Self-expression and learning with Music and Sound Art

Self-expression and learning with Music and Sound Art

20 September 2023
Posted in: Performing Arts

Have you seen that cartoon where all the different animals are standing in front of a tree they’re being asked to climb? There’s a monkey and a bird who will both excel at the task, but the elephant, penguin, fish, seal, and dog don’t stand much of a chance. I’m not sure what the fish was even doing there in the first place, but the point of the cartoon is that we are not all built for the same tasks.

Illustration with a penguin, elephant, monkey, fish, dog, seal, and bird in a line facing an examiner who asks them to complete the same task: to climb a treeIllustration with a penguin, elephant, monkey, fish, dog, seal, and bird in a line facing an examiner who asks them to complete the same task: to climb a tree
Everyone has their own strengths. We are not all buit for the same tasks.


When it comes to learning and how we learn, I find that the same is true. We learn in different ways and we’re good at learning different things than each other, and to different degrees.  What we need to be, in my opinion, is good at being ourselves.

Whereas I consistently stumbled with maths, I found that English language, art, and music were things I could engage in more readily and with better results. I achieved tangible outcomes which others could appreciate, and with transferable skills to take away, because when something interested me greatly enough, I applied myself readily. 

What if it is motivation that materialises in different ways for different people, and enhances their learning ability? For some, the determination to learn something new can be motivation enough. For some, and I have seen it in myself and in many others, looking out of the window has been preferable in the classroom.

We are not all built for the same task

That’s not music!

Music is one of those subjects where engagement rarely needs the classroom. In fact, today’s classroom is often where ideas are brought rather than given. Whereas technology can facilitate, learning to play a musical instrument is not always easy to grasp, and in some cases physically so. 

People who have difficulties with motor skills will fare better lifting their hand over a drum and dropping it to make a sound on the wide target of the instrument, than they might spanning their hands across a keyboard or a guitar, hoping to hit the right notes at all. Wind instruments, even a horn with no valves or a didgeridoo, require embouchure techniques that will evade some people beyond their motivation to succeed.

Whilst making sounds and organising them can be a description of music making, it can also be a ticket to creativity outside the bounds of music as conventionally perceived. It doesn’t have to be prescriptive. Making a sound can be an expressive experience, voicing identity. Mark making, playing with words, playing with sounds, can all be encompassed within the convention music and beyond it. Skill level and talent may well play a part but expect the unexpected! It has been my experience that students always bring something to the classroom as well as taking something away, and that is as it should be. A young man once gave me a sterling lesson. He simply said that he intends to keep learning until the day he dies.

Image of a flipchart from a sonic arts course at City LitImage of a flipchart from a sonic arts course at City Lit
A photo of flipchart from a sonic arts classroom at City LitA photo of flipchart from a sonic arts classroom at City Lit

The fruits of inclusion: a student success story

On another occasion, I had been working with a weekly group of under 18’s with special needs, by then for a few years, and thought I knew all the individuals well. We had been drumming and dancing, acting, and painting, been on activity holidays together and friendships and relationships were developed as within any group. The female staff knew M, a non-verbal and immobile female student best, and I knew her as a regular group member in a wheelchair who would be fed and changed by the staff and was much loved by them (by us all!) and on whom she was totally dependent whilst she was with us. M’s communication skills that I knew of, were occasional vocal sounds and to smile, cry, or sit peacefully. She did not have a yes/no signal that some other group members had, so interactions with her were mostly one-way, but she was always included in group activities. 

In the percussion workshops which I led, M would be assisted in holding an instrument such as a tambourine or shaker, as she would quickly lose her grip. One of the last sessions I remember with her in the group – and it was memorable – was when we sat in our circle of perhaps ten or more people, each taking it in turns to play a phrase on our instruments. I had noticed M’s foot jiggling, and so I rigged a tambourine on a chair to hang in front of her foot so that when she jiggled, it would make a noise. Sod’s law had it that once rigged, M stopped jiggling her foot.

