Constructionism 2020 Papers
Towards a Noisier Constructionism: Reimagining
Experimental Music as Learning Context
Peter J. Woods, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dept of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, USA
While extant literature on constructionist approaches to music education has provided invaluable
insight into the ways people learn through making musical artefacts (including instruments,
recordings, etc.), this research often prioritizes certain forms of musical knowledge derived from
western classical and popular music. In doing so, researchers overlook important forms of
knowledge that individuals construct within other genres. To address this oversight, new research
that considers constructionist practices within a broad range of musical traditions needs to occur.
As an initial step into this wide-reaching intellectual project, I use this paper to address the
following research question: how do noise musicians conceptualize learning and knowledge within
this musical tradition? Because noise music (also known as noise) rejects the tenets of western
music (i.e. rhythm, melody, repetitive structure, etc.) and utilizes a wide array of invented and
repurposed instruments (Novak, 2013), noise provides an excellent site of research into alternative
music education practices.
I approach the research question at the centre of this study from two angles. First, I develop a
theoretical argument that intertwines constructionist learning practices within not only noise but
experimental music more broadly. Placing experimental music literature and learning theory in
conversation, I argue that noise music and its practitioners constantly engage a practice of
redefining the boundaries of music that include socialized performance practices. This process
relies on the mechanisms of sociocultural knowledge production at the centre of situated learning
theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and constructionist approaches to learning. To this end, I argue
that making noise music is an inherently constructionist practice that results in the construction of
the musical boundaries that surround this tradition. Second, I analyse and present empirical data
collected from interviews with the four featured artists from the 2017 Experimental Education
Series, all of whom engage noise music and its surrounding scene to varying degrees. Within
these interviews, participants discuss the process of knowledge construction they engage within
noise music, intrinsically framing noise as a constructionist environment. Participants also discuss
the types of knowledge they construct within these spaces including musical dispositions and
“broken knowledge” (a deep understanding of the supposed incorrect way of doing things). This
positions noise as a space in which community members produce deep, sociocultural forms of
knowledge and meaning within musical contexts through an inherently communal approach to
By focusing on an educational context that prioritizes communal and cultural knowledge
production, this study broadens the scope of constructionist research beyond what Ames (2018)
describes as “an atomized and often oppositional understanding of … learners” (p. 2) that
prioritizes individualized forms of knowledge. Through this analysis, I define learning within noise
as the cultural practice of developing new musical knowledges through the act of performance, a
finding that situates informal music communities as a fruitful space for future research into
constructionism. In doing so, this study challenges researchers to explore other educational
contexts beyond technocentric educational spaces that engage similar forms of cultural knowledge
Noise, Experimental Music, Free Improvisation, Informal Music Education, Situated Learning
Constructionism 2020 Papers
Within extant literature on constructionist approaches to music education, scholars have largely
engaged two distinct lines of research. Representing one approach, Bamberger (1991, 2013) and
Gargarian (1991) examine how students develop musical knowledges within constructionist
contexts. In the other (far more populated) camp, researchers unearth the kinds of knowledge
students acquire when building electronic instruments and digital artefacts (see Peppler & Kafai,
2009a; Peppler & Kafai, 2009b; Rosenbaum, 2015; Milner, 2009). While these studies have
provided invaluable insight, some limitations do exist. First, this research prioritizes the western
musical canon, overlooking important forms of knowledge that individuals construct within other
musical traditions. Second, centring on the construction of electronic instruments shifts the focus
of research away from musical knowledge and towards computer-based education (e.g. how to
create technologies, not music). This technocentrism within constructionist research leads to what
Ames (2018) describes as “an atomized and often oppositional understanding of… learners” (p.
2) that prioritizes individualized forms of knowledge over culturally situated forms of meaning
In response, constructionist research into music education needs to expand beyond formal and
western music education environments and investigate the kinds of knowledge created within
other music traditions and social contexts. To this end, I use this study to examine noise music, a
caustic subgenre of experimental music that draws from punk and industrial traditions (Bailey,
2009), through the constructionist lens. More specifically, I address the following research
question: how do noise musicians conceptualize learning and knowledge within this musical
tradition? Because noise music (also known as noise) emerges outside of the tenets of western
music (i.e. rhythm, melody, etc.) and utilizes a wide array of invented and repurposed instruments
(Novak, 2013), noise provides an excellent site of research into alternative music education
To engage this research, I first develop a theoretical argument that aligns formations of noise with
constructionism. I then present findings from research into the 2017 Experimental Education
Series, a quarterly workshop and concert series that features noise artists from around the United
States. Through this analysis, I position noise as an art form fully (yet unintentionally) intertwined
with constructionism. Moreover, constructionist elements of noise foreground culturally situated
knowledge and collaborative acts of meaning making, enacting a form of constructionism that sits
at odds with Ames’ (2018) reading of this theory.
