In which I worry about whether singing is inherently creative?

I’ve been giving considerable thought recently to something that I hear said a lot nowadays, which runs something like:

The kids are all singing, which is an inherently creative activity…

This made me post a tweet asking the question: ‘is singing inherently creative?’. There were a number of responses to this, and as I write they are still coming in. Interestingly a number mis-interpreted the question, and talked about how singing was a worthwhile activity – which I hadn’t asked! So let me worry away at creativity and singing for a bit longer.

First of all, let me be really clear, I am not asking ‘is singing worthwhile?’. That’s a very, very different question, and not what I am thinking about here.

So, to start with, let us think about creativity entails. In many ways this reminds me of a critique I received when I had been writing about neoliberalism, which was ‘so are you using neoliberalism to mean everything you don’t like?’. Fair point, and I need to be more concise on that issue. But are we doing the opposite with creativity? Are we saying, in effect, ‘creativity=a good thing’, and then doing a sort of equation:

Creativity = a good thing

Singing = a good thing

Therefore singing = creativity


Which could be problematic. Let me use another example:

Creativity = a good thing

Health & Safety = a good thing

Therefore Health & Safety = creativity

I’m less convinced by that!

What I think muddies the waters here is that, as some respondents noted, some aspects of singing are creative. I think, maybe, as a music education community it might be helpful to work out what these are, rather than bundling all singing in the ‘creativity’ bracket, perhaps?

I also hear, not as often as I used to, fortunately, of instances where kids have been reduced to tears by insensitive comments of the ‘not good enough’ lines, by over-zealous musical directors, especially when a big performance event looms. Is those kids’ creativity valued? Are their tears?

Allied to this are two elephants in the room at the same time:

Elephant 1: Genre

Elephant 2: (A relative of Elephant 1) Hegemony and Cultural Capital

In some of the twitter singing responses some commentators asked if musical style matters? In other words, are kids singing folk songs/opera/art music/etc automatically more ok than singer-songwriters, urban artists, rappers? Sometimes people say “I’ll ask the local opera company what they think”, has anyone asked the local grime artists? Are Youth Music funded projects seen in a different league to ‘high art’? Or, to be blunt, are some sorts of singing valued more than others? How do we feel if we rephrase that, some sorts of kids are valued more than others? Now I’m very uncomfortable! The 2 elephants are well and truly mixed up here. Does contemporary hegemony value choirs more than rappers? Does it value the kids in choirs more than the kids who rap?

Which brings me back to the question, is singing inherently creative? Well, I haven’t even tried to define creativity yet, so maybe I’ll just end with a definition of creativity from the NACCCE report:

Imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value.

I think I think I need to think a bit more, but I also think that we in music education, or as twitter would have it, #musiceducation, also need to do some thinking, as if we are challenged thoughtfully, and with examples on this, we could come a cropper. And for want of a nail, and all that…


About drfautley

Professor Education at Birmingham City University, UK.
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2 Responses to In which I worry about whether singing is inherently creative?

  1. Gail Dudson says:

    If I’m doing scales and arpeggios, technical exercises, I’m not being creative. If I take a photo of a broken plate from John Lewis to send to the delivery company I’m not being creative either. What I’m doing may be done creatively – I may do both singing and photography creatively. But I’m not in these examples. There’s the thing being done … and there’s the motivation, intention and attitude behind it, which might, or might not be creative. And there are also the skills, knowledge and understanding I have – which for singing is moderate, and for photography is almost zero – which will have a significant impact on the results of my creative (or not creative) actions. Genre – or cultural practice, or subject, perhaps don’t matter so much. About 20 years ago when I first ran Leadership Training, I had this question “3 brothers; one coaches field athletes, designing their training regimes to get them to be world class. One invents, designs and runs experiments that measure the hole in the ozone layer. The third one is a concert pianist. Who’s creative? ” (PS they actually are 3 brothers I know)

  2. Chris Philpott says:

    Is singing inherently creative? I would say yes but with some qualification.The acts of both creation (composing and improvising songs) and recreation (performing and reimagining songs), does involve the use of imagination and interpretation in the making of musical meaning.

    Notwithstanding the impossibility of defining creativity here (which is what is needed), I would argue that these are ‘features’ of musical creativity and ergo singing is inherently creative. Of course in order to exercise these features of creativity there are other things at play in parallel e.g. know how, genre and hegemony, but the prima facie case remains.

    Perhaps the equation should read:

    Creativity = features above
    Singing = these features
    Therefore singing = creativity (is creative?)

    Let’s leave whether this is a good thing to one side, but I would say it is.

    However, and here is the qualification, it is possible for singing to NOT contain these features (and there is a possible link here to certain cultural practices). For example, they might be scantily present when a particular interpretation of a song is ‘drilled’ into a singer / singers whether they like it or not and with minimal opportunity for exercising imagination or interpretation. Creative then for whom? The ‘director’?

    So should the answer to the question be that singing has the inherent potential to be creative? An attribute that is there but not always exploited in music education.

    In my view where there is some element of self determination, singing WILL exhibit the ‘features‘ noted above.

    We may be saying the same thing.

    As an aside I never warmed to the NACCCE definition of creativity which can be appropriated by an elitist and instrumental account that disregards context or developmental stage. The contested concepts of originality and being of value are particularly problematic in this regard.

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