In Search of An African Philosophy of Music

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Michael O/zene-Okanfah

Current Educational Refcmns in Ghana hm'e called for the Afl-icanization of music education. TYhile new curricular to serve thaf purpose, have heen proposed, not much work has heen done fo clarifY a safe philosophical base jc)r such Afi'icanization' '. In this paper I argue fi'0lJ1 several perspectives in an attempt to provide fhodjc)r thought in our search for an Afl-iean philosophy for music education fc)r Ghana. The Western concept of aesthetic education was revievved and some implications .f(n' African music identified in terms of what might constitute meaning in Afham music. Arguments' lvere also adducedji'om current developments in psychology to support the academic study (~f music in hasic education in Ghana. Lastly, the role of music in culture and its implicafionjor education were also touched on. A basic pre-occupation has been that a philosophy/or Afdca must have its roots in Aft'ican thoughts and values. even if' concepts, ideas. and lahels are borrowed ii'om elsewhere.


The theme for this year's conference, "In Search of a National Philosophy of Music Education". is long overdue. because before any meaningful educational planning and implementation can be undertaken some questions need to be asked. Answers to such questions would guide the whole educational enterprise. Four broad questions guide efforts at curriculum planning.: Why?, What?, How? and Who? Taken in that sequence their effective handling would guarantee a great measure of success and profit, especially in educational reforms. I Of the four questions, the first. "Why?", poses the most challenge, ami. therefore, is rarely asked, especially in our part of the world. Even when it is asked all relevant and pertinent factors are not patiently and assiduously brought to bear on issues before action is taken.

The frustration that results from not asking "why" before taking action, presumably, has driven us to this theme. It's like we started running, and did run for quite a distance. before stopping to ask ourselves where we were going and why. Consequently. the threat to our place ill the curriculum posed by the educational reforms has shocked us into the rude realization that, in fact, "the problem of 'how' music should be taught can be treated meaningfully only after careful consideration has been given to 'why' music should be taught". We are now being forced to "justify our inclusion", and this is where a philosophy becomes necessary.

So today, after so long a time in faithfully trying to impart musical knowledge and skills, we have at long last stopped to ask ourselves the questions we should have asked even before we started the race. Answering these queries must of necessity involve a lot of "talking about" music, but unfortunately when issues of this nature arise the reaction from some music educators is "we've been talking a lot. let's start doing something". I think we've not even talked enough about music and music education yet, or at least we've not been asking the right questions. We are now beginning to do so, This would help us to formulate a philosophy that suits our purposes. Such a philosophy must have its root in African thought and values, and should embrace the beliefs, ideals, meanings, and values relating to music as understood and practiced by us.

This is just the beginning. We must painfully continue to talk about and delve deeper into the meaning and value of our profession. There will. inevitably, be a lot of hot debates or even dissension, but they are all part of the process of growing, and are healthy signs of a vibrant association eager to redefine its mission. We may wish to ask other ancillary questions: What is the nature of music in the first place? What is African about African music? What is unique about music? How does music affect the society we live in? How do we decide on what is good and bad music? and many more. I do not intend to answer all these questions; they are for us to ponder over.

Why The Need For A Philosophy?

As a profession \ve need a strong sense of \vhy we exist. The purpose of a philosophy is to ask the question "why')": and a philosophy ofthe curriculum will help to determine what goes into the curriculum. I wish to suggest that what educational planners decide to include in school education is determined by their sense of what is most important both for the child as an individual, and to socicty as a \vholc. It stems from what they think education is all about. A philosophy of education thus deals with values: what is important what all students must know; what will make students into whole, all-rounded adults; what is basic to learning; as well as the nature of what is to be learned. These two words, "value" and "nature", could guide our quest for a national philosophy of music education. In other words, "Why do we think music is so important that every child must have it as part of basic or general education'?": and "\A/hat should be taught as music to Ghanaian children so that at the end of the day music educators can say. with satisfaction, that they have clone music education'?"

Music, like any other curriculum subject. can have both primary and secondary values; and I hope we can identify the primary values of music in Ghanaian education. If we dwell on. and use secondary values of music as a basis for our philosophy, we would always lose the battle of advocacy.

