Popular Music Education as a Technology of Access and Intervention: Tanglewood and Popular Music Education in the US

University of Wisconson-Madison (USA)

October 2023

Published in Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 22 (3): 122–43 [pdf]. https://doi.org/10.22176/act22.3.122

Abstract: In this article, I explore how popular music became incorporated into the field of music education in the 21st-century United States. In doing so, I suspend notions of popular music education as simply inclusive or able to produce creative people. Instead, I question how inclusion becomes constructed and defined historically in relation to ideas such as the need for creative people and the possibilities and purposes of popular music education. To pursue such understandings, the analysis focuses primarily on the Tanglewood Symposium as a site of production. I examine the documentary report of the symposium in order to question the intersecting multiple historical trajectories and modes of thought that construct popular music education at Tanglewood. Following this, I consider how these histories have left significant impacts on the epistemologies and practices of contemporary popular music education. In the process, I draw attention to the ways in which notions of desired (and not desired) kinds of people become constructed, how inclusions and interventions become administered in response, and how such ideas become constructed through modes of thought that have little to do with music or popular music practice yet serve to produce popular music education.

Keywords: Popular music education, Tanglewood Symposium, inclusion, relevance, creativity

Music education in the 21st-century United States is shifting, dynamic, and different in many ways from what has historically operated as teaching and learning music in US schools. For instance, with few exceptions throughout the 20th century (see Powell et al. 2015), the history of music education in the United States is largely the history of teaching Western classical music. Yet, “something’s happening here!” (Powell et al. 2015, 4). Popular music is being incorporated into the music education curriculum while also becoming established as an academic subfield with its own professional association, journal, and handbooks.

Often, the literature surrounding this increasing embrace of popular music education in K–12 schools centers upon why popular music education is necessary or how it might be implemented more authentically or effectively. In doing so, literature typically describes the work of popular music education as fundamentally inclusive, a way to expand who and what belongs within music classrooms. At the same time, this inclusion is often connected to the possibility of developing desired qualities such as creativity, critical thought, and confidence (Allsup 2003, Green 2006, Smith et al. 2018). Yet, what has gone largely unconsidered is how popular music education “becomes possible.” That is, how it is constructed historically and epistemologically, as well as how this process has made popular music education readily understood as inclusive and able to cultivate what are understood as desired qualities such as creativity. In response, rather than attempt to construct new or more authentic ways of practicing popular music education or further establish a need for popular music education, through this analysis, I ask: how does popular music education become possible? That is, what are the histories, modes of thought, and actions that serve to construct popular music education?

In pursuing such an analysis, however, my intention is not one of designating definite, clear origins nor telling the “complete” story of Tanglewood and popular music education. Rather, I utilize a curriculum studies approach that draws attention to how multiple historical trajectories and ways of thinking intersect across time and space to construct the curriculum;[1] for example, producing through multiple modes of thought and history what becomes understood today as popular music education. In doing so, I approach popular music education not as the result of specific actors who have helped to develop ideas of popular music pedagogy nor as a set of practices. Rather, I approach and treat it as an object, a distinct ontological entity produced through a web of various epistemologies and histories. I am interested in probing this object, entering into its multiplicity in an attempt to understand its condition, thought, and action.

Such an approach treats music education not as the natural, inevitable embodiment of music in the curriculum but, instead, as the product of an alchemy (Popkewitz and Gustafson 2002) resulting from ideas that have little to do with music. For example, constructed notions of the nation, who and what is the desired citizen, and the psychology of children become enrolled as ways of thinking about what music education should do and how it should function. In turn, much like the alchemy that attempted to transform various metals into gold, the alchemy of music education attempts to utilize music teaching and learning to produce an idealized, desired citizen of the nation.

For example, as Gustafson (2009) traces historically, music education was translated into the school through an alchemical formulation of Christian morality, notions of health, and the hopes of reforming children, specifically immigrant children, to be good, moral US citizens in an industrializing nation. In the case of 21st century music education, the alchemy often develops in relation to desires to produce children who are creative, independent, and flexibly minded so that they are adaptable to learn in a technologically advanced and ever-changing society. These ideas are not natural nor concerned simply with music but are instead specific constructions of what the future will look like and what type of child that future will require.

