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Examining the importance of music theory in music technology education: A case study of a Level 3 music technology qualification at a Midlands-based Further Education provider.

This piece was written in 2015 as a part of my studies at Nottingham Trent University. Appendices are not included with this copy.

Abstract

This study set out to explore the importance of music theory in the education of Level 3 music technology students. The intention was to identify the significance of music theory in their current education, future prospects and, more broadly, their musical life and experience.

A case study was conducted in a single Further Education institute, and consisted of in-depth interviews with eight current students, as well as the course leader. In addition, three former music technology students were interviewed, although these were not associated with the education provider studied. Music theory is not currently taught on this Level 3 qualification.

The research provided the following three findings:

  1. Students are passionate about creating music that they enjoy:

This is important, because music theory can contribute to their ability to compose music that they are satisfied with.

  1. The difference of the level of music theory knowledge between students is vast.
  1. Music theory is ill-defined in students’ minds, and this leads to disinterest:

Music theory is often associated with classical or art music, and this can lead to students reacting against the term.

The research concludes that music theory is highly important to Level 3 music technology students, but that not all elements of music theory is as essential. Also, given the vast difference of theoretical knowledge between students, the risk is run of a classroom experiencing a split between those with music theory knowledge and those without. If all students have a basic understanding of music theory, a common language and framework is created that can encourage collaboration. Finally, a lack of music theory knowledge can inhibit a student’s future achievements.

The final recommendation of the study is that music theory be integrated into music technology, and a number of potential ways of doing this are offered.

Introduction

Relatively speaking, music technology is a young subject (Boehm 2007, p. 8). As a result of its age and the speed at which the tools of the trade develop, music technology education has been a rapidly evolving field, and has established an identity separate from traditional music education.

Nevertheless, as is implicit in its title, music technology education does retain close links with music education. One major area of music education is music theory – a key component of instrumental lessons and compositional lessons among others. However, my experiences as a music technology teacher have led me to note a lack of music theory teaching for students in the field, a situation that I wished to explore. Firstly, I wished to explore my initial observation from other perspectives. Secondly, I wanted to explore the impact that either studying or not studying music theory has on music technology learners. The main purpose of the research is to determine the best way to serve the interests and ambitions of Level 3 music technology students. I have also noted the frustration that some music technology students face when unable to compose pieces of music, so wished to explore the possibility of a relationship between this frustration and music theory.

Beard and Gloag describe music theory as concerning “the measurement and description of sound properties and the abstract and syntactical components of musical language, for example its tones, intervals, scales, rhythms, timbres and key signatures” (2005, p. 182). Essentially, all of the elements listed are the building blocks of music, therefore, music theory is highly important in the creation of new music. Music theory does not describe the inherent creativity needed to create a pleasing piece of music; rather it is an understanding of the workings of music, guidelines that help composers understand the relationships between sounds. Throughout this study, music theory will be considered in this holistic sense, a term used to represent a general understanding of the workings of music.

Practically, my experience of music technology is of it being associated with the study of popular music. Tagg (1982) describes music as a whole as consisting of an “axiomatic triangle consisting of ‘folk’, ‘art’ and ‘popular’ musics.” For the purposes of this discussion, folk music is largely irrelevant, and Tagg distinguishes folk from art music1 and popular music by noting that the vast majority of folk music consumed is “produced and transmitted” by amateurs, whereas art and popular musics are primarily a professional concern. Music theory is an area of music most often associated with art music, and this is perhaps a reason that music theory is not consistently engaged with on music technology courses.

Literature Review

In my exploration of the available literature, I was unable to find any pieces that specifically address the importance of music theory to music technology students. The closest study to my own is Kardos’ (2012), in which the researcher has undertaken a case study of a Level 3 music technology student with rudimentary music skills. Kardos discusses the desire that students have “to create something that sounds impressive” (2012, p. 144), and cites this as “a common, powerful motivating factor”. This is something that I have personally observed in learners, but wished to explore in my research, as this evidence is completely anecdotal, and raises the question of if music theory teaching could help students to achieve this.

Kardos’ students are “from diverse musical backgrounds” (2012, p. 143), and “it is not uncommon for a typical class to contain a majority that cannot read staff notation” (2012, p. 143), characteristics that are echoed in the interviews that I have undertaken. Again, this raises a question of whether or not music theory teaching could help create a common framework for students with different backgrounds.

The weakness in this study is its limited scope. By choosing to only explore the experiences of one student, Kardos has produced a piece of research that is interesting, but incapable of making any firm recommendations. The use of music technology as a shortcut for those who lack certain aspects of music knowledge (music notation, in particular) is discussed, but the fact that this relies on the student having at least some knowledge of music theory is ignored.

Cain (2004) explores similar issues to Kardos, focussing on how music technology can be used in lieu of music theory knowledge when composing music. He discusses the difficulty in identifying “the extent to which pupils’ work is their own” (2004, p. 217), as opposed to being created with pre-existing loops or patterns provided by music technology software. This is not such an issue when the teacher is able to observe learners’ work, as the difference is obvious to an experienced music technology practitioner when presented with the visual representation of the piece provided by the software. The key differentiation between the work of Kardos and Cain is that Cain presents music technology as possibly entirely replacing musical skill in composition.

Another criticism of Kardos’ case study is that it relies on taking a student who wished to create “original pop music” (2012, p.145) and helping them create music in the style of Philip Glass, a composer very much within the art music canon. Much of the other literature considered demonstrates a belief that students work best in a genre that they personally appreciate. The work of Challis (2007) is a good example, as he works with music technology students within the genre of their preference. In his research, he discusses teaching composition to students with a passion for DJ culture and claims that using their chosen genres as a framework has “a motivating power to engage even the most difficult students in creative music making” (2007, p. 65). This opens a discussion surrounding the identity of music technology students, and their genre preferences. Not all students will be difficult, and not all will identify with the genres of ‘DJ culture’, listed by Challis as including “garage, drum and bass, house or R&B”. However, the notion of higher levels of student engagement when learning is related to their genre preferences is supported by the research of Lamont et al. (2003), who suggest that links need to be created between the musical life of students inside and outside of the learning environment. Savage (2007) offers a similar viewpoint, emphasising the importance of students’ “personal responses” (2007, p. 153) and a suggestion that “creating educational situations in which students can imbue their personality, character and creative spirit is the key for teachers” (2007, p. 153).

