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.

3 thoughts on “A thought about GCSE Music

  1. Pingback: A thought about GCSE Music — Music Education Now – museducationblog

    1. John Finney

      My blog is written in the context of the thought of Levinas and Kathryn Jourdans thesis. This critiques totalising practices. Long lists reducing knowledge is likely to militate against opening up the infinity of coming to know music in all its complexity. You may well reject Levinas. Placing ethics before epistemology is pretty radical. See the blog series on Levinas. In this view GCSE would be rather different to how it is. As it stands those words need to used well if pupils are to succeed.

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