music education as a tool in preserving dominant canadian culture

jillian sudayan

(((Jillian is a U4 Music Education Undergraduate at McGill University. Her experiences as a second-generation Filipina born in Montreal, Quebec helped shape her career endeavors and her artistic expressions)))

Canada’s multiculturalism policy promotes the acceptance and celebration of diverse cultures and promises great opportunities for all Canadians, sounding positive in theory. The Canadian Multicultural Act states that it “encourage[s] the preservation, enhancement, sharing and evolving expression of the multicultural heritage of Canada” (1988, 5.1.e). However, Canada’s model of multiculturalism has been challenged on several sides. Most notably, Quebec has openly disagreed with federal multiculturalism policy and follows its own model of interculturalism (Fleras & Elliot, 2002). Aboriginal peoples also reject the idea of a reductionist multicultural policy, preferring a multi-nation framework that recognizes their collective right to special status and entitlements (Fleras & Elliot, 2002). Multiculturalism is a highly contested concept, both in terms of its theoretical approach and its practice. In practicing music education as well, we must question this policy. The current music education curriculum remains structured around Eurocentric minority perspectives that do not reflect Canada’s racial, ethnic and cultural diversity. As a form of historical documentation, musical education has the potential to promote cultural practices that students of different backgrounds can identify with. While the current curriculum is guided by Canadian multicultural policy, this paper critiques this curriculum and demonstrates how it can promote internalized forms of oppression in elementary and high school aged youth. In framing music education as a tool for dominant perspectives, educators as well as community members can then reflect on the impact they will have on students’ identity of self as well as their connection to society.

Within the past century, Canadian society has seen an increase in immigration for social and economic development. Although Canadian demographics are changing and forcing the country’s citizens to consider new ways of living together, Fleras & Elliot state that “for most of the modern era, Western societies [have embraced] the universal and the uniform as a basis for living together.” Similarly, a participant in Walker’s discussion group (cited in Morton) “wondered if multiculturalism was simply a ‘reaction to immigration’ rather than a strategy to better appreciate and respect ethnic diversity”. Multiculturalism policy can be seen as the result of decisions made by a ruling class that has a limited understanding of the immigrants that have chosen Canada as their country of residence. Fleras & Elliot, note that “multiculturalism has been criticized as a paternalistic solution to the ‘problem’ of minorities”, and have argued that multiculturalism is a concept that is contradictory “politically and economically” in that “it has the potential to actually compromise minority rights and shore up vested interests, even when it is intended to do the opposite”.

The realities of racial discrimination, classism, and sexism are evident within the music education curriculum as well. With regards to cultural diversity in music education, Schippers explains that “taking a serious interest in musical genres in music education accelerated considerably in the 1980s, when government and educational policies started recognizing the importance and realities of cultural diversity more widely.” However, by drawing from the expanding repertoire and musical genres that have been made available to music educators, there is a “construction of musical difference” and “process of categorization” (Koza, 2009). Koza argues that the construction of musical difference is “an effect of power and is accomplished by the materialization of categories or styles of music…(playing) a role in the systematic inclusion or exclusion of people.” According to Koza, “people’s bodies have been sorted and ordered through a process of differencing that materializes them as raced, a method of categorization that can be applied to music”. Music is often labeled according to its country and/or culture of origin. Categorizing people as well as music, however, “systematically advantages some groups of people while disadvantaging others” (Koza, 2009), thus demonstrating the ways in which music education also lends itself to the perpetuation of racial inequities.

Now, let us analyze the effects of teaching music education within a multicultural framework. Schippers explains that the “methods of teaching, as well as approaches to concepts such as tradition, context, authenticity, and the position of the music in society are strongly influenced by the institutional environment.” In the music curriculum, students are expected to “understand how to hear, replicate and create the similarities and differences that distinguish one musical style from another, to identify the style, genre or even the probable composer of unfamiliar works” (Koza, 2009). It is normal for teachers to instruct the way that they themselves have been trained; however we must question teachers’ choices in repertoire with regards to what is viewed as the correct or incorrect method of understanding music. In Canadian society “a single musical culture, Western European art music, is perpetuated through most collegiate programs in music” (Campbell, 1996). Elliott outlines two weaknesses in the music education curriculum as follows:

(1) it is often biased from the outset by its reliance on the ‘aesthetic’ perspective inherent in the notion of ‘teaching from musical concepts’; and (2) the music chosen for study in this curriculum tend to be limited to styles available in the contemporary musical life of the host culture (16).

