Scrape music education’s palimpsest

Some think of it as a warm up, some a starter activity, some do it out of habit. The class sit in a circle and somebody claps a rhythm, usually filling four beats. Most likely this rhythm is copied by the whole class. Then round the circle with each participant inventing a new rhythm pattern for all to imitate. I call it ‘tutti-solo’. It’s how a lot of musical practices work. As you know, with habit the class can get really smart with the rhythms they invent and fours beats can become eight, polyrhythmic textures created and so on. But why clapping? Why not vocalizing?

The tutti-solo idea brought into the classroom for pedagogical purpose might satisfy any or all of the following:

1. Internalizing structure
2. Developing aural memory
3. Nurturing invention
4. Building a taxonomy of rhythmic and melodic patterns
5. Creating ensemble

And all in a playful communal atmosphere where the need for each
participant ‘voice’ to be heard is balanced with membership of the class ensemble and contribution to the whole.

But add a musical backing to this where idiom and style infuse the music making and interesting things may happen. Being imaginative in the choices made about this stylistic stimulant will count for a lot. This could be mind-expanding, even thoroughly educative.

But all this has a history. Scrape away at the palimpsest of music education and there it is, but now embedded in all of those classic pedagogies that linger on the margins insisting that the aural does its work in making a thinking-feeling musical mind.

Help! I need a rationale for Key Stage 3

In the previous blog I used a year 7 project ‘The life and work of John Cage’ as an example of

1. Project work as distinct from a unit of work
2. How a project can be thick in content and skills
3. How an enquiry question can help to structure work and build a line of enquiry
4. How the work develops through a dialogue between teacher and pupils
5. How criteria for assessment are emergent rather than pre-determined

In the years following 2000, when the project in question was taught, the music of John Cage along with the work of other so called ‘experimentalist’ composers has featured in GCSE syllabuses with great potential for educating musically.

John Cage’s 4′ 33” of silence is sometimes seen as a watershed moment in cultural history, the point of break with modernism and the move into the postmodern. (1) Charcteristics of artistic postmodernism includes the disolving of the high-low art distinction shown well in the hugely influential work of Reich and Glass, for example, as well as in the contemporary practice of mashing where categories and boundaries are ignored and where surface qualities are more regarded than depth or provenence. Postmodernism as an artisitc movement is a part of the bigger idea of postmodern times, where a globalised culture, with time and space contracted through the advance of techological resources, change the way we think, live and understand ourselves, eachother and the future. This also changes the relationship we have with the past and with music as a global resource.

All this calls for the selecting of what we teach and the making of decisions about how we teach it into an ethical challenge. (2) It calls for something more than teacher enthusiasm and passion. Why select this? Why allow it to be learnt like this?

Anna Gower, that dynamic spirit of music educational adventure, cries – ‘Help! I need a rationale for my Key Stage 3’.

Yes, music teachers do need a well thought through rationale and they do need to be able to articulate this, able to justify what they do in terms that go beyond the familiar slogans. Finding a rationale unfortunately is not easy work. Taking one off the shelf wont do. It will require some thinking and likely some reading. Perhaps it is something we can do together with our pupils. The first step might be to create some questions about the music-making that is before us here and now.

(1) The Cultural turn: selected writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998, Frederick Jameson, Verso, 1998.
(2) The Ethical Significance of Music-making, Wayne Bowman, Music Mark magazine, Winter 2014.

Is this what we mean by ‘depth’?

The publication of Sound and Silence (1) in 1970 gave fuel to the idea of teaching music through a series of projects. The publication was of course not intended to be read as a sequence of projects, rather as a way of approaching the teaching of music, a way of planning for what was referred to as creative music. The project was seen as a self-contained musical world taking the learner deep into some facet of music-making and always connected to what other musicians had done or were doing. The project was given coherence through some kind of structuring idea, a musical technique, feature, music’s realtionship with another art form, the exploration of an instrumental resource. The possibilities were limitless. The projects were designed to encourage experimentation, exploration and the acceptance of outcomes that were not predetermined.

Over time and with the drift towards orthodxy projects were to become units of work. The norm became the half-termly package fitting with half-term assessment requirements and pupil tracking. I am encouraged to note that the idea of the project lives on and as something greater than the half-termly package thought of as a unit of work.

If the project implies experimentation and exploration it can easily be thought of as a form of enquiry and this takes us to the contemporary idea of enquiry learning.(2) The project as enquiry.

While enquiry learning can be found in other subjects – maths, science, history, for example, I am not so sure that it is commonly deployed in the case of music. An interesting feature of enquiry learning is that the work that unfolds stays loyal to a ‘line of enquiry’ or ‘the enquiry question’. Finding worthwhile questions will be a challenge. Perhaps pupils will supply these. I like the question asked by a year 8 pupil ‘why does reggae exist’?, a question that the class can return to as work procedes, and a question that is likely to yield others.

In 2000 a teacher in training devised a project for a year 7 class ‘Introducing the life and Works of John Cage’. (3) The purpose was to introduce pupils to a method of composing, performing and appreciating music and in support of citizenship education. The work undertaken was dense with both skills and content. The project yielded a great deal of music, and just as significant, ideas about music. The project had taken the form of an enquiry. The line of enquiry, while not explicitly stated, involved asking questions about the values and beliefs emerging from the life and work of John Cage and their relevance to the pupils in the class. We might in hindsight frame the project with an overarching enquiry question.

