Musical genre, ‘music is music is music’ and sameing

Have you noticed how the use of language changes through our ongoing discourse? I am thinking of the ways in which we talk about music and music education and the case of the term ‘genre’. It seems that classical music has become a genre, for example! I have come across this quite a lot lately.

In this case pop and rock and world music would be genres too. And we see something like this in a CD store or in the revolving focus of the Music Teacher Magazine. Large categories make for a less complicated life.

But I thought that musical genre, an idea derived from literature, was something rather more specific than this global reductive approach.

In literature we might usefully distinguish between say, the 19th century Welsh Industrial Novel, Dystopian Late 20th century fiction and Contemporary South American Magical Realism.

Once we think of genre in this way we encounter the richness of difference. And no doubt we can investigate sub-genre and even micro-genre that would take us from genre to differences in musical practice and the uniqueness of the lived experience of those who are reflected in them.

So what about the practice of 1890s Paris Organ Grinders; Contemporary Manitoban Line Dance; 12th century Notre Dame Polyphony; 2018 Chair Drumming? We can think of these as genres and practices. And thinking in this way would disturb the aculturalism [1] that comes with the sentiment that ‘music is music is music’ and the pervasive tendency towards sameing [2] that can so easily lead to reducing genre to global categories.

We need to keep an eye on the discourse that is music and music education.


I have invennted two words above.

[1] Aculturalism – conceiving of music as living outside culture, as reified.

[2] Sameing –  a process of abstracting that minimises difference.







A music education reality check

In my previous blog (scroll down), a keynote address at Newcastle University, I noted the recent expansion of sponsorship and philanthropic support of music education in our schools. Of course, I have little idea of the extent of this, only some knowledge of high-profile examples. I suggested that while such cases provide shining lights of what music in the school is capable of, this trend simply underlines and exacerbates inequalities of provision. The shining examples are ready to hand for government to point to as the way forward. Is this the way forward?

Well, it would be perverse to prohibit any form of sponsorship or philanthropic support. However, such support should stimulate some kind of reflection within the music education sector, shouldn’t it?

Understanding this trend involves understanding the fragmentation and quasi-marketisation of the education system and which is ultimately hostile to a national system of music education where there would be some semblance of ‘one equal music’.

Here I am thinking of equality of provision as an entitlement for all children and young people having access to a regular encounter with music making and thinking until the age of 14 as part of a general education. This would require attention to the education and training of new music teachers where there is currently a deficit. It would require serious attention to what the idea of a broad and balanced curriculum implies and calls for. It would require some release from a performance-based, instrumentalised education policy.

Any ideas!





In search of a music education

My keynote given at the Music Transitions and Futures Conference, The Boiler House, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne on Thursday 25th January 2018.

(The conference brought together music teachers from all phases including higher education.)

My perspective on music education comes from within the school, first as a secondary school music teacher for twenty-seven years and then in preparing music graduates to teach in secondary schools.

What I can do today is to sketch something of the moving landscape that has been music education in recent years, highlighting aspects of official policy and responses to it that have led to those changes that have brought fresh opportunities as well as daunting challenges. I do this before giving some thought to the ways in which a music education might be more than learning to sing or play a musical instrument? Or if you like, I ask what kind of subject is music? Is it a subject? In this way I may or may not be able to bring to the surface some fresh thinking about the state we are in today and some possible futures.

Music Education and the Public Sphere

In recent years all those of us who invest our lives in music education have become part of what is referred to as the music education sector. There is a uniqueness about this, for no other subject of learning and given a place in the education of all children and young people is deemed to constitute a sector. We hear nothing of the history education sector, the mathematical education sector, for example.

The designation of the term sector is normally given to ‘a distinct part or branch of a nation’s economy or society or of a sphere of activity … ’ [1]

Music education then is big stuff, and thought to be culturally, socially and economically significant. Furthermore, we hear increasingly of its transformational powers, its redemptive qualities and its role in furthering the cause of social justice.

We also hear of its rapid growth as a participatory activity. In my home city of Ely, a small city, the now three community choirs flourish with one claiming an international reputation and then the Rock n Roll Ukulele group in its first year attracting more than 100 new members, most of whom have never played before. [2]

The sector’s umbrella organization The Music Education Council envisages:

‘a situation where everyone in the UK – from 0 to 100+ is able to:

  • Learn about and through making music;
  • Enjoy opportunities to make the music of their choice in a variety of settings; and
  • Experience the benefits that arise from making quality music’ [3]

Here is music education viewed as a vast arena of activity where, like sport, participation is the watchword and thought of as a facet of human flourishing.

