from the Australian Journal of Music Education,1996, No.1: 29-37

Why Music Matters: The Cognitive Personalism of Reimer and Elliott

James F. Daugherty

David Elliott's recent book, Music Matters, marks the first sustained, philosophical treatment of music education in North America since the initial edition of Bennett Reimer's A Philosophy of Music Education over a quarter century ago. Interestingly, Elliott completed his doctoral studies under Reimer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Moreover,Music Matters is often in explicit conversation with Reimer, as Elliott, by design, seeks to stake out ground distinct from his mentor

The purpose of this paper is to compare Reimer and Elliott as a means of introducing and examining two current mainstream approaches to the philosophy of music education in North America. To that end, the following queries are posed to Reimer and Elliott to clarify the fundamental contours of their respective frameworks.

What is music?
Why teach music?
Why teach music in schools?
Who should teach?
Who should learn?
What music should be taught?
How should it be taught?

Reimer's Cognitive-Autonomous Philosophy of Music Education

What is music?
Music, according to Reimer, is a "basic mode of cognition" (p. 11), a "complex function of the mind" (Reimer 1989, p. 83). Music is distinguished from other cognitive processes by its nonconceptual, nondiscursive qualities. Moreover, music, accessible as knowledge, a subjective experience of feeling. That is, in music "we receive an 'experience of' feeling rather than 'information about' feeling" (p. 50). Such experience, says Reimer, is occasioned by the expressive form embodied in a musical work. This mental sensation of feeling via expressive form constitutes the meaning of music.

In Reimer's most detailed statement of these dynamics, he says a musical work is sound organised to be expressive. That is, a musical work is

    (1) an expressive form, (2) that is capable of yielding an experience of subjectivity, (3) embodied in its intrinsic, immanent qualities, (4) that will be open to a variety of possible ways of feeling, (5) but will always be caused by the particular, concrete events in the work, (6) that are apprehended directly and immediately from those events as a sharing of their expressiveness, (7) through the presentational form, (8) that is the bearer of meaning as 'knowledge of' the inner feelings of human life as lived and experienced (p. 93).

A musical work, moreover, is an autonomous entity. It is about nothing other than itself. The musical work is defined by the intrinsic quality of its expressive form, which in turn leads to the cognition or objectification of feeling as symbolic form. On this basis it can be said that Reimer's definition of music is both cognitive and autonomous in emphasis.

Why teach music ?
Music should be taught, says Reimer, because it systematically develops a form of intelligence that affords "meaningful, cognitive experiences unavailable in any other way..." (p. 28). While Reimer acknowledges that all arts have a common larger realm of meaning and aesthetic structuring, he also says that "each art requires a distinctive mode of thought peculiar to the cognitive subrealm it embodies" (p. 85). Music, distinguished by the sonic, dynamic character embodied in its expressive or symbolic form, presents, educates, deepens and refines the mental sensation of feeling.

Music should be taught, then, because it is a form of nonconceptual cognition that affords a humanising self-knowledge of feeling as a pervasive quality of mental life. This self- knowledge or intelligence, Reimer argues, is educable and can be developed only through music.

Why teach music in schools?
Music belongs to basic education because musical experiences "are necessary for all people if their essential humanness is to be realized" (p. 29). The cognitive ability to function musically is an important mode of intelligence developed and refined through education as people are led both to experience and share "the meanings which come from expressive forms" (p. 95). According to Reimer, "Developing this mode of mentality ... is essential if education is to help children become what their human condition enables them to become" (p. 85).

Who should teach ?
Good music teachers, according to Reimer, are those with a "high degree of musical sensitivity and pedagogical experience" (p. 97). They should have, moreover, both a broad foundation in music and an area of specialised focus.

Who should learn ?
All people.

What music should be taught?
Since symbolic, expressive form is embodied in works of art, musical works are the central focus of the curriculum. Only good music should be used. Good music, according to Reimer, is expressive music: "If a particular piece of music is genuinely expressive -if it presents in its musical qualities a sense of feeling- it is a good piece of music" (p. 51). The excellence of a musical work is decided ultimately by "people trained to make that kind of discrimination" (p. 134), i.e., experts. Any music which meets the criterion of expressive form, including multicultural music, can and should be used.

