Proper and improper listening in the draft GCSE for Music

Bullet point three under Appraising in the draft GCSE Music subject content document makes reference to

‘… attentive listening (rather than just hearing)’ … [1]

I had a quiet smile. You see the distinction made between listening and hearing has form (or should we say provenance?). It has been around for some time. For example, in Brian Brocklehurst’s ‘Music in Schools’ (1962) in the fulsome and informative chapter on musical appreciation we read:

‘Teachers of music must give careful thought to ways in which this tendency to hear but not to listen can be counteracted.’ [2]

The suggestion is that our students may be hearers rather than listeners. But how much do we know about how children and young people listen to music? Not very much I suggest. While we may know quite a lot about what they listen to and how frequently, there remains the suspicion that they may be listening in the wrong way, a kind of non-listening. That is, they are listening without sufficient attention, and further still, that they may be listening to the wrong kind of music inducing casual, lazy listening, treating music as merely background and above all without the intellectual seriousness and sanctity that proper listening to music demands. Hence the categories ‘proper listening’ and ‘improper listening’ (hearing).

It strikes me that this distinction merely patronizes children and young people.

Recently working with 13-14 year olds they told me about four ways in which they listen.

Dreamy listening;
Listening for inspiration;
Listening for detail;
Listening for imagery.

I wonder, does dreamy listening fit the improper category of ‘hearing’? Well, dreamy listening may well be a state of heightened attentiveness and a source of critical thought and the making of critical judgements? Who knows?

The distinction made between listening and hearing is zombie theory and an indicator of a deeper ideology in play that there is a right way to listen to music. That short utterance ‘attentive listening (rather than just hearing)’, which I have tried to give some context, may be the ‘give away’. [3]

Point 2 in the introduction to the Draft GCSE for Music states:

‘[GCSE music specifications] must encourage students to engage critically and creatively with a wide range of music and musical contexts, develop an understanding of the place of music in different cultures and contexts and reflect on how music is used in the expression of personal and collective identities.’ [4]

This powerful and highly commenable statement makes the case for recognising a relationship between music, society and culture. It celebrates difference. I wonder if the writers realise the radical implications of such thought and what critical engagement might mean for music thought of as a social-cultural practice. [5] Point 2 is an indication that some foundational thought has been engaged in by the writers of the draft. It is to be hoped that the exam boards will engage in even more foundational thought without eyes being distracted by the market.


[2] ‘Music in Schools’ by J. Brian Brocklehurst, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1962, 66-67. (0.1 p from Amazon)
Brian makes reference to a speech given by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1955: ‘This is the Golden Age of Music and Musicians. Music today is everywhere. It pours from every loudspeaker. It has degenerated into a public nuisance and should be downed.’ (From a speech given at the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund Dinner, St. Cecilia Day Festival, 1955)
[3] See Chapter 11 in ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience’, Routledge 2007 in which Gary Spruce examines the ways in which the ideology of aesthetic listening calls the tune.
For example, will different Areas of Study call for different ways of understanding listening?