In the process, music education shifts in relation to these alchemical configurations to become a technology for the production of the alchemy’s idealized child and future. Music education becomes, as Popkewitz and Gustafson state, focused on making particular kinds of people (i.e., the creative child), oriented not simply around inclusion for the sake of inclusion but as a mode of access for governing the child’s modes of thought, feeling, and behavior, what Popkewitz (2018a) refers to as their interiority and soul.

My analysis utilizes music education as alchemy as a theoretical framework, prompting a questioning of the historical production of popular music education, as well as how this production process becomes concerned with making kinds of people (Hacking 2007) and the governance (Foucault 1991) of the interiority of the child. It is to question how notions of the desired citizen and the child become constructed and operate as fabricated, ideological, and political categories and modes of thought which become embodied within popular music education’s epistemologies, pedagogies, curricula, and, importantly, forms of inclusion.

To do so, I look to the Tanglewood Symposium of 1967 as a primary site for historical analysis. While Tanglewood was not the first time that popular music education was considered necessary nor was popular music simply entirely absent from the curriculum prior to 1967, as Powell et al. (2015) state, “the American music education establishment did not formally acknowledge popular music as worthy of being taught until the ‘Tanglewood Declaration’” (5). As a result, Tanglewood is often conceptualized as the “nothing less than visionary” (Mark 2020, 5) meeting during which the field developed the ideas that have become embodied within contemporary popular music education. While Tanglewood did not singularly develop popular music education, Tanglewood represents a partial yet important site of production through which understandings of popular music education’s history and epistemology may be traced.

In order to generate understandings of the alchemy which produced Tanglewood’s construction of popular music education, I utilize the documentary report of the meeting, which captures the speeches and discussions that occurred at the meeting. I engage closely with the words and ideas of the attendees at Tanglewood, tracing how they construct notions of popular music education’s potential. Ideas and statements from various speakers are, at various points, placed alongside one another in the analysis to create a representation of the modes of thought that interacted with one another to create an epistemic system through which popular music education was produced at Tanglewood. Of primary interest are the ways in which those at Tanglewood constructed notions of communication, creativity, and inclusion, utilizing distinct conceptions of these ideas as important “translation tools” (Popkewitz 2018a) in popular music education’s alchemy.

Alongside the report, this analysis places histories of thought in fields such as cognitive science in order to understand how the ideas developed in these areas became embedded within Tanglewood’s approach to popular music education despite their having little to do with music. My goal is to expand the consideration of what “matters,” not simply in terms of importance but what becomes materialized—that is, what comes into being and shifts the materiality and ontology of music education at Tanglewood: for example, not simply accepting that creativity is a distinctly human and desirable quality but considering how these ideas become constructed, materialized, and made legible in the first place. Developing such understandings requires looking beyond the boundaries of what in the United States is considered music education and its modes of thought.

I pursue this historical analysis, however, not simply to recount the past or generate a historical narrative. Rather, my goal for this analysis is to create a history of the present (Foucault 1977), to examine the past as a way of generating understandings of not only history but also its relation to the present and its conditions of possibility. Doing so draws attention to the ways in which the historical construction of popular music education has impacted its contemporary modes of thought and action. Thus, following this engagement with Tanglewood, I turn to consider the ways in which the histories and ideas that became embodied within Tanglewood and its conceptions of popular music education have served to impact and shift contemporary practice and thought.

What becomes visible in the process are the ways popular music education becomes produced historically and enacted in many contemporary spaces. Such enactments are not simply in relation to desires for a form of inclusion as a solely a responsive effort to bring more students into the music classroom. Nor are they simply the embodiment of popular music or creative musical practice in curricular form. Rather, provocative, and often problematic notions of who the child should be (and should not be), how their interiorities can be intervened upon, and how inclusion must be enacted in response to these ideas all become essential notions which, in part, create and sustain popular music education.

Recognizing the history of these ideas and the residues they have left on contemporary popular music education is first, to make their often-overlooked presence visible, and in turn, to make strange once again ideas that have become taken for granted as good, such as developing the idealized creative citizen through popular music education. To do so is not to diminish or critique the work of popular music education. Instead, it is to explore the ways in which such ideas become constructed, considering their historicity and complexity in the hope of clearing the space necessary for imagining alternative modes of thought and practice beyond the normative epistemological boundaries of music education.

