What is knowledge rich? Part 9: and the weight of musical scholarship

I find myself returning to the question: what is music? What kind of thing is it? What conception of music do we hold?

One answer might be that music is whatever we want it to be.

But this radical subjectivism is unlikely to help in finding a basis for a music education sponsored by the state. (Or would it? What do you think?)

Another response might be that music exists as a physical object in the form of sound.

This second answer has great provenance within the academic study of music and in conceptions of music that have underpinned beliefs about music education. With this answer comes the proposal that listening is the privileged mode of musical engagement. [1]

Ian Cross suggests that this was the case in 19th and 20th century musicological literature as he makes a case for the re-orientation of the cognitive science of music towards thinking of music as human behaviour. And here then is a third answer.

In this way ‘… music is more than complex patterns of sound that are beautiful, expressive, and listened to because they move us … ‘ [2]

‘… the overwhelming weight of evidence from ethnomusicology suggests that we should conceptualise music as a medium for human interaction that is embedded in, and is efficacious in respect of, social processes.’ [3]

The way we conceptualise music has implications for what might be deemed to be a ‘knowledge rich’ music education. And if a key arbitrator in this is to be the authority of scholarship in music then privileging what Gary Spruce refers to as aesthetic listening to the art work as an autonomous object is no longer justified.


[1] See Cross, I. (2012) Cognitive Science and the Cultural Nature of Music. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01216.x

[2] Ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] 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.




What is knowledge rich? Part 8: beware this cognitive science

In the current discourse surrounding bringing back knowledge and the drive towards knowledge-led and knowledge-rich curriculum the authority of cognitive science is frequently brought forward as a key witness. Learning comes to be positioned around a cluster of fundamentals arrived at through research deploying scientific method. In particular learning becomes circumscribed by a focus on memory and the effective processing of information and the retention of knowledge.

This gives rise to the belief that there can be a best way, based on robust scientific evidence, to teach children if they are to learn in an efficient and effective manner.

However, music as a subject of the curriculum is distinguished by being informed by a longstanding psychology of music all of its own. Is music as a school subject unique in this respect?

Today there is a burgeoning cognitive science of music, but there is also an emerging field – the psychology of musical development.

The scope of Hargreaves and Lamont’s ‘The Psychology of Musical Development’ [1] goes way beyond the narrow focus on memory and knowledge retention and offers a rich source of insights into musical development and human flourishing, for example.

It is interesting to note that those linking knowledge richness and the bringing back of knowledge to the wisdom of cognitive science pay scant attention to developmental psychology. In fact the term ‘developmentalism’ is sometimes used to denote some kind of rejection of knowledge.

Music teachers beware cognitive science without recourse to the wisdom of the cognitive psychology of music, the developmental psychology of music and the cognitive science of music.


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