An Ecology of Music Making: Young people, leisure, industry and education

Last weekend I had the pleasure of giving a paper at the ‘Creativities, Musicalities and Entrepreneurship‘ conference which was a wonderful event organised by the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance.  This post is essentially an abridged version of that presentation.

In addition to my university work, I also teach music in schools and on a number of youth music projects and, therefore, spend a lot of time working with young musicians. One particular youth music project that I am involved with affords young musicians (aged up to 25 years old) an opportunity to work with music industry mentors (professional musicians, composers and audio engineers), over a six month period in order to write, record, produce, publicise and sell their own music.  Through working on this project and in schools/colleges/universities I have become very aware of a number of interesting issues surrounding the music making of young musicians, particularly in informal learning environments, and I will use this post to discuss them briefly.

It seems to me that music making (particularly that of young people), when considered as a leisure activity, is a cultural/social phenomenon that seems to enjoy an interesting and complex relationship with education and industry.  As such, I will discuss these ideas in three sections, namely: (1) The development of skills/competencies and creativities, (2) ‘Pressures’ to monetise musical activities, and (3) Progression.

(1) The development of skills/competencies and creativities

This is clearly a huge area and one that could merit its own post but I think the most relevant and sensible thing to consider is the way in which young musicians develop their instrumental skills, their musicianship and their approaches to composition/improvisation.

Lucy Green writes of ‘musical enculturation’ and notes that it is a concept that refers to the ‘…acquisition of musical skills and knowledge by immersion in the everyday music and musical practices of one’s social context’ (2001, p22).  She gives the example that many children ‘bang’ objects rhythmically and that people experiment with playing some notes on instruments etc., but states that for those who progress beyond this basic phase of musical enculturation, there is often a ‘fork in the road’ – one path leading to formal ‘western’ music education – and the other path to continued and more sophisticated informal explorations of sound.

This is clearly the case with the young musicians that I work with and the image of the fork in the road is a lovely way to describe this interesting dichotomy. Of course, it must be noted that these paths are not mutually exclusive and more and more frequently, people find that their music education may incorporate aspects of both the formal, structured traditional music education (i.e. the grade system and playing in school orchestras etc.) and the exploratory, experimental venture into informal music learning. In fact, it might be said the most successful of these young musicians are those who take elements of both approaches. However, there is an important issue related to the degree of access that students have to music education.

When discussing access to music education with the young musicians participating in the aforementioned youth music project, a few interesting issues were highlighted.  One participant (a 17-year-old guitar player and singer) noted that his main source of music education was through school but he/she noted that this provides a specific style of education and that it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to their interests.  He/she went on to say that:

‘…I learn most from just putting on the songs that I like and trying to play along – I sometimes get the tab too and work it out from there but…I don’t know… that feels like I’m actually learning music…’

This type of response is typical among many of the young musicians that I work with and they serve to provide some nice examples of pupils who, to use the analogy of the fork in the road, seem to follow both ‘paths’. That is to say that they do receive formal/traditional music lessons in school but feel that the more relevant (perhaps more valuable) lessons and educational experiences come in the form of their more experimental, self-directed, exploratory, extra-curricular pursuits.  What is also particularly interesting is the importance that is placed on listening to music and playing along with it.  This is probably not a surprise to anyone who has experience of teaching pop music or working with young musicians in informal learning contexts.  That said, it is important to highlight because I believe that this is one of the first and most fundamental steps in the development of the vital aural skills, music theory, improvisation and composition skills required to be a successful pop musician – not to mention the development of musical identity (but this is definitely an issue for another day).

Another participant (a 16 year old guitarist), when asked about the process of song-writing and composition gave a particularly interesting answer:

‘I suppose that when I want to write something for the band I just put on loads of songs and play along for ages – something usually comes out. So, if I want to write a heavy song I’ll put on tonnes of heavy songs and…kind of… copy what they’re doing (if I can work it out). Then I change it a bit or just try to make something up that kinda sounds close.’

