Knowledge, academic rigour and music education

‘It is commonly agreed that the main aim of education is the attainment and development of knowledge and understanding.’ [1]

You can’t but have noticed the wave upon wave of calls for a return to a traditional education with knowledge at its core? The new traditionalism has gathered steady momentum over the past ten years, made official in a new national curriculum and on through official pronouncements and policy directives, and now argued for and fanfared by a myriad of bloggers and as promoted by some schools vying for the title of academic rigour champion.

And the recent visit to England by the North American academic E. D. Hirsch has served to excite the cause further. See

There is the key idea of a knowledge rich curriculum for cultural literacy creating a shared vocabulary of understanding providing all with access to ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’. [2]

At the same time sociologist Michael Young has been working away on his thesis expressed as ‘bringing knowledge back’ and the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ to be found within all subject disciplines. [3]

I sometimes wonder whether music education is connected to these kinds of general educational debates or simply dreaming along in hope of better times, looking inwards and detaching itself from the wider politics of education.

Well, music education does connect when it comes to revising GCSE and A Level, and when ‘the best of the musical canon’ becomes an emblematic phrase in the national curriculum for music, when 100 pieces of classical music are promoted by Schools Minister Nick Gibb, when music is accorded low curriculum status, when choral singing is singled out as the most civilising way of using the voice.

Core essential knowledge. Knowledge not skills and certainly not ‘21st century skills’. This is the message.

The suggestion that there might be different kinds of knowledge, different ways of knowing comes to be seen as irrelevent and disruptive of the ideology of the best.

I find all this deeply worrying for education, the arts and in particular for music. Not because I am against knowledge (I love knowledge) but because I am against a ‘one size fits all form of knowledge’. Let me explain through a story.

As last Sunday approached I turned my thoughts to what music I should play before and after the morning service in the village church where I was to play. It was Armistice Sunday and there would be times of thoughtful remembrance in the service.

I felt sure that before the service I should play something solemn and fixed on Handel’s Largo as it used to be known. [4] However, I remained far from certain about what music I should play at the end of the service. Should it be bold, loud, triumphant, glorious? I wasn’t sure. By Sunday morning I still had no clear idea about what would be right. I did have the book in which Handel’s Largo featured amongst ‘100 of the world’s favourite pieces’ and my thoughts rested on several possibilities.

In the event, and as the service proceeded, I began to sense what would be right. There were the silences and I thought of my own fore bearers killed in both wars. There were poignant words read by a frail age-ed man and the final hymn was to be ‘I vow to thee, my country’.

I now became clearer about what would be right. I would play ‘I vow to thee, my country’. The congregation would make good sense of this repetition I thought.

As the time approached to play my final part in the service I again felt the mood of the place as I imagined the people’s feelings and sensibilities. And now with a sense of what was right here and I drew the Lieblich Gedact stop [5] and played the first line of ‘I vow to thee, my country’ slowly and as a single line melody, the second line harmonised and so on with some variation and ending with a lone voice in the lowest of registers.

Later I reflected on what kind of knowledge I had been engaged in.

It wasn’t a matter of knowing that this is the case, these are the facts, here is theoretical knowledge to be applied, but a practical form of knowing bound to particular circumstances drawing upon feeling and intuition to discern what was right. Thought was bound to feeling. It was knowledge that was experienced, felt, saturated with value and independent of concepts and categories and not translatable to any other kind of knowledge.

All this has great relevance for the music classroom and just what it is that is being valued (assessed) and for the ways of knowing that are being prized.

In response to the demand for a knowledge curriculum, for facts to lead the way, for knolwedge to be reduced to statements of truth, for 100 pieces of classical music to be recognised and named, it is helpful to be reminded of a practical form of knowledge that I have tried to communicate above. This will be about learning and living out dispositions towards making music well, finding out what feels right so that concepts, categories and all other manifestations of knowledge can be imbued with significance and placed with care in the order of things. [5]


[1] These words open L. A. Reid’s ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’ (1986) Heinemann Education Books.

[2] This phrase from Matthew Arnold’s ‘Culture and Anarchy’ has come to be the emblem of new traditionalism.

For a response to ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ see

[3] See leaving music education with much to consider.

[4] ‘Ombra mai fu’ from the opera Serse.

[5] See

[6] See also ‘Finding a place for music’ in

2 thoughts on “Knowledge, academic rigour and music education

  1. Pingback: Music Education and its practical wisdom | Music Education Now

  2. Pingback: The problem with bringing back knowledge « The Big Homerton Education Debate

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