Why the MMC approach to composing is so poor – Robert Bunting April 2021

Craft and Technique

The MMC defines the essence of composing as “the craft of creating melodies”  and “familiarity with music in a range of styles and genres” (p.10).  But neither melodies nor pastiche are the only approach to teaching composing, and for school purposes they are emphatically not the best.

Expressiveness and Inventiveness

In KS1 children start to learn some simple compositional techniques and structures . The curriculum is technique-based” (P.11)

This would be fine if it were based on a more fruitful idea of what composing ‘technique’ might mean. For MMC, ‘technique’ must mean tonal, metrical and note-by-note.  But young people work with a broader brush, a freer ‘whole-piece’ approach.  This might include expressive gesture in sound – experimenting with timbre, dynamics, texture, and pitch patterns – inventing motifs, sequences and structures – beginning to get the hang of design processes.  These too are techniques, aurally and intellectually demanding ones, and techniques that provide a rich field for imaginative thinking, inventiveness and expressiveness, which are the true foundations of music. Of course, formal note-by-note harmonic and melodic techniques are an essential part of the curriculum, and at a later stage, if enriched by this imaginative approach, their contributioncan be extremely fruitful.

But there’s no hint of such an approach, as we soon discover.

In Y3 children are expected to combine known rhythmic notation with letter names to create rising and falling phrases using just three notes (do, re and mi).(p.23)

Where’s the imagination and expressiveness in that?  Where’s the fun? Is Y3’s time really best used cobbling together meaningless three-note phrases?  Why the insistence on notation?  What is going on here?  It’s a stifling note-by-note approach, like painting by numbers, or constructing a toy car from a set of instructions – not in the least creative.  Children are being trapped in a box, moulded to think in a certain way.  No Art or Drama teacher would work like this.

Instead of asking themselves how young people think musically, how their understanding grows, or what fires their imaginations, the committee has fixed an academic ideal of what techniques should be known by age 14, and invented a progression going backwards by ever simpler steps to arrive in Y3 at do re mi.

Moving on from Y3 with its 3 notes, by Y6 we arrive at this (p.34):

Plan and compose an 8- or 16-beat melodic phrase using the pentatonic scale… and incorporate rhythmic variety and interest. Notate this melody. 

Compose melodies made from pairs of phrases in either G major or E minor or a key suitable for the instrument chosen

What strange briefs!  How children’s thinking is boxed in!  See how once again notation quite gratuitously rears its head! Variety and interest should be where composing starts, not something to be tacked on afterwards.

And in KS3 (p.37) “… by the end of Year 9, all pupils should be able to form and use primary chords in a number of keys and embellish these with bass lines, melodies and rhythmic accompaniment. Many pupils will have developed confidence in handling more sophisticated harmony …”

Does creative thinking always and only start from a chord sequence?  Are melody, rhythm and bass merely ‘embellishments’?  Is our over-riding aim simply to become more ‘sophisticated’ in our ‘harmony’?  The unexamined assumptions in every word of this one sentence are quite suffocating.

Quality, progress, progression

The Model Curriculum shows no understanding of the musical imagination, no recognition of exploration and inventiveness, no awareness of the power of design processes. It can thus provide no measure of quality in composing, nor of progress in the mastery of craft and technique. For the MMC progression exists merely in a mechanical sense, as the use of increasing numbers of notes and more complex chords, scales and textures – however poor the resultant thinking may be.

This is all the more depressing because the UK can draw on a much richer vision of classroom composing, with a fifty-year history, which has generated a wealth of brilliant practice embodied in current major national projects and recent publications.  Was any effort made to draw on this?

Critical thoughts on the Model Music Curriculum – Robert Bunting 2021

Some strengths of the MMC (above and beyond those that are already in the NC):

  1. “LISTENING” (close studies of individual pieces of music) is promoted to become the driving force of the curriculum.  Handled in the right way(dialogic, imaginative, integrated with composing and performing), this can be a powerful approach (though we would need better guidance on teaching strategies than the MMC provides).
  2. And given that, it is absolutely right to insist on sometimes stretching young people’s imaginations through close attention to classical music.
  3. Some listening pieces are intended to be revisited year on year, giving scope for systematic building on previous learning.  This is a powerful but under-used strategy. For young people to leave school with a life-long memory bank of a few well-understood and well-loved pieces of music would be an excellent outcome.
  4. PERFORMING stresses the value of whole-class presentations to an audience. This handled well can gives young people valuable insight into the design processes – choosing repertoire, rehearsing, programme planning, venue issues, stage management, connecting with the audience, evaluation –  at the heart of any performer’s thinking.
  5. There’s a welcome emphasis on building aural memory – this is crucial to all music learning, but isn’t mentioned in the N.C. 
  6. Schools are encouraged to introduce young people to living composers.
  7. The MMC does insist on the need for progression across the age-range. We may have strong reservations about the narrowness of the model they put forward, let alone its feasibility in practice, but this is a worthy and much-needed aim.

