Singing for continuity and progression in year 7


Most year 7 music classes comprise children from many different primary schools. One thing these children have in common is that their music education to date will have featured singing.

But not all children transferring to secondary school at age 11 enjoy singing and children considered vocally able by their primary school teachers may not be vocally self-efficacious. [1] Many children remain ambivalent, unsure, and particularly so as a new life stage is embarked upon in a new place surrounded by new people and in a classroom where ‘the rules of the game’ may be far from transparent.

But I suspect there will be much singing in year 7 classes at this time as teachers recognise this most obvious point of continuity and progression. And, no doubt,  there will be the aim that all pupils will come to feel positive about their singing voices, or as some say, ‘find their voice’. Some may perhaps think that their singing voices provide a tool for subsequent musical thinking.

An interesting case

In this case the teacher embarked upon a programme of action research to see if one year 7 class could gain mastery of their singing voice and come to view their voices in a positive way. It was thought that this might achieve a sense of musical achievement shared by all.

At first lessons activities were devised by the teacher and subsequently in response to the ongoing dialogue created between pupils and teacher. Data was collected through teacher diary, recordings of whole class and group vocal work, postcard communications, focus group discussions and written questionnaire.

The research was set in motion with whole class singing of ‘Believe’ by Lin Marsh and as part of the lesson the class were introduced to a series of warm up games and activities designed to help vocal development. The lesson marked the beginning of a series of pupil consultations about how the pupils thought about their voices and the way they were learning.

On a postcard each pupil was invited to respond to any or all of ‘tell me how you feel about your voice, did you like the song? What did you think of warming up your voice before starting to learn the song? What singing experiences have you had already?

Thus a pupil-teacher dialogue had been opened up. The private teacher-pupil line of communication was valued by pupils.

Lesson by lesson the teacher responded to the pupils’ thoughts and suggestions.  At first these related to the conditions of learning. for example, arrangements for sitting, standing and configuration of chairs. From here the dialogue moved to repertoire and ways of learning.

Each lesson began with the teacher telling the class how their ideas were being incorporated into the lesson serving to reinforce the validity of their comments and as a way of authenticating ‘the pupil voice’.

As the singing class progressed so a variety of formats was agreed and reflected upon: group work with pupil choice of material working with backing tracks and without; peer teaching; teacher coaching on vocal technique and all leading to pupils singing voluntarily and with ease, coming to know and accepting each other’s voices in a climate of trust and security.

The teacher writes:

‘As their vocal skills developed pupils exercised greater informed choice about the best approach to learning. They came to realise that working in smaller group settings allowed for more individualised selection of singing repertoire and greater scope for individual voices to claim a space of their own. Pupils who requested to work in ever smaller groups reasoned that this would allow them greater attention from the teacher and would also enable them to better self-assess their singing progress as it would be easier to distinguish their own voice from others.’ [2]

An important role for the teacher was to help pupils understand the ways in which their voices were changing, how these changes could be managed and how to gain greater control over them. The teacher helped pupils to better understand audiational processes, the ways in which they could manipulate sounds in mind, how they could extend auditory memory and comprehend a sequence of musical ideas. All of which we might say is the transmission of ‘powerful knowledge’.

Over a term pupils and teacher had reached a point where the curriculum could be negotiated and where pupils understood that while their ideas were important and respected, their teacher ‘knew good things’ and ‘good places to go’ – ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’, for example.

For now at least the teacher had ample evidence of positive attitudes and improved vocal self-efficacy.

For children moving to new situations, meeting new teachers there is often the mystery of ‘what count as success’? The ‘rules of the game’ are not always clear. In this case the pupils had negotiated and constructed ‘the rules of the game’. The pedagogy was visible to all.

The teacher concludes:

‘The challenge of creating a ‘negotiated curriculum’ demands the sharing of power between teacher and pupil, a mutual respect and understanding of objectives. Becoming a negotiator is at the heart of how I intend to develop and explore my teaching in the future.’ [3]

Action research is designed to bring about change through systematic evaluation and review of intervention strategies. It aims ‘to arrive at recommendations for good practice that will tackle a problem or enhance the performance of the organisation and individuals through changes to the rules and procedures within which they operate’. [4]

This teacher started out aiming to create positive attitudes to singing. In the event a new way of being a music teacher was discovered and how through genuine dialogue all kinds of things became possible.


