Yr6_P4C_Vacuum Theory

Philosophy for Children (P4C), or some variation of it, is practised in over 60 countries around the world and has a history stretching back over 40 years. The underlying principle is for children and young people to experience rational and reasonable dialogue about things that matter to them and their teachers. All participants work together in a ‘community of enquiry’. The aim for each child is not to win an argument but to become clearer, more accurate, less self-contradictory and more aware of other arguments and values before reaching a conclusion.
From the P4C website

The class sit down on chairs in a large circle.

It is after lunch and the class are very restless with several children making no effort to alter their behaviour now that they have come inside from the playground. The hour-long session ahead will be full of interruptions and multiple simultaneous voices. Here, then, is a class that stand to really benefit from having an opportunity to work at sharing their thoughts and listening to each other. I explain that we will listen to a piece of music and that afterwards there will be an opportunity to share questions that come to mind. After this the class will vote for a question and then explore the issues raised in a ‘community of enquiry’. Some want to know what sort of music it will be. I choose not to say anything.
We play a game called ‘Fruit Salad’, a very simple chair-swapping game. The children really enjoy it. It helps to break up the group a bit so that they are not all sitting in their friendship groups.
The piece of music we listen to is called The Machinic Phylum by Cortex on an EP called Vacuum Theory (Praxis Records 48). You can listen to it here:
We listen to it fairly loudly on a pair of wall-mounted 90W powered speakers. It is an intense barrage of crunching, crackling white noise with an underlying bass-heavy pulse roughly every three seconds and, in the high frequencies, distorted feedback screams and howls. Imagine standing behind a large jumbo jet taking off! It is over seven minutes long and we listen to it all. On the Discogs website the style of this extraordinary piece is described as ‘Abstract, Noise, Dubstep, Breakcore’.
The reaction from the class is immediate. Hands are held over heads as if we are under attack. Some boys dive on the ground, perhaps to escape incoming explosives. There is a lot of talk throughout the seven minutes.
What follows is a list of the questions that the class came up with and then an account of the subsequent discussion. This is then repeated for the other class.
The Questions
• Why did it sound like thunder?
• What instruments were used?
• Was it supposed to sound like an alien invasion?
• What type of music is it?
• Why did they use gunshots as instruments?
• What inspired this music?
• Why were there no words?
• Do people normally listen to this?
• Is it actually music?
• Why did the artist decide to make this?
The question ‘Is it actually music?’ was voted for; it only just beat ‘Do people normally listen to this?’ I have come across the question ‘Why were there no words?’ before; I think it reflects an understanding of music that is confined to pop songs. I was interested that the final question referred to ‘the artist’.
The Discussion: Is it actually music?
This began with “No, it’s just a collection of sounds” countered by “Yes it is, because any sounds can be music.” A third disgusted member of the class asked “Who would listen to this?” and then added that it could be the background sound in a film but it’s not music.
A fourth opinion: “It’s sad and miserable so it’s not music.” This was quickly taken up by several people. In response the speaker clarified her opinion by saying that Sam Smith sings sad songs but this music is just “pots and pans”. Someone else said that music does not need words and reiterated the earlier idea that any sound can be music.
Someone suggested that it must be music because it has a beat (the slow but distinctive pulse). This was vigorously disagreed with: “It’s not music because it hurts your eardrums, it’s like torture!” A third person added to this by taking up the earlier argument that it could be classified as ‘sound effects’ but not music, reinforcing this by stating that the piece had no rhythm and no melody. The idea of a soundtrack was picked up on by someone else who said it is not music but it could be used in a horror film.
Somone else said that it is not music because “…normal music has instruments.” From this idea emerged a discussion about what role music plays more generally. I asked the class “Should music have nice sounds?” and about half the class agreed that it should. This led to talking about how we define a nice sound and it was agreed that this would be a matter of taste. Closing the session with another question I asked “Do you think some people like listening to this?” Only six out of twenty eight thought that this was the case.
This question of who would want to listen to such music was picked up by the next class.
The Questions
• Is it supposed to be loud?
• Is it music or is it not?
• How was it made?
• Why is it so violent?
• Why does it sound like a vacuum cleaner?
• Why would people listen to this?
• What was it made for?
• Why is it repetitive?
• Why does it sound like a war?
• Who would make music like this?
The vacuum cleaner question was asked by someone who had seen the title of the EP! The question ‘What was it made for?’ could be asked of any art and is exactly the sort of question that is perfect for a P4C session like this. Today the final question won with a big majority.
The Discussion: Who would make music like this?
The opening answer was, in one sense, all that needed to be said: “People who like this sound.” Here are some of the other answers:
– They were depressed and they made it
– It was made by someone who is angry
– Someone with a chaotic life
– An old man who had seen war (gunshots/explosions)
– Somebody who was bullied
– Someone who drank too much
– They did it for fun
– Someone who’s always late for work; it’s that person’s alarm clock!
– Someone who is grieving
One person suggested it might have been made for a film and mentioned Tranformers as a possibility. In both lessons films were mentioned. Films expose children – or all of us – to instrumental music that is intended to convey a great range of emotions and feelings. The cinema itself is likely to be the only place that some of these children would have heard comparable amplified abstract soundscapes. It makes sense that children in both classes talked about the movies.
In these P4C sessions there were good examples of people responding to each other. Once or twice individuals felt the need to adjust their point of view or to describe what they wanted to say in a different way. The music generated opinions and feelings that led to some interesting discussion, especially in the first session. A group of adults exposed to the same piece of music, and given the same thirty minutes of time to discuss it, might well have covered very similar ground.