Some weaknesses of the MMC:

  1. Its core purpose is to give young people a lifelong passion for music making” (p.36).  To teachers steeped in music this seems obvious – they want all children to grow up, like them, as passionately active doers.   A less narrowly-focused teacher would want each child to grow in its own way, whether music is a passion or not.  A better aim then would be: to give every young person an understanding of music’s place in their own life and in the world”– thinking and feeling for themselves, not just doing.  But this would call for a very different sort of teaching. 
  • The values, and hence teaching styles, of MMC are at heart those of the Conservatoire – based on Western classical music of what to children is the distant past (pre-1900).  This shows itself in countless odd or out-dated choices of word and turns of phrase. True, major and minor scales, triads, 8-bar melodic phrases, Ternary Form are not restricted to classical music, they are part of most popular music genres as well.  But MMC’s approach remains uncomfortably academic, close to that of the old ‘O’-Level exam – especially in its fixation on notation.
  • The  over-riding emphasis throughout the MMC is on a progressionthat is narrowly focused on music theory and notation.  This progression dominates the entire composing and performing curriculum. Primary schools are expected to deliver the progression, with its ever-more complex theory and notation; but this is problematic -few Primary-phase teachers will have the required musicianship, especially for the more complex demands of Years 5 and 6. To mitigate this, MMC suggests that a school can put together a coherent music programme from a combination of schools, teachers, practitioners, professional ensembles, venues, and other Music Education Hub partners working collaboratively.” (p.5)  Quite a hotch-potch!  How likely is this to produce a coherent progressive curriculum? It feels more like a massive exercise in wishful thinking.  Yet if Primary schools can’t deliver the required progression, the whole structure of the MMC collapses.
  • Yes, of course we need some model of progression across the age-range, (although one that is a bit wider than crotchets and triads); but the focus on seamless progression in performing and composing from 5-14 is too intense. It channels learning into a narrow funnel and skews priorities.  The rate of progress envisaged is unrealistic; it sets Primary non-specialists up for failure, and dooms Secondary specialists to frustration. Every teacher needs the freedom to provide musical experiences that enrich theseparticular children’s general education at thismoment of time – to respond to what is happening in their lives now, rather than aim always for some far future narrow goal. This would open up a far richer view of what music education can be.
  • LISTENING.  The many lists of music recommended for listening cover a commendable range of musical styles. But there’s too much music here!   For each year there are 36 recommended listening items, including 10 different “Musical Traditions” from“non-Western” cultures. Fewer items and more careful study would be a better strategy; getting close to any piece of music and fully connecting to its culture needs skilled, detailed teaching.  Exploring 3 “Traditions” per year in detail is much  more meaningful than dabbling in 10. 
  • Unlike performing and composing, there’s no model of progression for audience listening!  It’s a complex skill-set in its own right (analysis, research, cultural awareness…), that takes time to develop and needs to be imaginatively taught. But the MMC doesn’t see it that way; it assumes that children will just instantly absorb the music’s meanings, and that 6-year-old children’s way of understanding music is much the same as that of teenagers. 
  • COMPOSING The MMC approach to composing is so misguided, it needs separate consideration (see my accompanying paper “Why the MMC on Composing is so wrong”).  In brief – MMC seeks to define a limited set of ‘techniques’:  it establishes an imaginary ladder rising gradually upwards from Y3, at which stage melodies are limited to just three notes, through Y6, at which stage pupils are considered ready to use the pentatonic scale, to a pinnacle in Y9 where the syllabus includes major and minor scales and triads, bass lines, and melodies constructed in phrases. Instead of starting from an understanding of how children’s own musical thinking develops, the MMC assumes a blank slate and imposes an adult professional model, moulding young peoples’ supposedly empty minds and funnelling them into a totally fictitious progression. In the process expressiveness and inventiveness – the essence of music – are stifled.

The curriculum gives no indication of what would constitute QUALITY of outcomes in composing, listening, or performing (other than to some extent singing).

[Robert’s composing paper to follow.]

Music and Social Justice and I can’t get that MMC out of my head

I have now read the first two chapters of Cathy Benedict’s Music and Social Justice: A Guide for Elementary Educators. Cathy is writing from Canada where Elementary refers to ages 6-14.

Reading Music and Social Justice has proved to be a much needed antidote to reading the DfE’s Model Music Curriculum (MMC) [1]. The MMC is thought to be an outworking of the National Curriculum for Music which as part of the National Curriculum for England claims a commitment to social justice. [2]

Chapter 1 of Cathy’s book is titled Listening and Responding and begins:

‘As a slogan, you can’t beat social justice. It’s ambiguous, and it can be welded by anyone, making it impossible to interrogate and making its purpose up for grabs. The phrase covers intent and interest, while at the same time causing users to feel really good about themselves for using it.’ [3]

Cathy doesn’t indulge in definitions, rather lives out a way of being and becoming a teacher whose classroom is a place of genuine dialogue where dispositions towards a social just world might grow. This involves reflecting on her own story of transition from the monologic conveyer of Kodaly principles to dialogician in the cause of an ethical consideration of what is ‘other’.

Unlike the steady creep within official discourse in England (and as exemplified by MMC) towards a unitary concept of knowledge, Cathy presents ‘the groundwork for engendering epistemic humility, or in other words, the groundwork for honouring multiple ways of knowing.’ [4]

The Listening and Responding chapter interrogates the taken for granted monologic nature of classroom transactions and shows how through modelling a different way of being together, where all voices are not just heard but infused with the capacity to think and feel below the surface of things, we can come to think critically. [5]

Cathy doesn’t underestimate how the teacher’s modelling of the dialogic way requires both patience and persistence. And this she shows through the ways in which she works with students preparing to become music teachers. She writes:

‘Many of them experienced repertoire as curriculum, and most, if not all experienced curriculum as teaching/learning musical literacy. But the skills they don’t usually have are those with which to interrogate the models they came from, which means addressing the equity of who may have benefitted from those curriculum models and who quite possibly did not. What might be needed, then, is a more holistic view of engaging with both the human and the musicking context in such a way that the relationships with the other remain at the centre.’ [6]

This is from the introduction to chapter 2, Communicating Justice and Equity: Meeting the Other. Cathy takes Lullaby as her subject. Hush little baby is the centrepiece for seven activities. Throughout Cathy shares in detail how she teaches, what she does, the questions she asks and those she doesn’t ask. By drawing on multiple renderings of the song children are caused to think in many directions about lullaby and much more.