Communication Breakdown as the Problem and Popular Music as its Remedy

As Mark (2020) reminds readers, the Tanglewood Symposium did “not take place in a vacuum” (2). It was a deliberate action taken during the “long, hot summer of 1967” (McLaughlin 2014, 1), occurring at the very same time that the US was embroiled in numerous tensions. One example of the historical moment in which Tanglewood occurred was in Detroit, where burning buildings, deaths, and arrests occurred while the meeting was underway, offering a particular backdrop to the Symposium. Tanglewood had been envisioned by some attendees as a way to respond to such realities. For example, one Tanglewood participant suggested that they felt “bad” for being at the Symposium while the riots were happening but justified their presence through the idea that those at Tanglewood “can work together so that these kinds of things happening … may in the future not happen. I have hope” (Choate 1968, 31). Throughout the conference, music education and the Tanglewood Symposium were positioned as a technology for reacting to the present moment. It was imbued with hopes of intervening through music education and enacting a particular type of future, to utilize music education as a remedy for the social issues and changes occurring in the post-World War II US.At the core of the struggle to enact this future was the distinctly post-war[2] notion of communication. As those such as Haraway (2013) have traced historically, communication was a central issue for post-war thought and research. Drawing from a belief established through systems theory and cybernetics that flows of communication and feedback would eliminate issues in systems ranging in scale and purpose from anti-aircraft weaponry to nations (Hayles 2000), the post-war era often prioritized communication as a central necessity, particularly for the resolution of issues.

Similarly, those at Tanglewood often suggested that music education must recognize, and then respond to, issues surrounding communication. For example, there was, for Tanglewood speaker, journalist and Professor of American Civilization, Max Lerner, a “value revolution” taking place, a “generation struggle” that at its core was fueled by a “breakdown in communication between the generations” (Choate 1968, 42). The solution to this revolution, for Lerner, was “a restoration of communication, of confidence, of dialogue” between youth and adults (Choate 1968, 42).

Attendees at Tanglewood often positioned popular music as a way of facilitating this communication with the young people the Symposium was most concerned with reaching. As the Superintendent of New Trier High School in Illinois, William Cornog, stated: “If you want to know what youth are thinking and feeling today, you cannot find anyone who speaks for them or to them more clearly than the Beatles. And you should also listen closely to the Rolling Stones, the Mamas and the Papas, the Jefferson Airplane, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Grateful Dead” (Choate 1968, 29). Others suggested that “we must inform ourselves and give this music [rock/pop music] an understanding rather than a censorious ear. Through it we may come to understand those who are our principal concern—our young people” (Choate 1968, 98).

In this way, popular music became an intermediary between generations. It was seen as a wordless way of enacting a form of communication that offered an understanding of who the youth were. This communication that popular music was to facilitate was, however, not a mutual dialogue across generations. Rather, it utilized the music of those such as The Beatles to gain an understanding of who the child was, to access their desires, fears, thoughts, and feelings through popular music in order to respond to a developing generational struggle and potential revolution.

Rationalizing the Embrace of Popular Music: Communication as Access and “Influence”

While those at Tanglewood often positioned popular music as a way of repairing the “communication breakdown” and the revolutionary issues such a breakdown caused, what seemed to be at risk in the process to many attendees was diminishing the quality of music education. For example, it was suggested that popular music by groups such as The Rolling Stones simply did not have the aesthetic and artistic richness of the Western classical music that dominated the music curriculum (Choate 1968, 50). While some panelists such as guitarist Mike Stahl and rock magazine editor Paul Williams countered such ideas by forwarding notions of popular music as aesthetically valuable and Stahl’s claim that “music is music” (Choate 1968, 105), desires for communication often eclipsed such ideas and became a key justification. For example, in a discussion about the value of including popular music within the classroom, one attendee posed that the idea of losing “anything we have had that has been good” (Choate 1968, 50) in music programs due to the inclusion of popular music was not worth considering. Rather, the attendee suggested that the field should recognize that what must take place is a move away from judging quality based on “internal forms of beauty or associations—which historically have been the defense of the fine arts” (Choate 1968, 50). Instead, what must be emphasized is that “the idea of quality will be the communication” (Choate 1968, 50).