How should it be taught?
A musical work should be experienced first as a unified whole. Thereafter, according to Reimer, it can be examined with reference to its constituent elements, e.g., melodic material, harmony, rhythm, texture, tone colour, form, etc. "While the affective response to the elements of music is indeed ineffable," says Reimer, "the elements which can arouse the response are not. They are the teacher's stock in trade...the basic materials for teaching and learning at every level" (p. x). Teacher language about the musical work, moreover, should be descriptive and symbolic, not interpretive, so that aesthetic meanings through interaction with the musical work itself can be sought.

The general music class, with its focus upon perceptive listening to a wide range of musical works, is, for Reimer, where music education should place most emphasis. While he lauds good performance based classes, he is wary of a "performance as product" orientation that lessens the process of perceptive listening and development of aesthefic sensitivity. Performance per se, in Reimer's view, is not a legitimate end in itself for music education.

Elliott's Cognitive-Contextual Philosophy of Music Education

David Elliott purports to offer a philosophy of music education "fundamentally different from and incompatible with music education's official aesthetic philosophy" (Elliott 1995, p. 14). All philosophies, of course, are refined and developed over time. Just as differences in emphasis and argument exist between the first and second editions of Reimer's book, one should expect Elliott's philosophy to mature from this initial book length explication.

Still, Music Matters can and should be assessed by the same queries put to Reimer. For, like Reimer, Elliott believes that a viable philosophy of music education proceeds from a theory about the nature of music itself.

Assumptions and Methodology
Elliott's philosophy proceeds from the fundamental proposition that music is a cognitive human activity. Music is "something that people do" (p. 39), and it is "cognitive through and through" (p. 235). Music as cognitive activity, says Elliott, is intentional, contextual, multidimensional and diverse. Moreover, it has two primary and interdependent manifestations: music listening and music making, both of which revolve around a form of procedural, situated knowledge called musicianship.2

Musicianship is a key term for Elliott. The essential dimension of musicianship is procedural knowledge, a nonverbal "knowing-how" distinguished from the verbal "knowing that" of formal knowledge. Four other kindss of knowledge, in Elliott's view, contribute to and support this core of procedural knowledge in a secondary way: formal musical knowledge, informal musical knowledge, impressionisfic musical knowledge, and supervisory musical knowledge. An important point to remember is that musicianship, for Elliott, is knowledge, yet it is primarily a form of practical knowledge or knowledgeable practice. Moreover, the contents of musicianship are specific to and vary according to particular musical practices. Musicianship, says Elliott, is not so much what a musician has as what a musician does.

Such knowledgeable or thoughtful doing is the very heart of Elliott's perspective. With this concept he combines the two major ingredients of his approach, that music is cognition and that music is action, under the umbrella of "praxial." By this term, he emphasises that action is not a separate category from thought. Rather, action itself is a nonverbal form of thinking and knowing. In this sense, the actions of making and listening to music involve thinking, or cognition, which is manifested in and with those actions themselves, not prior to those actions and not apart from those actions. In other words, music cognition is music action.

In fact, Elliott asserts that one cannot properly engage in music listening without also having some experience in music making. The same procedural, situated knowledge, the same musicianship, is fundamental to both activities.

Musical works are the outcomes of particular music making practices, the product of musical thinking in action. They are, moreover, what people listen intelligently to and for. As such, musical works, says Elliott, are "thought generators - intentionally constructed challenges to our powers of consciousness" (p 143). Musical works, says Elliott, may be viewed in six interrelated dimensions: (1) a performance or interpretation of (2) a musical design that evinces (3) standards and traditions of practice, (4) expressions of emotion, (5) musical representations, and (6) cultural-ideological information (p. 199). The fourth and fifth dimensions may not be present in all musical works; the other four dimensions are always present.

Elliott argues that musical works are not idealised objects; rather they are musical achievements that are individually cognised. Nor do they consist of sound patterns alone. While sounds provide the "material reality" of musical works, these works also involve other musical actions and other strata of musical information. Elliott, moreover, does not limit musical works to scored compositions; they may also be improvisations.

