Schooling the musical mind

If you ever get the opportunity do read Michael Oakshott’s ‘Education: the Engagement and its Frustrations’. [1] It is one of those distinguished pieces of writing that can be thrilling to engage with. Well that’s how I found it. Another for me is Theodore Adorno’s essay ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’. [2] Bringing these two together would be a challenge, the one being perhaps the most articulate, the most poetic and the most definitive account of a conservative view of a liberal education; and the other the most penetrating and savage critique of mid twentieth century consumer capitalism. They are worlds apart and I have only a glimmer of ways in which they might be brought together in conversation. Another time perhaps.

Of interest in this blog is Oakshott’s view of the school as a place apart from society, aloof from the here and now, from everyday life. Oakshott writes:

‘In short, ”School” is ”monastic” in respect of being a place apart where excellence may be heard because the din of worldly laxities and particularities is silenced or abated.’ [3]

There is a version of this sentiment to be seen currently in the education debate in England. It was Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education who spoke of the ideal of Plato’s Grove, the archetype of the place apart where learning can flourish and where the life of the mind could be free to engage with ‘the best’.

In England the narrative of this new traditionalism places emphasis on subject disciplines and music is one of these. Emphasis is upon knowledge and curriculum content representing a disciplined journey of the learner from novice to expert and canonically determined. Progression in learning is accounted for by progression in curriculum content adhering to the traditions of the subject.

In this the school has no interest in life beyond school or in the mind of the child that is growing beyond the school. The unintended learning of music, the informal musical practices of the child, the child’s musical enculturation are all of no consequence. The school exists to make the schooled mind, the schooled musical mind.

The child’s nascent creativity, its babbling in the first year of life, the near-constant nature of childrens’ music making in early childhood manifest chiefly in the making of songs, the very notion of a holistic view of musical development are equally viewed as irrelevant.

Creativity is at best treated with suspicion. There can be no creativity without the accumulation of vast amounts of disciplinary knowledge. In one of the more extreme versions of this line of thought creativity rests with those of genius.

While promised to all, creativity is the preserve of the few or none.

Creativity thought of as a life force, as a striving after personal agency, as a response to the creativity of others, as a way of understanding is of no significance.

This is the new traditionalism.

So, what are schools for?

What is music in the school for?

Next week an example of musical creativity and Oakshott’s conversation of mankind.


[1] Oakshott, M. (1972) Education: the Engagement and its Frustrations, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[2] Adorno, T. W. and Horkheimer, M. (1979) The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. Verso Books.

[3] Oakshott, M. Ibid.


The musical imagination

Friday last I attended the away day of Listen, Imagine, Compose  (LIC) to learn more about their work in supporting teachers in developing their skills and confidence in teaching composing.

The big question was ‘What does progress look like in composing?’

It proved to be a highly stimulating day and I felt envigorated as I walked towards New Street Station for my cross country journey home. But as the station came into view I was awe-struck [1] by the foil cladding on the station’s exterior. The station’s façade in joyful communion with the brilliant sun was in its fullest glory.  New Street Station was ablaze with myriad reflections, playfully defying easy comprehension. I wondered how this had been imagined and as I myself continued to imagine a line a Gerald Manely Hopkin’s poem came to mind:

‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil’ [2]

But what about musical imagination; for that idea had been right inside our Listen, Imagine, Compose day.

David Hagreaves and Alexandra Lamont tell of a potentially important theoretical advance supported by the growth of neurological evidence. Imagination can be thought of as the cognitive basis of all musical perception and production.

‘Imagination is the essence of the creative perception of music …’ [3]

Imagination is at work in the activities of composing/improvising, performing and listening and bringing a psychological perspective to the thinking of John Paynter as set out in Music in the Secondary School Curriculum in 1982. For Paynter neuro-psychology was largely unimaginable. Instead the mind of the artist-composer was obviously one that imagined and as being central to inventive musical activity and this included performing and listening. [4]

Musical imagination is about musical processing.

During the LIC day we had worked in groups thinking together about the problems associated with the question of progress in composing.

At one point I made a couple of practical suggestions that may help in some way to awaken in children the idea of the musical imagination. I have developed these here.

Tell me about your musical imagination.

Did you know that you can imagine music?

Did you know that in playing a musical instrument and singing you are using imagination?

Next week come to your music lesson imagining music.

In our music lesson we will be doing a lot of musical imagining.

Next time you have an earworm see if you can catch it. Before it wriggles away freeze it if you can. Play with it. It could be the start of something. Don’t throw it away. How will you preserve it, make use of it?

Do you know that you have a musical mind and that you can grow it?

