Method Over Genre

Ways of Learning as a Source of Diversity in Making and Thinking About Music

Une partition non musicale. Les modes de transmission comme source de diversité des manières de faire et de penser la musique

Una partición no musical. Los modos de transmisión como fuente de diversidad de las maneras de hacer y de pensar la música

Rémi Deslyper

Translated by Delaina Haslam

Translated from:
Une partition non musicale


Electronic reference

Rémi Deslyper, « Method Over Genre », Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods [Online], 3 | 2018, Online since 15 October 2018, connection on 28 January 2021. URL :

While most sociological studies of musicians of contemporary popular music differentiate according to genre, whether implicitly or explicitly (“rock,” “rap,” “jazz,” etc.), this article proposes an alternative dividing line: how they learned to play. Based on a study of students at schools that teach musiques actuelles (modern/new music), focusing on three points relating to playing music, I will show that “school form”* tends to develop a formal relationship to music and its practice in musicians that strongly distinguishes them from musicians who have trained informally. It thus appears that students and self-taught musicians do not, so to speak, play music in the same way.
(*“Forme scolaire” is a concept introduced by Guy Vincent to refer to education characterized by the creation of a separate universe for students that favours rules, the rational organization of time, and the multiplication and repetition of exercises that have no other function than to teach, and teach according to rules—in other words an aim in and of itself.)

Alors que dans la majorité des études sociologiques sur les musiciens de musiques « populaires » contemporaines, ceux-ci sont, explicitement ou implicitement, distingués selon leur genre musical (les « rockeurs », les « rappeurs », les « jazzmen », etc.), cet article se propose de mettre au jour une autre ligne de clivage entre musiciens qu’est le mode de formation. À partir de l’étude des élèves des écoles de « musiques actuelles », nous montrerons, en nous focalisant sur trois points de leur pratique, que la forme scolaire tend à développer chez les musiciens un rapport formel à la musique et à sa pratique qui les différencie fortement des musiciens formés par un apprentissage informel. Il apparait ainsi qu’élèves et autodidactes n’ont, pour ainsi dire, pas la même pratique musicale.

Mientras que en la mayoría de los estudios sociológicos sobre los músicos de músicas “populares”, éstos son, explicita o implícitamente, diferenciados según el género musical (los “roqueros”, los “raperos”, los “jazzmen”, etc.), este artículo pretende evidenciar un clivaje diferente entre músicos : el tipo de formación. A partir de una investigación sobre estudiantes de escuelas de “músicas actuales” mostraremos, focalizándonos en tres aspectos de su práctica, que la forma escolar tiende a desarrollar en los músicos, una relación formal a la música y a su práctica que les diferencia fuertemente de los músicos formados a través de un aprendizaje informal. De esta forma, parece que estudiantes y autodidactas no tienen, por así decirlo, la misma práctica musical.

Illustration 1.
A guitar student making music

Image 100000000000050000000350CF3A2C42.png

Photo by Pierre Guillot.

In the majority of sociological studies, musicians of contemporary popular music are understood in direct reference to the concept of musical genre. They are analysed, and therefore differentiated as “rock,” “rap,” “jazz” musicians, and so on—in such a way that music genres constitute—explicitly or implicitly—the essential, almost natural, principle of division between musicians. While it cannot be denied that these categories form part of an objective (through the media, different “scenes,” conventions, and so on) and subjective structuring of the socio-musical world, they can sometimes lead to methodologically questionable analysis (I will return to this point later). Music genres—as socially constructed and situated categories for the perception of music that pre-exist sociological analysis—appear to be part of a sort of common notion of music that has been little investigated by sociology (Perrenoud 2012a; Legon 2016), and whose domination in the scientific field tends to hide other dividing lines between musicians. But in this article I would like to reveal an alternative divide between musicians—one I class as non-musical insofar as it is not a musicological theory, but rather a divide in terms of the way in which the practice is transferred1.

“All sociology,” write Guy Vincent, Bernard Lahire, and Daniel Thin, “whatever the research focus or field of inquiry should also be a sociology of education since a practice can only be understood in relation to its forms of appropriation (or acquisition) and to the history of social beings who carry this out” (Vincent, Lahire, Thin 1994: 38). Applied to music playing, this means that the manner of making and thinking about music is directly related to the way in which this is transmitted. The diversity of transmission methods can thereby be considered logically to be an objective dividing factor between musicians. This idea that learning methods constitute a dividing line within music playing is not new, and has already been referred to in some sociological works, and yet it has not been the subject of specific analysis. This was thereby more or less Jean-Louis Fabiani’s intention more than twenty-five years ago when he wondered if the institutionalization of jazz, and in particular of its teaching, would lead to the “establishment of new hierarchies and distinction strategies” between musicians (Fabiani 1986: 243). More recently, studying the atypical case of a symphony orchestra musician who had been self-taught via jazz, Bernard Lehmann noted that “a self-taught jazz artist differs from a classical musician who has been through the ‘mill’ of music conservatoires from a very young age in almost every way: they do not perceive music in the same way, do not immerse themselves in the same way, and do not work at it in the same way” (Lehmann 2002: 126). Finally, various works have already stressed, on a rather sporadic basis, the existence of differences in the ways of Making and thinking about contemporary popular music depending on the method of transmission (Coulangeon 1999; Perrenoud 2007, 2012b; Brandl 2009). These considerations require elaboration via more specific studies that would lead to an explanation of the divide created by the diversity of forms of transmission on the various ways of making and thinking about music.

