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.

6 thoughts on “What if music education involved thinking?

  1. Lizzie Hastings- Clarke

    We have started using dual objectives which are effectively musical aims and then specific thinking aims.
    I asked my yr 7s the other day, when trying to explain timbre, to try and hear (audiate!) in their heads, a saucepan played with a wooden spoon, and then after a little while, to change that to a metal spoon. I need to try and plan some time to reflect on this type of activity!

  2. I think that dripping this kind of thinking into the classroom so that it becomes second nature (as they say) could make quite a difference. Your example is an excellent one.

    I must be careful in banding around ‘audiation’. The tendency is to only focus on silent musical thinking, but in Edwin Gordon’s theory of audiation included is mental activity whether the music is sounding or not. So, in the case of timbre, pupils could listen to (audiate) as they play their xylophone with the mental intention of making it sound like a bell or ……

    All this sounds like good preparation for composing based on a musical mind that knows how to imagine music.

    Thanks Lizzie.

  3. This is exactly what Edwin E Gordon has spent his life’s research studying! Audiation is the coined word he developed in 1976 to refer to music thinking. “Audiation is to music what thought is to language.” If you’re not familiar with Dr. Gordon’s work, I think you would find it fascinating and in line with your own thinking. http://www.giml.org has an overview of Gordon’s Music Learning Theory. You can find his works at http://www.giamusic.com. Learning Sequences in Music is the main title. Dense reading, but it makes you think!

    1. Thank you Jennifer. I encountered the work of Edwin Gordon in 1984 and have kept it in mind ever since and have indeed written about it. The concept is very powerful indeed and provides a way to think about ‘thinking music’. In other blogs I have led readers to the Gordon sources. As you may have discerned, I have an interest in the concpet of ‘thinking about music’ and the role of talk in this, which is of course complementary to ‘thinking music’.

      Whenever, I meet use of terms such as ‘inner hearing’, ‘the mind ear’ and even ‘aural’ I try to lead the writers to ‘audiation’. Its power lies in its comprehensiveness.

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