Taking a closer look at Norway’s music programs

Profiles in Norwegian science

Students in Oslo music program

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Music instruction is taken seriously in Norway with the goal to reach out to as many young people as possible. Here students at the University of Oslo are seen rehearsing.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Norway has a long and rich history of folk, local, and traditional music, with a slew of instruments and dances. Scientists in Norway study Norwegian music, covering musicology, history, and identity from classical music’s Edvard Grieg to the pop genre’s Sigrid—along with artists beyond Norway. A trio of papers from 2023 published by the same team examined music education around Norway.

Sidsel Karlsen and Siw Graabræk Nielsen from the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo worked with Anne Jordhus-Lier from the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences in Elverum. They examined Norway’s local music and arts schools to understand better choices of repertoire and strategies for inclusion.

The baseline stems from one paper’s opening that Norway, in 1997, became the first country in the world to legislate that every municipality must run schools of music and arts. Funded by taxes, they provide extracurricular music and arts activities to all youth, so that children are not disadvantaged by their socioeconomic background. But neither content nor how to teach is mandated for these schools.

Published in the journal Research Studies in Music Education, one paper explains how the researchers set a questionnaire to understand how these schools select their teaching repertoire. The same data were used in a second paper published in Frontiers in Psychology.

The two papers analyzed 151 surveys completed by teachers in these local music and arts schools, with the latter article supplemented by interviews with 11 music teachers. The surveys combined structured and open-ended questions to determine who chooses the music taught, what they choose, and the criteria they use for selecting. The researchers identified three clear patterns in terms of how and why teachers make repertoire decisions and the manners in which they make those decisions meaningful for the classroom.

First, the teachers were amenable to students being involved in content selection, seeing student participation as part of the learning process to ensure that learners are engaged in their own education. Students tended toward selecting more popular genres.

Second, irrespective of student interests, the repertoire should encompass a variety of genres to ensure that the students experience different styles.

Representing the third pattern, this diversity must definitely include standard material within an artistic tradition, referred to as “classical,” and is very much the teachers’ preference and direction.

The other paper examined here appeared in the International Journal of Music Education and details how the schools’ inclusion mandate is attempted and not necessarily achieved. The questions explored were what strategies for inclusion are implemented, how do people experience the inclusion approaches, and what challenges emerge?

The scientists interviewed 30 teachers and parents across five schools. The schools fulfilled their legal mandate regarding how to be inclusive, with many initiatives aiming to reach and provide opportunities for all children. Inclusion success remains elusive, with only limited attendance in the programs.

Sometimes, there were not enough places or funds to meet everyone’s needs. Other children or families lacked interest in music and the arts, spending their leisure time on different activities. More fundamentally, the researchers suggest middle-class cultural bias and elitism in the schools not offering programs comprising a variety of music, arts, and manners of teaching.

The three papers interpret the results in the context of academic theories focused on pedagogy and the role of schools. Thinking beyond constructed frameworks and principles, what practical actions could overcome the challenges?

Inclusion is perhaps the hardest. The existence of the schools is mandatory, but attendance is not obligatory. Most families and children do not “want” to attend, opening up the question about the voluntary nature of “choosing” to be absent. Could it be about wanting more family time? When children reach adolescence, do they seek paid work to obtain experience, to have their own cash, or to help pay for rent and food? All three papers refer to “parents” yet none mentions “carers” or “guardians,” indicating a bias within the entire research process in how the concept of “family” is presumed.

Economics is mentioned as an inclusion barrier with few obvious ways forward. Music education always entails financial costs. Where instruments are provided, basic expenditure remains for reeds, strings, rosin, mallets, or valve oil. Where education highlights listening/interpreting and digital tools, many families still struggle outside the classroom due to the costs of phones, computers, internet, or older technology of CDs and even the comeback of LPs.

The research discussed here indicates some opportunities and barriers within Norway’s local music and arts schools. Further work should explore the practicalities of improvements.

The papers mentioned in this article, in order, are:

1. doi.org/10.1177/1321103X221099436

2. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1105572

3. doi.org/10.1177/02557614231157737

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.