A Brief Introduction to Noise Music
To reframe noise as a constructionist environment, it helps to situate noise within the broader
scope of experimental music. Here, I rely on Gilmore’s (2014) ideological definition of experimental
music which includes all new music created outside of the organizing tenets of the western musical
canon (i.e. pitch, rhythm, repetitive structure, harmony/melody, etc.). While this definition includes
the mid-century American composers that have historically defined experimental music (see
Nyman, 1974), this ideological definition expands the boundaries to include overlooked but
interrelated traditions, e.g. free jazz (Lewis, 2002). Returning to noise, the origins of the
contemporary noise scene exist within two specific music subcultures: the Japanese harsh noise
scene and the European power electronics scene, both of which emerged in the late 70s and early
80s (see Bailey, 2009; Taylor, 2016). Although certain tropes have emerged from these contexts
(i.e. an overwhelming use of volume, the use of dissonant electronic sound, a reliance on taboo
subject matter), authors have pushed back on defining noise through these aesthetic markers
(Novak, 2013; Thompson, 2017). In response, Atton (2011) contends that noise emerges
discursively, a process that “entails a move away from a static categorization… and toward a
continual working-through of membership, features, meaning, and evaluation” (p. 327). Within this
discursive definition of the genre, fans and musicians constantly position noise at the extreme
Constructionism 2020 Papers
edge of music, pushing the sonic envelope as far as it can possibly go through multiple aesthetic
approaches. However, the process of challenging the boundaries of music is inherently iterative
since fringe ideas often become the norm through repetitive use (Novak, 2013). In turn, noise
music constantly reconstructs itself through the production of new musical artefacts (albums,
performances, etc) as fans discursively engage the boundary work associated with defining a
Turning to performance practices, noise musicians align themselves with both the mid-century
composers and free jazz musicians in multiple ways. The misuse of electronic sound-making
devices, incorporation of non-musical objects, and purposeful loss of control over instruments help
define both noise and the historicized tradition of experimental music as unique musical forms
(Gottschalk, 2016; Keep, 2009; Novak, 2013). Regarding the loss of control, John Cage defined
this practice as indeterminacy, or the purposeful inclusion of chance within compositions that
allowed various actors (performers, technologies, etc.) and procedures to shape a performance in
real time (Nyman, 1974). This mirrors a common practice in noise where musicians “perform their
own loss of control as authoritative human subjects” (Novak, 2013, p. 159) by creating
uncontrollable electronic instrumentation systems. Moreover, noise engages the practice of free
improvisation, or the spontaneous and unconstrained creation of music in the moment of
performance, utilized by free jazz musicians (Fischlin et al., 2013). Although theorists like Bailey
(2004) contend that freely improvised music works best within collaborative settings, noise
reimagines this collaborative practice in non-anthropocentric terms as performers respond to and
work with partly uncontrollable instruments in the moment of performance (Novak, 2013;
Thompson, 2011). These approaches to music making position noise as a perpetually evolving
space, one in which performers and audiences constantly redefine what counts as “musical
knowledge” in the form of both novel music technologies and theoretical understandings of music
Although I have argued previously that the culturally situated process of knowledge construction
described above positions noise within a situated learning theory framework (Woods, 2019), one
famously defined by Lave & Wegner (1991), this does not account for the mechanisms through
which individuals create knowledge or how participants conceptualize and formulate that
knowledge (only that it remains culturally situated). Research into the learning practices of noise
therefore needs to extend beyond situated learning theory. With this in mind, I now turn towards
Towards a Constructionist Understanding of Noise
If “constructionism views learning as building relationships between old and new knowledge in
interactions with others while creating artefacts of social relevance” (Kafai et al., 2009, p. 3), it
follows that noise exists as a constructionist environment. The constant reinvention of music at
the heart of noise emerges from the ongoing and iterative creation of homemade instruments,
non-traditional performance techniques, free improvisations, and, subsequently, new musical
knowledges that circulate between other cultural bodies and ways of knowing (Novak, 2013).
Upitis (1990) might therefore describe noise and its associated knowledges as the outcome of
musicians playing in a musical playground, developing internalized musical structures and
practices through open ended engagements with instruments and musical technologies (including
cultural technologies such as notation). These processes then produce artefacts of social
relevance that artists, both experienced and novice, share through the informal infrastructure that
surrounds noise (Bailey, 2009).