For our government’s part, and since the enactment of a National Curriculum for music in 1992, music has been recognized as a foundation subject as part of a general education. And governments of all hues have become acutely aware that music is something of a special case. Politically, music education needs to be attended to; for apart from anything else, there are both minor and major celebrities ever ready to speak loudly in music education’s name. Sir Simon Rattle and Pierre Boulez, we recall, had played a part in settling the disputes surrounding the making of a national curriculum for music in 1992. [4]

Into the Age of Measurement

But the John Major years that followed the creation of a National Curriculum saw attention paid not to music but the nation’s literacy and numeracy, and there was concern about the nation’s moral decline and significantly there was attention paid to assessment structures, that is, the measurement of educational outcomes, leading to an intensification of school inspection and accountability. For the teaching force this meant that professional judgment could no longer be trusted if standards were to be raised. Standards were and remain closely linked to a core preoccupation of government – the need to demonstrate that attainment in subjects relevant to economic performance is high and rising, that is, those subjects designated as core – English, Maths and Science, for it is here that it is believed that the global race is won or lost. [5]

Music Education and the Political Will

With the New Labour government came expressions of ‘achieving full potential of all’, the individualization of the learner citizen through the notion of ‘personalisation’, and for Tony Blair there was to be a Cool Britannia. Culture, media and sport minister Chris Smith noted:

‘The opportunities to explore the best contemporary culture and to express individual creativity are two vital components of any education system committed to developing the full potential of all its pupils.’ [6]

And in the Education White Paper 2001 Minister of State for Education and Employment David Blunkett made a bold commitment in respect to music. There would be opportunity for all to learn a musical instrument under the flag of Wider Opportunities.

The main aim of this programme is to create opportunities, over time, for every KS2 pupil to receive a sustained period of tuition on a musical instrument or to receive specialist vocal tuition. The learning experience will allow every child to have first hand experience of live music, group singing, ensemble playing, performance and composing. The programme in schools should look to ‘normalise’ instrumental and vocal learning – so that every child considers him or herself to be a musician. [7]

 I recall that amidst 1960s optimism Wilfrid Mellers, John Paynter, Christopher Small had called for all to be thought of as artists, for all were endowed with creative capacities. To be as an artist was a part of who we are. And John Blacking in his groundbreaking study of the Venda people of Southern Africa had asked ‘How musical is Man?’ [8] Even those who were deaf danced to the music. And now all shall be musicians, an ambitious expectation placed upon music education.

What followed was in Howard Goodall’s view a music education renaissance. [9] Much energy went into the making of a Music Manifesto [10] promising a new joined-up policy for music education.

In due course funding followed, a £32 million settlement, was directed towards enabling children of primary school age to receive instrumental tuition as part of a group, there was the Sing Up campaign which aimed at putting singing at the heart of every primary school and there were pilot projects replicating the principles of El Sistema. At the same time Musical Futures funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation disturbed the stagnant pond that was secondary school music, seeking to address young people’s disenchantment with formal music education by introducing informal pedagogies into the classroom. The New Labour years were coming to a close with music education on the move. The Conservative government in waiting was awake to this.

In the year leading up to the 2010 British General Election the Conservative Party began taking a conspicuous interest in music education. The then shadow minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, an enthusiastic dancer of the Lambada, wrote in glowing terms of the work of a primary music teacher near to parliament in Pimlico. He also told of his own music education where at age 11 he had been introduced to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. And there was talk of bringing back orchestras and choirs in every school as a priority. [11] In place of the New Labour rhetoric of creativity, innovation and the significance of contemporary culture, the voice of cultural restoration came to the fore accompanied by a commitment to new levels of academic rigour and a reaffirmation of the authority of academic disciplines. ‘It is the study of academic subjects that our nation’s economic prosperity depends upon’, said Michael Gove, and, ‘Music is an enriching and valuable academic subject. Research evidence shows that a quality music education can improve self-confidence, behaviour and social skills, as well as improve academic attainment in areas such as numeracy, literacy and language’. [12]

A ringing endorsement indeed.

But as we were to learn, some academic subjects are to serve economic prosperity more than others.

A National Plan for Music – the renaissance gathers momentum

Michael Gove had read the music education script of the New Labour years and without much ado Darren Henley, the then controller of Classic FM, was commissioned to review the situation. A National Plan for Music followed and was seen as an opportunity to reshape music education through identifying ways in which fuller musical participation could be achieved, how music education could become more inclusive, how inequalities of provision across England could be addressed. [13]

It was recognised that schools cannot do everything alone and that they need the support of local musical structures. Thus the vast majority of funding would be invested in music hubs. Music Hubs were to be the agents of change.

 Core aims

  • Instrument teaching and playing in ensembles;
  • Clear progression routes
  • Regular singing, choirs and vocal ensembles

Extension aims

  • Continuing Professional Development in supporting schools to deliver music in the curriculum.
  • Instruments:Provide an instrument loan service, with discounts or free provision for those on low incomes.
  • Experiencing music:Provide access to large scale and / or high quality music experiences for pupils, working with professional musicians and / or venues.

