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.

3 thoughts on “And all shall be musicians

  1. ‘Music and Education’ is a component of the first year paper ‘Music and musicology now’. Students have two lectures on Music and Education and for those who opt to pursue it with the intention of answering an exam question later choose an essay title as above, which I comment upon before a supervision in groups of four. That’s it.

  2. John – I love that you’ve used Blacking as your reference point for this debate. Blacking is my reference point as well – in everything that I do in Rhythm for Reading in fact! I strongly believe that we are all musicians in the same way that we are all mathematicians, but whether we recognise ourselves as musicians or are recognised by others as musicians is simply a matter of cultural reference.

    On Wednesday evening I taught the entire staff of an infant school to read music fluently in 10 minutes as part of a 45 minute training session on rhythm-based learning. Everyone joined in and had a great time. I simply wanted them to understand the processes that their pupils were about to experience.

    On Thursday morning I delivered session one of the programme seven times with 70 socially disadvantaged children. Three teaching assistants shadowed me and at the end of the morning, all three said that they were confident that they could teach music in the way that I’d shown them. One of them revealed that she’d been able to read treble clef fluently and for many years had had to count up the lines and spaces of the stave and piano keys to find the bass notes. She was really amazed that she’d learned to read so many notes so quickly.

    So my personal solution to the music education issue has been this: disregard value judgements in terms of attainment, but focus on maintaining the highest levels of engagement with sound, fluency and ensemble. Music is desperately needed right now. It brings people together and lifts them out of the mundane, dispiriting struggles of everyday life. For me, the effect of music on people is beautiful and empowering and that is more important than discussing whether music in itself is beautiful or powerful.

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