This is a really interesting but by no means unique strategy among the young musicians on this project and many others that I have worked with.  Again, this is not hugely surprising and, I would have probably given a similar answer at 16 years old. What is interesting is the importance placed on being able to ‘sound a bit like’ something (a song or a band etc.) and how, in this sense, imitation and replication is the basis for composition (and improvisation, incidentally).  Such an approach is consructivist in nature as the musician is building on what they already know and developing their knowledge, understanding and skill from there. In this sense, the early stages of creative musical activity seem to be consciously based on the works of others in many ways. For most of the young people I work with, this is usually restricted to bands, acts, composers that they enjoy, respect and in some ways identify with (this is often also evidenced in their physical appearance). As such, their aural understanding is often limited to the styles of music that fit with their aesthetic and creative values and they might really struggle with playing and appreciating other types of music. In this sense, could we say that we are seeing a very specific type of musical enculturation taking place – ‘idiomatic enculturation’, perhaps?

(2) ‘Pressures’ to monetise musical activities

Many young people are involved in extracurricular music-making activities that may be considered as ‘leisure’ or ‘recreation’, such as playing in bands, making demo recordings, or live performance, for example. Such activities are often done in their spare time, i.e. when they are not in school or working, for example.  As such, it would be fair to say that a great deal of the musicing that goes on amongst young people could probably be described as a hobby – i.e. something that is done regularly in one’s spare time for fun and pleasure.  So, imagine you’re a 16 year old and you have a keen hobby – lets say it is mountain biking. Well, in order to do this you need a bike, the requisite safety equipment, some food/drink for sustenance, and a place to ride. What about if your hobby is watching sport? This will require enough money to buy your ticket (maybe some snacks etc here too), TV subscriptions, match programmes and perhaps even replica kits…

I am not going to keep boring people with obvious examples but the point that I am trying to make is that hobbies are often expensive, require purchases of tickets or equipment and may be dependant on the ability to travel. This is no less the case for those young people who choose to form and play in bands (rehearsing, buying/maintaining instruments, travelling and gigging are all expensive aspects of musical activity) but there is often one key difference which forms a nice link between leisure, industry and education. What I notice amongst the young musicians that I have been working with over the years is that there is an interesting relationship with this hobby and the notion of income generation that is NOT present when considering most other hobbies.  This is to say that it is recognised that there is a potential for bands to make some money from their hobby, even if a very small amount, but it seems like this is valued in two distinct ways:

  1. As a way to subsidise the aforementioned activities (rehearsal room fees, studio time, instruments, transport etc.)
  2. To give the impression of success and professional behaviour for the benefit of their peers/rivals, potential ‘customers’, bookers and representatives from other areas of the music industry. That is, if bands have CDs, Merchandise (t-shirts, badges etc), a website, Bandcamp page, and even better, music on iTunes and Amazon etc. this will give them a sense of credibility and worth among their peers and to those who are interested in their music.

So, it may be said that this type of music making is interesting because of the funny link that it has with leisure and commerce. It is both a leisure activity that encourages the spending of money and a way to (a) make money by way of building a reputation, and (b) pay for the creation of saleable products which may or may not end up making a financial return but that will help to develop a professional reputation.

(3) Progression:

In the context of this post, ‘progression’ is intended to relate to the way in which young musicians who are involved in music making as a leisure activity develop and progress, perhaps into further education or careers as musicians.

To me, it seems like two of the biggest issues facing young musicians, and particularly those interested in pop music, are (a) their perception of the music industry, and (b) their ability to gain entry into music education.  A common issue noted by the participants in the project mentioned above was the change in their conceptions and understanding of the nature of the music industry. Another participant (a 17 year old singer) noted:

‘…the industry is, kind of, changing – you know? …so people can do things for themselves without relying on big companies or spending a fortune of their own money on demos and stuff…’

It is clear that many of the young musicians that I work with (from high school to university) have a varying ideas with regard to what is meant by the term ‘music industry’.  However, many have have begun to understand that this varied and diverse employment sector in which they, as young aspiring professional musicians, can feasibly forge a career.  A growing number of young musicians also believe that the best way to ensure greater longevity and earning potential in this industry would be to study music in higher/further education. This is really interesting to me because it is an indicator of a mindset (which is not uncommon amongst the musicians that I work with) that studying music seems like a valuable pursuit; and, interestingly, that this seems to be linked to ideas of potential career/industry success.