Finally, musical works, in Elliott's view, can, with a knowledgeable listener, communicate in various ways:

    by being expressive of artistic-cultural traditions and values; by being expressive of emotions; by conveying musical representations and characterizations of people, places, and things; by manifesting cultural values (as tones-for-us); by providing the necessary conditions for self-growth and flow (thereby exerting a causal influence on individuals and communities); and by conveying personal interpretations of valued (or meaningful) musical works conceived as memes (pp 202-203).
Within this sense of being communicative, Elliott addresses the values and uniqueness of music. Music is inherently valuable as a human pursuit because music making is "a unique and major source" of self-growth, self-knowledge, and enjoyment. Music making, says Elliott, "is valuable and significant in itself because it propels the self to higher levels of complexity" (p. 122).

Having explored briefly some of the major concepts and descriptors that define Elliotts route, we are now in position to summarise his approach in a way conducive to comparing his philosophy of music education with that of Bennett Reimer.

What is music?
Music is a multidimensional, diverse, cognitive human activity/construct utilising sonic and other data, and involving two interdependent strata, music making and music listening, informed and demonstrated by musicianship, a rich form of knowledge in action. Music is an open concept; no fixed set of descriptors apply uniformly to all musics and all music practices. All types of music, however, have as primary values, whether formally or informally, self-growth, constructive knowledge, and a higher order of consciousness that can be experienced as enjoyment and self-esteem.

Why teach music?
The practice of music(s), according to Elliott, is inherently valuable. It entails unique cognitive challenges and thought processes unavailable in any other way, even through other arts. Development of the autonomous, cognitive realm operative in music making results in a form of intelligence that issues in self-growth and self-knowledge.

Why teach music in schools?
Music is a domain of human activity accessible, achievable and applicable to all. Moreover, the primary values of music as an end in itself, i.e., self-growth, self knowledge, and enjoyment, coincide with and overlap values beneficial to individuals and societies. Teaching music is a means of enculturation.

Who should teach ?
Music teachers should possess, first of all, an appropriate level of musicianship, be it competent, proficient or expert. They should possess as well a high level of educatorship, being able to diagnose, balance, and provide musical challenges appropriate to developing students' musicianship. An expert teacher, maintains Elliott, is an improviser and a reflective practitioner.

Who should learn ?
All students of all ages should be apprentice musical practitioners.

What music should be taught?
Performance and authentic music making should be the primary means of education for all music students. Music education should be multicultural in nature. No one musical practice is inherently more valuable or worthy than another musical practice. But some musical practices may be more educationally appropriate than others.

The teacher decides the musical practice to be taught, then evaluates the merits of works available within that practice. Elliott defines a great musical work as "one that people with high levels of musicianship consider a landmark achievement within a musical tradition" (p. 233).

How should it be taught?
Music curricula should be reflective music practice. Curricula are both means and ends. Teaching musicianship is the primary concern. Musicianship is taught by inducting students into specific musical practices and cultures through "cognitive apprenticeship" to a teacher who serves as mentor/ coach/ model. Accordmg to Elliott, "an excellent curriculum is an excellent teacher..." (p. 258). This teacher develops musicianship by planning performing, improvising, composing, arranging and conducfing experiences. Through provision of such musical challenges and by enabling increasing levels of musicianship to meet those challenges, the teacher makes possible self-growth, self-knowledge and enjoyment.

Music making, in Elliott's perspective, precedes music listening. Elliott, moreover, favours depth over breadth. Students should be inducted into one or a few musical practices well, then into others over a long term period of time.

The Cognitive-Personal Philosophy of Music Education

Comparison of Elliott and Reimer with respect to such meta-categories as the primary purpose of music education, its ultimate goal, and primary instructional method reveals remarkable agreement. Indeed, as Table 1.1 illustrates, fundamental differences in this framework occur in one area, that of instructional methodology.

