Elliott emphasizes actions — specifically, the actions of making music, which he labels “musicing”. He states that listening is “a covert (or internal) form of thinking-in-action and knowing-in-action that is procedural in essence”. One of the challenges in reading Elliott's work with respect to listening is that procedural knowledge is not the equivalent of music making.

Keywords:   music listening, music making, musicing, thinking-in-action, knowing-in-action, procedural knowledge

The music industry measures music “listenership” (Elliott’s word) by the billions of dollars. In 1999 sales of all music formats worldwide were 3.8 billion units, with compact discs accounting for 65 percent of that market (Masson 2000). In the same year, over $1 billion in revenue was generated collectively by popular touring acts and artists who performed over six thousand concerts (“Tour Attractions” 2000). In 2000 consumers in the United States alone spent $14.3 billion on CD recordings (Recording Industry Association 2000). In the same year, approximately 32 million concertgoers attended performances by over twelve hundred symphony orchestras in the United States (American Symphony Orchestra League 2001), and 40 million American adults tuned their radio dials to country music stations (Country Music Association 2000). Music listening is, apparently, alive and well.

Historically, music listening became a part of music education curricula when broadcasting and recording made both live and recorded performances widely available to school students (Mark and Gary 1992). Today, publishers of music series books for elementary and middle school students produce CD packages that include recordings of songs, accompaniment tracks for group singing, and hundreds of selections intended specifically for music-listening experiences. Similarly, instrumental music method books and materials now include recordings designed with the specific intention that students listen and play along. Orchestras mount young people’s concerts, and opera companies and other musical ensembles broadcast performances on public radio and television in order to develop future audiences, otherwise known as music listeners.

David Elliott challenges music educators to consider music listening from a different paradigm and to change our definition of listening, including what music listening is and how expertise in listening develops. Elliott describes music listenership (p.124) not only as listening to live or recorded performances, but also as listening while one is performing. The most expert form of listening, he claims, is listening within the act of making music.

In this chapter we examine the following questions: Where does Elliott place music listening in the context of the praxial philosophy he articulates in Music Matters? What are the implications of his writings about music listening for music educators and music students? What other models and thinking can contribute to the professional dialogue about music listening?

Music Listening and Praxial Philosophy

Throughout Music Matters, Elliott emphasizes actions—specifically, the actions of making music, which he labels “musicing.” If music-making actions include, as Elliott suggests, “performing, improvising, composing, arranging, and conducting” (1995, 40), where does listening fit? The answer lies in Elliott’s definition of music as “a multidimensional human phenomenon involving two interlocking forms of intentional human activity: music making and music listening” (42). So critical and complex is the relationship between music making and music listening that both are required for a musical practice to exist.

Elliott describes music listening as a specific kind of human action that is distinct from the action of music making. While music making is overt and observable, music listening is covert and (largely) not observable. The action of music listening, then, is a “form of thinking-in-action and knowing-in-action” (80) in which one is processing musical information, or thinking musically. Furthermore, the actions of music making and music listening occur in sociocultural contexts that musicers and listeners share. In Elliott’s words:

By calling this a praxial philosophy I intend to highlight the importance it places on music as a particular form of action that is purposeful and situated and, therefore, revealing of one’s self and one’s relationship with others in a community. The term praxial emphasizes that music ought to be understood in relation to the meanings and values evidenced in actual music making and music listening in specific cultural contexts. (14)

Just as music making is a context-dependent art, music listening is “a context-dependent process” (81) in which the mutually held beliefs and understandings in a particular community of music listeners and music makers frame that specific musical practice. These points form the underpinning of Elliott’s writings about music listening. Briefly stated, (1) music making and music listening are human actions that together constitute musical practices; (2) music listening is a covert form of thinking and knowing in action; and (3) both music making and music listening (and therefore music practices and music) are culturally situated actions.

Within the context of each musical practice, listening occurs in two different ways: listening inside the act of making music, and listening outside the act of making music. In the “inside listener” (our term) category, the listener and maker are one and the same individual. “Music makers,” Elliott writes, “listen for what their thoughtful (p.125) actions produce and for what other musicers do and make” (78). Inside listeners include the soloist listening to himself or herself playing while practicing alone, rock band members listening to each other as they perform, the young composer listening to his or her music as it unfolds, and the conductor listening to an ensemble as he or she leads it in a concert. For inside listeners, the action of listening is embedded in the action of making music, or “musicing,” as Elliott defines it.

In contrast, “outside listeners” (our term) are not actively engaged in music making during the act of listening. Instead, they are listening from the perspective of observer. Elliott notes that “each musical practice usually includes (or attracts) a group of people who act specifically as listeners or audiences for the musical works of that practice” (78). Audience members, however, are not the only members of the outside-listener category. Elliott describes listeners in any musical practice as listening “for the musical products of that kind of musicing” (41). The products of a musical practice may include live and recorded performances. Outside listeners are those who listen to recorded performances in the comfort of their homes (or elsewhere) or audience members at live performances.

