'The Atheist's Bible: Diderot's 'Elements de physiologie' by Caroline Warman is the winner (jointly) of the R. Gapper Book Prize 2021 for best book in French Studies.

Rethinking Social Action through Music: The Search for Coexistence and Citizenship in Medellín’s Music Schools

Rethinking Social Action through Music: The Search for Coexistence and Citizenship in Medellín’s Music Schools Geoffrey Baker
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Read about the importance of this contribution on Geoffrey Baker's BLOG.

Following on from his groundbreaking study of Venezuela’s El Sistema, Baker offers a courageous and unsettling exploration of Social Action Through Music, based mainly on a case study of the Red de Escuelas de Música in Medellín, Colombia. It is a profound and lively examination of this important as well as complex issue. Wide-ranging in its analysis, honest, and wise, it is indispensable reading for all those interested in the discussion around the social impact of making music.

Dr Graça Mota, Research Centre in Psychology of Music and Music Education, Porto Polytechnic. Former chair of the El Sistema Special Interest Group at the International Society for Music Education

Geoff Baker’s 2015 book on El Sistema was a ground-breaking and meticulously researched critique of the world’s most celebrated programme claiming social action through music, based on intensive fieldwork and magisterial command of the literature. He has now applied the same informed critical lens to another large-scale orchestral social programme, the Red de Escuelas de Música in Medellín, Colombia. In the Red's case, however, the leadership has deliberately fostered the kind of self-examination and internal reform signally absent from El Sistema. Baker deftly unravels the complex and sometimes contradictory strands in the 25-year history of this flagship project, with its successes and self-admitted limitations. He then uses his analysis as a springboard for grounded reflection on what truly socially effective music programmes could look like. He convincingly argues that big classical orchestral projects have much to learn from smaller more democratic and grassroots-led projects, which more naturally reflect and incorporate the emancipatory prerogatives that organisations like the Red strive for, but whose very structures and processes hold back. This book will be an important resource for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers alike.

John Sloboda, OBE, FBA, Research Professor, Guildhall School of Music & Drama and President of SIMM (Social Impact of Making Music)

Social action through music is inescapably complex, and Baker successfully unravels critical intricacies with a rare combination of detail and clarity… The inquiry is ruthlessly honest, but not needlessly so: the text is an objective but appropriately appreciative account of the work in Medellín, bolstered by a highly-informed exploration that gives it international relevance…, offering guidance, insight and even inspiration.

Jonathan Govias, The Strad, 21 September 2021. Available online.

How can we better understand the past, present and future of Social Action through Music (SATM)?

This ground-breaking book examines the development of the Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín (the Network of Music Schools of Medellín), a network of 27 schools founded in Colombia’s second city in 1996 as a response to its reputation as the most dangerous city on Earth. Inspired by El Sistema, the foundational Venezuelan music education program, the Red is nonetheless markedly different: its history is one of multiple reinventions and a continual search to improve its educational offering and better realise its social goals. Its internal reflections and attempts at transformation shed valuable light on the past, present, and future of SATM.

Based on a year of intensive fieldwork in Colombia and written by Geoffrey Baker, the author of El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (2014), this important volume offers fresh insights on SATM and its evolution both in scholarship and in practice. It will be of interest to a very varied readership: employees and leaders of SATM programs; music educators; funders and policy-makers; and students and scholars of SATM, music education, ethnomusicology, and other related fields.

Rethinking Social Action through Music: The Search for Coexistence and Citizenship in Medellín's Music Schools
Geoffrey Baker | April 2021
476 pp. | 31 Colour Illustrations | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781800641266
ISBN Hardback: 9781800641273
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781800641280
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781800641297
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781800641303
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781800641310
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0243
BIC: AVA (Theory of music and musicology), JHMC (Social and cultural anthropology, ethnography), AVH (Individual composers and musicians, specific bands and groups); BISAC: MUS006000 (MUSIC / Genres & Styles / Classical), MUS020000 (MUSIC / History & Criticism), MUS007000 (MUSIC / Instruction & Study / Composition); OCLC Number: 1247663442.

