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.

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