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  • Writer's pictureSophie Fox

Wordless Musicking - Multiple Perspectives

Updated: May 20, 2021

This is the transcript and slides from Sophie Fox's presentation of her dissertation research, presented at MERYC England, Research into Practice: Musical Play Matters, Online Seminar Series, 9th March 2021.

I want to start this presentation by giving a little bit a context about my background, and to mention some of the key encounters that have led to becoming sensitised to interactions without words in musical play.

I come from a visual arts background and I have no formal music training, I work across multiple art forms in community, participatory and socially engaged arts practices. Musicality and play are central to my practice. These sorts of art practices are often situated in processes, relationships and experiential encounters.

I developed an interest in early childhood music when my own children were very young and I tapped into already existing networks and communities of practice to fuel this interest. Later, when working as part of a Children’s Centre music and arts team with Charlotte Arculus and others, the use of wordless approaches, particularly through the SALTmusic action research project, became foregrounded as we had the opportunity to reflect deeply upon these intuitive practices in relation to our work with very young children and families, and also with the SaLTs who used similar approaches in their professional practice.

Around this time I also took part in a professional development opportunity with Paulo Rodrigues -musician, artist, academic and theatre maker of Companhia de Música Teatral, from Portugal. At the beginning of the weekend residency Paulo welcomed us, and told us that once we entered into the studio he would no longer be using any words to facilitate the creative space. Over the morning the group of artists and musicians co-created sound, environments, assemblages and movement in a wordless musical space. It was profoundly moving, challenging and a lot of fun. It resonated with me, and I related it to my own intuitive practice of interacting without words in musical play with very young children and families.

With these experiences in mind, the enquiry for my dissertation research evolved. I was interested in finding out more about how interacting without words in musical play is experienced from different artistic and pedagogical perspectives. I wondered what the affordances of interacting without words could be, and what the potential implications for early childhood artistic and educational practices were? These were my lines of enquiry.

I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with a small purposeful sample of individuals that I had worked alongside that had experienced wordless musicking with very young children in some way.

Paulo Rodrigues

A Dance Artist


A small group of classically trained musicians

A nursery educator

In the analysis of the interview data I used a thematic approach to draw out commonalities and differences for interpretation and discussion.

Taking a phenomenological approach to the study offered the opportunity to investigate things that are known to us through our senses. Phenomenology invites us to engage with perceptions that are not limited by what is tangible and concrete, but also values, sensori-emotional perceptions, feelings, hunches, and intuitive perspectives.

I imagined this as spheres that can be experienced from different perspectives - the horizon or the edges of our perception as dynamic, shifting fields of vision depending upon where we are standing. This foregrounds subjectivity, and rejects notions of one universal reality. This methodological approach sets the tone for the type of investigation with the holistic frame open to all that is within it, and all that is within us.

As an intangible phenomena, wordless musicking leant itself to dipping into New Materialist thinking and turned towards ambiguous, ‘messy’, heterogeneous sensory forces. Throwing the net wide on my literature review I drew upon texts from early childhood education, play, music, philosophy and arts.

One aspect of the literature which I want to draw your attention to was considering the aesthetics of wordless musiking.

The word aesthetic derives from Greek - meaning perception or knowledge through the senses. The antonym ‘anaesthetic’, meaning not feeling, or numbness as used in medicine, usefully highlights notions of aesthetics as feeling through sensorial perception . But could also allude to our inner senses and feelings as well as our bodily ones.

Aesthetics also refers to sets of values that are attributed to art, and often imply ‘quality and beauty’, Perceptions of beauty and taste are relevant as we negotiate and relate to our own versions of what good art practices are, what quality is in early childhood arts education, and we ask ourselves how our own taste informs how we interact with the arts and education?

Custodero said “to be in the moment is to encounter the aesthetic" - and if we look at this photograph I wonder what modes of sensory perception can we decipher just from the image?