All of the genres that Challis mentions are completely dependent on music technology for their creation. Field (2007) alludes to this in her work and argues that music technology should not be applied to “historical musics” (2007, p. 160), and instead, music technology education should address the repertoire that has been enabled by new technologies. It follows that a student who is interested in creating the genres enabled by music technology would have an interest in a music technology course. Therefore, by focusing education on these genres, we can create “less cultural distance between the student and the syllabus” (Field 2007, p. 160). Field (2007) does not however, offer any new empirical evidence in support of her assertions, instead building on the work of both Cain (2004) and Lamont et al. (2003) among others, and offering seven “starting points for creative enquiry” (2007, p. 160) which remain untested.

The opposing argument to focussing on students’ genres of preference is that this will not help them expand their cultural awareness and broaden their music horizons. This argument is presented by a teacher interviewed in McPhail (2003), who suggests that students are often “stuck in their own ‘pond’ of influence” (2003, p. 51), and that an understanding of music is only gained by considering “the whole canon” (2003, p. 51). The teacher interviewed sees art music and music theory co-dependent, however, the disparity between this perception and the reality is highlighted by McPhail himself, who states “although the theoretical knowledge Robert identifies as so important is not exclusively the domain of classical music, the perception of most teachers and students is that theory knowledge and musical reading literacy are part of the more formal, traditional and classically based paradigm” (2003, p. 50). Teaching music technology through the lens of art music can also be seen as a less risky route. Research undertaken by Green highlights that “many teachers noted that they found it difficult to keep their knowledge and resources up to date with musical trends, which change rapidly” (2002, p. 160). This suggests that some teachers take comfort in the unchanging nature of the art music canon, and this can be argued as a fault of the teacher, rather than the concept of teaching music technology in the context of popular music.

Williams (2011) focuses his research on “the ‘non-traditional music’ student” (2011, p. 131), identifying such students as having “limited skills in the traditional instruments” (2011, p. 143), and as being those who “may or may not be able to read standard notation” (2011, p. 143). His research discusses “democratising music creativity through technology” (Williams 2011, p. 136), and this democratisation is echoed in much of the research reviewed here, not least in Kardos’ acknowledgement of the diversity of music technology students in Further Education (2012, p. 143). Williams’ work is broad in scope, and contains a large enough sample size to lend credence to his statements; this is helpful given the relative brevity of Kardos’ study.

When considering all the literature discussed so far, I believe that it is safe to characterise music technology learners as having a strong bias towards popular music, and as coming from a non-traditional musical background. At this point, I am keen to draw a distinction between music theory and an understanding of music notation. Music notation is a component of music theory, but is not solely indicative of musical skills. Green notes, “popular musicians rarely use music notation, and whether they use it or not, they must be able to play without it” (2002, p. 29), highlighting the importance of musical skill in the professional world of popular music, and the relative unimportance of music notation. Whilst not referring to music technologists directly, the point is transferrable, and supports the separation between notation and music theory that is not always recognised.

Another point explored heavily in literature is the wide scope of music technology. Boehm (2007) discusses the three elements of music technology: “technology”, “science” and “art” (2007, p. 9), and presents them as an identity crisis of sorts highlighting the huge variety of emphasises that HE courses considered within the music technology sphere can contain. For example, an ‘audio engineering’ course may involve no music creation at all, whereas a ‘music production’ course may rely heavily upon music theory and skill. At FE level, the only subject on offer is strictly defined as ‘music technology’, perhaps hinting at a divide in student interest between the ‘science’ and ‘art’ elements of music technology. Finally, Winterson and Russ (2009) explored this, finding that “students perceive the subject as being predominantly creative rather than scientific” (2009, p. 348). If this is the case, then this has implications for the emphasis of music technology education.

Methodology

The research undertaken is a case study of learners on a Level 3 music technology course in a Midlands-based Further Education provider. The study consists of interviews with current students, a number of former FE students, and the course tutor. Each of these elements will be explored in more depth and justified below.

Partly due to the lack of literature on the chosen area of exploration, the first decision made was that this study would rely almost exclusively on empirical research, that is, “research which involves the collection and analysis of original data” (Wallace 2013, p. 5). Gathering empirical evidence also presented the opportunity to explore issues in more depth than would be available with documentary or desktop research.

As the initial research proposal was inspired by a real life situation in an FE provider, to conduct a case study seemed the most suitable approach. Denscombe states that cases that form “the basis of the investigation” will be real-life situations that already exist, rather than situations that are “artificially generated specifically for the purposes of the research” (2010, p. 54). In addition, the scale of a case study allows the researcher to go into more depth, allowing a more “holistic view” (Denscombe 2010, p. 54) of a situation. This is the desired outcome, as I wished to examine the importance of music theory to music technology students in every aspect, rather than a narrowly defined section of their current study.

A question surrounding case studies is the extent to which the findings can be generalised to other cases. This is a fair question to ask, and it is true that this study will not be applicable to all other FE music technology qualifications. I believe that the evidence gathered and findings presented can however be useful to other FE institutions specifically offering a Level 3 BTEC qualification, but would be less relevant in the case of other Level 3 qualifications.

Almost by default, given the methods selected, this research is qualitative in its nature. It will not seek to provide measurable ‘facts’, but instead focuses on “accounts of human experience” (Wallace 2013, p. 5). It is recognised that this type of research is highly subjective for a number of reasons; it is dependent on the participants’ opinions, and subsequently the researcher’s analysis of these opinions.

More specifically, the study could be considered to have a phenomenological approach. Phenomenology is primarily concerned with human experience, dealing with “people’s perceptions or meanings” and their “feelings and emotions” (Denscombe 2010, p. 94). This accurately describes the aim of this study. In phenomenological research “people’s everyday thinking is given credibility and respected in its own right as valid” (Denscombe 2010, p. 96). I hope that this is echoed in the findings of this research. Truth is not universal, and respondents’ answers will not be treated as ‘wrong’ because the researcher’s opinion differs from theirs; instead they will be acknowledged as a perspective and unless evidence suggests otherwise will be treated as ‘true’ to the respondent.

