Toward a Methodological Stance

Final paper for Approaches To Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Section 1: Reflections on Received View of Research

I was raised by two medical researchers and a former astrophysicist, surrounded by stacks of quantitative journals. I rarely questioned the assumption that quantitative empirical research is the gold standard of truth, and that while subjective accounts are interesting and illuminating, they are not ultimately reliable. From scientists I learned that stories belong to mythology, while facts do not necessarily organize themselves in ways that can be apprehended so easily. Creation myths tell the story of a human-scale world in which humans are the most important element. Astrophysicists tell us that the universe is unfathomably vast and incomprehensibly old, and that we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, while evolution teaches that we are more like mushrooms or daisies than unlike them. It is axiomatic for scientists that reality is empirically knowable, and while social and emotional considerations are a fact of life, they are noise to be filtered out.

As an undergraduate, I challenged those notions while studying Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, an idiosyncratic Amherst College program that combines critical race and gender theory, studies of interpretive practices, postmodernism, poststructuralism, and anthropology. It became quickly apparent that while quantitative research might be the gold standard for truth, it is not up to the task of explaining all the messy tangles of social life. In a way, my early exposure to evolutionary theory was helpful here too—I learned to see our inner lives as emerging from competing and contradictory pressures, with results sometimes as illogical-seeming as peacock tails.

My life as a musician has been a strong driver for my embrace of interpretivism. Amherst, like most undergraduate institutions then and now, taught music in a manner derived from the European conservatory. All music majors had to complete requirements in music theory and music history. The theory being taught was Western tonal harmony organized around Schenkerian analysis, a methodical, scientistic method for empirically analyzing the harmonic structure of music in a manner similar to diagramming a sentence. I was repulsed by this approach; such an ostensibly objective method seemed totally wrong for an emotional medium like music. I had already quit classical music study in high school and was self-teaching blues and rock, puzzling through the theory concepts on my own.

My only formal music study came in my last year of college, a year-long course on jazz theory and improvisation. Jazz theory covers some of the same concepts and techniques as classical theory, but with a very different set of assumptions and emphases. It presents the theory rules more as tools in a toolbox—you are always free to use “wrong” notes if they sound subjectively good. Also, jazz includes the blues, which is totally inexplicable using the rules of classical theory. Our textbook presented the blues as a cornerstone of the music but did not even try to explain it, leaving it instead as a mystery, to be learned but not understood. I found that a bit unsatisfying, but much more intellectually honest than the claims of the Schenkerians to having a tool capable of explaining the entire world’s music. Jazz puts an influence on individual voice and intuition, both necessary to become a good improviser. It is only natural that such a focus encouraged me to challenge received wisdom.

I was right to be instinctively repulsed by Schenker. I encountered him again recently as a masters student in music technology at NYU. By this point I had thoroughly mastered jazz theory and related approaches to America’s vernacular music, and felt confident about my ability to understand classical music as well. When I got to NYU, I had to do some remedial music theory—I had never learned the technical minutiae of strict classical theory, because in all my years making music, I had never needed them. I spent my semester of graduate tonal review in a continuous low boil of rage. It was only quite recently that I found out that my instinctual rejection was well-motivated: Schenker was an outspoken white supremacist, a defender of the patriarchy, an opponent of democracy, and generally a morally repugnant person (Schachter, 2001; Cook, 2007; Botstein, 2002). While contemporary theorists prefer to separate his political views from his musical analysis techniques, Schenker himself insisted that they were inseparable. His example should make us skeptical of any attempt at forming an “objective,” “universal” theory of music.

American musical culture is a blend of many styles and genres, but it all revolves around a common center: the loop-centric, improvisational, dance-oriented traditions of the African diaspora, as exemplified by the blues (Mcclary, 2000). Yet it is easy to complete a music degree at most American universities, NYU included, without ever coming into contact with the blues or its various derivatives. The music academy’s near-exclusive focus on Western classical tradition places it strikingly at odds with the broader culture. While traditional aesthetically-oriented music scholars prefer not to consider “extramusical” factors, to my mind there is no understanding music without considering its social and political context. Even at a progressive institution like NYU, the music programs retain an extraordinarily Eurocentric focus. The music technology masters requires a computer music composition class that also functions as a history of electronic music. Outside the academy, the history of electronic music is coextensive with the history of the African diaspora’s vernacular music, from rock to funk to disco to techno to hip-hop. But the textbook in the NYU computer composition class (Chadabe, 1997) mentions precisely one person of color (Herbie Hancock), and only in a one-sentence aside. Scholars who wish to move music scholarship in a more enlightened direction have their work cut out for them.

Hip-hop has posed the greatest challenges to my musical understanding. Like hip-hop, I was born in the Bronx in the 1970s, but while I was always aware of it and attracted to it, I knew it was not music “for me.” I succumbed to the subtle racism of my peers as an adolescent and developed a musical identity centered on white music: rock, folk, country. (In my ignorance, I did not realize that I was rejecting current black music in favor of older black music.) As I got older and became a more expert musician, though, I could not ignore what a compelling sonic expression of the world that hip-hop presents. Its embrace of technology mirrors our alienated, screen-saturated experience, but its centering of the voice keeps it from being as numb and icy as other electronic forms tend to be. The social realism and slang of rap lyrics makes other writing styles seem timid and avoidant. But the most compelling and challenging hip-hop practice is sampling.

The central problem facing any musician is the fact of recorded music. There is so much of it, and it is so effortlessly accessible, so what more could any of us possibly add? Why would you book my funk band when you could have a better time by hiring a DJ to play Michael Jackson and Prince? Hip-hop presents a brilliant solution to this problem by using familiar recorded music as its raw material. No one needs to hear my band cover Michael Jackson, but plenty of people are eager to listen to my remixes and samples of Michael Jackson (Hein, 2014). Through sampling, I can enter into a conversation with recordings, and use their visceral familiarity to create intertextual reference and shocks of recognition. I can make familiar recordings strange, and through repetition, make strange sounds become familiar. By embracing sampling, however, I have had to question some of the most basic assumptions about originality, intellectual property, artistic propriety generally, and the very definition of musicianship. As with jazz improvisation, there is no way to practice sample-based production without engaging in cultural criticism.

Section 2: Assumptions of Interpretive Inquiry

A true materialist ontology recognizes that the mind is as much a part of the material world as digestion is. The mind is what the central nervous system does, like digestion is what the gastrointestinal tract does. Cartesian dualism is an error (Damásio, 2005). Subjective epistemologies are part of a realist/materialist ontology because our minds and perceptions with all their social situatedness are still part of the world, even if they are harder to observe than behavior.

We are always in a constructivist position. We make our experience, not simply have it. This constructivist view recognizes that the resources we use to construe the world not only guide our attention to it, but when used to represent it, both constrain and make possible what we are able to convey. Knowledge is thus mediated in two ways. First, it is mediated by what we bring to the world as we achieve experience. Second, it is mediated by what we use to convey our experience once it is secured. Furthermore, a purely subjective view would be uninfluenced by objective conditions and a purely objective view would be uninfluenced by subjective ones (Eisner 1997, 60).

We need qualitative methods to access our internal states, but those states are still objective facts.

Interpretivism recognizes the reality of our subjective meanings and aligns with the techniques best suited to describing and explaining them. Luker (2008) describes the case that chooses you, or that you sample yourself into (131). My own trajectory as a musician and educator has made me an exemplar of the shortcomings of Eurocentric music pedagogy and the benefits of personal creativity through producing and songwriting; certainly it feels like this case chose me. Since my own motivations are borne out of subjective experience, and since my research questions were provoked by the experiences of others like me, my research into those questions must necessarily follow an interpretivist paradigm.

I find social constructivism to be a compelling interpretive assumption. This is due in part to my own experiences building an understanding of the world through experience; in part to my experience as an educator watching others doing so; and most compellingly, as a parent watching my young children build their internal reality from the ground up. I am therefore convinced that scientific inquiry must recognize that there are as many social realities as there are people, and that those realities emerge continually out of our mutual interactions. However, I am troubled by the detached researcher role usually taken by constructivists (Koro-Ljungberg et al, 2009). As researchers, our social realities necessarily shape our perceptions, and I believe that a more reciprocal stance is the best way to counterbalance the effects of our own subjectivity.

