Some problems with conceptual musical understanding

Using the so-called ‘elements of music’ was helpful at the time, that is, in the early 1980s.  We had found a fresh way of structuring what we did.  There they were – pitch, timbre, rhythm, pulse etc.  These were thought to be the building blocks of music. And we could see how this was paralleled in visual art: colour, line, perspective, composition etc. And even better, these elements could be thought of as ‘concepts’. Yes, music had a conceptual framework of sorts and something was needed in order to replace the ‘Theory of Music’ as a legitimate framework. (How can a theory be a conceptual framework?)

But as Keith Swanwick pointed out, music doesn’t have elements, it has features, and it is these features that give music character, interest and stylistic distinction and that get noticed. Not elements. These are abstractions, monster words and some distance from our musical perception. No wonder then that for the last thirty years music teachers have been coercing children to say them without much success. In fact the key words movement seems to have achieved very little.

The distinguished Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky had something to say about this.

‘Pedagogical experience demonstrates that direct instruction in concepts is impossible. It is pedagogically fruitless. The teacher who attempts to use this approach achieves nothing but a mindless learning of words, an empty verbalism that stimulates the presence of concepts in the child. Under these conditions, the child learns not the concept but the word, and this word is taken through memory rather than through thought.’ [1]

Vygotsky compares this empty learning with ‘living learning’ implying that the concept needs to be internalised and in some sense personalised before it is useable. In the case of music, itself being non-verbal, while allowing concepts to be formed about it, the distance between experience and concept appears especially great. Thus we attempt to place conceptual musical understanding in a relationship to existential musical understanding. That is, what this means to me in relation to what this means more generally.

Of course, musical features can be thought of as concepts as well as elements. But at least they are what strike us about the music we encounter; a characteristic rhythm, a facet of melodic movement, a sharply articulated short sound, for example. End Licks, Snaps, Turn Arounds … these are the features that contribute to our sonic meaning making and that are everywhere to be sensed, perceived, felt, cherished and that inspire emulation. These we could refer to as first order concepts, although I am bit unsure about this. One thing that I am clear about is that in music our concepts need to be open and dynamic rather than closed.

So what might count as second order concepts?

Oh no! Please not the elements of music.


[1] Vygotsky, L.S. (1987). Thinking and Speech. In L.S. Vygotsky, The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky, Vol. 1, Problems of general psychology (pp.39-285) (R.W. Rieber & A.S. Carton, Eds.; N. Minick, Trans.) New York: Plenum Press.

Choral reading

Talking, reading and writing about music is my straightforward way of thinking about the part music education can play in whole school literacy development. In my Aspects of Literacy blog (see I placed these activities outside of the medium of musical expression itself. They were presented as the means through which we can think about music. Talking about music, reading and writing about it as means of extending musical understanding. That was my line.

But of course talking and speaking, can become the music too, as can reading out loud, and are closely allied to what in music education we refer to as vocalisation, thought by many to be the most elemental source of musical cognition. Vocalisation is the term we use to encapsulate the myriad ways of using the voice musically.

Motherese, rhyming, chanting, rapping, singing, reciting and choral speaking, for example, are examples of culturally embedded modes of expressing the musical impulse and sources of making meaning.

At the close of my Aspects of Literacy blog I recommended talking to the English teacher. The english teacher will know a lot about language and literacy. My experience of such discussion highlights the complexity of finding common ground such are the differing perspectives of the English teacher and the Music teacher. However, I have found these discussions nearly always enriching.

I recently had the pleasure of adjudicating a primary school poetry speaking competition. Here was poetry coming alive involving movement and drama and learnt by heart. I was pleased to tell my English colleague, Gabrielle Cliff Hodges, about this leading to Gabrielle telling me about her trying the approach of choral reading within her subject.

The term choral reading is used to mean a reading in which multiple voices are ‘orchestrated’ in order to construct a reading of a poem. Gabrielle told me how English trainee teachers create poetry anthologies through a process of using their voices like musical instruments to create their readings of different poems. In coming to decide on how to read the poems, groups find themselves arguing about meanings and the range of vocal qualities that can be brought to bear. Human voices are used like musical instruments to create harmony or dissonance, rhythm or counterpoint, hence a choral reading. [1]  Oh, and what about cadence?

All this reminds me of a way of working with vocal material in music lessons. We might call it orchestrating the song although that would imply the use of instruments. I have in mind song arrangement and not really the same as making a cover version.

The song/vocal material, as in the case of choral reading above, has meanings to be argued about alongside decisions to be made about the use of expressive devices in order to re-present it.