Interviews have been chosen as a medium to due the flexibility and depth they provide. In contract to questionnaires, responses given in an interview “can be developed and clarified” (Bell 2014, p. 178). I wished to have the opportunity to interact with what the respondent was saying, and hopefully develop and gain a better understanding of their experience through doing so. So that the flow of conversation was not impeded in the interviews, I decided to make audio recordings, rather than taking notes. A major concern was the manner in which interviews would affect the participants’ responses and the trustworthiness of these responses (Wallace 2013, p. 5). Perhaps respondents would feel able to be more open with a questionnaire, especially when given the shield of anonymity from the researcher. As I already know the bulk of the respondents from working with them, I was concerned that their answers may be affected by that existing relationship. Either they could be reluctant to answer certain questions for fear of offending, or they could simply say what they thought I wanted to hear. In retrospect, I believe that the range of answers given, coupled with the previously mentioned benefits of interviews justifies my choice in using the method. A final concern regarding the trustworthiness of the interviews is the wording of the questions. I have taken care to ensure that questions asked are not leading, do not put words in an interviewee’s mouth, or betray a personal opinion.

The selection of respondents was dependent purely on the number of volunteers from the Level 3 course in question. The upper limit of respondents was the number of people on the course, but not all opted to take part, giving me eight student respondents in total. If the number of respondents had been very low, I would have needed to consider alternative research. Fortunately, this was not the case. In addition, I advertised on social media for volunteer participants that had previous taken a Level 3 music technology qualification in Further Education, and eventually selected three to interview. The smaller number is due to the fact that these interviews are largely intended to be supplementary to the interviews with current students. Finally, I had already spoken to the Level 3 course leader about their willingness to participate in this research. They had responded enthusiastically, and as such, a final interview was arranged with them, to be given after the student interviews had been transcribed and analysed. These three distinct groups of interviewees were selected as a form of data triangulation known as informant triangulation (Denscombe 2010, p. 347). The validity of the information is supported by the use of different informants as sources of information. The validity of the data is also supported by the interviewees’ status as primary sources (Wallace 2013, p. 5).

Interview questions were pre-planned, and the initial interview was used as a pilot to check the quality of these questions and subsequent responses. However, the conversation was quite free flowing, and I was comfortable with asking new questions based upon respondents’ answers, or asking them to expand upon their answers. By some definitions, these could be considered semi-structured interviews. Denscombe suggests that, “semi-structured and unstructured interviews are really on a continuum” (2010, p. 175). Bell refers to these as “guided or focused” interviews (2014, p. 165), whereas in Sapsford and Jupp, they are simply referred to as “less-structured” interviews (2006, p. 95).

Ethics must always be at the forefront of any research methodology, especially when voluntary participants are involved. For this research, I ensured that the NTU Ethics Committee approved the methods, and that the methods complied with all BERA guidelines. BERA guidelines highlight four areas of responsibilities; chief of these is the responsibility “to participants” (BERA 2011, p. 5). The opportunity to engage in this research was presented to the students as a whole, with the intentions of the research made clear as well as what was expected of participants in order that they understand “the process” (BERA 2011, p. 5). Participants were informed that their involvement was entirely voluntary (BERA 2011, p. 5), and that they would have the right to withdraw from the research “for any or no reason, and at any time” (BERA 2011 p. 6). Finally, they were informed that the interviews would be used for publicly available research, but that the data would be anonymised before this happened.

When the interviews were conducted, participants were once again reminded of their full rights, and were asked for their permission to proceed with the interviews on tape. After these interviews were completed, all data was “kept securely” (BERA 2011, p. 8). As the information was digital, all documents were password protected, and not kept on any portable memory device.

In analysing the conducted interviews, both content and discourse were considered. The initial coding and analysis of the evidence eventually condensed into six key areas of enquiry. This narrowing of focus based upon the data collected is implied in the “exploratory character” or qualitative research (Sapsford and Jupp eds. 2006, p. 251). The final student interviews (Appendix A) contain annotations, correspondent to the six areas of enquiry. In addition, individual notes of interest are included. The six areas are as follows:

  • Previous musical experience
  • Understanding of music theory
  • Aspirations
  • Music genre
  • Musical understanding
  • Music creation

The interviews with former FE students and the course tutor were not analysed in the same way; instead they were explored for points that could be related to points made by the students.

Full transcripts of all interviews have been included to provide the opportunity for the reader to explore further, and also to guard against claims that quotations have been selected to fit a certain agenda.

Findings and Analysis

After analysis all of the interviews conducted, I believe that they have far more information and insight to offer than both the size and the scope of this study allow. Further interviews with the same students could also help to explore some of the below findings. In the interest of clarity, I have presented three key findings and justification for each.

  1. Students are passionate about creating music that they enjoy:

All students except one (Student H) explicitly put forward a desire to create music as a key, driving factor in their education. They want to be able to create music of a high quality, in the genres that they enjoy. Student C is a clear example of this. The length of their replies when discussing their own compositional ability makes the depth of their feeling on the subject apparent. They are unhappy with their compositional skills, and constantly compare their own music to their friends (Appendix A, Lines 275-282). Student A wants to create “music that you can dance to” (Appendix A, Line 64), and Student F sees their career in “producing beats, doing songs and tracks” (Appendix A, Line 570). To the students interviewed, music matters outside of their education, as well as inside. Student F expresses a particular level of perfectionism when concerning their music outside of education (Appendix A, Lines 570-573). Five of the eight interviewed students expressed a desire to pursue a career producing original material, and two of the remaining three have taken the course to gain recording skills to record their own material (see Appendix A, Lines 701-704 for an example).

A clear way of improving compositional skills is by gaining a better grasp on music theory, so provision of music theory could certainly aid students. Student C’s frustrations seem to mainly stem from the restrictions that their musical skill puts on their composition, rather than their technical skill (Appendix A, Lines 306-311).

In addition, students show clear interest towards the ‘art’ element of music technology discussed by Boehm (2007), rather than the ‘science’ element. Current students mentioned genres of music thirteen times. Nine of these mentions refer to genres of music exclusively created by electronic means, where the producer is often synonymous with the artist. It is clear from the students’ responses in both of these areas that they see music technology as a way to equip themselves with the skills to create this type of music, rather than a traditional music course, which perhaps would not deal with the creation of electronic based music.