I need to read chapters 1 and 2 again.

The MMC has placed an emphasis on repertoire. There are long lists of what might be thought possible. The question arises what does a piece of repertoire offer the music teacher and their pupils? I am looking forward to the next chapter of Cathy’s book where Peter and the Wolf becomes a centrepiece and like Hush little baby is likely to be the source of substantive thought and fascinating dialogue.

The point is made in the MMC that repertoire is not to be thought of in terms of ‘set works’, a term applied to works set for study at examination level. Yet doesn’t a musical work thought sufficiently valuable to be included in the curriculum deserve careful attention and some reasonable amount of time dedicated to it. Indeed, like a set work and despite its closed associations? I think so and it may be that a tightly sequenced competency curriculum is hostile to this.

Alas. Cognitive science has inflicted upon us a demoralising definition of learning and this has been taken up by the schools’ inspection body.

But Michael Oakshott writes:

Learning is the comprehensive engagement in which we come to know ourselves and the world around us. [7]

For Oakshott education is a conversation, a form of dialogue.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teaching-music-in-schools

[2] For a comprehensive examination and critique of the national curriculum for music see Bate, E. (2020). Justifying music in the national curriculum: The habit concept and the question of social justice and academic rigour. British Journal of Music Education, 37(1), 3-15.

[3] Benedict, C. (2021) Music and Social Justice: A Guide for Elementary Educators. Oxford University Press. Page 9.

[4] ibid. Page 10.

[5] For an exploration of monoilogisim, dialogism and social justice see Spruce, G. (2021) ‘The pedagogies of the creative classroom’, in Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music: Fifty Years of Sound and Silence, Routledge.

[6] Benedict, C. (2021) Music and Social Justice: A Guide for Elementary Educators. Oxford University Press. Page 23.

[7] Oakshott, M. (1975) Learning and Teaching in The Voice of Liberal Learning. Yale University Press. Page 35.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teaching-music-in-schools

Making and taking music and a model music curriculum

Model Music Curriculum Key Stages 1-3: Non-statutory guidance for the national curriculum in England has now been published by the Department for Education. [1]

In 1967 the children of the Burnt Yates Endowed Primary School, Ripley in Yorkshire created a musical work. It was titled Sea Tower. They too had a model music curriculum.

You are invited to listen. A notated version can be found on pages 54-56 of Sound and Silence: Classroom projects of classroom music. [2]

We can only speculate on the nature of their music curriculum. But we do know from listening to their musical work that descant recorder playing featured and that a piano, xylophone, glockenspiel and untuned percussion were resources at hand. We might speculate further about the children’s previous musical experiences that had provided the capacity to control their resources and to create the musical material that gave form to their thinking and feeling.

We do know that their work grew out of an imaginative discussion about a fossilised sea-urchin which their teacher had brought into school. One of the children describes what happens in their music.

‘The urchin shell was like the dome of an under sea tower, and a storm came and blew it down. The fish were swimming and then the octopus joined in. After the storm the fish swam again.’ [3]

In stimulating an impulse to make music and to make it go on until a work had been formed, the teacher had enabled the children to draw upon their existing musical schemata and to imaginatively expand these. The outcomes had yielded a range a new musical knowledge to consider. Musical intuition now invited in musical analysis.

One of the possibilities offered by Paynter for follow up enrichment of the musical thinking that had been developed was engagement with La Cathedrale Engloutie, a musical work created by Debussy – bell sounds, intimations of plainsong chant play their part in conveying the pathos of the title in Paynter’s view. New pathways beckon for the children and their teacher.

The children in this model music curriculum were coming to know and understand music not merely through their own processes of making but through their processes of taking too, taking from what other’s have created. They were learning ways of being disposed towards music, acquiring skills and making knowledge. But the relationship between this making and taking was a subtle one.

Such a curriculum has meaning making at its heart enabled by dialogic practices that I might suggest live in a far distant place from the imagination of Model Music Curriculum Key Stages 1-3: Non-statutory guidance for the national curriculum in England and its structuring categories.

In his comments throughout the setting out of this project titled Pictures in Music Paynter provides thought about the nature, meaning and function of music, what kind of thing it is (ontology) and how it can be known (epistemology).

Making, taking and thinking – a contrast to other conceptions of a music curriculum.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teaching-music-in-schools

[2] Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence: creative projects in classroom music. Cambridge: Cambridge. University Press.

[3] The text is probably found on-line.

Music scholarship informing music education

(A blog revisited)

Thomas Turino’s Music as Social Life: the politics of participation [1] is a fine example of musical scholarship and as such thought provoking. And, for me, this means that I reorder some of my conceptions of what music is, what it is for and just what is a music education. [2]

I often wonder to what extent music scholarship should shape the way we think about music education. If music is a subject of the curriculum because it is thought to be an important aspect of the human mind, a biological and cultural entity of considerable significance, then it would seem reasonable to mind the gap between scholarly understanding of music and the practice of music education.

Thomas Turino is professor of musicology and anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign.