Music Educator: Purpose: Goal: Method:
Reimer Cognitive Development Self Knowledge Sensibility
Elliot Cognitive Development Self Knowledge Musicianship

As we have seen, methodological differences ensue primarily because Reimer and Elliott vary in their definifions of music. Elliott differs most from Reimer by expanding the definition of music through focus upon musical practice rather than musical form. In this way, he legitimises performance and hence performance-based curricular offerings as fundamental modes of music education. Even here, though, Elliott could perhaps accommodate the bulk of Reimer's emphases as one dimension of an already multidimensional approach without harm to Elliott's main thesis. Reimer's perspective, especially in its aesthetic focus on the autonomous musical work, could not at present accommodate Elliott as readily. For now, however, let us concentrate upon the similarities which place Elliott and Reimer in the same family of music education philosophy.

Both Reimer and Elliott concur that music, and hence music education, is primarily a cognitive enterprise. Agreement on this issue stems from three related assumptions common to both philosophies: (1) Human intelligence (or cognition, thought, or knowledge) is not unitary, but rather multidimensional; (2) There exists within the human brain a geography of cognitive domains and processes specific to the various intelligences available to human beings; and (3) Music is a unique type of human cognitive activity. These assumptions lead both philosophies to submit that the substance of music education resides in the fact that music uses domains and processes of the brain in a way specific to music. The purpose of music education, then, for both Reimer and Elliott, is to encourage and develop these distinct cognitive processes addressed by no other area of the school curriculum, to the end that individuals experience a higher, fuller order of consciousness.

By holding that music and music education have to do primarily with internal mental processes, that music is fundamentally a form of nondiscursive, nonconceptual thought, both Elliott and Reimer fall squarely within the cognitivist camp. Having said that, however, it is equally clear that they come to that camp by differing routes.

Reimer arrives by a self-acknowledged aesthetic route. Music cognition, for him, is characterised by sensitivity to symbolic, expressive form embodied in a musical work. Good music is expressive music. This emphasis upon aesthetic expressivity is in a sense timeless and universal. It tends to exclude in any fundamental way other considerations that may be potentially associated with the musical work, such as specific cultural values, artistic traditions, or ideological referents. By virtue of this emphasis, Reimer's philosophy can be described as both cognitive and autonomous.

Elliott, on the other hand, depicts his route as praxial. For him, music is practice-centred and culture-specific. Music cognition involves "combinations of intramusical, intermusical, and cultural-ideological meanings" (p. 202). Rather than expressive form, Elliott speaks of music cognition as characterised by "enduring" form. Instead of aesthetic experience, he prefers to employ the term "musical flow experience." For Elliott, both enduring form and flow experience may be present when situated musical works are cognised as "memes," i.e. "any enduring form of information produced by intentional human action" (p. 203). By virtue of such emphases, Elliotts philosophy can be described as both cognitive and contextual.

The philosophies of Reimer and Elliott are both person centred. Such personalism is manifested in at least two respects: (1) The cognitive philosophy advocated by Reimer and Elliott refers by its nature to the individual and individual cognition; in this view, music is cognised by individual brains in a manner specific to that person's genetic and environmental portrait. (2) Music cognition results primarily in knowledge of the self and benefits to the self. Since the noetic character of the Elliott-Reimer approach to music education philosophy necessarily focuses upon the internal, and therefore individualistic, nature of music, some social values of music associated with other approaches, including music's presumed capacity to transform society as well as reflect society, are secondary.

The philosophies of Elliott and Reimer, of course, infer social benefits by virtue of a self's relationship to society and culture. However, this social dimension, while present, is not a primary value in either philosophy. To be sure, the contextual aspect of Elliott's approach leads him to say that "...the socially determined and shared ways of thinking we call musicing and listening tend to link self and others in community" (p. 192), and that musical practices and musical works are "among the most fundamental ways in which human beings express and impress cultural values and beliefs" (p. 185). Still, the relative weight of such statements for the core of his philosophy is reflected by the Subject Index in Music Matters, which contains fifty lines of type under the heading of "Self," another thirty-three lines under "Consciousness," and a combined total of eight lines under the headings of "Community" and "Culture." Neither Elliott nor Reimer reference "Society" in their respective indices.

With Reimer and Elliott alike, the primary value of music and music education remains individualistic in nature. For this reason their respective philosophies share a personal emphasis as well as a cognitive one.