  1. The difference of the level of music theory knowledge between students is vast:

There is a huge disparity between the starting musical knowledge of the students, and their level of music theory understanding. For example, Student E has no prior musical experience at all (Appendix A, Line 447), whilst Student G has a degree in music performance (Line 639). Interestingly, Student E has a more holistic view of music theory (Appendix A, Lines 455-456), whereas Student G sees it simply in terms of notation (Lines 647-648). Perhaps this difference in perspective stems from the fact that Student E has not been previously engaged with traditional music education. The range of musical knowledge is acknowledged by the students, and by the course tutor. Student B suggests that this disparity should be addressed early on (Appendix A, Lines 161-165), and Student D sees a clear line between students that are “traditionally musical” and those who are more “synth heavy” (Lines 380-384).

Both the former students and the course tutor viewed musical ability and theory as an important trait for music technology students to have, and tellingly, the course tutor felt that those who had the benefit of other musical training (instrumental lessons, GCSE music) were better equipped to go on to Higher Education that those that had solely been on the Level 3 music technology course (see Appendix B, Lines 90-97, 161-174, 346-352 and Appendix C, Lines 107-117). This is corroborated by Former Student B, who feels that they would not have been sufficiently prepared for their degree had their only music experience been a Level 3 music technology course (Appendix B, Lines 224-232). Music theory is therefore, a hugely diving factor among the class, and threatens equality of opportunities.

  1. Music theory is ill-defined in students’ minds, and this leads to disinterest:

Four of the eight current students understood the term ‘music theory’ to mean music notation, whereas the other half viewed it in a more holistic sense. For those that understood music theory to be specifically regarding sheet music or art music, the term held a negative connotation, and this is corroborated by the course tutor, who notes that students “detest” music notation (Appendix C, Lines 54-56). Those students with a more holistic understanding of music theory were subsequently more open to gaining a greater understanding of it, as they wished to increase their musical ability, whilst those with the narrower view were less enthused about learning music theory, but still wanted to improve their musical understanding, especially in regards to composition (see Appendix A, Lines 466-469 and 79-82). Student responses were different when music theory was discussed in terms of general musical and compositional ability, this indicates that given a refined definition of music theory, students would be supportive of its provision on their course.

If this research were to be repeated, one way to fix to confusion surrounding the term ‘music theory’, and to possibly better gauge students’ opinions on it, would be to explicitly define the term before the interviews begin. However, this could leave the research open to claims that it is biased, as the researcher would be putting concepts into the interviewees’ heads.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Given the passion for creating music present among the learners, I recommend that music technology teaching should be holistic in its provision, providing learners with the tools necessary to create music. In this way, we allow learners to achieve what they have enrolled on the course to achieve. Therefore, broadly speaking, music theory is exceptionally important to a music technology student that fits the profile of any of the students interviewed. More specifically however, some of the elements of music theory are exceptionally important, but others are of little to no importance (a point well made in Appendix B, Lines 371-376). This is largely consistent with the elements that a musician involved with popular music, rather than art music, may use. This is crucial to note, as the discourse currently surrounding music theory carries heavy connotations of the art music tradition. Perhaps a different term needs to be used to describe this music theory provision; the course tutor offers “music theory for computer musicians” (Appendix C, Line 79). Further research needs to be completed to provide accurate recommendations of the areas of music theory that are important to a music technology student.

Ultimately, students are able to pass a Level 3 BTEC in music technology without understanding music theory, and then move onto Higher Education (see Appendix C, Lines 107-116). The evidence for this is clear in all interviews. If our role as educators in the FE sector is to progress learners to HE, then we can achieve this without giving students the tools of music theory. If we take a more humanistic approach (Petty 2009, p. 459), and aim to enrich every aspect of a student’s musical life, and indeed their employment prospects, then we will not achieve this by keeping music theory out of the music technology classroom. At present, if students who already understand music theory enroll on a course that does not feature music theory teaching, they have a large advantage over those that do not already possess this knowledge (see Appendix C, Lines 97-105). With equality and diversity so high on the agenda in Further Education, we can afford equal opportunities to students by providing them with this knowledge (Wallace 2011, p. 44). In addition, by doing so, we create a common language between students, one that allows easier collaboration and peer-review.

On a local level, teachers can strive to embed music theory teaching in their lessons, much as they would with numeracy and literacy. Sequencing, for example, would be a good area in which to embed theory. This would not be simple however, given that teachers already have specific material that needs covering, and would require a concerted effort on the part of the teacher. On a personal level, this is something that I will be exploring, and attempting to implement in my own practice.

When an institution runs a course, they have the option of various modules that the course will consist of. Providers of Level 3 music technology courses should take care to select modules that will properly prepare their learners, both in terms of their technical ability and their musical ability. It may be that such options are not available through certain exam boards, a problem that the course tutor interviewed states explicitly (Appendix C, Lines 52-62). In these cases, institutions may wish to consider other exam boards, and exam boards should ensure that the units they offer serve the best interests of the students.

A final option would be to insist upon a certain level of music theory knowledge as a pre-requisite to entering Level 3 music technology qualifications. It could be possible to allow students to attend a short course pre-entry to allow them to gain these skills, but again, the main barrier to this would be funding and teaching time.

Further investigation needs to be done in order to decide the optimal method of including music theory in Level 3 music technology courses. This research demonstrates the importance of music theory when the views of learners are considered, but this view could be supported or contradicted by a quantitative study exploring the achievements of those who have and have not experienced music theory teaching.

References

Beard, D. & Gloag, K., 2005. Musicology: The Key Concepts. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Bell, J., 2014. Doing Your Research Project. 6th ed. Maidenhead, Berkshire: McGraw-Hill Education.

BERA, 2011. Ethical Guidelines For Educational Research [online]. London: BERA. Available at: https://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/BERA-Ethical-Guidelines-2011.pdf [Accessed 16 April 2015].

Boehm, C., 2007. The discipline that never was: current developments in music technology in higher education in Britain, Journal of Music, Technology and Education, 1 (1), 7-21.

Cain, T., 2004. Theory, technology and the music curriculum, British Journal of Music Education, 21 (2), 215-221.