So I considered how aesthetics can also be a way to consider how we experience and come to know things. Heidegger said “We never know thingness directly, and if we know it at all, then only vaguely”

And what about the feeling (or affect) art or creating art gives us, does this put art into an “aesthetic dimension”, do “we label something beautiful because it provokes a kind of ‘free play’ in our minds. Music in particular plays with this, Ian Cross calls this “floating intentionality” where meaning or intention is not fixed, and its ambiguity is one its purposes.

The themes that emerged from the interview analysis revealed the following tentative concepts

  • Being with – related to how respondents referred to children and themselves, and the relationships.

  • Dis(comfort) – this theme looked at responses that highlighted any feelings of ease or discomfort perceived or felt by the respondents

  • Knowing (Not knowing) – exploring experiences of improvisation, unplanned occurrences, planning, explaining and emergent knowledge

  • Gaps – references to silence, not talking, pauses, waiting, spaces

Gaps have been used as a way of illustrating perceived deficits in childhood. 'The Word Gap' being an example of considering the number of words spoken in relation to attainment, and that we should “fill the gap” by using more words with children.

This is particularly pertinent at the moment as children return to schools with all the rhetoric of catching up, and being behind.

In this study the concept of gaps emerged as openings, spaces, pauses, invitations and offers. Thinking about the arts disciplines of music, movement and visual arts enabled a reframing of gaps as vital structures in forms.

In musical terms we might refer to silences, rests, pauses, temporal spaces and openings that shape the music we perceive; in dance and movement this might be described as stillness. Cage and Paxton have respectively explored the notions of stillnesses and silences to propose that this space offered the opportunity for more subtle nuanced movement or sound to come to the fore, in this sense a gap is an opportunity to notice more.

In visual arts gaps or spaces around or in-between things are referred to as negative spaces, they are structural, they are necessary and inform us about the whole.

In the same way that silence is not non-music, silences in interaction as Crowell said “is neither the absence of speech nor the impossibility of speech, but rather a mode of speaking”

Others, such as Bourriaud who explored relational aesthetics, refer to a social interstice - a fissure, or a crack - openings for possibility or exchange that is somehow different to the norm. We could also relate this to liminal spaces, a threshold for something ‘other’ to happen.

This framing of gaps, pauses, silences as purposeful, necessary and intrinsic highlights some potential affordances of not talking in musical play.

In thinking how we might relate to arts, Bourriaud suggested that “form only exists in the encounter” And Dewey states, “the work of art is complete only as it works in experience with others” The human drive for arts, ritual and culture underlines some of its social functions, creating and making special and, as Dissanayake called it, “artifying” ways of being, and ways of being together.

Being in art-full encounters is a form of relational aesthetics, as dialogical qualities emerge not only in our encounters with each other, but also in the ways we interact with objects, sounds and materials. Similarly relational pedagogy proposes that teaching and learning are fluid, dynamic, reciprocal and evolving, taking place in and through relationships, bodies, objects, spaces, and feelings.

Modes of non-verbal expressions are used widely in artistic disciplines, such as mime, dance, clowning, and music. Where movement, gesture, utterances, sounds are utilised to produce aesthetically poetic and ambiguous sites of encounter.

Using both Small’s and Dissanayake’s respective terms “musicking” and “artifying”, they both seek to situate the arts as processes, acts of doing or encounter, as opposed to the terms ‘music’ and ‘art’ which imply product. By decentring the art object or product we are foregrounding social and relational aspects like playing, creating, viewing and participating, and the many other ways we can encounter art-full moments.

Another perspective that emerged was to look at wordless musicking in relation to Loose Parts Play theory - this opened up sounds, gesture, movement to be considered as open-ended variables that could facilitate other ways to engage with music, that exist in transformative processes rather than products.

In loose parts musical play the invitation to deprioritise adult talk, could be framed as provocation for play which offers possibility in planned unplannedness - void of traditional teacher interactions - narrations, guidance, questioning, praise. Stepping into not knowing what is going to happen.

Rodriegues - said in the interview “That step of ambiguity, which I think is part of the general not knowing where one is, is actually very important part of the creative process”.