‘What can John Cage teach us about what it means to be a composer, performer, member of an audience?’

One obvious objection to project work, as with the way Key Stage 3 has been conceived of as a series of units of work, is the difficulty in accounting for progression. This is answered only if we can state what it is that the pupils are getting better at as they move from project to project. In the project referred to above they were getting better at: composing, performing and thinking critically about music.(4) In the projects presented to these pupils as they move through Key Stage 3 these three items can form the basis for making judgements about their progress. But they will need elaboration in order to produce a worthwhile range of criteria. One interesting criteria created as part of the John Cage project related to the ability to respond to open questions about music. Another about being able to think about how we make music and what it means to us. These two examples give some sense of the richness of the content and the kind of skills being developed.

I wonder what projects you would want to devise. Just saying Film Music wont do. We would need to start by thinking about why Film Music? What about Film Music? Which Film Music? What is the issue? What will be the line of enquiry?

(1) Sound and Silence: Classroom Projects in Creative Music, John Paynter and Peter Aston, Cambridge University Press, 1970.
(2) Enquiry learning has roots in the thinking of philosopher John Dewey who viewed the school as a place where democracy was practised.
(3) An Analysis of a Scheme of Work Introducing the Life and Work of John Cage in Support of Students Citizenship Education at Year 7. Jo Plumb, IC Assignment, University of Cambridge, 2000.
(4) Thinking critically about music in this context is much more than what is usually implied by ‘appraisal’ or ‘evaluation’. Instead, this is meta critique.

Appreciating Music

‘The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’(1)

In response to this the first of the curriculum’s two aims, the new National Curriculum for Music proposes that ‘As pupils progress, they should develop critical engagement with music, allowing them to compose, and to listen with discrimination to the best in the musical canon.’(2) Elsewhere there is reference to ‘great composers’ and ‘the history of music’, reinforcing a commitment to a curriculum that conserves and honours the past – the best that has been thought and musically created – as a birthright of the educated citizen.

The new curriculum is striking in its deployment of the retro language of ‘the canon’, ‘the history of music’, ‘appreciation’ and other prompts recalling the period following the Second World War when such language was common currency in our schools and when ‘music appreciation’ was a distinctive entity within the music curriculum.

Classroom ‘music appreciation’ lessons involved listening to recorded music supported by a teacher underlining points of significance through talk and piano demonstration. It was a practice inherited from the pioneers of the music appreciation movement responding to the invention of the gramophone and the wireless at the beginning of the century. The intention had been to cultivate musical taste through the introduction of music from the classical repertoire not easily accessible to the average child.

However, its introduction was not without some concerns, as seen in the Board of Education pamphlet of 1933, which noted:

‘…that singing of songs may be elbowed out of the syllabus by over-indulgence in Eurhymics; that listening to a wireless lesson leaves little time for the less colourful but very necessary practice of sight singing; that our children enjoy more and more culture and perform less and less music.’ (3)

The rigour experienced through singing, sight singing and music reading was threatened by a time consuming and overindulgent music appreciation lesson as well as other novelties of the time.

By the post second world war period the problem posed by ‘music appreciation’ was one of a narrowly conceived repertoire coupled with ways of teaching that were increasingly linked with pupil passivity and disaffection. One influential response came from the publication ‘Sound and Silence’ in 1970. John Paynter and Peter Aston’s 36 projects inviting creative experiment were interpenetrated by some 350 musical works. A fresh relationship was being struck with the past and its authority. The school music canon had become differentiated if not dissolved.

There now came the possibility of music being known and appreciated in the context of pupils’ own creative work. Disparate components of the curriculum could be seen in a more integrated light where the acquisition of skill, including the skill of discrimination and judgement, went in tandem with the development of pupils’ creativity. A die had been cast that opened up imaginative approaches to bringing an eclectic range of musical practices into close proximity to pupils’ own making and thinking and thereby furthering their appreciation of music.

Whether through approaches developed by educational outreach such as the LSO Discovery programme, where music from the orchestral repertoire came to be known and appreciated through compositional workshop-ing, or through newer forms of integrated practice derived from the informal learning practices of popular musicians, pathways to fuller appreciation of music have become many and diverse.

Taking appreciation to imply learning to value, respect, understand, give due regard to music’s provenance and to do so with a sense of pleasure and even gratitude, we have a counterweight to ‘I know what I like’ and the contemporary search for personal authenticity.

However, the proposal that an undifferentiated musical canon exists to be deferred to and appreciated, where there is a ‘one best’, is at odds with much that is vibrant about contemporary music education as it finds a synergy with the energy and fluidity of lived culture at the current time. It is to be hoped that the tensions created will be productive.


(1) National Curriculum Framework. DfE, October 2013.

(2) Music Programme of Study for Key Stage 1-3. Department for Education, October 2013.

(3) Cited in ‘Music in Education in Thought in Practice,’ p. 282. Bernarr Rainbow with Gordon Cox, 2006, The Boydal Press.