In turn, music education was becoming conceptualized as not simply concerned with the aesthetics of music, the justification upon which it had often depended in the past. Nor was communication simply one additional possibility music education could offer. Rather, the purpose and quality of music education in the post-war and beyond was beginning to shift toward orienting around the ability to “communicate” and, in particular, to communicate with students with whom music education and the larger US society had seemingly lost contact, those attendees had referred to as “hippies” (Choate 1968, 98), children in the inner cities (132), and a newly politicized generation of young people (41).

Yet, what promoted communication to such an influential status was the belief that it was not simply a tool for understanding the youth. Rather, similarly to how social scientists in the post-war studied communication as a “mechanism of coordination and control” (Heyck 2015, 68), at Tanglewood, communication offered a way to access young people and then utilize this access to influence and reorient their thought and conduct: statements, for example, like the “music of this revolution [the youth revolution of the ’60s] is particularly interesting to us and is of importance as we seek greater opportunities to reach our young people and influence them…” (Choate 1968, 96).

Such influence was hoped to move children “in what we think are the right directions” (Choate 1968, 96). Within this mode of thought, communication through the embrace of popular music consequently was assumed to offer a path toward constructing, for example, a “more meaningful value structure in America than we have now” (42). As other attendees put it, this was a practice not of “necessarily indoctrinating students” but “developing behavior that is supportive of values” (Choate 1968, 112) through music education. These values ranged from things such as “belonging to society,” “possessing material things,” and having “moral values” (111).

In this way, communication through popular music could allow for the ability to shift the values and morality of the youth, thwarting what some music educators believed was not a “mere lapse of sympathies” (Choate 1968, 96) but instead a “teen-age revolution” (96) that was deteriorating the “moral, aesthetic, and even physiological” (96) fabric of US society. Utilizing popular music and its communicative qualities could develop values that were not concerned with music but with notions of a particular kind of person and their interiority—that is, their soul and morality. Incorporating popular music was about how a monolithic, fabricated, and distinctly post-war “good citizen” of the US was assumed to think, act, and feel. Importantly, these were also qualities that the “hippies,” “new left,” and “inner cities” were all assumed to lack. Popular music offered a way of accessing these populations, including them in the work of music education, and, by doing so, shifting who they were, making them into what had been discursively positioned as a desired kind of person who had the “right” values and morality.

“Right directions”: Creativity, Cognitive Science, and the Future of the Nation

While the Tanglewood attendees prioritized notions of accessing youth through popular music and developing values such as “belonging to a society” or “having material things,” one quality was of primary importance to the Symposium: creativity. Throughout Tanglewood, creativity was often treated as the most essential of the “values” or “right directions” toward which youth should be influenced to actualize a future where the dominant U.S. culture and value system continued unabated by the youth revolution. Instilling creativity was assumed to make the “good US citizen” and society.

Throughout the Symposium, music education was taken for granted as a way of accomplishing this cultivation of creativity. As Thomas Malone, representing the US Commission for UNESCO, told attendees, “I would urge proper attention to the element of creativity… Do not misunderstand. You have creativity. I emphasize that this is your most powerful tool in moving ahead” (Choate 1968 46).  Other attendees, such as those comprising the Committee on the Nature and Nurture of Creativity, agreed, suggesting that not only was music education well-positioned to develop creativity but that “creative thinking is needed in every area of American life, from the making of new laws to the tasteful decoration of the home. Man’s full use of his creative potential will inject vitality and meaning into every facet of American society” (Choate 1968, 128). Creativity and the cultivation of it within students would bring “a degree of cultural richness never before achieved” (128–29). By accessing the child through popular music and cultivating creativity, music education would be able to “make a major contribution to the realization of these potentials in American society” (129).

The Committee on Creativity acted upon a particular definition of creativity as they posited these potentialities. For them, “of all life on this earth man is the only creative animal, and superbly so” (Choate 1968, 129). They suggested that creativity was a natural, definitively human quality and that there were “certain personality traits of the creative student” (Choate 1968, 129). In response, particular ways of seeing and working with the child and their specific creative psychological makeup were deemed necessary at Tanglewood. For example, for the Committee interested in creativity, the child should be placed in a flexible environment that allowed experimentation and freedom (Choate 1968, 129) as they cultivated their innate creativity and humanity. As they put it, “living life to the fullest suggests providing an environment for acquiring the skills needed for creative living” (129). Further, by acting in particular ways, such as showing enthusiasm and confidence, the teacher could further influence the development of creativity within such flexible environments (129).