[1] See Baskaran, R. (2013) Children’s Enjoyment of Singing in a Primary School, in (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education, Bloomsbury.

[2] Man, E. (2013) Developing Positive Attitudes towards Singing in Year 7 through Dialogue and Negotiation, in (eds) John Finney and Felicity Laurence, Masterclass in Music Education. Bloomsbury, p. 122.

[3] Ibid, p.124.

[4] Denscombe, M. (2002) Ground Rules for Social Research: A Ten Point Guide for Social Researchers. Open University Press.

Teaching without learning objectives

This is a reprint.

‘Sometimes I like it all to be a magical mystery tour – with surprises round the corner. How boring always to know where you’re going/what you’re going to do!’ (Lis McCullough)

At last week’s music teacher symposium here in Cambridge I dropped into the conversation that Robin Hammerton HMI had recently announced that there was no expectation that teachers use learning objectives.

There was one of those group gasps.

These were teachers well socialized into the technical rationality of contemporary schooling.

Learning objectives – non-negotiable as their managers would say and until fairly recently no objectives on the board meant a lesson observation being rated ‘unsatisfactory’. [1]

Without learning objectives how can learning experiences be planned, outcomes stated, criteria for success determined or assessment brought under control? All those things percolated through National Strategies, reinforced by Ofsted of the time and that have become part of the woodwork. [2]

No learning objectives! But doesn’t that mean no Bloom’s Taxonomy? No purpose, no direction, no way of evaluating the success of the teaching, no way of measuring the effectiveness of the learning? [3]

Presumably Robin Hammerton had behavioural objectives in mind, those objectives that are sufficiently precise for their effect to be visible and measurable. [4]

For Robert Mager ‘an objective is an intent communicated by a statement describing a proposed change in a learner – a statement of what a learner is to be like when he has successfully completed a learning experience.’ [5]

I am drawing from chapter 6 of Elliot Eisner’s ‘The Educational Imagination’. The chapter is called ‘ Educational Aims, Objectives and Other Aspirations’ and must rank as one of the most thorough investigations of the topic. [6]

Eisner comes to the conclusion that a curriculum determined by behavioural objectives would seriously reduce the view of what might be possible. In fact ‘to expect all our educational aspirations to be either verbally describable or measurable is to expect too little’. [7]

Eisner proposes three possibilities in designing curricular.

  1. Behavioural Objective ———–Behavioural activity
  2. Problem-Solving Objective——Problem-Solving Activity
  3. Expressive Activity—————Expressive Outcome

In the arts there will be a place for 1, but it is 2 and 3 and 3 in particular that would mark out creative arts practice as being distinctive.

Eisner again:

‘I believe that it is perfectly appropriate for teachers and others involved in curriculum development to plan activities that have no explicit or precise objectives.’ [8]

This would mean that there could be no specific formulation of what behaviour will be exhibited by pupils at the conclusion of the project. Rather like going to the cinema, the zoo or a musical event, we can’t specify what will be gained from the experience. The experience will of course yield much thought, conversation, questions, the exercise of judgement and associated criteria that help to make sense of what has been experienced and to suggest what may have been learnt.

So, teaching without objectives opens up interesting possibilities and encourages me to think in terms of extended projects with enquiry questions bringing together Eisner’s 2 an 3 above. [9]

Enquiry questions or what some refer to as essential questions help to create structure and direction.

I like the questions that pupils provide like ‘Why does Reggae exist?’ ‘What makes one composition better than another?’ ‘How does beat-boxing turn your voice into an instrument?’ ‘How many times is it good to repeat a musical idea? What is a musical idea, don’t you mean a riff?’ ‘Why did Jay-Z slow down that 1970s riff?

So now we are teaching without behavioural objectives but through critical enquiry and expressive activity and with scope for a dialogic pedagogy. This seems to me to offer the possibility of some musical depth and rigour and to give these weasel words some meaning.

But wait a minute. I would like my pupils to know how to talk well about their music-making and this means that I will need to create a behavioural objective:

Pupils will know how to conduct a group conversation giving each other a voice.

No doubt the true behaviorist will point out that this is too vague, not precise enough.