Suggesting that ambiguity is a vital part of the creative process, Rodrigues exposes some of the potential tensions that could be experienced by ‘expert adults’ who are more used to planned outcomes. By letting go of plans, fixed meanings and outcomes, there is potential for excitement and also nervousness but also a sense of possibility.

Lines refers to 'pedagogies of improvisation' that galvanise uncertainty as a mechanism in play.

But this uncertainty could be uncomfortable for some. One musician said “I’m not quite sure what is going to happen, and I’m not quite sure musically what’s going to be asked of me.” And the educator offered “I’m always trying to get things right, and not say the wrong thing”.

There was a sense of duality in feelings expressed by the educator and the formally trained musicians - a fear of the unknown and also excitement for what will come, being on the edge of something.

By not talking a sonic effect was produced in the room, and that in turn created an offer, an opening, a possibility for something to happen. A possibility for things to connect.

Whilst the musicians and the educator I spoke to felt a little bit out of their comfort zone in these open-ended wordless musical play spaces, they observed the children’s ease. One musician commented, “The children counted as people” . This statement powerfully illuminates tropes about children seen as not whole, not fully formed, or as empty vessels. Reflecting on their capabilities to enter into playful modes, one musician asked the rhetorical question “do I know how to play?”.

Here the musician considered their own playfulness, and they pondered the improvisational and aesthetic as well as the intersubjective characteristics of play. This provoked unsettling feelings for the musicians who are used to playing from sheet music and the feeling of getting it right. In the context of musical free play, without any instruction the musicians commented, it felt “totally new” and “intimidating

Becoming receptive and tuned into the children’s musical play worlds the ‘expert’ musicians’ position shifted, and this afforded them new and different perspectives. “It was actually quite an empowering gives them (the children) a voice at an equal level” and “It was liberating because…You take away the didactic aspect.

I wondered if this destabilising of the musician’s or other adults' status could cause a levelling effect, as the children played and explored comfortably? Noticing the children’s agency in the space, by not talking, some of the traditional hierarchical structures of teacher/child were disrupted.

Reflecting on ECE practice, the educator offered “Often in early years we talk quite a lot…children are used to us sort of talking all day, and I think it was nice that we stepped back and actually noticed them in a way” (Sarah, Early Years Educator).

In ECEC this disruption to normal routines and practice offered potential for a type of active listening that sensitised ears and bodies to the multiple languages of children. As a starting point for creative encounters, interacting without words can offer the artist or teacher a chance to be in multiple roles - spectator/performer/facilitator/creator/player (Trafi-Prats). The dance artist noted in her improvisatory practice “What is going on in the room, that’s all you’ve got to rely on, so it makes you really notice” .

Listening in this way - with our eyes, our ears, our bodies, our feelings, interacting without words can enable adults to notice more and foregrounds other modes of expression, “You can’t listen if you’re talking” (Manolson).

In addition to this, as a reflective practice, Gallagher et al noted, not talking “ invites listeners to listen to their own listening” and to begin to notice the impact your own utterances have on the sonic environment .

Practices of this type of expanded listening are uncommon in mainstream ECEC, and instead there tends to be a focus on speech and comprehension with the imperative on the child to ‘listen better’. Perhaps turning the table in this way invites the adult to listen better and in doing so they may be open and receptive to noticing more.

In summary I would suggest there are several complex threads in this study.

Silences or extended pauses offer apertures, gaps or open moments that can become structural offers in the musical play.

De-prioritising adult talk, enables a type of expanded listening that sensitises the adults to more subtle modes of expression.

By not talking a sonic effect is produced and has the potential to become a musical effect.

And in a musical play space without instruction, narration or comment, music becomes a loose part - a variable, open-ended material where threads of creative enquiry can emerge.

Wordless musicking can facilitate space for sensitive dialogical musical play, creating aesthetic affects and destabilising didactic relationships with the child emerging as expert in their own musical play.


(full reference list available on request)


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