Rigour and ‘the greater theory of music’

I wonder what ‘rigour’ in music education means. Echoing the Secretary of State for Education, the recent Ofsted report ‘Music in schools: what hubs must do’ refers to music as ‘a rigorous, academic subject for all’. The chief injunction of the report is to demand that music hubs communicate to schools that music be thought of as a demanding academic discipline and so transform standards of musical achievement for all pupils. One assumption appears to be that rigour is evidenced through the dispensation of ‘the theory of music’ appropriately lowered into, or perhaps imposed upon, the inviting context of demanding musical activity.

Another way of thinking about ‘rigour’ might be to focus on ‘critical engagement with music’. The new National Curriculum for Music makes reference to ‘critical engagement with music’. Critical engagement implies ‘thinking’, not a word found in the Ofsted report. Might rigour lie in the ways in which pupils learn to think about the practice of music, how it is made, its social-cultural significance and its ontology. This may well embrace what is understood as ‘the theory of music’ but prompts us to think bigger than this.

I recently worked with undergraduate music students at Newcastle University and together did some thinking about music education. At one point I gave the group of twenty five the following extract from The Observer newspaper, an example of musical criticism referring to the 6 Music Prom 2013.

‘Personally I’m of the firm belief that pop music based on punk or hip-hop doesn’t work with an orchestra: the lush, classical sounds overload the music, turning it into a Music for Pleasure easy-listening parody. Punk and post-punk tunes are built on insistent guitar riffs and the space around them: hip-hop is about the beat. Orchestras just add mawkishness and fuss’.

This was given as an example of a talking point and the students in twos and threes talked. What we discovered was that Neil Mercer’s three types of talk: explorative, cumulative and disputational were all used but that disputation dominated.(1) No right answers, no conclusions but a great many fresh propositions, fresh talking points in the cause of developing what I will call ‘the greater theory of music’ and putting into a fuller context what now I will call ‘the lesser theory of music’. But now to a year 9 classroom.

A music teacher tells me that: there is a song that was released originally to a limited Bhangra audience. It was then taken by the rapper Jay-Z who added a rap and re-released this to global success.

The teacher used this case of musical appropriation as a talking point about music as a cultural practice. Was it all ‘right’ for Jay-Z to alter the meaning of the song? The talking that followed was largely disputational in nature. The pupils’ subsequent writing about this ‘theoretical’ issue proved stimualting too. Perhaps music becomes academically rigorous when it is thought about, talked about, written about, when musical criticism is an embedded feature of practice, embedded in the making of Bhangra conceived of, in this case, as an enquiry into a contemporary musical practice. And as we know the capacity to engage in thinking about things is there in young children. This is not something only to be allowed for after induction into ‘the lesser theory of music’.

And of course we may need to talk about the devil’s interval, the circle of fifths, the Tristan chord and all kinds of things.

In the recent Ofsted report there is a passing reference to ‘the power of music’, a lazy, rhetorical, casual reference. Music on its own has no power to do anything. It’s power acrues when people, children, young people have agency over it, when they are able to see themselves and others in it. The power of music lies in children and young people gaining powerful knowledge. This will require attention to thinking music and thinking about it enabling ‘the lesser theory of music’ to be put in its place.

In the Ofsted report 2009 ‘Making more of music’ a theory of musical intelligence was vaguely outlined. In the Ofsted report of 2012 ‘Wider still and wider’ a theory of the ‘mind’s ear’ was tentatively trailed along with the significance of ‘musical provenance’. In the 2013 report ‘Music in schools…’ the place of ‘the lesser theory of music’ in music education is intimated. It would seem reasonable to ask Ofsted to produce a well argued Philosophy of Music Education. Without this we will all be confused.

(1) ‘Interthinking’; putting talk to work’, Karen Littlejohn and Neil Mercer, Routledge 2013.

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