It seems that there is an increase in the ‘professionalisation’ of music making as a leisure activity and that this seems to be related to perceptions of how the ‘music industry’ functions. The mechanisms (both digital and physical) for writing, creating and distributing music are now so cheap, easy to use and prevalent in the lives of young musicians – this allows the creation of relatively high-quality products and simple effective dissemination.

So, how should we view this? What activity are we describing as the hobby/leisure activity?  Is it the act of making music? Is it making saleable products?  Is it running a small musical business? Have those aspects of music-making that are often viewed as ‘the music business’ (e.g. making, selling, promoting and advertising music) become inextricably linked to playing in bands as a hobby, at least for those who want to play pop music and perform in public? At what point does this stop being a hobby and become the early stages of a business or profession, for example? These are questions for another day but I think that they signal an interesting development in the practical musical activity of many young people. Particularly those who have engaged in informal music learning and are interested in pop music.  This is perhaps because pop music and ‘industry’ are perceived to be natural bedfellows or perhaps because, for these musicians, this offers something of a developmental path or focus in what might be considered as an otherwise haphazard or idiosyncratic learning process.


Green, L. (2001). How Popular Musicians Learn: a way ahead for music education, Ashgate

Share Button

Dr Zack Moir is an Associate Professor of Music at Edinburgh Napier University. He has a strong research interest in popular music pedagogy, music in higher education, musical improvisation and popular music composition. Zack is also an active musician and composer performing in ensembles and as a soloist, internationally. Zack is one of the editors of the 'Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music Education', and the 'Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education: Perspectives and Practices'.

9 thoughts on “An Ecology of Music Making: Young people, leisure, industry and education”

  1. I think there has been a long ‘tradition’ of learning music informally by picking it up from friends and family. Blues music in the American South, which became an important root of what came later in R&B, rock, and jazz, is one example. There are still many musicians, I believe, who get started that way. In my generation, as a teenager, I had friends who got together to play and formed bands. That social process still happens, I am sure. One significant development in recent years has been the increased access to technology. It is possible now to create your own recordings and demos at a fraction the cost of what used to be the case. I know accomplished musicians (albeit still retaining day jobs) who play gigs for money and get together to create their own music and create their own recordings. Sites like CD Baby have made music available from groups that may choose to avoid traditional paths and receive a greater proportion of the proceeds. That technology also allows musicians in learning mode (which usually means most of their lives really) to record themselves with a view to improving their playing. In my own case, taking up drumming at age 63, I have used a variety of tools including an instructor, online video training, MOOCs, playing along with recorded music, and also recording myself. I would assume that the younger generation is doing something similar.

    1. Thanks Murdo.

      I like your comment about CD Baby and other such organisations offering options to those who actively choose to avoid traditional paths. Certainly it is interesting to consider the balancing act that is (a) choosing to self-distribute and retaining a greater share of any income on one hand, and (b) attempting to be ‘picked up’ by a company that can do the difficult ‘industry work’ for you, albeit at a price – often a very high one. However, for many people, the former is often the only choice, at least in the early stages of their careers, and I think it is important that we take steps to deal with these issues in the education of young musicians.

      1. I think you are right that many starting out will want to take a more conventional path. If they have initial success at that they may find later on that that they still look to alternative outlets. I know one musician (personally rather than by repute) who had considerable success in the 1980s with a group. They were very popular with a subset of the market but not really mainstream pop. They broke up and reformed in recent years and started touring. A significant fan base remained. To fund an album last year they created a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than enough money for the purpose. I think that many musical careers will end up taking a similar hybrid approach.

  2. I agree with Murdo that the lowered cost of getting started is playing a big role in students being interested more in music. It’s amazing what can be done now with about $700 in equipment – computer, mic, audio interface, cheap keyboard.

