Original title: Towards 2020: Communities, contexts and constructs

Briefing paper for Australian Musical Futures summit 2008


While many of the discussions at the music summit will inevitably focus on formally organised music practices (in schools, in venues, through flagship companies, through business and industry), a great deal of music making is in fact largely unregulated. While this sector may be more difficult to map or measure – as few of its activities require reporting and research is thin on the ground – it can be argued that it is of crucial importance to a healthy Australian musical landscape. Understanding this area better may enable stakeholders to contribute more effectively to sustainability and development. While communities have always engaged with music, and it is possible to distinguish many specific music communities or ‘scenes’ (from jazz to country, and from opera to hip hop), since the 1970s the concept and practice of a ‘proactive community music’ has been on the rise. The latter term refers to active (and mostly positive) interventions in the musical landscape to create a stronger sense of community through music. It is this specific approach to community music that will feature here.

Such social and musical ‘interventions’ are related to changing contexts of what Small (1998)1 aptly refers to as ‘musicking,’

to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practising, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing.

Over the past fifty years, there have been major shifts in how and where people listen to music. Live music has spread from traditional venues to refitted industrial buildings and outdoor festivals. The dichotomy between ‘professionals’ and ‘non-musical’ people has widened. Even more importantly, technological developments have massively altered people’s modes of engagement with music, from amplification to recording, from the earliest films with music to downloads of MP3s and on YouTube, with Web 2.0 technology increasing possibilities for interactivity and creativity.

How these developments progress, and the relative support for each form and expression of music, depends strongly on the values underlying music experiences. Financial and political support is largely based on what Australians (or particular groups of Australians) believe to be the value of music: to themselves, communities, the country, or humanity at large. This is the starting point for advocacy for community music, music therapy, music education, composition, music for films, and performance of all styles and genres across audiences and contexts.


Music Communities in Australia

In order to support a thriving music life in Australia, it is important to understand the nature of various communities or ‘scenes’. One of the challenges of any meeting of those involved on a professional and/or passionate basis is that consensus stops at “Music is a very good thing”. From there, opera lovers and gangsta rappers, classical pianists and rock producers, festival directors and online composers may find they have little in common. To move forward, it may be useful to acknowledge that:

  1. There are many musical scenes in Australia, with most Australians engaging with one or more of these scenes.
  2. To view the merit of the various scenes not as absolute, but rather as relative to times, tastes and contexts.
  3. A country thrives on the diversity, complementarity, and synergy of music practices.

With such attitudes, it is possible to celebrate the coexistence and interaction of all music in Australia, and think collectively of creating the most fertile shared common ground, with opportunity for each community or scene to pursue its specific aims and interests. Some of these might be best served by careful regulation, others will thrive on deregulation; while some have their base of existence in an audience that buys their (live or recorded) musical product, others see government and other granting bodies as their primary clients (which does not mean all non-commercial musics are ‘market failures’). While a number of such communities are the subject of other strands in Australian Musical Futures: Towards 2020, the discussion here will focus on a particular relationship between music and community, now generally known as community music.

What is Community Music?

An immigrant choir in Melbourne, a drumming circle in McLaren Vale, an Indigenous hip hop project in Inala, a brass band in Albany, and a Turkish pop group in Western Sydney. There is hardly a community in urban regional or remote Australia that does not engage with music in some way or other. While it is easy to compile a long list of community music activities, it is much more difficult to define what community music is. Because community music activities tend to be flexible and cover a wide range of styles, formats and approaches, they are elusive. An initial obstacle is a definition of community. While it is easy to define a community as “a group of people who have a common interest”, the concept is prone to vagueness, banality, slipperiness, as well as unreflective and emotive use. A survey of definitions of community music reveals an oscillation between meaningless blandness which fails to distinguish community music activities from many other musical activities (“Community music concerns people making music”; “Community music is active participation in music-making”) on one hand, and on the other sometimes biased specifics that would not necessarily characterise all community music activities (“Creating rather than recreating music”; “Musical activity as a reaction against formal music education”). While each of these may have merit, they do not create a sufficient basis for shared understanding.

One of the contributing factors to this confusion is that definitions of community music tend to mix descriptions of specific practices with organisation, artistic and pedagogical approaches, and sets of beliefs underlying the activities. This is apparent in a fairly typical statement by an Australian practitioner, who eloquently asserts that community music

brings joy to life; involves lifelong learning; creates pathways for young people; provides work for professional musicians; develops audiences of the future; is an outlet for creativity; celebrates local community life; brings professional musicians into the community; belongs to people of all ages; helps people belong to their community; creates opportunities for all the arts; develops skills of many kinds; develops pride in local cultural identity; celebrates cultural diversity; purchases music commodities; provides entertainment; supports and promotes professional artistic activities; works in partnership with other community groups and organisations (Cahill, 1998)2.

