In praise of systematic enquiry

This week I had the privilege of reading the doctoral submission of Leslie Linton of the University of Western Ontario. The title: Interpretive Reproduction and informal Learning in the Grade One Classroom. [1] Perhaps it will be available as a book in due course. Leslie has provided a summary version in the Winter issue of the Music Mark Magazine. [2]

Leslie worked for six months mostly as a non-participant observer alongside a class music teacher developing an informal pedagogy, which brought together the research findings of Lucy Green [3] and Kathy Marsh [4]. Leslie’s was a planned informal learning. (‘In at the Deep End’ just didn’t work!)

Leslie designed three units of work, each having its own set of informal learning principles.

Unit 1 Listening and copying vocally
Unit 2 Playing familiar melodies by ear
Unit 3 Listening and copying vocally and harmonically

The research was carried out in the context of Canada’s adherence to Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze concepts, methods and principles, chiefly Kodaly. These ways of working are well established in North America and fit well with the curriculum goals set out by the province, in this case Ontario. [5]

Leslie’s approach disrupted the teacher-led, sequentially prescribed curriculum and adherence to a Kodaly approach. [6]

Underpinning the planned informal learning approach was the recognition that the childrens’ musical experience beyond the school (their musical enculturation) was vast and it was through YouTube clips, for example, that the children learnt to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy so well in tune. This was a revelation to their class teacher.

What became clear was that the established school music programme underestimated the pupils’ capabilities. This was chiefly the result of disregarding the pupils’ well-developed processes of musical enculturation.

The step-by-step approach (simple to complex) offered by ‘Kodaly’ showed no appreciation of the pupils’ capacity to work with what were complex rhythmic and melodic musical materials in their own musical lives, their immediate social heritage. In this respect the formal curriculum was regressive and oppressive.

In becoming agents of their own musical education with the teacher as partner in this, these pupils were developing understanding of what learning music and becoming a musician involved. The data arising in response to Leslie’s third research question: How do Grade One students describe their experiences with informal learning? showed the emergence of what Lucy Green refers to as ‘critical musicality’ or what others more generally identify with critical pedagogy.

In all this there is a way of thinking about childhood, not as a state of immaturity where the child is moved step-by-step up a ladder but as abounding with agency and social maturity.

In recent weeks I have written blogs on learning to think critically about music as it works in tandem with learning to think in sound. There is no doubt that these children were doing both in abundance and out-striping curriculum expectations.

Leslie’s research, of which only a taste has been given here, raises important questions about our conceptions of childhood and how we think children learn and develop, and for what purpose. More research like that reported here is urgently needed if we are to better understand and develop planned informal pedagogies in music. At the moment practice is running ahead theory. While this is exciting it may be counterproductive.


[1] Grade 1 equates with Year 2 in England i.e. 6-7 year olds.
[2] Linton, L. (2014) Informal music learning in the Year 2 classroom. Music Mark Magazine, Issue 3, pp. 22-28. Included in this publication are video reflections from the class teacher.
[3] Green, L. (2008) Music, informal learning and the school: A new classroom pedagogy. London: Ashgate.
[4] Marsh, K. (2008) The musical playground. London: Oxford University Press.
[5] North American music educators appear to be less eclectic in forming pedagogy than is the case in England.
[6] Both Leslie and the class teacher were trained in the Kodaly concept.

Music education as fulfilment and with ethical significance

The attentive reader of last week’s blog will be thinking, ‘so music education is good for something after all. If music education is for fulfilment music education can’t be ”good for nothing” or merely ”good for itself”.’ Yes, true, it has become good for something. As Wayne Bowman points out, making the distinction between intrinsic good and extrinsic good is mis-conceived. [1] Claiming music education to be an intrinsic good doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. However, arguing for music education as fulfilment is some distance from making a shopping list of benefits that fuel exaggerated claims for a music education and that are likely to mis-direct and distort practice.

In arguing for music education as fulfilment as set out in last week’s blog, I think we are better placed to justify the place of music in the school. We avoid what are likely to be distractions from multiple and lesser claims where a myriad of siren voices reduce music to serving too many things. Making a distinction between justification and advocacy may be helpful.

