After the Music Learning Revolution

Is there such a thing as an effective balance between student directed informal learning and teacher directed formal learning?’

That was the question before the panel at the first debate of the day at the Music Learning Revolution Festival of Innovation last Friday.

Debating questions need to be questioned, interrogated – where do they come from, what provokes them and so on. And have you noticed politicians sometimes say ‘I don’t accept the premise of the question’. In a playful mood I might say:

What if we reset the question and replaced ‘teacher directed formal learning’ with ‘pupil directed formal learning’?

And ‘student directed informal learning’ with ‘teacher directed informal learning’?

Formal, informal – zombie categories? [1]

Fortunately Chris Philpott was at hand to clear the ground and helpfully draw attention to Goren Folkestadt’s clarification.

This is perhaps best communicated from Chris’ previous writing.

Chris writes:

‘For Folkestad the crucial issue here is of the intentionality of the learner. Formal learning is found when the minds of pupils and teachers are directed to learning how to play music. Informal learning is found when minds are directed to playing and making music. Furthermore, ‘’what characterises most learning situations is the instant switch between these learning styles and the dialectic interaction between them’’ [2] We can characterise this as ‘flipping’ …’ [3] [4]

Chris illustrated this through his own learning in a Brass Band, how the formality of learning the F and G March became the informality of playing F and G inside Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.

Fortunately Fiona Sexton was on the panel and able to exemplify the concept of flipping in her work as a secondary school teacher. This was not only in terms of the instant switch between the informal and the formal moment but also in terms of sometimes directing pupil groupings as well as leading more sustained passages of formal teaching. Fiona finding balance and equilibrium.

But let me flip to a different debate.

What music and why?

Fortunately Emily Segal was on this panel. Emily told something of her journey to being a teacher who listened closely to her pupils and how mutual enrichments were nurtured. As in the case of Fiona* what Emily* described resembled a kind of negotiated curriculum resting on dialogue and trust. [5]

Dialogue – listening – reciprocation – respect – mutual recognition – trust.

All very complex, subtle and potentially elusive.

(I attempted to capture the subtleties involved in making a negotiated curriculum in

What music and why?

Perhaps a better question is:

Whose music and why? [6]

Next week the question: Can you only teach music if you are a trained music educator? Will I be able to leave my comfort zone? See

* Both Fiona and Emily are Musical Futures Teaching Associates.


[1] Have you seen SOLE= self organised learning?

[2] Folkestad, G. (2006) ‘Formal and Informal Learning Situations or Practices vs Formal and Informal Ways of Learning’, in British Journal of Music Education, 23 (2): 135-45.

[3] Philpott, C. (2013) Assessment for self-directed learning, in (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge: London.

[4] See for an analysis of a year 8 lesson using Folkstad’s scheme.

[5] Shepherd, J., Virden, P., Vulliamy, G. and Wishart, T. (1980) Whose Music? A Sociology of Musical Languages. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.

Blue notes and false relations

Martin Fautley@DrFautley It’s official! according to @TTMLondon data the commonest topic taught in music at KS3 in London is the Blues!

Mark Phillips@EnglishCadence @Johnfinney8 @DrFautley @TTMLondon So much musical benefit in this topic: melody, harmony, rhythm, form, riffs. And provenances of course.

 Mark Phillips@EnglishCadence @Johnfinney8 @kpe123 @TTMLondon Listening to Purcell. Commonalities with 12BB: false relation/blue notes, ground bass/riff, harmonic cycles

Mark Phillips ‏@EnglishCadence @Johnfinney8 @kpe123 @TTMLondon @ANethsingha Purcell ‘O Lord God of Hosts’. … Expressive dissonance & false relation.

John finney@Johnfinney8@EnglishCadence @kpe123 @TTMLondon The conditions of the two practices incommensurable. ‘Sameing’ is the enemy of difference.

Mark Phillips@EnglishCadence@Johnfinney8 @kpe123 @TTMLondon No disagreement on the first point. But both use musical nuance powerfully to convey common human emotions.

Mark Phillips@EnglishCadence @Johnfinney8 @kpe123 @TTMLondon And much for pupils to discuss about how composers use music to express emotions in their different contexts.

John finney@Johnfinney8 @EnglishCadence @kpe123 @TTMLondon a lot of differences to explore.

Mark Phillips@EnglishCadence@Johnfinney8 Really important for pupils to experience & explore both traditions; to understand how musics express universal human emotions.