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Table of Contents

List of Acronyms


Introduction Download
Geoffrey Baker


1. Creating, Redirecting, and Reforming the Red Download
Geoffrey Baker

2. The Red Pushes Back: Tensions, Debates, and Resistance Download
Geoffrey Baker

3. The Red through a Social Lens Download
Geoffrey Baker

4. The New Image of Medellín to the World Download
Geoffrey Baker


5. Change Download
Geoffrey Baker

6. Challenges Download
Geoffrey Baker

7. Possibilities of Transformation Download
Geoffrey Baker

Afterword Download
Geoffrey Baker


List of Figures


Geoff Baker is Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Director of Research at the music charity Agrigento. He is the author of three previous books, including the award-winning Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco (2008), and El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (2014). He also made a series of documentaries about young musicians in Latin America (Growing into Music). His work spans musicology, ethnomusicology, popular music studies, and music education research, and he has undertaken long-term academic projects in Peru, Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, and Colombia. He was Director of the Institute of Musical Research from 2015-17, and from 2017-19 he was an AHRC Leadership Fellow, which enabled him to spend a year carrying out fieldwork in Medellín. More information at: https://geoffbakermusic.wordpress.com/.  

This book on the Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín (the Red) has its origins in the author’s earlier research on Venezuela’s El Sistema, and it treats the two music education programs in comparative perspective. The Introduction surveys studies of Social Action Through Music (SATM) and places them within the context of broader literatures on social justice in music education and community music. An approach to the topic is defined around the concepts of ambiguity and ambivalence, building on critiques of the ideology of "the power of music” and analytical perspectives from neighbouring fields such as development studies and scholarship on public art, cultural policy, and after-school programs. To combat the over-simplification of SATM by the music and ideas industries and the media, critique is upheld as a central principle of research on SATM. The Introduction argues for an engaged rather than neutral stance in SATM research: for "getting off the fence” in order to improve the practices of education. Nevertheless, in the case of the Red, self-critique also emerges as a key issue. The book offers a fieldwork-based analysis of self-critique and change within SATM, which are important yet under-researched topics in the field’s scholarship.


1. Creating, Redirecting, and Reforming the Red

Part I of the book is organized in terms of four broad critical perspectives on the Red. The first chapter constructs a timeline of the Red’s history, traversing five phases defined by the five general directors from the program’s foundation to the end of 2019. The period from 2017-19 is described in more detail, drawing on the author’s fieldwork. The dominant perspective is that of the Red’s leaders and management, and the focus is on their critical reflections on the program and the changes they implemented as a result. From 2005 onwards, they urged greater emphasis on the social side of the work; greater musical diversity; a more participatory ethos; more student voice; and distancing from dynamics of pity and charity. The chapter ends by placing the Red’s evolution in comparative perspective, relating it to the cornerstone of the field, El Sistema, and to national research on youth development and international research on SATM and music education more broadly. It concludes that the Red distanced itself steadily from El Sistema after 2005, but drew closer to the concerns and perspectives of researchers in such fields.

2. The Red Pushes Back: Tensions, Debates, and Resistance

In the second chapter, the Red’s history of self-critique and change is viewed through the eyes of the Red’s music teachers and advanced students. Chapter 2 captures their critical responses to the management initiatives outlined in Chapter 1. It explores prominent dynamics of the Red for much of its history: tension and resistance. The main organizing principle is that of "first-order” debates. These debates were foregrounded in the program, regularly articulated by a wide array of actors, and therefore particularly audible and visible. They revolved around what were widely recognized as the Red’s major issues. The principal debate concerned the relationship between the musical and social sides of the work, with teacher training and the resistance of some staff and advanced students to a more social focus emerging as key topics. The question of classical versus popular music also loomed large, alongside that of formal versus non-formal pedagogy (which was brought into focus by the Red’s shift to Project-Based Learning in 2018). This chapter also considers SATM as work for professional musicians. It finishes with the internal debate over improvisation, a term that was viewed very differently by the leadership and staff in 2017-19.

3. The Red through a Social Lens

In the third chapter, the emphasis shifts to centre the perspective of the Red’s social team and its critical vision of SATM. This chapter focuses on debates that were no less important than those discussed in Chapter 2, but were less conspicuous or urgent and more conceptual. They lie at the heart of SATM, yet they were not day-to-day topics of discussion in the way that the issues in the previous chapter were. They are considered as "second-order” debates. Citizenship education was a central concern of the social team as well as of the author, and their collaboration on this issue is central to this chapter. Politics—conceiving of SATM in political terms and students as political actors—was also a priority for the Red’s social scientists. The historical construction of the Red’s music schools as "bubbles” and the resulting tribalism and social differentiation are analyzed, along with the social team’s efforts to "burst the bubble.” This chapter also includes consideration of the Red as a pipeline into the music profession; the role of the orchestra in SATM; the gender dynamics of the Red; and a comparison between this program and other forms of arts education in Medellín.