However, publication of the plan prompted significant criticism for its almost exclusive focus upon the primacy of compulsory performance training. With its suggested methods, ensembles, and music all based firmly in the western classical tradition, the Plan was thought to be prescribing a limited vision of musical learning based almost solely upon training in traditional modes of performance. [14] There was no mention of musical creativity, composing or the critical engagement with music. And special interest groups were quick to speak. No mention of music in the Early Years, no mention of music technology and no serious attention to the longstanding deficit in primary school provision, that is, in the education and training of primary school music teachers. And while a key principle was progression understood as movement to ever more rewarding ensemble performance, there was no thought given to the route ways to music in Higher Education.

The vision of the National Plan fed directly into the revised National Curriculum for music. As did a less than positive Oftsed report on the state of music in our schools. Reviewing evidence from inspection between 2008 and 2011 it was noted that:

The quality of teaching and assessment in music also varied considerably. Examples of memorable, inspiring and musical teaching were observed in all phases. However, in too many instances there was insufficient emphasis on active music-making or on the use of musical sound as the dominant language of learning. Too much use was made of verbal communication and non-musical activities. Put simply, in too many cases there was not enough music in music lessons. [15]

‘Not enough music in music lessons’ – a gift to the headline writers.

Music itself as the dominant medium of learning and sometimes expressed after the manner of Modern Foreign Language teaching in terms of ‘music as the target language’ became a popular slogan in attempts to revitalise classroom practice. And I note on my twitter feed just this week

“In a class of 60 minutes, the students should be playing for 59 minutes.” ~ J. Chalmers Doane #talklessplaymore

The Call for More Rigour: the National Curriculum and Exam specifications revised

A reformed national curriculum in 2014 emphasized the development of talent and musicality, performance training, the reading of staff notation and the notion of greatness and the musical canon. Throughout the curriculum’s documentation there was emphasis on the concept of ‘the best’ as defined by the western classical tradition: ‘the best in the musical canon’, ‘the works of the great composers and musicians’, and ‘high quality live and recorded music’. [16] The political Right’s longstanding call for cultural restoration which had failed to bite in the making of the first National Curriculum in 1992 was now resurgent. [17]

In league with a reformed National Curriculum came revised GCSE and A Level Music specifications with the official call for more academic rigour. The proposed revisions of GCSE music proved contentious with a large swathe of music teachers pointing out the unsuitability of the proposals for many of their pupils. Social media saw debate about the purpose of Key Stage 3 and its relationship to GCSE. Was Key Stage 3 to be a time in itself or preparation for GCSE that only a minority of pupils would pursue? Is the house still divided? [18]

GCSE specifications in music were compared with those in Art and Design that, unlike Music, was to be assessed wholly on the basis of course work.

In the case of Music, Ofqual, the examinations regulator, proposed ‘that marks for non-exam assessment in GCSE, AS and A level music qualifications should be 60 per cent, reflecting the balance between the practical and theoretical elements in the subject content.’

Were there no theoretical elements in Art?

Some music educators had long envied Art and Design’s easy complementarity of making and critique and the way that critical and contextual understanding was made manifest through the pupil’s processes of art-making. Why was music not conceived of in this way?

Different arts subjects have different histories, different trajectories. But could Music Education learn anything from Art Education?

Fragmentation of the school system

But now twenty five years after the first National Curriculum and little longer after the inception of GCSE Music the landscape of schooling had dramatically changed. Now a national curriculum was no longer strictly an entitlement for all children and young people age 4-14, for schools designated as Academies and Free Schools there was a freedom granted from the National Curriculum.

And in recent developments there are Multi Academy Trusts [19] that formulate their own particular brands of music education. Academies have sponsors and sponsors frequently have particular musical ambitions for their schools and their pupils, and for wider musical culture. And some of these are considerable. Where this takes the form of heavily sponsored programmes of instrumental provision, it is not uncommon for all pupils to receive two music lessons weekly in years 7, 8 and 9. Over the past five years I have observed how this works in the Isaac Newton Academy in East London Academy. The school’s sponsor is a Big Band enthusiast. All pupils are equipped with a big band instrument and each week in their big band lesson three music teachers enable the class to work in sections and all together to make big band music. Their music material is East London musical vernacular. There is another music lesson each work designated core and of a general nature and complementing the band lesson. The school’s first GCSE group, a third of the cohort, have achieved well. In West London is the West London Free School, dedicated to a classical liberal education, and like the East London school provides two music lessons weekly at Key Stage 3 and now with half of each cohort achieving well at GCSE music. No Big Band here but orchestras and choirs. And now there is the philanthropy of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber whose Music in Secondary Schools Trust believe that ‘young people’s lives can be transformed through classical music education. We offer free musical instruments, high quality teaching, and performance opportunities to over 3,700 students to improve their educational and social outcomes’. [20]

These then are the new torch-bearers, but news comes to me from my twitter feed:

‘Daughter returns from school after receiving mock GCSE results today (in August style mock ceremony) with news that many are now required to drop PE, French, Art etc in order to have additional hours on Eng/Ma. Is this normal???’

