What’s all this advocacy for music education?

‘Study finds listening to music increases accuracy and speed at work.’ [1]

Such headlines seem to be growing in number as studies into the power of music proliferate accompanied by ever more remarkable claims. Enthusiastic twitterati are quick to post these.

Then there are the Plato quotes in praise of music. What greater authority can there be than Plato? But such Plato quotes are often, if not always, of dubious provenance.

All this becomes part of a feverish advocacy for music and music education. Rarely do the many advocates examine the veracity of the claims or resort to the kind of argument that qualifies as a justification for music education.

Wayne Bowman defines advocacy as:

‘… promising the world, without asking about the circumstances under which its promises might be realized, or acknowledging their contingency.’ [2]

In response to the incessant claims on the power of music I recently tweeted in full ironic style:

‘We must search out the parts that music is not yet reaching and deal with this urgently.’

It was duly re-tweeted. Was my irony lost I wondered?

But here is another tweet:

‘Year 1 have made a 21 month average gain in phonological blending and a 12 month gain in phonological elision in 5 weeks.’

And then an academic paper published by the Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research. [3]

This was from Dr. Marion Long reporting on the progress of the Rhythm for Reading project.

The project examines how a rhythm-based music intervention can bring about improvement in children’s reading comprehension, reading accuracy and reading rate. [4]

The programme of training required the children to:

… ‘plan ahead, synchronise, monitor and integrate multi-level physical coordination, which in turn required anticipatory and inhibitory control, and to keep time with the musical accompaniment and the other children in the room. Lastly, the teacher modeled simple staff notation, chanting on a monotone the alphabet letter names of music notation. Chanting was syncronised with stamping and clapping actions.’ [5]

Marion’s report makes clear the circumstances under which the children’s reading improves as a result of musical training. Contingencies are recognized. The claims are not overblown or unreasonably arrived at and build upon existing research.

This I think is helpful and puts into perspective the repeated claim that musical experience contributes to children’s reading development. Marion’s research shows under what circumstances and conditions this can be the case as well as what contingencies are in play.

The intervention places fundamental importance on the relationship between music and movement and, in the first instance, on music and gross motor movement, the stamping.

The role of movement in musical development is at least intuitively grasped in the primary school. That is, movement in response to music and movement in its making. I wonder if in observing children’s engagement with music sufficient attention is given to the way their bodies are thinking and the ways in which their minds are moving.

I know: let’s sing ‘Pack up your troubles’ with gross stamping movements.

This might be more valuable than seeking out dodgy Plato quotes.

[1] See http://tinyurl.com/lnyvjm5
[2] Bowman, W. (2005) Music Education in Nihilistic Times, in music Education for the New Millenium: Theory and Practice for Music Teaching and Learning, (ed.) D. K. Lines. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing pp. 30-31.
[3] Research Studies in Music Education 2014. Vol.36 (1) 107-124. ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading.
[4] Also see http://rhythmforreading.com/

What if music education involved thinking?

I was wondering how many would come to our session at the Hertfordshire instrumental teachers conference. The title of the session was ‘learning to think about music’, and we were competing with juicier sounding parallel sessions. In the event we were over-subscribed.

In welcoming the 25 teachers I asked why they hadn’t chosen beat-boxing. Smiles and chuckles answered my question. But why had they come to this session? The general feeling was that they wanted to do some thinking. So I proceeded with an experiment in musical thought.

Task: Think the last four notes of the National Anthem.

And they did. (I joked about the silent cacophony.)

But now I wanted to know how they did it. What strategies did they use?

Well they conceded that to do this they worked from the last five notes (the last phrase) to find the fourth from last note. So, in making that move some thinking about the task was needed and this involved some thinking about the music. And did this ‘thinking about’ require language, inner speech? Mmm, complicated.

In order to accomplish the task there needed to be some thinking about the task, some kind of reflection within the action. As well as thinking music they did some thinking about music. They moved between thinking music and thinking about it, albeit very rapidly.

I was therefore able to propose that the distinction between thinking in music [1] and thinking about it might be an acceptable and indeed helpful way of thinking more generally about being musically educated. [2] We become musically educated by learning to think music and think about it.[3]

What if we placed thinking at the heart of music education? And of course, there can be no thinking without feeling and this brings in the body. Just imagine some more music now. Isn’t it something felt as well as thought?

To develop the general point I introduced an observation made by the late Janet Mills HMI. This is an account of a year 7 lesson.

‘Next, the pupils worked on all the songs, responding to advice from the teacher about how to improve the quality of their singing. As this section of the lesson developed, the pupils also answered questions about the music and their singing that required them to develop their ability to replay and rewind music in their heads, increase the focus with which they listened to and evaluated their own singing, and think even harder’. [4]

These are my italics drawing attention to our capacity to work with music in mind or quite simply, think music.

