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.

Notes:

(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.

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