What was clear from listening to the composers on our away day was that they had come to know their ways of working. Teaching children to know ever more about their process of composing (meta-cognition) would seem to be one way of ensuring progress in composing. [5]


[1] Is it possible to be awe-struck any more? I hear a lot of ‘that’s amazing’. Max Weber tells us that the world is no longer enchanted.

[2] From the poem God’s Grandeur.

[3] Hargreaves, D. J. and Lamont, A. (2017) The Psychology of Musical Development. Cambridge University Press. Page 49.

See Hargreaves, D. J. (2012) Musical Imagination: Perception and production, beauty and creativity. Psychology of Music, 40 (5), 539-57.

[4] Paynter, J. (1982) Music in the Secondary School Curriculum. Cambridge University Press.

[5] For insight into the development of a school-aged composer see Scott, L. (2013) Tom Becoming a Composer: A narrative account of one pupil’s creative journey. In (eds) Finney, J. and Laurence, F., MasterClass in Music Education. Bloomsbury. Pages 159-172.






All new teachers in Australia to receive ‘compulsory creativity training’ sounds almost sinister… ‘we have ways of making you creative’

‘That’s great news to hear that we’ve finally all agreed on what creativity is, how to teach it reliably, how to assess that, and even if it’s a thing at all. Glad we got all that settled.’


This was Tom Bennett’s twitter response. Tom takes the view that creativity is something of a zombie concept used wildly to promote a vision of an education where knowledge is incidental to the acquisition of what are referred to as 21st century skills serving to dilute subject disciplines and directed towards some imagined future. The enemy is an over instrumentalist view of education where generic skills come to replace knowledge.

He has a point, a very serious point.

I too have qualms about creativity and the way it is presented as having near redemptive qualities: in a climate where schools have been locked into demoralising accountability cultures it can easily become a slogan attached to hope, freedom and release alongside the attractive idea of creative futures.

In my previous two blogs I have addressed the question of knowledge and creativity as it pertains to a music education. I provided an example of knowledge and creativity working together, coming into conversation. I hope this helps a little.

Creativity of course is not a zombie concept any more than progression, culture, nature or any other complex idea in common use is.

In Raymond William’s book Key Words the word creative rather than creativity is dealt with. Writing in 1976:

‘Creative in modern English has a general sense of original and innovating, and an associated special sense of productive. It is also used to distinguish certain kinds of work, as in creative writing, the creative arts.’ [1]

Williams continues by clarifying the provenance of the word creative and shows how usage over time extends the scope of the term.
This is of course common to many other words we daily trade in and that become overused, over extended and meaningless catch alls.
Perhaps we should give creativity a rest and dwell a little on imagination instead.
Next week The Musical Imagination.
[1] Williams, R. (1976) Key Words: a vocabulary of culture and society. Fontana Press.
On creativity see Pope, R. (2010) Creativity: Theory, History, Practice. Routledge.

Knowledge and creativity in conversation


In last week’s blog I played with the idea that schools were to be thought of as places apart, taking as my source the thought of liberal educator Michael Oakshott. [1]

For Oakshott education is a transaction between the teacher and pupil. The teacher’s task is to engage the pupil in a conversation that brings inherited ways of understanding the world, made up as it is of distinctive human practices, into a conversation with the present. Conversation here is thought of both metaphorically and literally. Oakshott, a political conservative, is the voice of a dynamic form of traditionalism.

Last week I proposed that there was now a new traditionalism seeping into contemporary education thought and practice.

Of course labelling such changes of the zeitgeist in this way is likely to be severely reductive and limiting. There are a number of strands in play which might be explored another time. But one common thread can be isolated in the way I did last week – the matter of knowledge v creativity.

Many of the new traditionalists are exercised by the notion of creativity. The claim is that if creativity is to be acknowledged then this can only be in relation to subject specific knowledge. Creativity is the reward for the acquisition of vast amount of knowledge. And here knowledge is conceived of in a unitary form – propositional knowledge approximating to fact. In this way creativity thought of as a generic skill dangerously wafted around in the name of 21st century skills thought to provide the child with what will be useful in the future, is exorcised.

The enemy here is what is loosely labelled as discovery learning. Thus a dichotomy is set up in an uncompromising manner and crudely presented as a traditional-progressive divide. Knowledge good, creativity bad.

In this blog I will consider the complex matter of knowledge and creativity. It will obviously be very limited in its scope. Nevertheless it may at least help me to think more clearly and hopefully others too.