Challis, M., 2007. The DJ factor: teaching performance and composition from back to front. In: Finney, J. & Burnard, P. ed. Music Education with Digital Technology. London: Continuum, 65-75.

Field, A., 2007. New forms of composition, and how to enable them. In: Finney, J. & Burnard, P. ed. Music Education with Digital Technology. London: Continuum, 156-168.

Denscombe, M., 2010. The Good Research Guide. 4th ed. Maidenhead, Berkshire: McGraw-Hill Education.

Green, L., 2002. How Popular Musicians Learn. Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate.

Kardos, L., 2012. How music technology can make sound and music worlds accessible to student composers in Further Education colleges, British Journal of Music Education, 29 (2), 143-151.

Lamont, A., Hargreaves, D. J., Marshall, N. A. & Tarrant, M. Young people’s music in and out of school, British Journal of Music Education, 20 (3), 229-241.

McPhail, G., 2013. Informal and formal knowledge: The curriculum conception of two rock graduates, British Journal of Music Education, 30 (1), 43-57.

Petty, G., 2009. Teaching Today. 4th ed. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

Sapsford, R. and Jupp, V., eds., 2006. Data Collection and Analysis. 2nd ed. London: SAGE.

Savage, J., 2007. Pedagogical strategies for change. In: Finney, J. & Burnard, P. ed. Music Education with Digital Technology. London: Continuum, 142-155.

Tagg, P., 1982. Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method and Practice, Popular Music, 2, 37-67.

Wallace, S., 2011. Teaching, Tutoring and Training in the Lifelong Learning Sector. 4th ed. London: SAGE.

Wallace, S., 2013. Doing Research in Further Education and Training. London: SAGE.

Williams, D. B., 2011. The non-traditional music student in secondary schools of the United States: Engaging non-participant students in creative music activities through technology, Journal of Music, Technology and Education, 4 (2+3), 131-147.

Winterson, J. & Russ, M., 2009. Understanding the Transition from School to University in Music and Music Technology, Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 8 (3), 339-354.

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This piece was written in 2012, as a part of my studies at Leeds College of Music.

In August 2009, Lil’ Wayne signed the young female rapper known as Nicki Minaj (born Onika Tanya Maraj) to his record label, Young Money Entertainment. By the week of February 9th 2011, Nicki Minaj had her first US number 1 album. With the rap genre having been dominated throughout its history by male performers, the importance of this achievement for female MCs (or “femcees” as some like to call them (Francois, 2010), cannot be overstated. Minaj’s career centres around her womanhood, from her self-identification as a “Barbie” and her enthusiasm for all things pink to her overtly sexual image. In this regard, she can be viewed somewhat as a harbinger for a fresh glut of female MCs, with the Guardian’s Paul Lester, offering “the success of Nicki Minaj” as a possible reason that female MCs “seem to be everywhere at the moment” (2012). Alternatively, she could damage the image of female rappers irreparably. After all, as Menda Francois (a female MC herself) notes, “the term “Barbie” has negative connotations.” (Francois, 2010) In the short space of time since Minaj’s appearance, the rise of other female rap artists, such as Azealia Banks, Kreayshawn and Iggy Azalea has been phenomenal. With all three poised to release their debut albums within the next year, it could be that this is the best chance that women have had to gain parity with men in the rap game.

The year in which the first track featuring a solo female MC was released is unclear. In her paper, Ruth Cumberbatch claims the year as 1980, with other sources citing it as 1979 (2001). However, all are unanimous in the fact that the honour goes to Philadelphia DJ and MC, Lady B, with her single “To The Beat Y’all”. The track samples a late-70’s funk groove and whilst not a hit in its own right, opened the door for female rap artists to grow in stature. The track is a blend of lyrical styles, not only self referencing the “disco beat” upon which the artist raps and boasting about her prowess in various areas, but also making sexual references, at times humorously juxtaposed with nursery rhyme imagery – “I said Jack and Jill went up the hill, to have a little fun/But stupid Jill forgot the pill and now they have a son.” These lyrical themes align perfectly with the topics approached by male MCs at the same time. For example, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” features the lyrics “Now what you hear is not a test, I’m rapping to the beat/And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet,” coupled with descriptions of personal wealth. This type of posturing is endemic to the rap genre, and has become more and more prevalent with time. By the time we reach Ice-T’s early Gangsta Rap track “6 ‘N The Mornin’” (1986), we see constant violence and an obsession with stature and possessions in the lyrics. The objectification of women is not only apparent in the lyrics, but in the visual elements of the genre. The front cover of Rhyme Pays (the album featuring “6 ‘N The Mornin’”) features Ice-T sat in a sports car, with a scantily clad model stood behind him, whilst the lyrics to the track refer to women as “ho” or “bitch”. The Sugarhill Gang’s hit is devoid of such misogyny and this comparison illustrates the speed at which the degradation of women through hip-hop lyricism grew.

This dismissal of women introduced barriers to the advancement of female participation within rap. MC Lyte, lauded for the “positive image” she portrayed of black women (Cumberbatch, 2001), is quoted as saying that “men spend so long degrading women in hip-hop, how could we ever expect consumers to support female MCs?” (Swash, 2010) MC Lyte’s words are lent greater credence by the fact that she has been successful within the genre. Indeed, five of her singles have topped the US Rap chart, quite a feat considering the fact that between 2004 and 2010, the Hot Rap Songs chart (the current incarnation of US Rap) did not feature a female rapper in the number 1 position.

The obvious dominance of hip-hop by black males has been a focus for many female MCs, with many remixing the songs of male artists, injecting “feminine discourse into dominant masculine discourse” (Francois, 2010) Holly Kruse credits the all-girl act Salt-N-Pepa with providing “brutally honest pronouncements about gender relations” (1999:91) Such saturation by male artists means that it is impossible to discuss women in rap without comparison with men. If male MCs were to be discussed, their gender would be scarcely worth a mention – “no popular music in recent years has been as explicitly coded as male in popular discourse as rap.” (Kruse, 1999:86) In his New York Times article “Challenging Hip-Hop’s Masculine Ideal”, Touré suggests that “black male rappers are entrancing because they give off a sense of black masculine power.” (2011) If we take this as truth, the logical route for female success within the genre is to emulate this power.