The various kinds of listeners, then, may be grouped as shown in Figure 7.1. Musicer A is the individual who is actively making music and simultaneously listening to the product of his own musicing (and that of others, if he or she is an ensemble member). When musicer A performs for individuals who are not fellow collaborators in the act of making music, a second group of listeners is engaged—audience members. Still another group, listeners, actively attends to recorded performances by musicer A or other music makers. Musicer B, a new kind of listener born in the twentieth century, is the individual who actively makes music within the context of recorded performances by others. Musicer B might be the young jazz musician practicing or improvising with a recorded accompaniment track, a group singing along with a karaoke machine, or even a driver singing along with a favorite song on the car radio. For musicer A and musicer B, both music making and music listening are operative and occur simultaneously. Audience members and listeners are listening as well, but they are not actively making music simultaneously with the action of listening.

Listening expertise may vary significantly among the members of any single category of listenership represented in Figure 7.1. Differences in listening expertise, according to Elliott, are related to an individual’s expertise as a music maker. A proficient concert soloist, for example, is likely to be a more proficient listener than a novice music maker on the same instrument, though both are members of the musicer A category in Figure 7.1. Similarly, the audience member attending a concert to listen to a favorite piece of music is likely to have more listening expertise than the audience member encountering that same concert experience for the first time.

But another distinction regarding listening expertise can be drawn. In Music Matters, Elliott implies that individuals who have crossed the horizontal axis of Figure 7.1 (our representation) into the realm of “musicer” have an advantage over those who have not. The inside listeners, or musicer A and musicer B, are music practitioners, and the more experience of making music that one has, the more insider knowledge one has available when engaged in the action of listening from the audience or listener perspective. The listener or audience member who has also been a musicer, particularly a musicer in the same practice, listens with more expertise than the listener (p.126)

                   Listening Reconsidered

FIGURE 7.1 Types of Music Listenership

or audience member who has not been a musicer because of the knowledge acquired through music making.

A caveat merits consideration here. “Audience” is a culture-specific term we have come to associate with those attending a live performance, usually a performance of Western music. “Listener,” as we have used it here—one who listens to recorded music without making music at the same time—is also culture-specific. Because both are so situated, neither may hold much meaning outside of Western music practices.

Still, all forms of listenership are (or can be) listening-in-action and knowing-in-action. According to Elliott, listeners can be said to “know” if, “upon hearing the initial patterns of [a] piece, they believe certain sound patterns will follow that do in fact follow,” “they can detect variations, errors, or omissions in [a] performance” of the piece, or “they know how to sing, whistle, or hum along accurately” (79). In other words, expert listeners know how musical patterns unfold; they have “style-specific cognitive processes” (79).

Cognition figures prominently in Elliott’s writing about listening. Listening differs from hearing, which may be a washover experience or one of simple identification only (e.g., “I hear the train”). Evidence that an individual is indeed listening to music is that he or she is, at the very least, consciously attending to musical sounds. Furthermore, the focus and direction with which one listens to and for something in music implies intent, and intention is yet another critical element in the covert act of listening. In Elliott’s words,

intelligent music listening requires that we employ our powers of consciousness deliberately to achieve an intention. In music listening, “getting something done” is a matter of thinking and knowing in relation to auditory events…. Music listening requires us to interpret and construct auditory information in relation to personal understandings and beliefs. (1995, 80–81)

What listeners construct are “the complex physical events we experience as musical sound patterns” (83). Music listening, then, is not merely perception or processing. Music listening is a form of cognition in which one is thinking musically.

(p.127) Elliott on Listening and Ways of Knowing

Elliott expends considerable effort in describing the act of listening. He states that listening is “a covert (or internal) form of thinking-in-action and knowing-in-action that is procedural in essence” and “that at least four other kinds of musical knowing contribute to the procedural essence of music listening in a variety of ways” (81).

We would like to argue that Elliott’s philosophy actually implies several ways of knowing and types of knowledge that may be arranged hierarchically on two levels. This rearrangement of ways of knowing and types of knowledge may be more logical and useful for music educators.

First and foremost, Elliott makes a clear distinction between learning that is verbally based and that which is not verbal, or procedural, as illustrated in Figure 7.2. In verbally based learning, all musical sounds and knowledge are mediated through words. For example, music may be explained to the learner, or the learner may read or hear verbal descriptions about music. A listener may also reason about music verbally, respond to questions about music verbally, or discuss music verbally with others. In other words, knowledge can be acquired and shared through verbal means, and knowledge can be remembered and utilized verbally, including knowledge about music.

When musical knowledge is learned through words, knowledge itself is fundamentally verbal, not musical. The words act as mediators between the music and the learner. When knowledge is only verbal, the learner cannot have direct understanding of the music because the learner does not have direct contact with the music. Although one would be hard pressed to completely discount the value of verbal learning in music listening, it is equally obvious that verbal knowledge is woefully incomplete without direct experiences of music. One cannot learn about music through words alone.

To benefit from verbal ways of knowing, one must have knowledge of the language used, including understanding of the language’s rules, syntax, logic, and etiquette. These language rules, often unwritten and unconscious, allow one to utilize the language. As obvious as this seems, it is an important concept to appreciate in order to understand Elliott’s next mode of learning or way of knowing music.