The song/vocal material is of course a form of poetry and we will have something to talk to our English colleagues about from the music teacher’s perspective. In turn listening to the English teacher will be instructive. And I know one school where time is allocated for perspectives to be shared and common understandings to evolve between music and English.

As is quite usual I am writing from a secondary music teacher’s perspective. How different must be the primary teacher’s perspective on all this. Or is it?

And do secondary school music teachers think of themselves as teachers of english? Ofsted expect music teachers to promote literacy in their lessons. But doesn’t this need to be handled with care even if ‘all teachers are teachers of english’.

I wonder, has my love of language come through my music? Anyway, wherever it came from I am grateful.


[1] Gabrielle describes the process in more detail in a forthcoming article due to be published later this year.





A thought about GCSE Music

As September creeps forward so secondary school music teachers will have established a sense of purpose and direction in their GCSE classes as they grapple with the new specifications. They are likely to have attended courses run by the examining boards, they will have sample assessment materials along with the guides that accompany and support the specifications. For these teachers the time for debate about the character of examination courses in Music, and in particular GCSE, is past, for there is much work to do.

The new specifications are in large part representative of wider changes in national curriculum where more academic rigour is the order of the day, where there is a commitment to an academic education for all children. Music is no exception.

In the case of music at GCSE one striking feature is the redefining of musical knowledge. Music knowledge is reduced to a list of abstractions and the list grows long. Musical knowledge, as now conceived, is stripped of it embedded and aesthetic nature, its ethical and social character and most significantly its origins and life within diverse social practices. Only when in the specification are ‘musical contexts’ introduced is this form of knowledge called to account and weakly so. The elements of music reign triumphant.

In recent blogs I have been drawing upon an ethical perspective on music education, one set out by Kathryn Jourdan in her extended enquiry into the philosophy of music education guided by the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas.

We will recall that Kathryn’s starting point was the disquieting classroom experience of observing the rich variety of musical expressions being reduced to one and the same. ‘All music has rhythm … Mozart uses chords just like the Beatles …’

Kathryn was later to observe these totalising practices in a Scottish school and where contextual richness was discarded, complexity eschewed and where there was early closure. All this is in opposition to the practice of infinity where there is

contextually rich, complex material which keeps offering fresh insights and challenges’ and that ‘embraces complexity, resists early closure and allows time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’ [1]

The new GCSE specifications are strong on a newly conceived form of musical knowledge and its application. It is this that gives succour to the idea of enhanced academic rigour. A careful reading of Kathryn’s work will expose the ethical vacuity of this position.

The knowledge lists are long in the new specifications.

Would not less be more?

Would not complexities then be embraced?

Would not early closures be avoided?

Would not then there be time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning?

Would not then there be more opportunity for teachers to become inextricably bound with pupils’ experience of learning?

Is this not how the arts should be?



[1] See recenet blogs for a fuller context.

Aspects of literacy in the music lesson

In last week’s blog I proposed that Richard Trauskin’s writing about Steve Reich’s Different Trains (mediated by the teacher) might serve as a central resource in introducing Year 8 to

contextually rich, complex material which keeps offering fresh insights and challenges’ and that ‘embraces complexity, resists early closure and allows time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’ [1]

In seeking to find principled reasons for pupils to read about music I am venturing into the realm of ‘literacy’ and the use of language.

By language I mean words as the source of meaning and by literacy I mean meaning made through talking, writing and reading. I am using the term language fairly precisely and the term literacy narrowly. [2]

Since the mid-eighties all teachers have been exhorted to be teachers of English. Of the many possible contenders to assist in creating curriculum coherence, literacy has long been a champion.

I write after a period when the music education twittersphere has bubbled with a surfeit of proclamations determined to ensure that music lessons are musical – ‘is music the target language’, ‘how musical is your lesson’, ‘is your assessment musical’, ‘but was it really musical’, ‘were they musically active’, ‘what was the musical learning?’ And so on.

Let it be said that to live and spend time within the medium of music, to in-dwell musical experience is, we think, the essential core aspect of a music education. Other things, including the use of language, crucially support, yet at the same time can present dangers – too much talking about music when music can do the talking, too much valuable time taken away from the thing itself. And then the problem with the school’s learning walkers on patrol expecting that in music lessons pupils write down what they have learnt. And then there is the tyranny of the ‘key words’ movement. [3]

I am assuming that it might it be principled to read about music in a music lesson, before or after a music lesson and thus contribute to the pupil’s wider literacy development as well as enhanced musical understanding? And I am assuming that reading could act as the catalyst for talking and writing that in turn might further enhance and inform the making of music.

