← Back to blog

Considering context alongside content in music education

It is important for music educators to recognize the role music can play in our interactions with the world. This is particularly noteworthy given our urgent need to address large-scale issues such as climate change and social responsibility. Can employing a lens of context that includes connection and relationships, alongside the delivery of content within music pedagogy, help to create space for deeper learning, engagement, behaviour change, or transformation?

Text: Cynthia Kinnunen

Music offers us an access point to explore connections to our world and to our communities in varied and meaningful ways. Encouraging students to consider these connections, however, is not simply taught within the timespan of a single course. To feel compelled to live and “to music” with intention and in harmony (in every sense) in our world takes time and opportunity.

How can we encourage that exploration, that connection, or that thinking within and across the domain of music education? Is it possible to create space for the potential of deeper learning or transformation through a lens of connection and relationships rather than simply focusing on delivering content?

Shifting our viewpoint to context

A shift in perspective from content to context may offer an opportunity to build and strengthen social connection and ecological consciousness within our classrooms and beyond. 

Considering an eco-literate approach, experiencing both music and nature in integrated, meaningful, and ethical ways, and connecting with local places and more broadly to the planet, can be built into the structure of a course. We should additionally challenge ourselves to consider changing behaviours in the broadest sense. For example, the idea of ‘fly less, save energy’ in climate action recommendations is practical in attempting to address emissions, but does it get to the heart of transformational change that is long-lasting? Would it have the large-scale effects that we ideally need for bigger, meaningful societal shifts?

We can consider a context of social dimensions with music pedagogy, as one opportunity. If we look at developing courses with a social context—internally and externally—integrated throughout, is there more potential for student growth and transformation beyond musical learning?

Musicking together in the classroom

I bring this forward with a brief example from a first-year undergraduate seminar course that I have taught for the past four years. In this course, the topic was brought to life through material knowledge, reflective thinking, and hands-on musicking alongside a constant return to critical discussion around context, both individual, communal, and global. There was a conscious aim to bring social contexts and perspectives to the course through student interaction and musicking within the classroom as a group, as well as considering external social, ecological, historical, and political relationships.

A final project in the course included a musical performance to be decided by the students. At the beginning of the course, students mostly wished to perform on campus for other students. There was, however, a notable change in the class conversation over the term, particularly as the course content moved through the topic of music’s impact on aging populations and health.

By the end of the term, students made the decision to perform for a retirement facility next to the campus. Their discussion had shifted from beyond simply entertaining to engaging in a performance that would be far more meaningful and have potential health and well-being impacts on this aging audience. Students wrote about this experience in their final reflections, demonstrating their thinking had expanded, taking into account human and community benefits that were not as evident previously.

Changing thinking and behaviour

If we want a change in culture to have the potential to respond to our world, we need to be able to question our beliefs or mental models and that can, in part, be done through a change in the conversation. Dialogue and reflection are critical for transformation and real connection within communities. They offer us the opportunity for considering possibility and it is by these interactions and ‘reflection and rethinking’ that we continue to develop our own perspectives about ourselves and possible futures in the world.

In creating space within our classrooms for contextual discussions and activities, rather than only disseminating content, we are enabling students as a group to move towards knowledge transfer and mobilization in broader contexts.

Music uniquely offers us an opportunity to communicate through sound and feeling, in addition to language, which can be a powerful partnership for transformational change in music education contexts.

Where can this work?

If we are aiming to build more innate thinking about social responsibility and ecological relationships and impacts, should all courses consider that context? Does this make sense in content-heavy courses? How would that affect how courses such as theory, for example, are taught? There is a place for pedagogical context in all courses, but in this case, can the broader context of ecological, social, or political context still make sense? Who decides?

In a world where we are becoming increasingly disconnected from one another’s humanness, with more time spent in digital spaces, and with mounting and large-scale challenges from climate change, how can we reconnect students with the humanity in one another, within our communities, and within the broader ecological framework of all living things? Context can be worth exploring.

Cynthia Kinnunen is an independent music educator and community activator based in Ontario, Canada, and a preparatory doctoral student in the Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki.


Block (2018). Community: The Structure of Belonging, Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Shevock (2018). Eco-Literate Music Pedagogy, Routledge.

Small (1998). Musicking: The Meaning of Performing and Listening, Hanover: University Press.

Van der Leeuw (2020). Social Sustainability, Past and Future: Undoing Unintended Consequences for the Earth’s Survival. Cambridge.

Music Education AMP

The purpose of this blog is to serve as an amplifier for critical statements and openings for discussion in the field of music education. The blog publishes texts in Finnish, Swedish and English. The writers are students, teachers and researchers in the music education degree programme and MuTri doctoral school.

Latest posts

Follow blog