Given these assertions, critical questions arise with regards to the multicultural curriculum in Canadian schools. For instance, what values are being taught to students about musical practice in the classroom and their participation in society? One could argue that students are required to learn music by “following the leader,” which in the context of North American music education, “sanctions a hierarchical and, paradoxically, a rather undemocratic view of society” (Elliot, 1989). The music education curriculum can thus be viewed as assimilationist. Elliot identifies this type of curriculum by its “exclusive concern with the major musical styles of the Western European ‘classical’ tradition, the ‘elevation of taste’ and the breakdown of minority students’ affiliations with popular and/or subculture music where the ‘classics’ are considered superior to the musical products of minorities and subgroups.” Musical repertoire apart from the Western European “classical” tradition can be seen as emphasizing “musical diversity rather than human diversity” (Morton, 2000). What then, can be said about music from Indigenous cultures and other cultures from around the world, which are not included in the category of traditional Western European art music? Where do other genres such as Rap and Hip Hop find themselves in the music curriculum? How can we understand music categorized as “other” and students’ relationship to it?

Morton describes the confusion concerning ethnicity and diversity that “originates from shifts in population demographics which continue to shape the Canadian population, while the music teaching profession remains relatively middleclass, white and female.” In order to gain a variety of perspectives and experiences, schools must take seriously the way that people identify themselves and identify with others (McGowan, 1998). It is important to understand how we identify ourselves, and the ways in which social values and biases are reflected back to us. Taylor (cited in Morton) describes the politics of recognition as follows:

Our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or a contemptible picture of themselves. Non recognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being (252).

As stated by McCarthy, Hudak, Allegretto, Miklaucic and Saukko, “if it can be argued that young people construct their identities through social formation of boundaries, then it is important to uncover how social, cultural, and political boundaries are created and lived through popular music.” Elizabeth Ellsworth (cited in McCarthy et al., 1999) argues that “the task of liberatory education is not to eliminate difference, but rather to create a dialogue across differences such that alliances may be formed in the struggle against oppressive social institutions and structures.” Moreover, Hudak explains that “racial formation is socially constructed (and continually contested) within the parameters of existing relations of power within the school (and societal) context.” Students live within contextual social structures with which they identify, measuring their value against a certain standard. Hall (cited in Dimitriadis and Kamberelis, 1999) states that “identities are recognized as multiple, complex, porous, and shifting sets of positioning, attachments, and identifications through which individuals and collectives understand who they are and how they are expected to act across a range of diverse social and cultural landscapes.” Viewing an individual’s identity in the larger social context of the classroom, as well as in comparison with larger social formations, is “always tentative and partially unstable because they are continually constructed within particular configurations of discursive and material practices that are themselves constantly constituting and reconstituting themselves” (Dimitriadis and Kamberelis, 1999). This definition of student identity, which highlights the fluid but contested forms of discourse and pedagogy, is consistent with Canada’s social context which is marked by changes in demographics, economic, social and political formations. If we are to identify Canada’s diverse population according to its multicultural heritage, then why is there a line drawn between “us” and “them”? Furthermore, are students of color building a sense of identity in the framework of multiculturalism that is actually harmful for them and their understanding of the society they live in?

Music educators, as representatives of the existing musical structure, deal with choices that must take into account several of these contradictions. They must make choices that are considerate of their students’ well-being and learning with knowledge taken from their own training. On the one hand, they are asked to use styles of music making that are not from the traditional Eurocentric music program for addressing the multicultural classroom and curriculum. On the other hand, music educators are not always aware of the implications that these styles and teaching methods may have on their students. Left to address the classroom and curriculum with its several contradictions, Schippers declares that “it is not the music teachers of the world who are to blame; the main weaknesses lie in teacher training”. Campbell’s description of American music educators’ multicultural education training can be applied to Canadian music educators as well:

A single musical culture which is Western European art music, is perpetuated through most collegiate programs in music. Yet upon graduation and placement in their first teaching positions, music educators are confronted with school wide missions to teach subjects globally and from a multicultural perspective. The canon of musical works they learned in their undergraduate studies do not often transfer, even in part, to the expectations of school personnel for music repertoire and programs. Principals, parents’ groups, and the public at large who press for more culturally diverse curriculum have teachers of music scrambling for music they never learned and songs they never knew. Workshops, clinics and seminars become important means for learning something of musical cultures with attention to repertoire that is easily accessible and readily learned. Thus, while Western European art music is common musical language of those trained in American conservatory–styled colleges and universities, it is increasingly viewed by teachers as only one of the many musical cultures (admittedly with its own rich diversity of historical and contemporary styles) to be experienced and learned by students in elementary and public schools (2).