The relatively recent and ongoing institutionalization of the teaching of contemporary popular music presents a situation conducive to the study of this divide. Indeed, over the past just over thirty years, we have seen an increasing institutionalization of contemporary popular music teaching in France that began with the introduction of jazz into public music schools between the end of the 1970s and the mid-1980s (Coulangeon 1999), and continued with the arrival of musiques actuelles (modern/new music) at the end of the 1990s2. Although the first public music school department for musiques actuelles—then called “rock”—was created in 1980, this remains a relatively isolated initiative. Apart from the emergence of a few private music schools and schools run by non profit associations, it was not until the end of the 1990s that current music really began to be established in state-approved music teaching establishments, with the creation in 1998 of a teaching certificate for musiques actuelles, and in 2000 of a national musiques actuelles teaching diploma. In 2008, there were thus seventy-six musiques actuelles classes or teaching departments in the 380 specialist teaching establishments under state control (François 2008). This development of musiques actuelles teaching institutions provides an opportunity to analyse the effect of this “new” transmission method on ways of making and thinking about music, and hence, more generally, to test the hypothesis of a divide between musicians according to method of transmission of the practice.

To explain the effects produced by the diversity of transmission methods, I will return, first of all, to the concept of school form in order to show how this may be behind a transformation in the relationship to playing music. Next, after having presented the research methodology, I will show the impact of the experience of music school—by referring to three aspects of the practice—on the way students do and think about music.

1. The Institutionalization of Teaching, School Form, and the Diversity of Relationships to Playing Music

In order to understand how the institutionalization of contemporary popular music teaching can lead to the formation of a divide within the genre, we must return to the characteristics of the concept of “school form” in greater detail. School form, or the school method of socialization, as it was defined in 1980 by Guy Vincent in an extension of the thinking of Roger Chartier and Régis Bernard, emphasizes the formalized character of education that gradually developed in France from the sixteenth century and that is predominant today (Vincent 1980). Rather than a “continuist” understanding of the history of teaching, Vincent shows that it was during this period that education gradually developed its own time, place, and rules; it became an autonomous social activity, distinct from other social activities. The concept was then reworked from the beginning of the 1990s by Bernard Lahire, who revealed a link between this form of transmission and the nature of the knowledge transmitted within it3. What distinguishes what is taught within school form is that it is intrinsically linked to a formal relationship to the activity, devoid of any immediate practical aim4. This characteristic of this transmission method therefore has an effect on practices themselves, even beyond education. As an activity not originally based on academic logic is introduced into the school system, this indeed has the effect of deeply altering its meaning and form. Thus, for example, Pierre Bourdieu observes that in the nineteenth century English public schools greatly transformed the popular games they introduced so as to play a role in the emergence of sport in the contemporary meaning of the term, that is to say as an autonomous physical activity that constitutes its own aim:

To characterize this transformation briefly, that is, as regards its principle, we can say that the bodily exercises of the “élite” are disconnected from the ordinary social occasions with which folk games remained associated (agrarian feasts, for example) and divested of the social (and, A fortiori, religious) functions still attached to a number of traditional games (such as the ritual games played in a number of pre-capitalist societies at certain turning points in the farming year). The school, the site of schole, leisure, is the place where practices endowed with social functions and integrated into the collective calendar are converted into physical exercises, activities which are an end in themselves, a sort of physical art for art's sake, governed by specific rules, increasingly irreducible to any functional necessity, and inserted into a specific calendar. The school is the site, par excellence, of what are called gratuitous exercises, where one acquires adistant, neutralizing disposition towards language and the social world, the very same one which is implied in the bourgeois relation to art, language and the body:gymnastics makes a use of the body which, like the scholastic use of language, is an end in itself. (Bourdieu 1993: 119-120).

More recently, research by Sylvia Faure and Marie-Carmen Garcia into the effects of public policies in support of hip-hop culture reaches a similar conclusion. They show, indeed, that the institutionalization of hip-hop dance, in particular via its incorporation into the education system, reworks mental and physical dispositions involved in the activity by dancers and leads to the creation of a new form of hip-hop based on a more formal relationship to the activity, which is particularly illustrated by a certain distancing of the practice from hip-hop “battles” in favour of the development of choreographed dance (Faure & Garcia 2005). Similarly, research by Julien Bertrand into a football training centre provides a good illustration, without this being his main focus, of how this institution—as part of school form—changes the relationship to the practice that trainees establish within a less formal framework of learning (Bertrand 2008: 318-395). From this perspective, and since—despite the aims of those responsible for its institutionalization—musiques actuelles teaching is certainly part of school form (Deslyper 2013), we can surmise that the world of contemporary popular music playing is greatly affected by a division along transmission method lines—academic versus non-academic, or formal versus informal. The practice of musicians trained within a teaching establishment is therefore characterized, under certain social conditions, by a formal relationship to musical activity, whereby the latter constitutes its own aim, unlike the functional relationship to playing music that is characteristic of informal learning in which the activity essentially responds to immediate and extra-musical aims (sociability, relaxation, etc.).

However, although school is emblematic of school form, and therefore of the formal relationship to the activity that stems from it, learning outside school does not necessarily mean learning outside school form. As Daniel Thin points out, “the predominance of the school method of socialization is manifested in the fact that school form has widely crossed the boundaries of school and spread into numerous institutions and social groups” (Thin 1998: 30). Accordingly, self-tuition, understood as learning that takes place outside the school establishment5, is not necessarily inconsistent with school form. The use of videos or manuals designed to teach music and based, at least partially, on pedagogic thinking is also the result of an implementation of an academic relationship to music. Thus, one can be entirely self-taught, that is to say taught outside a teaching establishment, but apply an academic approach. For convenience, however, we will use the terms “self-tuition” and “self-taught” to refer to informal learning and instrumentalists who have learnt in an informal manner, or at least less formally than those within a music teaching establishment.