And another tweet. This one from Gert Biesta:

‘When children become a liability for their school’s performance, education has come to an end.’

In too many places music and quite unlike the London schools I have drawn attention to, music may be no more that a part of a carousel, a once three weekly experience, a half-termly experience and no year 9 experience. [21]

So is the future of music education to be built upon philanthropic models? Might such beacons of flourishing that I have highlighted spread their enlightenment? At the present time such developments would seem to merely exaggerate unequal levels of provision as school performance measures shape curriculum priorities in the majority of schools. But wait for now comes

The Music Commission and its vision for the music education sector

The Music Commission is

‘a new enquiry exploring the role of progress and progression in the formation and realisation of a musical life. Launched by ABRSM in July 2017 at the Barbican Centre and chaired by Sir Nick Kenyon, the Commission brings together new scholarly research and recommendations for policy direction, guided by the expertise and experience of the Commission panel. Its final report will be published in November 2018 and will call for significant changes to the way that governments, music organisations, schools, teachers, parents and learners think and talk about progress and progression in musical learning.’ [22]

The Music Commission takes up the dominant narrative of our times, that of ever-greater and sustained musical participation for all, and understood as the source of musical identity, feeling musically competent and being identified by self and others as a musician. David Blunkett, we recall had promoted the idea that all shall be musicians. And now a persistent rhetoric. [23]

Making Sense of Progress and Progression

So we are now asked to distinguish between progress and progression with progress, I assume, meaning the accumulation of musical learning as a part of ongoing musical experience and instruction – and progression as the longer view of finding a pathway that sustains a commitment to learning ensuring ongoing musical participation and in the Commission’s words, ‘the realisation of a musical life’. From learning to play a musical instrument as part of First Access Schemes [24] to ensemble membership to mature musical participation and perhaps, just perhaps, enrolment on a higher education course in music.

For the music teacher in school the notion of progression until recently had meant the movement of their pupils to the next National Curriculum sub-level and if inspected the requirement to demonstrate rapid progress in learning over a time scale of twenty minutes. The age of levelling and expectations of such observable micro-progress may have past but not the demands for data showing progress. And now we hear of children age 11 placed on their flight path to desired levels of attainment at age 16. [25]

At a recent Music Education Council Seminar Mark Phillips HMI confessed to not knowing what progression in musical learning was other than the music teacher’s capacity to place worthwhile musical material/experience before their pupils.

Is it that, in the myopic concern for achieving progress and progression, sight has been lost on a different idea, musical development as seen in the changing ways in which pupils exhibit musical behaviours, the changing ways in which they think about it, talk and write about it, think about it critically? Musical development as musical enculturation in dialogue with music taught.

Will all becoming musicians include learning to think about music critically? Could a music education be more that learning to play a musical instrument? Is it something more than musical participation?

The Lost Dimension of the Music Curriculum

The English National Curriculum for Music 2013 opens with a ‘Purpose of study’ statement. Here we read ‘As they [pupils] progress, they should develop a critical engagement with music…’ [26]

I wonder what is meant by ‘critical engagement’?

To be critical is to be thoughtful, discriminating, analytical, reflective, evaluative, knowing, insightful and a symbol of becoming wide-awake to the world; musical experience calls for this. It calls for a growing awareness of what music is, how music is used, how music is given meaning and how meanings are continually negotiated and re-negotiated. It calls for a recognition that music has ‘human interest’; social, cultural and political. Without criticism music ceases to be a subject of significance.

I will present two classroom scenarios.

Who will start the conservation? [27]

This was the question asked by the teacher at the beginning of a year 8 music lesson. So what was the conversation to be about? The class had entered to Mars from Holst’s The Planet Suite. They have settled quickly and attend to the music. White boards are given out and pupils are asked to write down a question they would like to ask another pupil, their teacher or their visitor (me) about the music. And so now the question from the teacher: ‘Does anybody want to start the conversation?’

The first question is asked of the teacher:

Q: ‘Why did you pick this piece of music?’

A: ‘It is a piece to react to; a piece to feel and think about. It’s a piece to respond to.’

Second question from Holly to Samantha:

Q: ‘What is your favourite part of the music?’

A: ‘I like all of it. And you want to know what is going to happen next.’

Q: ‘Have you ever heard music like this before? …’

Now the Star Wars connection comes out and is in play as part of the conversation.

Then, an interesting turn:

Q: ‘Was this music composed by a boy or a girl?’

