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.

41 thoughts on “Foundational listening in the music curriculum

  1. “The Psychology of Sight-Singing” sounds like a fascinating read but, sadly, I don’t have access to that sort of thing. At first, I thought I’d landed on the wrong post, here, with it’s focus on listening but all became clear when I saw that it was sight-singing that you had in mind for ‘music-reading’. My first response was “But isn’t sight-singing a different process to that we employ when playing an instrument at sight?” I was thinking that the latter was just responding physically to signals, whereas to sight-sing one must first listen to one’s own aural image of remembered sound before attempting to reproduce it. The ability to do this takes a lot longer to acquire than responding on an instrument. So, I reasoned, the methods used to teach sight-singing might, for logistic reasons, be ”inappropriate” in many other situations. On reflection, I can see that it isn’t true, though, if one’s instrumental sight-reading is to be in anyway musical. :>) I do try to use aural-imaging methods in instrumental teaching with materials like my “Rhythmic-Reading Through Improvisation” and “Introduction to Tonic Sol-fa for Instrumentalists” but rapidly increasing complexity of the music .means that performing technique usually quickly outstrips aural development. I’d love to know how to keep them in tandem – not least, for my own personal musicianship! :>) Thank you, John, for a very thought-provoking post!

    1. Audrey, I once had a copy of ‘The psychology of sight-singing’ by McNaught. I seem to have lost it. I will see if I can search it out.
      You’re talking yourself into understanding makes good sense.

  2. Is this focus on what came before and what comes next like Meyer? Emotion and meaning in music?

    And by code-cracking do we mean “this is a dotted crotchet, it has one and a half beats, this dot makes it half as long again, this is like maths”. That kind of thinking and talking? I find that style of teaching music profoundly unmusical but it has the benefit of many adherents and consistency.

    1. There is a parallel with Meyer in that his theory of meaning rests on learning expectations and the ways in which these are played with and deferred. Meyer’s theory is about the building of expectations in the listener with emotion invoked through this play. His theory can be applied to Western European Music and particularly 19th century but breaks down in wider contexts. It does assume audiation as I have set it out in the blog.
      By code cracking I mean anything that is in place of hearing in mind what is to be played or sung. At worse it would mean atomising each note with fingers discovering what sound comes out in response to decoding.
      Kodaly can claim to avoid this of course.

  3. Most people would say that my habit of listening to a recording before looking at a violin part means I am not sight-reading. I would say it myself. But Audrey’s comment makes me question this.

    Sometimes I am presented with a paper part without notice. I then have to beat out the various fingering options on the fiddle to accustom the fingers without knowing what the pitches will be because there a too many ledger-lines and the style is not sufficiently familiar to help. Most people call that sight-reading -you press down the fingers in accordance with the rules and hope that music comes out. But again, you make me question this.

    Perhaps, once you leave behind styles with which you are intimate, you are only sight-reading musically if you have the score or the other players.

    1. “Most people would say that my habit of listening to a recording before looking at a violin part means I am not sight-reading. I would say it myself”

      Before I got into this conversation, I would have said this. too. After listening, a lot is down to memory – rhythm, phrasing, expression may all be internalised. When I think about it, though, even if we haven’t heard the piece presented to us, we bring to the reading the memory of other similar passages. The one thing I think most of us don’t do more easily by ear is matching the sound to written pitches and fingerings.

      I had an interesting experience that seems to bear out what you say about playing in unfamiliar styles: A group of Hungarian folk dancers had invited me to play clarinet with them and arranged for me to get together with their violinist music leader. he gave me music to sight-read and played along on the piano. I quickly realised that what was notated bore little relation to the character of what he was playing. I had to watch his his body movements and breath with him to know how to play, although the notation showed me what to play.

  4. You wrote recently about music education not having a centre. For me, these four points are near the centre. Once you extend the recollection and prediction beyond the lesson to longer periods, ultimately a lifetime, you are starting to need critical thinking – it flows naturally from the returning and remembering?