At the beginning of chapter 2 titled Participatory and Presentational Performance he writes:

‘Because we have one word – music – it is a trick of the English language that we tend to think of music making as a single art form. Certainly we know that there are different kinds of music. We have lots of words ranging from rather broad ones – folk, classical, world music – which are meant to encompass everything, to ever more specific labels – (rock) roots, psychedelic, alternative, grunge, glam, punk, (metal) heavy metal, speed metal, death metal. Musical categories are created by musicians, critics, fans, the music industry, and academics alike. These labels are used to distinguish styles and products, but they tell us little about how and why people make the particular music they do and the values that underpin the ways they make it.’ [3]

Turino is interested in why people make the particular music they do and the values that underpin the way they make it. In this way he is able to create two fresh categories, two frames for better understanding the nature and purpose of music making. There is the participatory and the presentational.

‘Presentational performance … refers to situations where one group of people, the artists, prepare and provide music for another group, the audience, who do not participate in making the music or dancing.’ [4]

The ethic of presentational performance is a dominant one in many systems of music education.

On the other hand there is ‘participatory performance’.

‘… participatory performance is a special type of artistic practice in which there are no artist-audience distinctions, only participants performing different roles, and the primary goal is to involve the maximum number of people in some performance role.’ [5]

Turino’s examples are drawn from his field work amongst indigenous Peruvians, rural and urban Zimbabweans, and old-time North American musicians and dancers. The ceilidh, the silent disco, the Sheffield Christmas-time pub carolling are examples close to home. These are times when people gather knowing that they will in some way take part in a musical event (performance) in which all will take part. These events inspire participation because they welcome new timers and old timers alike. It’s like going to a party. You expect to participate.

Turino analyses participatory values. Unlike presentational performance values ‘the success of participatory performance is more importantly judged by the degree and intensity of participation than by some abstracted assessment of the musical sound quality’. [6]

The values and goals of presentational performance lead in the direction of abstracted assessment criteria relating to the qualities of musical sound.

I am reminded of my account of a school’s silent disco https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/04/17/putting-assessment-back-in-its-box/ and implications for the process of valuing (assessment).

In another example a music teacher highlights the distinction between Turino’s two modes.

At the end of a recent GCSE recital an informal 45 minute jam broke out, led by the students (though after a while the teachers couldn’t help but join in). Students began to play and mash together various songs that they had studied at Key stage three – Seven Nation Army, Sweet Dreams, Thrift Shop. There was a sense that the students were claiming this music as their own. The outpouring of joy was palpable (although a small number of students did not feel that they could easily include themselves in this musicking and so left.)’ [7]

The GCSE recital exemplifies presentational musical performance while the jam shows something of the participatory ethic which is likely to have had something of the intensity that Turino speaks of.

Of course, the commitment to communal achievement resonates with what is thought to be the informality of community music-making where the pedagogy serves the idea of forming a musical community. But is that really different to a class of 25 in their weekly music lesson? Wouldn’t we want the class to come to music lessons knowing that there will be communal achievement?

The ethos of building a community of music-makers would place emphasis on individual talent, differential achievement and the paraphernalia of assessment that marks out formal systems of schooling in a fresh light.

‘This would mean that instead of focusing on clearly defined goals, assessed with some measure of achievement, evaluation would be first and foremost interested in musical experience, valued in qualitative terms. If we accept that education is, at root, ‘a process of living and not a preparation for future living’ (Dewey [1897] 1996), it makes sense to pay attention to the richness of music-related meanings emerging from the active relationships of sonic events, music(k)ers and physical space.’ [8]

So instead of following a typically schooled pattern of assessment where each pupil is measured against norms derived from, in the case of the Silent Disco, Club Dance practice, the communal achievement of the group would be evaluated in wider socio-musical terms.

For example, how well has our silent disco enabled us to live/experience/know music, think about what it means to live music together with others? Have we created a community of practice, explored new relationships, musically-socially? Where do we go from here?

Perhaps the place to start is to develop a music-making community that together produces ‘excellent work’ (music made well, polished).

I have been running with Turino’s categories and trying to open up new thought within the practice of music education, an example of making a relationship between contemporary musical scholarship and the contemporary practice of music education. Just imagine a GCSE in Music where participatory performance in the community were a valued, essential and compulsory component. Shouldn’t we mind the gap?

I do of course recommend reading the Turino in full to compensate for my lack of depth.


[1] Turino, T. (2007) Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. The University of Chicago Press: London.

[2] I am a restless soul in this respect.

[3] ibid, 23.

[4] ibid, 26.

[5] ibid, 26.

[6] ibid, 33.

[7] Email correspondence.

[8] Odendaal, A., Kankkunen, O., Nickkannen, H. and Vakeva, L. (2014) ‘What’s with the K? Exploring the implications of Christopher Small’s ‘musicking’ for general music education.’ Music Education Research, (16) 2, 162-175.

Dewey, J. [1897] 1996. ‘’My Pedagogical Creed.’’ In The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953. The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898. Vol. 5, edited by L. Hickman, 84-95. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

The secret garden that is the music classroom

‘Mr H then introduces the materials with which they are to work. These materials, water and red ink, are significant. Not only does each student get his or her own cup of water, but Mr H comes around to drop the red dye in each person’s cup; personal attention is being provided here.’ 

(From The Arts and creation of Mind by Elliot Eisner)

A glimse into a classroom.  

For the most part writing about education deals in generalisations. Detailed, thick descriptions of classroom transactions like the one above are extremely rare. The truth of what goes on in the name of education in our classrooms remains in large part a mystery, a secret garden.