Nevertheless my critical enquiry-expressive activity is willing to give way to a behavioural objective as the situation calls for.


[1] Stories of music teachers playing the objectives game abound. Rarely it seems is the quality of the stated objective or its potential to generate worthwhile experience examined.

[2] This cat and mouse game of Ofsted calling the tune, changing the tune while fermenting bi-tonal conversations is becoming close to farce.

[3] The discourse of ‘effectiveness’ is usually tongue-tied when asked ‘effective for what?’

[4] Behavioural objectives are sometimes referred to as instructional objectives.

[5] Mager, R. (1962) Preparing Instructional Objectives, Fearson Publishers, Palo Alto, Calif., p.31.

[6] Eisner, E. (2001) The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programmes. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.: New York. Third Edition.

[7] Ibid. p.98.

[8] Ibid p.104. For 13 0bjections to learning objectives see

[9] See for discussion of the idea of the project.

A music teacher teaching uninformed by cognitive science

In this secondary school year 7 pupils are learning to sing O Waly Waly.

The teacher has selected O Waly, Waly ‘simply because it is a beautiful song’ and is intent on teaching the class to make a beautiful sound.

I’m interested to know whether the singing is accompanied or unaccompanied.

The teacher adds:

‘I play the piano, sometimes big, juicy, arpeggiated chords, and sometimes simple, still chords. Always with much dynamic contrast and rubato. They follow me well, and enjoy it when I prolong the silence before the penultimate line. When they get it right, it is magical.’

‘I prolong the silence before the penultimate line.’

The teacher explains:

‘I think the silence creates a moment where not a single student can escape from being musical or from being ‘in flow’. In that silence, every student is compelled to engage in musical feeling, watching, breathing, pitching, and enjoying a resolution. All bodies need to be dancing together.’

O Waly, Waly is a song of good provenance as they say. [1] Some claim it as a song from the sixteenth century, some that it has Irish origins, some say Scottish, some English.

An internet search shows a great many performance versions and arrangements, and even a discussion forum relating to its provenance.

A Pete Seeger version of the song is near the top of the internet library along with responses from listeners. One response told that the performance was intended to draw attention to the pollution of the Hudson River. Well, we know Pete Seeger was a political activist.

As you will have noted, the teacher’s choice of O Waly Waly is leading me to open up a conversation with the song and to examine its provenance. I am reminded of Chris Philpott writing:

‘Each piece of music (whether we are performing or creating it) comes with an ‘attitude’ of its own and along with our own values and beliefs (which Gadamer calls ‘prejudices’)  engages in a playful dialogue in order to construct meaning.’ [2]

The teacher above achieves this playful dialogue with the ‘silence’ before the penultinate line of each verse. I have taken the idea of playful dialogue to a second level in searching out the song’s provenance. And I have only just begun.

O Waly Waly – the teacher has something of a treasure in her hands opening up ‘complex webs of meaning’ and placing interpretation at the heart of a music education. And this means critical engagement, and rather more than what is usually taken as appraising.


[1] Provenance seems to have two meanings, the first begets the second.  First ‘origin’, and then ‘history-lineage’; we find the term provenance much used in relation to antiques. What is its source, origin, its life history, its condition, how has it been looked after?

If ‘musical provenance’ is important, as Ousted in the past have suggested, we should ask ourselves: is the content of what is brought to the classroom rich, thick with possibilities? Will it defy easy assimilation and mastery?  Will it call forth thinking? Will it defy methods of assessment that prohibit openness? Will activities defy being matched with tidily delineated outcomes?

[2] Philpott, C. (2013) The justification for music in the curriculum, in (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge: London.Advertisements

Audience Listening in the MMC

Robert Bunting continues his review of the Model Music Curriculum.

What are we to make of this?Some of it it seems good: there are emphases on aural memory and on deepening learning through returning to music studied in previous years, both of which are excellent. And many teachers, particularly non-specialists,will find the lists of suggested items from such a wide cultural range extremely useful.

