What is good music education?

In last week’s blog I reported on year 8’s ‘beautiful work’ and suggested that music had a strong presence in the school because it enriched the pupil’s knowledge and understanding of the world they were growing into. Quite a wild claim and a rather big idea, you might say.

Well, pupils were knowing how to make Blues music; how to improvise freely and knowing that a particular cultural practice has social-cultural-political significance. So not so unreasonable.

And it does connect with the three music educational purposes I have been working on, expressed here in question form.

  1. What does a music education qualify people to do; what knowledge and dispositions are needed in order to make music well and to think about it critically?
  2. How will a music education induct newcomers into existing practices, into the cultures of making-music, which practices, which cultures of music making? How will a music education recognise the cultural energy pupils already possess’?
  3. How will a music education help children and young people to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to feel a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through a music education? [1]

But what about the teacher in this case?

The music teacher in collaboration with the teachers of History and Drama took time to fine tune their purposes and in the light of these made judgements about how they would teach and the kind of education they were taking responsibility for. Gert Biesta sees the teacher as one who is continually making judgements in what are always ‘new, unique and concrete sitiuations.’ [2]


‘Sometimes education needs to be flexible and personalised; in other cases it needs to be strict, structured and general. In some cases education needs to be centred on the student; in other cases it needs to be centred on the teacher. In some cases everything that we expect from students should be visible and clear to them; in other cases we need to work with a sense of mystery and openness.’ [3]

There could be many more ‘sometimes education needs to be … ‘

And for ‘education’ we can read ‘music education’.

Biesta’s point is that we need to be clear about what we seek to bring about. Purposes will need to be balanced. There will be trade offs.

In seeing every situation as new and unique the teacher will be a natural risk taker, one who is an artist rather than a technician. It is this that helps to avoid categroical statements about how a teacher should be –  instructor, stand back supporter, interventionist, co-musician, director, facilitator, didact etc.. In this way fads and fashions are kept at bay.

Biesta likes to ask ‘what is good education?’ And to begin to answer this we need to work out what education is for, what music education is for. This will involve working out what is the nature of music, what is music in the world, what is education. And it is this that comes to be represented by the purposes I have set out above. As Jason Kubilius maintains, simply promoting music as a good thing is a deceit and misses the mark. [4]


[1] For fuller context see https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/what-is-music-education-for-in-the-age-of-measurement/?preview=true&preview_id=1132&preview_nonce=f7de6ffb9b&post_format=standard and https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/music-education-without-a-centre/?preview=true&preview_id=1250&preview_nonce=1f68e4cd81&post_format=standard

I am persisting in discussing the purposes of a music education in which the school plays an essential role. I am not at all convinced by the proposal that the achievment of a strong musical identity is the ultimate goal of a music education. While such achievment is worthy, even necessary, I don’t think this it is sufficient in the context of the school and its purposes.

[2] Biesta, G. (2015) Good Education and the Teacher: Reclaiming Educational Professionalism in (eds.) J. Evers, J. and R. Kneyber, Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. Routledge: London.

[3] Ibid page 82.

[4] See https://teachingmusicking.wordpress.com/ which has got me thinking more about purposes 1 and 2 above. 1 is about ‘qualification’ and 2 about ‘socialisation’.

Year 8 Blues song tribute

‘No more music teachers thoughtlessly meddling in the disciplinary knowledge of other subjects but now with an enhanced focus on music-making, meaning-making and always with an ‘authentic real-world’ product in view.’

This was one of my conclusions made in an earlier blog https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/music-education-with-human-interest-and-critical-intent/ reporting on an example of project-based learning in an East London school.

I was intrigued by the ways in which music was integral to the organization of the school’s curriculum. There was little sense of subject hierarchy. Music was there to enrich the pupil’s knowledge and understanding of the world they were being inducted into.

In the same blog I took the reader through the process of project planning and the devising of the enquiry question that would structure an upcoming project.

Three months later the project is completed, the ‘beautiful work’ has been produced and this week I attended the school’s exhibition of beautiful work.

The project ‘How can music tell the story of slavery?’ brought together History, Drama and Music. Here is the project’s overview:

The legacy of slavery still impacts the world today. Britain’s role in the slave trade is often left out of history, as is the important contribution that certain individuals made to the abolition of slavery. To find out more, students were set the following task:


You will work in your band to make a blues song tribute to a significant figure in the history of slavery. You will need to record the historical context and some information about your person as well as your song. The CD will also feature a collection of work songs and a recorded drama performance.


