NUMU may not being doing much for this

Speaking and listening; reading; writing. These are the components of literacy in our schools. Of course, there is the idea of ‘literacies’ reaching out to include any media, multi-media, through which meaning is made and understanding gained. We speak of musical literacy implying the capacity to read and makes sense of musical notation(s) and more generally of having musical understanding. There is both a restricted and a broader meaning.

Schools place high priority on literacy. Inadequate development of literacy is in itself a justification for a failed Ofsted inspection and Special Measures. The development of literacy is thought to be the responsibility of the whole school, every area of learning, every teacher. ‘Every teacher is a teacher of English’ is a well-worn slogan.

The place of literacy development in the context of music needs attending to (NUMU may not do very much for it, dare I say), and there is evidence that musical activities such as singing, and particularly, singing and whole body movement can contribute to literacy development. [1]

While the focus of yesterday’s Cambridge conference was not on music and literacy it did focus on the place of ‘talk’ within a music education, talk thought of as key to learning to think about music and in turn related to reading and writing about it. In this way talk can be related to the development of literacy and offer an interesting place to start.

Teachers presented the various ways in which they make use of talking strategies to help their students think more about (a) how they make music (b) how they make sense of it as a social-cultural practice and (c) how music has a philosophical basis. Becky Clarey, Head of Music at Salesian College, Chertsey reminded us that the 2009 Making More of Music Report noted:

“A lack of emphasis on increasing the quality and depth of students’ responses”

“For students of all abilities, teaching and learning in music in secondary schools must shift away from a narrow emphasis on technical competence towards musical understanding” [2]

In response Becky has deployed a thinking skills approach. Below is an example of work with students as they move between Years 12 and 13. The question posed is:

How does music create emotion?

By presenting a question supported by talking points a line of enquiry has been set up. Below Becky shows how this works. You will be able to imagine the ways in which talking (whether to oneself or each other) is central to thinking critically.

Music to research:
Barber’s Adagio for Strings
Adele – Someone Like You
Research sheets:
Adele – Recipe for Emotion
Why does music make us feel
Wikipedia Article – you may want to share this as it’s quite long!
Questions To Think About
Decide and present one you agree on, one you disagree on, and one you are not sure about. You must explain why, and support your answers with appropriate musical examples.
Music can create a specific emotion:

Music can create an overall mood, but not a specific emotion
Music can create specific emotions, but it is only culturally defined (ie if you played a piece of music to someone who had grown up on Mars, they wouldn’t know what the emotion would be)
Listeners can IDENTIFY an emotion in music but can’t make listeners FEEL that emotion (ie you know the music sounds sad, but it doesn’t actually make you feel sad)
Music ALWAYS creates emotion
If you feel emotion when you are listening to music, you are listening in a more sophisticated way
The emotions you feel when you are listening to music are purely subjective and dependent on the person
By feeling emotion when you are listening to music, you are listening imperfectly

Article by Michaeleen Doucleff

Adele, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter performed “Someone Like You” from her latest album “21” at WSJ Café

What explains the magic of Adele’s song? Though personal experience and culture play into individual reactions, researchers have found that certain features of music are consistently associated with producing strong emotions in listeners. Combined with heartfelt lyrics and a powerhouse voice, these structures can send reward signals to our brains that rival any other pleasure.

Twenty years ago, the British psychologist John Sloboda conducted a simple experiment. He asked music lovers to identify passages of songs that reliably set off a physical reaction, such as tears or goose bumps. Participants identified 20 tear-triggering passages, and when Dr. Sloboda analyzed their properties, a trend emerged: 18 contained a musical device called an “appoggiatura.“

An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. “This generates tension in the listener,” said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. “When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good.”

Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.

“Someone Like You,” which Adele wrote with Dan Wilson, is sprinkled with ornamental notes similar to appoggiaturas. In addition, during the chorus, Adele slightly modulates her pitch at the end of long notes right before the accompaniment goes to a new harmony, creating mini-roller coasters of tension and resolution, said Dr. Guhn.

So here is an example of critical thinking where responses to music are extended and where music is a subject with steel, with a backbone. Never mind fruitless debates about whether music is a practical or academic subject, it is a subject which embraces thinking, critical thinking, a subject with a history of musical criticism. Talking, reading and writing in their different ways help to engage with music with greater intelligence and discernment.

But Becky’s crtical thinking approach is not restricted to post 16 students. Year 9’s work with film music presents the talking point:

‘Micky Mousing is the lowest form of film music.’

In next week’s blog I will report on teachers’ work with younger children where talking is integral to their musical education.


[1] For example, see ‘rhythm4reading’ and the work of Marion Long.
[2] It is a concern that Ofsted tends towards becoming ahistorical, leaving behind to be forgotten traces of its former thought.

2 thoughts on “NUMU may not being doing much for this

  1. Some interesting points here, especially about the 2009 report. I would suggest that it is still very ambitious to expect music teachers to get much beyond skill-based musical learning at Key Stage Three when most schools only have one lesson per week, and some even less than this. It’s much easier at GCSE and A-Level to incorporate some literacy, and, indeed, it is an integral part of these courses. At Key Stage 3, however, it can remain something of a pipe dream as teachers struggle to make their lessons meaningful and enjoyable. Practical music making should still be at the heart of all lessons; and in some schools it is not, as the recent Ofsted findings show.

    Criticial thinking approaches are a really great approach at Key Stages 4 and 5, when there is a little more time. I like to use them with my Year 10 classes.

    1. Thanks for the response Vicki. I will try next week to show how this can work at Key Stage 3 and below and how it can be an integral part of music making. However, I accept the point about getting other things in place.

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