Then suddenly it looks sinister. The language is constantly that of ‘shared knowledge’, as if it’s the sharing that’s important; and it’s here that my doubts surface. MMC’s Appendix 2 gives us some guidance on what this ‘shared knowledge’ should be, and it’s just basic factual information about composer andwork, with perhaps a bit of banal cultural background. This seems a very limited concept of what gathering ‘knowledge’ of a piece of music means. We search the music we hear to discover technical secrets and to make our own meanings, and each time we return to a familiar piece we progress; we listen more skilfully, we find new meanings.

The programme also seems unrealistically demanding.There’s a wide range of styles, genres and traditions, which is good; but to specify 30 pieces of music peryear implies acquiring shared knowledge of one new piece per week – as part of a 60-minute lesson which must also include singing and/or learning to play instruments, composing, and learning to read notation. It can only mean that this is minimal shared knowledge is to be imparted directly and rapidly to the class by top-down transmission; only then does rattling once through each of those 30 items,each with its little bundle of received information and opinion, suddenly becomefeasible.

There’s an underlying (unacknowledged) sense of Western Classical Music as the‘canon’, the one tradition everyone should know. For example, p.18. Pupils will further develop their shared knowledge of important moments in the evolution of music”. For classical music this is a key part of one’s indoctrination, but are we expected to extend it to the evolution of jazz, Middle Eastern music, or qawwali? Another telling example is the Y1 repertoire suggested on p.14 for ‘moving to thepulse’: Stepping (e.g. Mattachins from Capriol Suite by Warlock) – Jumping (e.g.Trepak from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky – Walking on tiptoes (e.g. Scherzofrom The Firebird Suite by Stravinsky). And in Y2 the examples for ‘walking in timeto beat’ are (p.17): La Mourisque by Susato- Maple Leaf Rag by Joplin – TheElephant from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns.Only a died-in-the-wool classical musician could have chosen just this range of pieces.

‘Shared knowledge’ implies that all children should know and feel the same things about the music they’re listening to. It’s an exercise in moulding a whole population’s musical perspectives. Yes, a national curriculum should have the role of creating some sort of nation-wide shared understanding. And yes, the Western Classical tradition is a magnificent cultural achievement all young people shouldknow something about. I don’t have a quarrel with any of that; but I would want to see young people developing the skills to acquire knowledge for themselves, rather than passively receive pre-digested packets of facts.

As so often withthe MMC, it’s what’s left out that worries me.

The MMC doesn’t make it clear how the different styles, genres and traditions relateto each other. Which of the many theoretical or ideological constructs available do they feel best tells us how Reggae and Renaissance polyphony fit together, speak to each other, in the culture of the world? The ideological drive behind the MMC seems to be to inject the entire school population quite passively with a massive shot of cultural capital – the phrase MMC itself uses. The (unspoken) implication is that this equates with Western classical music. And part of me says, yes it’s not a bad idea to widen young people’s horizons and challenge them with some deep, complex music. But young people already have cultural capital of their own – richand growing bodies of both musical experience and cultural constructs; we need to negotiate a careful pathway from there towards any deep understanding of the ‘Classics’. We need to tread delicately. But the MMC doesn’t have much room for delicacy. “Classroom listening is easy-peasy – just sit them down and turn up thevolume…..Flood them with music, they’ll immediately love and understand whatever we expose them to; whatever age they are, they’ll just soak it up unthinkingly”. For over 60 years teachers have tried to do this, and their experiences should tell us that’s not how it works.

‘Audience listening’ is a special and challenging form of listening. It’s not the kindyou do when you’re part of the class rehearsing a song, or roaming the keyboard in search of ideas for your next composition; there’s a crucial element of sitting insilence, giving the sounds alone your full attention for their own sake. Each of you is listening as an individual, trying to decipher another musician’s thinking processes. That’s unfamiliar, and not easy! It takes some learning, but it’s good learning, calling for high levels of responsiveness, imagination, aural perception and memory, supported in the higher reaches by a range of research skills.This kind of listening isn’t in the least ‘passive’ just because we don’t move or make a sound!

Alongside the MMC’s passive ‘shared knowledge’ we need to be fostering individualknowledge and skills – enabling each young person to develop ideas and feelings for themselves. This calls for a teacher who knows how to focus her pupils’ listening and can lead them deeper into the music by skilful questioning and imaginative listening tasks.To take one example, the MMC encourages us to enhanceunderstanding of the music we are studying through performing and composing,which is an excellent strategy.