A reinterpretation of noise as constructionist environment also invokes what Turkle and Papert
(1991) call bricolage, or the development of knowledge through the manipulation of and
negotiation with materials. Noise establishes sound as this material, a proposition Cage (2004)
implied when he defined the composer as an “organizer of sounds” (p. 27). Noise musicians then
manipulate/negotiate with that material within freely improvised or indeterminant performances, a
process that results in musicians “inventing the message at the same time as language” (Attali,
1985, p. 134). This contrasts with most western music traditions: instead of material sound acting
Constructionism 2020 Papers
as the building block of western composition, “it is the pitch relationships and their occurrence in
time (that is, rhythm) that are the basic material” (Smalls, 1996, p. 25), a relational material that
discourages manipulation. Despite rooting her work within a western musical context, Bamberger
(1991) takes a similarly critical approach by focusing on musical phrases (not atomistic notes) as
the material of music. By reframing the material beyond pitch altogether, noise builds on
Bamberger’s constructionist framing by allowing performers to continually construct and
reconstruct musical knowledge in the form of performance technique, musical meaning, and the
boundaries of the genre or music itself (see Atton, 2011) as opposed to positioning socialized
western musical knowledge as the ultimate end.
Noise also reimagines another important aspect of constructionism: the creation of “objects to
think with” or “objects in which there is an intersection of cultural presence, embedded knowledge,
and the possibility for personal identification” (Papert, 1980, p. 11). Gottschalk (2016)
contextualizes this alignment between noise and constructionism by claiming that experimental
musicians and composers constantly learn through the process of making instruments, inventing
technique, and creating new works. Noise therefore moves beyond technocentric research into
constructionist music education by situating the musical performance (and not just technologies)
as the object to think with. Research into the BlockyTalky, a collaborative coding tool used to
create electronic music, points to a similar outcome: while coding with BlockyTalky helps build
computational thinking skills, researchers also found that performing with newly coded instruments
produced new collaborative understandings of music (Kelly et al., 2017; Shapiro et al., 2017).
Building from Attali’s (1985) theory that knowledge via noise emerges through the performative
act (and not a priori), noise expands on Papert’s original formulation of objects to think with by
situating both new instruments and performances as sites of reflection or launching points for new
explorations, similar to what Fields et al. (2018) describe as “objects to learn with.” Through this
lens, creating noise music (and not just noise making technologies) exists as a constructionist
activity in and of itself.
While a theoretical connection between constructionism and noise music provides a conceptual
frame to examine the learning practices of noise musicians, it does not provide evidence of the
mechanisms through which individuals and communities learn and what knowledges they
construct in the process. With this in mind, I now turn to empirical research to further explore the
learning processes of noise musicians.
To better understand how noise musicians conceptualize learning, I interviewed the four featured
artists (Sarah Hennies, Angel Marcloid, Bianca Marcia Naves, and Amanda Schoofs) from the
2017 Experimental Education Series (EES). The EES is a quarterly music series that occurs in
Milwaukee, WI at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts. Each instalment consists of a concert and
a workshop taught by the featured artist, all of whom regularly perform at noise concerts and
identify as noise or experimental musicians. Interviews relied on a semi-structured approach that
focused on the planning and enactment of workshops and their experiences learning about and
through experimental music. I recorded and transcribed all interviews and coded this data utilizing
an open and iterative approach to both descriptive and thematic coding (see Saldaña, 2015). I
focused primarily on instances where the artists discussed learning both in the EES workshop and
in their own development as an artist, looking specifically for moments where the artists discussed
the development of specific performance techniques, their artistic practice as a whole, and their
practice as a listener or how they uncovered/constructed meaning within noise music. This
approach allowed me to investigate how these artists conceptualized both knowledge and learning
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within this context. I then used this analysis to construct what Glaser & Strauss (1967) define as
a substantive theory of learning and knowledge shared between the participants in this study.
Types of Knowledge
When describing what they learned in and through noise, the participants acknowledged two
distinct kinds of knowledge: dispositions and “broken” knowledge. First and most prominently, the
participants in this study described the process of developing new dispositions towards both
experimental music and the world at large. Schoofs described her disposition towards
experimental music in relation to other vocal music traditions: “to refine the technique of, for
example, operatic singing, you're excluding a lot of different types of vocal sounds… you're saying
no to all of these other possibilities. And I see a lot of young artists as they become more and
more specialized dismiss all those other possibilities. Not everyone obviously, but I'm really excited
about people who don't dismiss those other sounds as valid.” In this sense, learning how to make
noise involves developing an appreciation for sounds neglected by other traditions. The
participants also discussed shifting dispositions for experimental music listeners. For Naves, this
involved a heightened awareness of her sonic surroundings: “that was kind of my first introduction
to it, like, ‘wow hearing that dude working on that bridge over there, that's actually a beautiful
sound.’ You can create your own experimental music if you just listen to the way that sounds work
together.” Developing a disposition towards experimental music largely involves a broadening of
the definition of music itself, a process that emerges from the active process of constructing
musical contexts through both performing and listening.
