Community Music

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

England has been a pivotal figure in the progress of community music.

Broadly speaking, Community Music developed from the 1960s and had a burgeoning period in the 1980s. Today we have an established set of practices, a repertoire, an infrastructure of organizations, qualifications, career paths and various cultural and pedagogic innovations as a result. Still, the practice of community music is only partly articulated and historicized in research. Although new publications, such as the Oxford guide to community music in 2018, show that the appetite is still strong.

This is a practice that is characterized by decentralization, accessibility, equal opportunity and active participation in music making. As it is a cultural, social and pedagogic practice, established in an oppositional framework (the countercultural project of community arts), it is not surprising that it resists definition and theorizing.

Community arts are also known as “dialogical art” and encompass any community based musical project that creates a dialogue with between performance/audience-performer/composer.

Community music grew up and was born in an atmosphere of a new age of defiance in the 60s. Everitt called it a “socialist critique of capitalism”, in giving people a voice. So in its early days, it was seen mainly as anti-institutional, using the arts to effect social change. Also, in the 60s/70s, developments in European improvised music scene, such as John Zorn’s game pieces, and the Fluxus art scene had a significant effect. It’s musical influences as varied as Cageon aleatory and silence but more explicitly - improvising, free jazz, and world music.

The influence of world music on community music presents a number of comparable approaches to style, consistent with developments in the classical tradition. I will center on this relationship in this essay, chiefly refer to Peter Wiegold’s chapter, Only Connect in Beyond Britten; The Composer and The Community.

The first issue I will address that connects this intersection of community music, art music, and world music is the notion of ownership, and fluidity of content. The idea of ownership is conceived of differently in many cultures. As in Balinese gamelan ensembles, where the metallophones are believed to be owned by the community, and likewise, compositions are mostly improvised, and the notion of a composer is almost non-existent. The fluidity of content is at the crux of community music. But it is not just about improvising – we can unpack this a little bit.

Material, instrument, and performer offer different locations for identity and ownership but are very different kinds of a creative source for music. We can see some connection to this in art music, through the continued exploration of extended techniques – sounds specific to instruments or even particular pieces as in Berio’s Sequenza and Dai Fujikura’s miniatures. In the book, Wiegold talks of workshops he has run, where the chief exploration is how the identity and ownership of music can reside in an instrument. He uses the Japanese Shamisen’s wolf note as an example - always there no matter the piece. Community music unpacks these original sources and makes these harder ideas of music accessible to non-musicians and musicians alike. Although it is somewhat dislocated from the theory, in the context of a community music workshop, this kind of issues of the avant-garde are addressed.

In a lot of Asian cultures, once a form is learnt (directly from their masters), they can then take it on board and teach it to their students. “The repertoire is constantly renewing and evolving, yet remains connected to a source that has been passed live from person to person over many centuries.” This idea resonates with Wiegold, who, if you read his chapter, is very interested in this idea of transmission - between student - teacher-composer-performer. Wiegold must see a parallel between how the music turns on the “dynamic” relationship between a teacher/student in the Indian classical tradition – mirrored in his workshops through the organic connection he creates between composer and performer. A parallel can be drawn to experimental music here, which can similarly alter the dynamic between maker and audience as in Cage’s, 4.33, where the listener becomes a composer, breaking that limit of perception.

Another issue where Wiegold connects world music and art Music is in the devotional element of the music of India and of other cultures. Here Wiegold locates a true connection to time and place as much as in pure art music. Wiegold gives the example of Britten’s insistence that St. Matthew’s Passion was best performed in church on Good Friday, “where its purpose is aligned with that sacred moment of the year.” Wiegold claims that our classical tradition has a fault-line driven between the sacred and the secular. “It seems we create secular sacred music and sacred, secular music. In some music, you have to let your hair down, and in others, you keep it up. Why does the precious have to fight with the dirty?

I hope to have exposed some of the significance, or at least the interest that exists in this kind of music making, as an all-inclusive form, which supports ideas of cross-pollination and stylistic fluency that live in our current music scene. For me, it’s to do with people being able to see that music making is integrated into everyday life, is part of normal experience, and not something separate or exclusive.

To finish, I would like to draw on Nigel Osborne’s chapter, Running Away From Rock and Roll in the same book; “Music may indeed, serve as the voice of the people”, or be instrumental in political opposition, social change, revolution or reconciliation, or even, very occasionally, stand in the way of murder. But (and I agree) it is in the humble, personal transformations of human beings that it is at its most effective”.

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