“We Got to Make Our Own Music”: A Phenomenological Inquiry of Children’s Vernacular Music Learning


Julie Derges Kastner, University of Houston



As the field of music education continues including progressive approaches like informal and vernacular music learning, music educators should take care to include the voices of the learners, including those of elementary children.  While many studies have described adolescents’ processes in informal and vernacular music learning (Abramo, 2011; Allsup, 2003; Davis, 2005; Green, 2008; Jaffurs, 2006), those examining children’s informal experiences have taken place outside of school music classes, like on the playground (Harwood, 1998; Marsh, 2006) or in school hallways and busses (Campbell, 1998).  The purpose of this study was to examine children’s lived experience with vernacular and informal music learning processes in a music classroom.


Vernacular and informal music learning includes processes rooted in social constructivism (Abramo, 2014; Cain, 2013) and is characterized by aural copying; experimentation with musical sounds; integration of learning, performing, and creating; peer learning; and autonomy in the musical process (Folkestad, 2006; Green, 2008; Jaffurs, 2004).  The specific questions guiding this investigation were: (a) What is the meaning of vernacular music learning for children in the music classroom? (b) How, if at all, did these experiences contribute to students’ understanding of themselves as musicians?


This study was a hermeneutic phenomenological inquiry (van Manen, 1990) into the essence of children’s experiences in an in-school vernacular music project.  The study took place at a rural, lower middle-class elementary school in the Midwest with four sections of fifth grade students.  Students were assigned to turn a popular song into an a cappella arrangement using self-directed processes.  Participants included one group from each section of fifth grade for a total of 13 students.  Data collection included two semi-structured individual interviews, one focus group interview with each student group, fieldnotes from classroom observations, and student drawings.  Data analysis included coding the data using emic and etic codes to look for emerging themes (Creswell, 2007).  To ensure trustworthiness, I used the following measures: data triangulation and peer review (Patton, 2002).


This presentation will describe the essence of the participants’ vernacular musicking: their enjoyment in the social interactions and independence afforded them in the project.  This essence was revealed further through the following themes: (a) process over product, (b) making it their own and (c) expanding musical identities.  Students primarily valued the process of working in friendship groups and making independent musical decisions.  However, most were unable to critically reflect on their musical products.  Each of the groups worked on making the music their own in three ways: adding “background noises” from instrumental and percussion parts, developing choreography, and using lyrics as a form of social capital.  Finally, students’ musical identities began to expand through peer critique and/or validation of their musical skills as they assigned group roles and expressed their musical preferences.  The voices of these students reveal the important role of social interactions and autonomy in children’s learning processes.  This session will further describe implications for the practice of teaching using informal music learning with elementary students and provide suggestions for future research.



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