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  and thinking about it might be an acceptable and indeed helpful way of thinking more generally about being musically educated.  We become musically educated by learning to think music and think about it.
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’. 
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.
In pairs the teachers selected one to talk about.
One pair engaged in ‘disputational talk’ while most in ‘exploratory talk’. 
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. 
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.
 some speak of ‘thinking in sound’.
 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.
 Please note that I am not advocating ‘thinking skills’, ‘critical thinking’ or any other recent trend, just ‘thinking’.
 ‘The Arts Inspected: Good teaching in Art, Dance, Drama, Music’. Gordon Clay, John Hertrich, Peter Jones, Janet Mills and Jim Rose. Heinemann/Ofsted, 1998.
 See Blog March 22, 2014 Talking to think in music education.
 Agnew, M. (1922) The auditory imagery of musicians, psychologists and children. Iowa Studies in Psychology, 7, 268-278.