While I too write about education, mostly music education, in gereralisations, I remain intrigued by what actually goes on inside the classroom, the secret garden, where it is the interactions between teacher, pupil and what is being learnt that reveal the heart of the matter. I love reading and writing detailed, thick accounts of these human transactions just as we do in reading and in writing imaginative literature. 

‘The Invisible Man stood up, and sticking his arms akimbo began to pace the study.’ 

Just one short sentence from H. G. Wells The Invisible Man

We are there. Of course earlier in the narrative we learn more about the character of the study, the troubled state of mind of the Invisible Man and so on. Wells has ensured that we have imaginatively entered into the world he has created.

Christopher Small liked to ask, ‘what is going on here?’ when observing what he termed ‘musicking’.  

A while ago I was pleased to discover Jane Parker’s thick description of a scene from the early years. This is scene 1 below. In her blog Jane goes on to analyse what is thought to be going on here – the theory of instruction that lies behind the teacher’s actions. (See Jane’s Blog http://www.teachwire.net/news/ill-hum-it-you-play-it-music-education-in-early-years)

It prompted me to celebrate five scenes from the music room, each showing a music teacher’s advanced music teaching skill. Each teacher with a well-developed theory of instruction. And inside this there lies something difficult to capture in words – the manner of the transactions, the temper of the exchanges, their playfulness, the feel of the moment by moment narrative, the anticipations engendered and the satisfactions and frustrations experienced, and above all else, children coming to know music.  So come with me through the garden gate into the secret garden.

Scene 1:

The practitioner sits on a chair facing her preschool children who are gathered on the carpet in front of her. She takes out a puppet called ‘Songstar’ and hums the first phrase of ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ as she moves Songstar’s mouth. The children excitedly shout out, “Songstar wants to sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle!’” She asks the children if they all have their ‘twinkly fingers’ ready. She then sings (on her starting note) “Ready, steady, let’s all sing.”

The children and adults begin singing together, while simultaneously opening and shutting their hands eight times as they quietly sing the words of the first phrase. The song continues, but then the practitioner stops just before the word ‘sky’. She smiles and listens as a few children very quietly sing “sky”.

She joins in again with the rest of the song, but this time stops leading the song at the very end, allowing the children to sing “are”. She then asks the children if they have magic lips like Songstar, and gets them to have a go at miming the first line of the song – only instead of singing, they’ll clap each word so that they’re essentially ‘Clapping the rhythm’. She sings, “Ready, steady, let’s all clap” and leads the children in clapping out the words of the first line, miming the words while at the same time moving the puppet’s hands in a clapping motion.

Scene 2:

We gather in a circle. With measured poise and calculated tempo Hannah strikes her drum and we start connecting to the regular 1 2 3 4 pattern, learning to co-ordinate our cries of Hey and Hoe, while together making our first music of the session.

Breaking from the circle we walk the beat. And now a different timbre to perceive while conserving the beat – the sound of wood on wood from the drum’s rim used as the signal to walk backwards. Walking backwards I almost collide with Theo who politely tells me, ‘look over your shoulder’.

Now Hannah asks the children to provide themes from the recent Halloween-tide so that our walking has a distinctive character. In turn we become Spider-Man, vampires, skeletons. For skeletons I lean forward reach out my hands and spread fingers as wide as I can. When the music stops eyes close and Hannah asks us to locate particular children. ‘ Where’s Joshua?’ We point, and yes, how did we know that?

We are getting to know each other.

Back in the circle and a little commotion eased through a call to breathe out and a calming shhhh from Hannah that we all partake in.

Scene 3:

They form a circle, and following introductions, the teacher creates a movement-sound sequence figuratively faithful to motives from Mahler’s Symphony No 5 first movement, the ‘Trauermarsch’.

The musical material transmitted is Mahler’s. There are 15 minutes of intensive working where the teacher gives and the pupils give back, where the teacher insists through repetition that all get it. The transaction is already playful and relational. Like catching balls moving fast between all within the circle, the pupils catch melodic fragments as well as rhythmic ones.

‘You really need to get hold of this material, this is very important’, says the teacher.

Now with a voice of enchantment and mystery the teacher reveals Mahler’s use of the song ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, a song about one of Mahler’s ill-fated ‘children’, a drummer boy condemned to execution and his long walk to death, the ‘trauermarsch’.

The pupils want to know what it is that the boy has done that deserves such a fate. However, this is to remain a mystery for the time being. The work proceeds until groups have created their own ‘trauermarschen’ using Mahler’s material.

Scene 4:

Ready to go now and Katy, with a lively good humour, sets about transmitting the musical material.

calmly persisting,
patiently repeating,
incrementally extending,
imperceptibly accumulating,
few words,
sometimes recoiling,
always advancing.

And as the rhythmic texture enlarges, and as we together master the rules of engagement, we seek our own solutions to the skills-challenge equation and find flow and fluency.

In the ongoing interplay between Katy and the group the locus of control is passed back and forth. Yes, there are times of impersonal learning where the acquisition of content and skills dominate but then times of personal learning as each gains control, self-regulates, gains agency, no longer shaped by the teacher, but shaping self.

The highlight of the Samba workshop comes when there are sectional breaks and when the side-drumming quartet fizz with virtuosity. I think we are by now all feeling a bit virtuous.

Scene 5:

Now it’s back to reggae which started last week and ‘Three Little Birds’. First, instrumental warm up time, then some rhythmic and pitch calling and copying, including that clave rhythm and of course lots of reggae rhythms and melodic twists. Into sectionals with pupils mostly directing each other in their making and playing, and sometimes teacher directed assisting movement into a self-sustainable groove. Lilian is having a whale of a time on keyboard. There is a powerful rhythmic reggae idiomatic feel to her playing and making, and she is vocalizing at the same time. Amarose on drum kit is quickly into the groove and like others, once in the groove, and as a consequence of repetition, new material is made. Tshian asks me how to play A on her trumpet and we have a short discussion about pitch and embouchure. Perhaps unsurprisingly the keyboard, bass guitar, drum section get well-grooved first and ready to welcome back the rest who with some ease join the music. We have ten minutes of whole class playing with the teacher leading the ensemble round a circuit of possible structural combinations without a break.

Returning to Mr H’s art room:

‘The red dye in the water invites projection. Its fluid quality, much like a clouds, makes it possible to see in the unfolding burst of form images that will receive without difficulty the meanings each student wants to confer upon them.’

Go to the world of social media, to edu-twitter perhaps and see a world of pontificating generalisations about how education should be. But just what are they talking about. We have precisely not the faintest idea. Their gardens remain secret and perhaps barely known to them. 

Of course, generalisations are important. They open up and constitute the world of theory making and it is in theoretical propositions that we can find explanations, order and a sense of direction.

However, in the world of education and certainly music education rhetoric knows no bounds. Propositions fly in every direction taking us ever further away from what is actually going on in the classroom. 

What is musical understanding? Some musings.

Musical understanding is commonly cited as a justifiable goal of music education.

Roy loved music with a profound understanding, or so it seemed to me. In his recent passing I have lost a dear friend who I admired and learnt much from. I shared a room with Roy at college. There was me a music student flushed with adolescent musical arrogance pinning a picture of Stravinsky to my locker while Roy was telling me about Sarah Vaughan and how his mother had, in his early childhood, sung him to sleep with ‘Little man, you’ve had a busy day’. I became a secondary school music teacher, Roy a secondary school science teacher.

In later years I would occasionally visit Roy and we would spend time listening to music taken from his vast CD collection, sometimes sharing what we both knew well, sometimes Roy introducing me to the music of composers that I had barely heard of and sometimes introducing me to new voices coming onto the Jazz scene.

Roy had been largely self-educated musically – the songs his mother taught him, a vivid memory from school music days, rugby club singing, ventures into composing morality song cycles for his grandchildren using the programme Band in a Box all featured. Spending time with Roy it seemed to me his understanding of music to be profound.

Robert Walker writing in the preface to Harold Fiske’s ‘Understanding Musical Understanding’, proposes that musical understanding is what the human brain is wired to do and the remarkable thing is that it gets on and does it. It is a part of everyday cognitive activity and this makes musical understanding something personal and private, and intensely meaningful and special to each individual. [1]

For John Sloboda musical understanding is a matter of mind endowing ‘musical events, collections of sounds, with significance: they become symbols for something else other than pure sound, something which enables us to laugh or cry, be moved or be indifferent’. [2] Sloboda goes further maintaining that understanding music is a necessary pre-condition to being moved by it in much the same way that we won’t get a joke unless we understand it. We have to be in the know as it were, be familiar with the ‘language’, know the syntax, and in the case of music something possible through exposure and experience. Kemp, however, argues that this doesn’t account for the way people make sense of music, are moved by it and ‘get it’ without levels of cognitive complexity suggested by the analogy of getting a joke. [3]

Let’s call for help from musicologist Hans Heinrich Eggerbrecht. Making clear what is to be understood by understanding is the starting point. Eggerbrecht tells that

‘Understanding is a process by which something that is external to us loses its externality and gains access to our inner self. Object and self, self and object are drawn together and unite through understanding, in degrees of identity which correspond to the degrees of intensity and understanding. Understanding makes the world our own’. [4]

In broad outline Eggerbrecht proposes an evolving process for musical understanding involving a sensing – perceiving – feeling – intuiting – cognizing – conceptualising spectrum of the human mind seeking understanding and making sense.

Musical understanding is a justifiable goal of music education. It seemed to me that Roy was one of the most musically educated people I have known.


[1] Walker, R. (2008) ‘Forward’ in H. Fiske, Understanding Musical Understanding. Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press.

[2] Sloboda, J. (1985) The Musical Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[3] Kemp, A. E. (1996) The Musical Temperament. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Eggerbrecht, H. H. (2010) The nature and limits of musical cognition. Farnham: Ashgate.

Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music: Reimagining the possibilities for classroom music education

Gary Spruce concludes the launch of the book:

Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music has a Janus-like quality.  It both looks back to the work of, particularly, John Paynter, through celebrating and critically reflecting on the paradigm shifting influence of Sound and Silence, whilst at the same time looking forward to consider what these ideas might have to offer contemporary, classroom music education.  Inasmuch as Sound and Silencerepresented the possibility of new ways of working for music teachers in the seventies so the present book considers how a reimagining and reworking of these ideas, fifty years on, might offer new possibilities for music educators both  in and beyond today’s schools.

One way of understanding the book is as a bridge between these two worlds and this is particularly true of John’s chapter on Recontextualising Sound and Silenceand of the Voices section.  In the latter,  those who worked directly with John Paynter – or who came into contact with his ideas as they emerged from, for example, the Schools Council Project-  describe how his personality and the ideas he promoted have had a continuing influence over their professional practice and thinking sometimes for more than half a century.  However, as many also note, the educational world into which Sound and Silence was born is very different from the music education world of today. In the seventies, teachers had much more agency  to experiment and try out different approaches without feeling they were, as Lucy Green writes ‘under surveillance from  the government or inspectorate, or  a head teacher in ways that they were to feel after the introduction of the National Curriculum’.(26)

This sense of surveillance has increased significantly over the last ten years. In  a recent article about the policy and practice of music education in England over the last decade,  Jonathan Savage (2020) writes how music teachers increasingly experience feelings of ‘reluctance compliance’ as they are compelled not only to comply with things they may not believe in but also find themselves conscripted as standard bearers for the ideologies that are imposed upon them, which are often at odds with their lived experiences and beliefs. Such ideologies include those which seek to promote arguably narrow conceptions of for example, musical knowledge and of the nature of childhood and being a child. 