Significant content:


  • The history of the slave trade
  • Britain’s role in it’s development and abolition
  • Significant figures of the slave trade


  • Explore the play text ‘Mean to be Free’
  • Using oracy explore the lives and emotions of slavery
  • Compose and deliver a poem using a stimulus on modern day slavery


  • How to write and perform Blues music
  • How to improvise freely when performing
  • The importance of music as a tool for survival, protest and expression

Below is one of the three podcasts created.

There’s alot more for me to find out about all this.

Music bullent point 3 suggests a stong critical-contextual element. There’s plenty of human interest.

No doubt all manner of skills will have been mastered but why not think about this as rich in knowledge: knowing how to make Blues music; knowing how to improvise freely and knowing about the social-cultural-political significance of music in the world. As Music Ofsted might say ‘this work gives weight to the provenence of Blues music’.

I asked a stranger to the context of the podcast to listen.

The response: ‘good voice, intense communication, strongly felt lyrics’.

Without the stress to assess

‘As they arrive, I hear one voice outside the room louder than the rest. He seems to have plenty to say and I wonder how this might translate in the lesson. As the class come in there’s friendly chat between the teacher and students and I can see how relationships have formed with this group over the year and I think I have spotted the loud one but I’m not sure! They all seem happy to be in their music lesson and the teacher has found a nice balance between banter and the line that is not to be crossed!’ http://annagower.uk/2015/07/12/music-as-another-language/

This is the opening of Anna’s description of a music lesson observed: a thick description because it enables the reader to be there alongside Anna. We can see ourselves or not in what we read. We start to imagine the place, the pupils, the teacher. We think about the content of the lesson, the pedagogy and the purpose.

And what it’s like without ‘the stress to assess.’

What a relief from all those blogs promoting this and that approach to education but rarely, so it seems, telling us what it actually looks like, what this means for the actuality of the classroom, what it means for the teacher, the pupils.

With Anna’s story we are grounded through the telling of how it is. And that draws forth elegant writing, in this case about the teaching of music.

Write-ups of lessons observed in today’s audit culture are frequently not like this but rather made to grade – does this lesson make the grade?

This is part of the drive for school improvement. How can your teaching become more effective, technically more replete? And at the heart of this is an input-output model of efficiency, with progression in learning presented as the absolute metric. This of course constrains what the observer sees and is able to tell. The result is too often a reduced and partial account, a filleted version of what has transpired and with the teacher’s values lost in limbo. [1]

Anna’s account exposes the shallowness of this doctrine and shows how much more complex is a music education.

Karl Popper tells us that all observation is laden with theory no matter how vague or embryonic that theory may be. [2] We observe with ideas to test, hunches to confirm or dispel. But these things, as in this case when observation is non-judgmental, are likely to lie below the surface of consciousness waiting to be prompted by what we see and hear.

Thus Anna not only tells the story but in due course presents a number of propositions and questions, and then we all have something to think about, agree with – disagree with.

Describe thickly = interpretation = analysis = ideas and propositions to evaluate and test = a more mature discourse

Thank you.


[1] But is the tide turning? Is the culture changing? Are teachers finding their voice? Well, there’s a lot of bottom up energy in the system. I recommend reading ‘Flip the system: changing education from the ground up.’ Eds. Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber. Routledge. Just published.

[2] Popper, K. (1986) Unended Quest. Fontana Press.

Year 9 Katie on assessment in music

Martin Fautley@DrFautley

All those things @tallgirlwgc How long before, as @Johnfinney8 predicted, SLTs realise they need subdivided grades? Sublevels reborn!

Anna G@tallgirlwgc

@DrFautley @Johnfinney8 my 8 year old son is now a B2. I said look just tell me is he on, at or below average for his age. That’s all I need

John finney@Johnfinney8

@tallgirlwgc @DrFautley But Anna doesn’t that require some kind of bench marking of standards (levels)?