Elliott contrasts verbal ways of knowing with nonverbal ways of knowing. Of these, the most important in his writing is the procedural knowledge that is acquired and used when engaged in music making and listening. This type of knowledge is the musical “sense” that enables a person to make musical sounds. For music makers, procedural knowledge includes performing patterns appropriately, sensing the common beat, performing in tune, and other acts of making music that help the musicer develop understanding of the unwritten syntax of music. For music listeners, “the procedural essence of music listening consists in such covert, nonverbal acts as constructing coherent musical patterns, chaining musical patterns together, making same-different comparisons among and between patterns, and parsing musical patterns together” (85), as well as other, similar covert cognitive actions. Procedural knowledge is unmediated; the listener is in direct contact with musical sounds and with thinking musically.

According to Elliott, procedural knowledge is also the most important manner in which to learn. Although he states that “the procedural dimension of listenership and (p.128)

                   Listening Reconsidered

FIGURE 7.2 Ways of Knowing Music

the procedural dimension of musicianship are two sides of the same coin” (86), he also implies that procedural knowledge acquired through actively making music is essential to developing listening expertise. “Without developing some competency in the procedural knowings that lie at the core of musical practices and musical works, and a first hand knowledge of the circumstances in which these knowings apply, a listener’s perspective of and relationships with music will remain moot in the most essential regard” (57).

Elliott’s praxial philosophy implies, then, that we experience music directly through the procedural ways of knowing (including both listening and making) and indirectly through verbal ways of knowing. All other types of music knowledge evolve from these two foundations, as shown in Figure 7.3. Formal, informal, impressionistic, supervisory, and technical knowledge (the last element is our addition) are acquired best, and perhaps only, through one of the two basic ways of knowing. According to Elliott, any type of listening that rises above the novice level must involve all types of knowledge and ways of knowing.

Formal knowledge grows directly out of verbal learning and includes theoretical and historical information, as well as labels or terms related to music. Since formal knowledge is verbally based, it is the only type of knowledge that can be acquired without direct contact with music. One may verbally learn the rule that “a flatted seventh scale degree is characteristic of jazz styles.” But formal knowledge can also be derived from procedural modes of knowing when musicers or listeners are engaged in musical problem solving. For example, a musicer or listener may recognize that “flatting the seventh” in a scale sounds more stylistically correct in a jazz tune than in a pop tune and only later verbally “discover” the rule that applies.

Just as formal knowledge grows directly out of the verbal learning mode, technical knowledge grows directly out of the procedural learning mode. By technical knowledge, we mean, for example, the mechanics of how to perform. To play the trumpet, one must learn correct fingerings, how to “buzz,” breathing techniques, and so on. One can read about how to play the trumpet (verbal knowledge), but actually playing the trumpet leads to technical knowledge about trumpet playing, just as reading about the history of a musical work leads to knowledge of music history. We argue (p.129)

                   Listening Reconsidered

FIGURE 7.3 Types of Musical Knowledge

here that technical knowledge is a component of procedural knowledge, but not its equivalent. In Elliott’s writing, procedural knowledge is a more global construct and includes but is not limited to technical knowledge.

The remaining types of knowledge (informal, impressionistic, and supervisory) are, according to Elliott, “non-verbal and situational” (101). In other words, because informal, impressionistic, and supervisory knowledge are acquired through the act of making music, the listener must have sufficient use of procedural knowledge from the perspective of the music maker to make meaningful use of these ways of knowing as a listener.

Informal knowledge involves “knowing how to listen critically—in relation to authoritative principles of musical interpretation and performance” (Elliott 1995, 98). Elliott asserts that listening expertise associated with informal knowledge can be gleaned only from the insider perspective described earlier. Because informal knowledge has to do with reflective music making, one must be an active, goal-directed music maker within a musical practice to acquire and use informal knowledge as a listener. Informal knowledge allows the concert violinist to negotiate and make explicit in performance the subtle differences between the music of Mozart and Beethoven, yet the same technically proficient violinist may be unable to negotiate the larger difference between Beethoven and bluegrass because he or she lacks informal knowledge about the latter musical practice. From the listener’s perspective, informal knowledge is, for example, what makes the music of P. D. Q. Bach humorous. While the novice music listener may laugh at the obvious slapstick comedy involved, the listener with informal knowledge chuckles because “that’s not how it’s done.”

Impressionistic knowledge is what is used to develop “a refined emotional sense or feel for what is musically appropriate, original, and artistically significant in the music one makes or listens for” (Elliott 1995, 98). The “educated feelings” or “cognitive (p.130) emotions” of impressionistic knowledge arise from and are developed within musical practices and lie at the root of musical judgments about what is good and bad, or artistically appropriate or inappropriate. Through “the actions of natural music problem solving” (99), the student develops a refined emotional sense of what works and what doesn’t work. Once attained, impressionistic knowledge can be used in listening experiences outside of music making. But impressionistic knowledge must first be attained, Elliott claims, through the act of making music.

As noted earlier, Elliott describes music listening as thinking-in-action that requires focus and attention directed to the details of musical sound. It is not a washover experience. Supervisory knowledge is the means by which both musicers and listeners “monitor and direct their listening in relation to the several dimensions of meaning or information that musical works evince” (100). Listeners who function above the novice level possess cognitive awareness that allows them to monitor and redirect their own thinking during the act of listening. In effect, supervisory knowledge is “the ability to continuously retarget one’s attention forward to new details or problems in the music one is making or listening for” (100). Elliott notes that “the primary way” to acquire supervisory knowledge is in the context of making music, and “a second way … is to encourage students to reflect verbally about what there is to interpret, express, and listen for in specific works” (101).