A:  ‘Boy, it’s loud and dramatic.’

Q: ‘What was going through her mind when she composed it? …’

Back to Star Wars:

Q: ‘Do you think this music is scary?’

Teacher intervention: ‘Let’s listen again, how does it start?’

Pupils: ‘Really low notes’ ‘it folds in and folds out’ ‘tapping’.

The teacher links these responses to earlier pupil questions.

Now composing as a whole class with each inventing a response and learning to listen to each other through their whole class musical dialogue.

Thinking differently in the time of Tsunami and the Arab Spring

As an undergraduate David had been schooled in critical musicology. With this in mind the opportunity was grasped to test out ways in which a class of year 8 pupils could be challenged to think about music differently, how their habitual ways of thinking about music might be disturbed. A sequence of music lessons with composing at the centre were presented to pupils as an enquiry structured by the question: what does music mean? David provided his class with what he referred to as provocative scenarios. His intention was to stimulate the student’s curiosity and questioning, as they embarked upon their composing. David writes about making music together as a whole class:

‘All students sat in a circle playing barred instruments. The first third of their piece we created used the Japanese semi-tone major 3rd scale on B (B-C-E-F-A). Against the backdrop of a pianissimo rolled E, an F was gradually faded in and out, exploring the initial tensions of the tsunami. The B-C was then added to emphasise the nervous mood. All the notes gradually underwent a crescendo and were sustained fortissimo for a few moments before a sudden silence. A similar process was repeated, this time using a second, more blues-like Japanese scale. The familiarity of the sound led one student to interpret this section as the reaction of the international community.’[28]

And now another pupil has the idea of using the two scales at the same time. And so the lessons proceed in dialogic fashion, with the teacher skilfully leading the way provoking thoughtful questions that challenge assumptions about music and its meanings. And now the introduction of the composition task: to make a soundtrack for a montage of images of the recent Egyptian revolution using the Japanese scales. Why Japanese scales, some pupils ask? More dialogic work follows, with more thinking nurtured by the teacher’s gently teasing responses.

Neither scenario is commonplace in our school music classrooms and they may well offend the school of ‘talklessplaymore’. The kind of contextual richness in David’s classroom is not typically found, complexities are rarely embraced and the demands of school assessment structures frequently bring about the early closure of what is there to explore.

Critical engagement thought of as arising from a critical pedagogy is of course not a lost dimension of the curriculum, it is a yet to be one and one that might provide a fresh synergy between music in the school and music in higher education.

 I ask: Is there an ‘all shall be musicians’ –‘all shall be musically educated’ gap?

Final thoughts

In the twenty-five years since the making of a National Curriculum for Music, music education has established a strong public persona and politicians have learnt to engage with it, seeking to support it and to ideologically shape it. From the promotion of innovation and a move to greater cultural democracy under New Labour, Michael Gove and subsequent Conservative policy placed the neo-conservative nation-culture-social cohesion view of culture to work alongside neo-liberal marketisation and the fragmentation of the system. At the same time the music education sector abounds with energy and initiatives alongside the intensifying of commercial interests and an endless chattering of stakeholders. And in Zymunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity [29] there appears to be no end to what comes along and that melts into air amidst the wild profligacy of our times. I pose three questions in what Kathryn Zeerson has referred to as the best and worst of times for music education:










[4] See ‘From the Nervous Nineties towards ‘’a long overdue renaissance’’’ in Rainbow, B. and Cox, G. (2006) Music in Educational Thought and Practice, The Boydell Press: Woodbridge.

[5] The rhetoric of the global race emerged during the 1990s and became firmly attached to education.

[6] Smith, C. (1999) Forward to NACCE (1999) All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Cultural Education. London: Routledge.


[8] Blacking, J. (1973) How musical is man? University of Washington Press.

[9] See ‘From the Nervous Nineties towards ‘’a long overdue renaissance’’’ in Rainbow, B. and Cox, G. (2006) Music in Educational Thought and Practice, The Boydell Press: Woodbridge.

[10] See

[11] From a now deleted website

[12] Sources lost


[14] See, for example,

Spruce, G. (2013) ‘The National Music Plan’ and the taming of English music education. Arts Education Policy Review, 114/3, 112–118.

Bate, E. (2016) ‘Justifying Music in the National Curriculum: The Habit Concept and the Question of Social Justice and Academic Rigour’. Dissertation, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Music.


[16] DfE (Department for Education) (2013), The National Curriculum for England, London: DfE. Available online at

Bate, E. (2016) ‘Justifying Music in the National Curriculum: The Habit Concept and the Question of Social Justice and Academic Rigour’. Dissertation, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Music.

[17] See Shepherd, J., and Vulliamy, G. (1994), ‘The Struggle for Culture: a sociological case study of the development of a national music curriculum’. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 15 (1): 27-40.