Knowing from the start

The first point to make is that humans from before birth have perceptual capacities that have knowing qualities. There isn’t a blank slate. We are never without knowledge. From infancy mental schemas are formed, a schema being a way of organising experience into a framework of knowing. The child comes to know how to manipulate objects, how to open a door by turning the door handle to the right and so on. For the infant, at least, these are action schemas and in the case of music manifest chiefly in vocalisations. There is a musical mind developing in response to and with the support of the environment. The musical gestures that are the babbling child can be thought of as a nascent form of creativity, as symbolic vocal gestures seeking to make sense and find meaning. The child’s babbling is a way of knowing, a form of knowledge. Thus the child has knowledge to draw upon.

The child comes to school with songs and rhythms in mind and body. There is always material on which to work. The question now arises, and it is at the heart of the dispute – to what extent is this knowledge and the capacity to remake it (creativity) to be recognised in educating the musical mind?

The new traditionalists insist on the sustained transmission of codified knowledge, carefully organised into a logical sequenced through direct instruction. Only then can the possibility of creativity be considered. Creativity, as mentioned earlier, is conditional upon the accumulation of a particular form of knowledge sometimes referred to as the theory of music.

The case of exploring melody

Let me take the case of Project 18 in Paynter and Aston’s Sound and Silence titled ‘Exploring melody (1) Runes and incantations.’ [2] The new traditionalists are likely to immediately raise objections. Projects are hostile to ordered learning and why explore melody when it can be directly taught?

However, the Paynter and Aston project begins by making connections with music in culture and society. There is an anthropological basis for the exploration. It is rooted in human practice.

‘The project will explore melodies that arise naturally from words of runes and incantations’. [3]

The first assignment is for a group of about four people – ‘chant this rhyme together’ is the instruction.

The expectation is that with repetition this will become half-speech, half-song. Nascent creativity is drawn upon.

The teacher encourages this tendency to ‘sing-song’ but instructs that the pitch be kept low in view of the mystery of the words. And now the instruction is to work on it to make it into a dirge-chant perhaps accompanied by solemn drum beats.

The project continues and always rooted in musical social practices.


So here is an example of creativity nurtured by context and constraints that allow for imagination to work. What I refer to as nascent creativity is recognised and celebrated. There is space for the child to feel a sense of agency and to find meaning. And if you are looking for knowledge there it is in abundance, not a list of key words or abstractions but knowledge of different kinds, knowledge about music in society, about pitch, about melody, vocal cadence and phrase and the creation of musical character and meaning, as well as knowledge of culturally rich material. There is knowledge as experience, knowledge embodied, practical knowledge and most significantly, knowledge made through imagination and creativity as part of the transaction between teacher and child. Yes, a conversation.

The new traditionalists promoting knowledge-based curricula are likely to have only a faint understanding of the kind of relationship between knowledge and creativity as set out above.

To summarise. Let it be recognised that:

  • music is a human practice rather than a body of knowledge
  • musical practices exist to be conversed with, critical examined and refreshed
  • there exists an easy relationship between creativity and knowledge
  • there needs to be a space made if the child is to use imagination and find meaning
  • it is creativity that allows for knowledge to be made

Why explore melody when it can be directly taught?


[1] Oakshott, M. (2001) Education: The Engagement and its Frustrations, in T. Fuller (ed.) The Voice of Liberal Learning. Indianapolis, IN, Liberty Fund.

For a thorough philosophical engagement with Oakshott’s paper and a healing of the traditional-progressive dichotomy see Sheppard, S. L. (2011) School Engagement: A ‘Danse Macabre’? Journal of Philosophy of Education, 45, (1)

[2] Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence. Cambridge University Press. Page 142.




Music education’s tacit dimension (3)

In the previous two blogs I explored the tacit dimension of musical knowledge and understanding drawing upon the work of Michael Polanyi and also Wayne Bowman. Last week I made bold by proposing a number of pedagogical principles arising. A little more discussion is needed in order to conclude.

A useful place to start is in the proposal that ‘music made would be viewed as sui generis.’ Sui generis, ‘in a class of its own’.

Here the proposal is that music making, the imaginative artistic expressions of the child, in the first instance be viewed as original, unique, personal, incomparable and incommensurable with any work that has before existed, that it will first yield criteria emerging from itself unbeholden to existing categories.  Thus the process of valuing has begun, the process of negotiating values and the education of discrimination and judgement. And this lies at the heart of an education in the arts. In this way we move towards and learn about the values shared and disputed by others in relation to other works of the artistic imagination, to other ways of life and other ways of thinking and making music. We learn how to critique, make our own values and renew and re-envision how music might be and how education and society might be.