Throughout his writing, Elliott implies that the skilled listener must acquire all types of knowledge in order to attain more than a rudimentary level of listening skill. All musicers are listeners; they listen during the act of music making. Elliott also implies that all listeners must be musicers to attain the insider perspective and to attain expertise in listening, as he defines it. The larger implication for music educators is that all learners must first be music makers if the goal of instruction is to increase listening skills. In short, Elliott proposes that one cannot be more than a novice listener without first being able to make music at a meaningful level. In his words,

to educate music listening beyond a novice level requires that music students be inducted into and immersed in musical practices through meaningful music making. Listening artistically for the music one is making oneself (and with others) enables a student to understand how different aspects of musicing and listening relate to one another…. Learning to listen deeply and intelligently for the music of a particular practice requires that students learn music from inside musical practices, from the perspective of reflective musical practitioners. (101)

Questions and Commentary

A fundamental tenet of Elliott’s theory is that essential musical understandings can be acquired only through the process of making music, and knowledge gained in and through music making is prerequisite to achieving listening skills beyond the novice level. A second fundamental premise of Elliott’s theory is that musical experiences are grounded in cultural contexts, and, therefore, musical meaning is embedded in the cultural context and can be deciphered only by a listener who is likewise embedded in the culture. In other words, one cannot have essential knowledge about a given musical practice unless one is immersed in the cultural context of the music.

(p.131) These arguments appear sound, as presented individually in the theory. However, the implications of how these two ideas interact are not fully explored for the act of listening, and this interaction possesses some intriguing questions.

Perhaps the best way to envision the interaction of music making and culture is to plot each as a continuum on a graph. This proposition is presented in Figure 7.4. The horizontal axis represents the degree of a listener’s involvement in music making. The listener with no involvement in music making is at the left end of the continuum, and the listener who is deeply involved in music making is at the opposite end. The vertical axis represents a listener’s involvement in (and understanding of) the culture that surrounds and is part of a musical practice. A listener who is not in the culture would be located at the bottom of the axis. A listener who is totally immersed in the particular culture of the musical practice would be at the top of the axis.

Let us examine four potential listeners represented in Figure 7.4. Listener 1 has a high degree of music-making skill and is simultaneously embedded in the culture of that musical practice. This represents the optimum scenario for advanced listening, in Elliott’s view. Listener 1 perceives and understands the music at the highest possible level. Listener 2, in contrast, is not a music maker and also is not involved in the culture of the musical practice. Listener 2 can make little, if any, sense of the music being heard.

These two scenarios are very clear. However, the picture becomes less clear when we examine listeners 3 and 4. Listener 3 is an active music maker but does not know the musical culture. While listener 3’s level of perception of the music may be high, essential meanings will always be missing. Listener 3 might be, for example, a highly experienced and expert classical musician listening to zydeco. This listener may perceive musical information at a high level but without nonverbal and verbal knowledge of this particular musical practice (or music culture). This kind of music remains for listener 3 essentially meaningless.

Conversely, listener 4 is totally embedded in a musical culture but lacks the types of knowledge that can only be acquired through music making. This listener can extract the cultural meanings of the music but may have difficulty with the musical information. To put a face on this listener, imagine a young person involved in the hip-hop music scene. Hip-hop music presents an interesting challenge for praxial theory in that it has very few actual music makers, but an extensive musical culture (of mostly listeners) attached to it.

One of the implications of Elliott’s theory is that listener 3 is a superior listener to listener 4 by virtue of his or her music-making skills and is therefore able to make more sense of the sounds. However, it can be argued that the cultural experience of listener 4 allows him or her to extract more cultural information and meaning from the music than listener 3. Thus, listener 4 would be the better listener, because the perception of listener 4 is richer in meaning when compared with listener 3. Listener 3 is unable to extract meaning from what is being heard and actually may apply culturally inappropriate meaning.

An important question, then, is how was the knowledge of listener 4 developed? Listener 4, by being involved with the culture, may have had extensive listening experience to musical works within a specific musical practice. But according to praxial theory, repeated listening embedded in the proper cultural context would not necessarily increase listening skill past the novice level without music-making experiences as well.


                   Listening Reconsidered

FIGURE 7.4 Music Making and Cultural Context

This seems contrary to common experience. How is it that non–music makers who are deeply grounded in a musical culture (such as opera fans, Dead Heads, hip-hoppers, or country music fans) are able to develop levels of listening skill not accounted for in praxial philosophy? Can it be that certain interactions between culture and music making create unpredicted consequences?

The relationship between culture and music making as it relates to the act of listening needs to be explored in greater detail within praxial theory. Intense musical cultures, especially those of youth and popular cultures, should be examined in search of individuals who are not necessarily music makers, but who exhibit sophisticated listening skills not accounted for by praxial theory.

Therefore, the first set of questions we pose is: What is the relationship between culture and music making in praxial theory for individuals who are primarily listeners within various musical practices? What are the implications of this relationship for learning to listen?

