In praise of common culture [1]

Better try over number seventy-eight before we start I suppose?’ said William, pointing to a heap of old Christmas carol books on a side table. [2]

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, like much of his writing, contains references to music-making. Hardy’s interest in the social conditions of his characters is matched by interest in the social conditions of their music-making.

For Hardy music is social practice. Musical meanings and musical knowledge are made here and now together and bound to the meanings made through the relationships of those participating. And all this in relationship to their place in the social order.

In the case of Under the Greenwood Tree there is the story of the Melstock choir, a band of local musicians playing and singing in the west gallery of their village church. Their music is silenced by the installation of the organ and a well-tutored organist. The imagined mediocrity of the locals is replaced by the imagined more refined and civilising sounds of the organ and the organist’s playing.

The musically disenfranchised locals inhabiting Hardy’s rural Wessex had come to enjoy in Michael Gove’s words:

… a shared appreciation of cultural reference points, a common stock of knowledge on which all can draw, and trade, in a society in which we all understand each other better’. . . [3]

Well, of course, I am being facetious, for Michael Gove was not referring to local traditions, such as Hardy’s musicians and their customs held in common, but to the proposition that:

… there is such a thing as the best. Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding – intellectually, sensually and emotionally – than, say, the Arctic Monkeys’. [4]

Or shall we say, not the Arctic Monkeys but the carollers in the Sportsman Inn on the western edge of Sheffield whose singing this Christmas-time makes connections with that nearly lost repertoire of Hardy’s childhood time and now lost to the Christmas canon. [5]

Ah! ‘the best of the musical canon’, where have I heard that?

Here are two utterly different conceptions of what music is, what it is for, how it is educative; what culture is and what it is for.

While there is the knowledge of the powerful [6] exemplified by the cultural edicts of Michael Gove, it may be the carollers at the Sportsman Inn who will be in touch with incomparably more knowledge of music as a human practice and perhaps, just perhaps, of humanity too.

Number seventy-eight was always a teaser – always. I can mind him ever since I was growing up a hard boy-chap. But he’s a good tune, and worth a mint o’ practice.’ [7]

Wishing you a very happy Christmas!


[1] First published Christmas 2014.

Readers will find a number of previous blogs dealing with the idea of culture. This blog connects well with ‘How culture counts for music education’

[2] Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy, London, MacMillan, 1964 page 24.

[3] Gove, M. (2011) The need to reform the education system. Speech made at the University of Cambridge, November 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Pubs preserve the carols dusted away by the Victorians. Guardian, Monday 15 December 2014 page 5.

[6] Michael Young contrasts ‘The knowledge of the powerful’ with ‘powerful knowledge’. See I have simply appropriated the phrase ‘powerful knowledge’ here and don’t necessarily imply anything of Young’s thesis, interesting though that is.

[7] I do concede that I am in some part a romantic. Philosopher Michel Foucault notes that nostalgia can be a rich source of critique should readers think I am indulging.

Representing musical experience

‘Ultimately music education should be about an experience.’ [1]

On October 1st 2015 pioneer cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner reached his one hundredth birthday.

First published in 1966 Bruner’s ‘Towards a Theory of Instruction’ offers a wealth of useable ideas about teaching and about learning. You will find depth to concepts like ‘modeling’, ‘the spiral curriculum’, ‘the personalization of knowledge’, ‘scaffolding learning’ and ‘the role of language in learning’, for example.

A good idea

I have long been attracted to Bruner’s proposal that humans represent the world in three ways – ‘three ways of capturing those invariances in experience and action that we call ‘reality’. [2]

Music teachers will be able to identify with the following:

‘We know many things for which we have no imagery and no words, and they are very hard to teach to anybody by the use of either words or diagrams or pictures. If you have tried to coach somebody at tennis or skiing or to teach a child to ride a bike, you will have been struck by the wordlessness and the diagrammatic impotence of the teaching process. (I heard a sailing instructor a few years ago engage with two children in a shouting match about ‘’getting the luff out of the main’’; the children understood every single word, but the sentence made no contact with their muscles. It was a shocking performance, like much that goes on in school.)’ [3]

Music teachers well understand how often language falls short in their teaching of others to be musical. Knowing music in the bones is what counts.

However, imagery, language and notations are thought to be part of how we re-present musical experience as an aid to cognitive growth and furthering the musical intellect – the capacity to think music and think about it. And this is where Bruner’s theory of representation may help.