Neither Sociology of Art nor Sociology of Education: Conditions of Development and Maintenance of a Branch of Research
Admittedly, the crossover of the sociology of art and the sociology of education found in this article, and more generally in the PhD research it originates from, was never conceived as such. Although I quickly had to position myself regarding these specializations of the discipline, which have far-reaching significance for the current state of the field of sociology, the realization of this work was never envisaged through these categories. Being critical of the breakdown of sociology into research subjects, I have always considered this work as a sociological study into various relationships to knowledge. The fact that it is about musicians, far from defining it, is above all linked to the particular configuration of relationships to knowledge that the world of popular contemporary music playing offers as a result of the ongoing institutionalization of its teaching. This way of envisaging the research has not, of course, come out of nowhere, and a quick process of self-analysis identifies several contributing factors.
First of all, this perspective is naturally related to my research training. From master’s level, I pursued my sociology training at the Groupe de recherche sur la socialisation (the Socialization Research Group, which has since merged into the Centre Max Weber), whose members were strongly opposed at the time to the division of the discipline into research subjects and themes (sociology of school, sociology of the family, sociology of art, etc.), and supported a sociological practice based on inquiries into the concept of socialization (Darmon 2007). Moreover, several members had worked on the issue of the relationship to knowledge through the school method of socialization (Lahire 1993a, 1993b; Thin 1998; Baudelot, Cartier, Détrez 1999; Faure 2000; Millet 2003; Faure & Garcia 2005; Bertrand 2008), making this issue a strong focus of the laboratory. This research perspective, which I have fully endorsed, has led me to view my personal experience of the world of playing music from this angle: as a self-taught musician, I have been able to observe the practice of some of my self-taught peers transform significantly following their experience studying musiques actuelles at a school. Similarly, through the emergence of musiques actuelles schools and departments, I have seen the development of an instance of socialization that is behind a rift in musicians’ ways of making and thinking about music.
However, the laboratory’s influence cannot fully explain the research focus. In the context of huge mergers of research bodies to the detriment of all scientific relevance, and on the basis of the resources allocated to them, laboratories, in nearly all cases, are no longer able to offer a truly scientific framework to their researchers, above all their PhD students. I would also add that it has only been possible to maintain and develop this research thanks to regular and insightful discussions with colleagues and friends from other institutions carrying out their own research into cultural objects from the same perspective (Legon 2014; Eloy 2015). I would like to thank them for this.

2. Field and Methodology

This analysis is based on a doctoral thesis in sociology, defended in 2013, on the impact of the institutionalization of the teaching of musiques actuelles on ways of making and thinking about music. In order to assess the institutionalization effect, I chose to compare musicians’ practice before and after attending music school. Observing differences in their practice before and after music school indeed appeared to be a good way to reveal the characteristics of the school approach to playing music and, as a consequence, the rift that training methods—either academic or non-academic—form in the contemporary popular music world. Various works have in fact already highlighted that teaching establishments of contemporary popular music rarely constitute their students’ first experience of music learning, but provide a continuation of education that begins outside an academic institution. Indeed, they generally begin learning informally (Green 2002), “in a context in which the borders […] between music learning and adolescent sociability are significantly blurred” (Perrenoud 2007: 33), that is to say without the instrumentalist being aware of learning. Also, observing differences between the practice before and after music school offers an opportunity to comprehend the divide between the two forms of practice—formal and practical—depending on type of training, whether academic or non-academic. From this perspective, I interviewed students who had begun playing in a self-taught capacity so as to observe the transformation in the way of making and thinking about music that is affected by the institution.

The results presented in this article are based on analysis of 40 interviews conducted with guitar students (34 men and 1 woman6), or former students (5 men), in the “third cycle”7 of two state-approved musiques actuelles teaching establishments in the Rhône-Alpes region (one state school and one run by a non profit association). The choice of two establishments, as well as giving access to a greater number of respondents, avoids the bias of a monograph on a single potentially specific establishment, especially in terms of pedagogic bias. This choice was therefore a matter of making the analysis less specific to aspire to a certain increase in its general relevance. The interview questions were therefore built around elements that I believed were likely to be affected by the experience of attending a music teaching establishment, and would therefore betray the assimilation of a formal relationship to music (such how the instrument is held; the pieces played, where music is played; playing partners, etc.).

At the same time, interviews were also carried out with 10 male contemporary popular music guitarists from various social backgrounds (from one who has a labourer father and mother who is a childminder to one whose father is an engineer and mother a history teacher) who have never attended a music teaching establishment, so as not to limit the study to students’ retrospective statements. Looking at the way self-taught guitarists play indeed appeared to be a way of approaching the practice of students prior to entry into a school since, despite all that might separate them (age, musical ambition, social origin, etc.), students’ first stage of learning and the current practice of the self-taught musicians interviewed share the fact of taking place outside music school. The practice of self-taught musicians could therefore be seen as a point of reference for non-academic music playing.

Furthermore, although I believe that the question of the impact of music school goes beyond the divisions between instruments, my choice to focus on a single instrument is related to a desire for clarity: the technical differences between instruments would call for constant adaptations, explanations, and clarifications throughout the argumentation that would risk considerably weighing down the remarks. I therefore chose to focus on the guitar, partly because of its emblematic character (it is the quintessential symbol of current music), but also, and above all, because it is the instrument that by far attracts the most students in musiques actuelles departments (there are six to ten times more guitarists than drummers or bassists—the next largest instrumentalist groups in the schools investigated).