    I also wonder whether the view of music as a source of revenue/career is partly promoted by the media that kids see. There’s “X Factor”, “American Idol”, “The Voice”, “The Sing-Off” – try to turn your musical ability into a mega-star career. Plus TV shows that younger kids see never show the lead as playing cello in a local community orchestra – he or she is always leading a double life as a mega-star. Even in my younger days there was “The Partridge Family” – they played music together, but were a “recording act” and sold records, etc. “Ozzie and Harriet” had the Nelson boys, “Happy Days” had the group playing at the diner, etc.

    Compare that to Zack’s comment on recreational sports. It’s pitched as a “healthy lifestyle” to play soccer/football, ride a bike, walk, run. Not “become the nation’s next big athletic star” where we text in our votes to save someone each week. And, again, if there’s a show aimed at younger viewers, and the star is involved in a sport, it’s never a secret life as an international rugby sensation who’s also trying to pass his 10th grade history exam. He plays on the high school team.

    Certainly in North America, the “rags to riches” or “out of nowhere” element of musical success has also been romanticized tremendously. Sometimes through the afore-mentioned musical competition shows, and sometimes because it makes great copy (e.g Nirvana, Macklemore). And that tends to generate a “if he can do it, I can do it” approach in some kids.

    Zack’s points about music education in schools not being relevant to the musical interests of many students are dead on. Again, in the US, school districts keep cutting the budget for Arts programs as a whole, and music bears a huge brunt, because a band is pretty costly to run. And the band program gets focused on marching music and field shows for the football season and band competitions. Sadly, not a lot of theory appears to be taught, and there’s precious little exposure to technology and less and less opportunity for string players or guitar players or “non-concert band” kids to get any instructions through the schools. So many kids who don’t want to march don’t take music at school, which leads to declining enrollment in the program, which leads to cuts, and it’s a downward spiral that’s really sad to see.

    1. Hi Warwick,

      Thanks for your comment. I do think that TV shows such as X-Factor and American Idol, for example have an influence – in fact, a number of young people that I work with have said so explicitly! However, I don’t believe that it is the influence that you suggest – it would seem to be the opposite. The reason being that, for most of the young musicians I speak with, they see the X-Factor (rightly or wrongly) as some sort of horrendously manufactured talent show and not something that they identify with. I think they also realise that hundreds of thousands of people audition and only 2 or 3 per series achieve any sort of success. Certainly, more of them achieve fame but I don’t think that this is the ultimate goal of many young people who are involved in music making. My experience is that many of those who are serious about it are actually more interested in developing strategies that might help them develop ‘portfolio careers’, if anything, perhaps as a reaction agains what they see as instant (yet ephemeral) fame. Also, those who see themselves as ‘musicians’ as opposed to ‘singers’ (their terms) do not identify with this type of show and believe that even if they wanted to pursue this avenue that they wouldn’t fit or qualify to compete anyway!

  3. “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”-Pablo Picasso

    I think that the fork in the road you speak of is ends up being more of a choice of genre. I could be wrong, but it seems that most musicians who take the formal education path are headed for the classical world. Those that choose a self directed path end up in the popular music world. There is a long history of musicians learning by ear in the American south, from the originators of the Delta Blues to the sounds of Appalachia (interestingly enough, an outgrowth of Scots/Irish music that was brought from their ancestral countries). My first thought when reading the quote from the 16 year old about copying her favorites was “The Beatles started the same way.” Music is a language… learn how to speak by mimicking, and eventually learn to find your own voice.

    Your thoughts on the financial aspect of hobbies is one that I think is exclusive to the arts. Mountain biking offers little opportunity (although some are there) to earn any money, but it is almost expected that if you are into an art form that you will eventually seek pay for your product. Painting, writing, sculpting……all of them end up with a product that you then need to find a place for. Easily enough, you are able to recoup some of the costs involved in producing said art. Music is slightly different (especially factoring in the idea that music is “free”), but it eventually occurs to you that you can charge for it. This leads to the progression from avocation to vocation. We’ve all bounced around the room when no one is there, playing along to a CD and pretending we’re rock stars. All of us. The thought eventually occurs that “we can get paid to do something that we do for free anyway!!!!!” (I’m 45, and the first dollar that gets dropped in my guitar case gets framed. I don’t think you ever grow out of it!!)

