And all shall be musicians

John Blacking’s 1973 publication ‘How Musical is Man’ proved to be a catalyst for rethinking the role of music in society and culture, and of society and culture in music. [1]

Blacking had spent three years living with the Venda people of Southern Africa. We learnt that in Venda society all take part in music-making and even those who are deaf dance.

How musical is man? Who is musical? Who is the musician?

Blacking’s publication coincided with fresh drives to democratise our own musical culture. Wilfred Mellers, John Paynter, Christopher Small called for all to be thought of as artists, for all were endowed with creative capacities. To be as an artist was a part of who they were.

But while music education’s attempts to ensure that all were artists and musicians, the many still seemed to be experiencing something falling short of this ambition.

By the cusp of new century there had emerged a crisis of confidence followed by a renewed attempt to democratise music education and yes, again, the call for all to be musicians.

There was talk of cultural democracy and facilitation, of musical identities and musical engagement, of informality in place of formality, every child a musical instrument, and now the goal that lessons will be musical and that, yes, all will become musicians.

I recently gave four essay titles to undergraduate music students as part of their ‘Music and Musicology Now’ paper.

Select one

  1. ‘We teach music in school primarily because we want children – all children – to grow as musicians.’ (Janet Mills)

Discuss the above statement in the light of competing claims on the music education of the young.

  1. To what extent do Philpott’s ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ justifications contribute to finding purpose for music education?
  1. The extra-musical benefits of a music education currently expressed as ‘the power of music’ serve to undermine the legitimacy of music as a subject of the school curriculum. Discuss.
  1. From a historical perspective, what might be the defining characteristics of ‘a long overdue renaissance’ in music education in Britain?


Cox, G. (2010) Britain: Towards ‘a long overdue renaissance’? In (Eds) Gordon Cox and Robin Stevens, The Foundations of Music Education. Continuum. (pp. 15-28)

Philpott, C. (2013) The justification for music in the curriculum. In (Eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge. (pp. 48-63).

Hallam, S. (2015) Executive Summary in The Power of Music. International Music Education Research Centre. (pp. 9-19).

The most popular questions were 2. and 3.

In discussing the question raised by Janet Mills students noted that:

  1. Musical identity is self-assigned
  2. A musician implies advanced performance capability

The implication of 1. is that identifying as a musician is a decision made with reference to others who are like or different to me and that this is culturally dependant.

But it was pointed out that to ‘grow as musicians’ didn’t necessarily imply ‘becoming musicians’ in the sense of 2. above.

There was general consensus that ‘to grow as a musician’ was necessary but not sufficient and overall represented a weaker music educational justification.

There was much more sympathy with Chris Philpott’s ‘hard’ justification presenting music as a remarkably virile source of meaning making. And this argument went a good way to music being thought of as academic in that the critical pedagogy implied involved a disruptive form of ‘thinking’.

In our discussions I was introduced to a new concept.


Which basically means ‘by product’. And that’s how most viewed ‘the power of music’ argument. While recognising that engagement in music from an early age provides for a wide range of benefits, these should be seen as ‘by products’ of a good music education – valuable, and extremely so in certain circumstances, yet not sufficient.

Students were fascinated by the work of 19th century music educators and their devotion to aural development through singing. (I couldn’t resist telling them about John Curwen’s visit to Sarah Glover’s schoolroom and how Julie Andrews got her tonic solfa completely wrong.)

They observed too how legislators had continually expected pay back from a music education. 19th century moral rectitude and 21st century resilience and British values.

I did conclude that it would be good if these students were to read John Blacking’s ‘How musical is man?’ And Tia De Nora’s ‘Music in everyday life’. They were up for it.

‘All shall be musicians’ is a laudable aim but it is problematic.

How about ‘knowing how to make music well’?



[1] Blacking, J. (1973) How musical is man? University of Washington Press.


Emily was coming up five and excited about our annual holiday in St Ives, Cornwall. St Ives had long become a habit and already Emily knew about the little shop in St Andrews Street where there were gems for sale. And soon after arrival that’s where we were looking for another gem or two to add to Emily’s prized collection.

Gem stones, things of great beauty, and for Emily of great aesthetic significance at this moment in her life.

In another place 8X4 are concluding their science topic on human relationships. They ask their teacher, a favourite of theirs, what is the next topic?


‘Rocks … what has that got to do with anything?’, they say.

Mr. X will be taking you and he can make anything interesting.

In another place I observe a beginning teacher teaching year 8 and the subject is ‘rocks’.

The point of the lesson is to categorise rocks into three kinds…you know…Igneous ……

The lesson is dry, factual, cold, business-like…well…just rocks in three columns really.

I am sitting at the back of the class next to a quiet, studious girl and I venture to ask her what she knows about rocks.

Well, since primary school days she has been reading the magazine Gems of the Earth and in her garden there are some interesting rocks which she tells me about.

Back to copying down the three columns and learning those categories.

I am left wondering about where the subjective life of the child fits into a formal education that is school and that is concerned to impress upon the child an objective world.

Is the subjective life to be silenced?

Must feelings, meanings, thoughts, insights, curiosities be privatised?
















Mary’s Blog

I was pleased to see a new blog coming into the world last week. It is the work of my colleague Mary Earl with whom I often discuss the state of our respective subjects, Religious Education and Music Education. Most of our discussions are about the process of re-thinking our subjects, finding better ways of framing them, clarifying purposes, defining pedagogies.

Mary’s subject is now commonly called Religion, Philosophy and Ethics (RPE). And while music teachers have been wondering about their reformed GCSE, RPE teachers have been concerned about changes to their GCSE with its renewed focus on religions rather than philosophical and ethical underpinnings. You see many secondary school RE/RPE teachers hold degrees in philosophy.

Mary’s debut blog did what you may know is dear to my heart. It described an actual lesson. See

What a relief from the general blogospehere where we read anything from wild opinion to carefully crafted theoretical pieces (I’m all for these if they are well referenced).

Mary’s lesson account exemplified a number of things and chiefly the way in which a visual image can form the basis of inquiry learning. Mary writes:

‘What a joy the lesson proved to be! Within a minute the request to ask questions of the image led to a question about infinity (the symbol linking the woman/birth and the old man/death).’

How good to read about this kind of detail.

Music teachers who make use of an inquiry approach will find Mary’s account interesting. It shows the character of dialogic practice and the way a classroom becomes a community of inquirers.

The visual image used to stimulate created a flurry of responses drawing in the lived experience of the class, confirming who they were and what knowledge they came to class with.

RPE is not Music. In music dialogue is first in the medium of music but there are times to think through talking in the space that is created by a dialogic approach.

In the expanding educational twitter-blogosphere revealing the detail of classroom interactions is still a rarity. And this is understandable. A well-described lesson needs an observer and preferably one who is detached from the action. It also needs the description to embody some level of analysis so that it is more than simply revelation. I think Mary does that without much fuss.

In response to the Inspire Project LJ asks:

How will you draw the line between simply “revealing” and “framing” I wonder….

Mary provides sufficient framing I think.

I am pleased to have discovered the work of Debra Kidd who here a series of lessons in a way that provide deep insights into a particular approach. And there is a nine minute video to enrich.

Music teachers will at least connect with the blog’s title.