The constructing of music as a school subject

In last week’s blog I bounced off a BJME article to raise questions about what would make a sufficiently robust justification for music being in the school curriculum as part of an education for all pupils to the age of 16.

Justifying music in the school I suggested needed to go beyond popular causes like becoming a musician, achieving musical potential and even the beguiling idea of acquiring a strong musical identity. [1]

I asked three questions.

  1. What does it mean to be musically educated as part of a general education for all children and young people to age 16?

The question attempts to take thinking beyond the populism of much current discourse within music education or what is called ‘the sector’.

Last week I proposed that in response to this first question two more questions are uncovered.

2. To what extent should the purposes of music education address the nature of music as a human practice historically and contemporaneously manifest in the world? (Ontology)

3. What kind of knowledge and ways of knowing should a music education be most concerned with? (Epistemology)

It is these questions that need to be addressed in the ongoing construction, reconstruction and justification of music as a school subject.

Below Chris Philpott contributes to the debate that these questions give rise to by considering the ways in which, typically, music as a school subject has been constructed and by implication the ways in which it has been justified.

The construction of music as a school subject

  • What I call a hierarchical dichotomy where the arts, including music, are a balance to the harder and more disciplined sciences.
  • Instrumentalism: the notion that music somehow serves some other greater economic, numerical or literate ‘good’.

There are two seemingly contradictory nuances to this construction. Firstly, there is the construction of music as an amelioration and counterpart to a more rational and (more important) scientific world promoting a stratified, hierarchical epistemology that militates against the arts. Such a construction adopts a dualism that has subjugated music (and the arts) beneath other ‘harder’ subjects thus establishing a hierarchical dichotomy.

However, while on the one hand music is constructed as a ‘soft’ subject whose strengths lie in our inability to ‘measure’, paradoxically it is justified for its transferable and measurable impact on other aspects of our life. In a culture of accountability politicians who ‘sponsor’ initiatives and statutory curricula are attracted by evidence that can show the potential impact of music on wider educational success and thus economic good.

These notions have done music no favours, and one reason for this is that there is

  • No confident discourse surrounding the nature of musical knowledge – one that is understood and is fluently expressed amongst teachers and music educators; a confident discourse surrounding musical understanding; a confident discourse surrounding musical meaning. Quite apart from music being only a softer amelioration to a harder world, the meanings of music are complex, they’re dirty and they’re hard, and I think the justifications in the past have been very much over-sanitised in terms of why music should be in the curriculum. Part of the reason for that is this lack of confident discourse. [2]

In music education there is a lack of confident discourse surrounding the subject’s ontological (what music is) and epistemological (how we come to know music) foundations. And this is a matter of some urgency.

There is a ‘bring back knowledge’ wave sweeping through our schools. Senior leaders are asking of their music teachers to set out the musical knowledge that constitutes the music curriculum and Ofsted in their new-found interest in knowledge will be presenting an attitude towards this. Knowledge will be coming your way.

Clare is a music teacher in a Cambridgeshire school and is part of her school’s working group on a knowledge-based curriculum. Clare tells me how she is growing in confidence in articulating the complexities of the nature of musical knowledge. She is being listened to. [3]

Notes:

[1] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/and-all-shall-be-musicians/  for a critique of the ‘all shall be musicians’ mantra.

[2] An extract from a paper presented at the 2014 Camden Town Music Education Symposium. For a full expression of the argument see Chris’s chapter ‘The justification for music in the curriculum’ in Debates in Music Teaching (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce. Rutledge: London.

[3]  Clare recommends reading  https://jfin107.wordpress.com/?s=musical+knowledge; https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2016/01/20/embodied-musical-knowledge/; https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2016/10/13/knowledge-creativity-music-education-and-making-special/

 

 

 

 

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In praise of the British Journal of Music Education

‘The research highlighted the tensions between different conceptions of the purpose of music education and in particular the nature of the curriculum.’ [1]

This is just one of several valuable discussion points made in the report of research carried out over a three year period into the relationship between informal learning and musical progression. It is the case of Musical Futures Champion Schools. (I recommend subscribing to the British Journal of Music Education and reading the article in full.)