So now imagine the classroom above and the moves asked of the pupils between thinking music and thinking about it.

By now our teachers were doing a lot of thinking, asking questions, minds inquisitive.

While the teachers were especially interested in musical thinking (there was much understanding of how they daily helped their pupils to think music), our purpose was to explore ways in which pupils could be taught how to think about music.

So, we played Cello Octet by Phillip Glass and at the same time provided some talking points:

1. There are only two things you can do with a musical idea/motif: repeat it or change it.
2. Minimalist music doesn’t really have an ending.
3. Minimalist music can’t tell a story.
4. There is not enough going on in this music.
5. This music is easy listening.
6. ?????????

In pairs the teachers selected one to talk about.

One pair engaged in ‘disputational talk’ while most in ‘exploratory talk’. [5]

There was a lot of thinking about music going on.

We went on to examine talk as thinking and how carefully stimulated talk could result in growth of the musical mind. However, we emphasised that talk needed to be in close proximity to the act of music-making, well at least to start with. If there is to be talk in the music classroom then it needed to be an activity for the pupils rather than the teacher. And this could replace the often low level of thought seen in the name of evaluation and appriasal.

We suggested three categories:

1. talk about the process of music-making
2. talk about music as a social-cultural practice
3. philosophical talk about music

To conclude another thinking task:

Think the last six notes of the National Anthem. How did you do it?

I got the idea from a nearly forgotten piece of research carried out in 1922 by the psychologist Marie Agnew: A comparison between the auditory images of musicians, psychologists and children. [6]

Agnew writes: ‘By auditory imagery (usually called mental hearing) we mean the ability to hear sounds in imagination and memory to some extent as if they were physically present to the ear.’ Agnew’s chief interest was in the strength of the mental musical image.

Agnew used the American National Anthem for her tests.

One interesting finding was that unlike the musicians, the psychologists resorted to a range of movement strategies (e.g finger moving, arm waving) in order to recall the music. That would figure you may be thinking.

I am just wondering whether our subject called Music might be dignified by more reference to ‘thinking’.

What if we placed ‘thinking’ at the heart of our music education? It might helps us out of the destructive duality that is theory and practice.

[1] some speak of ‘thinking in sound’.
[2] We could think of this as an example of dialectical thought. But I do wonder whether pulling apart thinking like this is tenable. I might need a neuroscientist to clarify this. Or anybody else who can throw light on it.
[3] Please note that I am not advocating ‘thinking skills’, ‘critical thinking’ or any other recent trend, just ‘thinking’.
[4] ‘The Arts Inspected: Good teaching in Art, Dance, Drama, Music’. Gordon Clay, John Hertrich, Peter Jones, Janet Mills and Jim Rose. Heinemann/Ofsted, 1998.
[5] See Blog March 22, 2014 Talking to think in music education.
[6] Agnew, M. (1922) The auditory imagery of musicians, psychologists and children. Iowa Studies in Psychology, 7, 268-278.

Teaching music without levels in year 9

Music teacher Mike and head teacher Ged have agreed to explore how teaching music without levels might work. Like many schools, and in this case an academy chain, there is thought being given to transition to a world without levels. For this year the school and its associate schools are continuing to work with levels. But here in music, in this school, it has been agreed to pilot an alternative with one Key Stage 3 class of 28 students.

First, the structure within which this pilot is taking place.

1. Teaching throughout the academy chain is underpinned by Bloom’s Taxonomy.
2. All students in all subjects keep a record of their ‘learning’ in a booklet known as a ‘learning dialogue’. This involves a written dialogue between teacher and student.
3. Projects in music are termly in duration throughout Key Stage 3.
4. Projects are designed within the conventions of arts pedagogy. Techniques are introduced, explored and mastered within a cultural context. These become the building blocks with which increasing levels of self-directed learning become possible leading to divergent outcomes.
5. Weekly music lessons are 50 minutes.
6. Teaching is observed by SLT termly and, only if staff request, graded.

The music department is seen as a model of good practice in the school and this has been endorsed by Ofsted as part of a general inspection.

My role has been to share with Mike recent thinking about assessment and progression as set out by the ISM. [1]

Mike is mindful that in creating an approach to assessment, recording and reporting simplicity is essential and that students will need to be participants in its design and implementation.

Students have been used to the awarding of sub-levels. They are heavily level-conscious.

They are also used to coming to understand criteria for success as an inductive process through whole class music-making.

They understand that they must make choices about which tasks they work at and the labels ‘basic; intermediate; complex’ help to define these. Until now it has been these markers that have informed levels.