As scholars such as Catarina Martins (2020) have shown, such conceptions of creativity are not natural truths about the human condition, despite what those on the Tanglewood committee concerned with creativity suggest. Rather, they depend on certain notions constructed through a multiplicity of thought and history. These ideas are infused with post-war thought and the history of the cognitive science research that helped to in part produce them. For example, the notion that there are different personality traits of the human that require specific forms of engagement and interaction, as the Committee on Creativity suggested, relies on accepting what the historian of psychology Danziger (1994) calls the construction of a “psychological type.” Psychological types provided ways of seeing the human through constructed psychological classifications that mark differences, categorizing people in relation to how they think, act, and understand themselves, while simultaneously constructing ways of intervening upon their psychological condition.

The construction of new psychological types was frequent in post-war efforts; for example, the conceptualization of the authoritarian personality constructed in Theodor Adorno et al.’s work (1950/2019). Concerned with the ongoing threat of fascism after WWII, Adorno conducted personality research that attempted to understand what psychological types were most susceptible to fascist leadership and thought. Adorno et al. constructed certain types of people as susceptible and not as they were mapped along a spectrum of personality types. Adorno’s notions traveled and gained traction in multiple spaces including in research labs in the US such as the Berkeley Institute for Personality Research. Here, these ideas became reassembled as concerned with fighting off revolution and, specifically, understanding what types of personalities were susceptible to communism (Cohen-Cole 2014).

What became produced through such efforts was the idea that those most susceptible to fascist or, in the US, communist thought and leadership were those people who had a “closed mind” (Cohen-Cole 2014). These types of people were often thought in psychological research and eventually public discourse to have simple, non-reflexive mindsets, which positioned them as willing and likely followers of authoritarian leadership or communist thought. Within such a way of categorizing and understanding individuals, it was assumed that they did not think critically and would simply fall in line.

In response, what became desired, particularly within the U.S., was the cultivation of people with an “open mind.” This type of person and mindset was associated with critical thinking, reflexivity, and, most importantly, creativity; This type of person could think for themselves and develop creative, individual modes of thought that would disallow regressive mindsets and the possibility of becoming or following, for example, a communist or developing a closed, racist worldview (Cohen-Cole 2014).

Further, such a mindset was also often positioned within psychological research and public thought as naturally inventive. For those such as the U.S. government, creativity then became a tool for developing weapons. To foster creativity was a way to not only disallow communist influence but to also defeat armed threats by inventing the best, most destructive weaponry (Cohen-Cole 2014). In spaces such as these, creativity doubled as not only eliminating the threat of particular ideologies but also, as something generative that offered the opportunity to invent new possibilities, often oriented around the future security and vitality of the nation. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the open mind and its strongly associated value of creativity consequently became understood, particularly within liberal and academic spaces, as a desirable, inventive, and distinctly U.S. way of being (Cohen-Cole 2014).

Alongside such ideas, and serving to elevate creativity to the privileged status it assumed in the post-war era and beyond, was the idea that creativity, unlike genius, could be cultivated. As Paz (2017) demonstrates historically, this idea dates back to Renaissance notions of artistic genius and the element of creativity. Paz’s history traces how past modes of thought detangled the two, locating creativity as a distinctly human quality that could be cultivated rather than something one simply had or did not have. Thus, creativity was a key quality for the future of the United States and the types of people it was assumed would create such a future. Importantly, creativity was also conceptualized as something that could be cultivated and produced in those who had not yet developed it; in turn, it became a point of focus for many post-war reform efforts in education such as Tanglewood.

Thus, it became possible to, as those at Tanglewood often did, suggest that music education could develop creativity and that such creativity was not simply about music or musical skills but was linked directly to the success of U.S. society. In this way, popular music education became constructed historically in relation to hopes of not solely communicating or making the child value material things but also a desire to make the child into an imagined psychological type, a creative child who thought, acted, and felt as the idealized citizen they assumed the nation needed.