  4. Where I live there is a plethora of ‘open mike nights’ – and kareoke too. The performances range from the dire to the astonishingly good, with the latter confirming my view that a great many untaught ordinary people have musical ability and enjoy expressing it. And some of the most enjoyable performances at open mike events come from people who have little or no ‘education’ of any sort, but who can sing and play – even if mainly three chord tricks and a few old Beatles songs – and make people join in and dance. It reminds me of the old timers of my youth who sat round singing WW II songs from their youth: we are the old timers having a sing song now and our old time favourites are Mr Tambourine Man and I Saw Her Standing There and House of the Rising Sun! At other times, people who used to be professionals but aren’t any more come along, just for the fun of it you have to suppose.

    My link to this article is in the way that money comes into the open mike nights. Nobody gets paid for performing, but I suppose that in most cases the publican is motivated by a desire to sell more beer. The performers bring their friends and family along and it fills up the empty bar stools. Local educational establishments teach ‘Performing Arts’ as well as music, and sometimes the students come down to open mike nights for the experience. So this is a kind of half way house between the front room/classroom and the commercial world.

    1. Hi Karen,

      I suppose that this isn’t too dissimilar to the jam sessions that were some of the most important parts of my musical education (and continue to be). There is something about the jazz world that makes this even more ‘educational’ – people will not hesitate to tell you where you went wrong or why you didn’t sound as good as Coltrane or Rollins or Brecker etc… I remember one occasion when I was about 18 and was playing with a very experienced player. I made a mess of a tune and he took me off stage, bought me a pint and spent half an hour explaining how to do it better next time! There is a real sense of apprenticeship among some of the older guys and it has always had an influence on the way that I teach music!

  5. I saw in the papers that music exams in England are to focus on what the journalist called ‘Dead White Germans’.

    This suggests that the fork in the road won’t go away any time soon.

    I had one or two more thoughts about this article which I initially posted elsewhere but copy more or less word for word here.

    1 I wondered whether the thought that the link between hobby/costs/income was somewhat unique to music results from a slightly male ‘enculturation’. Because the list of hobbies I came up with did include some where there were costs and people sometimes sell the results of their hobbies. Crafts, art, textiles – even cookery. Odd this since a sense of social critique has underpinned much modern music and is part of the identity of some musicians, including Thom Yorke. Egads I knew about his ‘politics’ even though I had not heard any of his music! Taking this thought further, maybe there are areas of popular music where a girl might find it more difficult to make headway. It seems to me that certain ‘genres’ of popular music have or reflect something approaching a ‘macho’ lifestyle (lifestyle being mentioned in the article), and that there might be issues of equal access here, ranging from prejudice to outright harassment which professional educators could support girls in addressing.

    2 I have sometimes had the thought that a lot of ‘school subjects’ have been dumbed down and almost replaced with a syllabus aimed at making a product and selling it (often by knocking on the staff room door and plaguing the teachers).
    So they don’t learn nutrition in ‘cookery’ (when they learn cookery at all) and we get a nation of people who cannot eat sensibly. What lessons might we draw from all this for music?

    3 If they are to be ‘entrepreneurial’ then young musicians may need to be able to draw up profit and loss accounts and business plans. Must this be part of ‘music education’ if it is subjected to the ‘vocationalisation’ that has ploughed a furrow through much of the rest of the English if not the Scottish school curriculum? And a certain amount of financial nous can’t be bad even if there is a ‘manager’ figure involved .

    4 How much start up capital comes from the bank of mum and dad one is tempted to ask.?

    5 And in terms of financial success in the music business, how far is the saying “Its’ not what you know but who you know that counts” true in music? How many current stars had parents in the business/went to public school etc?? Just asking!

    5 On the fork in music, I did theory lessons as a kid but learned the minor pentatonic in just the way you describe and specifically by listening and trying to play along with tracks such as this:

    I did not know for years and years that this was ‘proper music’ and had a name of its own and I’m still not sure why it works so well, and it would be nice to have known this.

    The only time I got paid for making music was as part of a Morris Dance Side’s Band. We got a few quid from pubs in summer and it barely covered the petrol to get there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *