Knowing how to make music well

Say the words ‘musical knowledge’ and thought goes heavy, rushing to the ‘knowing that’ kind of knowledge, theoretical knowledge, ‘knowing that’ this is an ostinato, ostinato as fact. It is known what an ostinato is, key words, concepts, encyclopedias, dictionaries.

Thankfully, we have another kind of knowledge, ‘knowing how’ – knowing how to create an ostinato, knowing how to make effective use of an ostinato. If you like, ‘practical knowledge’. [1] ‘Practical knowledge’ – yes, still knowledge, really useful knowledge, dynamic musical knowledge. [2]

What seems to be the case however is that instead of thinking in terms of ‘knowing how’ or ‘practical knowledge’, in the case of music we prefer to think in terms of skill. I suspect that when music teachers speak of musical skills and a skills-led curriculum they are not thinking in terms of knowledge but rather in terms of action, activity, doing.

In recent times the distinction has been made between doing and learning as a way of giving intention and purpose to learning that is activity.

‘Ok, this is what they are going to do, but what are they going to learn?’

At this point why not think in terms of knowledge and say, ‘well, what are they going to know how to do’ (no, not ‘be able to do’, ‘know how to do’). Doing and learning become one, raised to the status of knowledge. And we will have ready-made assessment criteria. Take my recent example of Year 7 Gamelan: knowing how to make sonorous sounds; knowing how to coordinate pulse and tempo; knowing how to make melodic patterns etc. And of course knowing how to do these things well. All of this is a matter of in class negotiation. And wait for the really interesting questions to arise.

Somehow ‘skill’ feels like an inadequate way of expressing ‘know how’. Of course if we said, ‘my curriculum is knowledge-led’, we might need to explain. Why not test it on an Ofsted Inspector or SLT and have a discussion about forms of knowledge?

I once met former Schools Minister X X. He raised the question of ‘knowledge’. I set about trying to explain that knowledge could be thought about in a variety of ways (ie. after Plato). I was met with not so much incomprehension as with not being heard. What I was proposing couldn’t be heard, wouldn’t be heard, ever. I was talking to a wall. Knowledge = facts. That was it. The subject changed.

Knowing how to make music well; knowing how to think in sound; knowing how to think about music – knowing how to think critically about the way music is practised. These things matter.


[1] There are of course other ways of thinking about knowledge. In chapter 3 of Roger Scruton’s ‘Culture Counts’ he examines a variety of forms of knowledge and relates these to feeling to make a case for cultural preservation.
[2] See Gilbert Ryle, ‘The Concept of Mind’, London, Hutchinson (1949), Chapter 2 for the distinction between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’.

Making music – there’s an idea!

I wrote:

‘I have been composing quite a lot lately and thinking about the nature of musical ideas, where they come from, how they are ‘sculpted’ and made to mean, what happens to them and how they work to make a whole where there is some sense of completion and a musical work. This of course is a pretty traditional view of composing music. The goal is to find closure, completion and quite likely some sense of organic unity rather than making what is infinitely open and incomplete, another way of thinking about composing. I am sure there are many more.’

That was from my blog of February 9th last in which I set out a traditional view of composing, some might say an ideologically oppressive view of composing, a process derived from the idea of the composer, the maker of a completed work. ‘The composer’ and the ‘the work’. We might go further and say ‘the composer and HIS work’ such are the sources of our conception of composing ie. the Western European male accumulating opus numbers.

In the class featured in the blog of February 9th there was one student working in a different way from those described. This was a song writer, the kind of song writer who doesn’t ‘compose music’ but who ‘writes songs’ – so not composing but ‘songwriting’. Not in the class is another kind of music-maker known as ‘a producer’ making music with technologies. Not a ‘composer’, nor a ‘songwriter’ but a ‘producer’. [1]

This is leading me to think about the profile components we devise for assessment [2] at GCSE and at all stages prior to this. [3]

Are the composing, performing (+ improvising) labels any longer helpful? What about ‘making music’ or simply ‘making’, a term capable of including a vast range of creative activity. [4]

I note the work of Sound and Music artist Anton Hunter writing: ‘What I hope to achieve … is a blurring of boundaries: between the composed and the improvised, but also blurring the traditional roles of composer and performer, to hopefully produce work that everyone feels ownership over.’ [5] To what extent is it common practice already to blur these boundaries in school? Possibly quite a lot I suspect.