At the core of the praxial theory is the assertion that music making is the only way to acquire certain types of musical knowledge. Elliott states that “to understand and appreciate an intelligent performance, a spectator (or audience member) requires the same kinds of knowledge as the performer, including a reasonable level of procedural knowledge in performance of that nature” (56).

If Elliott is correct, one would assume that musicians who had performed a work would have more finely attuned responses when listening than those who had not. But (p.133) Frederickson (1999) found no significant difference in perceptions of tension in a wind ensemble work between musicians who had performed the piece (high school and university ensemble members) and those who had not (high school band members who had not yet learned the work and college choral ensemble members). Elliott would attribute the finding of no difference to isotropy, or the ability of music makers to carry forward their musical knowledge to the listening experience. Because all the musicians were experienced performers in Western art music traditions and therefore could be assumed to have “a reasonable level of procedural knowledge,” their perceptions of musical tension as listeners were similar, regardless of the fact that some had performed the work and some had not. At this level of musical expertise, performing the specific musical work was not a sufficiently powerful experience to make a difference in listeners’ perceptions.

Other researchers have shown, however, that repeated listening to music (not performing) does effect a change among listeners, particularly with regard to music preferences. In an extensive literature review, Finnäs (1989) found that preferences for “somewhat complex music can be increased by repeated listening” (77). Hedden (1981) noted, following a similar review, that “sheer repetitions may be sufficient to bring about affective shifts” (24).

Repeated listenings apart from music making do make a difference (at least) in listener preferences, and an individual who is listening more frequently may also be acquiring listening skills of some kind. Repeated listenings within a certain musical practice may give listeners, including individuals who are primarily listeners and not music makers, access to what Elliott describes as informal, impressionistic, and supervisory knowledge. For example, individuals who are fans of a particular style listen with intention and intensity to the point that they can readily identify (and often reject) crossover recordings. Opera and musical theater devotees recognize that singers in one genre are out of their element in the other. Regular listeners to popular music genres excel in identifying artists and musical works when only two-second snippets are provided to the listening audience. Karl Haas, whose radio broadcasts in earlier decades reached thousands nationally, frequently reported that truck drivers were among his most regular, inquiring, and informed listeners. In Elliott’s language, these listeners possess sufficient informal, impressionistic, and supervisory knowledge to make critical judgments. They listen with intention, and they are indeed listening to and listening for. They are listening in the company of a culture of other listeners and operating within a musical practice.

On a practical level, radio stations know that they must balance the number of playings of a song such that they increase familiarity without oversaturating the listener. We would venture to say that everyone reading this could cite an example of an individual who is an acute music listener but not a music maker. How can this be if performance is the only route to expertise in listening? How can we account for music-learning expertise evidenced by familiarity and a listener’s ability to discriminate through repeated exposure? One answer may be that performance or music making is not the only route to listening expertise, but simply the most efficient route. Through performance, listening skills may be enhanced quickly, but given ample effort and dedication, listening skills may be developed to sophisticated levels through other means, including repeated listening.

(p.134) Therefore, the second set of questions we pose is: Can praxial theory allow for the development of music listening skills through repeated listenings of music without the need for music making? If it cannot, how does it address the changes that take place in listening ability through repeated listenings?

Elliott defines procedural knowledge broadly throughout Music Matters. Procedural ways of knowing include not only performing, but also the overt acts of composing, improvising, and moving, as well as covert acts of thinking-in-action and knowing-in-action, as described above. With regard to movement, Elliott notes that “the kinds of moving involved in music making (including conducting) are essential to improving musical understanding, which … is essentially procedural” (103).

An ensemble director intends to shape the music making of ensemble members and communicates that intent nonverbally through movement gestures, otherwise known as conducting. The conductor might be described as successful to the extent that ensemble members follow the intentions communicated in his or her movements. The point here is that the conductor’s movements are specifically and purposefully directed to achieve an intention in the act of music making. The conductor is “making music” (in a form of procedural knowledge) through movement. But what of other movements? Is moving in response to music or movement coordinated with music procedural knowing as Elliott defines it? Do other kinds of moving achieve musical intentions? And what does moving have to do with the act of listening or developing listening expertise?

Elliott holds that “learning to listen critically, with strategic judgment, develops from listening to one’s own efforts to make music well” (1995, 98; italics ours). How does this idea apply for one kind of expert mover and listener—a ballet dancer? One might describe a prima ballerina’s movements as musical and the dancer herself as a listener, because she is performing within the context of music made by others. But the gesture of her arm through the air, for example, does not itself create musical sound, though the same gesture may indeed shape music when the dancer performs with musicians who watch her movements and respond with differences in their playing. Even so, is the intent of the dancer to shape the music via movement, and has the dancer learned to listen expertly by her “own efforts to make music well”?

The same question holds for mover-listeners in earlier stages of development or expertise. For example, we recently watched a two-year-old child respond spontaneously with swaying and shuffling movements to tempo changes in a recording of Vivaldi’s “Spring” Concerto from The Four Seasons. His giggling caused an adult to play the music again, and eventually the child learned to “request” the music by randomly pressing buttons on the sound system. Several days later, he began to change movements a few moments prior to the tempo changes in the same piece. How did this two-year-old child, who appeared to be “listening for,” learn to anticipate and respond to changes in the music?