So, around the room we went, and everybody played their piece, some short, some enthusiastically long. Sometimes people would just play one note when told it was their turn, but at least they consented to take part however reluctantly. So, coming round to M, I expected nothing at all, but come her turn, her turn she would have.

Right on cue, M jiggled her foot onto the tambourine. I had been working with her for several years and I had never once known her to respond to any dialogue or take an unassisted turn in anything. I did not know that she had the cognitive ability. M was in the room! It wasn't a coincidence. We went round again and again and each time, M took her turn.

To say that I was surprised was an understatement. M could still decline to engage if I set her up to play again in the future, she might sleep through it, she might be hungry or in pain or have other concerns, but at that moment, she chose to join in. This changed everything. Had she consistently dropped the tambourine for three years as her way of participating? She could not lift the instrument to play it without assistance, and since it had always been there for her, what other manner of participation could she choose? Perhaps with the years of encouragement and inclusion she had simply found her moment. M had gifted me a learning experience.

Music is not a thing!

They do say music is for everyone, but that may not quite be so. There are those with amusia or APD (Auditory Processing Disorder), and others for whom music holds little interest or value. Loud sounds can cause some people, especially some on the autistic spectrum, much distress.

I continue to work in groups with young people who prefer to wear ear defenders during music workshops. Music and the arts have suffered political downgrading in education under some administrations, and it can seem a battle for young people to justify their interest in an education system demanding attention for so many other subjects.

Yet for many of us, there is a soundtrack to our lives, and it is perhaps easier to explain why for some people, music is not a thing, than to explain why for so many, it is so much.

Give yourself permission.

Teaching at the City Lit, I have observed that for many adults, taking a course is about carving out the time in our lives to dedicate to the purpose of learning. If we don’t commit, we are much less likely to learn. There is so much else to do in a day, and if you’re not careful, it has gone already. Giving yourself permission to indulge your interest can be a big step, but on entering a classroom of like-minded people, doubts quickly fade, and the conviction galvanises into progress.

Sound Art

For people who dedicate so much time to a musical discipline, the wide-open field of sound art can be an uncertain prospect. I have found it has been my role as a sound art tutor, to give permission, in turn. 

Letting go of your musical habits whilst implementing your knowledge and experience of sound can be a great challenge and taking risks and venturing into the realm of the abstract, the different, or the unknown should be great fun and a liberation leading to creativity that you can assess for yourself is of value. It’s ok to do all of that. There’s nothing to lose, but you need to find that out and experience it for yourself. 

Making decisions

The transferable skills from music are many, and from sound art, the journey can be both similar and different.

Sometimes it’s about the conscious decision making, without which you might have binned your piece. Why didn’t you? What is it about the piece that stimulates and just works? Is there a narrative? Have you done everything you can to avoid one? What are the criteria? What is the outcome? Do they correlate? How much did chance affect things? How different is that from the music you are familiar with hearing or making? Does it matter?

What sounds would you make, and would you want them documented, witnessed by others or only by yourself? Is it designed to be shared or only experienced? Would any of those criteria satisfy you, and is that satisfaction at odds with the implicated potential of the piece? Have you considered and factored in the potential of the piece and have you had your assessment peer reviewed?

Encouragement and headspace

Part of my role as a sound art teacher at City Lit is to encourage and guide students through these questions and more. Each student and their work, their journey, is different though some similarities will of course appear. Having made the decision to attend the course, half the battle is won. In my sound art courses, I offer historical and contemporary context, and most importantly time and headspace to go into your own creative zone and commit to your own practice. 

Many educational courses are designed around a fixed set of certification criteria. City Lit has given us the opportunity to work toward a common criterion, designed and examined by ourselves. These sound art courses follow a research-based model rather than a prescriptive one and include positive constructive criticism to maximise your potential on the course. The historical groundwork during the course is there to help give context, whether that be a helpful framework or an iconography to avoid. That’s left up to the student. The most important thing is that we have gifted ourselves time and space in which we can express ourselves, having granted ourselves permission to do so.

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