Menda Francois quotes Cheryl L. Keyes’ theories on “subject positions” or personas that female rappers take: “Queen Mother”, “Fly Girl” and “Bad Girl” to name a few. She claims that a “Bad Girl” MC “attempts to empower herself as a woman by acting like a man,” and that the style “virtually birthed hardcore female rap.” (2010) Nicki Minaj’s most recent album “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” revolves around her male alter ego – Roman Zolanski. Throughout Minaj’s career she has substituted “a feminine identity with a masculine one” (Francois, 2010), with her 2008 mixtape “Sucka Free” featuring her comparing herself to Shaquille O’Neal and DJ Kay Slay. This is not peculiar to her early career; 2011 saw her feature on Birdman’s track “Y. U. Mad”, opening with the lyrics “I am the female Weezy (Lil Wayne’s nickname)”. This constant comparison with men can be construed as an attempt to gain parity, or negatively, a fear of inferiority. It is rare to hear Minaj offer up another female artist as a role model, indeed the majority of nods she gives to her contemporaries are “disses”, as seen in her long running feud or “beef” with Lil’ Kim, culminating in the mutual exchange of “diss tracks” (Lil’ Kim released a track entitled Black Friday; Minaj responded with Tragedy). Roy Shuker suggests that “female rap” can be identified by its emphasis on “gender solidarity” (Shuker, 1998:221) – however, if we take Nicki Minaj as an indicator, no such sisterhood is apparent. Shuker’s simplification of such a complex issue renders his authority questionable, although some female rap does undoubtedly include such feminist ideals.

Intrinsically linked with the concept of gender is the concept of sexuality. V-Nasty’s verse on “Whip Appeal” (from BAYTL, her collaboration album with Gucci Mane), goes so far as to see her picture herself physically as a male – “If I had a dick, then I’d tell that bitch to swallow.” Whilst “rap lyrics are perennially cited as among the most misogynistic,” (Kruse, 1999:86) lyrics such as this make it clear that such lyrical pursuits are not solely the preserve of male artists. V-Nasty couples this male identification with a personal style consisting of baseball caps, hoodies and t-shirts – not too far removed from the look of many male hip-hop artists. This stands in contrast to the overtly sexual visuals of Nicki Minaj. Latoya Peterson discusses Minaj’s video for “Massive Attack”, which contains “gratuitous shots of her exposed behind.” Peterson suggests a correlation between a woman’s sex appeal and mainstream success. This argument holds water, with Nicki Minaj currently ruling the charts, whilst V-Nasty remains relatively underground. V-Nasty’s style is a throwback to earlier female MCs who “had far more options for onscreen representation, often appearing in the types of clothes their male contemporaries were wearing.” (Peterson, 2010) Whilst the two are disparate in style, they both seem to equate the male genitalia with power, Minaj stating “if you wasn’t so ugly, I’d put my dick in your face,” on her track “Come on a Cone.” Inversely, when a male rapper recites the word “pussy” (slang for the female genitalia), he invariably uses it to demean his adversaries, implying that they are cowards. From the usage of both of these words, the listener associates masculinity with strength and virility, and femininity with weakness and submission.

If female MCs choose to portray themselves as hypersexual objects, this only corresponds with the general image foisted upon women by the hip-hop industry. Hobson and Bartlow claim that although originally female MCs and DJs “could hold their own against their male counterparts”, the industry has reduced them to being “music video dancers, models, and groupies.” (Hobson/Bartlow, 2007:3) Many female artists are seemingly comfortable with this situation, and are happy to dress provocatively and dance suggestively in their own music videos. Feminist writers have expressed their disappointment in this; Menda Francois for example believes that Nicki Minaj “presents a rather regressive portrait of female empowerment,” (2010) whilst Cumberbatch quotes feminist Akissi Britton’s disapproval of Lil’ Kim’s “sexist and racist stereotypes of black women.” (2001) In Latoya Peterson’s article, Menda Francois is quotes as suggesting that the “sexually available coquette” is a viable alternative to the image of the “female thug” or “bad girl”, and without either, the “femcee” is stripped of her “power and agency.” (Peterson, 2010)

This sexuality can be presented in a variety of guises however. Yolandi Visser of the South African rap group Die Antwoord, plays the cutesy, vulnerable angle, only intensified by her childlike vocals and petite frame. The track “I Fink You Freeky” contains the lyrics, “these bad boys like to smack me in the bum,” indicating a willingness to be dominated by a male. Alternatively, we see female sexual dominance in the work of Iggy Azalea, an artist Touré describes as having the “hyperconfident air of a dominatrix.” Her track, “Pu$$y”, again features “bad boys” but in this context, “bad boys get a mouth full of pussy,” a role reversal that echoes masculine rap’s obsession with fellatio, a mirror image of Lil Wayne in his track 3 Peat – “don’t you ever fix your lips unless you ‘bout to suck my dick.” A determination to place priority on her own sexual gratification, rather than that of a male, is perhaps a crass method through which a female MC can display a modicum of feministic tendency. This concept of feminism within hip-hop is something that Francois describes as “a paradox.” (2010) Kemba King disagrees, and believes that although “being a hip-hop feminist is complicated”, “the two words are not antithetical.” (2010)

Azealia Banks expresses the same sentiments as Iggy Azalea on her track “212”, albeit in an even more aggressive and explicit manner – “I guess that cunt getting eaten”. Her usage of such a taboo term is a statement of intent in itself, an indication that she is able to offend just as much as male rappers. Banks however, does not merely reduce men to sexual objects. In this track, they are not even that, with the lyrics insinuating that Banks’ sexual partner is female. By eradicating the necessity for male intervention even at the basest level, Banks is able to project a powerful image on her own terms. Whilst rumours of lesbian or bisexual female rappers abound (Suzanne Bost claims that “Queen Latifah is routinely labelled a lesbian” (2001)), such clear homosexuality is rarely displayed within the music. The track flies in the face of Hobson and Bartlow’s statement that women within hip-hop are portrays as “decorative, fetishistic, manipulative, fragile, or in need of rescuing,” (2007:3) “212” is also remarkably popular for an artist who, at the time of release, was unsigned. Its video has had in excess of 17 million YouTube views – this is favorably comparable to the 46 million views of Minaj’s Massive Attack, a track released back in 2010 and after three whole mixtapes of Minaj’s music. If Banks’ rise continues at a similar rate, she could quickly become a realistic rival to Minaj, a development that would undoubtedly aid the progression of female rap. One artist can be seen as an outlier, whereas two can quickly become a scene.