The movements of the ballerina and of the child differ from the movements of a conductor in that the conductor uses specific movement gestures to shape the collective performance of a group of musicians actively engaged in making music, while the two-year-old child and the ballet dancer move with music or to music but are not usually shaping, directing, or “making” music by virtue of their movements. Yet their movements appear to focus listening and contribute to “knowing” about music.

(p.135) We recognize that our examples are embedded in Western art music traditions, but “conducting” is also a practice-specific term. In some cultures and musical practices, music and movement occur in tandem, with movers giving impetus to the musicers and vice versa. When the mover is performing with live music makers who are sensitized and respond to the nuances of movement to the extent that music is changed, then moving is similar to conducting. Conversely, some movers are moving to the music; they do not intend to make music, nor does the music change by virtue of their actions.

The point here is that Elliott asserts that “the kinds of moving involved in music making” are those that advance listening skills. We can think of examples of moving that appear to advance listening skills, or be related to the development of listening skills, but in which the mover is not a music maker. In some instances, movement may support learning in the way that one form of intelligence or way of knowing supports another (Gardner 1988). Movers may be engaging in thinking-in-action; and even when thinking may be concentrated on movement and moving, listening skills may be advanced. Conversely, several researchers (Cheek 1979; Moore 1984; O’Hagin 1997) have found that focused attention to non-music-making movements, within a music-learning environment, do enhance musical skills. In a review of literature at least one author implies that moving, like repeated listening, may be a less efficient way of learning about music, but effective nonetheless (Lewis 1989).

Although it may be more experiential than procedural, moving without actually performing music may be a powerful way of acquiring listening expertise. Elliott states that one must make music to acquire informal, impressionistic, and supervisory musical knowledge. We posit that non-music-making movers may indeed be “listening to” and “listening for,” and that their direct and indirect listening and moving experiences may be a gateway to musical knowledge and listening expertise as well.

The third set of questions we pose is: Is physical response or movement procedural knowing, as described in praxial philosophy, if no musical sounds are produced or if there is no intent to make music by the mover? How does praxial philosophy account for musical knowledge and listening expertise past the novice level acquired through moving and movement responses? Is there room for ways of knowing that are not directly musicing in praxial philosophy, including movement?

Elliott’s discussion of emotion and music emerges first in his descriptions of impressionistic ways of knowing. Impressionistic knowledge “is a matter of cognitive emotions or knowledgeable feelings for a particular kind of doing and making” (1995, 64). Later Elliott says that impressionistic knowing “involves educated feelings for particular kinds of musicing and listening” (98). Throughout Music Matters, Elliott ties the concept of educated feelings to the listener’s engagement in a musical practice and beliefs about that musical practice. “A fundamental part of the challenge, enjoyment, and human significance of musicing and music listening,” he writes, “concerns the cultural-ideological nature of these forms of action and the cultural-ideological information that musical works convey” (185). When the listener is an enculturated member of a musical practice, then “music listening may also involve cognition of musical expressions of emotion and/or musical representations” (184).

By stating that “thinking and feeling (cognition and affect) are interdependent” (1995, 65), Elliott rejects dualistic concepts of emotion and intellect in favor of current (p.136) mind-brain models of integrated consciousness. In short, there is no thinking without feeling and no feeling without thinking. But Elliott goes one step further by strongly tying the acquisition of cognitive emotion to making music. Recall that the discussion of emotion occurs primarily in the context of impressionistic ways of knowing, which, according to Elliott, are acquired through making music. He says that “the development of impressionistic musical knowledge depends on coaching students to make appropriate appraisals regarding the standards and traditions of practice that apply to musical works that students themselves are learning to interpret, perform, improvise, compose, arrange, and conduct” (99). In other words, emotion is cognized through engagement as a music maker, and “developing [the] refined emotional sense” (98) that Elliott describes as characteristic of competent listeners depends on students participating in music and on teachers coaching them to make judgments about their own performances.

We have no doubt that making music contributes to “cognitive emotion,” as Elliott claims. But to discuss music listening and the responses musical practices evoke among listeners in these terms only seems limiting and even counterintuitive. Emotion may be the reason we listen in the first place. Music can attract the attention of the individual to the point that the music is conscious in that person’s experience. At the moment of consciousness, the individual shifts from “hearer” to “listener”—a shift of consciousness that may be triggered by emotion. In other words, music may come into consciousness because emotion is enacted.

It is also possible that music can arouse emotion to the point that the listener wants to return to the experience of listening or the music itself. Even listening to music outside of practices with which one is familiar may engender emotional response, and although the response may be entirely different from that of the listener with enculturated understandings of the meanings of the music, we would be hard pressed to say emotion is not present. Here we agree with Elliott in part: the specific emotional meanings and referents (all part of “cognitive emotion”) are learned through engagement in the musical practice, whether from the perspective of the listener or from that of the musicer. But it may be emotion or emotional response of a different nature that, in part, brings the music to the consciousness of listeners both inside and outside the practice.