Finally, before presenting the results of this research, I will focus for a moment on the social characteristics of the population studied. The effect of institutional music teaching on the relationship to music and music playing, and therefore the division it creates between musicians, can only be understood in relation to the social profile of these musicians8. It appears, then, that while guitar playing in a “rock” context “functions more as a sign of generational belonging than of social belonging” (Donnat, 1996: 112), the fact that this practice extends into the third cycle of music school appears, on the other hand, much more socially situated. The socially situated character of the ambition to become an artist (Bourdieu, 1987) and of the selection process involved in admission into the third cycle at the establishments studied9 means that students on these courses represent a fairly central position within the social space in terms of their social origin, and/or educational capital. By considering the highest professional position in the family and without claiming to employ statistical reasoning on these data, we can say that students are divided into three groups. One group—the largest, containing 26 of the 40 students questioned, comes from the “intellectual” middle class (predominantly the sons and daughters of teachers). A second group (of 10 students) includes individuals from working-class backgrounds who are upwardly mobile via school (with a general baccalauréat and sometimes even a university degree). Finally, in a smaller capacity (4 out of 40) we find students from the upper classes—with doctor, engineer, or lawyer parents—on the decline on account of their not having obtained a university qualification. In addition, almost all of the students surveyed (all except two) have a general baccalauréat, and several have completed a university course before admission to music school. These social and educational characteristics then explain why students tend to also adopt to a considerable extent a formal relationship to music and playing music, which is that supported by the school: they show themselves to be in effect relatively adapted to what the school seeks to convey to them.

Lastly, I would like to point out that this strong transformation tendency in music practice following attendance of a music school does not, of course, mean that all students see their playing transform in every way: rare, very sporadic resistance occurs; but I chose in the context of this research to concentrate on the practical patterns that different transmission methods bring.

Analysis of the effects of attending music school implies, then, that the method of transmission is indeed the source of a division between musicians. By developing a formal relationship to music and to playing music in students that goes against the practical relationship they had adopted before attending the establishment—which remains intact in self-taught musicians—the establishment to some extent creates a new type of musician who coexists with, but is not confused with, the former. To shed light on this division between ways of making and thinking about music that is brought about by academic and non-academic transmission methods, I will focus on three signs of the change that takes place in musicians’ practice following entry into music school: knowing how to “work”; “understanding” what they play; and “opening themselves up” to playing different genres of music10.

3. Knowing How to “Work”: From Playing Songs to Playing Exercises

For students, a major difference—between themselves and other musicians, but also in relation to the musician they used to be—is that going to music school teaches them to “work”:

“I know that that’s something that’s changed [since going to music school]—I’ve realized that even big groups didn’t start out like that, there’s serious work behind all that, you know. Those guys didn’t just click their fingers and that was that. That’s what people think, but it’s the invisible bit [...] But that’s what’s changed. I wasn’t aware of that before. I used to say to myself: ‘Ok, you have musicians, that’s it, you’re there,’ you know? Of course that can happen, if you get good people around you, there’s evidence of that, but after, the dudes have got to know how to work. If they don’t know how to work at it, if you don’t know how to work at it... I think I’ve learnt to work hard, too.”
(Pierre-Emmanuel, 22, has played guitar for 7 years; attending music school for 2 years.)

“Now I know you have to work and that changes everything! [laughs] Because before, I’d even spend six hours playing my guitar, every day, but out of those six hours, probably two of those were worthwhile. The rest of the time it was ... I thought I was working, but in fact, I was moving my fingers down the neck, but it was doing nothing, you know.”
(Aurélien, 21, guitarist for 10 years; attending music school for 3 years.)

“I think that before, I thought I was working, but, thinking back, I don’t think I was working that hard, in fact. Now I really work.”
(Florent, 24, has played guitar for 9 years; in his second year of music school.)

Knowing how to “work” is, in reality, developing a new way of understanding what one is playing, which is characteristic of the formal relationship to playing music. This can be seen especially in the importance given to exercises—an activity emblematic of “work” in music playing. Since starting at a music teaching establishment, it is evident that students have gone from exclusively playing songs—generally covers, sometimes compositions—to a practice centred on exercises. This change reflects a more general break with the immediate nature of a practical relationship to playing in favour of a formal relationship that constitutes its own aim.

Songs indeed form the basis of self-taught practice: musical activity, then, essentially consists in the successive interpretation of different pieces:

Interviewer. – And what happens when you play? You do what exactly?

Kevin (28, self-taught guitarist who has played for 16 years). – Well, I say to myself: “Go on, you’re going to play four or five Pantera songs,” for example. I go ahead, I play, this takes 20-30 minutes. After that, I decide to play something a bit cooler, with a clean sound. So I play a few things ... This can be anything and everything—a Hendrix song followed by some Stevie Ray Vaughan blues.

Jean (27, self-taught guitarist who has played for 11 years). – What I do [when I play], is that I start playing two or three songs, and I play them back-to-back.

However, this interest in songs tends to disappear on entry into a music teaching establishment. Indeed, students say that they play them much less than before and that they now favour exercises. Florent (24, has played guitar for nine years; in his second year of music school) thus explains that, since starting music school, songs have been replaced by exercises, which have even become his “main” musical activity:

“Certainly before [starting music school] I played more covers, things like that. It’s true that I’d sometimes spend a whole afternoon playing songs [...], whereas I never do that anymore now [...]. Well, I don’t just do exercises, but it's true that they’ve become my main activity [...] You think that playing songs is good when you start because that’s what you want to do, you don’t want to mess around doing exercises and end up being able to play nothing but exercises. But that’s perhaps exactly what you must do.”

It is the same situation for Paco, 19, who has played the guitar for five years, is in his first year of music school, and plays “nothing but exercises”:

“I’ve really gone straight into them [exercises] this year. I told myself that I’d turn to music seriously. And so I quickly said to myself: ‘I’ve must work hard, I’ve must work hard, I’ve must work hard.’ So I got into a bit of a weird cycle. In fact, I don’t play music any more, I just do exercises now.”

We should note that exercises are not seen here as a way of learning; they constitute the practice in itself and are an integral part of students’ playing. For students, playing music essentially means doing exercises. In this sense, playing musiques actuelles scarcely differs from what we can observe of student participation in the most institutionalized physical, artistic, and sports activities, in which most of the time devoted to them is spent maintaining and improving technique by doing exercises11.