She uses

the definition that community music comprises music activities in a community where those activities are controlled by members of that community.

Letts (2000)3 sees community music as comprising “programs that, unconstrained by any educational bureaucracy, have found solutions that fit the needs of particular communities”. Higgins (2006) 4even describes it as “an active resistance towards institutionalized structures”, and traces this back to a reaction against “the emphasis on performance and virtuosity over teaching within university departments, the focus of school music towards the autonomous nature of the musical work, and the prominence of competitive ‘talent’ shows epitomized on TV with programs such as Pop Idol and Fame Academy”. Often, community music activities are defined in terms of what they are not: they are not organised top down, they are not based on unidirectional didactic teaching, but they are also not “just a group of amateurs having a good time”. As for content, the most commonly found musical styles are styles local to the community, popular (or rock) music, rap, choral music, world music (in particular percussion traditions such as West African djembe and Brazilian samba batucada), but the scope is theoretically infinite: “the music may reflect the cultural life of a geographical community, re-created community, or imagined community,” including the “proliferation of communities in cyberspace” (Veblen & Olsson, 2002) 5. When speaking about artistic and pedagogical approaches, authors tend to emphasise above all that community music involves active participation, probably as a reaction to the (perceived) dichotomy between listener and performer in much western music, as well as (facilitated) self-directed learning, as opposed to didactic teaching from master to novice.

In a series of sessions on the nature of community music from 1996 to 2002, the Community Music Activities Commission of the International Society for Music Education (ISME)6 has attempted to define its key characteristics.

These can be summarised in five points:

  • Community Music Activities stimulate development of active musical knowing (including verbal musical knowledge where appropriate) through multiple learner/teacher relationships and processes, and flexible teaching, learning and facilitation modes (oral, notational, holistic, experiential, analytic).
  • Community Music Activities put emphasis on a variety and diversity of musics that reflect and enrich the cultural life of the community and of the participants, with emphasis on active participation in music-making of all kinds (performing, improvising, and creating).
  • Community Music Activities strive for excellence and quality in both the processes and products of music-making relative to group and individual goals of the participants.
  • Community Music Activities can come into existence organically (e.g. Javanese village gamelans), or can be active interventions in the musical and social landscape by community music animateurs to ‘restore’ music to the community.
  • Community Music Activities demonstrate respect for the cultural property of a given community and acknowledgment of both individual and group ownership of musics, honouring of origins and intents of specific musical practices, including links to ritual, churches, mosques and temples, but also contemporary rites of passage.

From this list we can deduce a number of general tendencies. What is usually called community music is almost invariably an active intervention, which implies a challenge to tradition, authenticity of time and place, and of original context. At the same time, it professes to honour cultural ownership. Community music embraces cultural diversity. Community music takes actual music making as a starting point. It is characterised by the formal absence of a teacher who steers the process, and the use of a variety of learning strategies. As participants are active in the creative process, they can be seen to construct their own musicality. In actual practice, this is often qualified by the animateur taking a dominant role in coaching the ensemble and bringing the music together towards a performance. In short, there is a wealth of divergent and even conflicting approaches to community music: stressing geographical closeness or shared ambitions in cyberspace, rejecting formal organisation or striving for centres of excellence, including or excluding music in churches, mosques (or, for that matter, local Rotary Clubs and Wagner societies). This diversity is not necessarily a sign of weakness or lack of focus, but may well reflect the vibrancy and flexibility of the phenomenon. In Australia, each of these aspects plays a role in the rich diversity of community music practices. While there is some support from local, state and federal sources, the sector is largely left to its own devices. This may be a good thing (“Don’t fix it when it ain’t broke”) or a lost opportunity.

Issues to Discuss

  1. How Do We Position Community Music and Its Role in the Australian Musical Landscape?
  2. Can ‘General’ Criteria for Musical Excellence Be Applied to Community Music, or Does It Have Its Own Frames of Reference?
  3. Would Community Music in Australia Benefit From A Higher Degree of Organisation (i.e. A National Body for Exchange of Best Practice and Advocacy), or is Any Attempt at Formalisation A Threat to the Organic Nature and Development of This Approach to ‘Musicking’?

