A Brief Taste of the Research of Peter R. Webster
Portions reprinted from the chapter “Creative Thinking in Music: Advancing a Model” by Peter R. Webster at www.peterwebster.com/pubs/WillinghamBook.pdf and other sources. For more current research and resources, it is recommended you visit the homepage of Peter Webster, and especially peruse his slides at http://www.peterrwebster.com/Present/keynoteDesertSkies2017.pdf.
“When the history of music education is written many years from now, there will be mention made of the time period represented by the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the new millennium as a critical point in the profession’s history. It will be noted that practical, theoretical, and research-based writings focused attention on both product and process in the teaching and learning of music. Rather than just product (largely music performance), the processes involved in the creation of music are becoming import as well. In addition to the nurturing of fine solo and ensemble performances, a more comprehensive approach to music education is emerging which embraces the study of composition, improvisation, music listening, cultural context, and relationships to other arts. In the United States, this trend began in the sixties with the Comprehensive Musicianship Project and the Manhattanville curriculum project and continued by the Yale, Tanglewood, and Ann Arbor symposia in following years. In more recent times, the National Voluntary Standards in the Arts have come to mark a more comprehensive approach. In other countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, attention to music composition as a curricula focus has been long established. It is clearly the case that no longer can a music teacher expect to be successful by only teaching children how to perform the music of others in a dictatorial fashion, paying little attention to the development of aesthetic decision-making and musical independence of students.”
— “Creativity Thinking and Music Education: Encouraging Students to Make Aesthetic Decisions” by Peter R. Webster
According to the above study by Peter Webster, Scholar-in-Residence at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California in Los Angeles, “good music teaching” involves the practice and observation of three types of musical behaviors:
- Listening (most common)
- Composition (perhaps the least common)
- Performance: reproduction of music written by others (common) and the creation of music “in the moment” (improvisation)
Several basic tenants are proposed and reviewed in his work:
- “Music teachers design environments that help learners construct their personal understanding of music.”
- “Teachers must teach for independent thought” and “…our students can make aesthetic decisions about music… and to develop a sense of musical independence.”
- “Student decision-making is predicted on the ability to hear musical possibilities without the presence of the sound… think in sound.”
Peter Webster’s definition of “creativity in music” is succinct: “the engagement of the mind in the active, structured process of thinking in sound for the purpose of producing some product that is new for the creator.” Furthermore, this is a thought process and “we are challenged, as educators, to better understand how the mind works in such matters — hence the term creative thinking.” (Webster, 1987)
Creative thinking in literature reveals five common elements:
- A problem solving context
- Convergent and divergent thinking skills
- Stages in the thinking process
- Some aspect of novelty
- Usefulness of the resulting product
Webster states, “Studies in many disciplines have revealed that creative thinking generally progresses through stages: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification.”
In 1992, Webster reviewed literature on creative thinking in music education and cited nearly 200 writings. He organized the studies into three major categories:
- Theoretical (works based on philosophical or psychological arguments)
- Practical (writings designed to inform praxis but not based on empirical evidence)
- Empirical (studies of product and process across composition, performance/improvisation and listening, and studies that examined cause and effect and relationship
More recently, he has augmented his research with a bibliography of more than twice that size, including the following references with new trends:
- A heighten interest in the young child and invented music notation and their discussion of it as a window to understanding the child’s knowledge (Barrett, Gromko, MacGregor)
- New approaches to assessment, including 1. consensual techniques (Hickey), 2. peer assessment (Freed-Garrod), and 3. novice evaluation (Mellor)
- Attention to the role of collaboration (Kashub, Wiggins, MacDonald/Miell
- New speculation and experimentation on the role of music technology (Hickey, Stauffer, Ellis)
- Emergent thinking on the pedagogy of composition teaching (Odam)
- New work on cause/effect and relationship (Auh, Hagen, Fung)
- Compositional strategies (Auh, Folkestad)
- Thought processes while composing (Younker/Smith, Kennedy)
- New studies on how various musical behaviors (composition/improvisation/listening) relate to one another (Swanwick/Franca, Savage/Challis, Burnard)
- Developmental patterns of creative thinking (Marsh, Barrett, Younker, Swanwick)
- Creative performance (Dalgarno)
- New work on improvisation: 1. empirical (McMillan) and 2. conceptual (Elliott, Kratus, Booth)
A few of Webster’s thoughts for future considerations
- We need more work on social context, particularly the role of popular music to frame compositional and improvisational work. Clearly certain popular idioms that are easy to grasp play a dominant role as entry points for compositional and improvisational thinking, but what is less clear is the path toward more sophisticated skills.
- We need to study the revision process and how it functions in the teaching context. We need to earn how to go beyond the primitive gesturals to encourage kids to think in sound at a more sophisticated level.
- Related to this are the issues of teacher control: when do we step in to change something or suggest a new path.
- Experimentation with open-ended vs. more closed-ended tasks for creative teaching and research deserves more study.
- Experimental validity is an issue. How can we make the actual collection of data more realistic and deal more directly with the time constraints and contexts of “school” vs. out of school.
- When do children start composing music with “meaning.” After age 9, or long before? What does it mean to compose with “meaning?”
- When we ask children to compose or improvise or listen or perform “in school,” is the result different than if these behaviors were done out of school?
- When children compose, are they working from a holistic perspective or are then working locally without a plan?
- Is it fair or correct to evaluate the quality of children’s creative work with the eyes of adults?
- Are there stages of creative development in children?
- Is it really possible to study and define creative listening?
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Webster, P. (1990). Creativity as creative thinking. Music Educators Journal, 76 (9), 22-28.
Webster, P. (1987). Conceptual bases for creative thinking in music. In Peery, J., Peery, I. & Draper, T. (Eds). Music and child development, (pp. 158-174). New York: Springer-Verlag.
Webster, P. (1992). Research on creative thinking in music: The assessment literature. in R. Colwell (ed.), Handbook of research on music teaching and learning, 266-279. New York, Schirmer Books.
Williams, D., & Webster, P. (1999). Experiencing music technology. (2nd ed.). New York: Schirmer Books.
© 2018 Paul K. Fox