I approach my research project with a particular ideological agenda and an activist mission: to challenge the Eurocentrism of American music education, to undermine its atavistic white supremacist elements, and to open it up to a wider embrace of the African diasporic forms and practices that drive our musical culture. This stance attracts me to  critical theory, with its emancipatory imperative, social justice motivation, and interest in uncovering hidden power relationships. Many progressive educators are drawn to critical theory by the example of Freire (2000), and I am no exception. I have identified a specific group of people whose needs are not being met within the current system: the large majority of young people in school, and all musicians outside of the classical tradition. As to their willingness and ability to put my research findings into practice, much of the music world is already doing so, since, like me, most popular musicians are substantially self-taught or peer-taught. Researchers who have an activist agenda can of course have no pretense of detachment, much less objectivity. Critical theorists might respond to charges of bias that there is no neutral research, and that “apolitical” stances are really statements of allegiance to status quo authority.

As I conduct my research, I find myself asking whether Eurocentric music educators are the oppressors or the oppressed. Music teachers may be cultural authorities, but they do not generally consider themselves to be powerful, or particularly ideological. Perhaps they are best understood as an oppressed group themselves, as much held down by the weight of atavistic cultural norms as their students. I do not wish to attack my more traditionally-minded colleagues, but rather to liberate them to pursue authentic musical truths, whatever that may mean to them.

As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression. It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves (Freire 2000, 56).

As to whether music educators will be open to my findings, that remains to be seen; I might measure my work’s validity on how well I convince them. My hope is that a strong enough analysis of those forces will open my colleagues up to change.

We can understand research to be a form of learning, and we can look to educational practices to inform our research practice (Willis 2007, 132). The traditional approach to learning is to start with the simplest concepts (e.g. addition and subtraction) and then gradually build up to more complex ones (e.g. algebra.) Iran-Nejad et al. (1990) argue instead that we should start with higher-level concepts drawn from experience, since these are more familiar and intuitively accessible, even if they are more “complex.” We might draw an analogy to chemistry—we begin by talking compounds like water and air, rather than fundamental particles like electrons and quarks, because water and air are familiar. Another parallel comes from music education, where we frequently begin by teaching the “fundamental particles” of single pitches and durations, even though novices have an easier time at the level of tunes and phrases (Bamberger, 1994). In research, too, we may be better informed looking at complex real-world situations and then abstracting down to root causes, rather than attempting to ascertain root causes first and then applying them to reality.

As I choose methods aligning with the interpretivist paradigm, I want to identify one that supports the use of music creation itself as a tool for inquiry into music pedagogy. One such method is Eisner’s (1997) model of educational inquiry by means of connoisseurship and criticism. Connoisseurship is the “ability to make fine-grained discriminations among complex and subtle qualities” (Eisner 1997, 63). Criticism is judgment that illuminates and interprets the qualities of a practice in order to transform it. While Eisner does not mention music specifically as a method of inquiry, his endorsement of other art media makes me confident that he would approve. As a subjective researcher, I am obliged to systematically identify my subjectivity  (Peshkin, 1988), and I view my role as connoisseur and critic in music as a source of clarity rather than bias.

Ethnography dovetails neatly with the interpretivist paradigm. It combines objectivism, subjectivism, and constructionism (Koro-Ljungberg et al, 2009), and I admire the attempt to balance these seemingly conflicting ontologies. Ethnography also shares with social constructionism a concern with discovering our jointly constructed understandings of the world. Ethnographers typically allow their methods to evolve over the course of the study, and can only define their procedures in retrospect, in the form of a narrative of what actually happened, rather than a detailed plan ahead of time. Data takes the form of interpretations of interpretations of interpretations, and in that sense is a “fiction”—not in the sense that it is counterfactual (we should hope), but in the original sense of the word, something constructed. It requires imagination to construct our interpretive fictions (Geertz, 1973).

