Defining knowledge


The subject of historical development covers a very broad field of related topics, all put into a historical perspective. (See the chapter on content)

The goal of my research however was not so much to characterize the knowledge that concerns contexts of instrumental or vocal studies itself, but rather the role it plays and the way it functions.


While thinking about the professional knowledge that very skilled performers and teachers are hoping to transmit to the students, I became interested in it’s components and effect.


For instance what could be said in terms of quantity. How much must one know and how are we going to give an indication what the reasons and criteria are for that amount? Is there a minimum of professional knowledge a student must acquire in order to pass?

Every main subject teacher has his or her own specializations and will have a hard time sketching its boundaries and the necessities for others.


In addition we are dealing with issues integrated into the practical knowledge of the art.

Superimposed or juxtaposed to that practical knowledge are facts and circumstantial evidence that inseparably belong to the practice. The difference however is that it can be communicated separate from the actual realization of music.



Historical musicology for instance, consists to a large extent of gathering data that are only meaningful in relation to each other. The bulk of musicological research has been the collective efforts to produce and prove that coherence. 

In the department of historical performance the common denominator in relation to the music of the past is obviously knowledge obtained by research. Research with the help of historical sources is what defines Early Music and historical performance practice.



Evolution was from that historicizing perspective retrograde, because progress in this environment meant going backwards with certainty and confidence. Being ‘right’ on the basis of historical facts.

This inversion of the normal progression added a dimension of awareness, namely that historical knowledge could renew appreciations by performers as well as audience.

For a long time progress was a phenomenon, which was not exclusively reserved for health care or industrialization, also the arts were considered to enjoy inventions, which brought every new generation into a position that was superior to the previous. This view of continuous linear improvement is strongly related to the philosophical positivism.

The way the history of an instrument was described in conservatories during the subject of historical development was and often still is very much in line with this attitude.



It was my intention from the start of the research process to conceive a bridge between the Early- and Classical Music departments and to make sure that knowledge and expertise, which are present in both, will be increasingly shared.

As is referred to in the paragraph about commitment, a different attitude towards knowledge is needed in order to make it work in a holistic sense.

In the beginning I have therefore been searching for an explanation why most students have such a detached relation to facts that are not directly connected to their practical endeavors.

During my own experiments in the classroom (see xx) I realized that the frame of reference of students is not what we expect it to be on the basis of their choice to become a professional musician.

For that reason the knowledge presented is very unlikely going to be integrated in their system.

I designed a graphic representation of the process, which I thought would clarify in what direction our revision of learning should be molded. (see fig.) 

Basically what the graph was summarizing is the process of gaining knowldege in order to achieve some skills. A base line between knowing and understanding which with the help of intuition reached a skillful achievement.

At that point of the research process I was trying to pin down the role of knowledge in this development. Or actually to analyse the components of applied knowledge as we have it in music practice. So splitting it up into information as such and on the other side the understanding how-to.


What remained unclear here was the step from just knowing (factual) into  seeing the wider coherence of topics at stake. I had the impression that conviction played a substantial role in that process without being able to conceive how it worked. 

A model that does justice to the complexity of the actual learning process could be borrowed again from the Louvre.

The cross relations are manyfold and multidirectional.

Layers of knowledge are certainly subdivided in planes or points of reference, but knowledge is not static. 

There is a constant stream of information between all angles of the building and therefore knowledge could be seen reather as a process of knowing.


I was using the model of the pyramid to express that in the beginning the gap between subconscious understanding and conscious knowing was rather big. But during this process of increasing knowledge by experience those extremes came closer to each other until they reached each other in the top of the pyramid.

If we implement the circular model of Kolb into a pyramid that represents Polanyi’s categorization, an idea of the dynamics of the process of knowing becomes apparent. Even more refined than the two-dimensional lines or connectors in the Louvre example, are the clouds with contrasting colors of temperature, which also cover processes of tacit knowledge.

The connectors are very useful and practical in all explicit material or for instance analyses.

But for the final goal of ownership of knowledge and identification with the profession, every subject needs to be perceived in its entity. Not as a conglomeration of heterogeneous objects or objectives, which inevitably suffer form smaller or larger holes in their consistency.


Anyway it was clear to me that information without the understanding of the contextual frame was the main reason most students are indifferent to the knowledge that is offered to them.

By then I labeled it conscious and subconscious knowing and was looking for the connector. Subconscious is what I considered the applied knowledge of a practical approach.

The role of experience is determining the understanding.


I saw it no longer all fitting into a triangle and by coincidence the Pyramid of the Louvre gave me the idea to draw a Tetrahedron in order to be able to present the cross relations in my concept of the knowing process.

The tacit dimension

When presenting the preliminary outcomes of my research I received feedback, which pointed out there was a considerable overlap of my model and the theories about tacit knowledge.

As a consequence I started reading the opus magnum of the Godfather of the theory Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge. (1958)


His theory threw a very clear light on the reasons for the separation one experiences when learning contextual issues or when learning the practice.