As those at Tanglewood constructed the intervention of popular music education through a desire to develop creative children and ideal citizens, popular music’s forms of inclusions operated as a “double gesture” (Popkewitz 2018b). This double gesture attempted to include specific populations such as the “new left” (Choate 1968, 41), “hippies” (98), and the children living in the “inner cities” (132), but in doing so, marked them as Other, as populations needing the intervention of music education because they lacked the “right” morality, values, and qualities. Thus, as the reform effort utilizing popular music education sought to access and include these populations within music education, it simultaneously fabricated forms of difference, marking those who were of a particular age, lived in certain spaces, or held (or did not hold) certain beliefs as lacking. They were, in short, not the right kind of people––unprepared to function as the modern citizen and live in the modern U.S. Their lack and difference consequently posed a threat to “our society” as it was referred to at Tanglewood. By embracing popular music, its proponents thought that the field of music education could respond to and remedy this threat.

To include popular music within the curriculum was then, for many at Tanglewood, not simply to become more responsive and inclusive, or to finally recognize that popular music held important, valid modes of musicality and thought as the field of music education’s memories and histories often portray the event. Further, it was not a unified, visionary moment during which the field responded to events such as the Civil Rights Movement. While such notions were perhaps present, Tanglewood was a complex event that brought together multiple modes of thought in order to develop the purposes and practices of popular music education.

Embracing popular music suggested, for example, to stop being concerned with hierarchies of art or notions of music at all, instead, focusing on communication and articulating specific populations with whom such communication must be facilitated. In the process, popular music education sought to establish and distribute differences and interventions in relation to ideas of what the desired future was, who belonged in it, what that person was (and was not) like, and how they—and their future—could be governed. The inclusion of popular music within the curriculum served to enroll music education as a technology within what was perceived as a struggle for “the survival of our culture and our society” (Choate 1968, 103).

21st-Century Reassemblies and Their Post-war Residues

Tanglewood and its role in the production of popular music education is not simply a relic of history or an inconsequential past event. Rather, it has helped to construct an epistemic space within the field of music education that popular music education continues to occupy. For example, while typically shifting away from notions of “communication,” educators often consider popular music education important because it expands who and what belongs in the music classroom. For example, as Sarah Gulish (2019) writes, popular music education offers the possibility to “create alternative approaches to music education that are inclusive in both types of music and students served” (102). What such inclusion offers is, however, often not simply inclusion. Rather, sharing similarity with the modes of thought operating at Tanglewood, the inclusion becomes justified through a particular teleology as a way to develop desired kinds of people. In concert with the thinking at Tanglewood, the desired kind of person that popular music education seeks to create remains a creative person. And again, the word “creative” represents a way of reasoning about not simply someone with creative capacity; instead, the word creativity often becomes a way of talking about who the “good” citizen is: how they think, feel, see themselves, and act.

For example, the non-profit Guitars Over Guns operates as a pedagogical intervention concerned with reaching “urban” youth through popular music (Guitars Over Guns n.d.). The goal of Guitars Over Guns is to enter urban spaces that lack a music education program or have little funding to offer the children who live there experiences with popular music education. While the intent is to include the previously excluded child, the inclusion is not enacted simply so that the child may participate in music and music education. Rather, the inclusion fabricates differences and creates a mode of access and intervention upon the interiority of the child.

The name Guitars Over Guns itself acts to initially inscribe upon the child an assumed potential deviancy: the risk of picking up a gun, which Guitars Over Guns connects to the space in which they live. As Guitars Over Guns CEO Chad Bernstein appears to assume in a promotional video, these same children need what is for Bernstein the single most important factor for the child’s success: “a meaningful relationship with a caring adult” (Chad Bernstein, Guitars Over Guns 2020). Such a conceptualization operates upon fabricated assumptions that mark the child as different, lacking, and in a state of potential deviancy.In response, Guitars Over Guns places the child in a pedagogical relationship with, as CEO Chad Bernstein states, “a badass musician that can take a song from the radio, teach a student how to play it” (Guitars Over Guns 2020). The purpose of such a form of learning, however, is not simply to learn a song on guitar but, as Bernstein suggests, to “really change their lives” (Guitars Over Guns 2020). For Guitars Over Guns, doing so orients almost solely around shifting the child’s interiority. A primary goal becomes fostering desired qualities that the child is assumed to lack, thus requiring popular music education to develop. For example, as Guitars Over Guns conceptualizes their work, the intervention popular music education enacts is about making the child creative, to feel confident, to see and understand themselves as artistic, and to think in a way that allows them to take “healthy risks” as they generate the ability to choose guitars over guns (Guitars Over Guns n.d.).