The Govian return to a traditional education pulls what levers it can. Apart from the specified curriculum which in the case of music consists of general statements and at present is beyond the interest of Ofsted inspection, there are examination specifications and controllable by government agencies, and which tend to have a ‘wash-back’ effect on earlier key stages. There are also agencies in the field that promote the desired changes. The ABRSM 100 pieces of classical music for primary schools is an example.

[18] This is a reference to a review of music education by Keith Swanwick in 1977. See Swanwick, K. (1977) ‘Belief and Action in Music Education’, In Burnett, M. (ed), Music Education Review. A Handbook for Music Teachers, Vol. 1. London: Chappell. The division was between child-centred and subject-centred ideologies of the time. A similar tension may still be prevalent.





[23] It is common to see on social media images of children being assigned musician identity.


[25] The tracking of pupil’s progress is a dominating concern for schools in a high stake system of accountability.

[26] DfE (Department for Education) (2013), The National Curriculum for England, London: DfE. Available online at

[27] This is an account of a music lesson in a school in rural Essex.

[28] This is taken from David’s in-depth study undertaken as part of his PGCE course.

[29] Baumann, Z. (2005) Liquid Life. Polity Press: Cambridge.

In praise of common culture [1]

Better try over number seventy-eight before we start I suppose?’ said William, pointing to a heap of old Christmas carol books on a side table. [2]

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, like much of his writing, contains references to music-making. Hardy’s interest in the social conditions of his characters is matched by interest in the social conditions of their music-making.

For Hardy music is social practice. Musical meanings and musical knowledge are made here and now together and bound to the meanings made through the relationships of those participating. And all this in relationship to their place in the social order.

In the case of Under the Greenwood Tree there is the story of the Melstock choir, a band of local musicians playing and singing in the west gallery of their village church. Their music is silenced by the installation of the organ and a well-tutored organist. The imagined mediocrity of the locals is replaced by the imagined more refined and civilising sounds of the organ and the organist’s playing.

The musically disenfranchised locals inhabiting Hardy’s rural Wessex had come to enjoy in Michael Gove’s words:

… a shared appreciation of cultural reference points, a common stock of knowledge on which all can draw, and trade, in a society in which we all understand each other better’. . . [3]

Well, of course, I am being a little facetious, for Michael Gove was not referring to local traditions, such as Hardy’s musicians and their customs held in common, but to the proposition that:

… there is such a thing as the best. Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding – intellectually, sensually and emotionally – than, say, the Arctic Monkeys’. [4]

Or shall we say, not the Arctic Monkeys but the carollers on the western edge of Sheffield  whose singing this Christmas-time makes connections with that nearly lost repertoire of Hardy’s childhood time and now lost to the Christmas canon. [5]

Ah! ‘the best of the musical canon’, where have I heard that?

Here are two utterly different conceptions of what music is, what it is for, how it is educative; what culture is and what it is for.

While there is the knowledge of the powerful [6] exemplified in the edicts of our cultural administrators, it may be the carollers at the Sportsman Inn who will be in touch with incomparably more knowledge of music as a human practice and perhaps, just perhaps, of humanity too.

Number seventy-eight was always a teaser – always. I can mind him ever since I was growing up a hard boy-chap. But he’s a good tune, and worth a mint o’ practice.’ [7]

Wishing you a very happy Christmas!


[1] First published Christmas 2014.

Readers will find a number of previous blogs dealing with the idea of culture. This blog connects well with ‘How culture counts for music education’

[2] Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy, London, MacMillan, 1964 page 24.

[3] Gove, M. (2011) The need to reform the education system. Speech made at the University of Cambridge, November 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Pubs preserve the carols dusted away by the Victorians. Guardian, Monday 15 December 2014 page 5.

See for this year’s programme of singing.

[6] Michael Young contrasts ‘The knowledge of the powerful’ with ‘powerful knowledge’. See I have simply appropriated the phrase ‘powerful knowledge’ here and don’t necessarily imply anything of Young’s thesis, interesting though that is.

[7] I do concede that I am in some part a romantic. Philosopher Michel Foucault notes that nostalgia can be a rich source of critique should readers think I am indulging.

The scripted music lesson – the long view

In my musings in last week’s blog about silent obedient school corridors and the contemporary rhetoric of zero tolerance in regards to children’s behaviour, I made reference to Swiss children of two hundred years ago singing on their way to lessons.

The organisation Sing Up responded showing how singing could be a part of school life and used to make sense of transition times. Thank you Sing Up.

I had been reading Bernard Rainbow’s The Land without Music. And now chapter 10 titled The Synthesis of Indigenous and Continental Methods: John Curwen.

In the chapter Rainbow provides an extract from a scripted music lesson devised by John Curwen and published in the Independent Magazine in 1842. This was the first in the series.

