The musical imagination

Friday last I attended the away day of Listen, Imagine, Compose  (LIC) to learn more about their work in supporting teachers in developing their skills and confidence in teaching composing.

The big question was ‘What does progress look like in composing?’

It proved to be a highly stimulating day and I felt envigorated as I walked towards New Street Station for my cross country journey home. But as the station came into view I was awe-struck [1] by the foil cladding on the station’s exterior. The station’s façade in joyful communion with the brilliant sun was in its fullest glory.  New Street Station was ablaze with myriad reflections, playfully defying easy comprehension. I wondered how this had been imagined and as I myself continued to imagine a line a Gerald Manely Hopkin’s poem came to mind:

‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil’ [2]

But what about musical imagination; for that idea had been right inside our Listen, Imagine, Compose day.

David Hagreaves and Alexandra Lamont tell of a potentially important theoretical advance supported by the growth of neurological evidence. Imagination can be thought of as the cognitive basis of all musical perception and production.

‘Imagination is the essence of the creative perception of music …’ [3]

Imagination is at work in the activities of composing/improvising, performing and listening and bringing a psychological perspective to the thinking of John Paynter as set out in Music in the Secondary School Curriculum in 1982. For Paynter neuro-psychology was largely unimaginable. Instead the mind of the artist-composer was obviously one that imagined and as being central to inventive musical activity and this included performing and listening. [4]

Musical imagination is about musical processing.

During the LIC day we had worked in groups thinking together about the problems associated with the question of progress in composing.

At one point I made a couple of practical suggestions that may help in some way to awaken in children the idea of the musical imagination. I have developed these here.

Tell me about your musical imagination.

Did you know that you can imagine music?

Did you know that in playing a musical instrument and singing you are using imagination?

Next week come to your music lesson imagining music.

In our music lesson we will be doing a lot of musical imagining.

Next time you have an earworm see if you can catch it. Before it wriggles away freeze it if you can. Play with it. It could be the start of something. Don’t throw it away. How will you preserve it, make use of it?

Do you know that you have a musical mind and that you can grow it?

What was clear from listening to the composers on our away day was that they had come to know their ways of working. Teaching children to know ever more about their process of composing (meta-cognition) would seem to be one way of ensuring progress in composing. [5]


[1] Is it possible to be awe-struck any more? I hear a lot of ‘that’s amazing’. Max Weber tells us that the world is no longer enchanted.

[2] From the poem God’s Grandeur.

[3] Hargreaves, D. J. and Lamont, A. (2017) The Psychology of Musical Development. Cambridge University Press. Page 49.

See Hargreaves, D. J. (2012) Musical Imagination: Perception and production, beauty and creativity. Psychology of Music, 40 (5), 539-57.

[4] Paynter, J. (1982) Music in the Secondary School Curriculum. Cambridge University Press.

[5] For insight into the development of a school-aged composer see Scott, L. (2013) Tom Becoming a Composer: A narrative account of one pupil’s creative journey. In (eds) Finney, J. and Laurence, F., MasterClass in Music Education. Bloomsbury. Pages 159-172.