Secondary school music teachers tell me that at the commencement of the GCSE course it is not unusual for there to be a student identity crisis, that is, ‘I am not a composer’. Sometimes this is ‘I write songs’, sometimes ‘I just play an instrument’ or ‘I’m a singer’, sometimes … Yet, all make music. The wonder of making music is that it is a form of thinking, more often a form of inter-thinking, and one that has a fundamental interest in the human condition. It takes many many different forms. Do we do identity violence to these by the categories we use? Are the labels composing, improvising, performing any longer fit for purpose?

In last week’s blog I suggested that one valuable form of knowledge was ‘knowing how to do things well’. Other varieties of ‘knowing how’ might be ‘knowing how to think in sound’; ‘knowing how to think about music’ – ‘knowing how to think critically about the way music is practised’. We need to connect whatever profile components we choose with ways of knowing (knowledge) which will keep us in touch with some notion of ‘musical understanding’. ‘Knowing how’ may be the most useful way to express musical knowledge.

My composing continues to be but one niche variety of music-making.

Music-making and Critical Engagement. Perhaps that’s enough. Don’t worry. You haven’t lost ‘listening’. It’s right in there like never before.


[1] For an illuminating piece of research see ‘Composing, songwriting and producing: Informal popular music pedagogy’, Evan S.Tobias (2013) Research Studies in Music Education, 35 (2) 213-237.
[2] By ‘profile components’ is meant much the same as ‘attainment targets’ or perhaps ‘long-term assessment objectives’.
[3] GCSE is under review, an opportunity to expand what is recognised as music-making, while Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 invite fresh attainment categories. We are at liberty to make these to our liking with some acknowledgement of the National Curriculum (or not).
[4] If we think in terms of creativity then Pam Burnard’s ‘creativities’ make sense at this point. See ‘Musical Creativities in Practice’, Pamela Burnard, Oxford University Press, 2012.
[5] See Anton’s way of working is there to be replicated in school. This footnote, if you are reading it, could be the most interesting part of this blog.

Never mind genre equality

Never mind genre equality, some musical encounters are more worthwhile than others and the criteria by which we make judgements about the quality of student’s music-making will play a part in this.

In last weeks blog I gave the example of Anna placing before her year 9 students something worthwhile, Steve Reich’s Different Trains. Justification in part rested upon the human interest that this work evokes and the unsettling knowledge that emerges. Although only sketching what might develop, the potential for depth of musical encounter I suggested was considerable. And this was at the end of Year 9, that final moment of a compulsory music education. If we consider this musical encounter to be worthwhile, valuable, then by what criteria are we to make judgements about its value?

The energetic work of Alison Daubney and Martin Fautley is currently bringing order to ways of thinking about assessment and progression in the light of the new curriculum. [1]

In Martin’s Blog [2] emphasis is placed upon thinking about assessment and progression separately. ‘… a system of progression needs to build on an assessment system’.

Assessment criteria, it is recommended, are to be topic specific, with differentiated grades (3 say: e.g. towards, at, beyond) while progression can be seen over the longer term through an account of how components of the curriculum (e.g. performing, composing etc.) show progressive attainment.

Making worthwhile criteria I think is a challenge.

Above I proposed that the criteria by which we make judgments about the quality of student’s music-making are likely to effect how worthwhile the musical encounter experienced will be. Perhaps this is obvious. Whatever, I think it worth thinking about.

This week I met an old friend, Gamelan being taught to Year 7. I am not sure whether the music was Balinese or Javanese. [3]

This got me thinking about what really counted about what was going on; for it is what we really think counts here and now that lead us to criteria for assessment. This is what I came up with.

Making sonorous
Cared-for musical gestures
Pulse tuned to tempo and its changes
Pitch pattern making
Cultural significance

I like these because they talk to each other. They seem to need each other. And lying behind them are my thoughts, shared by others, about ways of knowing music and what musical understanding might mean.

One principle might be ‘knowing how to do things well’. Skill is too cheap a word.

My profile components for the time being are:

Making, Thinking and Human Interest. My criteria are in communication with these.

In respect to Human Interest I am interested to note the revival of female gamelan orchestras in Indonesia, the largest Islamic nation in the world. I am interested in Debussy’s fixation with sonorities. I am interested in Gamelan as a combined art. A whole term will be needed as students come to set the agenda with their questions as they enter the curiosity zone. Then the thinking really begins. [4]

So what about Different Trains? What counts in this case?

I need to do some more thinking.

Devising worthwhile musical encounters calls for making choices, being clear about the criteria for making these choices and finding criteria for assessment rooted in beliefs about what it means to know music. [5]

Pronouncing genre equality doesn’t help all that much.


[1] See
[2] See
[3] Gamelan along with West Indian music, Reggae, Indian music, African music and Balinese music entered the school in the late 1970s to become the markers of World Music, a time when the study of ethnomusicology was in the ascendant and awareness of cultural diversity growing. In the wake of the seminal publication Pop, Rock and Ethnic Music in School in 1982, edited by Graham Vulliamy and Ed Lee, there have been numerous publications guiding teachers in the art of world music and there is no sign of a let up. World music, Popular music and Classical music is how the Music Teacher Magazine manages cultural plurality. This arrangement suits music publishers well. This has been reflected in GCSE syllabuses too.
[4] Teachers often say that a whole term’s work on one topic/project wouldn’t work. Boredom would set in and there is half-term assessment to deal with. As Martin Fautley points out, the Listen, Imagine, Compose Project shows how work can span a longer time frame. See also the work of Martin Said and the idea of the project and my blogs relating to enquiry-based learning.
[5] In ‘What’s with the K? Exploring the implications of Christopher Small’s ‘musicking’ for general education’ (Odendall, Kankkunen, Nikkanen and Vakeva, 2014. Music Education Research, 16 (2) 165-175) an important point is made about assessment. If Small’s musicking implies the building of a community of musickers where relationships musical and human are what counts and not individual attainment, then assessment needs rethinking. In fact it wont be assessment but the evaluation of musicking. And this is probably how community music works and the variety of informal practices. And perhaps music in school too. If this were the case the idea of ‘personalisation’ would be redundant.

Placing something of significance before your students

Arnold Bentley viewed much of the innovation in music education in the 1960s and 70s as superficial. His was a commitment to what might be called a traditional music education.

Sing in tune with pleasant tone
Know songs learnt by rote
Sight sing
Write in staff notation
Play instruments from staff notation
Know some music from listening only

As part of this Bentley identified improvisation as the creative element that would play an important part throughout. [1]

This was the primary school curriculum on which a secondary one could build.

Bentley was suspicious of fads in music education, those things that come and go, bright lights that distract. There had been plenty of these in the past. For Bentley, in place of fads there were enduring principles. [2]

John Paynter began his teaching career in the 1950s. On the day I spent with him near the end of his life, he related how he started by teaching in a ‘traditional’ way, much like that set out above. [3] However, it wasn’t long before he embarked upon experimenting with small group improvising and composing using classroom instruments and voices. [4] The rest is history as they say.

But John made an interesting point as our conversation flowed into memories of his own education during the 2nd World War. He told me about his form master reading the stories of P. G. Woodhouse to the class. John made the point, with some insistence, that teachers had a duty to place something of significance before their pupils.

I was reminded of this responsibility on hearing from a Suffolk classroom and the work of Year 9 pupils. Beginning music teacher Anna took into the classroom as a matter of significance Steve Reich’s Different Trains.

Richard Taruskin writes:

‘’… in Different Trains (1988) Mr. Reich went the full distance and earned his place among the great composers of the century. …
Mr. Reich based the melodic content of the piece on the contour and rhythm of ordinary human speech. But in his case the speech consisted of fragments of oral history, looped into Reichian ostinatos, then resolved into musical phrases conforming to normal tunings, scales and rhythms of ‘Western music’, imaginatively scored for string quartet. These speech melodies were set in counterpoint with the original speech samples, all of it measured against a Reichian chug.’’ [5] [6]

Taruskin continues by telling about the significance of the different trains. Reich’s childhood train journeys from coast to coast and the train journeys of children to Auschwitz.

Anna tells me how the music provoked strong responses, interesting talking points and the basis for the students’ own music-making using extracts of human speech and pro tools.

I note above that Richard Taruskin places Different Trains in the 20th century canon of art music and Reich becomes a ‘great composer’. What a ‘talking point’.

There is an ongoing debate around ‘relevance’ in education, and not least in music education. But relevant to what, for what and why? Is it sufficient to say, if it has human interest it will be relevant because I identify with the human condition of others?

