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’.


2 thoughts on “Musical criticism and implications for GCSE

  1. Pingback: Proper and improper listening in the draft GCSE for Music | jfin107

  2. Pingback: Music Education Now

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s