For the teachers involved progression was expressed in terms of pupils

Demonstrating higher levels of attainment

Developing a wider range of musical skills

Developing a good understanding of a range of musical genres

Having mostly exceeded my expectations when it comes to improving their musical skills

Fulfilling their musical potential

 

For the pupils the development of their musical skills was expressed in terms of

Becoming a better musician

Learning to listen to music differently

Doing thing things as well as others

Feeling confident in music lessons

Having good musical skills

Having achieved a lot in music lessons

Thinking they are a musical person

‘Overall, teachers reported that Musical Futures had enhanced the progression of their students and increased take up at Key Stage 4. In some cases this had led to changes in the qualifications on offer with an emphasis on those which were vocational rather than academic. This created some tensions in catering for the needs of different groups of students who had a range of different musical skills.’ [2]

But back to the top and those tensions between different conceptions of the purpose of music education and in particular the nature of the curriculum.

The statements above provide examples of purpose and I select three which I think are popular and immensely attractive, and sound sensible reasons for engaging in the practice of music, and self-evidently so. [3]

Fulfilling musical potential [4]; being musically skilful; becoming a musician – often expressed as achieving a musical identity.

But are these sufficient in the name of a music education claiming subject status in the school curriculum and sponsored by the state?

And perhaps as important, are they sufficient in the light of the national conversation about the purposes of education in general and the place of music in the school curriculum? Much of that conversation revolves around issues such as knowledge and culture.

Hence the question that is needed:

What does it mean to be musically educated as part of a general education for all children and young people to age 16? [5]

And which I suggest might form the starting point for conceptualising both the nature of music as a subject of the school curriculum and the character of that curriculum.

And so two further questions:

To what extent should the purposes of music education address the nature of music as a human practice historically and contemporaneously manifest in the world? (Ontology)

What kind of knowledge and ways of knowing should a music education be most concerned with? (Epistemology)

Perhaps the point to make is that rarely are such questions aired let alone discussed. And in the words of John Paynter:

‘Understandably, the tendency has always been for us to skip the philosophy and go straight to the ‘’meat’’: the ‘’things to do’’. [6]

The BJME paper ‘Can the adoption of informal approaches in school music lessons promote progression?’ is to be welcomed. And it must be acknowledged that the issue under consideration was ‘progression’. But the research does provide a vivid case of a current curriculum conundrum and so offers a source for ongoing debate about purpose and the nature of curriculum.

But is such a debate welcome? Will we continue to start, as John Paynter put it, in another place?

A look at popular conference programmes (e.g. Music Expo, Music Mark) would suggest that we will.

The existential struggle for recognition, the competition for scarce resources, the gadarene scramble for declaring what works, the uncritical adoption of promotional slogans and the exigencies of liquid modernity together easily crowd out and silence possible debate or much hope of taking time out to address purpose.

Such is the way of the world and of music education.

Ah! But we do have the British Journal of Music Education.

Notes:

[1] Hallam, S., Creech, A. and McQueen, H. (2017) Can the adoption of informal approaches to learning in school music lessons promote musical progression? British Journal of Music Education, 34:2, 127-151.

[2] ibid, p. 127

[3] The development of musical skills is the way many music teachers express their core endeavours.

[4] ‘Fulfilling potential’, a term much cited by politicians as a short cut for all manner of things. I don’t know about you but I hope my potential is never fulfilled.

[5] I am labouring the point that discussing the purpose of music education in general is distinct from discussing its purpose for all children and young people up to the age 16 as part of a general education.

[6] Paynter, J. (1982) Music in the Secondary School Curriculum. CUP: Cambridge. p. 14.