Year 7 talking and thinking about music

I have previously blogged about the role of pupil talk in music learning and the use of talking points to stimulate pupil talk. I see the purpose of pupil talk as developing pupil’s thinking about music and closely allied to their thinking in sound. (See Blogs of 22/3/14; 30/3/14 and 24/10/14)

In using talking points the teacher moves away from asking questions to elicit responses to allowing pupils to respond openly and talk themselves into understanding.

There will be many opportunites for teachers to use talking points, none of which should detract from making music well, making it thoughtfully and finding fluency of expression. In fact quite the opposite.

In the example that follows music teacher Anna is embarking upon a project with year 7 and is using movements from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to stimulate thinking.

Anna writes:

Talking points comments – some snippets of conversations…

In reference to ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’

Conversation 1:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

L: So when I listen to it, it makes me think of a cat and mouse. (Does actions) The mouse is like running really fast, doing little steps. And the cat was coming along with lower notes.

B: You know when it goes higher gradually? I kind of picture them climbing up the stairs or something.

A: I think that it’s in a wood and there’s loads of rabbits and mice and things and you know there was like two long notes (sings notes), I think of that as kind of signalling that someone is coming and then it gets more frantic as they start running around trying to find hiding places.

B: Does it paint a picture in your mind?

E: Maybe like a cat and a mouse. And the cats like running but it can’t keep up with it.

Conversation 2:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

E: I think if it was a cat and mouse chase like we’re saying, there’s too many different sounds.

I: It could be a bumblebee.

E: As it got louder there could be more cats coming in. Like multiple cats.

Talking point 4: It could be more interesting if…

E: It could be more interesting if it was simpler but there were more better ways to describe what he was thinking of.

G: Yeah, if it wasn’t so high pitched cos it’s like really high pitched and it doesn’t make me think of a painting.

Conversation 3:

Talking point 5: I like this combination of instruments because…

M: They’re different but they’re not like massively different because they all fit together.

J: Yeah, they all fit.

B: I think it’s cos they are all playing short high sounds and none of them are like oddly different, like saxophones or trumpets. Maybe if some of them were playing long notes it wouldn’t work.

In reference to ‘Bydlo’

Conversation 4:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

B: It reminds me of something really sad, like a funeral.

L: It makes me think of a film, like panning across the forest.

L2: Yeah it’s like a funeral.

L: I think it’s like the funeral march.

Talking point 2: There’s not really a story at all here, it’s just music

B: I think there is like a really small story behind this music.

O: About something that’s sad or something.

Conversation 5:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

A: It’s very dark and mysterious. Like the lion going through the grass and being all scary and stealthily.

L: Yeah, and the instruments kind of make that picture.

B: It sounds kind of like a march.

A: Even though there aren’t many instruments playing, it still sets a picture in your mind.

B: And it’s so simple, there’s just like a repeated idea that goes through it.

Talking point 3: This music is too complicated

A: Yeah so the music isn’t too complicated at all because there was so few instruments so you didn’t have to try and pick out certain bits, it was just there laid out for you. There aren’t many instruments to make it complicated really. And it’s simple because there aren’t many quick notes, except at the very end. There are just like slow, long, deep, repeated notes.

B: I wasn’t expecting the ending.

A: No, no one was really.

E: I thought there might be a big bang or something. It quite surprised me.

A: Well maybe there’s more to the piece. Maybe it carries on.

Talking point 2: There’s not really a story at all here, it’s just music.

A: As we said before, there is a story here cos there’s always a story in music. I think of music as a story, but a story of sound.

E: You can always imagine your own story to music.

A: Yeah, you can always think of a story to go with the music, if there isn’t one already.

Anna comments:

Main benefits of using talking points seems to be:

  • The way students talk about musical features of the music and how these relate to the picture in their mind. They seem to be getting at the very nature of musical analysis.
  • Students are also able to demonstrate sections with their voices and with actions.
  • Furthermore, students make links to other pieces of music and styles of music, perhaps suggesting they are beginning to join up their thinking and experiences of music.
  • They also begin to evaluate the effectiveness of the composition, such as the use of only high pitches making it seem less interesting.

The questions that they asked about the pieces also demonstrate that this is a really useful way to make students truly engage with the music. They are beginning to think analytically and focus on lots of musical features.