  5. As regards ‘the centre’ I was thinking of ‘purpose’- ‘what is music education for?’ ‘How are we justifying it? But from there we would reach into a number of areas, one of which might be ‘musical literacy’ meaning ‘musical understanding’ in which reading might or might not have a role.

  6. Why, I wonder, do so many of those who play by ear have real difficulty reading notation and vice versa. Surely, if they are different signs of the same coin, there should be an easy relationship?

    1. Are you thinking along the lines of Jazz musicians following what they call ‘the guide tones’? I can see that might be a way in for that group but I don’t think it would translate easily into other learning situations. For many pupils the context is predominantly melodic.

    1. I think implied harmony is tricky – too many variables. As the name suggests, though, the journey to, from and around a tonal centre is the principle behind tonic sol-fa. (Is that part of McNaught’s exploration, John?) How would you relate it to staff notation? Is there any inherent need to know?

  7. McNaught was working in the shadow of Curwen and Hullah, and alongside Sir John Stainer HMI. Curwen had given up on sol fa to stave, but the search went on and still goes on. That music had a tonal centre was a firm premise. Doh=rounded whole sound + firm fist feeling it kinaesthetically. Kinaesthetic, aural, visual union. (Nothing to do with the recent fashionalbe VAK.) So tonal music, tonal relationships, heirachies etc..

  8. Audrey, by harmonic journey, I include the journey you describe to and from the tonic. 7 year olds can feel this easily. That to me is implied harmony but I may be using the term incorrectly. I wouldn’t have a clue what the chord names are (I prefer not to, as my maximum enjoyment is usually the moment just before I “crack the code”). I’m also pretty sure my professional jazz musician dad doesn’t know what “guide tones” are. We can both “just hear” what is going on – and so can children if it doesn’t get translated into alien language. It comes back to the audiation-as-central-activity point.

    John , to move forward, we surely have to accept that not all music has a firm tonal centre? If a song needs a fade-out rather than ending with a bang, it’s likely to be a “round and round” song rather than a “home- away-home” song.

    Most current hits are “round and round” songs which makes the ukulele so useful (just two chords for this year’s summer anthem Uptown Funk). The circling around a lack of tonal centre is the point of them that makes you want to dance in funk style?

  9. Clearly not all music has a tonal centre. Much music can be thought of as having a nodal centre, places it returns to, fixes on. Then there is music with no likeness to centres. There is after all atonal music, rough music etc. etc.

    1. So what is the correct term for what I call “round and round ” songs like the ending of mamma mia? Is there an official term for these?

      It baffles me that we aren’t expected to teach children what a tune is

      1. ‘Round and round’ – what about ‘cycling into the distance’.
        Radio broadcast series in the 1930s by Walford Davies on making tunes. Secondary music teachers usually have a go at this and often in terms of ‘ups and downs’, another example of starting in the wrong place.

  10. In our discussion, here, I am very aware that reading is an aside to the main business. My, I believe, very valid reasons for wanting pupils to learn staff notation relate to convenience, access and opportunity whereas, as L.J says, listening is at the centre of everything. Can we perform meaningfully, improvise or compose without listening? We can certainly do all of those things without reading notation.

    1. Audrey, I used to see it as an aside too. But John has made me question this.

      One thing I’ve learnt after five years of experience of notation-less ensembles -followed by dismay when I could not integrate a blind child – is that 50% of what I do is about sight. Eye-contact, arm-waving, notation, whatever….

      John, you say
      ” notational audiation, the hearing of notation in ‘the mind’s ear’ is a part of fluent reading”

      Don’t you mean that fluent reading is part of audiation.