In this discussion much reference would be made to the ideas of Professor Bennett Reimer of the Music Education Department of Northwestern University in the U.S.A., as a representation of the current Western philosophy of music education, popularly known as aesthetic education. His book, ., A Philosophy of Music Education,,2 is a basic text on the subject in North America. Reimer (1989) presents a view of the purpose of a philosophy of music education as follows:

  1. It constitutes a set of beliefs, which can serve to guide the efforts of the profession - a "collective conscience". Because. he argues. "the impact the profession can make on society depends, in large degree, on the quality of the profession's understanding of what it has to offer which might be of value to society". (p.3)
  2. Individuals who make up the profession need a clear notion of what their aims are as professionals. and a conviction of the il11porlcll1ce or those aims. Individuals who have convincing justifications for music education .... exhibit in their own lives the inner sense of worth which comes from doing important work in the world. (pA)
  3. The understanding people have about the value of their profession. inevitably. affects their understanding of the value of their professional lives.(pA)
  4. Music teachers in preparation need an understanding of the importance of their chosen field. It gives them a sense of purpose. a sense of mission, and meaning to their professional lives (ppA-5).
  5. Necessary for the development of self-identity and self¬respect. it will promote and channel commitment and dedication to music education. (p.5)
  6. It serves as a guide for daily professional decisions and choices. Without clear understanding. teachers' decisions and choices are rather idiosyncratic. The deeper the understanding. the more consistent. the more focused. the more effective the teacher's choices. (p.7.ll)
  7. A philosophy helps in the formulation of objectives. (p.ll ).
  8. It also helps to establish the place of music and the other arts as a basic way that humans know themselves and their world: a basic mode of cognition.

Reimer concludes that a philosophy of music education must be able to establish that music offers values unattainable in other subjects. and that such values are necessary for all. "A philosophy should articulate a consistent and helpful statement about the nature and value of music and music education" (p.13). In this regard, attempts at advocacy fail to make the mark because of the lack of a clearly-articulated philosophy of music education which makes it both unique and necessary. There is the need for music educator-politicians with a strong conviction of the value of music education to be able to lead advocacy for the subject. In sum, philosophies arc generally intended to clarify the basic premise or set of ideas from which goals. objectives. and principles for the systematic teaching of music in a formal setting could be derived. (Nketia. 1999.p.8)

Reimer's Philosophy and African Music

Reimer says music education must be perceived as aesthetic education. That:

  1. Music makes meaning in and of itself without necessarily making reference to external ideas or objects.
  2. Such meaning is communicated through the overall import of the conglomerate of its parts - the expressive qualities of music which is the sum total of the elements of music.
  3. What music communicates is perceived through an understanding of how music works and is put together.
  4. Perception of the expressive qualities of music engenders affective (emotional) response, which enhances the quality of life.
  5. Music education exists first and foremost to develop every person's natural responsiveness (affective response) to the power of the art of music.

While the philosophy of aesthetic education could have some useful implications for music education in Gh'l!1a. and Africa, for that matter, Oehrle (1991), has argued that an African philosophy of music education should take "African modes of thinking and approaches to music making" into consideration. In the next section. I would attempt to factorize an African perspective into the equation in our search; the particular label for our finding could be part of the discussion.

A major thesis of this paper is that we need a philosophy that captures the essence and meaning of music to Africans (with an emphasis on Ghanaians) within the context of the role, value and performance practices of music in our culture. Nketia (1999:8) reiterates the present concern of African music educators to facilitate the establishment of the strong African foundation in music education that is badly needed in our educational system. This is no small task. and I hope to contribute to the debate. and induce more discussion. I will dwell more on the meaning of music in the African context. Thus. the paper is an attempt to articulate our common beliefs about the nature and value of music to us (first as Africans. and secondly as music educators). and its educational relevance. It can be said that Reimer's position reflects the Western understanding of the nature and value of music. which does not take some aspects of African music into consideration.

What Is Music?

This has been the simplest and yet most complex question asked about music. The trite answer has been "a combination of sounds which is pleasing to the ears". An elaborated version would enumerate the various elements of music - melody, harmony. rhythm and so forth. One writer calls music "sounds organized to be expressive" (Reimer, 1989). Sure, music is all the above. but has it ever struck any of you that what might be called music in one culture might sound like noise in another?

Susan Langer (195 L p. 27) thinks music is "tonal analogue of emotive life". That is to say. music expresses and re-presents emotion in the form of sound. Langer does not mean such emotions as joy, sadness. happiness etc., but sentience - not any particular emotion, but the feelingfulness of the general ebb and flow of life as it is vitally felt. She argues that it is not mere expression of feelings. beliefs, or social conditions. So we can see the danger of importing Western concepts and labels without adequate local debate: we Westerners and Africans - could be using the same vocabulary, and yet talking about entirely different things. We need to define what music is in our own terms. which is meaningful to us. Interestingly. even many Western scholars agree that there is a basic difference in what music is and means from one culture to the other. So the axiom that "music is music everywhere" is both true and false. Verrastro (1990) opined that:

Music as we know it in the Western world todav exists as a genre
significantly diiTerent from its cquivalent in other cultures. Beyond
the obvious differences of tonal structure, instruments, cultural
utilizations, styles, and the like, Western music is polyphonic by design.
This is not true of many of the musics of non- Western cultures.