The participants also discussed acquiring what I term “broken knowledge.” This category of
knowledge involved developing a detailed understanding of the incorrect way to utilize some skill.
Schoofs engages this theme when discussing the act of singing while inhaling: “Our musculature
is not designed to vocalize on an inhalation… Because of that, it's an exciting sound that I like to
use in my improvisations because I don't always know exactly what will happen.” Working against
the “correct” way our bodies function, Schoofs developed a new and exciting vocalization
technique. Marcloid also connects with this type of knowledge when circuit bending gear,
discovering sounds when her pedals are “plugged into equipment and on and in a feedback loop
while I work on it. I don't think that anybody else really does that or would think to do that because
it’s kind of the wrong way to do it in order to get intentional results.” This marks a distinct shift from
most approaches to instrumentation in which performers look to develop a clear understanding of
how the instrument works.
Drawing a connection to constructionism, the participants in this study ssituated the development
of these knowledges within one overarching mechanism: rather than foregrounding technique
before performing or composing, participants constructed knowledge through the act of making
music. Marcloid related to this notion, stating that “I would just try to poke around the gear that I
had at any given time and try to find new ways of doing things. But not with huge foundation of
knowledge on how to properly attain these things.” Schoofs also developed her artistic practice
through making during her time in graduate school: “We were just performing a lot in the halls on
a weekly basis, so you got to fail a lot. You can't learn how to improvise well unless you've had a
lot of failures and you understand what it means to not do something very well or make a poor
choice. What that means to you personally, what that means to a group dynamic, and then how
do you recover.” Looking beyond her own practice, Naves articulates this sentiment when she
says, “the local experimental music artists around me, I've seen them evolve immensely by just
doing it.” In all cases, the participants position the act of making music (and sound more broadly)
as the mechanism through which they developed their own personal knowledge and practice.
In discussing this process of crafting knowledge through making, the artists brought up two
somewhat contradictory origin points in that construction. First, all of the participants discussed
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their development as artists in relation to some outside skill development: Marcloid was an
accomplished musician in various metal and punk subgenres; Naves started in theatre and make
up design; Hennies discovered experimental music after playing drums in various rock bands; and
Schoofs had trained classically as an operatic singer. All participants then relied on these
backgrounds when developing new forms of experimental music. For example, Marcloid discusses
how her ability to play guitar in a different tradition allows her to create interesting free jazz:
“Because [I’m] really only just getting the very tip of jazz… I don't know what to do. So that makes
my jazz really different from the free jazz that someone who knows jazz theory really well.” This
experience making unique sounding free jazz with tools outside of the jazz realm indicates the
value of crafting new knowledge with a disparate skill set.
The participants also discussed the value of creating something from a complete lack of skills or
knowledge. Hennies discussed this concept in relation to a collaborative piece she performed at
the EES, claiming that “the ideas in the piece are what dictated the material, which I think is why
it came out so strange and unusual. We were very consciously not trying to play a style or to do
something that was necessarily connected to anything else that we did.” Through this process,
Hennies avoided relying on familiar musical knowledges to craft a new and unique performance.
Marcloid addresses this sentiment even more directly: “Sometimes when you don't have a
foundation of knowledge in something you may not necessarily get better results, but they're
different because that foundation is not there. I think that's really exciting.” Without adding a value
judgement, Marcloid acknowledges the unique knowledges that materialize from engaging foreign
Communal Approaches to Learning and Knowledge
Shifting away from the individualist conceptions of learning, both Naves and Schoofs discussed
the distributed knowledge construction they encountered between community members and
performers. Naves in particular conceptualized her work through her creative community: “We
have an interest in generally the same types of things. We find ourselves working together on
projects that fit into this kind of experimental realm and we've developed a rapport where we know
everyone's role.” This understanding of her community and how she fits into it has allowed her
and her colleagues to create a number of collaborative works she could not have done on her
own. As for Schoofs, this communal knowledge manifests itself during the moment of free
improvisation. “when you're playing with other people it's amazing how people think very differently
than one does as an individual. If I'm vocalizing with another person, they might do something that
I didn't expect at all and that triggers me to change my sound… there's the exciting element that
they have their own unique ideas that they are bringing to the table. And you can learn a lot from
that process.” Fischlin et al. (2013) connect to this description when they describe free
improvisation as a space to construct knowledge between performers, some of whom meet for the
first time on stage, through the act of spontaneously creating new music and musical languages.