In the process of this passage from a practice based on playing songs to one that essentially comprises exercises, what can be seen, more broadly, is the students’ shift towards a formal relationship to music and playing music. Exercises—scales being the most emblematic example—indeed by their very nature go against the complete and immediate nature of songs and are not strictly ‘music’ in the sense that they are not intended to be listened to. Furthermore, students differentiate very clearly between “playing music” and “doing exercises” (as Paco says in the interview extract cited above: “In fact, I don’t play music anymore; I just do exercises now”), which clearly expresses the incomplete nature of exercises. By doing exercises, students show that they make the activity an aim in and of itself, and that they do not regard it for its practical and immediate purpose: producing music. Doing exercises responds to a more distant aim: it is an investment. Julien (22, guitarist of 6 years; attending music school for 2 years) is aware of this when he explains: “At the moment I’m working more on rhythm exercises, scales, things like that. Things that mean that further down the line I can be freer.” Exercises have no interest in themselves: it is only “further down the line” that they bear fruit. They correspond to a postponed interest. By contrast, it is self-taught musicians’ practical relationship to playing music—because they cannot envisage the practice outside its immediate interest, in other words producing music—that is behind their refusal to do exercises. Thus, Yvan, 16, self-taught guitarist of one year, explains that he never does exercises because he does not see the point of playing “bits of phrases one after the other that do not mean anything.” Yvan is demonstrating his dedication to music practice that responds to an immediate aim, namely that what is achieved with the instrument is understood from the perspective of a listener.

In moving from a music practice that is made up almost exclusively of songs to one that is essentially made up of exercises, students register their ownership of the formal relationship to music and playing music that is promoted by music teaching establishments. Doing exercises indeed involves a certain break with the immediate practical aim of the song, while—subject to the requirement of an immediate result—the practice of self-taught musicians mainly consists of playing pieces.

4. “Understanding” Music: The Example of Chords

Students’ shift towards a formal relationship to music is also apparent—and perhaps in a more obvious way—in their entry into a theoretical level of music learning. In the interviews conducted with students, the idea that going to a music teaching establishment leads to a strong theorization of music emerges very clearly. For example, we find this in comments made by Florent (24, guitarist of 9 years; attending music school for 2 years): “Since starting music school, I definitely find music more intellectual, in the sense that it’s important to anticipate things and know what you're doing. You’re always thinking and [...] Yeah, theorizing everything a bit in your head.” Yet the development of this theoretical approach to music is not neutral insofar as it takes account of a transformation in the relationship to playing.

In fact, self-taught music playing is always accompanied at first by a certain lack of awareness of the theoretical bases that organize and structure music12. From a practical point of view, whereby what counts most are the social benefits of what is produced (creating an atmosphere, partying, having fun with friends, etc.), self-taught musicians are not interested in focusing on the way music works in itself; it is enough for them simply to play. They know how to play, but they do not know what they do in the sense that they have not mastered the theoretical principles that govern music. For those who get a place in the highest cycle at a music teaching establishment, music loses its social function to some extent, existing instead separate from its execution: it becomes an autonomous object, and one which responds to internal rules of operating—to the principles of musical logic. To put it another way, musicians go from music existing in terms of “doing” to a music that also, and perhaps especially, presents itself as “knowledge.” Additionally, they now “understand” music, according to a phrase heard regularly throughout the survey that reveals a new—formal—relationship to music, and that at the same time distinguishes them from those who do not “understand” it.

Students’ entry into a theoretical approach to music from the point of starting at a music teaching establishment can be seen, first of all, through their reappropriation, from a historical perspective, of skills acquired outside school that they have mastered up until that point in a practical way, as is the case, for example, for playing chords.

Chords underpin guitar playing, and are a symbolic technique for the instrument. However, the way to learn chords varies considerably according to the approach—practical or theoretical—followed by the instrumentalist. Thus it appears that, by going from self-taught to student status, instrumentalists shift from a practical knowledge of chords, in which the latter exist as positions for the fingers on the instrument, to a theoretical knowledge in which chords are built “logically.”

In all interviews, students explain that when they first started playing, they learnt chords by memorizing finger positions:

Aurélien (21, guitarist for 10 years and attending music school for 3 years). – When I started, [...] I thought about positions more [...]. When you begin, it’s really much simpler to think about the guitar in terms of positions, because with a position on the handle, you can get anywhere in fact. It's something unique to the guitar, which also makes us lazy when it comes to harmonies and things like that, because positions are easy enough [...]. It’s so simple, and it allows you to go so fast you don’t have a second to think about what you’re doing.

This knowledge of chords using just the position of the fingers on the neck is a form of procedural knowledge, as Geneviève Delbos and Paul Jorion point out (Delbos & Jorion 1984: 11). By learning chords only by the positioning of the fingers, instrumentalists are able to play them, but do not master the theoretical theory behind them (“you don’t have a second to think about what you’re doing”).

Students tend to view guitar chords differently when they go to music school. They go from a practical reality of “doing” to a more theoretical or “logical” authority of “knowing.” Students express this when they say in the interviews that they know how to “build” chords. The idea of building chords is linked to mastering their internal logic, which breaks with the “positions” approach: chords are no longer fixed elements—finger positions learnt by heart that must be reproduced—but built, which respond to a “logical”—that is to say theoretical—principle of construction with notes (C, C#, D, D#, E, F, etc.) and intervals (whole tones and semitones) that make them up.

