The Changing Voice of Democracy


Shawn C. McNamara, Indiana University


As we navigate through the obstacles of the world our voice becomes an important element of communication and transmission of our ideas. Our voice as a physical and symbolic representation of our intentions, ideas, and emotional expression is possibly the primary way that we interact in a democratic society. Democracy can function as an important political and transformational structure that allows our voice to be heard both through language and music. The purpose of this philosophical inquiry is to investigate how democracy in education has been previously conceived and perceived as well as to imagine a way forward that considers democracy as representative of all participants in the music classroom. In agreement with the Cultural Diversity and Social Justice Area of Strategic Planning and Action this paper calls attention to the philosophical aspects of democratic teaching practices.


This philosophical inquiry is rooted in the works of existing education philosophy that focused on the nature of democracy in our classrooms (Dewey, 1916; Dewey, 1927; Bernstein, 2008). Dewey’s (1916) presentation of democracy can be found in two principles; recognition of shared interests by social groups and the engagement in regular dialogue. Woodford (2005) discusses embryonic democracy in education as being a function conceived by Dewey in which the aim of the school “was to produce mature thinkers capable of participating as fullfledged members of democratic society” (p. 5). In this paper, I will also contrast the work of Allsup and Benedict (2008) with Tan (2014). Allsup and Benedict believe the American wind band is representative of “means-end programs” thinking (p. 156). Tan (2014) challenges the idea that the large ensemble is “inherently autocratic” (p. 62) while also proposing ideals for the large ensemble. While to some authors democracy represented a transformative process that enabled more holistic education, Gould (2008) sees democracy as a barrier for minorities and equates democracy with a system of government ruled by the majority. Gould’s (2008) critique of democracy suggests that we need to revisit the conceptualization and implementation of democracy in our classrooms. To contrast the writing of Gould, Gutmann (1993) describes the interaction of individual freedom and civil responsibility and democracy’s role of moderating this dialogue through the principles of nonrepression, nondiscrimintation, and democratic deliberation.


In this philosophical inquiry the ideas of democracy in music education are synthesized and further explored by considering: 1) the changing nature of democracy based on the participants present and 2) how music education under this philosophy functions as a place where the student is guided as well as emancipated through the voicing of their ideas as realized by language and sound. The problem that faces a democratic music classroom is how we conceive of student engagement and decision-making. Is our music classroom a place for dialogue and growth for all students or for only those with the most unified or loudest voice? Through the intersection of the previously discussed ideas of democracy, we may begin to see the musical classroom as a flexible form where it can function as a platform for dialogue, disagreement, resolution, and the voicing of multiple musical perspectives.




Allsup, R.A. & Benedict, C. (2008). The problems of band: An inquiry into the future of instrumental music education. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 16(2), 156-173.

Bernstein, R. J. (2008). Democracy and education. Philosophy of Education, 21-31.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillian.

Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Gould. L. (2008). Devouring the other: Democracy in music education. Action for Change in Music Education, 7(1). 29-44.

Gutmann, A. (1993). Democracy & democratic education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 12. 1-9.

Tan. L. (2014). Towards a transcultural theory of democracy for instrumental music education. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 22(1). 61-77.

Woodford, P. (2005). Democracy and music education: Liberalism, ethics, and the politics of practice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.