Inspired by my discovery of the relevance of Taruskin’s writing last week I offer ten more examples of source readings each of which could, like the Taruskin from last week’s blog, serve as a central resource in a music education interested in embracing complexity. And of course, why not talk to your English colleagues about all this. [4]

1. As Orpheus grew older, his music became more and more wonderful. When he went to the old place to play, all the animals and birds in the fields and in the forest gathered around him. Lions, bears, wolves, foxes, eagles, hawkes, owls, squirrels, little field mice, and many other kinds of animals were in the audience. … (From Orpheus and Eurydice in Favourite Greek Myths by Lillian Stoughton Hyde, 1930)

2. Music composed in an undisciplined style is always infinitely improved by the imposition of form, even if that makes it less immediately attractive. But music doesn’t have to be disciplined to be pleasant. Take someone who has right from childhood till the age of maturity and discretion grown familiar with a controlled and restrained style of music. Play him some of the other sort, and how he’ll loathe it! … (From The Regulation of Music, The Laws, Plato)

3. And then it happens. The house lights go down, leaving Holiday illuminated by the hard, white beam of a single spotlight. Suddenly you can’t get a drink … (From Billy Holliday Strange Fruit in 33 Revolutions Per Minute by Dorian Lynskey, 2010)

4. Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?

Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;

Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm

Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.     (From the Erl King, Goethe-Schubert)

5. Before sitting down to write, I often fast for a couple of days. This gets me into a clean, spiritual frame of mind, and opens me up to inspiration. I bring along a whole suitcase of titles and half written songs, and I take all my different instruments. … mainly I write with the guitar. … (From Me & the muse, Dolly Parton, The Observer Music Magazine 4.09.16)

6. Their performance space was Palmyra, the city of ruins left by Roman and other ancient civilizations and ruined further by the depredations of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The orchestra played pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and two Russian composers, Sergei Prokofiev and Rodion Shchedrin, in a second-century Roman amphitheater, the set for a 2015 film produced by the Islamic State that featured the execution of 25 people. The contrast was intended to underscore what Russia sees as its underappreciated role in helping Syrian forces liberate Palmyra from zealots and fighting on the side of civilization against barbarism. … (New York Times online)

7. The theory which I am putting forward posits a dialectical relationship between the two types of musical meaning identified. Musical experience in this model, cannot occur at all unless both aspects of meaning are in operation to some extent or other. … (From Meaning, autonomy and authenticity in the music classroom, Professorial Lecture, Lucy Green, 2005)

8.  Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today… Aha-ah…

9. O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), … (From Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament)

10. Jim Morrison’s contribution to the music he made with the band he helped form, the Doors, was, by contrast to Zappa’s, almost entirely lyric: he was the classic, musically illiterate rock & roll singer who had to rely on his band mates … (From ‘The Modernisation of Rock & Roll 1965-75 in The Pleasures of Modernist Music. Ed. Arved Ashby, 2004)


[1] See last week’s blog for Kathryn Jourdan’s teacher and pupil orientations.

[2] I am assuming that there is a strong relationship between language and thought and that talking, reading and writing play an important part in developing thinking – thinking about music.

On thinking see

On talking see

I am not, let be emphasised, thinking of music itself as a language, a para-language, a pre-language, a meta-language or any other kind of language. I am not writing about musical literacy or multi-modal literacy. I am not writing about language acquisition. I am not writing about the ways in which music affects phonological processing or the way interventions enhance this. I am not writing about the reading and writing of music.

For a comprehensive account of Language and Learning Music see Chapter 4 of Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School by Chris Philpott, 3rd Edition edited by Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce. Routledge.

[3] See

[4] In talking to my English colleague I am learning about the history of choral speaking, orchestral speaking and much more.

The reader will think of many more readings and not least those that live in the huge store of song lyrics. And then all those stories that come with music.







Worthwhile music making in ‘the wasted years’ [1]


It is difficult to imagine music existing other than in context, that is, in relationship to human interactions in specific places and at specific times. Well, we could think of music as residing in a library, in a score or on a recording existing in some purified realm free from danger. Helpfully we have moved away from such conceptions of music towards focusing on the act of music making, what people-groups of people do in the world. But when we make music in the classroom we will be taking part in a process of re-contextualising what is a living practice. In the classroom it can’t be as it was or is out there. It can’t replicate the relationships and meanings made elsewhere at specific times and under specific conditions. We have no alternative but to re-present it. How to re-present it is a challenge.

Equally challenging is the responsibility for selecting what is brought to the classroom in the first place. Some criteria, implicit or otherwise, for what material is thought to be worthwhile will be in play. And values and beliefs will be exposed through the choices made. Teacher and pupil orientations will soon be evident.