This shift manifests itself in the difficulty students now have in counting the number of chords they know. It is not that they know too many to count, but above all that such a calculation is no longer relevant to the cognitive system characteristic of the way in which they now understand them. Indeed, the question of the number of chords known is only relevant in a practical approach in which chords correspond to memorized and quantifiable hand positions. Seen via theoretical logic, this question does not really have meaning insofar as chords are understood as the product of “logical” reasoning. This is reflected in the responses received to the following question:

Interviewer. – How many chords do you know?
Romain (25, guitarist for 11 years who left music school 4 years ago having attended for 2 years). – [...] Meaning? How many can I play on my guitar or how many do I know in total?
– What is the difference?
– Erm, in total, I know them all because I know how to build them.
– And before, when you didn’t know how to build them, did you know a set number?
– Exactly. At the start, I must’ve known five, then twenty, thirty [...], but afterwards, that’s it, you know how to build chords. I’m not saying that that happened automatically, but from a certain point you understand how to build them up: you understand the logic.
Interviewer. – And now, at this point in time, how many chords do you know?
Stéphane (24, has played guitar for 11 years; in his 3rd year of music school). – Erm, I can play them all in fact. I’ve no idea [laughs]. Maybe 50 or something. In fact, afterwards, it’s not even a question of knowing chords, it’s more about saying: for a chord, a minor 7, for example, you know you have a tonic, a minor third, a fifth, a seventh [...]. I know how to build chords. I don’t learn them by heart [...]. It’s become very natural. I now know exactly how to build a chord.

From the moment when instrumentalists know how to “build” a chord, when they “understands the logic” behind the chord, it is no longer really possible for them to quantify them and, even if they could, this quantification would no longer have meaning. Similarly, it is only in the context of a practical knowledge of chords that an instrumentalist can forget one. Students explain, indeed, that since they have understood the principle of building chords, they no longer need to remember the positions. There is no longer a need to memorize the chord; it is deduced from “logical” reasoning, and cannot therefore be forgotten.

5. Playing “a Bit of Everything”: Students’ Musical Beginnings and the Formal Relationship to Music

Finally, the difference in the relationship to the practice according to type of training can also be seen in the stylistic choices of the pieces students play. During the interviews, students were fairly quick to talk about the way they began with a wide range of styles (in fact, this is rarely more than two)—playing “a bit of everything”—as one of the big changes in their practice since starting at a music teaching institution. Although, when they first go to a school, their playing is often centred on a particular genre of music, students say that they are “open” to playing other styles. For example, this was the case for Paco regarding jazz (19, guitarist for 5 years; in his first year of music school):

“School opened me up to a lot of things [...]. At the start, I was very into ska rock; now I’m more focused on jazz [...]. I didn’t really know jazz last year, I hardly knew it at all [...] I didn’t know what it was.”

For Florent (24, has played the guitar for 9 years; in his second year of music school), it was bossa nova he “opened” up to:

“When I started at the school, I told myself it was much better to widen my interests rather than concentrate on a particular thing, in fact. It’s more about styles [...] Like opening up [...] We put on a Latin music concert. My challenge at the start of last year was to say to myself, if at the end of the year I can play Latin music, and I’ve at least got the rhythm and everything, I’ll be really pleased with myself [...]. I was scared of just messing up, but in the end I did better than some [...] Because before that, well [...] I didn’t even know what bossa nova was really.”

We come across this again with Stéphane—24, who has played the guitar for 11 years and is in his 3rd year of music school—who talks about “going off in all directions” since starting at the school:

“When I started at the school, I wasn't very open, it was more afterwards [...] They have a bit of a programme at the school that encourages you [...] In the end, that’s not what encourages you, but it made me see the importance of playing a very wide range of music. So I’ve been playing in lots of different directions for a year or two [...]. Now I’m very open to all styles. You know, I’ve got a hardcore group, a rap group, and two more jazz-oriented groups.”

It must be said that all the teachers are very keen on the need for their students to be “open” to playing different genres of music, to know how to play “a bit of everything,” and that this constitutes an indispensable skill for a “good” musician13. Thus, “opening students” ears’ to “something new” is the main objective of teaching provided by the school according to this teacher:

“They [students] arrive with a plan, such as ‘I listen to AC/DC,’ ‘I listen to Metallica,’ ‘I listen to My Chemical Romance,’—things like that, you know—something that they then set about trying out. And I don't necessarily force them to move forward; I want them to enjoy playing, so that they more or less achieve what they wanted in order to then guide them [...] Open their ears to other things. That’s the aim of the first cycle to my mind, you know? I’d say that in the first cycle it’s important to provide an introduction to the instrument and to the group, of course; but above all, it’s important to start with to let students discover things via their own world, and then to start to open up a bit to know if they’re ready to open themselves up or not. If they’re not ready to open themselves up and they want to stay focused on something very closed, well that’s becoming musically autistic, so [...] no?”

Teachers’ encouragement to play “a bit of everything” is fairly consistent throughout the establishment, but to varying degrees depending on the class. It is carried out in a fairly explicit manner in the context of “music culture” classes given in the two schools studied, which have the stated aim of, in the words of one teacher, “for students to discover as many different things as possible, to expand their musical universe” (teacher, 30 years old). It can also be seen in the pieces set by teachers who sometimes aim to introduce their students to playing a new music style (“The blues—I have to give lessons on it now, I enforce it. Very few students tell me they want to play blues. I have to enforce it because I think it’s very important that they know how to play the blues” [teacher, 39]). Finally, it can be seen most widely in the remarks of teachers of different classes who regularly evoke the importance of playing “a bit of everything,” and not “closing yourself off” in one style.

Through this change in students’ stylistic repertoire, we see a bigger transformation of the relationship to music. The opening up of students’ musical activity is evidence more generally of the development of an interest in the practice in itself that is relatively independent of the music produced. It is this link between a musical “opening up” and the formal relationship to playing that Florent illustrates well when he says that he plays different styles because he likes “playing music in general”:

“Before, I found myself in a style, so I really liked getting into it. Metal, punk, that suited me. Then, in the end, through playing music with lots of different people, I realised that what I liked most of all was playing music. I have affinities with certain types of music, but I really like playing music in general.”

