Let’s scrape the palimpsest

Palimpsest: A very old document on which the original writing has been erased and replaced with new writing. [1]

Let’s think of our music education as a very old document, as a palimpsest.

Scrape away the new writing and it doesn’t take long to reach the 1970s, the experimental seventies as Bernarr Rainbow called them. Here we find a lively conversation about the future of classroom music. One contributor, Christopher Small is gathering his thoughts through a series of three articles –‘Towards a Philosophy’ in the magazine Music in Education. [2] [3] He writes:

‘… what I am trying to say is that far from discouraging or blocking the acquisition of traditional musical skills, creative work forms a nucleus for all the other activities which are called into action as and when needed – fed by the work of creation and in turn feeding back into it. Children will develop their skills, in fact, as far as they feel the need to take them.’ [4]

Does this sound familiar?

Being part of the 1970s creative movement will have been exciting for those teachers leading the way, while disconcerting for those observing what they saw as the demise of traditional musical skills = the reading and writing of music, its aural underpinning in singing, moving and playing instruments and the appreciation of music listened to.

For Small there need be no tension between traditional ways and new ways. It was about changing the order of things. However, this involved changing the social order making things doubly problematic.

The argument went, open the door to creative work and all other things will flow there-from. This was the ambitious claim. The child’s ‘needs’ were to be the guide, implying a music education that would be open-ended as well as what we now call ‘dialogic’. As things stood Music in school was part of a closed system – time for music in school to be ‘de-schooled’ as it were. [5] [6] Small writes:

‘… we need no formal curriculum, no syllabus, no streaming, perhaps not even any age segregation, no aptitude testing, no research into the musical development of children … The children are no longer the objects of our instruction, they are active agents whose creations are the curriculum, whose musical experience is the syllabus; it is they in collaboration with ourselves who are doing the research – and research after all is only another name for exploration.’ [7] [8]

Does this sound familiar?

Read the script of 2014 and there are hints of Small’s vision coming close at realization, while confounded by and accommodated to newly imposed structures: a new curriculum, a reformed GCSE, Ofsted expectations, new school protocols etc.

Irreducible tensions?

The conversation continues.

Always worth scraping the palimpsest.


[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/palimpsest
See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palimpsest
[2] The three articles appeared in Music in Education, May/June; July/August; September/October 1975.
[3] Small also contributed articles on music in the 20th century.
[4] Small, C. (1975) ‘Towards a Philosophy, Part 3: Creation and Curricula’ (p. 205).
[5] This stage of Small’s thinking was fully set out in 1977 in the book Music-Society-Education published by John Calder.
[6] By 2010 Small had concluded that music should be removed from the classroom to a network of music centres where people of all ages could engage in musicking and dancing, and where instruction is offered as the need is felt for it. (Afterword in Sociology and Music Education, Ed. Ruth Wright, Ashgate, 2010)
[7] Small, C. (1975) ‘Towards a Philosophy, Part 3: Creation and Curricula’ (p. 205).
[8] Small argued that the western classical music tradition perfectly represented the West’s devotion to scientific rationality and its obsession with abstract knowledge. But there were other ways of doing music (musicking) that provided fresh possibilities for how we could relate to each other and how society might be.


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