This positions certain forms of culturally situated knowledge within noise as a communally
developed product, one that forms beyond the scope of a single individual.
However, Hennies disagreed with the importance of this sentiment, stating that she often feels “on
the outside” of any music community. However, this disagreement played out in an interesting
fashion. Hennies claimed that “the result [of being an outsider] is that I can go play at a university
or a music school or I can go play at the noise fest. And… when you go to [a noise festival] and
play that piece that I played in Milwaukee surrounded by ten different sets of harsh noise... all of
a sudden you're like ‘Wait, where are we now?’ Because now all of a sudden the festival is different
than you thought it was.” While Hennies may not employ a communal approach to developing her
own work, the juxtaposition of her work within a broader community of different artists challenges
preconceived notions of the immediate musical environment of the festival. Since this
understanding emerges from the relationship between her music and others, musical knowledge
still forms through communal interactions.
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Mirroring the argument proposed in the theoretical context, the overwhelming focus on
constructing knowledge through a process of making musical artefacts (i.e. performances) as a
mechanism for learning firmly situates noise (and experimental music more broadly) within the
context constructionism. Especially considering Marcloid’s assertion that specific knowledges
about noise emerge through engaging in practices one knows nothing about, I would argue that
educators and researchers cannot separate experimental musical traditions (including noise) from
a constructionist understanding of music creation. Since the construction of new artefacts acts as
the dominant means towards creating new forms of socialized knowledge, making noise music
inherently and tangibly enacts the theoretical foundations of constructionism described by Papert
(1980; 1993). Moreover, the reliance on non-noise approaches to making music or performing
connect to Kafai et al.’s (2009) assertion that “constructionism views learning as building
relationships between old and new knowledge” (p. 3). While participants may have developed new
dispositions while making noise and experimental music, these dispositions did not emerge out of
thin air. Instead, they generated in part through the circulation of artefacts between cultural bodies
described by Novak (2013) in his definition of noise. In turn, this process of relationship building
between old and new knowledges contained within different cultural bodies allowed these artists
to reclaim “broken” knowledges and reengage them as meaningful parts of a newly invented
language, to use Attali’s (1985) phrasing.
Moreover, the conceptualization of communal knowledge construction proposed by participants
responds to Ames (2018) critique of constructionism that frames this approach as an atomized or
individualistic form of learning. When Schoofs describes her experience of developing new
knowledge in the act of performing with other people (one in which new ideas come from the
interaction between freely improvising performers), musicians distribute not only knowledge but
the act of learning across the community of performers. For both Attali (1985) and Fischlin et al.
(2013), this communal knowledge construction sits at the heart of noise and free improvisation.
Similar to students who “construct theories by arranging and rearranging, by negotiating and
renegotiating with a set of well-known materials” (Turkle & Papert, 1991, p. 136) through bricolage,
noise musicians do the same by working with sound in inherently collaborative contexts. Whether
this involves a collaboration between artists (as described by Naves and Schoofs) or in the context
of negotiating meaning with audiences (like Hennies describes in her experience at the noise
festival), engaging bricolage within noise exists as a communal and situated process. In turn, noise
positions constructionism in opposition to the individualized formation proposed by Ames (2018)
and defines this learning theory as an inherently communal process.
If learning “happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged
in constructing a public entity, whether it's a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe”
(Papert & Harel, 1991, p. 1) within constructionist learning environments, it behoves education
researchers to investigate not only the sandcastles but the theoretical constructions as well. This
becomes especially important when considering Ames’ (2018) critique of the intellectual history of
constructionism, one that ignores cultural forms of knowing in favour of individualistic approaches
to knowledge construction. In this paper, I position noise music as an especially fruitful site of
research because of its intrinsic reliance on the reinvention of culturally situated musical
knowledges through collaborative, performative acts. In doing so, this study challenges education
researchers to expand beyond formal, technocentric educational contexts to further understand
the scope of constructionism. Noise music provides one example of a learning context that not
only embraces but relies on the construction and sharing of theories of the (musical) universe as
a cultural practice. However, that noise music in particular fits the constructionist model so well
should not be interpreted as an implication that other forms of music do not fit the model as well
or better. Instead, I position this analysis as a call for similar research into other musical traditions
that challenge the overly socialized forms of musical knowledge that sit at the heart of the western
Constructionism 2020 Papers
musical canon. By exploring other spaces that replicate this process, scholars can fully realize the
promise of constructionism across all cultural contexts.
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