Teacher and pupil orientations

Figure 8 and figure 9 in Kathryn Jourdan’s ISME handout address the orientation of the teacher and pupil respectively. Download accompanying handout here

Amongst other things, Kathryn proposes that the teacher

‘introduces contextually rich, complex material which keeps offering fresh insights and challenges’

and furthermore that the teacher

‘embraces complexity, resists early closure and allows time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’

For the pupils’ part there is the call for

‘learning to be responsible to each other as they play, compose listen, craft, discuss together, leading each other into deeper engagement, facility and sensitivity’


‘to learn to stay in the encounter, resisting the desire for easy answers with which to close down learning.’

In thinking about all this my recent conversation with secondary music teacher Jo gave me insights into how this might be. Together we developed ideas about how to present to other teachers the possibilities opened up by introducing ‘contextually rich, complex material’ while keeping in mind infinite possibilities and the avoidance of early closure. Jo has been working with Steve Reich’s Different Trains with year 8.

Thinking Different Trains

Richard Taruskin writes:

‘’… in Different Trains (1988) Mr. Reich went the full distance and earned his place among the great composers of the century. …  Mr. Reich based the melodic content of the piece on the contour and rhythm of ordinary human speech. But in his case the speech consisted of fragments of oral history, looped into Reichian ostinatos, then resolved into musical phrases conforming to normal tunings, scales and rhythms of ‘Western music’, imaginatively scored for string quartet. These speech melodies were set in counterpoint with the original speech samples, all of it measured against a Reichian chug.’’ [2]

What if we presented the above for year 8 pupils to read? What sense would be made of it? You might say, ‘not much, it’s packed with sophisticated concepts’. I counted twenty-five! A lot of abstractions there. Please, not a list of ‘key words’. No, no, please. Handle abstractions with care.

But what is a speech melody? I guess year 8 know what a melody is and they have sung and imagined a good many musical phrases. Fragments of oral history? Counterpoint? Reichian ostinatos? String quartet? Not so likely.

Perhaps these will be things we talk about, ideas that become a part of our classroom discourse over time.

What do these pupils read in their English lessons, History, RE lessons? What would their English teacher say about the appropriateness of the above passage?

Well, a suggestion from Jo – what if we rewrote the passage above for year 8 to read or whichever group we might have in mind? And before they come to the lesson?

Taruskin continues by telling about the significance of the Different Trains. Reich’s childhood train journeys from coast to coast and the train journeys of children to Auschwitz.

I note above that Richard Taruskin places Different Trains in the 20th century canon of art music and Reich becomes a ‘great composer’. What a ‘talking point’. Jo’s pupils are well schooled in purposeful talking with ground rules well internalised. [3]

And there are lots more talking points. Who is a great composer? Who decides? What is art music? What is a canon? What’s your canon? Why does it change? Does it?

So perhaps the Taruskin text rewritten by the teacher could be a central resource.

Assuming there will be lots of reasons for making music in response to Different Trains, why would pupils have a reason for writing about their encounter with the music?

What narratives, musical and literary, will they produce as they develop their processes of making and how could these be shared with others?

What range of musical techniques might be taught?

How will technologies serve the musical impulses that arise?

At what points will Steve Reich be invited (metaphorically) into the classroom as a guest?

What range of intervention (disruptions) might the teacher prepare to help deepen and sustain the work?

What will mark the culmination of the work?

How will it generate fresh thinking, further possibilities, ideas about other good places to go?

How will the project be evaluated? What will be worth assessing?

Well, that’s enough. We should be ready now to ask one or two questions that will frame the project. Here’s one possible question:

How do personal histories become music?

Final thoughts

In Figures 8 and 9 Kathryn presents the idea of teacher and pupil orientations. How are each disposed towards encountering music? This I think is a helpful way of approaching the question of what is ‘worthwhile’ and one way of responding to Ofsted’s concern about the wasted early years of secondary school.

What contextually rich, complex material do you have to bring to the classroom?

How will you embraces complexity, resist early closure and allow time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings?

I have presented the case of Different Trains. There are a thousand other possibilities waiting to be explored.

The continuity between projects will be the processes of making and thinking music and therein will lie progression.


[1] See

The report is based on observations in subjects other than music.

[2] Taruskin, R. (2010) The Danger of Music and other Anti-Utopian Essays. University of California Press: London. p.101.

[3] I am hearing from music teachers about the value of teaching their pupils how to engage in productive talk. For example, Karen in her Norfolk school is impressed by the way classroom conversations now seem natural. See blogpost March 22, 2014 for ‘Talking to Think’.