What by now should be clear is that the methods of arrival, whether aesthetic (autonomous) or praxial (contextual), are less descriptive, in a larger sense, of the respective frameworks advanced by Reimer and Elliott than the fact that they have arrived at a shared cognitivist and personalist stance. Despite methodological and instructional differences, ultimately both Reimer and Elliott say that the fundamental nature of music resides in the cognitive domain and that the primary value of music education is in the self-knowledge it bequeaths. Both, at heart, are properly philosophies of cognitive personalism. It remains to be seen whether this larger commonality may eventually become a basis for dialogue by which both philosophers hone ideas and emphases to nurture or fortify the overall perspective of cognitive personalism as a philosophy of music education.


In the face of budget cuts and a "back to basics" disposition, recent letters to the editors of various newspapers in the United States advocate continuation of universal music education on such diverse bases as "building character," "team effort," "raising Scholastic Aptitude Test scores," "instilling self-confidence," "cultural literacy," and "connection with a transcendent source of life." Such a variety of descriptors is reminiscent of those employed by a special committee of the Boston School Committee in 1838 as it argued for inclusion of vocal music as a curricular subject in public schools on grounds that it "aspires ... to develop man's whole nature," that is, to develop the young citizen "intellectually, morally, and physically" (24 August 1837).

Such an amalgam hardly provides a coherent framework for music education, nor does it provide music a unique place in the curriculum. In this regard both Reimer and Elliott succeed admirably.

Yet such diversity may also reflect continuation in hybrid form of several fundamental themes in the history of ideas informing music education in the western world. The Hellenistic idea of ethos, for instance, holds that music affects character and may be a path to virtue. The idea of symbolism, arising from Pythagorean acoustical mathematics and concretised with the inclusion of music in the medieval quadrivium, maintains that music reflects some higher, eternal order and may thus be a path to particular knowledge and understanding. The Renaissance fusion of music with literary models holds that music, intimately connected to words, poetry or drama, is expressive of human experience. The notion of aesthetic contemplation advocated by certain eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophies suggests that music can enrich the life of the mind and educate for enjoyment and beauty.

Within each of these fundamental themes, however, music exists, in some sense, as an independent, perceptual phenomenon. That is, music is something with which the human knower interacts.

By contrast, in the emerging cognitive emphasis, music is itself primarily a construct of the human mind; it is a subjective entity which springs from individualised cognitive activity. Music, in this view, is generated, not simply processed, by the human brain. Thus the properties of music reside primarily in the human subject, not the musical object.

In this sense, the fundamental concern shifts from examining the nature of music to exploring the nature of mind and human intelligence. Approaches to music education based primarily on cognition, then, may ultimately stand or fall according to ongoing research into the thought processes of the human brain, and the extent to which those processes are affected by enculturation. Perhaps for the first time, there exists the potential for evaluating a philosophy of music education, or at least its premises, not so much by philosophic scrutiny or critical thinking per se, as by scientific, particularly bio-psychological, research. At some point, it is reasonable to assume, such research may mature to the extent that the specifically cognitive-musical domains espoused in the philosophies of Reimer and Elliott are either proved or disproved.

Whether or not cognitive personalism signals a major transitional idea in the historied dialogue about music and music education remains to be seen. What is apparent is that Elliott, like Reimer, makes a significant and worthy contribution to an ongoing process whereby music educators must seek to understand and give an account of their belief that music matters.

1. All quotations are from the second edition of Reimer's book.

2. Elliott has a penchant for coining new terms. For instance, he employs "musicers" in reference to "musical doers," "musicing" to denote musical doing, be it music making or music listening, and "music" to mean "the musical something done" (p 40). It is this writer's evaluation that such jargon serves more to obfuscate than clarify his intended meanings. This analysis, then, will shun them in the interest of brevity and clarity. Such words, moreover, are confusing even in terms of the praxial nuance Elliott seeks. For example, "musicianing" is arguably a better choice than "musicing" to convey what music making means in Elliott's philosophy.

Elliott, D. (1995). Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education. New York: Oxford University Press.
Reimer, B. (1989). A Philosophy of Music Education. Second edition. Englewood Cliffs, N]: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Report of the select committee of the Boston School Committee, August 24, 1837.