We would come to agree and disagree about artistic-aesthetic standards which would always be ready to defer to the unexpected and to the minds of young people in particular. Consensus would be achieved by working from what is thought and made by those being and becoming more musical.

The story of the Pied Piper is a story of broken promises. The reasons we frequently find for justifying music turn out to be little more than promises, promises that can not be kept. They too often come as a ‘shrieking and squeaking in fifty different sharps and flats’ to borrow lines from Browning’s Pied Piper poem. But enough of this; for we must return to Hannah’s speculation.

‘They understood the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive…’

In this there is the recognition of the tacit dimension, extended and deepened by a story of Hamelin Town’s gain and loss. The argument has been that it is the ‘tacit’ that provides the necessary basis for all other ways of knowing and understanding, and from where our passions and meaning-making arise. Music would seem to offer a remarkable example of this and indeed may well be in this respect, ‘sui generis’.


The tacit dimension and pedagogy

In the past ten years England has adopted the term pedagogy. It has become part of the contemporary way of speaking about what teachers do. Robin Alexander (2004) encourages us to think of pedagogy as:

“The core acts of teaching (task, activity, interaction and assessment) [are] framed by space, pupil organisation, time and curriculum, and by routines, rules and rituals. [They are] given form, and [are] bounded temporally and conceptually, by the lesson or teaching session” [1]

In Alexander’s view a pedagogy embraces explicit social values, the kind of relationships desired within a democracy, for example. Pedagogy is not simply a matter of teaching and learning strategies to be employed in the name of musical engagement, but rather a matter of finding ways of teaching and learning that have their source in beliefs and values about the kind of society we envision, the kind of pupils and the kind of schools we want. A pedagogy simply for musical engagement tells very little and is entirely without meaning or ethical purpose.

A pedagogy for musical understanding likewise will tell very little unless it arises from some serious consideration of values. If we stay with the contention expressed in last week’s blog that tacit knowing is

  • a critical aspect of our personhood;
  • that it forms the basis for finding significance and meaning through musical participation;
  • that it is rooted in our existence in the world;
  • that it gives integrity to other ways of musical knowing and understanding;
  • that it enables interpretation and critique by allowing for multiple perceptions of reality and the formation of flexible and fluid conceptions of musical reality, then there is a case for developing associated pedagogic principles. So what might they be?
  1. All musical educational events would promote feelingful bodily involvement which would be recognised as a foundational form of understanding;
  2. We would be teaching for intuitive insight, helping students to know what feels right, what makes sense and achieves coherence;
  3. We would avoid excessive focalisation (hostile to personal meaning-making);
  4. We would be open to meaning unfolding through the perceptions of our students as well as our own;
  5. These kinds of musical events would connect with personal concerns and human interest;
  6. We would reject objectivist approaches, taxonomies of objectives and the declaration of predetermined outcomes, all of which are likely to negate 1-5 above;
  7. We would allow for, look for, earnestly seek out and nurture the arising and construction of propositional knowledge, knowledge that could be declared and contested;
  8. The gathering of propositional knowledge would be valued highly in the forming of fluid and flexible conceptualisations that could be applied to ongoing music making;
  9. Music made would in the first instance be viewed as sui generis rather than being the servant of existing forms and conventions;
  10. We would, in putting expressive problems and worthwhile materials in the way of our students, expect them to ask questions, become curious and find their own expressive problems to solve.

Thus a value position is established.

Next week: questions arising.


[1] Alexander, R. (2004) Still no pedagogy? Principle, pragmatism and compliance in primary education. Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 34, No. 1, 7-33.



Understanding music and the tacit dimension

It’s a story of inept and corrupt local politicians, the enchanting and beguiling power of music, the possibility of perpetual childhood happiness, child abduction and the pain of separation creating a Billy-no-mates and a community bereft of its future.

Tell the story of the Pied Piper to young children and they will be engrossed: their feeling and thinking will have been engaged. Like all folk tales there is something that is ‘close to home’, something of great personal significance. Such stories have the power to provoke wonderment, ill- ease, puzzled questioning and a good many whys? Now, tell the story and at the same time embed it in the music of Peter Warlock played by musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra and there will be a worthwhile music educational event in progress. LSO animateur Hannah tells us that:

“Two hundred 5-7 year children sat entranced by the sound of a string quartet from the London Symphony Orchestra performing a movement from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. They understood the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive because such things had been given a context that provides for meaning and significance in their own lives. The young audience had been listening intently to the grief of hundreds of people from the town of Hamelin. They had experienced at first hand the pain the mothers felt as they witnessed the Pied Piper lead their children away into the mountain. There was no need to explain Warlock’s music.” [1]

‘They understood the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive because such things had been given a context that provides for meaning and significance in their own lives.’ [1]

In this instance the proposition made about the nature of musical understanding is worth holding on to and I hope it will help us to understand a little more about the nature of ‘musical understanding’, an idea of great complexity, a many-sided concept and one worth dwelling upon.