In other words music is "organized sound/silence within cultural context". The concept of music in an African cultural context encompasses more than patterned expressive sounds analogous to felt life. It is "more than drumming" and dancing. Our definition of music should definitely take into consideration all that can be identified as music being created by Africans. This will include traditional music. art music and popular music. In my opinion calling only traditional music "African music" does not do justice to the issue. Social changes should be taken into consideration because, "how can arts which are organically integrated into a society fail to change with that society?" Some scholars have pointed out this integration of the arts in African social life.

Bebey (1975, p. 119) notes, for instance, that "much of African music is based on speech". Furthermore, he observes that "the bond between language and music is so intimate that it is actually possible to tune an instrument so that the music it produces is linguistically comprehensible". Note should be taken that for the African, it is not only the tune, which is the music. It is the tune, the words, the philosophical ideas behind them, and the dance steps that go with it, and so forth.

In Africa, the concept of music is an integrated process of singing, dancing, and instrument playing; many African scholars have noted the absence of a single word for music in any African language, ego Kofie (1994, p. 13). Therefore, since the mode of organization of the elements of music, and the phenomena of musical experience/response are culture specific, the description of music will have varied shades of cultural implications and meanings. The elements of music are universal, but their modes of organization are not, as well as, meanings they are held to convey.
Rather interestingly, the Greek word for music, "mousike" is very identical to the African conception of music. Alperson (1987), while admitting that many of the basic terms of reference for Western theoretical reflection about music were based on Greek philosophy. notes that thc Greek word, "mousike", rererred primarily to "d variety of prdctices involving melody, rhythm, words and gestures performed by amateurs, bards and dramatic actors". This, however. is not to suggest our adoption of this ancient Greek description of music. but if it suits our purposes. why not. Note should also bc takcn that its Greek origin does not make it more authentic. What would make our definition of music authentic is, if it makes meaning to us.

Meaning In Music

What constitutes meaning in music is an essential aspect of the music educator's philosophy. It defines for him/her the content of what he/she tries to get across to students - content. both in terms of material and characteristics. It determines the "particular material we should use to educate children's taste and their music culture". Without going into Leonard Meyer's (1970) terminologil's of dbsolutist. referentialist and so forth, let me turn my attention briefly to \vhat I consider to be meaning in African music. Writing on "The problem of meaning in African music". Nketia (1962. p. I) queries: Is meaning to be investigated and stated in terms of Western philosophical or psychological concepts of meaning in music- -in terms of the aesthetic positions of formalists, expressionists and referentialists?" Certainly not.

Meaning in African music is widely held by many African scholars to be inseparable from "concepts, emotions (both specific and general), and moral qualities". Drum poetry. for instance. is not just the playing of two musical tones in rhythm. as in the case of the Western orchestral timpani, but the articulation of verbal messages - they are talking. Music thus grows out of the intonations and rhythmic onomatopoeias of speech, and in song this must be respected (Bebey. 1975). In that regard. if a particular rhythmic pattern was played on a particular drum in a community, even at random, the hearers would not be thinking of abstract sounds, and their relation to each other, or their expressive import. Their most natural reaction would be to ask, "What is being said". or even. "What is \vrong?" It must be noted that "drumming as a cultural activity has a meaning beyond structure ... beyond formal analysis" (Nketia. 1961. p. 3). This represents one dimension of meaning in African music.

Africans view their music as the aspect of their traditional life, which provides repositories of traditional beliefs, ideas, wisdom and feelings. These beliefs, ideas, and wisdom and feelings do not just throw light on the music in the strict referential sense, as enhancing the meaning of music, but they are about a half of what is meant by "the music". These and other associations in African music are strong and real because they are tied to specific ideational concepts. which are known by all persons who are familiar with the culture. Meaning in African music then must be regarded not as involving one statement but a plurality of statements derived from different but mutually related phases of investigation of ethnographic and musical character, and one might more appropriately speak of areas. or modes of meaning rather than meaning in general. (Nketia, 1961, p. 5)

This explains why music is a strong rallying point in many African societies. But the main point about African music is what is attributed to the late Dr. Amu, that "African music is African meaning and value." In other words what music means to the African is what music means, and this must be carried into music education. Aesthetic experience in our Ghanaian context will, therefore, be contingent upon the perception and conception of all those inherent meanings.