In fact, while Florent likes playing “a bit of everything,” it is ultimately because he likes playing full stop. The importance of playing, in his view, takes priority over the importance of what is played.

The link between the “opening up” of the practice to different musical genres and the formal relationship to musical activity can also be seen in students’ rejection of stylistically determined names. It is, in fact, only the self-taught musicians who claim exclusive adherence to a music style (“I’m into rock” Hakim will say, for example). For their part, students refuse to see themselves as a “rock” or “metal” guitarists.14 They prefer to define themselves as “musicians” or, in a more specific sense, “guitarists”—more general categories that refer to the practice (playing music or playing the guitar) rather than to the music produced, thus expressing their interest in the musical activity in itself. Aurélien thus rejects the prevalence of the term “rock guitarist” since it fails to take account of his interest in the “guitar in itself”:

Interviewer – Would you define yourself as a rock guitarist?
Aurélien – [...] Rock guitarist, I don’t think that’s [...] I mean, what I try to do at the moment, is more about playing the guitar in itself [...] Yeah, I love rock, but I don’t think it’s very good to limit yourself to a genre. I think the more genres you master the better it is, the more rewarding it is, isn’t it [...] So no, rock guitarist, I don't think so.

Along similar lines, all that might signify belonging to any type of music style—whether this be clothing (arm bands for “metal heads”, etc.) or physical features (dreadlocks, piercings, etc.)—tends to disappear once a musician goes to music school in a desire to have a “more ‘normal’ appearance,” as Marc Perrenoud notes. “This allows them to disassociate from ‘idiomatic’ markings, to appear instead like stylistically versatile specialists of their instrument” (Perrenoud 2007: 49). On balance, through this musical opening in students, what emerges is a formal relationship to playing music: the practice exists in itself and for itself, almost independently of the music produced. The opening up thus explains music schools’ construction of a new way of apprehending playing music that breaks with the one students had built outside the establishment.

Following a similar idea, and to briefly expand on the reflections mentioned in the introduction, the detection of the link between the way of describing oneself as a “rocker” or musician and the relationship to music leads us to query the methodological relevance of an understanding of musicians through music genres. Various research into “rock,” “rap,” “jazz” musicians etcetera indeed states that its interviewee population was built based on respondents’ declarations who define themselves to the sociologist as “rockers,” “rappers,” “jazz musicians,” etc. However, as we have just seen, claiming allegiance to a music family is not socially neutral; the feeling of belonging to a genre of music, or at least making this claim to a researcher is much less common in musicians who have trained at a music teaching establishment and, more generally, in those who have developed a formal relationship to music. Thus, in interviewing instrumentalists who present themselves as belonging to a specific music genre, the researcher makes a—sometimes unconscious—selection between instrumentalists of contemporary popular music. If we add to this the difficulty in objectively defining contemporary popular music genres15, and therefore in identifying the corresponding population, we must be very careful in considering attempts to establish the characteristics and specific features of “rock,” “rap,” or “jazz” musicians.


Compared with the tendency in sociology to treat music genres as the main dividing line between musicians, I have sought to demonstrate that the way the activity is transmitted forms an objectively divisive element in the world of playing music. At the same time as the fact of being a “rocker,” “jazz musicians,” or “rapper,” it would seem that there is a fundamental difference in terms of training methods. Since the different modes of transmission—academic and non-academic—do not build the same relationship to playing, or the same ways of making and thinking about music, students and self-taught musicians appear to be two different types of musician. The fact that musicians who attend a music teaching institution know how to “work,” “understand” what they play, and are “open” to playing different styles of music are equally indications of a specific relationship to playing that is formed by the school and that is irreconcilable with that which pre-existed their entry into the establishment. While this principle of division via transmission methods may not replace the divide along music genre lines, it nevertheless invites us to query it. In fact, when perceived in terms of how they have been trained, musicians who are very far apart aesthetically can prove to be very similar in the way they consider music and playing music, and vice versa. Thus, transmission methods appear to constitute a less visible but perhaps deeper division between musicians.

Finally, the thinking explored in this article highlights the limitations of dividing sociology up into themes and research subjects. The fact that research on musicians, and more specifically that employing the concept of school form, has not previously incorporated sociological studies on school to more accurately analyse the division of musicians that is brought about by transmission methods—although this has been perceived by some researchers—can partly be explained by the tendency towards the specialization of research in sociology. As Bernard Lahire has pointed out: “In a desire to concentrate on a single sphere or sub-sphere, analysis ends up missing the target by forgetting that part of the ‘truth’ (the raison d’être or structuring or explanatory principles) of practices is located outside the sphere or sub-sphere in question” (Lahire 2012). In view of this limitation in terms of the current dividing up of the discipline, I find the call to carry out work located at the intersection of different fields of sociology—as laudable as it may be—insufficient insofar as it always comes back to the issue of recognizing, and therefore maintaining, the existence of these internal borders while they appear to me to be the very cause of the problem. I believe that sociology would benefit from abandoning this organization based on themes and subjects in favour of an organization centred on the questions and problems dealt with. Indeed, I feel that a piece of research is defined far more by its line of inquiry or problem than it is by the research subject such as it appears in the social world. Regrouping research according to research question rather than subject would be, in my opinion, much more favourable to exchanges between researchers and therefore to achieving progress in knowledge. Furthermore, it would have the benefit of confirming the scientific ambition of the discipline—concerning which, on reading certain works, we sometimes have the impression, unfortunately, that it is more a question of an appetite for the subjects of its research than it is for the research of its subjects.

1 In this regard, this article refines, completes, and prolongs the thinking begun in a previous publication (Deslyper 2009).