Such a mode of intervention ignores the specificity of the lived and felt realities of the individual child, instead fabricating broad notions of difference and deficit such as the assumption that the child lacks an adult figure and is “at risk” of becoming a violent individual. In turn, the intervention locates the child’s modes of cognition and feeling as the site of governance. The child is made to feel and act differently. It is hoped that through popular music education, they will become someone they were assumed to have not been before: the idealized modern citizen who is creative, feels artistic, is confident, and is ultimately able to, as the name implies, choose a guitar over a gun, overcoming the assumed threat of a future deviant, violent life.

In other efforts such as Music Will (previously Little Kids Rock), similar ideas are also present. One of the primary tasks of Music Will is to train teachers in places with limited funding or limited music education programs how to teach popular music and give them the instruments to do so, thus making “disadvantaged students” able to “compose, improvise, perform and record their own music” (Little Kids Rock Press Kit n.d., 3). To do so, importantly, is not only to teach musical skills but also to build “the creativity, confidence, and self-esteem that are critical to success in school and beyond” (3). Again, what popular music education offers is not simply about music. These desires for creativity and confidence are also desires about how the child should see the world, act, and feel. Much like Guitars Over Guns, the intervention is deemed necessary for specific populations. Here, rather than “urban” students, it is “disadvantaged” students who need popular music’s intervention (Little Kids Rock Press Kit n.d., 3).

Unlike Guitars Over Guns, Music Will leaves largely unstated the fear of what could happen if such an intervention does not take place. However, even without stating it, the fear of deviancy and the inability to contribute to modern society that often undergirds these interventions is understood by many, including those who help fund the program. For example, the television personality Dr. Phil’s philanthropic foundation stated in relation to their donation to what was then Little Kids Rock: “[I’d] rather have it be a band than a gang” (The Dr. Phil Foundation 2015). Such a statement draws attention to the ways in which these initiatives and pedagogies are imbued with notions of intervening upon the potential for deviancy, that even when left unstated, may be felt and interpreted by a broader public.

Elsewhere, beyond these non-profit efforts, popular music education has been conceptualized as not simply about musical skills but the cultivation of the social skills, emotional skills, and college/career readiness of students (Abeles et al. 2017). Again, these are measures of who the child is and their preparedness to function as the modern citizen. The conceptualization of popular music education, much like it was at Tanglewood, operates in these spaces as not simply concerned with music or popular music practices. Rather, it becomes a way of reasoning about whether the child is fit to function as the desired citizen, preparing them to become such a person in relation to an assemblage of ideas surrounding notions of creativity, intelligence, values, modes of feeling, and their assumed measurability.

Such ideas are also present in the ways popular music education has engaged with Elliot et al.’s (2016) notion of artistic citizenship.[3] For example, the idea that an idealized artistic citizen becomes produced through “allow[ing] students’ musics into our classes” (Smith et al. 2018, 19) and that, in turn, by utilizing popular music education, children can be included in the music classroom and consequently made to feel confident, empowered, and, importantly, creative. Through this process of popular music education, they can learn to function as artistic citizens who can enact the democratic global society envisioned by the authors (Smith et al. 2018). These ideas—constructed through notions of popular music education as a mode of access and intervention to include children in the practice of music education in relation to notions of who they should become, how they think, act, and feel—are based on the assumption that the child is not yet that type of person.

While the practices of Music Will, Guitars Over Guns, and the pursuit of artistic citizenship all are likely done with good intent, they are often understood as simply good, responsive, and inclusive ideas. As a result, what becomes elided are the ways in which they are constructed through modes of thought that are not ahistorical, nor are they neutral or simply “good.” Rather, they operate through a historical way of seeing and intervening upon particular populations and children that was also present, and in part, constructed at Tanglewood. Such practices mark those who are not involved in music education, or who have particular ways of acting or thinking, or who live in particular areas, as Other: with a not-yet-materialized creativity, with underdeveloped emotional and intellectual capacities, and without sufficient agency to avoid deviancy. Certain students are, in short, deemed unprepared to live in modern society and unable to conduct themselves as the modern citizen. Popular music education, in turn, often becomes a technology for accessing and intervening upon these populations and their fabricated forms of difference. In this way, much like the rhetoric at Tanglewood of “hippies” and those living in the “inner cities,” inclusion in music education through popular music functions as a duality. It includes but, in such inclusion, marks the child as different, a body to be intervened upon.

