The Case of the Musical Codeswitchers


Daniel S. Isbell, Ithaca College

Ann Marie Stanley, Eastman School of Music


Appeals to bridge academic music study with dynamic and diverse musical communities outside of school are common in contemporary calls for reform (e.g. Campbell et al., 2014). Many have suggested that musicians who are experienced and skilled making music in a variety of formal and informal ways—and in multiple genres—will be better prepared to prosper in the musical worlds of tomorrow (Choate, 1968; Dunbar-Hall & Wemyss, 2000; Feichas, 2010; Folkestad, 2006; Green, 2008; Author, 2015). Building on the work of the Critical Examination of the Curriculum ASPA, we wonder how the music teacher preparation curriculum might aid students in developing these wide-ranging, widely applicable musical abilities.


However, there is little documentation of precisely how and when musicians learn the skills and dispositions that facilitate transfer between musical genres and locations. To that end, we wanted to closely examine the social, musical, and attitudinal attributes of college-aged musicians who have already solidified their ability to toggle between various types of performing groups and musical styles, inside and outside of school. The purpose of this study was to examine the experiences and perceptions of musicians who have demonstrated skill and comfort switching between formal school of music ensembles and popular ensembles outside school.


Research has shown strong relationships between speech and musical skill acquisition (Gordon, 2003). Therefore, we felt more insight on the phenomenon of switching between various ways of being musical might be gleaned from linguistics. The term code-switching is to refer to the use of more than one manner of speaking: between two separate languages, between native and formal speaking, or in different social situations (Blom and Gumperz, 1972; Heller, 1998). Another helpful parallel in the field of sociocultural linguistics is the concept of diglossia, a language situation involving the use of two dialects, a vernacular one and another learned in formal education but not used by any section of the community for ordinary conversation (Ferguson, 1959). These theories provided a framework for analyzing our data and helped us uncover deeper understandings of how musicians “code-switch” between diverse musical activities.


Research questions were:

1.What are participants’ perceptions of their code-switching skills?

2.Where do participants believe they learned and refined musical code-switching?

3.How do the strategies and skills for successful code-switching differ from those learned in traditional experiences in the studio, classroom, or large ensemble?


Eleven college musicians who have been successful playing in both educational and out-of-school contexts completed a questionnaire, were interviewed, and observed performing in a variety of ensembles inside and outside of school.


Results indicate that the participants all had frequent, authentic opportunities to perform on multiple instruments from a young age, valued learning music by ear, were keenly aware of ensemble social dynamics, and had significant encouragement and support from family members and teachers. These findings provide practical insights into the source and development of flexible musicianship, the culture of music in and outside of schools, and how educators might facilitate students’ efforts to bridge gaps between diverse musical worlds.



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Green, L. (2008). Music, informal learning and the school: A new classroom pedagogy. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Heller, M. (1988). Codeswitching: Anthropological and sociolinguistic perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.