First Access and musical composition

In last week’s blog I attempted to place First Access in the context of a general music education for all children. I proposed that the year-long engagement of all yr3 pupils in their string playing had provided a worthy musical foundation and a set of ‘serving competencies’ on which they could now build. It would provide a valuable basis for their development as composers of music, for example. And it was the matter of composing music that I was involved in last Friday.

The Listen, Imagine, Compose project [1] was holding an away day sparked into life by Pam Burnard’s creative metaphors and through the presentations of three secondary school teachers who had embarked on programmes of action research and who were now reporting on it.

Fran, Ruth and Sarah were addressing important questions: why compose; how to nurture the confidence to compose; sustain pupil’s journeys as composers; achieve more meaningful composition work; understand the significance of collaborative composition. These were some of the matters enquired into and that the teachers were exceptionally articulate about.

It’s not easy here to do justice to the ways in which the teachers were involved in intense levels of reflective practice. (Their powerpoints will no doubt be available later.) But it was clear that these teachers were changing, learning – and their pupils were too. Both teachers and their pupils were coming to understand what it meant to compose music, and it seemed to me that the climate of their classrooms was changing too. Conversations were becoming richer. Dialogic practices were emerging.

Of course, I may be over interpreting to soothe my own predilections. However, together the teachers illustrated well the power of carefully conceived action research to bring about change and to secure ongoing reflective action.

Fran, Ruth and Sarah provided the meat on which we could chew for the rest of the day.

In the afternoon and before small group discussion of key themes, Kirsty Devaney tuned us up for debate by leading us in a whole-group interthinking exercise by presenting us with ‘talking points’ (or at least that’s what I call them).

Talking points are not easy to create and I thought the question ‘Is bird song music?’ an especially good one.

Kirsty asked us to literally show where we stood on this. Those responding ‘yes’ stood at one end of the room and the ‘noes’ at the other.

I quickly decided ‘no, bird song is not music’. I had in mind that music was humanly organised sound. That was that.

However, in recent days I have thought about the question again and recall reading a book called ‘The Music between Us: is music a universal language?’ [2] in which there is discussion of animal musicality. On further reflection I think the issue might revolve around whether we believe there to be a boundary between the human and the animal. I like a music education that involves thinking about music, whether about how it is made, practised, what it’s for or what it might mean.

One of the small-group discussion points that followed addressed ‘listening and the development of aural imagination’.

To imagine music is to think (bring to mind) what is not present, what is absent but that could be present. This was my starting point.

My suggestion that asking a pupil to imagine the trumpet that was being listened to be heard as a clarinet was a bit too much for other members of my group.

I had thought of this example after hearing from Hertfordshire music teacher Lizzie and about how she gets her pupils to use (perhaps its training) the aural imagination. There they are hovering over a xylophone and yes they can be asked not only to imagine what the sound they are about to make will be like but also asked to think about the sound they are about to make as something quite different to what they know the xylophone is capable of. In playing the xylophone can they, for example, imagining the sound of a flute. All very fanciful you will say.

By the way, can you catch your earworm and manipulate it?

I wondered whether pupils even know that they can imagine music. Could they be taught/trained to imagine music on the way to music lessons?

I was clearly in the wrong group as I later learnt that another group had been talking about audiation and coming much closer to my starting point. It was only a starting point for thinking about aural imagination and I recognise the danger of reducing such a vast and dynamic idea.

It’s good that days like this don’t seek to find answers or even agreement. Just get us thinking, that’s enough.

And remember First Access has a place within a much bigger scheme that is a general music education and where composing music might even have a central place.


[1] See

[2] Higgins, K. (2012) The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language? The University of Chicago Press.










11 thoughts on “First Access and musical composition

  1. Wonderful post – I love the question about bird song. The contours of birdsong vary hugely, but song birds such as blackbirds and nightingales produce endless melodic variations on motivic fragments, so for me birdsong is a wonderfully joyful form of music. Messaien incorporated birdsong, particularly the song of blackbirds into several pieces – for example Quatour pour la fin du temps.

  2. Thank you Marion. I didn’t know that birds produce variants on motivic fragments. I have often wondered whether birds do motivic develpment. Perhaps different to variations? Messaien’s use of bird song is an example of human symbolic thought. Can animals symbolise? If not, is this a distinction between animals and humans?

  3. Apparently, humans are not unique in language learning. A bonobo (type of chimpanzee) named Kanzi, has been raised by humans learn language, is able to symbolise and control his breath. In the wild, I think bonobos are known for synchronous chorusing – perhaps this socially beneficial for them in terms of strengthening group cohesion or perhaps they’re simply for hooting for pleasure – if it’s collectively intentional – perhaps it’s musical?

  4. Thanks. Yes, this makes a good case. Do chimpanzees do motherese?
    Some might say that this conversation is ‘acdemic’ as it were. But I think it does get us thinking about what is going on when we musick (Small). I like his question: what is going on here? I sat behind the percussion and brass last evening in Ely Cathedral in a performance of VW’s Sea Symphony. I know it well and sat and mused about what was going on here? I haven’t a clue, but it’s the question that must be asked.

  5. I have no idea about motherese in bonobos but it’s another question that must be asked! Thinking about music is interesting in terms of ‘what is going on’. Sometimes, a piece of music seems to unfold as a powerful and expansive snapshot of a perspective on the political-social-cultural climate of the era. On the other hand, sometimes a piece of music can be better described as ‘timeless’ perhaps because it resonates with deeper structures concerning proportion and congruence that transcend the more superficial place-time cues. Obviously there are many different ways of listening and interpreting and reinterpreting, just as with poetry…..

  6. Yes, but your response is tending towards viewing music as trafficing between ‘the music’ and the individual making sense (interpreting and reinterpreting). But what about what is going on here as a social-relational question? Why are these particualr people here? What are they celebrating collectively?

  7. Yes indeed…. hypothetical question on social-relational…. might a group of people in a conflict situation move toward a state of cooperation simply by allowing music to unify their minds / energies?

  8. Hi John, quite late to this but just catching up on your last few blogposts. I’ve always thought of music as organised sound too but struggled with how this works when I don’t hear the organisation but someone else does. I’m not sure if I can articulate it quite right but Lucy Green says something about music needing to conform to certain socially prescribed boundaries in order to be widely perceived as music. So a Berio Sequenza might be music strictly speaking but very few people will perceive it as such. We do call it birdsong don’t we so I suppose this fits into both categories although perhaps some unmusical bird noise gets subsumed under the label.

  9. Hi Ed, perhaps if what we hear is organisable by ourselves so that we can derive meaning then that’s good enough. So rather than we seeking out the organisation, we act upon it-we organise it, we make sense of it. I think Kant had something to say about this (subjective-object relationships) I only have a faint glimse into it however.
    Lucy Green’s sonic and delineated meanings is a powerful idea. So, when we don’t hear the organisation of the sonic properties (which would require familiarity) we turn to delineations, one of which might be ‘this is not music’. That’s quite enough rambling.

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