Music education, as a structure that simultaneously upholds dominant structures and places demands on its educators to teach with a global and multicultural perspective, does not prepare educators well enough to deal with their multiethnic classrooms. Schippers states that “in any teaching situation, they are required to take position consciously with regard to the cultural setting they are in, sensitive to the choices open to them with regard to tradition, context, and authenticity, and choose their approach to teaching accordingly.”

There must be sensitivity towards the students, in addressing the different identities at play within a society that includes people of different cultural backgrounds. For music educators, what may seem to be innocent in their methods of teaching and choices of repertoire must be analyzed further to understand the potentially harmful implications that these choices may have on their students in the near and far future. Koza’s critical analysis on the state of music education provides some possible ways of addressing the tension in the existing music education curriculum which sustains the dominant Western European perspective. She sends an invitation to all music educators:

Continue to listen for Whiteness (and their white privilege), not to affirm it, but to recognize its intitutional presence, understand its technologies, and thereby work toward defunding it. Not only is it important that music educators talk substantively about race in discussions of school music, but also that we explore multiple ways of thinking and talking about music, learning, teaching and quality (93).

Living in a country that claims to be a multicultural society, we are asked to have a global and multicultural perspective on the world. This also affects how we teach in the educational system. However, is it even possible to consider multiculturalism as a policy that is fitting for the whole of Canadian society? Music education must address the growing diversity in its classroom, and to be wary of the ways in which it covertly and overtly excludes minority perspectives.


Canadian Multiculturalism Act. SC 1988m c.31

Campbell, P. S. (1996). Music in Cultural Context: Eight Views on World Music Education. Reston, Virginia: Music Educators National Conference.

Dimitriadis, G., & Kamberelis G. (1999). Talkin’ Tupac: Speech Genres and the Mediation of Cultural Knowledge. In C. McCarthy, G. Hudak, S. Miklaucic & P. Saukko (Eds.), Sound Identities: Popular Music and the Cultural Politics of Education (pp. 119-150). New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Elliot, D. J. (1989). Key Concepts in Multicultural Music Education. In T. Rice & P. M. Shand (Eds.) Multicultural Music Education: The “Music Means Harmony” Workshop (pp. 9-18). Toronto, Ontario: Institute for Canadian Music.

Fleras, A., & Elliot, J. L. (2002). Engaging Diversity: Multiculturalism in Canada, Second Edition. Toronto, Ontario: Nelson Thomson Learning.

Hudak, G. M. (1999). The “Sound” Identity: Music-Making and Schooling. In C. McCarthy, G.

Hudak, S. Miklaucic & P. Saukko (Eds.), Sound Identities: Popular Music and the Cultural Politics of Education (p. 447-474). New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Koza, J. E. (2009). Listening for Whiteness: Hearing Racial Politics in Undergraduate School Music. In T. A. Regelski & J. T. Gates (Eds.), Music Education for Changing Times: Guiding Visions for Practice (pp.85-95). London, New York: Springer Science+Business Media.

McCarthy, C., Hudak, G., Miklaucic, S., & Saukko, P. (1999). Anxiety and Celebration: Popular Music and Youth Identities at the End of the Century. In C. McCarthy, G. Hudak, S. Miklaucic & P. Saukko (Eds.), Sound Identities: Popular Music and the Cultural Politics Education (pp. 1-15). New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

McGowan, M. O. (1998). Diversity of What? In R. Post & M. Rogin (Eds.), Race and Representation: Affirmative Action (pp. 237-250). New York: Zone Books.

Morton, C. (2000). In the Meantime: Finding a Vision for Multicultural Music Education in Canada. In B. Hanley & B. A. Roberts (Eds.), Looking Forward: Challenges to Canadian Music Education (pp. 251-272). Canada: The Canadian Music Educators Association.

Schippers, H. (2010). Facing the Music: Shaping Music Education from a Global Perspective. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.