Music education has arguably been complicit in such ideologies through its increasing embroilment in the narratives of advocacy.  These narratives often pay little attention to the purposes of music education, and particularly the purposes of classroom music education. Wayne Bowman notes how advocacy narratives often fail to distinguish between musical engagement and music education and even less between music education and music training; thus, ironically, making it more difficultto argue coherently for the purposes of music education and particularly music education in schools.

What then might our book offer to music education and particularly school music education? Firstly, it seeks to reaffirm, particularly in its projects, the central importance of music making as the primary means through which children and young people develop and demonstrate their developing musical knowledge and understanding. Secondly, it articulates the centrality of the role of the music teacher and of music teacher agency in the unique circumstances and pedagogical relationships of each individual classroom; through what John has referred to as the ‘adventurous conversations between teacher, pupil and what is being learnt’ (47).   As with the projects in Sound and Silencethe projects in this new book do not seek to provide fully worked out lessons which can, in the language of contemporary education, be ‘delivered’,  but rather provide ‘gateways for teachers to devise work appropriate to their own context, and as a means of evolving their own practice in the music classroom’ (7). The agenctic capacities of teachers are foregrounded.

Thirdly, and again with a focus on teacher agency, the book similarly offers gateways into the discourses of music education. Discourses defined here not simply as debates, conversations and discussions – important as these are- but the means by which power and influence are obtained and exercised. Many- if not all- of the chapters seek to make visible and then disrupt and challenge dominant conceptions of pedagogical relationships promoted through official discourses e.g. relating to direct instruction, powerful knowledge, knowledge rich curricular as well as  beliefs about what it is to be a child and childhood itself that underpin such conceptions. As Chris writes in his chapter on musical meaning, the intention is to examine ideologies and identify ‘the potential for the discourse to challenge’ them (134)

Subject to particular scrutiny are the ideologies surrounding the concept of creativity. Almost all chapters seek to deconstruct the term from their particular perspectives with the aim of, as Derrida (in Rehn and De Cock 2009 23) says, spotlighting what dominant narratives seek to consign to the periphery, and which would make the assumed hierarchy fall apart. The chapters trace the historical and ideological development of creativity as a concept, challenging the Romantic notion of creativity as being solely the outcome  the individual creative genius, set apart from society producing great works, demonstrating how both the beliefs and  practices of creativity are socially constructed, pluralistic, participatory and central to music making as a form of praxis.

 Finally, and returning to the issue of the pedagogical relationships of the music classroom, the book seeks to foreground central, ontological questions about children and childhood. In an age where, as Pauline Alderson has noted, traditional discourses often adopt a neophyte view of children- one consequence of which is that creativity is seen as contingent on the acquisition of an often undefined body of knowledge-  the book seeks to adopt a more nuanced understanding of childhood perhaps as a continuing dialectic between what Sue Young in her chapter describes as the ‘balancing act between providing for all children to be musical and become musical’ (105).  

Sue makes a compelling argument for close attention being paid to, particularly, young children’s music making as having value of itself. Such attention she suggests, offers us the opportunity to rethink fundamental assumptions and premises about music and childhood. An outcome of such rethinking maybe, as John suggests,  ‘the child … no longer … constructed as immature, dependent and without agency…[but].. wanting respect and recognition as a potential agent in their own being and becoming and, in conjunction with adults, having a desire for some degree of self-determination’ (45). The projects, in particular, offer sites for the unique working outs of the dialectical relationship not only between being musical and becoming musical but the dialectical relationship between the teacher, the child and what there is to learn. The projects and chapters hopefully offer both innovation and challenge for teacher and pupil as well as causing us to reflect on the nature of music and childhood music making within it. 


Rehn, A. and De Cock, C. (2009) ‘Deconstructing Creativity’ in T. Rickards, M. A. Runico and S. Moger (eds) The Routledge Companion to Creativity. London and New York: Routledge.

Savage, J. (2020), The policy and practice of music education in England, 2010–2020. Br Educ Res J. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3672

The One-Minute Solo

Nicely contrasted to Elizabeth’s project, Tim Palmer introduces us to Project 13. The One-Minute Solo.

Thanks to Chris, Gary and John for this chance to talk about my small contribution to ‘Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music’.  I have written two projects for it, and would like to talk briefly about one of them, titled ‘The One-Minute Solo’. This is a description of a project that I carried out many times whilst teaching on the ‘Musicians in Education’ Secondary PGCE programme that Trinity Laban shared with the University of Greenwich for many years. The project was normally carried out just with trainees on the programme, but on some years we managed to organise a few school children to participate as well in order to help the trainees understand how this type of work could transfer to the classroom. 