Elliott does not deny that listening to music can be an emotionally satisfying experience. He notes, “The actions of music making and music listening often give rise to experiences of positive or satisfying affect” (1995, 109), and ties his discussion to Csikszentmihalyi’s model of optimal experience or “flow” (1990). In the flow model, one reaches optimal experience through concentrated and directed effort in which the tension between skill and challenge is such that the individual is completely absorbed by and focused on the goal. Achieving a “positive or satisfying affect” requires concentrated effort. Elliott claims, then, that “intelligent music listening consists in deliberate acts of informed thinking in relation to performed or improvised patterns of musical design that, in turn, evince histories and norms of musical practice” (1995, 184); hence, cognitive emotion. But is that the sum total of the emotional experience of music listeners?

Elliott’s concept of cognitive emotion is tied strongly to making music and the flow model. But individuals come to and return to the music they choose for social, (p.137) cultural, intellectual, and emotional reasons that may have nothing to do with music making per se, and other models of emotion and affect could be considered (e.g., Damasio 1994, 1999). People participate in musical cultures for various reasons, including reasons that may have to do with emotion at a deep level. Elliott says that listeners are listening to and listening for. In our experience, listeners also choose what and when, and they may also choose how. Some of that choosing may have to do with emotion.

The fourth set of questions we pose is: How does praxial philosophy account for responses to music that are evident but not related to the cognitive focus of “listening for” something? Are all emotional responses “cognitive emotion,” as defined by Elliott, or are other kinds of emotional response part of the listener’s experience? What do other theories of emotion and brain function have to say about music and listening, and is there room for them in praxial philosophy?

Basic to praxial theory is the idea that music making leads to expert listening. Elliott states that “moving beyond a beginning level of listenership requires that students develop their musicianship by entering into the multidimensional nature of music as a reflective, artistic endeavor.” The road to expert listening is described as “progressive problem solving [that] requires student listeners to take more and more dimensions and details of musical works into account during their efforts to make and listen for music artistically” (1995, 104).

This road map points to a learning process that places the student’s cognitive effort directly at the center of learning to listen. Elliott asserts that it is through students’ reflective practice and performance that listening skills are developed, and he describes reflective practice as a “problem-solving and problem-finding” process in which learning ultimately rests with the learner. There is no reason to suspect that reflective practice is any more or less powerful in music learning than in other domains. However, we fear that Elliott has not adequately addressed the unique difficulties one encounters when attempting to apply reflective practice strategies to the discipline of music, specifically in school settings.

The overriding impression we get from reading Music Matters is that music making leads to enhanced listening skills. We disagree. Music making can lead to improved listening skills, but the relationship is by no means automatic or guaranteed. We can recall examples of students practicing a piece of music repeatedly with a glaring error that is continuously missed. We have heard students in practice rooms playing a blues pattern for twenty minutes or more while something else seems to be going through their minds. We know college music majors who do not remember hearing a single note of their senior recitals. Listening during music making is not a given and sometimes seems to be the exception.

The tone quality, the tempos, or the mistakes that they hear in a recording, but that they did not perceive while performing, often surprise students who hear tapes of their performance. Kepner (1986) convincingly demonstrated the inability of experienced high school musicians to listen to themselves while performing. The students in his study repeatedly missed glaring errors in their own performances. Kepner explains this phenomenon by proposing a sensory-blocking theory that suggests that a student who is playing an instrument is presented with so much sensory information (e.g., visual note reading, kinesthetic fingerings and embouchure, maintenance of beat, visual (p.138) translation of dynamic markings, and maintenance of rhythms) that a type of “sensory overload” occurs, leaving little sensory ability left for the act of listening.

We believe that Kepner has in fact exposed an important limitation to implementing a praxial theory for the development of listening skills. The procedural difficulties inherent in musical performance require extensive cognitive efforts themselves, as well as the cognitive effort required for focused listening. What is missing from Elliott’s work is an acknowledgment that the reflective-practice model of teaching may be harder, much harder, in music than in other disciplines. The student studying poems by Browning is not struggling to achieve motor skills. Likewise, students studying math or science are much better able to concentrate on their thinking and reflection without the distractions of physical performance.

Elliott offers suggestions to music teachers who wish to develop listening skills in their students. He points out that the teacher’s “role is principally one of mentoring, coaching, and modeling for music students conceived as apprentice musical practitioners. All music students … ought to be viewed and taught in the same basic way: as reflective musical practitioners engaged in the kind of cognitive apprenticeship we call music education” (1995, 105). What is being described above is the basic model of the private music lesson, applied to all of music education. Elliott does not address how it would be applied in ensembles or classrooms.

In fairness, we feel Elliott would agree that learning to listen through performance is a difficult process that requires focused teacher intervention. His book was not intended as a method book, so specific teaching strategies are not expected. Still, we feel he has neither explored nor articulated the difficulties and potential problems—problems unique to music listening—with applying an activity-based learning paradigm implied by praxial philosophy to music education. Our fear is that in the absence of a clear articulation of how listening can and should be included, a simple making-music paradigm will be substituted.

