Style alienation and existential interest in the music room

It was good to see Musical Futures following in the path of William Byrd in promoting singing. [1]

Byrd’s third point – ‘It doth strengthen all parts of the brest, & doth open the pipes’ is part of the more general recommendation that singing provides a health benefit. And this is running through the MF advocacy too.

But it is MF’s first point that is perhaps of greatest interest, the proposal that singing supports wider musical understanding.

‘In our Find Your Voice pilot in 2013 77% of secondary teachers surveyed stated that they had applied the vocal strategies across their entire curriculum, encouraging students to vocalize first and move onto instruments after. This aided musical understanding as students were internalizing the music, listening to and singing it first.’ [2]

This will be ‘music’ to the ears of The National Curriculum Working Party for Music 1990; Ofsted 1993, 1995, 1996, 2009, 2012; A National Plan for Music Education, 2011 and many more.

The students are learning to think and feel with their voices, together with others, learning to shape musical ideas in minds and matching inward feelings with outward expressions, assisting in the development of thought-laden musical behaviour. [3]

So herein lies a longstanding and impressive justification for singing.

Singing as social-intellectual tool.

But now I want to tease out a second justification.

In last week’s blog I hinted that one way of thinking about children’s interests was to see these as evolving through four phases. [4]

Kieran Egan refers to the phase embracing the middle years of schooling as ‘the romantic’ when children are keen to gather facts about distant matters yet which relate to matters close to home. While Egan may not have singing in mind, singing does draw in words, sentiments, narratives and facts. In the song it is the words that count. As Graham Welch has pointed out, young children often abandon attention to pitch as they search for meaning in the words of their song. [5]

Singing can capture interest and this is seen in the songs children choose to listen to, choose to sing, and in the lyrics they themselves compose and of course in the vocal material teachers select.

In last week’s blog I made passing reference to a year 9 class singing, dancing and drumming an apartheid song of the teacher’s choice. My suggestion was that, although initially musically strange, the human interest in the song served to create meaning and so render it ‘relevant’.

But now I have an example to puzzle over.

Schubert’s Erl King. It is an art song and for many children will sound strange and likely to alienate. But it has a griping narrative, literally a matter of life and death. No shortage of human interest. So quite a tension here between potential stylistic alienation and existential interest. [6]

Give it a try and why not create talking points about the tension between style alienation and existential interest. That sounds like a move in the direction of a critical pedagogy which our music education so desperately needs in view of our current nihilistic times.

So what of a second justification?

Singing and the song as bearers of culture.

Thus, singing wont only be for the benefit of those who receive it (it’s for the kids) but also for the enrichment of our musical culture and its transformation. It might even be about a conversation with the past.


[1] See: and
[2] ibid.
[3] However, it is not possible for singing to claim a monopoly on learning to think music. Physical movement, for example, has a strong claim too, and this could include the physical movement involved in playing an instrument.
[4] See:
The BBC ten pieces will no doubt be working with pupil’s interests at the ‘romantic’ phase.
[5] Welch, G. (2006) Singing and Vocal Development. In G. McPherson (Ed.) The Child as Musician: A handbook of musical development. New York: Oxford University Press. pp.311-329.
[6] Those who know Lucy Green’s theory of musical meaning may discern my teasing away at it here. Schubert’s Erl King does have an arresting piano motif that could be a source of sonic meaning distracting from any negative delineated meanings. This might prompt the teacher to work with the motif in a déjà vu-like way. See my blog October 10, 2014 The hidden hand of Edvard Grieg.

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