Curwen begins with a note to the teacher:

Where I suppose a pause while anything is done, I will mark it with an asterisk.

“Now, children, we are going to learn the art of singing in tune. What are we going to learn? First, then, you must remember that any musical sound is called a note. What is a musical sound called? This is a note.’’

(I hear you singing to the sound ah any note you please.)

“I will sing another note. *    Could not some of you sing a note? Hold up hands – those who can sing a note. Do you –  *    and you.”    *

‘’I want to distinguish the same note from a different one.’’

‘’Sing the same note as this.   *      Sing the same note as this. *    Sing the same note as this. *     Hold up hand – those who will sing me a note, and I will sing the same. Do you –  *    and you.’’   *

‘’Now hold up hands – those who will sing me a note and I will sing a different one.   *    If I sing a note, which of you will sing a different one? Hold up hands.’’  [1]


Curwen’s purpose is to enable other teachers to teach children to sing in tune. His method is both direct and sensory. But Rainbow points to another feature which might easily pass the reader by and which for the time was novel.

While other pioneering music educators of the time were propagating their methods through their charismatic public style – a ‘this is how I do it, go forth and do it like me’, Curwen was aware that there was no guarantee that those who went forth would bring the same degree of charm, patient manner, responsiveness and humanity to their teaching as was publicly presented.

There was a translation gap and in Curwen’s view it was by scripting the lessons in a way that sought to capture something of the subtlety of the teacher-pupil relationship that mechanical replication of a method could be avoided. [2]

While the idea of scripting music lessons may seem an oddity to many today, (oh, but see the recent Guardian article) it is worth noting Curwen’s concern that the success of any lesson rested on the manner and attitude of the teacher.

This remains the case today. But isn’t classroom climate, with the teacher-pupil relationship at its heart, a tricky thing to catch hold of, share with others and replicate. I’ve long been interested in just what it is that teachers say, how they respond to the responses of their pupils and so on.

John Curwen reminds us that music teaching, whether scripted or not, has a relational centre. The teacher, the pupil and what is being learnt work in productive mutuality where the pupil has ‘a voice’ to lesser or greater extent. [3]

I feel the challenge of writing a scripted music lesson coming on. Something for the new year perhaps.


[1] Rainbow, B. (1967) The Land without music: Music Education in England 1800 – 1860 and its Continental Antecedents. Novello and Company Limited: London. (p. 148)

[2] Alas, I have no evidence that Curwen’s scripted music lessons were successful in achieving their purpose. He was certainly successful in teaching his own pupils to sing in tune and at sight.

[3] In the extract above I have taken the liberty of enlarging the asterisked spaces, those places where the teacher pauses ‘while anything is done’. I am assuming that Rainbow’s transcription of Curwen’s text to be faithful.

Singing as a way of school life: a note from the past

Part I

Two hundred years ago in 1817 the very idea of ‘the future of music education for all’ would have been barely conceivable.

While the European Enlightenment had given a twinkle in the eye of progressive educational thinkers, there were few signs of enthusiasm in England for establishing a system of schooling for all children in which music would play a part. Yet within fifty years not only had the idea of education itself become immensely popular but the term popular music education had become widespread. And, of course, it was singing that counted as music education. Singing as a communal activity had caught the popular imagination.

There were Joseph Mainzer’s mass singing classes for workmen – Singing for the Million, singing classes for children after their long hours of factory work, Sunday School singing, Sarah Glover’s pioneering work with infant children in Norwich, the official approval given to John Hullah’s fixed doh system and John Curwen’s promotion of a rival system.

Music education had been established in the national consciousness. It was here to stay.

For these nineteenth century pioneers justifications were several: there was the desire to improve singing in religious settings, singing for recreation, the moral well-being of the working classes and singing as a means of strengthening national sentiment.

The music education innovators of the time, for the most part, like those of today, were well read in the history of music education. They had engaged critically with ideas of the past and in particular the progressive breaks with sleeping forms of traditionalism.

Part II

You see I have been reading Bernarr Rainbow’s The Land without Music and amongst so much that intrigued I was pleased to find reference to a practice I had heard of a good number of years ago, one that had lingered in my ever curious mind. Yes, here were children going between lessons, not in silence, but singing their repertoire of national songs. This was in Switzerland and under the influence of the reforming educator Johann Pestalozzi.

I find the image appealing in the light of some of the stringent practices emerging in our own times in schools where ultra-strictness, no excuses and the silent movement between lessons is championed.

This silent obedience comes as a contrast to the Swiss children of two hundred years ago, providing an image at odds with the joy often associated with singing, singing playgrounds and the contemporary call to Sing Up and for music to permeate the whole life of the school.

So I am wondering, is there a school in 2017 where children sing on their way to lessons? may know or perhaps @EarlyYearsMusic

Is there a school where children arrive at their music lesson singing? @LauraMullaly may know.