Community Music and Music Education

The Review of Music Education (2005) has demonstrated that there are severe shortcomings in the way Australian children are given the opportunity to engage with music. Part of the challenges can be expressed in terms of lack of resources and personnel, part in a lack of commitment on the part of key stakeholders in government and schools. A third factor of great importance is the choice of musical material and the pedagogical/didactic approach, which an increasing number of critical voices argue disengages young learners. In a recent policy statement, the ISME Community Music Activities commission sketches interesting perspectives:

Community Music is a vital and dynamic force that provides opportunities for participation and education in a wide range of musics and musical experiences. Community Music activities are based on the premise that everyone has the right and ability to make and create musics. Accordingly, such programs can act as a counterbalance and/or complement to formal music institutions and commercial music concerns. In addition to involving participants in the enjoyment of active music-making and creativity, Community Music provides opportunities to construct personal and communal expressions of artistic, social, political, and cultural concerns. Also Community Music encourages and empowers participants to become agents for extending and developing music in the community. In the pursuit of musical excellence and innovation, Community Music activities also contribute to the development of economic regeneration, create job opportunities in the cultural sectors, and enhance the quality of life for communities. In all these ways Community Music activities can complement, interface with, and extend formal music education structures. (ISME CMA, 2008)7

In this way, practical examples and experiments in community music activities can serve alternative models of music teaching and learning, in order to widen the framework dictated by the history and structure of formal music education in terms of content, methodology and practice. As understanding of community music and its potential for reintroducing organic processes into formal music education advances, it is quite possible that one day, as Veblen (2005)8 claims, it “constitutes a paradigm shift in music education.” Higgins (2006)9 identifies five key themes of community practice: “identity, context, community, participation and pedagogy.” If community music builds on structures and enculturation processes that are naturally supported in the community (as opposed to superimposed), formal music education may increase its effectiveness by observing, emulating and collaborating with community music’s most successful incarnations.

Issues to Discuss

  1. Can Community Music Provide Models for Music Education in Schools (and Beyond)?
  2. If Yes, What Are the Implications for Pedagogical Approaches, Organisation, and Funding?


Contexts of Music Making

Most musics have developed in a specific context, or can even be seen as the direct product of this context, whether it is rhythmic music for Balkan village dances, blues as the expression of black slaves in the US, early vocal polyphony in medieval European churches, or virtuoso sitar music at eighteenth century Indian courts. What is striking, however, is that many musics travel quite well, from time to time and place to place, as the four examples above illustrate. Almost any music with a history of over one hundred years has shifted contexts more than once (for instance from church to court to concert hall to recording); this often implies a great flexibility in dealing with major changes in form, content, performance format, and audience expectations.


While we often take nineteenth century performance formats for granted (especially the concert hall in the centre of the city as the place for major concerts), the development of transport, technology and large urban sprawls have drastically changed the playing field in Australia. While some (but not all) report falling audience figures and blame a lack of interest in the arts, a number of arts initiatives acknowledge the challenges this implies, and actively endeavour to build synergies and pathways between urban and suburban areas, ‘high art’ and ‘low art’, performance and participation, curation and creation. Such initiatives work strategically to connect residents with their dynamic cultural environment. This process of ‘recontextualising’ art has been successful in attracting new audiences, particularly in settings such as refurbished industrial spaces and festivals. The Queensland Music Festival reached over 200,000 people in more than 20 centres around Queensland in 2005. Such initiatives encourage residents to move between traditional and unconventional places for art while constructing their chosen cultural identity.

New and Emerging Contexts

Most of the music support infrastructure still focuses on settings, formats, repertoires, and audiences which have been familiar since the nineteenth century (and, as an ‘invented tradition’, have been projected back to the times of Bach and Mozart, when the ‘musical museum’ of classical masterworks, the large professional orchestra and the conservatoire as a training ground in fact did not exists). The great musical practices that constitute this tradition are certainly worth preserving. But just as western art music has adapted to the change from church and court music to being the music of a cultural elite, and its performance formats from small live settings to larger venues, and later radio broadcasts, recordings and music with images disseminated by television, DVDs and on the web, musical life and its contexts constantly need to be re-evaluated by the needs of the day. Although some of these issues will be discussed in other strands of this gathering, it is worth considering:

Issues to Discuss

  1. Are the Contexts for Musical Experiences in Australia Changing Drastically, and How?
  2. Do Support Structures (Funding, Organisation, Advocacy, Education) Sufficiently Acknowledge Such Changes, and If Not, What Can Be Done to Reach Optimal Synergy?


