Research and music’s status in the curriculum

‘Given the research evidence, why isn’t Music central to education policy? What should we be doing better to get that message out?

Why are we not a “Core” subject?’

Questions asked by Matt Allen. (See

The research evidence on the power of music is growing by the day. Active music making, assuming that it is regular and of high quality, can contribute to the enhancement of a range of non-musical capabilities and lead to other beneficial outcomes. This is broadly what the research says that I think Matt is referring to.

In this view Music in the curriculum is able to go beyond itself and serve aspects of general development and well-being.

Policy makers, by which I mean the current government, while acknowledging this, move quickly to the value of the subject itself, to its place in the order of things. They don’t dwell on how it is a servant to other subjects or other things, but as a subject of the curriculum that has never been ‘core’ and which is destined to remain non-core while at the same time being accorded value.

This is very much how it has been since the advent of compulsory education in 1870. In some exceptional cases headteachers and some former Local Education Authorities have given core status to music and the arts and where they have seen this as a central tenet of a liberal education. David Hargreaves attempted this in ILEA in the late 1980s, for example and today, some headteachers are committed to all pupils having an arts option at Key Stage 4 in spite of the Ebacc. This kind of enlightened view of an education in which the arts are considered as a significant aspect of human being continues to exist.

While research on the power of music is heartening (and a life blood to organisations seeking funding) it may ironically serve to undermine the case for music as a subject discipline, acting as a kind of distraction from music’s core purpose of providing a unique way of understanding the world into which young people are growing. From there many good things are likely to be accrue, many of those benefits claimed by the research. Getting this the right way round, in my view, is important.

Chris Philpott makes the distinction between hard and soft justifications for music in the book ‘Debates in Music Teaching’ and shows what a powerful thing music is, and not in the way that the research referred to above does. Its power lies in the way it is in culture and society as a significant form of meaning making. (By the way the work in the book Debates in Music Teaching is also research. Philosophical enquiry is a form of research.)

Following James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in the late 1970s and the steady moves during the 1980s to form a National Curriculum the concept of Core and Foundation subjects was established. Despite some making a case for a curriculum that was not hierarchical, the Core-Foundation division easily won the day. Nothing much has changed since then except the coming of the EBacc, a throwback to the School Certificate subject grouping of the mid twentieth century. So all the research in the world showing ‘the power of music’ and its contribution to human well-being and the making of smarter pupils is insignificant in the face of an ideology that champions the core, defines ‘academic’ in a narrow way and that sees STEM subjects as giving citizens economic advantage.

There is talk of giving school leavers an app that will provide government with information about the amount of income tax paid by the individual correlated with the subjects studied. Thus the value of a subject can then be directly liked to its value – its economic value that is. (By the way, it remains unclear whether there is a relationship between the study of the arts and the success of the creative industries.)

So music is not a Core subject. This is not to say that it has been and will continue to be valued as being worthwhile and in some places giving the appearance of being central to the school’s work – ‘core’ in a metaphorical sense.

I am a governor of a primary school which has three music graduates on the staff, a subject leader for music, a year 4, 5, 6 choir of over 100 (a third of the cohort), all year 3 engaged in First Access, all pupils experience Steel Band etc. and regular music lessons . At governor meetings there is no mention of Music, just improvement plans, targets and data, ways of presenting data, FSM success ratios etc. And in this discussion it is the childrens’ reading, writing and maths that is, well THE CORE.

Music is not central to education policy because Maths, English and Science are, because there are international league tables based on these subjects. (The latest positions coming shortly.)

Perhaps this might change.

The impatient music teacher


It’s Steve Reich’s eightieth birthday year.

And the Cambridge Corn Exchange audience was expectant. Steve Reich would be there.

On cue at 7.30 the man recently included in the BBC’s tea-time Pointless programme as one of the fifty composers who had changed the course of music history, came on stage with Colin Currie to perform Clapping Music. Above is a performance by Reich and X in another place.

A quick internet search and you will find the score of the music and a free app for your phone to challenge your rhythmic performance skill.

The Cambridge concert culminated with a performance of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a fifty-five minute piece. The audience was ecstatic.

The experience served me well as I prepared to give my U3A session this week titled Steve Reich, Minimalism, Ways of Listening and Different Trains.

I am a newish member of the U3A group of twelve who meet monthly to listen to and consider music. As my first contribution I decided to present a topic that would be fresh to the group (they like this), and that I would start with the group clapping a simple rhythm and then, in two groups, seeing if we could phase it in the way that Reich does with his Clapping Music. My method, pretty orthodox, was then to listen to Reich’s Clapping Music.

