On March 24, Roger Mantie, an assistant professor in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at UTSC, gave a talk on the Centre for Ethics’ YouTube channel as part of the Ethics of Songs series. 

As a trained instrumentalist, Mantie’s interests have seldom focused on vocals and lyrics. However, his recent work on collegiate acappella groups has shed light on the ethics of songs and how these ethical parameters are defined in college and university spheres. 

The word ‘ethics’ generally refers to the morality associated with human behaviour — what is right and wrong, and how we justify our moral judgments. So, what does ethics have to do with music?  

There is more to music than instrumental arrangements and singing. Songs can be shrouded in deep layers of meaning that are sometimes innately defined in the lyrics, but individual perspectives and interpretations also play a role in shaping songs. 

According to Mantie, “The ethics of song… is more a matter of practices than inherent meanings.” The same song can hold very different meanings for different people, moulded by personal experiences and viewpoints. 

In a broader context, one person’s ethical judgments about music can influence the behaviour of others. Having worked as a school music teacher for several years, Mantie has encountered instances when parental objections influenced whether or not their child could participate in a musical activity. 

For example, although the song “Jingle Bells” has no religious connotations, some parents would restrict their children from learning it. As Mantie put it, this begs the question: “Who gets to adjudicate what a particular song means or doesn’t mean?”

Collegiate acappella groups are small groups of postsecondary students who arrange and perform music recreationally. For these students, the act of making music and presenting it on stage is intertwined with concepts of cultural capital, gender and sexuality, and performativity. 

The tradition of acappella originated in Ivy League institutions in the United States but has since spread widely across North America. U of T has several student-run acappella groups of its own, such as “Surround Sound A Cappella” and “Tunes. Beats. Awesome.” 

The prestigious roots of collegiate acappella can influence an institution’s presumed esteem and the “cultural capital” associated with it. 

Another interesting factor is the often gendered nature of collegiate acappella groups. Here, the performance of gender and sexuality, a concept proposed by the philosopher Judith Butler, is fundamental. Acting serious, silly, or sexy on stage may be received differently based on the group demographic, sometimes with harsh double standards that favour all-men groups. 

The ethical value of collegiate acappella groups reveals that even this fun, recreational activity can have deep significance when it comes to institutional prestige and the performance of gender identity.