Some questions which arose from the pieces of music included:

  • How long did it take the composer to write this piece?
  • What inspired the composer?
  • When was it written?
  • How many instruments are playing?
  • How did he choose the instruments?
  • Why does it sound so depressing? (in reference to Bydlo)
  • What happens at the end of the piece?
  • Is it made for a movie or a dance?
  • Where was it performed?
  • How was the piece constructed?
  • Why did he/she write something so low? (in reference to Bydlo)
  • Which are the most important instruments?

 My comment:

Talking points have led to pupils asking questions which open up further lines of enquiry. As Anna points out, the pupils are thinking analytically. They have become evaluators, appraisers, musical critics.

The pupils will have much thought, a good number of questions and problems to solve as they compose in response to Mussorgsky.

And the classroom now has dialogic space. I wonder how this will change the climate of the classroom and the pupils’ future expectations.

And I am wondering whether a bridge is being built towards that elusive critical predagogy, so necessary in our age of musical participation.


Ground rules for writing talking points
(Finney and Earl 2013)

• Talking points must be inclusive so that everyone can understand them and find them interesting.
• Talking points need to be constructed so that there are simple answers and more complex ones. This keep groups engaged.
• Talking points need to be ‘enquiry’ based not focussed on developing specific skills.
• Talking points work when pupils don’t want to stop! Building them, in a spiral curriculum,’ to the KS3 curriculum should help pupils develop their own ‘thinking (rather than just ‘fixing’ strategies) by the time they get to KS4 and 5)
• You need to keep groups to time when they do talking points (no more than 5-7 minutes initially) and encourage them to explore as many as they want to/can. Otherwise they just get stuck on the first talking point and never explore any wider or deeper.
• Everyone’s ideas are treated as worthwhile.
• Talking points work best if you pilot them first (e.g. with other adults?) and see which ones in practice promote exploratory talk (Mercer) rather than cumulative or disputational talk. If they work for you they’ll work for your students, usually.
• Talking points need to be contextualised in the lesson at a point where it is ‘natural’ to expand talk for exploring a ‘line of enquiry.’ e.g. just before a group performs their own composition or just after they have sung, They aren’t ‘starters and plenaries.’
• Writing good talking points is a new skill for many of us and it takes time to learn which ones work. Be ruthless in eliminating TP’s which turn out to be about ‘pushing’ an angle of our own or which just ask pupils to ‘comprehend’ what a particular aspect of music is. The teacher needs to be clear what mix (or separation) of making, social practice and/or ‘big questions’ the talking points are directed at.
• Talking points which involve researching something outside the context (making ,social practice, big questions) usually don’t work.
• Talking points work on the principle that the teacher does know, basically, the range of possibilities of what might be discussed. So they are ‘mediating’ the inter-thinking, not just allowing ‘any old thing’ to emerge.
• However the potential for a wide range of ‘pupil owned’ ideas is enormous, so write the talking points in a way which ensures they can work from their own music practice ‘then and there’ rather than speculating about ‘music in general.’
• For use in the classroom (and once you are sure what works), produce high quality powerpoint slides or cards and laminate them/keep the images up to date for re-use It builds an expectation in pupils’ minds that the activity is worth doing.


3 thoughts on “Year 7 talking and thinking about music

  1. Thanks Jackie. Animating Chopin – thinking bodies-moving minds. Brilliant!
    We need to see how over time pupil’s talking/thinking about music develops their ability to express thought through a rich language of description and analysis. AND is more valuable than the dead hand of teacher’s closed questions.

  2. Hello Anna and friends,
    It is so good to see this creative use of Talking Points to help young people discuss their ideas about music. I especially like the way they can be heard using ‘ I think…’ ‘ I thought..’, and asking one another questions. There is a real focus on both the music and on one another’s points of view. The students use some technical vocabulary and some creative description; they speculate and offer very personal ideas in this safe forum. I imagine they enjoyed talking like this, and were aware that they were supporting one another’s learning.

    I have found that the students’ words can become Talking Points. For example, from the conversations above, some student ideas that would stimulate and support discussion:

    You can always imagine your own story to music

    If some of them were playing long notes it wouldn’t work

    I wasn’t expecting the ending

    You can use such ‘found’ ideas, or ask students in groups to create their own Talking Points to share with the class. The good thing about student ideas is that the language they use is brilliantly simple, which is essential in order to provide a way into complex ideas.

    Very exciting! Well done Anna and class.
    Lyn Dawes

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