As expected this provoked a good number of comments and questions from the group, all of which took us further into the minimalist ways of Reich.

I asked whether there were any changes in dynamics in the performance, a kind of leading question as I didn’t think there were. The music was in my view essentially mono-dynamic, Reich  eschewing a key mode of musical expression found in the music that I assumed the group to be most familiar with. However, in the event, group members pointed out subtleties in changing accents and there were questions about the shifting timbrel and dynamic qualities of cupped and uncupped hands. Oh and now there were questions about the music’s cyclical structure. Computational minds were at work.

But I was impatient, for I had a plan and I did need to get to Different Trains by the mid-point of the session.

For now, and in order to drive the point home that here was a different way of thinking about music, a kind of music that was not goal-orientated (and in a sense pointless), I needed to play a recording of the Prelude to Wagner’s Rheingold: 132 bars of Eb major – and with a goal in mind assisted by a steady crescendo, and unlike the Reich, creating expectations of future events, the first being Rhine Maidens coming into song. Ok, Wagner being minimal in a sense, but not in the Reichian sense. Hence ‘ways of listening’ in my title.

Point made or not I didn’t stop to find out for I was impatient. I had a plan.

I was forgetting my recent exhortation to ‘embrace complexity, resist early closure and allow time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’

I was on the one hand eliciting responses that opened up complexities while at the same time ensuring early closures as I moved on keeping to plan.

In my blog  I had gently chided the GCSE OCR syllabus for having too much content, too much breadth, not enough depth.

What I had brought to the Reich session was enough for much more than an hour and a half. And this had led me to being an impatient teacher.

I was teaching without much grace.

You should read Danny Brown at

That is, until we reached Different Trains.


How might music teachers come to know what and how to think about music education?

Below is a transcript of my introductory comments to the Music Mark Conference Symposium celebrating the publication of Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School in its third edition, edited by Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce. It is published by Routledge.

How might music teachers come to know what and how to think about music education?

Is it from official sources addressing music education, from government documents, from the perspective of Ofsted? Is it from those with sectarian or commercial interests in the advancement of particular forms of music education?

We take the view that this would be shamefully inadequate. Rather, our starting point is that new secondary school music teachers and indeed those currently serving should have ongoing opportunities to give thought to what a music education is, how it might be conceptualized and what it is for, and to be continually stimulated by fresh ways of thinking about music and music education in a way that seeks to bring theory and practice together. Thus, public policy, contemporary trends, off the shelf recipes and the fads of the moment are placed in perspective.

Learning to teach music in the secondary school involves hard work and careful preparation. To become an effective secondary school music teacher requires pedagogical and subject knowledge, an understanding of your pupils and how they learn, and the confidence to respond to dynamic classroom situations. Learning to teach music in the secondary school involves hard work and careful preparation. Learning to teach music in the secondary school requires careful preparation.

In the United States music teachers typically are provided with a three or four-year period of preparation in what is known as ‘pre-service education’. In England we do things differently. Recent government policy means that it is not uncommon for a beginning music teacher to have little or no specific preparation in coming to understand the structure of music as a discipline or a critical and historical understanding of the philosophy, sociology, politics and psychology of music.

The book Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School expresses a commitment to the making of well-educated, articulate secondary school music teachers able to ask difficult questions about how music education is, how it has been, how it might be, and able to critique and respond intelligently to whatever they are confronted with in their music teaching careers.

The book insists that the reader continually thinks, questions, reflects as they are led through fourteen chapters exposing ideas about the fundamentals that comprise a music education: how is a music education justified; what is a social-cultural perspective on contemporary music education; what is there to learn; what is the nature of musical knowledge; what do we mean by learning behaviours; what does progression in the performance of music look like; what is a music curriculum; what is involved in the process of planning; how is language used about music; what if we thought of music education as music criticism; what is assessment for learning in music; what are individual needs and what does this mean for music; how do we categorise Special Education Needs; what is the scope of music technology and what are the implications for pedagogy; what is creativity; how do we learn how to notate music; what is music education now?

You may note that in skimming the contents there is the ‘what is’ question, potentially the most demanding way in which a question can be framed. Gary, for example, asks: what is a social-cultural perspective on a contemporary music education and brings together recent musicological and ethno-musicological scholarship that causes us to own up to some of our longstanding unquestioned assumptions about music. Or what is a music curriculum? But there are ‘how’ questions too: how do we learn how to notate music; how is language about music acquired, and running throughout there is the ‘why’ question: why music education?

