When I first read Isbell and Stanley’s article on code switching in music, I had a real ‘lightbulb’ moment. For years I had had played classical music dutifully; learning what my teachers suggested, working mechanically through exercises and studies and devoting my performances to canonical works. But my listening was another matter; classic rock, synthsy pop, disco, folk- I was pretty voracious in my listening but it certainly did not include classical. There was a divide between what I was playing and what I was listening to, and it never occurred to me that those two worlds could merge. Then I started to get involved in my local music scene, late night drunken jams in smoky attics, then eventually some gigs with whoever would have me, then recordings as a session musician. I would be practising with an Irish band in the morning, then onto university for a lesson in Bach, onto an evening with an indie band; it was diverse and exciting, and each type of ‘musiking’ informed and strengthened the others. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this is what Isbell and Stanley call Code Switching.

Code switching is normally used to describe more than one way of speaking in a conversation. For example, when my parents are chatting, they’ll speak in both Sinhalese and English. They’ll use phrases from each that fit most naturally, peppering words throughout and switching between without even thinking. If you can code switch in music, then you can play in all sorts of different situations across multiple genres. But there’s another level to code switching; it’s often used to describe two different versions of a language to be used in different situations, usually with a formal and an informal variety. This is the same as in music, we use different types in different situations, and traditionally classical music is seen as best for ‘formal’ situations.

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Because of this, classical music has often been privileged in education, and particularly in how we teach orchestral instruments. These lessons rarely cover popular genres or ‘world music’; we teach how we were taught, according to the canon and the masters. But although pupils say they are passionate about music, studies show they are most likely to drop an instrument during middle school.  Giving them the chance to play music that they identify and engage with, music they already listen to by choice, is a powerful motivator. We can follow a more holistic way of teaching by synthesising musicianship skills; encouraging students to learn by ear, to improvise, to play with others and learn from others.

Learning these skills early can ultimately benefit their future performance careers. With the rise of portfolio careers comes an ever-changing job market, and musicians must now be able to perform in a much broader range of contexts than 50 years ago. By playing in a variety of locations in different styles, with different people and to diverse audiences, performers can develop their confidence, motivation and ability to reflect on their own playing. As teachers we can facilitate this by putting value on students’ musical experiences outside of the studio, and actively encouraging students to develop their own musical interests.

To read about code switching in music in more academic detail, check out Isbell and Stanley’s 2016 article in The Journal of Music Education Research ‘Code Switching Musicians; an Exploratory Study’. 

All of this fits in with Lucy Green’s teaching philosophies which can be found in her great 2008 book ‘Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy’ as well as with Matin’s 2012 investigation on self-efficacy in the Bulletin of the Council of Research in Music Education.

1 thought on “Code-Switching”

  1. Hello and thanks for posting this reference to this work. I am very pleased to learn that you find it useful and interesting. If you like, check out some additional research on this and the related topic of comprehensive/flexible musicianship.

    Isbell, D. S. (2020). Early Socialization and Opinions of Musicianship Among Preservice Music Teachers. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 29(3), 62-76

    Isbell, D. (2018). Music educators consider musical futures. Contributions in Music Education. 43(1). 39-58

    Isbell, D. (2015) Apprehensive and excited: Music education students’ encounter vernacular musicianship. Journal of Music Teacher Education. doi:10.1177/1057083714568020.

    Thanks! – Dan Isbell


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