Amu's compositions are rich. not only in melody, harmony, texture etc., but also social, moraL and philosophical ideas. So music in the African context is valued, not only because "rhythm and harmony enter the innermost parts of our souls", but also as they go, they carry a rich component of meanings beyond "organized expressive sounds". It could even be argued further that the characteristic tonal organizations in African music carry meaning. which is characteristically African. For instance, the tonal organization of the melodies of Nketia's songs makes the songs sound characteristically Ghanaian.

Africans don't make meaning of sounds without their attachments ¬philosophical, sociaL historical implications and so forth. Appreciation of music, in an African sense. therefore. 'vvould be based on the perception of the organization of sounds (sonic order), and the verbal and hidden messages that is carried with it, and even the gestures and the type of instrumental accompaniment that go with it. For instance, when we sing Amu's "Yen ara asaase ni", we are not just enjoying the tune. and other sound characteristics for their own sakc, but also, and, morc importantly, the message the song conveys. "Other aspects or meaning in African music", Nketia (1961. p. 6) emphasizes "are expressed in statements dealing with the interrelations or structure and function, structure and context. structure and movement or dancing, while the relationship between music and other aspects or culture provide yet another mode or modes of meaning." And a philosophical/aesthetic position, which could be regarded as authentic tu the African cultural situation would have to take all these I~lctors into consideration.

The emphasis on Arrican/'vVestcrn evident in this paper. so l~lI', is not meant to create a dichotomy or opposition, but for two special reasons:
First, is to point out to us that even Western scholars make a distinction between Western and non-Western music), as already alluded to elsewhere in this paper. Writing on the topic, "Music as language: an analogy to be pursued with caution q, Koopman (1997, p. 44) states that:

The idea that we can understand musical products of other cultures in the same way as those who are inside these cultures can is clearly na'lve. Unless we lx'come thoroughly initiated in the particular musical conventions of a culture we will never be able to experience its music in a way similar to those grown up in the culture.

Similarly, Letts (1997. p. 22-31) argues emphatically that: "music is not a universal language."

Secondly, there is the need for us to develop independence of thought and identity. which is uniquely. African and will help in formulating our philosophy of music education.
In spite of this seeming opposition between Western and African music, however, there is what could be termed "universals" in music. These also we ought to identify, and let them come across in our theorizing about and teaching music.

It is the responsibility of African scholars to capture and articulate the inner meaning of African music. and let it inform our attempts at crafting a philosophy of music education; a responsibility which is also identified by Western scholars. In our attempt nothing stops us from borrowing ideas from elsewhere, as indeed. all civilizations and cultures have done and continue to do. But it is important that we redefine their meanings. contents and connotations to suit our cultural perspectives.

Music In Ghanaian Education

Music in Ghana's educational system has been going through turbulence for some time now. Flolu (1994) describes the situation as a dilemma. Our classification in the curriculum has shifted from one premise to the other. At one time music was a cultural subject, so intertwined with other disciplines that it needs not stand alone (Cultural Studies Syllabus, 1987). Now it is termed "an activity" which must be provided to children in school to the extent that time and resources allow.

What seems to compound the problem is the traditional dichotomy between Arts and Sciences. The latter sc:ems to suggest the "academic", requiring intellectual work, "brain-cracking". and the former only emotional, subjective, not requiring much thought. just a pleasurable activity, certainly not essential or basic to the education of children. But the question is, "Is music only a doing/feeling subject? Is it not also a "thinking" subject?" It could be argued that music is as much a thinking subject just as it is a feeling and doing subject. Learning has to do with making meaning out of experience, and music, and for that matter. the arts, constitute one domain of meaning-making.

Music as an academic discipline

Learning, in the proper sense, is not learning of things, but the meaning of things.s Consequently learning music is not just note values. singing, dancing, histories, biographies. and so forth, but the meaning of organization of sound within a cultural context. Reimer (1989, p.12) maintains that, music:

"Must be conccived as all the great disciplines of the human mind arc conceived
- as a basic subject with its unique characteristics of cognition and intelligence.
that must be offered to all children if they are not to be deprived of its values".