The three modes of representation:

  1. The enactive mode
  2. The iconic mode
  3. The symbolic mode

‘You represent the world (e.g. musical experience) in action routines, in pictures, or in symbols.’ [4]

These are the ways in which we translate and represent experience into a model of reality. Without a model of reality we are ‘thoughtless’ and‘mindless’.

The case of music

The enactive mode – physical gestures that more or less faithfully represent the thing, the experience. E.g. pitch in space; the shape of a melody; the intensity of the beat; the roughness of a sound.

The iconic mode – visual images and language that more or less faithfully represent the thing, the experience e.g. graphic notation; poetic/expressive language.

The symbolic mode – notations and language that through their abstraction of the thing, the experience, no longer faithfully represent the thing, the experience e.g. staff notation, linguistic generalizations (technical terms) i.e. culturally determined conventions.

Bruner originally thought of moves from the enactive through the iconic to the symbolic as a progression, and that still holds to some extent, but later as the way each mode complements or re-affirms the others.

An example

Enacting a glissando with an upward or downward sweep of the arm is close to being physically faithful to the thing, the experience that is glissando. The iconic representation would capture the glissando through some kind of regular or irregular continuous rising or falling line. [5] While at a symbolic level there is a conventional symbol, a zig-zag superimposed on a stave. Not any old ziz-zag but a very specific one.

Enactive = movement representation – personalised

Iconic = visual representation –personalised

Symbolic = generally agreed convention – loss of personalisation

In moving to generalised cultural conventions, personal and poetic ways of representation give way to abstractions. Just think, the term ‘glissando’ has no faithful relationship to the thing, the experience. Glissando is a fairly arbitrary term in that it has no one-to-one relationship with the experience, the thing. Yet it is commonly agreed that it serves the musical experience that it represents.

Glissando generalizes for the countless number of particular glissandi and becomes a musical concept, a musical generalization.

An example beyond music

The case of numbers.

Physically counting with fingers = enactive

Two sticks represented visually = iconic

2 = symbolic

Some speak of ‘twoness’ which I think may be a way of holding together all three modes and preserving a feelingful conception of what ‘two’ is.

More musical examples

In this example the enactive is integrated with the iconic and melded with the symbolic.

Take the singing of the falling soh-mi interval (soh-mi = iconic), with hand signs (iconic + movement = iconic-enactive) transported onto a two-line stave as it moves towards the convention that is staff notation (enactive-iconic-symbolic).

Hand signs+ sol fa + stave = enactive/iconic/symbolic re-affirmation illustrating how the symbolic level can be reached with support.

The case of rhythmic reading works in similar fashion.

French rhythm names (faithfully representing the thing, the experience and unlike ‘coffee-tea’ etc. = low fidelity) to stick notation to conventional rhythmic notation.

Another example:

Hitting a gong represented by a large gesture (enactive), long horizontal decaying line (iconic), breve with pause sign on a stave with diminuendo mark (symbolic).

And a guitar example:

Wrist and finger pose (enactive), tablature (iconic), E minor (symbolic)

The example of glissando again

We might say ‘sliding’ or ‘gliding’ (iconic) as we gesture (enactive) before at some point arriving at glissando.

Wait a minute, do we need the word glissando? What’s wrong with slide or glide?

David Ashworth writes :

‘Guitarists tend to bob and weave: some will say slide some will say gliss – probably no consistency.’ [6]

In Indian Classical Music there is the Meend.

This reminds us that symbolic representations are bound by cultural usage. [7]

Talk of key words and musical vocabulary to be learnt and there is the ever-present danger of language being reduced to meaningless labels that become millstones around pupils’ necks, rather than language alive with imagery and enaction infected with personal meanings and which comes to be spoken and written of the pupil’s own volition meant and understood. [8]

So perhaps Bruner’s theory of representation could be helpful, and not only with the acquisition of language, but in identifying misconceived approaches to language acquisition and the mastery of music reading.

A distinguished cognitive psychologist’s view

Marion Long writes:

‘Taken individually, I feel that these concepts (enactive, iconic, symbolic) have a strangely diluting and almost trivialising effect in relation to musical experience. If they are superimposed, however they become more flexible, supple, powerful and representative of the congruency and potency with which musical experience can deeply connect us with ourselves and our sense of belonging together.

I suppose there are many examples of music acting very powerfully in the way that this model describes – perhaps singing the Marseillaise in recent weeks would illustrate this very well.