Since I am studying the profession of music education, I will also draw on institutional ethnography to examine work settings and processes. I hope to show how educators align their activities with structures that originate in the conservatory or other outside cultural institutions (Devault, 2006). I will seek out the “ruling relations” (Smith 2005, 11), textually mediated connections and organizations shaping educators’ everyday lives, especially the ones they most take for granted. In so doing, I will examine the ways that texts like Schenkerian theory books bind small social groups into institutions, and bind those together into larger power structures. Institutional ethnography can define what an institution considers to be ideal, and what happens when people deviate from the ideal, which in the case of school music includes the large majority of students. If so many students find find school music problematic, troubling or contradictory, can educators really feel at peace?

Taber (2010) combines autoethnography with institutional ethnography to analyze her own experiences in the military, using them as an entry point for understanding the experience of other women. She resists her impulse hide from her own problematic experience, and chooses instead to foreground her internal conflicts, using a “reflexivity of discomfort” (19). I intend to use a similar method, since the story of my own music education is one of internal conflict and discomfort.

I will not attempt a thorough survey of music education as a field. Instead, I will use a case study approach, looking at a few emblematic progressive educators and settings. So many political, cultural and historical forces intersect in music education that my only hope of managing them all is to find particularistic exemplars and focus on them deeply. While I have my preconceptions, I will allow my theories to emerge from my data. I am less concerned with uncovering a grand theory of cultural hegemony and its resistance, and more concerned with a heuristic understanding of these phenomena to help progressive music educators do their jobs.

An inquiry into music education must necessarily involve some ethnomusicology. Since hip-hop and other contemporary popular forms are so heavily technologically mediated, I will take up a more specific lens of “technomusicology” (Marshall, 2017). Music educators feel obligated to use computers in their practice. Technomusicology asks, will these computers be used as a more expedient way to teach traditional repertoire, or will educators embrace the music most naturally suited to digital audio’s particular aesthetic and creative aspects? The technological issues at work are inseparable from the cultural ones.

Hip-hop grows out several aspects of black musical practice, but perhaps its most important function is to be a musical delivery system for African-American Vernacular English (Perry 2004, 10). It is all too common to take a deprivationist view of AAVE, to see it as a failure to learn “correct” English. McDermott and Varenne (1995) argue that speakers of AAVE are only linguistically “impoverished” because we institutionally deem them to be so; it is not because they have any difficulty communicating or expressing themselves. By the same token, classical music culture sees the minimal or absent harmony and melody in African diasporic music like hip-hop as a shortcoming, a poverty of musical means. But hip-hop puts a premium on rhythm and timbre, and what harmony there is functions mostly as a way to signpost locations within the cyclical metrical structure. Just as we should use an ethnopoetic approach to AAVE (Gee 1985, 1991), so too should we approach hip-hop within its own musical value system.

While I am an avid hip-hop fan and a dedicated student of it, I am ultimately a tourist. My research will therefore necessarily be incomplete unless it is a collaborative effort with members of hip-hop culture. Participatory research methods like cooperative inquiry and participatory action research treat research participants as collaborators, rather than as objects of study. I have practiced these methods in my work with the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, which uses a constructivist instructional design methodology, based on the principles of recursion, nonlinearity and reflection (Willis, 2007). Designers test and prototype continually alongside users, and feed the results back into the next design iteration. This loop of feedback and iteration is a form of reflective practice, comprising the “arts” of problem framing, implementation, and improvisation (Schön, 1987). These same arts are the ones used in musical problem-solving, both as a practitioner and educator.

Since mental, emotional and social truths are so contextual and particular, our understanding benefits from a phenomenological approach. This perspective asks us to experience “from the neck down,” not just to cognition.

Rather than taking self (perceiver) or world (perceived) as given, we must begin with perceptions themselves, i.e. with phenomena. This ‘bracketing off’, or suspension of judgement about the ontology of self and world so as to focus on ‘experiences’ is referred to as the ‘phenomenological reduction’ (Davidson 2000, 643).