2 Musiques actuelles is institutional terminology adopted by the French administration at the beginning of the 1980s to refer to all forms of popular

3 “School and the educationalization of social relations of learning are linked to the creation of formalized scriptural knowledge, knowledge that is

4 For example, Lahire clearly demonstrates that primary education of written, read, and spoken language breaks with the ordinary and contextualized

5 “The self-taught person doesn’t learn ‘on his/her own,’ but his/her masters, his/her guides, his/her sources, who always exist (even if they can

6 Regarding gender inequality in contemporary popular music, I refer to the work of Philippe Coulangeon and Hyacinthe Ravet (2003).

7 French music schools comprise three “cycles” that represent 8 to14 years of study. Also referred to—both informally and formally—as the “

8 Since these students’ social conditions of aspiration to the career of musician is the subject of more detailed analysis in another publication (

9 Because of the high number of candidates in relation to places (around 60 candidates for 4 to 10 places per year depending on establishment and year

10 Other elements of this transformation of the relationship to music and playing music (time and location of practice, relationship to playing

11 This is the case, for example, in boxing. Loïc Wacquant observes that boxers “spend most of their time out of the ring, exercise tirelessly in

12 On the historical process of the rationalization of Western music, see the work of Max Weber (Weber 1958).

13 This echoes the observation already made by Marc Perrenoud according to which: “We regularly come across the idea—in interviews, but also in

14 From this idea, the question arises as to whether Perrenoud’s observation that “musicians for whom ‘jazz’ forms a specific source of identity, or

15 Thus, to take the example of work on rock, Emmanuel Brandl stresses: “Today we no longer have ‘seminars,’ ‘meetings,’ and ‘dissertations,’ or

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1 In this regard, this article refines, completes, and prolongs the thinking begun in a previous publication (Deslyper 2009).

2 Musiques actuelles is institutional terminology adopted by the French administration at the beginning of the 1980s to refer to all forms of popular music: jazz, chanson, rock, rap, and electronic music, and also pop and “traditional music.” In institutional music teaching, the term excludes traditional music and jazz, which already had their own teaching departments when musiques actuelles was introduced into music schools. For the sake of simplicity, I shall employ the term musiques actuelles in the rest of the article.

3 “School and the educationalization of social relations of learning are linked to the creation of formalized scriptural knowledge, knowledge that is objective, set within limits, and coded […]. The type of school socialization is therefore indissociable from the scriptural nature of knowledge to transmit: the formality of knowledge and types of social relations within which it is transmitted are profoundly linked” (Lahire 1993a: 37, emphasis added by the author.)

4 For example, Lahire clearly demonstrates that primary education of written, read, and spoken language breaks with the ordinary and contextualized language spoken by children, especially working-class children: “The Child was in its language, she now holds this in front of her and observes it, divides it, emphasizes it, classifies it and arranges it in categories. The child previously used language to say or do things, and could almost ignore its existence, given how its presence was indissociable from situations, object denoted, other people, intentions, emotions, actions. She is now made to become conscious of language as such, in its materiality and its specific operation, and not really taught to make use of it in the context of particular usages, but rather to discover its specific laws of operation, to see how it serves its purpose.” (Lahire 2011:102, emphasis added by the author).

5 “The self-taught person doesn’t learn ‘on his/her own,’ but his/her masters, his/her guides, his/her sources, who always exist (even if they can take different forms), are simply not the school-certified teachers” (Poliak, 1992:30).

6 Regarding gender inequality in contemporary popular music, I refer to the work of Philippe Coulangeon and Hyacinthe Ravet (2003).

7 French music schools comprise three “cycles” that represent 8 to14 years of study. Also referred to—both informally and formally—as the “professional” cycle, this stage lasts 2-3 years of 300-888 teaching hours depending on the year and the establishment, and welcomes students who have already attained a certain level of playing (admission to this cycle depends on selection via an audition).

8 Since these students’ social conditions of aspiration to the career of musician is the subject of more detailed analysis in another publication (Deslyper 2018b), I will concentrate on presenting the main characteristics here.

9 Because of the high number of candidates in relation to places (around 60 candidates for 4 to 10 places per year depending on establishment and year), admittance to the third musiques actuelles teaching cycle is subject to selection on the basis of a musical audition and an interview.

10 Other elements of this transformation of the relationship to music and playing music (time and location of practice, relationship to playing partners and to playing in a group, etc.) are presented in another publication (Deslyper 2018a).

11 This is the case, for example, in boxing. Loïc Wacquant observes that boxers “spend most of their time out of the ring, exercise tirelessly in front of a mirror or against bags to refine their technique, increase their strength, and quicken their pace, and outdoors doing kilometres of ‘roadwork’ to maintain their endurance” (Wacquant 1989: 51).

12 On the historical process of the rationalization of Western music, see the work of Max Weber (Weber 1958).

13 This echoes the observation already made by Marc Perrenoud according to which: “We regularly come across the idea—in interviews, but also in observing pedagogic activities or in the specialized press (Guitares et claviers—Guitars and Keyboards—Batteur magazine—Drummer Magazine, etc.) that to become a ‘good musician’ you must know how to play everything” (Perrenoud 2013: 30).

14 From this idea, the question arises as to whether Perrenoud’s observation that “musicians for whom ‘jazz’ forms a specific source of identity, or even a coherent and frequently used cognitive and discursive category are not that common” (Perrenoud 2013: 33) could be linked to the strong institutionalization of music learning since the 1980s (Coulangeon 1999).

15 Thus, to take the example of work on rock, Emmanuel Brandl stresses: “Today we no longer have ‘seminars,’ ‘meetings,’ and ‘dissertations,’ or articles and theses (in whichever discipline) that begin with a confused discussion or introduction on the definition of types of ‘rock’ music” (Brandl 2009: 19).

Illustration 1.  A guitar student making music

Illustration 1.
A guitar student making music

Photo by Pierre Guillot.

Rémi Deslyper

Université Lumière Lyon 2/Éducation, Cultures, Politiques

© Presses Universitaires de Vincennes 2020