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]


[1] See  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;;






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