Those engaged in advocacy for music education have no interest in the possible limitations in what is claimed, neither look for ways of falsifying such claims. [2] Advocacy is politically motivated and concerned with gaining resources in an economically competetive world. While advocacy is necessary, it can all too easily draw too many into creating a comforting mystical aura around music and music education inducing waves of enthusiastic rhetoric about the value of music and an onward search for what becomes the holy grail.

Music education as fulfilment belongs to the school of thought that views education as contributing to human flourishing. The Greeks called this eudaominia, an ultimate good. If a music education is thought of in terms of human flourishing then as Wayne Bowman maintains, music and music education need to be thought of as a set of musical practices ‘…practices whose value depends upon whether and how they distinctively enable their practitioners to thrive, none of which follows automatically or necessarily from musical engagement. The values afforded by music-making depend on the kind of music at hand, the ways we engage in it, and the uses to which that experience is subsequently put’. [3]

Thus music-making and music education have ethical significance, and now we can see a great expanse of clear water, a whole ocean, between this kind of justification and the chatter of those who claim music to be good for this and that, including employability and economic productivity.

In the Purpose of Study statement introducing the National Curriculum for Music there is reference to increasing pupil’s self-confidence. No other subject in the curriculum has such a reference. Other subjects might well consider such a statement facile, even fatuous. Time for music education to have greater self-confidence.


[1] ‘The ethical significance of music-making’, Wayne Bowman, Music Mark Magazine, Issue 3 – Winter 2013/14.
[2] This also applies to advocates of music teaching methods. Increasingly researchers oblige by carrying out what are inevitably positive evaluations of programmes.
[3] p. 4 ‘The ethical significance of music-making’, Wayne Bowman, Music Mark Magazine, Issue 3 – Winter 2013/14.

A Music Education as Fulfilment

What value should we give to a music education?

At this time we hear much about the idea of an academic curriculum. We are reminded that schools are for learning, the learning of academic subjects. Government policy makes clear that some subjects are more academically significant than others. Beyond academic subjects there are vocational subjects. So where is music in this? Its identity, like the other arts, is full of contradictions. Music commits a cardinal sin and offensive to the idea of the academic. You see music involves the body, essentially so. In the pressure cooker of the academy music becomes a place to let off of steam, music is cathartic; music thought of as a perfect counter-weight to the hard edge of the academic. And now music can be seen as good for all kinds of things. The list grows ever longer.

In promoting Music The United Kingdom Association for Music Education’s website trumpets ten things you should know about music. Did you know that:

1. It boosts pupil and social development
2. It improves learning skills
3. It fosters team work
4. It underpins better behaviour
5. It encourages creativity
6. It builds life skills
7. Music is for life
8. It is an educational building block
9. It is fun
10. It is for everyone

These are of course designed to be selling points and sound to me like promises, the kind you get on an advert for a product in a supermarket, and they are promises that can’t be kept. This approach presents music as a kind of currency easily exchanged for just about anything including employability and economic productivity? In this view Music is good for something, good for just about everything. What could music not be good for? But what if music were good for nothing?

In 1998 Ofsted published ‘The Arts Inspected’ setting out examples of ‘good’ teaching in the arts and of interest here, ‘good’ teaching in music. Not outstanding teaching we note, just good. The writers begin by telling the reader why teach music and the arts? No not because the law requires them to be taught as part of the National Curriculum. No not because involvement in music leads to higher achievement in other subjects. Instead, music and the arts can be valued for their own sake. To quote:

‘They mirror the whole repertoire of human experience, and are worthy of study in their own right. It is difficult to imagine the world without arts…[without music]’

Music good for itself? No purpose?

What other activities are good for nothing, activities that have no purpose? There is one example that I think can help the argument I am advancing. Play.

Play, whether child’s play or the game with rules, no one knows how a game will end or quite what will happen as the game is played. What matters is what happens when the game is in-play and this is the same with music-making. Its value lies in the process of making where time is forgotten but which is a time of fulfillment in-itself, where a life is being made as well as music, where I can reflect on existence, where I can ask ‘who am I?’ (not what am I? what level am I?), and ‘what is the most excellent version of myself?’, ‘how can I transform myself and the world?’

