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Inspirem Music Therapy HK
  • Writer's pictureEsther Wong

Blog # 8 Musicking

The term ‘musicking’ was coined by Christopher Small (1998), it’s a thought provoking concept that’s making me rethink what music is all about.

There is no such thing as music. Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do. (Small 1998, p.2)

Music is not an object, there would be no music if there’s no people behind it. It’s a shift of focus in thinking about what music truly is. Small’s idea of musicking placed the main emphasis not on the sound, the melody and harmony inside the music which he suggested are only a small part of the package of ‘music’. It is the human relationship and connections that musicking enabled to happen, it is a ritual which can lead to the formation of a community. It’s just like how we like to connect with people over coffee, cocktail and food. One can certainly connect with others without those rituals but it takes extra extra extra efforts to make it happen.

Such ideas held in common about how people ought to relate to one another, of course, define a community, so rituals are used both as an act of affirmation of community (‘This is who we are’), as an act of exploration (to try on identities to see who we think we are) and as an act of celebration (to rejoice in the knowledge of an identity not only possessed but also shared with others). (Small 1998, p.94)

As a backpacker, it is a privilege to be able to experience different culture’s ways of musicking in different parts of the world. I would love to share with you all some snippets of some of my most memorable musicking experience:

In Africa:

-20 backpackers in a yellow African overlanding truck managed to bond with each other over 75 days by singing aloud Toto’s ‘Africa’ song (as well as the Lion King song which were both our theme songs) every morning as our truck leaves the campsite. It doesn’t matter whether someone is tone deaf, sings completely out of tune or don’t even know the lyrics…and it doesn’t even matter when the lyrics have nothing to do with Africa but it’s simply a love song. The song singing allows us to enjoy each other's company, to have fun, , creating a soundtrack for ourselves while the truck is passing through some epic scenery outside and to create some interpersonal memories. Our daily musicking ‘ritual’ has created such a remarkable memory in me, hearing the song now would instantly trigger all the stories and feelings of the adventurous travel community I once belonged.

-A tour guide connected everybody in the taxi by teaching us a local island’s welcoming song ‘Jambo’, he’s proud of where he’s from and love to share a bit of local culture with us and truly making us feel very welcomed.

In Scotland: A friend took me out for a pint at a local pub in Edinburgh where a group of musician gathered around the center of the pub, started to play with their fiddles, tin whistle and guitars without any sheet music in front of them. Someone would start a tune (often a jig or reel), and the rest of the group would harmonize or fill in the beats. The group started from 3 and grew until 10+ people. The audience grab their pint and sat quietly to enjoy the musical atmosphere.

In China:

Faint music led me to the top of the hill where a group of elderly musician enjoying musicking and 'live Karaoke' where the singer picks a random piece of music and asks the group to play along. It's monophonic where everyone is playing or singing the same melody line, yet it's so rich in timbre colour. They are not rehearsing, not performing, not showing off, but simply enjoying the music making process and musical interaction within the group in a scenic location. They are attracting a curious crowd and those who simply wanna be in the presence of their music by sitting around relaxing and even dancing.

In Spain: In a small flamenco pub, a solo male singer, a female dancer and a guitarist on stage. The music was slightly dark & sorrowful, in Flamenco mode/modern Phrygian mode mostly, the singer seems to be telling stories through songs in which the local audience listened intently and at times would respond by saying ‘Ole!!’, an exclamation of approval or encouragement for the singer. The music has such emotional intensity conveyed by the singer facial expression as well visually by the dancer. The performer on stage and the audience are tightly connected, as if the audience are always ready to respond to the emotion they felt from the music.

In UK: In the Cambridge University Chinese orchestra, a group of musician enjoy musicking weekly, most people are only beginners and most of us don’t even have our own instruments (the orchestra has an inventory of instruments to lend to members). People are here not only for the music, but seem to be here also for unconscious reasons. In a small town like Cambridge, we want to feel reconnected to our culture, our home, we are desperate wanting to be part of a community, we want to feel that we belonged somewhere in a foreign land where the outside condition is miserable, cold, gloomy and we are all facing the never-ending thesis writing. The music that we played reminded us of our home, of the vibrant Chinese New Year celebration. There were occasions where we performed in various stages, bringing Chinese music to the local British, these experiences strengthened everybody’s self-esteem, self identity as well as cultural identity.


This is what music is all about, it should be about musicking. A way of connecting with people, establishing genuine human connection and relationship, creating community where people can feel belonged, loved and supported.

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