Foundational listening in the music curriculum

In 1899 William McNaught identified three mental faculties that all methods of teaching listening assumed children to possess.

  1. the observation of what is heard at any given moment
  2. the recollection of what has previously been heard
  3. the comparison of what we hear now with what we have recently heard [1]

We would perhaps want to add

  1. the prediction of what is to come

McNaught was writing about the teaching of listening and the methods by which children are taught to listen. [2]

Might it be a good thing to teach children that they possess the potential to

  1. observe what is heard at any given moment
  2. recollect what has previously been heard
  3. compare what they hear now with what has recently been heard
  4. predict what is to come? [3]

This would require some deliberate teaching about how to think in sound.

Powerful knowledge and valuable know how for those acquiring it, an example of meta-cognition. [4]

Pupils would of course learn to do this anyway in their own time and without being taught.

Deliberate teaching implies formal learning with the intention of empowering the pupil and overcoming the unpredictability of ‘own time’ learning.

McNaught’s bigger picture was the teaching of sight-singing.

If you can sight-sing you really can claim to be able to read music.

I have often wondered what is meant when we talk about reading music. What is actually meant? Clearly it is more than cracking a code-decoding symbols.

Sadly, there is no shortage of poorly conceived approaches used to teach children to read music in 2015, and perhaps rather more than there were in 1899.

McNaught was getting close.


[1] McNaught, W. G. (1899-2000) ‘The Psychology of Sight-Singing’, Proceedings of the Musical Association 26, 33-35 cited in G. Cox (1993) A History of Music Education in England 1872-1928, Scolar Press: Aldershot.

[2] This was before the gramophone and the music appreciation movement. The idea of listening was embedded in the act of making music – singing and playing.

[3] In Lucy Green’s theory of musical meaning ‘inherent’ musical meaning works in the same way. For a thorough discussion of the significance of inherent meaning see Green, L. (2005) Meaning, autonomy and authenticity in the music classroom, (pp. 3-19) Professorial Lecture. Institute of Education: London.

[4] Furthermore, this might lead to think of listening as being a foundational element of a curriculum rather than a part of the listening, composing, performing trinity.

Music teachers becoming research savvy

Have you heard? Music teachers need to become research savvy. This will help in spotting those snake oil salesmen with their seductive lures: learning styles, brain gym, how music cures toothache, the transforming properties of this and that and other compelling ideas. And are you being inducted into growth mind-set theory? Has it reached your school yet? Teachers beware!

This is the message coming thick and fast as part of a movement seeking to empower teachers. For example, see

There is a growing conviction that teaching should be informed by robust evidence (research-informed) rather than whims, trends and quick fixes. At the same time there is talk of in-school research cultures and of ‘research rich schools’.

Thus, the teacher is encouraged to become both a consumer and a producer of research, that is, become research savvy. [1]

In the blog I gave an example of a music teacher doing this.

Whether we call this research or critical enquiry a systematic approach is required.

Here is one view of what this might mean. [2]

Step 1: A particular problem is identified.

Step 2: The problem is made explicit by placing it in a wider context drawing on existing knowledge.

Step 3: The problem is framed as an enquiry through the construction of research questions.

Step 4: Both methodology and methods are made clear.

Step 5: Findings are presented and discussed with self-critique.

Step 6: New knowledge (theory) has been created and can be shared with others.

With this in mind here is a taste of another music teacher researching. No, not action research, but case study seeking to understand rather than seeking to change or improve. [3]

Emily teaches a year 7 class for both Music and Dance. Samba Band features as a project in years 7, 8 and 9. By year 9 Samba has become an eclectic mix of stylistic groves. But how to make a good start in year 7?

I start from step 3. The problem is framed as an enquiry through the construction of research questions.

1 To what extent does dancing to Samba music support the internalization of Samba rhythms, leading to improved Samba performance? [4]

2 Are students able to find flow as a result of improved Samba playing? [5]

Step 4: A case study methodology is established along with methods of data collection. Data is collected throughout the term’s work from a variety of sources.

Audio/video recording

Semi-structured interview

Quick questionnaire

Periodic focus group

Teacher diary

Extended questionnaire

Here is an extract from Emily’s report as she discusses findings in response to question 1.

‘Lesson 4 was the first chance to evaluate whether the dance lesson produced any outworking during the week, and whether the process of internalization had begun. This was the music lesson after their first dance lesson. I asked the students the following questions at the beginning of the lesson:

  1. Who has been chanting samba rhythms at any point during the past week? (27/30)
  2. Who has tapped out samba rhythms at any point during the past week? (28/30)
  3. Who has moved their body to an imaginary samba beat? (25/5)
  4. Who has stood up to dance an imaginary samba beat? (13/17)’

Just one example of data forming part of a much larger set.

Emily concludes her report with a proposition.

‘The dance or movement develops a freedom of body consciousness, which supports the process of internalization, which develops the knowing body and moving mind, which, taking into account the improved accuracy that internalization has given rise to, leads to flow experience’.

This is a reasonable proposition, not only because Emily has been systematic about her research but also because her research questions were derived from examining existing knowledge which provided a framework for the study. [6]

Emily’s proposition or, if you prefer, her theory, or, if you like, her hypothesis, is waiting to be tested, disputed, argued about.