Now Mike introduces an element that disrupts this. He takes the ISM proposal that any criterion can be met in three degrees: e.g. working towards, working at, working beyond, for example.

Mike experiments with novice, competent, expert but the class discuss this and settle for beginner, accomplished, expert. So now we have:

Beginner               Simple
Accomplished      Intermediate
Expert                   Complex

referenced to what is being learnt, what is of imminent interest.

So, students are able to identify on the grid what they are setting out to achieve.

Their learning dialogues with Mike, in conversation and in writing, speak of matters such as ‘becoming more accomplished at fluent phrasing’, ‘beginning to create a lyrical structure’, ‘being expert at bending notes’…

A popular expression is ‘becoming more …’. The students seem to like this way of evaluating their progress and it serves to nuance judgements about musical quality. [2]

So far Mike has not taken to the proposal that student profiles can be created using curriculum dimensions such as singing, composing, listening, general musicality etc. or personal attributes such as team working, resilience etc.

For Mike, and for the time being, this would create unhelpful complexity.

While formative assessment is embedded in the ongoing learning dialogue, we will need to wait until later in the term to see what makes sense in terms of summative assessment.

I raised the question of standards expected in music in this school and their comparability with other schools with Tony, deputy head responsible for managing data in the school. We agreed this needs more thought, although both Mike and Tony held the view that some reference to GCSE criteria might inform this as the Key Stage comes to an end. [3]

However, there is circumspection in this regard and any over reductive approach to turning Key Stage 3 into a ‘flight path’ to post 14 expectations is firmly rejected.

More to report later in the term on this case.

The transition from a heavily audited system driven by sub-levels to an alternative, while maintaining a highly differentiated approach to teaching, is a challenge with no easy solutions.

What is encouraging in this case is that the students are making good sense of life without levels.

But now to investigate another place doing things differently.


[1] See http://www.ism.org/nationalcurriculum
Also see ‘Further thoughts on radar diagrams for assessing without levels’ werryblog.com
[2] Here and now judgements about musical quality may be at the heart of musical assessment and not at all the same thing as judgements about musical learning.
[3] There appears to be a longstanding resistance to fixing standards in music education and more generally in the arts. While post 14 examinations and the ABRSM examinations leave no option in the matter, in the classroom there does seem to be an attachment to an ethos free from nationally-universally fixed or even negotiated standards. Was it this that lay at the root of the failure of NC Levels?

Some may recall the Welsh Curriculum Authority’s setting out of standards through exemplars in a time before levels when there was an end of key stage ‘working towards, at, beyond’ approach to managing the challenge of setting standards. However, like levels, this was quickly abused in the rush to data fabrication as the maelstrom of ‘performativity’ overtook education.

There is also the question of whether GCSE in Music is fit for purpose with its current and future incoherent epistemology.

See also Gary Spruce (1996) ‘Assessment in the arts: issues of objectivity’. In (ed.) Gary Spruce, Teaching Music, London: Routledge.

Working with the hidden hand of Edvard Grieg

And now the BBC’s Ten Pieces are with us ‘to inspire a generation of children to get creative with classical music’. [1]

So let me tell you about a music teacher getting creative with Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King (one of the ten). And this is with Year 7 who we might assume are at Egan’s Romantic Stage of Understanding [2], so the topic Music, Story and Far Away Places makes sense.

The teacher has been telling stories and introducing story-telling music to the class and now the teacher’s imagination has created a series of lesson based upon an analysis of the Grieg – 16 beat structure: Intro, 4+2+2+8 with repetitions, an accelerando and with a crazy ending. With this in mind it is a case of let’s make a class piece and this will mean a sustained period of workshop-ing.

The teacher’s approach is what I call the deja vu method as pioneered by Richard McNichol and the LSO Discovery Programme: the teacher abstracts (or is it abducts?) key structural features of the work and from here enables pupils to create a homologous piece(s) in preparation for meeting the work itself as a deja vu experience. Through the engagement of the pupils with the structural features of the work in their own music-making ‘appreciation’ of the work itself is eased.

In this case the teacher is creating the homology through adherence to the work’s 16 beat structure. The first three lessons involve working together as a whole class to create the musical material that will give the structure meaning with motifs derived from the pitch set A, G, F, E. Using a rhythmic and melodic template all pupils make and notate a musical motif/ostinato. Individual motifs are reviewed by the whole class and three selected. These are rehearsed accompanied by the teacher on keyboard as support.

The process is one of drawing out ideas, testing them together, selecting-rejecting, providing time for small group and individual making of material brought to the whole, sifting and sorting – all leading to a piece in which Grieg had a hidden hand. As the piece comes together the teacher plays the bass guitar, serving to ground the performance.