Thus children's education - intellectual physical moral and emotional - is incomplete 'without music education. There is evidence to suggest that many professionals. as. for example. accountants. doctors. and other senior civil servants discover a missing component in their education (i.e. music education) rather late in their lives. This goes to strengthen the point that music education is basic to general education. Furthermore. the argument that music is "a basic subjcct with its unique characteristics of cognition and intelligence". is based on current developments in psychology. particularly, Cognitive Psychology. It represents a shift of emphasis from. and offers a balance to Behaviourial Psychology. with its heavy emphasis on "observable behaviour.

In sum. music is a basic academic subject, which contributes to children's intellectual development. All human actions stem from thought processes. So does music. Music has logic and exercises and expands the thinking faculty. particularly critical and creative (imaginative) thinking. Music teaching can. thus. be approached in a manner that promotes creative thinking in children.

Currently the emphasis of psychology. as stated earlier, is shifting from mere observable behaviour to seeking an understanding of how the mind works. It is related to the Information Processing theory. and ArtifIcial Intelligence. The latter led to the development of the computer. which was designed as an "artificial brain". based on what was understood about how the brain works.

A major contribution to developments in cognitive psychology is Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. After much research. Gardner concluded that intelligence. per se, is not unitary, but multiple. In other words. aside of what could be regarded as the g-factor or executive functions, human beings possess several intelligences. He proposed at least seven. domains of intelligence. namely. linguistic, logical-mathematical musical-artistic. interpersonal intrapersonal. spatial and bodily-kinesthetic. These represent different ways of knowing (cognition) and different modes of making meaning out of life experiences. He maintains that all human beings possess all these in varying degrees, with one or more being dominant for each individual.

In light of the above. Abedi Pele. Ghana's ace footballer. could be said to possess a high level of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Similarly, the young child who can make sense of chord progression, reproduce pitch accurately, and maintain a steady time line. is exhibiting a high level of musical intelligence.

Could the unpopularity of music as a subject not be due, at least in part, to the fact that the school system has failed to place it where it belongs among academic subjects? So the great number of individuals with a dominant musical intelligence "drop out" of the formal study of music only to pursue it as a profession. Don't they thus end up practicing music without some vital insights and understandings that formal music study could offer?

Music represents a unique mode of knowing requiring and fostering particular mental activity. It also represents a unique way for experiencing and understanding life. just like language, mathematics or science. Thus, children's education is incomplete if they are denied music education.

Music Education as Cultural Education

It is generally agreed that music is an inseparable part of culture ¬that complex whole which ineludes knowledge. beliefs, art, morals, laws. customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. Culture is also seen as "the state of intellectual development of a people". This implies the process of education whereby knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, and S8 forth. are constantly examined, evaluated, modified and passed on from generation to generation as new insights into life and human existence is gained. Education Cllnserves and at the same time transmits a society's culture. Thus. culture is the content of education. Culture is also noted to include modes of thinking. acting, and feeling, which are expressed, for instance. in religion. language. art, and so on (Kneller, 1971); and since art is always in the context of culture. art can be said to promote cultural ways of thinking about life. Music education promotes cultural thinking and expression, often beyond Words.

For the development of national culture, therefore, the various aspects of culture need to be studied both as individual disciplines. as well as, in integrated fashion. Now. it' music is inseparable from culture, and education is a means of perpetuating culture. how much of our culture are we passing on, if music is made peripheral to formal education?


In this paper I have argued from several perspectives in an attempt to provide food for thought in our search for an African philosophy for music education for Ghana. The Weskrn concept of aesthetic education was reviewed and some implications l~)!' African music identified in terms of what might constitute meaning in music. Arguments were also adduced from current developments in psychology to support the academic study of music in basic education in Ghana. Lastly, the role of music in culture and its implication for education were also touched on. All these have far-reaching implications for the formulation of a philosophy of music education in Ghana. A basic pre-occupation has bcen that a philosophy for Africa must have its roots in African thoughts and values, even if concepts, ideas, and labels are borrowed from elsewhere.

It is hoped that, in the process, we would take time to re-evaluate our stated goals and objectives as a professional association:

a vital musical culture: an enlightened musical public; comprehensive music
programmes in all our schools.

I do not know how much those lofty words mean to us individually and collectively, but as far as I am aware, they seem to have been lifted verbatim from those of the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) of the United States. And unless \vc really understand their implications we are doing ourselves a disservice.

Some questions require further study: Why do we think music is so important that every child needs music education?
What should be taught as music to Ghanaian children so that after they have gone through school we can tell ourselves we have done music education?
What is African about African music that makes it different from other musics?
Answers to these questions could guide our search for a national philosophy of music education.


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