‘They understood the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive…’

So in what sense was there understanding?

In some part we can think in terms of a ‘tacit’ way of knowing and understanding, a way that can never be made explicit. Yet, a way upon which all other ways of knowing and understanding are reliant. That is the proposition to be explored here.

If this is the case then there will be implications for ways in which musical understanding is thought about and the kind of pedagogy that would need to be adopted if it were recognised and nurtured.

According to our speculation above, young children were getting Warlock’s music, not only getting it but in a way that was deeply meaningful and significant. Tacit knowing was at work. It is Michael Polanyi’s [2] claim that ‘tacit knowing’ both underpins and forms the bedrock of all other ways of knowing and understanding.

Tacit knowledge and understanding

To know how to ride a bicycle is not the same as to know that the Beatles’ first chart number 1 was …, that trumpets play fanfares. We tend to assume that all knowledge has the potential to be mediated through language, that it can be identified, named, taught, accumulated. To imagine that there exists a form of knowledge and understanding that is impossible to gain access to by means of the spoken word, or in written form, or even by silently showing, we call ‘tacit’ and it is this kind of musical knowledge and understanding, so the argument runs here, (and following Polanyi and Bowman [3]), that is foundational in all musical experience and all forms of musical knowing and understanding.

It is a form of knowing that is deeply felt and known and intensely personal. It can not be spoken of. It can not be verbally mediated. It is destined to remain hidden and without articulation. It is untranslatable. It is not convertible into any other form. It can not be captured or codified. It can not be made explicit. It is not waiting to be discovered, uncovered or revealed. Any attempt to do this is doomed to failure.

Some readers may wish to make a distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’. For Polanyi, in setting out the ‘tacit dimension’, understanding is knowing, is knowledge. It embraces our pre-conceptual powers and our ‘indwelling’ of the world and where our passions for all ways of knowing come from. It is where meaning emanates from, a profoundly personal form of meaning.

The case of musical performance

The example of riding a bicycle is frequently given but let’s present the case of musical performance.

We can not possibly speak of all that we are knowing in the act of performance. Our knowledge of what Polanyi calls ‘particulars’, all the elements experienced and ‘known’, can never be grasped in their particularity and their totality despite the fact that we can endlessly propose explanations, devise rules, codes and produce manuals that tell us about good musical performance, how the body and its posture is and so on.  There is always more within our knowing than we can say, more than we can tell.

Polanyi gives the example of hitting a nail with a hammer. Our focal awareness is on the nail but subsidiary to this is awareness of the hammer, how it feels in the hand and so on.

To recognise the tacit dimension acknowledges multiple perceptions of reality and multiple interpretations of reality. However, to acknowledge what is tacit as foundational in our current educational climate is problematic; for it flies in the face of so much of the rhetoric suroounding the idea of knowledge justified by the power of codification, concept forming, the naming of rules and conventions and all that can be thought of as explicit knowledge. That knowledge is made explicit is a fundamental expectation of a curriculum that provides evidence that a discipline is being mastered and that shows the acquisition of propositional knowledge. We know ‘that’…. It is to know this and to know that and of course this kind of knowledge is important.

However, tacit knowing manifest in the act of understanding is not to know this or to know that but something that is bodily felt and known. [4]


In the act of musical performance the knowing lies in the doing. It is embodied in two senses. First, it is literally of the body and secondly, it exists metaphorically embodied, that is, inside the experience of performing, composing and listening. The act of performing music may be one of the most outstanding examples of tacit knowing at work. In musical performance as in all other forms of musical ‘thinking and making’ we can experience multiple perceptions of reality. Polanyi speaks of ‘pouring ourselves into the subsidiary awareness of particulars’, to ‘indwell’. [4]

Would we be able to take a step towards setting out a pedagogy that takes account of the tacit dimension?

Is there a pedagogy that presupposes the significance of the tacit dimension?

More next week.


[1] Conway, H. and Finney, J. (2003) Musical Enchantment in the Early Years. Teacher Development, Vol. 7, No. 1, 121-129.

[2] Polanyi, M. (1973) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[3] I am indebted to Bowman, W. D. (1982) Polanyi and Instructional Method in Music. Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 16, No. 2, 75-86.

[4] Polanyi, M. (1958) Understanding ourselves. London: The University of Chicago Press.