Anna G@tallgirlwgc

@Johnfinney8 @DrFautley I prefer, what would an 8 year old be expected to be able to do in xyz subject and how does mine match up to this

Kirsty Hirst@Booza69

@tallgirlwgc @Johnfinney8 @DrFautley what about students who haven’t had the same exposure as others?

John finney@Johnfinney8

@Booza69 @tallgirlwgc @DrFautley I don’t know how to allow for that if at the same time expectations are set.

Above is an extract from a twitter conversation about the ways in which the world without levels is being filled with systems that may not be very helpful to a child’s musical development and progression.

The conversation starts with the spectre of GCSE grade criteria setting the benchmarks for all that comes before and so creating a ‘flight path’ to GCSE.

Then Anna’s point about the use of meaningless labels – the B2 mystery and the call for age-related standards that can be referred to.

Then Kirsty’s concern to take into account each student’s exposure to a music education.

In https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/the-problem-of-standards-in-music-education-and-the-loss-of- I explored the tension between individual learning journies of pupils and the need to define ‘standards’.

By standards we imply commonly agreed age-related standards. By the end of Key Stage 3 …

In https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/04/17/putting-assessment-back-in-its-box/  I found a way of addressing standards by relating Year 9’s Silent Disco’s Dance tracks to an expert’s view of what could be expected in the field of Dance Music at this age.

In this way the quality of work produced had a reliable reference point. And isn’t this how informal learners monitor their progress beyond the school, measuring themsleves against the models they seek to emulate?

Or another approach to the Silent Disco case offered the idea of whole class evaluation of achievement replacing individual assessment. And isn’t this how community music-making flourishes?

Perhaps Year 9 Katie can help. Katie has experienced her year 9 music without levels and without labels.

‘I found it quite good because we could just get on with our work and do what we want with our piece, without stress of leveling; we could progress at our own steady pace with the freedom of experiences the way we do things in music without the constant idea that we have to be a certain level. However I think sometimes we do need level descriptors to point us in the right direction. But we should all be able to determine our own working level to become better musicians.’

After foundational listening

In last week’s blog I offered the idea of foundational listening in music education.

I drew upon the thought of late 19th century music educators led by music HMIs of the time working with the legacy of John Curwen and John Hullah. Singing and playing was listening. Listening was thinking in sound. There were mental faculties to educate.

However, as one canny re-tweeter reminded me, we do need to think about listening in as many ways as possible. And while you might say ‘there are as many ways of listening as there are human beings’ [1], it might be helpful to do what Estelle Jorgenson has done in her book ‘The Art of Music Teaching’. [2]

Chapter seven is titled ‘Listener’. Here is set out eight ways in which music is heard. (Estelle discounts the distinction made between listening and hearing.) [3]

Estelle’s list is not meant to be exhaustive, just helpful to the music teacher.

Estelle writes:

‘I am attracted to

  • intellectual listening for its contribution to mind and knowledge;
  • sensual listening for its acknowledgement of the almost instinctual and direct engagement especially of our hearing, sight, and touch;
  • experiential listening for its holistic and passionate engagement with music;
  • performative listening for the insights we have as we make as well as take music;
  • contextual listening for the important role of time and space in shaping what we make of music and how it is made;
  • technical listening for its acknowledgement of specific skills and vocabularies that can express understanding systematically, succinctly;
  • peripheral listening for its recognition of the role music plays in everyday life;
  • and repetitive listening for its contribution to widening the reach of musical experience.’ [4]

Much there for the teacher to work with, and just think, how the different ways might intersect. [5]

Did you spot in the fourth point the idea that we ‘take and make music’?

Making and taking can come very close together, but never a unity. Isn’t that annoying?


[1] Have you noticed that we are in the Age of Autheticity where expressive individualism rules? See Taylor, C. (2007) The Secular Age, Harvard University Press: London, pp 473-504.

[2] Jorgensen, E. R. (2008) The Art of Teaching Music. Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis.

[3] Estelle tells the story of Anna listening to music while she shops. ‘Can she really be listening to music or is she just hearing sound and not really attending to it? She must listen and attend to the music in some fashion because later she can repeat the lyrics, sing the tune …’ (p113). The distinction made between hearing and listening remains a popular myth.

See also  https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/proper-and-improper-listening-in-the-draft-gcse-for-music/

[4] Ibid pp 111-134.

[5] Pupils make interesting listening categories if consulted.