So – a skilful, knowledgeable teacher, and a series of carefully prepared in-depth listening experiences from a small but varied repertoire, integrated with inventing and interpreting and culminating in individual critical understanding. I would love to be part of that. But do we perhaps need more than one lesson per week to get the benefit? Can we really do this beautiful thing for 30 pieces a year, of wildly different styles, genres and traditions?

Music Education and the Innocence of Childhood

A ten minute presentation at the recent online seminar Paynter organised by the Birmingham Music Education Research Group at Birmingham City University alongside co-editors Gary Spruce, Chris Philpott of Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music: Fifty Years of Sound and Silence.

Paynter and Aston’s Sound and Silenceof 1970 begins with three stories of children and young people making music. The first tells us about Alan, aged 6, moving stealthily across the classroom. 

‘He is a ‘wolf ‘creeping out of the deep, dark forest. As he creeps he makes music: a pattern of mysterious taps          and scraping sounds which tell us that the Wolf and the forest are sinister and fearful. No-one has instructed          him: Alan chose the drum himself and decided for himself how the wolf’s music should go.’ [1]

What I want to explore here is how at the time this represented a particular view of childhood and ask what kind of view we might wish to hold at the present time. By childhood I refer to age 0 to 18.

I suggest that this is a crucial question and one often lying in the shadows or hidden under the floorboards of what we do in the name of music education. The assumptions we make about the nature of childhood are of course deeply engrained in society and embedded within our practices..                                                                                                                                       

The image of Alan inventing music as he creeps stealthily across the classroom is a powerful one. It’s an image of a child engrossed in imaginative thought and feeling that fits easily into the tradition of child-centred education emerging from the thought of philosophers John Locke [2] and Jean Jacques Rousseau [3] in the 18thcentury and stimulated by the English romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. Wordsworth, for example, idealised childhood as a time of innocence and closeness to nature, a time when the child’s way of seeing the world allowed for a unique perspective on reality.  It was thought that the innocent seeing and hearing of the child was paralleled in the visionary seeing of the artist.  And this gave the artist a privileged place in society. [4] If the ideal of perpetual childhood was not possible then it was the child-like adult artist who would be able to sustain this vision of transcendent reality. And indeed we may still think about the artist as foreseeing and visionary. 

In John Paynter’s view the child possessed above all else an imagination – the ability to respond to the world, its sounds, its music and whatever other images were there to be encountered. It was simply a case of being responsive to the  here and now and finding an impulse to express thoughts and feelings, and in the case of music, through sound. The child possessed a nascent creativity and was blessed with an innocent ear. 

For the most part, we have come to see this view of childhood as naively romantic – verging on the sentimental, a childhood from which fables are made. Yet it was this belief that enabled Paynter, together with Aston, to realise a highly original book comprising thirty-six projects and a vast number of novel assignments. The tasks set were supported by exemplarly work created by children providing proof of the pudding. But as the authors made clear, this is not just about the process of ‘making’. There needed to be a process of ‘taking’ too. Thus there was the expectation that the maker would be refreshed and come to know a repertoire of musical works. But, and it is a big but, contact with existing repertoire was to be seen as subordinate to what the child had to say musically. While the teacher may take their starting point from the techniques and practices of other composers in order to create a subtle scaffold, the child responds largely unburdened by this knowledge. The child’s newly created piece for prepared piano comes to live alongside the prepared piano music of John Cage, for example. Thus the sovereignty of childhood is celebrated with the child more expert than novice. And this has considerable implications for the way childrens’ work would be given value – that is, assessed.

In Paynter’s scheme childhood was thought of as a time apart from adulthood  – ‘a time in itself’.  Childhood was simply different to adulthood, the two were largely unconnected. Childhood was neither inferior nor superior to adulthood. The child was neither immature or mature. The child was just different and this meant, as the child-centered educators saw it, that music education could offer a space in which, with suitable support and guidance, children could  be composers.  And this would be in a climate where directions of travel were open rather than closed or pre-determined. The classroom was a place where time could be made for ‘interesting conversations to take place’.

Come forward fifty years.  Are our classrooms places where there is time for interesting conversations to take place? 

And what conceptions of childhood dominate now and impinge on music education?

