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’.

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