  11. My blog was an attempt to place listening pre-eminently inside the process of music making, linking it to thinking in sound (audiation) AND suggesting that notational audiation, the hearing of notation in ‘the mind’s ear’ is a part of fluent reading. This is in light of a good many attempts at teaching notational reading that are largely counterproductive, and are little more than tokenistic and frequently not consistently developed. For example, do teachers imagine that placing a song’s notation in front of children has anything to do with reading music? Or letter notation which is just an aide memoire? I was suggesting that reading music wasn’t about aide memoires but developing notational imagination, thought through notation. Why do you want children to read notation fluently is the question? You may not want to. If you do then avoid tokenism. I suggest that top grades GCSE will be the property of those who read well. This we may not agree with, but it is likely to be so. It is entirely possible for teachers to teach reading throughout a GCSE course from scratch. But they may need to know about two line staves and principles derived from Glover, Curwen, Kodaly, Dalcroze etc.

  12. “It is entirely possible for teachers to teach reading throughout a GCSE course from scratch”

    Wow! I wouldn’t want that job! In the dim and distant past, I did teach reading for CSE from scratch, courtesy of the little Tony Hatch text book of the same name. I had also previously taught the same children to sing very simple drmsl patterns from sol fa and to play them by ear and had played lots of games to develop inner hearing. There’s no way they could even sing their simple sol fa tunes from staff notation, though. In my experience, singing from sol-fa doesn’t translate easily to the inner hearing of notation. Nor, it seems, am I alone in this observation: The authors of the excellent Oxford Folk Song Sight Singing Series say in their preface, “To attempt to apply sol fa names to to the staff without thorough and systematic modulator practice is to court disaster.. Reading to laa is usually mere guess work.” They recommend that even advanced classes should sing each tune several times to sol-fa before singing to laa. If Curwen gave up on it and these highly experienced practitioners thought it was so difficult, what chance does the poor harassed GCSE teacher really have of creating fluent hearers of notation while meeting all the other requirements of the GCSE syllabus?

    1. Apologies! “Music From Scratch: A Music Course for C.S.E.” was authored by Tony Attwood not Tony Hatch. Second hand copies are available from various sources on line. The intro quoted on one site reads “A textbook for use with secondary students who approach C.S.E. or O level music with little or no musical background. It assumes no musical knowledge at all, and is designed to present the relevant information to the students and then test this information with exercises and questions. Thus, the student can work at his or her own speed.” Perhaps it’s time has come around again!

  13. Do you mean to sing to sol fa and then play on the penny whistle. That would be a good way of relating the two though it wouldn’t work with that series because the books use all the key signatures.

  14. Yes, lots of singing, use sol fa as well alongside instrument playing with notation and yes, at some point factor in tonalities and the circle of fifths. But subtle judgements needed.

  15. Just picking up on this:

    “notational audiation, the hearing of notation in ‘the mind’s ear’ is a part of fluent reading”

    Don’t you mean that fluent reading is part of audiation.

    July 2, 2015 at 6:35 am

    I can’t see the difference.”

    So when I read a novel fluently (perhaps not understanding every word but fluently) I am engaging in audiation?
    If that’s what you mean, I can accept that.

  16. No, because audiation is a concept developed in realtion to music learning. I am sure there is thought on this coming from within the ‘reading’ fraternity. Edwin Gordon, developer of audiation theory, draws a parallel with visualisation.

  17. I do not understand how the concept can apply to music but not poetry or a story.
    I appreciate that folk who developed the notion were not thinking about poetry but so what?

  18. 🙂
    I wonder what the “reading” community’s term would be, or indeed whether they have one. I wonder how I find out (help!)

    The lack of continuity between prose, poetry, songwriting and music in educational discourse feels so counterintuitive to me. I know that someone said we mustn’t advocate for music as helping language mastery because that is an “extrinsic” justification but I am not convinced.

  19. I have a colleague who has recently written a book on children’s reading and will have investigated the psychological processes involved. I will find out. Whatever the analogous process I don’t think it will be called ‘audiation’. Perhaps it is ‘silent reading’. (A written text is very different from a musical score.)

    Nothing wrong with extrinsic justifications that are well argued or well evidenced. The deployment of extrinsic or intrinsic justifications may be a political decision.
    Wayne Bowman maintains the intrinsic-extrinsic thing is a myth. See scholarly article on my home page.

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