Non-classical musicians experience a great deal of “failure” in school music settings, since they are unable or unwilling to succeed on classical terms. This “pathological case”, like the agoraphobia studied by Davidson can awaken us to what we normally take for granted. The bodily numbness, anxiety and anger I have felt in formal music learning settings is valuable phenomenological data, not inchoate feelings to be dismissed. Had I not attended to my gut-level rejection of Eurocentric pedagogy, I would not have been motivated to research the hidden white supremacist ideology at the root of this intense emotion. My feelings are not unusual, and in illuminating my own emotional responses with explicit analytical reasoning, I want to validate all my fellow musicians who have had similar feelings. It is a primary research goal of mine to give those feelings a name and a clear target, so they can motivate others to work toward systemic change. As with constructivism, phenomenological researchers typically take a detached stance (Koro-Ljungberg et al, 2009), and I will need to adapt this stance to the more reciprocal approach I intend to use.

Bruner (1991) observes that cultural products like language mediate our thought and shape our representations of reality. (The same is certainly true of music.) We use language not as isolated individuals, but within social groups, organizations, institutions and cultures, producing reality through the social exchange of meanings. We speak as we understand it to be “appropriate” to speak within our own norms and value systems (Galasinski & Ziólkowska, 2013). Close readers of narrative must study not only the syntactic content of the words themselves, but also their literary qualities, their tone (Riessman, 2008). There is a close parallel here with musicology, when we independently examine a song (e.g. a jazz standard) and particular realizations of the song (e.g. the standard as interpreted by Billie Holiday versus by Frank Sinatra.)

Section 3: Application of Key Concepts

My intended research questions can only be meaningfully answered by qualitative methods: Is classical music pedagogy a form of institutionalized white supremacy? Is hip-hop pedagogy a form of anti-racist critical theory? Is the musical content separable from the politics? Why does the music academy generally and the training of music educators in particular hold so closely to the traditions of Western European classical music, in stark opposition to American musical culture generally? Why has the music academy been so slow to embrace African diasporic vernacular musics? Why do so many trained musicians outspokenly dismiss hip-hop as not being music at all? What racial and class forces drive the divide between music educators and the culture of their students? How can we make music education more culturally responsive? How can music educators support students in developing their own ? What assumptions about musical and educational values must we challenge in order to do so?

I will use some standard methods for data gathering and analysis: participant ethnography and interviews, textual and discourse analysis. These will be informed by autobiographical reflection, and connoisseurship applied both to music education practices and the music itself. I also plan to use a more novel method inspired by technomusicology: pedagogical remixing. I use remixing to comment on student work because there is no better way to discuss music than with music itself. Rather than explain to a student, “Your beat reminds me of the James Brown Funky Drummer break,” I would rather just mix in the actual Funky Drummer break and let the student hear it for themselves. I have also used remixing to tell stories about music history and to show connections, for example showing the web of samples, covers and references surrounding various iconic recordings (Hein 2015, 2014, 2011). I believe that this technique will be valuable for understanding music education as well, by remixing traditional repertoire, more culturally authentic music and original student work to show their connections, and their disjointedness.

I intend to maintain high standards of ethics and trustworthiness by treating my research participants as co-authors, and by maintaining complete transparency about my methods, observations, and written results. In my research thus far, I have instinctively used reciprocity to treat my interviews more as two-way conversations. I will continue to judicious use of self-disclosure to foster trust and connection with my participants. By showing participants my field notes and drafts, I will build in “member checks” early on. I intend to follow the example of feminist scholars by attending to emotional aspects of the research and the relationships it entails as a key criterion of trustworthiness (Harrison, MacGibbon & Morton, 2001). This kind of emotionally aware collaborative/shared authorship aligns naturally with participatory research, and with hip-hop pedagogy. Larson (1997) argues that narrative inquiry gains greater validity by having the story-giver reflect on the transcript and analysis so they can revise or go deeper into their story. If a lived experience is an iceberg, then its initial retelling may just describe the tip. It takes reflection to bring more of the iceberg to the surface. I therefore intend to examine a few icebergs thoroughly, rather than attempting to survey many tips.