Consider that Elliott repeatedly cautions against listening to recordings in music education contexts. “Students have the rest of their lives to listen to recordings of musical performances after schooling is over,” he writes. “The best preparation for listening to musical performances is full participation in music making in the present” (1995, 104). And again, “Listening to recording excludes (or anesthetizes) part of the self, performing partakes of the self as a whole” (103). Although we know of no general listening-only music programs, Elliott is particularly concerned that “general music programs geared to recorded music do not provide the proper conditions for developing the several kinds of knowledge required for intelligent listening because recordings place the student-as-listener outside the artistic decision-making process…. In contrast, music making places the student-as-listener inside the musical works and practices he or she is endeavoring to learn” (99). He further implies that the usefulness of listening to recordings for developing listening skills is, at best, limited. “When artistic music making (which includes artistic music listening) is at the center of the music curriculum, then listening is properly contextualized. As a supplement to music making, listening to recordings provides students with additional opportunities to develop supervisory knowledge” (101).

We believe his case is overstated to the point that music listening becomes negatively associated with listening to recordings in any music education context. Listening (p.139) to recordings is not the problem; how students listen and how they learn to listen, whether from any of the insider or outsider perspectives articulated earlier in this essay, is the crux of the matter. If listening is truly a matter of thinking-in-action, then how students are challenged to think in the act of listening, either to live or recorded music, is the critical issue. We contend, for example, that the teacher directive “listen for the melody” is equally ineffective (from our point of view) whether uttered in reference to music students who are making music or in reference to recordings to which they are listening. In order to help students develop increasingly sophisticated levels of listening expertise, teachers (both in ensembles and classrooms) must have sufficient ability as listeners themselves to find points of access for focused listening and then skillfully question and guide students as they think in the act of listening.

We return to these points, then: listening as thinking-in-action or thinking in the act of listening, whether to live or recorded music, can be enhanced by making music, but music making does not guarantee the advancement of listening skills, nor is the development of listening skills past the novice level dependent on music making. Elliott has devoted considerable effort to convincing the reader of the validity of his praxial theory with respect to listening. But in so doing, he may have led educators to assume that listening skills are being developed through performance-based experiences alone (whether in ensemble or classroom settings) and done an injustice to the challenges that the educator will encounter when actually attempting to develop listening ability.

Therefore, we propose the following questions: What are the challenges unique to music education of implementing music instruction based on a praxial philosophy as it concerns the development of listening skills? What are the underlying issues of these challenges? In what ways is the reflective-practice model adaptable to music learning? What degree of teacher intervention is necessary to achieve enhanced listening skills, both when listening while making music and when listening to live or recorded music that one is not making oneself? How is the model of music instruction being proposed different from the private music lesson model already in place, and how does it work for music listening?


One of the challenges in reading Elliott’s work with respect to listening is that procedural knowledge is not the equivalent of music making. Procedural knowing (which implies action) includes the “thinking-in-action” that Elliott describes as characteristic of both music listening and music making. Still, Elliott’s discussion centers on listening within the context of music making, even in the listening chapters. His ideas about the kinds of thinking-in-action that occur when one is listening only are less well developed and obscured by the repeated emphasis on music making.

Furthermore, throughout Music Matters Elliott places music making in the lead position. He emphasizes that music making is the essential means of knowing about music, critical to acquiring most types of musical knowledge, and fundamental to listening skills past the novice level. But musicers are able to make music precisely because they have heard, often since infancy, the sounds of music around them. The (p.140) musical practices individuals come to know through enculturation alone are the very practices in which they first engage as young children. Musicing does not happen apart from enculturated knowledge of music acquired by listening first.

Listeners—no matter who they are, what they listen to or for, or what their experiences as musicers may be—have lived experiences from which they construct their own meanings about what it is to be a listener, what it is to listen, and what it is to be in a community of like-minded listeners. We have no doubt that making music does indeed contribute to understanding in ways that only performing, improvising, composing, arranging, and conducting can. However, when it comes to listening, we cannot afford to privilege the musicer’s perspective because we cannot claim to know what the listener knows. Apart from a significant body of work on preference and perception, we know very little about how people listen, particularly with regard to listeners in popular-music cultures. As researchers and educators, we rarely listen to the listeners, and when we do, we are not always willing to accept their answers unless they match our own understandings. In short, if listeners do not hear what musicers think they should, or if they fail to describe what they hear in ways that musicers understand, then listeners’ perspectives may be discounted. It may be that individuals who are only listeners possess a kind of musical understanding that musicers can never hope to attain.

While praxial theory offers insights about the end point of expert listening for music makers, it seems less clear for other listeners, other types of listening, and other listening experiences. If one accepts that music listening expertise can be attained only through music making, then it can be argued that expert listening is actually the exception, not the rule, in most Western societies. Music education (at least in the United States) is intended and designed to teach the masses, not the select few who may achieve the level of expert listener in a performance setting. While one would hope that the attainment of this level of listening skill might be a goal of music education, we must acknowledge that this is unlikely given present-day realities. Music education must deal also with developing listening skills that are more in keeping with what one sees in society as a whole.

In this regard, praxial philosophy has a few gaps. The importance—to the listener and to the development of music listening—of culture, emotion, repeated listening, and movement needs to be accounted for in a philosophy of music education that will be useful to the profession as it exists today. At present, key issues involved with nurturing listening skills are unresolved or unaddressed in praxial theory. Conversely, the theory, as presented, seems to be robust enough to allow for expansion to incorporate other ideas. We believe there may be answers to the questions we pose in the research, writing, and conversations that will be part of our collective future.


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