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Home / News / Strengthening links between formal, informal and non-formal music education
Strengthening links between formal, informal and non-formal music education
31 May 2019
Elizabeth Andang’o, Lecturer in Music Education, Department of Music & Dance, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya.

What would be your definition of an effective music education?

I believe that as music educators, we would like to be suitably qualified, respected and recognised for our contribution (to draw from ISME’s core values), and that our contribution would include making an impact in music in society at all levels: formally, informally and non-formally, in the numerous ways that this might happen.

Formal music education can be defined as that which is ‘very regular, systematic and orderly (Barhart, 1992: 839 as cited in Miya, 2005), executed according to set rules and predictable order. It is conducted in schools, colleges and universities. Informal music education takes place in social interactions between family members, friends, colleagues and other groups, while non-formal music education is an organised, out-of-school education and training experience. In some countries, community music activities may be an example of non-formal music education (though some might argue that community music and music education are two distinct concepts). I would like to think that in an ideal situation, formal, informal and non-formal music educations interact and positively influence each other. However, in reality, this is not usually the case.

Assuming that music educators in formal settings have a greater influence over music in the school or institutional context than outside of it, what is their contribution in situations where there are few or no music programs in school, but music out of school (non-formal and informal music education) is so pervasive that it is taken for granted by society?

This kind of scenario is typical of a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Two examples are Tanzania (Costa-Giomi & Msuya, 2018), and my native country, Kenya. Within the national primary school curriculum in Kenya, music education is an optional subject owing to a policy decision arrived at in 1999 to address overload of the curriculum. Music education, art and craft are combined into creative arts, taught but not summatively assessed, unlike other subjects within the core curriculum. In most cases, teachers do not actually teach creative arts in primary schools, instead utilising the time to teach other subjects. At secondary school, music education is an optional subject, but is part of the core curriculum in the few schools where it is offered. Similarly, very few universities offer programmes in music education.

As a result of the few music educators in the country, society tends to view those in formal music education as specialists, with sometimes unrealistic expectations in terms of their capabilities. There are also those who express surprise that music is a subject of study, and that it can be pursued up to higher educational levels.

However, outside of school, music is an important part of life. Informal musical activity is often spontaneous in many contexts (homes, churches and in social gatherings like weddings, graduation ceremonies etc.). People listen to music everywhere, even in public transport as they commute to and from work. Singing, especially, is a common form of musicking during leisure activities.

Non-formal musical activity is also an important part of Kenyan life. Music festivals, church music activities and some forms of community music fall in this category. As an example, the Kenya Music Festival (KMF), an annual event that has been in existence for over 90 years, is a competitive undertaking that involves educational institutions from early childhood to university levels. Various categories of performances take place at the festival, including solo and ensemble performances, both vocal and instrumental, as well as dance and recitation of poetry. KMF promotes music performances from diverse world cultures including the West, the East and Africa. The standards of musical composition and arrangement are quite high, and performances reflect a high level of musicianship. Additionally, over the years the festival has introduced new classes or categories of music to be performed, such as various forms of popular music and oriental dances.

Examples of non-formal music activity in churches include competitive music festivals and concerts. Apart from local talent and musical skill, global influences are notable in the area of contemporary gospel music. As a result, churches are investing in high quality musical instruments and training bands and singers to provide quality music to the congregants. At the same time, they are exploring innovative soundscapes that fuse musical styles from different cultures.

From these accounts, it is evident that informal and non-formal music education is continually embracing change and innovation, which is accepted and explored by music educators and performers. A closer examination of non-formal music education initiatives such as KMF and church music festivals reveals that music educators from schools and universities play key roles in the events, such as training the performing groups and judging presentations at the festivals. One would therefore expect formal music education to reflect similar vitality and diversity.

However, formal music education is slow to embrace change, and still largely adheres to traditional structures and programs. I believe that this imbalance militates against efforts to promote it at all levels of schooling.

One way out of this impasse, I think, is to strengthen links between formal, informal and non-formal music education by identifying the merits of each type of music education, and exploring ways of incorporating them into the other types. Four ways (certainly not exhaustive) of doing this are by taking into account the following considerations:
  1. Formal music education provides frameworks for the study of music. Like any other field of study, formal music education has structures, tested and tried over time, that govern how it is conducted. Within the diversities that define musics of the world, this remains a cornerstone of the discipline. Although music may be present everywhere, it needs an all-encompassing context where it may be experimented with, theorized and debated upon legitimately. I believe that both informal and non-formal music education can greatly benefit from the structures provided by formal music education. KMF, for instance, benefits from these structures through utilising the expertise of music educators who train music performers, mentor upcoming conductors and choir trainers, and judge musical performances. Informal music education can also draw from methods and approaches applied to formal music education, such as learning aspects of good performance practice and practising good vocal health habits.
  2. Both informal and non-formal music education take place outside formal school contexts. Music educators should bepart of informal and non-formal music activities as both givers, contributing their skills and expertise, and takers, learning from the different approaches to musicking. They can also invite students to share their informal and non-formal musical experiences during music lessons. In addition, since music is a part of certain school programs like prize-giving days, music educators can plan and direct well-thought out musical performances that include diverse styles of music, raising greater awareness of the value of music education for its own sake and music as a unique form of expression. In Kenyan secondary schools, such an approach can strengthen the practical aspects of music as a subject.
  3. Within formal music education, there is need for versatility in teaching and learning. Both non-formal and informal music education can provide different pedagogical approaches to teaching music. Much of formal music education in Kenya and, I believe, a number of other African countries, still subscribes to traditional curricula where greater emphasis is laid on music literacy from the western classical music tradition, than other approaches to learning music. While music educators should continue to embrace this traditional approach, they should also adopt pedagogies consistent with diverse music traditions. Playing musical instruments by ear, as an example, is an important skill that should be cultivated in formal music education. Rote learning of songs and performing ensemble music that embraces a variety of timbres should also be cultivated alongside other more traditional approaches to music education.
  4. Finally, for Kenya and many other sub-Saharan contexts, embracing the concept of musical arts education, which combines various art forms like music, dance, drama and story-telling into a single entity, may provide a solution to handling crowded curricula without eliminating music education. Collaborations between teachers of music, language, literature and the visual arts would promote music education, enrich the other arts, and, perhaps, more effortlessly promote learning that closely reflects the arts as practised in African culture.


Costa-Giomi, E. and Msuya, P. (2018). Early childhood policy and practice in Tanzania: Music in the new kindergarten curriculum. Paper presented at the 18th ECME Pre-Conference Seminar, Shefa’Amr, Israel  July 8-12(pp.10-12).

Miya, F. M. (2005). Educational Content in Kenyan performing arts: The case of Isukuti performing art. Proceedings of the East African Symposium on Music Education, May 16-18, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya. Akuno, E.A. & Nyakiti, C.N. (Eds).Pp 80-94.