Wyness maintains that today children are thought of as having inferior status to adults and as being limited to subordinate roles. They are thought of as a minority group and above all else dependant. [5] Henry Giroux points out that not only are children presented as dependant but also innocent. Once presented as innocent they are in need of protection, and once protected they are available for exploitation. [6] But perhaps the dominant conception is of the child is one of being immature, becoming something, rather than being something, on a rung of a ladder, becoming school ready, phonics test ready, secondary school ready, always being prepared for the next stage, on a flight path rather than being capable here and now of mature actions. 

On the other hand, Elizabeth Beck-Gersheim referes to children today as freedoms children. Perhaps Greta Gunberg comes to mind. These children don’t accept the agenda given. Freedom has arrived and this means that they expect to have an opportunity to shape their own education. They are ready participants. Elizabeth writes:

         ‘They practise a seeking, experimenting morality          that ties together things that seem mutually exclusive:          egoism and altruism, self-realisation and active          compassion’. [7]

What is clear is that the child is 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.

Distinctions between a child-centred and a subject-centred curriculum no longer make much sense. Even Sound and Silencecan be read as concerned with music’s deep structure as it engages with a vast range of musical techniques. [8]

What it does signal still is that there can be a space in the process of learning where the child feels free to know agency and a good degree of self-determination. We hope that our fifty years on book provides for this and for the dialogic space where knowledge and meaning can be made. And of course there can be no knowledge without meaning.


[1] Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence. CUP.

[2] John Locke’s Treatise on Education and the recognition of childhood play is often seen as a foundational text within the child-centred tradition. Locke has no place for music aligning it with the singing of bawdy singing behaviour in public houses.

[3] Rousseau’s fable Emiledevelops ideas from Locke. There is here however, a substantial commitment to music. Rousseau attends to suitable vocal repertoire and to the child’s capacity to compose music.

[4] See Wordworth’s ode ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood’.

[5] Wyness, M. (2000) Contesting Childhood. Sage.

[6] Giroux, H. (2006) The Giroux Reader. Paradigm Publishers.

[7] Beck, U. and Beck-Gersheim, E. (2008) Individualization. Sage.

[8] For a discussion of the place of pupil voice within music education see Finney, J. A Question of Voicein National Association of Music Educators Magazine, Issue No. 31, Autumn 2010.

Music Education’s ambivalent relationship with what ‘artists’ do.

‘Artists use a range of media to represent both the harmony and disharmony of the world as presented to them in all its richness of pain, love, horror, beauty, madness and transcendence. It is always an attempt to re-present aspects of the world as presented in the artist’s lived experience. If successful it will produce resonance of feeling between the artist and their audience.’ [1]

Reading the above in close proximity to reading a tweet from Alison Armstrong sharing what has been going in her music room got me thinking.

Y10 students writing a composition for marimbas. They used research into Minimalism +UN Sustainable Development Goal “Life Below Water” to compose. They want people to play it but haven’t put their “Creative Commons” stamp on it yet.

You see I can’t get that Model Music Curriculum out of my head. A whole book could be written about it and it would start with reference to the minutes of the meetings of the Council of Education 1840-41. [2] It would be a story of the struggle for music to find a place in the school curriculum. It would reveal the ebb and flow of dominant ideologies, of prominent voices, quiet voices and those silenced. There would be recurring themes showing the relationships between official policies and the vagaries of classroom practices. But for the time being something more modest.

Robert Bunting brings to our attention the paucity of thought expressed in the MMC towards composing – its constrained understanding of the idea of technique as circumscribed by a tonal and metrical gradus ad parnasum, and this supported by a note by note approach carefully monitoring the child’s musical imagination. And, equally careful to exclude the child’s lived experience and their wider imaginal world connecting to the world itself. It is some way from recognising the ‘child becoming artist’ being nurtured to re-present aspects of the world as presented in the child’s lived experience.

Alison’s tweet was welcome.


[1] Steve Brewer, letter to editor. Philosophy Now, Issue 144, June/July 2021.

[2] Minutes of the Committee of Council of Education (1840-41) cited in Rainbow, B. (1965) The Land without Music. Novello.