The subject of historical development was always primarily dealing with items that Polanyi categorized as explicit knowledge.

That is information that can be codified and transmitted in language or symbols. Facts and relations between them.

It is the kind of information one gets consulting an encyclopedia, books or searching the Internet.
For most music students explicit knowledge is remote from their core business in learning.
The regular practice takes place in another dimension, that of the so-called tacit knowledge. The knowledge is ineffable, because ultimately it is not to be caught in words or codes. These days also described as "knowing-how-to".

It is no wonder that a class of musicians becomes impatient when there is a lot of talking and intuitively they want to go back to their practical studies which is so much more their way of learning and understanding. For the practitioner reasoning is intertwined with action and and their focus is predominantly on the immediate applicable. 

"A contemplation from within the experience" as Polanyi puts it, "without scanning details."

Offering details separated from their practical application presupposes another appreciation of what is meaningful. Therefore starting the edcuational process from knowledge that consists of facts and data which are not directly linked to a familiar frame of reference, diminishes the chance that the new knowledge becomes a meaningful whole together with the already known. The fact that history concerns mainly life in the past, complicates the perception of that whole. It is mostly felt as the opposite of the unquestioned presence of music making. An undesired distortion of the practical knowledge. 

This practice based learning is by no means characterized by randomness because a clear intention is guiding the process. Where explicit knowledge consists of mutual understanding and agreement on values, tacit knowledge is more personal be it universal on another level. 


To apply this knowledge-model in the particular case of historical development and contextualization of music, the 'learner' should be seen as an inclusive element in the whole construction. Every detail in the content of the course is thought in relation to the student who receives new input. The focal awareness that is required to grant access to new concepts or ideas is always bound to, or build upon, former knowledge and experiences. These are mostly tacit and turned into subsidiary functions.

Combining the tacit and explicit

Although the balance between the two extremes will differ in every person and every situation, it is impossible to conceive a model where only one type of knowledge is present without the other.

For my own understanding it was very helpful to build on the representation that I started with the pilot theory ending up in a pyramid model. First by defining the particulars of the opposites and then searching for a way to express the actual functioning by their interactions. 

An article published on the internet included the two-dimensional graphic representation by Jerry H. Gill which inspired me to design a 3D model that would be understandable and still doing justice to the complexity of connectors between the tacit and the explicit dimensions.
In my scheme the explicit contains the preliminary agreement on 'truth' or factuality in the Polanyian way defined as assumptions or beliefs. In order to be able to communicate explicitly one has to share values, something we know for instance in music from notation and other ways of encoding en decoding the otherwise ineffable in detail.

The model underneath is a graphic representation of the dynamics in learning or gaining knowledge. We can see the process from different angles but can also imagine it turns around by itself because of the actions, which are taking place with various intensities. Setting up any educational goal requires to make connection with this carousel.

Tacit and Explicit Knowledge in Music Education

Seen from the outside the pyramide model illustrates the direction from the bottom to the point where all lines are becoming one.

The process is, as one can observe gradual and every new layer is resting on a previous one. If we compare this relation of horizontal  planes it is clear that every supporting layer is a frame of reference to the next one in hight.

This model would of course be an idealized caricature of a real learning process if the graduality would be taken literally. Unfortunately many educational programs and the way they are assessed still imply this graduality in a literal way.

The challenge for a teacher is to mobilize as much as possible of the learning conditions that are belonging to the tacit dimension, in order to make a bridge to the explicit. To arouse curiosity is one of the most obvious and well known ways to do so, because curiosity is a tacit quality. But also apealing to the imagination of the learner triggers a same kind of mental activity and opens ways to spontanuous commitment. In a way it replaces the (earlier mentioned) bodily component because it often is a virtual derivative thereof.

If this bridging between dimensions does not take place and exclusively the explicit entry is chosen, one presumes the possibility of knowledge without the 'knower.' It will be presented as impersonal, very specified and static. Certainly a subject that consists mainly of historical facts, instrumental technology and inapplicable instructions, runs the risk to remain detached from the interest of a student.

The process of transitions within the knowledge-model is by its nature very complex and varied. Every person is different and learns in a different way. Nevertheless with the help of a design by David Kolb, an educational theorist who published his model in 1984, we can understand the process without too much reduction of a complicated reality. In this model feeling and thinking are likewise opposed and just as we see in Gill's graphical summary, activity and awareness play a similar role.

We see for instance that Polanyi's focal awareness comes back in Kolbe's model as reflective observation. These are not entirely exchangeable but describe more or less the same phenomenon.

The circularity of Kolbe's learning model echoes what Polanyi described in terms of discovery. But the first also attempts to identify four different categories of learning and assumes that everybody is centered differently within these quadrants. To a certain extent this is helpful when setting up a course such as historical development, precisely because it is divergent from the normal path of the practitioner.