The unabashed sexuality exuded on “212” can be traced to female hip-hop pioneers such as Salt-N-Pepa. On their track “Shoop”, the group are seen “walking along a beach and checking out men”, an image Cumberbatch views as “sexually assertive”. (2001) This sentiment is clear in the lyrics of the track, with Salt asking for a man’s number, and stating, “a ho? No, that don’t make me,” a direct response to the popularity of the word “ho” within the male rap vocabulary. In modern hip-hop, the word “ho” is openly embraced by female MCs, usually as an insult to their perceived inferiors, with Nicki Minaj’s 2011 single “Stupid Hoe” constructed around the word. There is perhaps an irony in the fact that the word “ho” implies sexually promiscuous women, utilizing their bodies for monetary gain, whilst the rappers that use the term as an insult do precisely that. It is impossible to state whether or not Minaj would have the same level of popularity had she chosen to dress conservatively in all of her music videos and public appearances. Latoya Peterson’s viewpoint suggests that she would not have, explaining that, “a successful female artist must not only be talented, but also able to titillate the gaze of an assumed male viewer.” (2010) This “assumed male viewer” could be “the dominant hip-hop consumer” – also known as “the young white suburban male” (Touré, 2011) If it is essential to appeal to this demographic, it is clear that female MCs face a struggle to be both respected for their craft and commercially viable simultaneously. This dilemma sees interesting juxtapositions appear constantly within the hip-hop world. For example, the music video for the remix of Yo Gotti’s track 5-Star Chick sees Nicki Minaj and Trina “spitting lyrics about their independence while the video holds them up as sexual objects.” (Peterson, 2010) Whilst both artists hold their own lyrically, it is Minaj’s cleavage and Trina’s thighs that threaten to become the stars of the show. In a separate interview, Trina suggests that she is well aware that her success is entirely based upon her sexual image – “(Men) want to see me as sexy, because I’m a female, (they think) ‘I’m a dude, I’m not learning nothing from you, I just want to see you.’” (Swash, 2010) Menda Francois suggests that it is possible for a woman to use “heterosexist sexiness” to make her body “a site of empowerment” but warns that when this sexiness “is displayed for male satisfaction, [it] creates little real power for women.” (2010) From this point of view, Minaj’s success may bring her huge financial gain and personal fame, but does little to further the cause of female rap. When observing earlier female hip-hop artists, one could contest that Minaj’s rise is a step back from artists such as Monie Love and Lauryn Hill, who, by comparison, are positively feminist. Love’s track It’s A Shame advises a friend to “tell him to kiss the you know what”, whilst Hill won five Grammy awards with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an album replete with religious imagery and uplifting messages of love. (Hobson/Bartlow, 2007:5)

Alex MacPherson’s article on UK female MCs suggest that this ideal is perhaps not universal, with grime artist Stush claiming that “Over here, if you came out with that talk, you’d just get people going, ‘Oh, that girl’s a slag, man!’ All the guys would switch on you, you’d get no respect.” (2010) Again, Stush is an underground artist, perhaps reinforcing the idea that respect and mainstream success are not necessarily mutual. This transatlantic difference indicates that gender is not the only cultural divide between various MCs. Kruse cites “identifications of race, ethnicity, social class” (1999:91) among other factors that define a MCs persona and perceived authenticity. Race is a particularly fiery issue, and in his article, Touré discusses the anomaly of “white-girl” MCs (2011). To deny hip-hop’s roots in black music would be to rewrite history, and to obtain a level of authenticity (essential within hip-hop), each white female rapper must interact with this fact to some degree. The method chosen by Iggy Azalea is to assimilate herself into black society. Her video for “Pu$$y” sees her interacting almost exclusively with black people, from an elderly lady at the start, to a young boy upon her shoulders. Touré notes that the video is set in the same neighborhood as various Snoop Dogg videos, and that by considering these factors, Azalea implies that “it’s no anomaly for her to rock the mic.” (Touré, 2011) Whilst this may be the case, it is clear that Azalea is not black and never will be, and therefore is unable to assume the personality of a “femcee” who is. In fact, she has courted controversy in the past with her lyric “I’m a runaway slave…master,” from the song D.R.U.G.S, a lyric that has sparked a feud between herself and Azealia Banks. Whilst the pair may be divided by race, they share the same struggle as female artists, a fact that became painfully clear when Dirty South rapper T.I. issued a response to Banks’ dismissal of Azalea (signed to his Grand Hustle label). In a radio interview, T.I. calls the feud “bitch shit” and states that “I’m a man…you ain’t got no business addressing me.” (Ramirez: 2012) Whilst T.I. said this in regard to Banks, it is clear that this belief has widen implications, and that whilst he may enjoy the music of Iggy Azalea, he does not see her as an equal because of her gender.

Iggy Azalea’s attempts to position herself as a white artist carrying all the cultural baggage of a black artist could not be more different to the attitude taken by that of Kreayshawn in her video for “Gucci Gucci”. The song is a rejection of materialism and obsession with labels, something that hip-hop is well known for. However, the fact that she dismisses such labels out of choice (implying she can easily afford such designer items) “reeks of white-girl privilege” (Touré: 2011). She also has faced racial controversy, with her use of “the n-word” in a tweet published to her account. V-Nasty (who appears in the Gucci Gucci video with Kreayshawn) has done exactly the same, causing multiple online articles to be published about her alleged racism. Indeed, the pair are part of a collective known as the “White Girl Mob”, suggesting that their race is essential to their identity. There is an irony in the fact that a group that associate so heavily with being white should attempt to appropriate such a dangerous racial term. Perhaps an even heavier irony lies in the fact that Iggy Azalea also attempts a similar self-identification, stating she is part of the “White Girl Team”. In his essay, Russell A. Potter claims that “there can be no erasure of race,” (1999) and whilst neither artist attempts such a thing, it is obvious that it is an issue upon which they must treat lightly. Both artists however, seem to wish to make their differences (their gender and race) clear, contradicting the idea of the “Bad Girl” MC, known for imitation of male rap characteristics.