To be clear, the actions and ideas embedded in these examples are not simply “bad” or “wrong.” Nor do they represent the totality of the field or the multiple ideas and actions that occur in an effort such as Music Will. Instead, these examples offer access to the ways in which popular music education often continues to function as a pedagogical intervention not simply concerned with inclusion for the sake of inclusion or for the sustaining of particular musical cultures. Rather, popular music education—both historically and in contemporary practice—often materializes as a technology of access and intervention that distributes differences and forms of governance in relation to ideas that have little to do with music. It is often an attempt to make a particular kind of person, one imagined through an alchemical formulation and system of thought beyond music to govern the child’s interiority as a result of their now-included status within music education. In doing so, alternative possibilities for popular music education become closed off, mapping the world, its problems, and its interventions through a limited perspective.

The Contemporary Conditions of Popular Music Education

Recognizing the presence of these modes of thought, their fabrication of difference, and their forms of governance, alongside a consideration of how they become produced through spaces such as Tanglewood, draws attention to the ways in which popular music education has been produced historically. Further, it makes visible the ways this alchemical production has opened an epistemic space through which contemporary practice and thought may be conducted. In doing so, in this analysis, I have not sought to offer a “true” or “total” picture of Tanglewood or popular music education, nor pin down its origins. Rather, I sought to historicize and consequently relocate ideas like producing creative citizens through popular music education from a space of natural, taken-for-granted “good,” tracing its construction, destabilizing it, and making it strange once again to consider the possibility of enacting alternative epistemologies and ontologies.

I seek to question what else might be possible beyond retooling music education’s historic interest[4] in governing the child (Gustafson 2019) through popular music, as it continues to fabricate differences and administer interventions. Further, such a questioning and mode of analysis is a way, as Niknafs (2022) posits, of attempting to remove music education from a space and time of urgency and social intervention:

Let us imagine ceasing the thought that music education is good for anything. It is not transformative, or an agent of social change, it does not matter, it is not necessary, urgent, or essential. It does not serve anything but itself. And perhaps that is good enough. (6)

Instead, music educators and the field of music education may enter the “wilderness” (Niknafs 2022), “a space of experimentation with differing ideologies, modes of expression, belongings, ontologies, and epistemologies.” (6).

By tracing the construction of popular music education at Tanglewood and the residues this construction has left upon contemporary practice and thought, I sought to help generate the space necessary for the effort of questioning and experimenting with the modes of thought and action within music education. I do not seek to diminish the work of popular music education; instead, I question how popular music education becomes produced, how it functions in the 21st century, and the limits of its thought and practice. This in turn prompts consideration of what may be possible beyond popular music education’s historical and contemporary conditions.


The author would like to thank Dr. Katie Kirchgasler for their feedback and support with the development of this article.

About the Author

Noah Karvelis is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction. His research focuses on issues of power and change in education and questions the epistemologies, histories, and possibilities of music education as well as the activism of teachers. Previously, he was a K–8 general music teacher and community organizer in Phoenix, Arizona. While teaching in Phoenix, he was also an active organizer, including working on the Arizona #RedForEd movement and co-founding the grassroots organization Arizona Educators United.


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[1] “The curriculum” here does not attempt to speak to a national curriculum or all curriculum in existence. Instead, I wish to leave space for the specificity of each setting, using “the curriculum” to signify what is being taught, placing emphasis on the translation of various modes of thought and action into what becomes teaching and learning.

[2] I use the language of “post-war” here and throughout the article to move away from embedding these modes of thought and objects within what is often referred to as “The Cold War Era.” Instead, post-war refers to the end of World War II and allows for consideration of the open-endedness, multiplicity, and continued influence of the events which followed.

[3] See Karvelis (2022) for a more in-depth consideration of popular music education, artistic citizenship, and modes of governance.

[4] I refer to this as “music education’s historic interest” rather than the interest or ideas of specific human actors to focus upon music education itself as an object. Specifically, this is done in relation to the article’s focus on the ways music education’s epistemologies construct it, imbuing it with a materiality and agential capacity which allows for a historic interest, rather than simply being, for example, the result of an influential person(s)’ or group’s interests, which in turn reinscribes the human as the agent. Doing so intentionally departs from the notion that only the humans involved have agency and influence.