Somehow in our society we have developed a mindset that prefers concepts to be nailed down so that their “meaning” is fixed, delineated, bounded and defined. Clarity is a good thing. However, I would suggest that our cultural preference for a static and fixed perspective on building conceptual knowledge is possibly somewhat perverse – everything about our experience of life is actually dynamic and fluid in the way that music is.

The fluidity of interactions is beautifully reflected in music.’ [9]

Final thoughts

Marion had led me to think about iconic musical experiences, fixed and vivid in memory.

As with any powerful idea, such as the one explored above, there is the sense in which it is never quite understood, never tied down (Marion’s fluidity) because its endless possibilities and limitations invite testing, exploration, expanding. The conversation continues.

But for the time being, Jerome Bruner, thank you for the gift of a good idea and congratulations on reaching one hundred years.

‘Ultimately music education should be about an experience.’ (Ingrid McLean)


[1] See

[2] Bruner, J. (1996) The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press. Page 155.

[3] ‘Towards a Theory of Instruction’ 1982 (ninth impression) Harvard University Press. Page 10.

[4] Bruner, J. (1996) The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press. Page 155.

[5] Lis McCullough, wise primary school music teacher, tells me that her pupils would likely draw this as a fine zig-zag and so representing the movement over tuned percussion bars. (email correspondence 9.12.2015)

[6] Email correspondence 9.12.2015

[7] See David Ashworth’s comments on how language can colonise at

[8] See Caroline Dearing’s comments at as an example of a dynamic classroom where there is rich musical discourse. Children like big words like metamorphosis and aquamarine.

[9] Email correspondence 9.12.2015

Presence, futures and the music teacher

No not ‘self-directed learning’ but ‘self-organised learning’ and ‘child-driven education’. This is the brainchild of Sugata Mitra. See [1]

Mitra fundamentally reconfigures education, what it is for and changes who the teacher is, if not making such a person redundant.

Those readers who are future-minded will be interested to find out more while those critical of 21st century this and that education may well be outraged.

In response I write about the great pleasure evident in being a music teacher and what might be a case of ‘teacher-organised learning’.

Tuesday morning year 9 lesson three and I learn that ‘The Shining’ is a Stanley Kubrick horror film that makes use the third movement of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, an example of Bartok’s ‘Night music’ genre. [2]

Drawing from the Bartok the class know about how glissandi, silence, trills, atonal melody, lack of pulse and throw in that tantalising tri-tone can become signifiers.

The class are mid-way through their Film Music course, which forms their timetabled music education in year 9. Lessons are eighty minutes and run for half the year.

Film music is one of three options alongside Popular Music and Musical Performance.

Half a year and eighty minute lessons, so plenty of scope for a thoughtful unfolding of the practical knowledge that serves making and thinking about music for film. [3]

The film Shining, as the teacher takes care to emphasise, is entirely inappropriate viewing for year 9, yet the extract that has been isolated for study does provide an appropriate stimulus for pupils to make their own tracks and understand more about film music.

In this school it’s all Ipads with links to Garage Band and there’s something about Irig that I don’t understand.

This particular work comes about half way through the course which will conclude with the synchronous making of a film and its music.

The teacher is of the conversational kind taking care to confirm the presence of each pupil, showing that each is known as a musical person.

Beyond the appraisal of the musical ideas created, the most common conversation concerns the organisation of these ideas within the time span of the extract.

The teacher is enjoying being a teacher, exercising responsibility and making fine-grained moment-by-moment judgements that nurture powers of discrimination in her pupils. Conversations are at their best when pupils’ and the teacher’s ways of thinking are interrupted only to find resolution when the pupil says: ‘that works’ – ‘that feels right’.

The teacher is enjoying being a teacher most of all because she has created a classroom climate in which there is an easy exchange of ideas.

But in the light of ideas such as self-organised learning, child-driven education and other 21st century ambitions, will the model of the teacher as knowledgeable conversationalist endure?

George Steiner writing about being a teacher is hopeful that it will:

‘There is no craft more privileged. To awaken in another human being powers, dreams beyond one’s own; to induce in others a love for that which one loves; to make of one’s inward present their future: this is the threefold adventure like no other.’ [4]

When music teachers say they are passionate about their teaching, is this what they mean?


[1] See also the – over two million viewings!

[2] Have you noticed how the term ‘genre’ is being de-graded? Are classical and pop really genres? Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

[3] Yes, practical knowledge not skills.

[4] Steiner, G. (2003) Lessons of the Masters. Harvard University.