I thought of this project after reading again through Sound and Silence in detail. The book seems to me to be in three parts: the first is a dynamic and intuitive exploration of sound from first principles; and the third is a kind of participatory harmonic learner. This is a division – the traditional and the exploratory – in music education that Swanwick wrote about later in 1988[1]. Whilst these were both revolutionary in their way, it was the central section, projects 19-26, that really grabbed my attention. It was here that I found a careful intertwining between the affective and exploratory elements from the start and the introduction of the grammar of music. However, I sensed a frustration in myself that this golden zone for those keen to introduce learners to the entanglement of music’s forms, content and meanings was over too soon, squeezed into just seven projects. I was also disappointed that the two final ‘capstone’ projects seemed to reflect the fragmented nature of the book, and failed to harness the experimental and the grammatical together in a show of unity. 

So, I thought of a project that carefully intertwines both affect and the working out of harmonic entities; the latter in an agentic, playful devising manner, rather than through the adoption of ‘ready-made’ musical frameworks. It is my firm belief that it is through playfully exploring and generating pitch and harmonic structures we learn much more about how they relate to the soundsof music and to our affective intentions for a piece. This is what Peter Wiegold calls a pedagogy of ‘both grammar and imaginative exploration’[2]and is something that is often lacking in composition teaching, with pupils falling on either side of the divide: harmonic pastiche on the one hand, often composed through notation rather than privileging the ear, or experimental sound worlds on the other that fail to grapple with the multiple dimensions of structured relationships available to the contemporary composer.

By starting the ‘one-minute solo’ project with a self-chosen narrative stimulus and initially offering very limited parameters around pitch, participants are empowered to focus on carefully creating relationships between pitch choices and the intended emotive response. The frameworks of the project gradually move towards the collaborative creation of new modes – a task that Paynter suggests – closely tied to negotiated structuring narratives, all privileging the communicative intent.

This all matters because, especially at the early stages of learning, pitch systems need devising and refining as part of the affective realm, not as unrelated abstract theoretical entities. Our reliance upon notation in Western Art Music has placed the analysis of pitch and rhythmic relationships at the top of a music curriculum hierarchy, whilst simultaneously suppressing the importance of the sonic and the listening skills needed to make sense of sound. When we tie these two back together using agentic, playful pedagogies, we hit a sweet spot that not only offers a genuine form of ‘powerful knowledge’ – meaning knowledge that you can DO things with’– that can empower learners as creators rather than consumers of music, but also offers us a pathway into more meaningful and diverse forms of engagement with music as a broad set of human practices. 


Swanwick, Keith. Music, Mind and Education. London ; New York: Routledge, 1988. 

Wiegold, Peter. “Appendix: A Practice.” In Beyond Britten: The Composer and the Community, 261–83. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015.

[1]Swanwick, Music, Mind and Education.

[2]Wiegold, “Appendix: A Practice,” 281.

Propaganda, politics and protest in the music classroom

The launch featured two contributions from our project writers. Elizabeth MacGregor introduces us to Project 3: Propaganda, politics and protest.

Anyone familiar with Sound and Silence will be well aware of the extent to which Paynter and Aston emphasise the importance of understanding music in its social context. They describe how “our special subject [music] cannot live if left in a box by itself, a set of disciplines and techniques unrelated to anything else. It is part of the wide field of human experience and needs to be understood in that context first” (Paynter & Aston, 1970, pp. 2-3). They go on to explain how artists and musicians “function as visionaries and commentators: their job is not simply to entertain us. We rely upon them to help us come to terms with life and its problems” (Paynter & Aston, 1970, p. 4).

            But reading through the projects in Sound and Silence, it becomes clear that Paynter and Aston’s focus is more upon musical materials – the exploration of sound and silence – than it is upon music’s social context. The projects take a “practical” rather than “praxial” approach. Paynter and Aston understand music as a “practice”, involving a practical knowledge of how music-making contributes to an understanding the world, but without any differentiation between the hypothetically “good” or “bad” outcomes of making music. In contrast, understanding music as “praxis” means fostering ethically-responsible praxial knowledge of how music-making contributes to human flourishing (Elliott & Silverman, 2017).

With this in mind, in writing the project “Propaganda, politics and protest” for Fifty Years of Sound and Silence, we believed that it was of utmost importance both to interface with Paynter and Aston’s original supposition that music-making “help[s] us come to term with life and its problems”, but also to adopt an ethically responsible, praxial approach to music-making’s role in “life and its problems”, as understood by twenty-first-century children.

“Propaganda, politics and protest” therefore explores some of the practical aspects of music-making evident in Paynter and Aston’s original, such as the emotional impact of chanting (Project 18, 1970) and the use of word sounds as musical material (Project 20, 1970). But it also goes beyond practical music-making to explore music’s praxial implications. It provides historical examples of music used in propaganda and protest, such as the development of national anthems; it offers more recent examples of music used in race equality and environmental movements, such as the civil rights movement and climate justice protests such as Fridays for Futures and Extinction Rebellion; and it suggests classroom assignments which provide opportunities for children to explore political issues which are meaningful to them which they may have been exposed to through personal experience or the media.

In this regard, “Propaganda, politics and protest” therefore has the potential to encourage children to become increasingly aware of the way in which music can be used for both good and bad (Philpott, 2012), and to incentivise them to take an ethically-responsible approach to “life and its problems” through their own music-making.


Elliott, D. J. and Silverman, M. (2017) “Identities and Music: Reclaiming Personhood”, in MacDonald, R. A. R., Hargreaves, D. J., and Miell, D. (eds) Handbook of Musical Identities. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 27–45.

Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence: Classroom Projects in Creative Music. London: Cambridge University Press. 

Philpott, C. (2012) “The Justification for Music in the Curriculum: Music can be Bad for You”, in Philpott, C. and Spruce, G. (eds) Debates in Music Teaching. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 48–63.