Values and Attitudes

While evaluating the success of the very liberally funded public music school in Amsterdam, some seventy years after founding the institution on the rhetoric of “making available quality music training to pupils of all social classes and backgrounds,” a survey found that most users still hailed from upper middleclass backgrounds: making music lessons cheaper or offering free tickets to the opera is not a guarantee for broad participation in art music. Underneath the engagement with any kind of music lie myriad constructs that influence whether people are ready to take the trouble or even overcome the obstacles to engage with particular musical activities, whether it is joining the local gamelan or flying to Adelaide to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Findings in Australian Research to Date

In addition to those – and the physical contexts addressed in the previous section – there is a perceived practical and social distance to art experiences for many Australians. The overview document that preceded the study Australians and the Arts states:

Many Australians Do Not Feel Welcome to Enjoy the Arts, Either by Appreciating the Creative and Artistic Output of Others or by Being Creative or Artistic Themselves. There Are A Wide Variety of Impediments to Their Engagement with the Arts, Which Can Be Seen Broadly as Either Practical or Social. These Include A Perceived Sense of Exclusion and A Lack of Access Due to Financial or Geographical Barriers. There is A Perceived Lack of Relevant Information and Education About the Arts. the Perceived Social Environment of the Arts Precludes Many From Feeling Comfortable Exploring the Opportunities Available. (Costantoura, 2000)10

In 2007, the Australian Music Association commissioned Nexus Research to conduct a survey into Australians’ attitudes to music. Data were gathered from a total sample of 1,800 households, with 4,600 members audited on their playing. The findings give a fascinating picture of where we are as a musical nation: One in three Australians plays a musical instrument. The survey found that 35% of households contain at least one person who now plays. That means that well over 4 million Australians over five years of age are instrumentalists of various levels and kinds. Nexus estimates that out of these, about 1 million people are taking private lessons, which represent quite a substantial cultural and economic force in the country. Many others would be making music within their communities.

Almost two-thirds (60%) of all players are under 35 years of age, and well over half of those are between 5 and 18 years old. There was an increasing trend towards valuing younger exposure to music. The majority of players (almost 70%) started learning a musical instrument before they reached secondary school – girls a little earlier than boys. Almost a third of those giving up playing do so before they are teenagers; a further 30% drop out by the age of 16 years. The major reason given is just loss of interest. That may well be fed by major transitions in the life of young people. The curve shown below shows a striking resemblance to the “intolerance curve” developed in the 1980s by Professor Wolfgang Nieke from the University of Rostock, who established that young children are – unsurprisingly – more receptive to new ideas and imposed activities than those aged 12-18.

Overall, the survey shows Australia as quite a musical nation, but also much work to be done. For instance, it is fascinating and challenging that there are so many homes in which somebody owns a musical instrument but where there’s no current player – this could well be over 2.5 million homes according to the survey. This means there are opportunities for educators, communities, and businesses to keep working on getting more Australians to play more music.


While much music advocacy is still based on an ‘art for art’s sake’ approach (“Give us more money because our music is important”), it may be wise to understand the principles outlined above to steer effective advocacy. Funding goes to initiatives that are able to present themselves as important, not necessarily to the best projects. Such insight can be used perversely as well: some of the music education advocacy promising kids to be smarter used rather flimsy research to make its case (and risks being overtaken by non-musical means of reaching the same objective). There is a delicate balance between truthful arguments and effective advocacy, which have effectively been used in Australia, for instance in the Music. Play for Life campaign.

Issues to Discuss

  1. What Are the Most Powerful Arguments for Music in Australia Towards 2020?
  2. Does Music in Australia Optimally Use the Most Beneficial Advocacy in Each of Its Many Sectors; Are There Lessons to Be Learned From the Relative Success of Opera in Securing Funding From Public and Private Sources in Contrast With, for Example, the Dire State of Much Indigenous Music?
  3. is There A Benefit in Making A ‘National Advocacy Databank’ with Examples of Successful Local (and International) Examples to Inspire Others in Similar Situations?


Huib Schippers. The MCA summit in Sydney (Australian Musical Futures: Towards 2020) took place on 5 September 2008. Entered on knowledge base: 12 September 2008.


  1. Small 1998.↩︎
  2. Cahill, 1998.↩︎
  3. Letts, 2000.↩︎
  4. Higgins 2006.↩︎
  5. Veblen & Olsson, 2002↩︎
  6. ASME Community Music Activities Commission↩︎
  7. ISME CMA, 2008.↩︎
  8. Veblen 2005.↩︎
  9. Higgins 2006.↩︎
  10. Costantoura, 2000.↩︎

Professor Huib Schippers is Director of the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre, Griffith University, Brisbane, and past Deputy Chair of the Music Council of Australia. He has a long and varied history in music practice and research across Europe. He has worked as a performing musician, a teacher, a concert promoter, a journalist, and in the record trade. Over the past ten years, he has run major action-research projects in music and music education, lectured and published across the world, and served in a variety of capacities on numerous forums, boards and commissions, including the Netherlands National Arts Council, the Music Council of Australia, and the International Society for Music Education.

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