Less about progression, more about musical development

In my blog of February 9 I gave thought to a group of year 10 students and their composing. I wrote:

‘What struck me about the work of these beginning composers was the originality of their ideas. I encountered no musical idea that wasn’t fresh, imaginative. No derivations, no plagiarisms, nothing ordinary. Every musical idea had a character of its own, a sensuous particularity, and the more I listened to each the more I wanted to hear it again to better understand its particularity and to see in it what I had previously failed to see/hear.’

Sixth months on and I have been listening to their current work. There is no doubt that they are musically developing and as I listened to their pieces, typically two minutes in length, I couldn’t but think about the Swanwick-Tillman Spiral of Musical Development. [1]

In chapter 5 of ‘Debates in Music Teaching’ [2] Keith Swanwick revisits the idea of musical development as a spiral-like growth through eight cumulative developmental layers. In considering the development of say year 10 students Swanwick writes, ‘’Older students in high schools will be seeking to enter a ‘grown up’, idiomatic world of music.’’ [3]

Here is how Swanwick begins to describe the idiomatic layer:

‘Structural surprises are integrated into a recognizable musical style. Contrasts and variation take place on the basis of emulated models and clear idiomatic practices, frequently, though not always drawn from popular musical traditions. …’ [4]

This makes sense in relationship to the compositions of the year 10 group. It is a helpful generalization and as such needn’t distract from the individuality and distinctiveness of each student’s work. That needs to be recognized and attended to above all else.

Have the Swanwick-Tillman Spiral in mind, enter the classroom and the pupils’ ways of thinking as revealed in their music-making are clear to see.

The Swanwick-Tillman research enables thought about musical development rather than progression in musical learning that we hear so much about. Music development is thought to be a combination of natural development (or maturation) and cultural environment. In this way development can be distinguished from the idea of progression. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking more about musical development and less about progression.


[1] Swanwick, K. and Tillman, J. (1986) ‘The Sequence of Musical Development: a Study of children’s Composition’, British Journal of Music Education, 3(3): 305-39.
[2] Philpott, C. and Spruce, G. (Eds.) (2012) Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge: London.
[3] I recommend a careful reading of chapter 5. Swanwick clears away common mis-understandings about the proposed stages of development and how they work. The important point made is that children’s musical thinking goes through stages that are qualitatively different. The year 10s are concerned to get to grips with organizing their ideas as well as creating music that is stylistic. This is different from the first stage where interest is in the sensuous quality of sounds and how they can be manipulated and the second where personal expression is sought after along with an awareness of common forms of expression. The final stage, and the one lying beyond where our year 10s are working at, sees a systematic approach and an understanding of ones individual composing voice. I am just about there I would say!
[4] ibid p.71.

Assessing ‘quality’ in musical work

‘A powerful creative act cannot be contained by a neat spreadsheet of numbers and letters. As National Curriculum Levels disappear, I’d ask you respectfully not to replace them with another set of numbers.’ [1]

One of the challenges facing music teachers is how to resist the demand for hard assessment data, that is, numbers and grades poorly representing musical experience. It is soft data, not hard data that tells what is worth noting, the music itself and what can be said about it. In this way assessment in music (and the arts) is primarily concerned with ‘quality’. It has a feel to it.

Assessment is first and foremost the process of giving value to the quality of the musical work in hand. [2] While idoceo can capture the music itself we can usefully call upon language to complement. Here are two verbal descriptions of student’s work.

Steve’s improvisations had a sense of phrasing… and was performing with a feel for the music.

Amy has realised a sense of fantasy through her thoughtful and sensitive melody writing and inventive use of sound effects.

‘a sense of phrasing, a feel for the music, a sense of fantasy, sensitive melody writing, inventive use of sound effects.’

It is language that qualifies rather than measures. This seems to be the kind of thing that Elliot Eisner [3] is thinking about when he proposes that assessment in the arts should focus on three things:

• Technical quality

• An inventive use of an idea or process

• Expressive power or aesthetic quality

With these priorities we start to imagine more subtle success criteria and quite different from those assessment criteria that are little more than task criteria. Task criteria can easily be reduced to a climbing ladder exercise where quality is eclipsed and where more is better than less.

It would be reasonable to suggest that students expect their work to have ‘expressive power’, that they have been ‘inventive’ and that in their work is ‘technical quality’.

The challenge will now be to discover the source of ‘powerful creative acts’.


[2] Perhaps the question is: when are numbers and grades valuable? Public examinations make use of these as a summative declaration of a standard reached.
The Assessment for Learning fad may have been a distraction from valuing what is here now.
[3] See Eisner, E. (2002) ‘The Arts and the Creative Mind.’ London: Yale University Press.

Values and vision at Key Stage 3

At the recent ISM ‘Guide to Progression, curriculum and assessment’ day we had plenty of opportunity to talk and think around the topic in the light of a new National Curriculum. (Thank you Alison.) This involved thinking about the values and vision that we hold for music teaching at Key Stage 3 (age 11-14).

Before I sounded forth in our small group discussion I did say that I had had a long time to think about this. I should have added that I have enjoyed the privilege of bringing together the ideas generated by the classroom research of secondary school music teachers. This has involved a dialogue between my evolving ideas, their ideas and reflection on the realities of the classroom, what works and what might work better. And what is thought to be worthwhile in the name of a music education.