John finney@Johnfinney8@EnglishCadence Do musics express universal emotions? Not sure music expresses emotions?

Well, twitter only takes us so far in a discussion like this and there remains much here to discuss further, question and clarify.

Most obviously there are tensions between the tendency to ‘same’ and the tendency to ‘difference’.

The ‘sameing’ tendency is towards music thought of as a universal language of human expression emphasising commonalities while diminishing its political, social and cultural significance.

The ‘differencing’ tendency is towards music thought of as unique to time and place, and to the social, political and cultural conditions of its practice, thus exposing the hegemonic practice of ‘sameing’.

What if we taught on the basis of radical differencing? Each musical practice seen as strangely other, incommensurable, in a class of its own and resistant to the habit of mind that finds comfort in ‘sameing’.

Interrupting habitual ways of thinking challenge the dominant ideology of ‘sameing’? Could this be a way of thinking about progression and even lead to a learning revolution?

Perhaps it’s only when radical difference has been fully explored that a dialogue between ‘differencing’ and ‘sameing’ will be productive.

Martin Fautley@DrFautley It’s official! according to @TTMLondon data the commonest topic taught in music at KS3 in London is the Blues!

Keith Evans @kpe123 @DrFautley @TTMLondon But is it always taught well – meaning musically, and to what purpose? I despair of maps of the slave trade.

So why teach the Blues?

  • a harmonic progression can be introduced?
  • improvisational know how can be developed?
  • ‘Hanging in the breeze’ can be listened to, the music signalling everybody to stand up at the end of an evening at the New York Blues Club?
  • a Blues feel can be had?
  • the school’s most experienced Blues musician can lead the work?
  • riff stereotypes can be introduced
  • students can learn about Blue notes?
  • students can feel the Blues through their voice?
  • the stories of Blues men and women can be read as homework?
  • it is useful preparation for writing cadences?
  • a song can be written about people trafficking read about in the local newspaper?
  • Blues nuances can be compared with Purcell’s false relations?
  • as a contribution to Black History Month
  • Afro-american blue notes can be seen in opposition to Western European harmony?
  • students can learn to differentiate between melody, harmony and bass?
  • students can be led to read Paul Gilroy’s ‘The Black Atlantic’?
  • Blues bands can be formed
  • the Blues can be mashed into any other music?
  • the issue of compensation to slave owners can be discussed?
  • the topic provides an ideal ladder approach to assessment sorting out those who can and those who can’t
  • the guitar can be learnt?
  • a map of the slave trade can be the first slide in a powerpoint presentation?
  • whether music expresses emotion can be discussed?
  • to learn about how blues performers and their audience interact?
  • an architypal structure can be internalised
  • it’s what you do in year 8?
  • it’s the source of many other musical practices

Anyway, I thought this below was a promising approach to teaching the Blues. What do you think?

Year 7 still singing and it’s nearly half-term [1]

This is a year 7 class of 30 pupils singing at the end of their weekly 50 minute music lesson. Their school is a faith school and an estimated 75% of pupils will have transferred from faith primary schools.

The song was taught in the first ten minutes of the lesson followed by a twenty-minute discussion, then singing in response to the discussion before listening to a recording of the singing to close.

‘imperfect, unpolished but heartfelt’ is the teacher’s judgment. What’s yours?

The recording becomes part of the class album given to all as a CD at the end of the year.

The song is a Gaelic Blessing.

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields,
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

So what was discussed in those twenty minutes of talk?

‘We talked about what it might mean to have “rains fall soft upon your fields”. They talked about their sorrows, and how when their rains come they know that the sun still shines beyond clouds.

One pupil gave me a quote:

“The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears”.

I asked them to sing the words of the song with all their heart for someone who they miss, who is struggling. Their little faces and big eyes were a picture of compassion.’ (Teacher)

The teacher has easily justified twenty minutes spent beyond the medium of music. A time for pupil talk, pupils thinking and feeling poetically, pupils finding and searching for meaning, reasons to sing, reasons to be and become more musical.

Time well spent we might agree.

A fifty-minute music lesson and two fifths of the time spent outside of the medium of music, not speaking ‘the target language’ (to use that unfortunate phrase).

Will the guardians of the current orthodoxy of musical immersion be wagging their fingers I wonder? [2]

That unfortunate phrase ‘the target language’ came via the teaching of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL). But in MFL the question is asked ‘when is it principled not to use the target language?’