Is it reasonable to say that Emily’s teaching is informed by evidence?

By the way, what’s your theory?


[1] The TES has recently included a column for teachers to report their research.

Perhaps a useful piece of scepticism would be to question ‘what am I being asked to sign up to?’

[2] This is based on the model provided by Keith Swanwick. See Swanwick, K. (1984) Some observations on research in music education. BJME, 1 (3), 195-204. It would be interesting to hear about alternative ways of defining research.

[3] This may seem strange when the discourse of ‘improvement’ has never been stronger. Change and improvement may well be further down the line in respect to case study research.

[4] In respect to dance and movement Emily defers to Anthony Kemp citing: ‘Through dance children are given the means to internalize and conceptualise in terms of pulse, tempo, accent, rhythm, dynamics, texture, form and phrasing. Through kinaesthetic processes children become perceptually aware of these aspects through feelingful neuro-musicular sensations, which become the basis for future conceptual thought and imagination.’ Kemp, A. (1986) Current developments in Music Curriculum Thinking in the United Kingdom. Paper presented at the 4th Baghdad International Music Conference, Bagdad.

[5] See for the ‘flow’ concept.

[6] For a full account of Emily’s work see her article in the Music Mark Magazine Issue 4, Spring 2014 ‘The dance becomes the music.’

‘We all seemed to enjoy it’

A year 8 class on a Thursday afternoon before the age of measurement.

To the school hall and moving to Darius Milhaud’s Le creation de monde. Three one-hour lessons of listening.

I had just discovered the piece and at the same time become interested in the way that music is most obviously known – physically.

You see I had read ‘Rhythm, Music and Education’ by Jaques-Dalcroze. This had led me to wonder whether dancers knew more about music than musicians.

And let’s keep in mind Jackie Schneider’s poetic account of her recent teaching.

‘On Monday morning year 2 children looked nervously through the classroom doors at the blacked out music room, they squealed in delight as they saw bubbles appear from around the corner and the twinkle of the disco ball shimmered on the classroom floor. The aquarium from Carnival of the Animals played loudly. As their eyes got used to the darkness they spotted 30 silken scarves in bright lurid colours draped around the music room. They picked up a scarf and they made it swim/glide/soar around the room.’

We can imagine the swimming, gliding, soaring as extended body movements capturing the general character of the music.

(Do early years music teachers sometimes attach jingles to ankles and wrists as a way of knowing music with the body?)

Thinking bodies – that’s where I started with that year 8 class all those years ago.

The class was listening with their bodies, thinking and knowing with their bodies.

Through repetition came sharper aural perception and refinement of movement. Movements became recognizable expressive gestures. Inner feeling was matched to outward expression.

Well, that was the theory, a theory underlying, in one way or another, the world’s most influential music education methods and movements.

There were times to reflect, times to talk and think about the music before re-engaging with the music.

‘The creation of the earth’ – what an idea.

The piece


Lasts some sixteen minutes. That’s a lot of music to map.

But that’s what we attempted over three Thursday afternoons.

What for?


To know a piece of music that otherwise would have remained unknown.

Was that enough?

Seemed worthwhile at the time.

But this was before the age of measurement. And ‘we all seemed to enjoy it and get something from it’.

See for what it could be like after the age of measurement.

And do dancers know more about music than musicians?

The Enraged Musician

When in Bristol visit Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. It’s at the top of Park Street and connected to the Wills Memorial Building.

On my recent visit two things caught my attention. There was a Bansky piece, a remnant of the Great Bansky Exhibition of 2009, and a William Hogarth exhibition running from 16th May to 31st August.

It’s only fairly recently that I have taken an interest in how art work, just like musical work, can be viewed as a social-historical document, that is, a representation of lived culture at a particular time and in a particular place.

In visiting the Hogarth exhibition I expected plenty of this but I didn’t expect to see an engraving entitled ‘the enraged musician’.

So what is this all about? [1]

There’s a lot going on, a thorough cacophony. And don’t miss the squawking parrot.

Hogarth’s message is political. The enraged musician is an Italian émigré representing Italian musical hegemony of the time. The musician is being subjected to some rough British music-making. What a racket – and by the way, the sweet singing of the milkmaid seems to be a casualty too.

A social music historian will have a lot to say about all this.

However, it does remind us that the struggle for culture is not new.

That ‘British Music’ can mean a lot of different things.

That ‘music can be bad for you’. [2]

That the tradition of ‘rough music’ might be worth investigating.

That an image could be used as a talking point to develop an interesting music-making project.

That the new GCSE Areas of Study will be limited in scope and unlikely to have any interest in music’s social-political meanings. [3]

And is the chimney sweep in Hogarth’s engraving calling for a kazoo to be thrown up?



[2] See Philpott, C. (2012) ‘The justification for music in the curriculum.’ In (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Education, Routledge: London.

[3] And despite this encouragement from the rubric: ‘GCSE music specifications must encourage students to engage critically and creatively with a wide range of music and musical contexts, develop an understanding of the place of music in different cultures and contexts and reflect on how music is used in the expression of personal and collective identities.’

Interpretation of the term ‘critical’ is critical. See