The agreed structure:

Introduction: Unison rhythm on the note A
Middle Section: Ostinato 1 solo
Ostinato 1- all
Ostinato 2 solo Texture gets thicker
Ostinato 2 all
Ostinato 3- all
Gradually tempo gets faster, dynamics get louder!
Ending: 3 sudden stops – restart ostinato faster & louder each time. All end on the note A!

Two lessons are needed for assembling the piece and for intensive rehearsal (one way of thinking about rigour), making the piece into something that sounds satisfying. Managing a controlled accelerando with Year 7 is not easy!

Lesson 6 and time to listen to a recording of the class piece and then time for the music-making of Edvard Grieg. That will lead to questions and a fresh agenda to consider – time for talking, lots of it and integrated with lots of listening ‘in mind’ and with the music sounding; lots of thinking, thinking the music and thinking about it.

No, not some checking off of key words or learning outcomes, but a revealing of meanings made and with the emergence of new ideas to pursue about music and its making: how is it made, how does it work, who does it works for, why does it work – can music tell a story, why not, where shall we go from here? What about that rhythm, let’s play and play it until it changes into something else…

Who knows, we may be talking and playing ourselves into lots of understanding, as long as there is no early closure to what is now an on-going enquiry.

And what do you think about this deja vu approach to getting to know pieces of music? Let’s try another way. Any ideas!

[1] See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01vs08w
[2] According to Egan the Romantic Stage sees children liking facts, going deep and to the extremes, the strange. Loving stories and looking for the transcending qualities of people. Connecting to emotions.

See http://www.hent.org/world/rss/egans_stages.htm

Also: Finney, J. (2009) ‘Human interest and musical development: no knowledge without meaning’. In (eds.) Alexandra Lamont and Helen Coll, Sound Progress: Exploring musical development, NAME.

No, this is not scientific – just trying to improve my teaching

‘A composing conundrum’ was the title of Liz Glead’s blog last week. [1] It rang a familiar bell and connected with Ellie’s research (see last week’s blog below). And now Kate ‘On Developing Compositional Capabilities’. [2] Yes, another example of a music teacher researching their own practice. One of Kate’s intentions was ‘to resolve, in some measure, the persistent problems that blight GCSE composition in the context of a year 10 class.’

Kate set out to test ‘the capability approach’ through three cycles of action research. [3]

While we often speak of musical abilities, aptitudes, achievements, attainments and potentials, rarely do we speak of musical capabilities. Put in its plainest form, capabilities are the opportunities open to a person. [4] So, what composing opportunities do year 10 students identify? Starting from here opens up a fresh way for stduents to see their development as composers. It has a positive trajectory.

In Kate’s case students raised fifty-two capabilities e.g ‘have a long period to compose in’; ‘share work with others’; ‘feel good about composing’; ‘be individual or unique when composing’; ‘have freedom to just play around with ideas’; ‘continue composing after completing GCSE’… These fifty-two capabilities formed the basis of Kate’s composition teaching through year 10 and this involved continual re-evaluation of capabilities as the students’ composing progressed. [5]

Kate’s study met the six principles I previously set out as qualifying teacher enquiry to be thought of as research. Was it scientific? No.

While much educational research aspires to meet the conditions of science in order to achieve knowledge that is thought to be objective, reliable and verifiable, much doesn’t work like this. It works from a different set of assumptions. In the case of Ellie and Kate’s research the assumption is that in researching their own practice, their own classroom, there is no attempt to find some general truth about teaching, in this case composing at GCSE, as if this could done.

Instead there is an attempt to understand better their own teaching and to improve it, in this case improved teaching of composing for the benefit of their students. The teacher’s subjectivity is recognised and steps are taken to reduce this and to find some objective distance through the way data/evidence is collected and analysed.

While Ellie and Kate are unable to generalise their findings, they are able to offer theoretical ideas that support approaches to teaching composing for others to consider. They are able to make recommendations to their respective departments and schools as well as others more widely. In these cases teacher professionalism has been strengthened. Ellie and Kate are better equipped to evaluate the research findings of others and especially those presented to them within their schools. All this is part of their continual development as teacher-researchers and their increased standing as professionals.


[1] See http://www.mymusicclassroom.com/
[2] Masters thesis 2014.
[3] The first cycle was evaluative, the second and third based on continual reflection and adaption.
[4] See Biggeri, M., Ballet, J. & Comin, F. (eds.) (2011). Children and the Capability Approach. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Capability theory is ultimately concerned with human flourishing and well-being. Composition capability=compositional well-being.
[5] This approach exemplifies a systematic application of student voice.