Reich’s realisation that his train journeys across the USA between his estranged parents were concurrent with the trains taking children to Auschwitz cause me to think and feel. I identify with this. I can relate to it. This music, like mine causes me to interpret the world and to go on re-interpreting it. I am called to think. I am being educated. I am less ignorant now. Mmmm. [7]


[1] Bentley, A. (1975) Music in Education: A Point of View. NFER Publishing Company Ltd. (Nine copies available from Amazon. Each priced 1p.)
[2] ‘Enduring principles in music education’? This idea seems ill-tuned to our liquid modern world.
[3] This week in a twitter conversation I asserted that the 1950s were a high point in English Music Education. SouthGlosMusicHub disagreed. Of course, I didn’t have much evidence for my assertion. Somebody once made this assertion to me. I was brought up short, as they say. Perhaps I should have tweeted ‘the 1950s before Rock Around the Clock.’
[4] Paynter had Orff instruments to work with, instruments intended for improvisation.
[5] Taruskin, R. (2010) The Danger of Music and other Anti-Utopian Essays. University of California Press: London. p.101.
[6] See
[7] And I am now thinking how a critical pedagogy might require a step further. Mmmm.

Assessment without Levels

In England a space has been created for re-thinking approaches to assessment, progression and curriculum in Music. This is in response to a new national curriculum. Professional associations, their satellites, as well as individual schools and teachers are, and will be (or may not be) working to fill the void. [1] They will be seeking to provide a blueprint that will make sense of a minimal National Curriculum in Music, improve on the past and find consensus in achieving worthy standards for the future.

In response to this scenario I am finding out about the day-to-day realities of music teachers at Key Stage 3. Starting from the ways in which teachers think about their practice, I suggest, is likely to be helpful. [2]

Here is my first meeting with this reality in the case of one teacher. The teacher emailed:

‘I don’t think I have good practice in assessment. My students know that I am looking for creativity in composition, and musicality in performance. The more of each that they demonstrate, the higher their level. And they trust that I will give them the right level. I don’t have descriptions or criteria. They know that I am pleased when they have enjoyed a musical experience. That seems to be enough motivation for them to want to carry on experiencing/achieving. Then when I increase the challenge and equip them with new skills, their achievement increases. Assigning a description to the musical experience has always been the boring part. They know that this boring part needs to be done to carry on with the good part – that’s just part of life! So they complete their assessment booklets and stamp a level on an experience or creation. I am possibly doing it wrong.’

I suspect that what the teacher is telling here is recognised by many teachers, that is, the disjunction between classroom interactions, relational pedagogy rooted in formative assessment and the school’s system of normalisation. But if there is to be a phasing out of levels what will take their place?

I pointed out to the teacher that the National Association of Headteacher’s Commission on Assessment has recommended that a year by year set of objective criteria be set out against which each pupil is assessed at appropriate times of the year as either ‘developing’, ‘meeting’ or ‘exceeding’ these criteria. [3] The teacher responds:

Some of my students will forever be ‘developing’. I don’t think I like this approach. It would undermine my sincere praise and encouragement, just like the levels do. My students care more about what I think of their music than the level I give; my reaction to and enjoyment of what they have created is their motivating factor. You don’t give a gift to someone for them to label it with a description; it is their reaction that defines the gift’s success.

But this is too vague, I know. And there is no data from this that can be fed back to SLT.’

I then encouraged the teacher to be less ‘vague’ and say what was valued in respect to pupils’ development. In what ways do pupils become more creative, more musical?

‘They become more creative through use of novel chord progressions, experimentation with layers, deeper specific emotions are expressed e.g. loss or mourning rather than plain sadness, for example.

They become more musical initially through precision and accuracy, and when that is mastered, through individual expression/unique interpretation.’

A fascinating narrative is emerging and some broad criteria, and a sense of progression. The conversation needs to continue as scope for finding a meeting point with the ISM guidelines, for example, comes in to view. But there will be a lot more wrestling to be done.

This teacher began by saying ‘I don’t think I have good practice in assessment’. What should be noted is that this teacher’s practice is drawn along by an ethical framework in which assessment and progression is defined by musical and relational values despite the requirement to conform to the demand for data for SLT. For this teacher the journey of coming to know and understand music is one made together with individual pupils.

The conversation continues. What criteria could be made that recognise precision, accuracy, expression, interpretation in respect to musical performance, composition and improvisation? ‘Play and sing with consistent and appropriate tone’. How does that sound? Could that be part of a hierarchy of criteria? Is placing criteria in a hierarchy problematic? If it is, how is progression accounted for? …


[1] The National Association of Headteachers has given a strong lead in finding a fresh framework. See Report of the NAHT Commission on Assessment, February 2014. The ISM has produced a ‘Guide to progression, curriculum and assessment’.
[2] The translation of policy into practice has a checkered history in England. More needs to be done in finding meeting points between the teacher’s conceptions of practice, their values ie. their ethical position and policy guidelines.
[3] Other versions of this three-part arrangement include: working towards, working at, working beyond; not yet able to, able to, confidently; novice, competent, expert.