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egotism, elitism, and the ethics of musical humility
forthcoming, Oxford University Press

Book Description

Egotism, Elitism, and the Ethics of Musical Humility represents the first book-length study of humility as an artistic virtue for musicians and music educators. The book is structured in three parts. In Part 1, I initiate a critique of egotism as a social vice that impedes the artistic growth and flourishing of musicians. In Part 2, I argue that individual manifestations of egotism are largely fueled by a systemic culture of elitism which works to subjugate those beyond the boundaries of privileged musical practices. In Part 3, I initiate a comprehensive analysis of musical humility as a virtue that empowers the fullest artistic realization of oneself and others.


As an artistic virtue, musical humility emboldens musicians to prioritize collaboration over self-interest, encourages the well-being and care of others, and uplifts those with whom they share in a given musical experience.[i] In response to society’s ever-growing egocentrism,[ii] the study of humility has flourished as social psychologists, philosophers, educators, and leaders have recognized a need to quiet the ego in favor of more selfless social commitments to one another.[iii] In this book, I examine the empowering role that humility can play in the lives of practicing musicians, students, and educators. As an artistic virtue recently introduced to music and music education,[iv] I draw from moral philosophy, social psychology, sociology, and music scholarship to present an interwoven picture of humility as it uniquely manifests in our musical lives. 


Philosopher Alessandra Tanesini contends that humility is often hard to come by because of a human penchant for viewing ourselves inaccurately.[v] This “mismeasure of the self,” she argues, leads us to fall short of our virtuous efforts and succumb to pernicious social vices instead. As musicians, we might take on a heightened sense of self-importance as we perform or teach. We might lose sight of our personal growth, focusing too much on our self-satisfaction instead. Or, we might treat our expertise as a self-evident gift to be gratuitously bestowed onto others. On the other hand, we might adopt a fatalistic stance toward our musical abilities, believing that we do not belong or are holding others back. Out of fear of failure, our self-doubt might cause us to shy away from challenges that should otherwise promote our continued growth. Without an accurate view of ourselves, we risk either resigning ourselves to our artistic imperfections or failing to acknowledge their existence whatsoever, ultimately hindering the full realization of our social and artistic development.


But when we’re able to see ourselves accurately—when we’re able to honestly recognize our strengths and limitations; when we don’t allow achievements to go to our heads; when we’re self-assured without becoming cocky or arrogant; and when we work with fellow musicians as equal partners with valid expressions all their own—we are mindfully engaging in the ethical practice of musical humility.[vi] Through musical humility, we work to free ourselves from the pull of artistic vices and approach any opportunity to grow as artists. We feel energized by our shortcomings rather than becoming resigned to them. We refuse to allow our personal definitions of greatness to hinge on being viewed as a “cut above” everyone else. And we begin to see our artistic journeys as mutual, equitable, and endless.

Table of Contents


Introduction: In Pursuit of an Artistic Virtue

Part 1: Egotism

Chapter 1: A Study of Artistic Vice Ethics

Chapter 2: Egotism as Artistic Vice

Chapter 3: Egotism and the Vices of Inferiority

Part 2: Elitism

Chapter 4: Elitism as Systemic Vice

Chapter 5: Systemic Oppression

Part 3: The Ethics of Musical Humility

Chapter 6: A Study of Artistic Virtue Ethics

Chapter 7: Musical Humility as an Artistic Virtue

Chapter 8: Healthy Pride

Chapter 9: Transformative Possibilities

Chapter 10: Teaching and Learning Musical Humility



[i] William J. Coppola, “Theme and Variations on a Virtue: Humility as a Multidimensional Construct for Musicians and Music Educators.” Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, advance online publication (2021): 1–9.

[ii] Jean M. Twenge, Generation ME: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014); Jean M. Twenge, and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement(New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009). Although the data are admittedly striking for these books, I emphasize that I do not fully endorse the conclusions the authors promote, as I will discuss elsewhere in the full book. In my view, both texts place too much emphasis on positivistic empirical findings with a keenness for inferring generalizability without a balanced critical stance of the data.

[iii] Everett Worthington, Jr., Don E. Davis, & Joshua N. Hook, Handbook of Humility: Research, Theory, and Applications (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[iv] William J. Coppola, “Musical Humility: An Ethnographic Case Study of a Competitive High School Jazz Band,” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 222 (2019): 7–26.

[v] Alessandra Tanesini, The Mismeasure of the Self: A Study in Vice Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[vi] Coppola, “Musical Humility.”

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