Long before I entered graduate school, I used what I would now call a reflexive and reciprocal process by posting most of my personal writing on the web, via my blog and various social media platforms. This practice has served me well as a scholar. All of my writing assignments, notes, papers and research goes to the web, unless there is some privacy-related reason not to. These posts attract supporters and critics alike in great numbers. Feedback comes in the form of affirmation, social connections, corrections, arguments, tips on directions for further inquiry, and the like. Some of these interactions are direct, but many are indirect. My Google alerts regularly surface strangers’ comments on and references to my writing. Research and writing are lonely undertakings, and feeling myself connected to a lively conversation at all times has been an invaluable motivator.

All interpretivist methodologies raise concerns about reliability. If culture is irreducibly complex and our analyses of it are intrinsically incomplete, how do we know if they are true? Geertz (1973) compares ethnography to medical diagnosis, another field where we must somehow draw a conclusion from incomplete information about a complex system. He argues that, like doctors, ethnographers can not be perfectly certain, but that does not mean we do not try. We must simply do our best to interpret with as much intellectual integrity as we can.

In interpretivist research, we are not necessarily representing things “as they are,” but rather their representation in terms of social relations. If we are examining attitudes and interpretations rather than more easily observable “facts,” how do we ensure validity and reliability? Rather than searching out straightforward logical explanations, we can instead build a case on Lyotardian paralogy, and “let contradictions remain in tension” (Lather 1993, 679). There is a neat analogy here to the tritone. Western classical harmony is structured around cadences, in which a dissonant tritone resolves to a more consonant interval. In blues, jazz and soul, tritones act as a more complex consonance rather than a dissonance needing to be resolved away.

We should not expect to discover tree-shaped hierarchies of explanation. Instead, we can hold ourselves to a “rhizomatic” standard of validity. “Rather than a linear progress, rhizomatics is a journey among intersections, nodes, and regionalizations through a multi-centered complexity” (Lather 1993, 680). We can understand the complexities of music and schooling and race to have the topology of a network, not a tree. We should expect that when we pull on any part of the network, we will encounter a dense and intractable tangle. By following a few representative narratives through the tangle, I do not expect my understand to encompass it entirely, but I do intend to show the most central nodes and junctures. In so doing, I hope to guide myself and my readers more confidently as we try to find our way through.


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2 thoughts on “Toward a Methodological Stance

  1. Ethan I always enjoy your writing. A decade before you in age, my exposure to “art” music education in Los Angeles is different from your experience with the Euro centric approach to music at many music schools (which I have experienced as well). I too have no interest in Schenkarian Analysis, but for different reasons . . . possibly. I was quite interested in studying the music of the Ars Nova period as well as classical music. I make no apologies for being interested at a deep level in Western Art music and sought those things out in my musical education, theory, composition, etc. Being from Los Angeles there were always great musicians around and everything was valued and respected and accessible to all curious musical minds. Although I agree with you essentially, I quite enjoyed and value my education in Machaut, Bartok, Debussy, Bach, Vivaldi, Berlioz, Stockhausen, Haydn, etc. But like you I have also studied other musics – jazz, pop, electronic, blues, etc. Fortunately for me the teachers in Los Angeles were high level professional musicians and very open minded and though I was trained in classical music theory and composition – that is what excited me most and still does. I had teachers in the LA phil, from USC, UCLA, studio musicians, and I loved every minute of it. It never turned me off and still doesn’t. But like you I am very open minded about music including world music.

    • I love classical music, sometimes, certain composers anyway. I think that oppressively Eurocentric pedagogy actually scares people like me away from the music it tries to promote. Every little kid loves classical music; you really have to learn to not like it. The thing that got me interested was jazz, actually. The Bach violin and cello repertoire is great training if you want to learn how to get a melody line to spell out a chord progression. Also, all the great canonical composers were famous as improvisers, which is a fact that classical pedagogy weirdly omits. If classical music was presented as one historically significant tradition among many, rather than The One True Valid Music, I bet many fewer kids would reject it.

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