As we ponder a future for music education in 2017 I am reminded that the past is always useable.

Next week I will consider John Curwen’s scripted music lessons and not without its topical resonance. See











Instrumental skills v musical knowledge

Music Mark @musicmarkuk

Great panel discussing Future of Music in Curriculum. @danfrancismusic @hantsmusichub @musicforall @aboorchestras @TrinityC_L #MusicMark2017

John finney‏@Johnfinney8 Nov 25

A Pandora’s Box. (Too) Many separate strands emerging and some conceptual confusions that need a whole conference to sort out. Fun to listen to. Thank you.

This was my twitter response to the Music Mark conference session of Friday last. The session was titled ‘instrumental skills v musical knowledge’. (See Anna’s crystalline after-thinking on the session.)

The session was once again seeking to create a coherent view about the place of music in the school curriculum so that its future would be secure and valid. In response to Dan’s blog which Anna read as Dan’s contribution to the presentation in his absence, the following questions have come to mind which might form the basis of the imaginary conference that I referred to above. There could be a number of others and I acknowledge that I will fail in doing full justice to Dan’s blog.

  1. What are the ends of a music education for all children and young people as part of a general education?
  2. What is the distinction between a knowledge-rich and a skills-rich curriculum?
  3. In what ways can classroom experience be ‘relevant’ to the lives of our pupils?
  4. To what extent is a music education concerned with the development of generic skills and dispositions thought to be of value to, for example, the creative industries, and more generally the future (creative) citizen?

These are mighty complex questions and I will only give a brief response here. It does really need a whole conference.


If ends are expressed as purposes I propose three.

  1. To equip all children and young people with the knowledge, skills, dispositions and understandings so that they will know how to make music well.
  2. To induct all children and young people into existing musical traditions and their practices of making-music with the potential for their regeneration and creative transformation.
  3. To enable all children and young people to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through making music well.

When we make music in the world we strive to make it well and if we have sufficient ‘know how’, ‘know that’, ’embodied knowledge’ and ‘musical knowingness’ we succeed. By achieving the end of knowing how to make music well we are in touch with the richest kind of knowledge possible. And we can confidently speak about a know-how-based music curriculum allowing the skills-knowledge debate to be transcended. The instrumental skills v musical knowledge dichotomy is dissolved.


But to be really rich it will need more than making ‘my’ music well. It will require pupils to be introduced to and taught how to critically engage with a range of existing musical practices. Of course we will need to make judgements about which musical practices. I would say culturally significant practices.

I propose a dialogic approach that creates space for negotiation where the wisdom of the teacher and the musical minds of their pupils together create a curriculum. (Music teacher Eleanor provides an example.) In this process the teacher (and the pupil) have a responsibility to bring to the table challenging and even disruptive material – the voice of Cathy Berberian in Eleanor’s case, and for me Steve Reich’s Different Trains, Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit, Bob Marley’s Exodus, Schubert’s Erl King might be among my selection (carefully considering age and stage).

And now I am touching on relevance, that most slippery of concepts. My examples, and they are only examples, ooze with relevance because they are rich in human interest and are able to draw creative and highly personal musical responses from both pupil and teacher. The example of Different Trains is particularly rich. It is this kind of contextual richness that gives substance to music as a curriculum subject so that it is much more than learning to play an instrument, finding your musical voice or being a musician.

And now the question that is central to Dan’s blog.

To what extent is a music education concerned with the development of generic skills and dispositions thought to be of value to, for example, the creative industries, and more generally the future (creative) citizen?

One major confusion arises when skills (like knowledge) are talked about in an undifferentiated way. Is a skills-based music curriculum referring to musical skills or is it including what are labelled as 21st century skills and which are not subject specific but generic?

Dan is right to challenge the idea of music for its own sake and for nothing else. This is an untenable position. Wayne Bowman has a view on this.

I take the view that if we seek out the ends as set out in 1, 2 and 3 above, all kinds of benefits are likely to accrue (epiphenomena). 1, 2 and 3 above move beyond music for its own sake while not claiming to support specifics such as the creative industries or making the creative citizen of the future. This would be to make promises that can’t be kept. (To serve the creative industries, for example, would require a specialist component in a music education, that is, a vocational pathway and this is not the concern of a general music education.)

But then, you may start from quite a different place to my 1. 2. and 3.

Final thought

Ours is a liquid modern music education where it is near impossible to establish and maintain an agreed framework, where it is in a perpetual state of formation and reformation. Dan’s blog captures this state of flux and accompanying anxiety well. And it is for this reason, if no other, that we should attend much more to music educational ends or as I prefer, purposes.

But should ends determine means? Perhaps ends and means need always to be in  conversation with an ultimate eye on human flourishing.


Have you noticed that I now know how to make use of hyperlinks?