In our case the twenty minutes of pupil talk was thought to be central to the lesson’s purpose and critical to its ethos, its values, the nurturing of relationships and the education of the pupils’ musical dispositions.

Exceptionally principled we might say. [3]

Ethos, values and dispositions are matters not much talked about in our search for a good music education. And have you ever heard talk of dispositional musical knowledge? Was it this kind of knowledge that was chiefly in play in this lesson? The kind of knowledge worth assessing perhaps. [4]

I have previously set out five dimensions of music teaching. So I am now thinking: how does my analysis above connect with the scheme below? [5]

  1. Ethical commitment

The teacher’s disposition towards nurturing the pupil-teacher relationship that makes teaching possible. This includes the teacher’s concern for each pupil’s psychological safety, the ways in which the teacher expresses authority, how attention is given to what is of concern to each pupil as well as the group, and how the potential to create spontaneous dialogue and action is allowed for.

More generally it seeks to encapsulate the teacher and pupil’s desire to strengthen the climate of the classroom and music-making relationships.

  1. Cultural mediation

The teacher’s disposition towards expressing authority through the transmission of cultural knowledge in the medium of music, involving instruction that is responsive to the receptivity of the pupils.

  1. Embodiment

The teacher’s disposition towards recognising music-making as a form of embodied knowing – that to know music is to perceive through the body as mind.

  1. Facilitation

The teacher’s disposition towards enabling the expression of musical thought in the medium of music and through talk.

  1. Critical intention

The teacher’s disposition towards promoting enquiry, curiosity, thoughtfulness, discrimination, questioning – calling for a growing awareness of what music is, how music is used, how music is given meaning and how meanings are continually negotiated and re-negotiated – a recognition that music has ‘human interest’ – social, cultural and political.


[1] Scroll down to the blogs of September 17 and 24 for more on this year 7 class.

[2] See where David Ashworth questions the virtue of the all singing and playing music lesson.

If there are music educational orthodoxies then it’s always refreshing to find practices that lie outside these like the one analyzed here. Music classrooms can be places of repose and reflection.

Instead of ‘innovation’ and ‘revolutions’ what about evolving-revolving practices? Or perhaps we could think of ‘outlying practices’ as sources of renewal.

While I was writing this blog Jennie Francis sent me an article written by E. Allen Huntley in 1957 and published in the magazine Music in Education. The piece is titled ‘Class-singing: The Right Spirit’. I sent it to the teacher referred to in this blog who indentified with its sentiment and who welcomed its wise advice. The past is useable.

[3] See for a discussion of exploratory talk.

[4] I take assessing to mean ‘giving value to’.

[5] See

Something more than accessibility and engagement makes a music education

Have you heard ?

That three note vocal call and its variants is what I heard on my recent rail travel in France and I have been enchanted by it ever since. Is it the vocal timbre, the grain of the voice?

It got me thinking.

I thought about other calls to attention and the doh, me, soh – bong-bong-bong often heard and then Gladys Pugh’s chime bar call in the Hi-de-Hi sit com of the 1980s.

So beguiling was that call to attention on my travelling in France that on one occasion I got on the wrong train, a fast train that fortunately stopped after 20 minutes of travel in the wrong direction.

So music can enchant, beguile. Well, not music itself. Music alone has the power to do nothing. Tia DiNora puts it like this:

‘ On its own, music has no more power to make things happen than does kindling to produce combustion. In both cases, certain catalytic processes need to occur.’ [1]

Music is in society and there are complex catalytic factors involved in making ‘musically animated agents’ and for us to become ‘latched on’ as I am in this case.

The way music functions in society is occasionally of interest to music teachers. [2] The ‘music and adverts’ unit of work has had a long and dismal history, for example. But as I thought about that short call to attention I wondered how those few notes had been crafted, and who had crafted them, and why those notes.

Could it have been made with Rhasberry Pie? And if Rhasberry Pie releases the music-maker to control and shape all musical parameters of sound, then perhaps yes. Or is it simple a case of sampling? Or both?

The sonic sphere in which we live ensures that music creates desire. If our pupils are to become critically engaged in music and society, and if music education is to have a critical purpose and engender ‘critical musicality’ as the informal music making movement claims, then getting inside those three notes with critical intent might be a start.

Something more than accessibility and engagement makes a music education.


[1] DiNora, T. (2000) Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge University Press.

[2] That a GCSE course in music requires no attention to music’s societal functions seems to me to be remarkably regressive.