Music Education and its practical wisdom

‘… a confident discourse surrounding the nature of musical knowledge, one that is understood and is fluently expressed amongst teachers and music educators; a confident discourse surrounding musical understanding; a confident discourse surrounding musical meaning.’ [1]

What are musical knowledge, musical understanding and musical meaning? And wouldn’t it be good if we were more confident in talking about these things?

The curriculum since 1980 has been framed by ‘knowledge, skills and understanding’. It trips off the tongue. And each subject is expected to set out what knowledge, skills and understanding form the content of its curriculum.

Despite distinguished attempts to set out how knowledge can be thought about in the case of music [2] there has been little enthusiasm for talking about it. Understanding does better and best of all is skills.

A while ago there was a wave of music teachers talking about a skills-led curriculum. Teaching musical skills seemed to make sense. After all music was a practical subject and you need skills to be practical and make music, and skills are developed through practising.

Out in the wider world, and increasingly this means the world of social media often linked to official sources, have you noticed the clamour for a knowledge-based curriculum, a knowledge-rich curriculum and the bringing back of knowledge? Not a wave but a tsunami.

In my meeting with this wider world I run up against the desire to view knowledge as most definitely one kind of thing that approximates to fact or knowing that. To suggest that this kind of knowledge poorly represents what musical knowledge is is frequently met with distain.

While there is some recognition that ‘knowing how’ may be a legitimate way of expressing what knowledge is, there comes the proviso that ‘know how’ be subordinated or reduced to ‘knowing that’, to a body of knowledge or even the theory of music. [3]

To introduce into the debate the idea that to know music is for it to be embodied (embodied knowledge) leads to either incredulity or quite reasonably, a call for clarification.


‘Until the current flows from the toes to the fingers … and you feel the weight and movement of the body … you wont get the music.’ … ‘Don’t try for accuracy before you get the feeling of the motion …’ (Yeheudi Menhuin) [4]

‘The grooves are the feeling and the participatory experience of music …’ (Steven Feld) [5]

Thinking of musical knowledge as chiefly ‘knowing how to’ make music well is a good place to start. [6]

‘Knowing how to’ provides the teacher with a powerful start to a learning objective, for example, and solves the ‘doing – learning’ problem.

And ‘knowing how to’ as practical knowledge embodied is the most powerful knowledge of all. We could then talk about a knowledge-led curriculum and that would go down well in important places.


[1] From Chris Philpott’s address at a Music Education Symposium, London, September, 2014.

[2] One fine example is Keith Swanwick’s ‘Musical Knowledge: Intuition, analysis and Music Education.’ Routledge.

[3] The upcoming GCSE is a good example of a poor grasp of the nature of musical knowledge

[4] Cited in Louis Arnaud Reid’s ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’. Studies in Education 18 University of London.

[5] Cited in Charles Keil’s ‘Music Grooves’. The University of Chicago Press.

[6] By knowing how to make music well I imply something more that mere skill. See  (November 11, 2015) for an example of practical wisdom.





15 thoughts on “Music Education and its practical wisdom

  1. davidashworth

    Hi John
    I’m really enjoying reading this, but just thought I would let you know that the url in [6] does not work. can you update it please?

  2. This makes me think of two children I used to work with. One you could give me a perfect verbal response as to what the pulse is within music but struggles to move in time and another child who could tap out a beat to some quite complex syncopated rhythms but struggles to articulate that feeling in words.

  3. davidashworth

    Is seems to me that all these kinds of knowledge are important. There are times, places, contexts and situations when any one of these forms of knowledge, or a combination, might be called into play.

    Along with many others, I’ve been thinking quite bit about the music of David Bowie over the last few days. When fans are listening to a performance or a recording of a song such as Life on Mars?, there can be no doubt that they fully understand what is going on – the knowledge is well and truly embodied and without this, there would indeed be no point in making the music.

    But to have reached the point of creating the track, the other ‘knowledges’ would be required. Bowie, with the assistance of the classically trained Rick Wakeman would have used ‘knowing how to’ the create the chord progression and the piano arrangement. And the classically trained Mick Ronson would ‘know how to’ create the effective string parts.

    Over the years that followed, Bowie was able to draw upon the ‘knowledge-rich’ wisdom of band members such as Mike Garson, who would point him in the direction of music by Stravinsky, Debussy, Vaughan Williams and Richard Strauss. This, in turn, would lead to more ‘knowing how to’ create more interesting and innovative rock/pop music…which eventually would become further ‘embodied knowledge’ for the rest of us.

    I’m labouring the point a bit, I know. I’m simply saying that all these knowledge forms are important at some stage during the music making process. These knowledges are not in competition or hierarchical and, as teachers, we need to understand how they best work together – in and beyond classrooms

    1. Thanks David. Really helpful and excellent example of musical knowledges at work. Non hierachical? I tend towards ‘but the greatest of all is …” rather like that bit in St. Paul. But your idea of many knowledges floating in and out is powerful.
      I note that you refer a lot to ‘knowing how’ and I like that very much and the way you write about it differentiates it from skill – knowing how to ‘create …’ so knowing how takes us beyond skill. May be a bit semantic but I just think it is politically wise to speak in terms of knowledge at this time.
      I wonder if we could become more confident about saying a knowledge-based music curriculum. So easily misunderstood and reduced (see the separate component in GCSE labelled ‘knowledge’.)

  4. davidashworth

    Yes, very happy to go along with your ‘the greatest of all is…’. As I say in my response above, with embodied knowledge there’s not much point in bothering with the others.

    The other point I forgot to make is that I very much like your idea of couching a knowledge based music curriculum in these terms. It shows that it is possible to satisfactorily jump through the hoops, providing we are allowed to decide how to jump….. politically very savvy and a line I definitely think we should be taking.

  5. davidashworth

    Sorry, that second sentence does not make sense! Why I meant to say was:

    “As I say in my response above, WITHOUT embodied knowledge there’s not much point in bothering with the others.”

    Oh for the day when wordpress will let us edit our comments!

  6. Pingback: Embodied Musical Knowledge | Music Education Now

  7. Pingback: Knowing how to make music well | Music Education Now

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

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