So, Music, no not soft nor for that matter hard, but fundamental and certainly not currency to be exchanged. A musical education is far too valuable for that.

Musical criticism and implications for GCSE

At the end of last week’s blog I posed six questions. The sixth question:

Do talking points lead to a mature culture of ‘musical criticism’ embracing what currently falls under ‘review, appraisal, evaluation, reflection’?

The English National Curriculum for Music 2013 opens with a ‘Purpose of study’ statement. Here we read ‘As they [pupils] progress, they should develop a critical engagement with music…’

I wonder what is meant by ‘critical engagement’?

The key word is ‘critical’. To be critical implies to be thoughtful, discriminating, analytical, reflective, evaluative, knowing, gaining insight and a symbol of becoming wide-awake to the world; musical experience calls for this. It calls for a growing awareness of what music is, how music is used, how music is given meaning and how meanings are continually negotiated and re-negotiated. It calls for a recognition that music has ‘human interest’; social, cultural and political. Without criticism we cease to be human. Without criticism music ceases to be a subject of significance.

‘A mature culture of musical criticism’.

The term ‘musical criticism’ has rarely been used in the context of music education, yet it has a long history and is what in part helps to constitute music as a human discourse. Of course, there can be no musical criticism without ‘music making’ and acquaintance with much music.

And now I have introduced the term ‘music making’. I think this is useful in that it is inclusive of the manifold ways in which music is created enabling the terms performing and composing to be opened up to diversity of practice, indeed it helps to see music not as a thing but as a set of human practices. Composing is hardly an adequate term to describe electronic musical production or song writing, for example. Music making and musical criticism are equally dependant upon listening thought of as music experienced either present or in mind.

At the time of the creation of GCSE Music in 1986 the Performing, Composing, Listening structure radically reworked the existing scheme, a loose framework of musical theory and practice. The assumption now was that composing, performing and listening were primary musical behaviours and of more or less equal standing. Yet, this was always problematic as listening has a strong claim to being a foundational behaviour and best understood as a multi-layered form underpinning music making and critical thinking about it.

‘Music Making’ and ‘Musical Criticism’ as an overarching two-part framework I would maintain enables a more integrated and coherent approach to the study of music. The disaggregation of listening disrupts the potential for a close-knit mutually informing making-critical dialogue. It is the quality of this dialogue that is the hallmark of meaningful arts education where by placing critical thought in the service of music making, the making and thinking process is enriched. In turn this calls for a respect for and appreciation of the provenance of diverse music and musical practices. This is what Visual Art in the school achieves so well. Art is a popular subject because it accepts the students’ artisic expressions as revealing their artistic knowing, a form of knowledge rigorous and disciplined. Music has been less sure about this.

In the case of GCSE music has been ambivalent about its identity, wishing on the one hand to achieve the outcomes attributed to an arts education while being reluctant to let go of ‘esoteric’ forms of knowledge as an emblem of rigour and academic credibility. In this the listening component in the form of a listening examination has become a peculiarity unconsciously informed by an old form of musicology which was dying at the time of the inception of GCSE. The potential for re-conceptualizing the subject through a reformed GCSE is great. At the same time the scope for re-imagining GCSE without a listening examination but with ways of showing critical thought about music is great too.

My morning newspaper reports that GCSE will be setting new standards, raising the bar, and there will be a consideration of what this will mean for music. How music is conceptualised as a subject will be critical in this. Apart from an uncritical attitude to how content is currently organised ie.’the holy trinity’ of Perfoming, Composing, Listening, one serious error will be to fall back on esoteric knowledge and what LJ calls a focus on ‘static elements’. [1] Another error will be to narrow what constitues legitimate music making and to privelege certain forms of musical knowledge over others.

Critical engagement with music. I wonder what the writers of the National Curriculum had in mind?


[1] This is a reference to a Teaching Music website forum post where LJ noted the imaginative teaching of a Chopin work. See The point made was that in this kind of teaching student’s understanding was being expanded beyond the requirements of examination questions and focus on ‘static elements’.