The chapters call for both thought and action with 123 tasks to complete. There are numerous examples of classroom practice thickly described. There is a vast array of academic references and ideas for further reading.

It has fallen to me to write the first chapter, and I feel a sense of pride in doing this. What do we expect from a first chapter in a book like this? It is titled ‘The place of music in the secondary school – Ideology – history – justification’.

As with each chapter I start by setting out its purpose.

By the end of the chapter you will be able to:

Discuss with other beginner teachers, with music teachers and school administrators the value placed on music education in the secondary school;

Examine critically the validity of arguments supporting the place of music in the secondary school;

Distinguish between justifications made for music education and music education advocacy;

Read with insight official documents defining the place of music in school and its contribution to the whole curriculum;

Create in outline the case you would want to present in support of musical study, whether in a job application letter, at interview or at a meeting of parents and governors.

In summary I write:

‘We have seen that the justification for music education:

Has a long and winding history tied to social systems and political arrangements;

Has been influenced by the power of ideas often serving particular interests, both individual and group, that have shaped ways of thinking about music and music education;

Has been conceived of as a civilizing influence, a shaper of character, a marker of the educated citizen, a great symbolic form, a language or indeed something that is good for you.

Whatever the justification, there remains a call to each new secondary school music teacher to ask: ‘Why music?’ Our responses can quickly resort to enthudiastic rhetoric and vague advocacy or draw on too many diffuse claims and arguments. We should take time to rehearse our case and be able to defend it in theory and practice.’

We (gesturing) the old timers make bold to pass on the Promethean flame of music education, if that is not too romantic an idea, in a way that the reader is able to identify the principles, musical and pedagogical, that underpin good music teaching. This would seem to be a worthy enterprise.

Interesting musical practices

A group of sixteen secondary school trainee music teachers had noted that Indian music featured in a current GCSE syllabus and decided to explore the musical practices of India and the Punjab together as a group. There was already some knowledge of this within the group. Some had attended classical Indian recitals and there was knowledge that had recently been researched in preparation for the session.

I joined the group for the first part of the morning and had in mind the question:

How could a GCSE Area of Study that included the music of the Indian sub-continent open the minds of pupils to fresh ways of thinking about music and the ways in which it is practised?

What would it mean to view it as a socio-cultural practice?

How could its otherness be recognised?

I had written earlier about the dangers of ‘sameing’ that lead to an avoidance of the complexities of difference. (See Was I making a fuss about nothing?

In Gary Spruce’s ‘Culture, society and musical learning’ chapter in the book ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School’ he points out that recent music scholarship proposes that ‘ … music can be understood fully and by implication, taught effectively if only one takes into account the social, political, cultural and economic factors that impact on its production, dissemination and reception.’ [1]

In this view the musical features, techniques and processes of Indian Classical music can only be made sense of inside a much larger web of human worldly activity that is much more than a GCSE syllabus is likely to recognise. And much more than what is conveniently labelled as ‘context’.

‘Context’ would seem an inadequate way of describing what is being proposed. The idea of context allows this worldly-wise music to be reduced to an add-on-by-the-way category and with culture thought of as a way of life discounted.

Turning to the trainee teachers and their workshop, they were well into making Indian Classical music. I’ve long been fascinated by the alap with its tasting and testing of the rag and then the moment of change locking into the thing itself. I think I would want to explore this in some depth along with why this rag and how can it claim to possess a particular ethos.

How are such meanings socially-culturally constructed?

What political circumstances lie behind the need to fix musical meanings?

As I thought about possible talking points I was reminded of the industry that has grown up around GCSE Areas of Study, the bite size information packs and the vast store of information about the music of India that is out there. Alas, information is not knowledge of any variety.

One trainee wanted to know about how Indian classical music had changed over time. Were its practices time-bound?

Just how old is the classical Indian musical canon?

How do its religious roots relate to its developing structures?

What is the significance of cyclical patterns?

Then, of course there is Bhangra and Bollywood and more opportunity to

‘embrace complexity, resists early closure and allow time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’ [2]

To offer such a rich topic as just one segment of an Area of Study would seem to be parsimonious by an exam board.


[1] Spruce, G. (2016) Culture, society and musical learning. In (eds) Carolyn cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Learning to Teach in the Secondary School. Routledge.

[2] See