4. The New Image of Medellín to the World

The fourth chapter is devoted to the author’s research questions: overarching issues that are important to understanding SATM but were not much discussed in the Red. The chapter opens with a detailed consideration of the question "does SATM work?” This entails examining evaluations of the Red and El Sistema, the theory of SATM, the importance of family values to the functioning of such programs, exclusive features of SATM that lead to low take-up among certain social sectors and a high dropout rate, and the specific role of music within this field. SATM is analyzed through the competing lenses of social change and social reproduction; the field’s discourses lean towards the former but its practices often show more signs of the latter. The gaps between beliefs and evidence concerning SATM are explored and reasons for this disjuncture proposed. The chapter offers a detailed examination of the relationship between SATM and Medellín’s famous process of urban renewal (labelled "the Medellín Miracle”), with both emerging as more ambiguous than is commonly supposed. Finally, the connection between a music education program focused on creativity and Medellín’s "creative city” policy is analyzed. The chapter concludes by contrasting macro- and micro-level effects of SATM.


5. Change

Part II builds on the Red’s search for improvement since 2005 and fleshes out its rethinking of SATM, adding both complementary and contrasting analyses. Chapter 5 focuses on change at present and in future, considering how shifts in society and music education raise questions about SATM’s orthodox model, how the search for alternatives to that orthodoxy has already begun around the world, and where this path might lead. Five areas are presented as priorities for attention and reforms: (1) There needs to be a deeper consideration of what the "social” in SATM means and of the relationship between social goals and musical practices. (2) Orthodox SATM constitutes a recolonization of the ear in Latin America, and the field ought to take account of decolonial thinking in music education and rethink its approach to classical music. (3) SATM is a political practice and it requires analysis through a political lens. (4) Citizenship formation should be placed more centrally in SATM, which means more engagement with research on citizenship and the arts. (5) Demographics and targeting might be reconsidered so that SATM focuses more effectively on the top and bottom of the socio-economic spectrum rather than the middle.

6. Challenges

This chapter explores challenges and obstacles to reform in SATM. These include limited public debate and circulation of knowledge; the slow evolution of higher music education; resistance to change from within SATM; and the conservative influence of El Sistema and many international or multinational supporters. It also explores three dilemmas of a more conceptual or philosophical kind. One is raised by John Sloboda: does music education constitute an effective and efficient means of tackling social problems? There are some critics who argue that such programs not only leave structural social problems untouched but also obscure the real workings of society and thereby inhibit social change. Another is raised by Guillermo Rosabal-Coto: is the very idea of SATM colonialist? Rosabal-Coto argues that Eurocentric music education in Latin America is inescapably tainted by its foundation on a colonialist conception of the subject as deficient or flawed and in need of correction and redemption. The third is raised by Alexandra Kertz-Welzel’s reading of Adorno’s writing on music education. Adorno argued that idealistic, acritical music education with utilitarian goals was inherently dangerous, since it was susceptible to appropriation by authoritarian regimes. Such perspectives question the validity of SATM as a concept.

7. Possibilities of Transformation

This chapter explores the possibilities of transformation in SATM, focusing first on shifting the discourse from one of grandiosity and rhetorical excess to one of ambivalence, and on changing the relationship between practice and critical research. Then it turns to possible transformations in SATM itself and considers remaking it from a place of ambivalence and critical reflection. The reader is invited to imagine a future SATM that is: (1) Latin American: drawing on the region’s musics, pedagogies, and epistemologies of music, and constituting a distinctive regional method; (2) socially driven: starting from social goals and taking music (of whatever kind) as the means to achieve them; (3) emancipatory: not treating music education as a tool of social control but rather seeking to liberate, seeing youth in terms of potential and creativity rather than emptiness, deviancy, and disorientation; (4) realist: eschewing grandiosity and magical thinking and instead naming and engaging with real problems via concrete interventions; and (5) sustainable: one that puts aside the industrial capitalist ideology of twentieth-century SATM and its focus on growth, speed, intensity, and mass production, and seeks instead to slow down and address the major social problem of the twenty-first century—the climate crisis.


The main parts of the book consider the Red from its creation up to mid-2019. The Afterword brings the book up to date at the end of 2020, to take account of major world events over the course of that year: the Covid-19 pandemic and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter (BLM). Both these developments had a dramatic short-term impact on music education and classical music, but they also gave rise to signs of possible longer-term shifts in these (as in many other) fields. Their significance for SATM is considered here. Furthermore, the Red changed general director at the start of 2020, and the Afterword examines the first major public event under the new leadership—the Red’s annual pedagogy symposium—and the signals that it gave about a deepening of reform efforts in the new decade. The upheavals of 2020 might be seen as a catalyst for long-needed changes; they were seen in precisely this light by the Red’s new director. With questions raised about returning to the old normality in diverse facets of human life, 2020 appeared to be the right moment to rethink SATM.

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