MAKING THE BEST OF THE MMC – THE CHALLENGE: Towards a strategy for action Robert Bunting April 2021

Many of us are angry about the MMC.  It seems to discard, even trample on, things we have given our lives to. But there are dangers in presenting ourselves as bug-eyed radicals bent simply on tearing it down.  And I don’t think we need to. We can see it positively, as a challenge and an opportunity.

I guess most of us feel positive about at least some of the ideas introduced to the NC by the MMC; for instance 

  • performing for an audience 
  • promoting aural memory 
  • revisiting listening repertoire year-on-year 
  •  introducing young people to living composers.  

There are other areas where we may be happy with the MMC’s general position, but don’t like the tone, the over-emphasis on conservative cultural values.  For instance, the listening repertoire seems acceptably varied, yet we might feel there’s a hidden agenda about the superiority of the ‘Western Classical’ tradition. 

Still, there’s wiggle-room to work inside the frame: we’re encouraged to adapt the repertoire to suit our own circumstances.

Similarly with composing.  We can at least be relieved that it has a secure place in the MMC.  But we can be very unhappy about the prescriptive approach to teaching ‘technique’, and the staggering lack of awareness of what’s been going on in classroom composing.  50 years of development in expressiveness and inventiveness, in dialogic teaching, building on cultural awareness and thinking about young peoples’ own musical values, have been just ignored! But again – we’re not forbidden to follow our own path!  Perhaps we could find ways to incorporate some at least of the MMC’s treasured ‘technique’ within our preferred way of working?

The MMC’s fundamental flaw is the assumption that the chief aim of the music curriculum is to produce cohorts of dedicated musicians. This is a naive unexamined assumption, but it isn’t actively evil.  The MMC means well; it’s just banal, mediocre, ill-informed, that’s all.  

Some teachers will embrace it.  But others will feel that in order to meet these requirements they will have to dumb down, so they might as well stop searching for anything better.  So – is there space to support teachers in adopting the ways we believe are best within the MMC framework?  Or are there deal-breakers, things we’ll never be able to stomach?  

Here are some acid tests.  Do we agree:

  1. that all young people should have some experience of ‘classical’ styles and techniques along with other styles and genres?
  • that focused ‘audience listening’ in the classroom can be a valuable experience?
  • that all young people should have some understanding of the concepts of pulse and metre, how scales and modes work in different traditions, and how tonal harmony works?
  • that all young people should understand the purpose and the basic principles of stave notation, and how it impacts on styles of composing and performing?

If we do, I suggest we could accept the MMC framework.  Those who wrote it may interpret these issues very differently from us, but we could use their language for our own ends.  We could position ourselves, not as determined to tear down the MMC, but as aiming to make it work well, to bring it some quality, imagination, originality, and cultural awareness.  

In the process we might  significantly modify the values of the MMC, but we might be able honestly to say:

  • The MMC gives us a good base to build on.  We aim to help teachers and other practitioners bring out its full potential by drawing on the wide range of current classroom practice that emphasises critical and creative thinking and draws on children’s own funds of musical knowledge.

Such a position would give us scope to engage with a wide range of teachers.  Some we may never move, but there are plenty who will respond.  It would also enable us to build bridges between the MMC and those composers, performers and instrumental teachers who are asked to work within its boundaries.

A coherent curriculum for such an approach, progressing stage by stage from Y1 to Y9 and blending creative with formal, is perfectly feasible.  But the advocates and practitioners of this sort of approach to music education have not as yet produced such a curriculum.This may be because much of their (often outstanding) teaching takes the form of brief interventions and highly individualised ways of working – workshops, residencies etc. – rather than sustained year-on-year teaching and a community of shared practice.  If we want young people’s musical education to reflect the best practice available today, we must buckle down and remedy this lack.  Until we do, the authors of the MMC cannot be wholly blamed for falling back on the only curriculum model available.

The first challenge is to develop an approach that marries ‘formal’ with ‘creative’ in a way that more traditional music specialist teachers are happy to embrace.  The second (and even greater) challenge is to make at least some of this approach accessible to non-specialist Primary-phase teachers.  Both of these challenges call for a community of practice, with shared language and pedagogy, sustained by a strong model of progression and some agreement on what constitutes quality of achievement.

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, just 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.



[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 monologisim, 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.