Race, of course, is not as simple as black and white, and women from a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds have found success, from M.I.A., a socially conscious artist with Sri Lankan Tamil roots, to Cher Lloyd, a young British artist with Gypsy roots who found fame on the UK’s X Factor for her versatility, both rapping and singing on the same track. Both have a unique musical style, steering clear of simply imitating black male MCs, and this approach effectively side steps the issue of race. A similar claim can be made of 26-year old artist K. Flay, who Touré describes as “an un-self-conscious hipster” (2011). Her videos are devoid of “hip-hop signifiers,” and by taking this route she eliminates her music’s reliance on the existing canon of hip-hop. It would be impossible to claim that K. Flay has sexualized her art in order to gain popularity. Quite the inverse is true, and it is perhaps the lack of sexuality within her work that keeps her as a niche, underground artist.

Ultimately, the rise of female artists within hip-hop may not be under the control of the females themselves. Cumberbatch believes that external influences often “undermine [the] endeavours” (2001) of women within the rap scene. Such influences are numerous – the degradation of women within hip-hop, the established dominance of black male artists and hip-hop’s macho posturing, at odds with the traditional view of a woman. Perhaps part of the reason that female rap has not been wildly successful until now is that assertive, self-sufficient women are a threat to the patriarchal society that is an essential tenet of the hip-hop culture. In addition to that problem is the permeating belief that female hip-hop is inferior to that produced by males. In Chantelle Fiddy’s article she discusses the components of the genre “grating vocals, cheesy lyrics, constantly overshadowed by male counterparts.” (2010) Such opinions seem engrained upon the public consciousness, with white female MCs facing this problem even more pronouncedly – “no matter what they say, it’s seen as cute and comical, like a cat walking on its hind legs.” (Touré, 2011) In the face of such adversity, it would take something special to break the patriarchal dominance of the industry, a huge female artists, willing to take a stand for womankind. Nicki Minaj has perhaps been female rap’s best hope so far, but through her pandering to the male archetype has become “a universal symbol of hardcore female rap’s innumerable missed opportunities for female empowerment.” (Francois, 2010) Even as more female MCs enter the industry, it is clear that they are playing the game by the boys’ rules. It will take something special to change that.

Bibliography

Bost, S. (2001): ‘”Be deceived if ya wanna be foolish”: (Re)constructing Body, Genre, and Gender in Feminist Rap’ in Postmodern Culture, 12 (1)

Cumberbatch, R (2001): Sisters With Voices: Women Making Music in the Hip-Hop Scene. Available from: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/opendissertations/6499, accessed 30 May 2012

Fiddy, C. (2010): Forget Dizzee and Tinchy – female MCs are back on a street corner near you. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2010/nov/29/female-mcs-street, accessed 30 May 2012

Francois, M. (2010, 1): Nicki Minaj and the Paradox of Hip Hop Feminism, LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl” and Nicki Minaj Responds to LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl” (all three articles are part of the ‘Hip Hop, Resistance and Feminism’ series) Available from: http://www.genderacrossborders.com/2010/02/05/welcome-to-the-hip-hop-resistance-and-feminism-series/, accessed 30 May 2012

Hobson, J. and Bartlow, D. (2007): ‘Representin’: Women, Hip-Hop, and Popular Music’ in Meridians, 8, pp. 1-14

King, K. (2010): My Definition – Hip Hop Feminism. Available from: http://www.genderacrossborders.com/2010/02/05/my-definition-hip-hop-feminism/, accessed 30 May 2012

Kruse, H. (1999): ‘Gender’ in Horner, B. and Swiss, T. (ed.): Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. Boston: Blackwell

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Macpherson, A. (2010): A funky new era: why women MCs are ruling UK clubs again. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/feb/18/female-mcs-ms-dynamite-lady-chann, accessed 30 May 2012

Peterson, L. (2010): Nicki Minaj and the rise of the titillating female rapper. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2010/apr/12/nicki-minaj-female-rapper, accessed 30 May 2012

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Shuker, R. (1998): Key Concepts in Popular Music. London: Routledge

Swash, R. (2010): Is this the truth about women in hip-hop? Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2010/sep/02/truth-women-hip-hop, accessed 30 May 2012

Touré. (2011): Challenging Hip-Hop’s Masculine Ideal. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/25/arts/music/white-female-rappers-challenging-hip-hops-masculine-ideal.html?pagewanted=all, accessed 30 May 2012

Discography

Azealia Banks (2012): 1991. Interscope, 001700122

Birdman (2011): Y. U. Mad. Cash Money, Single

Cher Lloyd (2011): Sticks & Stones. Syco Muic, 88697861792

Die Antwoord (2012): Ten$ion. Downtown, DWT70312

Gucci Mane & V-Nasty (2011): BAYTL. Warner, 5290362

Ice-T (1987): Rhyme Pays. Sire, 7599256022

Iggy Azalea (2011): Ignorant Art. Self-released Mixtape

K. Flay (2011): I Stopped Caring in ‘96. Self-released Mixtape

Kreayshawn (2011): Gucci Gucci. Columbia, Single

Lady B (1979): To The Beat Y’all. Tec, 115392145

Lauryn Hill (1998): The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Ruffhouse, 69035

Lil’ Kim (2011): Black Friday. Queen Bee Entertainment, Mixtape

M.I.A. (2005): Arular. XL, 49186

Monie Love (1990): Down to Earth. Chrysalis, 1C 064-3 21720 1

Nicki Minaj (2008): Sucka Free. Young Money, Mixtape

Nicki Minaj (2010): Pink Friday. Cash Money, 2754184

Nicki Minaj (2011): Tragedy. Unreleased

Nicki Minaj (2012): Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. Universal, 001653002

Salt-N-Pepa (1993): Very Necessary. London, 28392

Sugarhill Gang, The (1980): The Sugarhill Gang. Sequel, 306

Yo Gotti (2012): Live from the Kitchen. RCA, 55869

“This work was produced as part of Music and Cultural Studies at Leeds College of Music.”

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