My current conclusion to the question comes out something like this. It is a series of generalizations or if you like, principles.

Each class is thought of as a community of music-makers. Fundamental is that the class take it as given that they will be sounding out music together for much of the time as singers and players. They will learn to ‘face each other’ musically.

Great store will be given to the climate of the classroom where every person will be heard musically and known as a shaper of the curriculum that will unfold.

This will involve establishing ‘voice protocols’ that contribute to the social dynamics of the classroom, the subtleties of pedagogy and the growing trust created between teacher and pupil, and pupil and pupil.

In this way the pupil understands that the teacher will be both facilitator and mediator.

By mediator I mean that the teacher is respected for knowing good musical places to go, for being much of the time ‘the more knowledgeable other’.

The teacher goes beyond facilitation and brings to the classroom what will take pupils to musical places unimaginable. The teacher as well as the pupil will be a mediator of culture.

For the teacher’s part there will be a reserve of powerful stimulants and strategies that can be called on.

Criteria for assessment are constantly negotiated and focused on what really matters here and now, what is important to making music well.

The climate of the classroom will be as important as almost anything else.

All this is an ideal and a good place to start.

What is musical autonomy?

If a goal of education is to develop self-governing critically engaged citizens, and if this is considered fundamental to making a democracy, then there needs to be a carefully considered balance between autonomy and heteronomy. These are big ideas. First autonomy.

The idea of ‘autonomy’ emerged from the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, that time when we came to understand ourselves a bit better and imagined that with the aid of rational thought we could make progress and achieve a more perfect state of humanity. Most haven’t given up on this despite disappointments. [1]

The idea of being an autonomous human being is very attractive. We take this to mean that we exercise the capacity for self-government. Our actions are truly our own. We have agency and we can act authentically. [2] Music teachers like the idea of pupils having autonomy over their music-making. Autonomy is thought to be a good thing and a worthy goal.

But autonomy has an antonym, heteronomy, meaning ‘under the will of others’. This is interesting because until recently it was under the will of others that autonomy was thought to be achieved – the will of the school, the teacher, peers, examination boards, for example.

Education’s big idea, the achievement of what has been called ‘rational autonomy’, expected a submission of the will to the authority of the past, its store of knowledge, know how and the formalities of the school.

This noble educational goal was to bring students to a point of rational autonomy through taking them beyond what they already knew or felt at home with. Education released the student from being bound to their immediate context and limited experience. Their thinking would become ‘context independent’. It was the school and the teacher who were vested with the authority to mastermind this process.

Despite a common conviction that the music teacher can take their students from what they know (i.e. their music) to what they don’t know, this process of musical enlightenment has not proved successful for the majority.

Now it is argued that heteronomy must give way to autonomy in order to make space for musical critical thinking and reflection to be achieved, and that this requires space in which students are able to express their opinions and to participate in the making of their musical cultural environments. [3]

While there is currently much energetic and enthusiastic rebalancing of the autonomy-heteronomy scales, little attention has been paid to defining the curriculum in these terms. The focus has been on pedagogy. [4]

In Ronald Meighan’s view the place to start is to be clear about how the curriculum is defined. A conception of curriculum precedes pedagogy. [5] Three possibilities are offered.

Consultative Curriculum
Imposed programme; student given regular opportunities to input thoughts and feelings. Feedback can be reflected upon by the teacher and modifications made.

Negotiated Curriculum
Power sharing between teacher and student is increased, and where a common understanding is developed between both about the course of study that is to be undertaken

Democratic Curriculum
The learners create, deliver and review their own curriculum.

In the book ‘Masterclass in Music Education’ secondary school music teacher Eleanor Vessey analyzes the move from a consultative to a negotiated curriculum. [6] A remarkable degree of trust was built up between teacher and pupils opening up the possibility of an ongoing mature dialogue about how the curriculum might unfold. The teacher’s authority was enhanced. The pupils became self-governing and critically engaged and on the road to achieving musical autonomy. The Democratic curriculum beckons.

Meighan’s model may be more useful than the ‘Informal, Non-formal; Formal’ one.


[1] The Enlightenment project, as it is called, has come under severe criticism expressed in the move from modernity to post-modernity. Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘The Dialectic of the Enlightenment’ argues that the dominance of scientific rational thinking has served to dehumanize and instrumentalize society. Christopher Small’s seminal work ‘Music, Society, Education’ critiques the tradition of Western European music as being hidebound by scientific rationality.
[2] The idea that we are free to act authentically is of course challenged.
[3] See ‘Music Cultural Pedagogy in the ‘’Network Society’’’, Winfried Sakai at http://jets.redframe.com
[4] One example of the emphasis on pedagogy is Lucy Green’s influential ‘Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy’.
[5] See Meighan, R. (1988) Flexi-Schooling. Education for Tomorrow, Starting Yesterday. Ticknall, Education Now Publishing Cooperative.
[6] See ‘Masterclass in Music Education’, (Eds) Finney, J. and Laurence, F. 2013, Bloomsbury.