Music education and relevance to the interests of the kids

‘’It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it. What we teach in school, what subjects we encourage in universities, and the methods of instruction, are all subject to one overarching test: what do the kids get out of it? And this test soon gives way to another, yet more pernicious in its effect, but no less persuasive in the thinking of educationalists: is it relevant? And by relevant is invariably meant ‘relevant to the interests of the kids themselves’.’’ [1]

Thus writes Roger Scruton, philosopher of both conservation and political conservatism. He has written on the aesthetics of music, on beauty, sexual desire, environmentalism and much more. His thought has surely been influential in the making of recent educational policy.

For Scruton culture is the ‘best that has been thought and written’. Culture is a form of knowledge. Culture is civilising. Learning to appreciate the best involves learning the right feeling. [2]

We need not subscribe to Scruton’s clearly argued position on culture, aesthetic value, the significance of the canon etc. to raise questions about the current enthusiasm for music education to be ‘relevant’ to the interests of the kids themselves’.

It seems that what is meant by relevant to the interests of the child in the case of music is relating to the music that chimes with the child, the music that they easily identify with, see themselves in. The music that readily confirms who they are, the group to which they feel they belong, the music they come to school with in their heads, their lived experience

Another perspective on what interests a child is given by Kieran Egan who shows how children’s interests are centred differently at different stages of development. [3]

First comes the mythic stage when children respond best to stories. Then the romantic stage when children are keen to gather facts about distant matters yet which relate to matters close to home. Next the philosophic stage, a time for developing generalisations and principles and finally the ironic stage, a sign of the mature mind, where focus shifts to the exploration of those instances which do not obey the rules.

In this view a child’s musical interests live alongside other interests and ways of understanding. Young children enchanted by music telling the story of the Pied Piper and year 9 drumming, dancing and singing an apartheid song are examples.

For Egan, it is the development of human interest that is important where ‘relevance’ is a matter of connections made and this can be with what is strange, alien, unfamiliar as well as familiar.

Scruton maintains that education is for affirming, sustaining and growing a particular set of cultural values. It is duty bound to maintain a conversation between the past and present and that while teachers love their pupils, they love knowledge more. Education is subject centred not child centred. The example of engaging with what is of human interest above is unlikely to persuade.

However, while we may not agree with Roger Scruton, we ought to be able to articulate something more than ‘it’s for the kids’.

After all music education is hardly ennobled if we think it is only for the benefit of those who receive it.


[1] Scruton, R. (2007) Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Encounter Books: New York. p.28.

[2] Chapter 3 of Culture Counts is titled ‘Knowledge and Feeling’ and deals with the goals of knowledge, types of knowledge, ends and means, knowing what to feel, teaching virtue, conserving practical knowledge and answering the critic.

For a fascinating debate on ‘culture’ see

Scruton’s concept of culture is distinctly at odds with the anthropological concept of culture.

[3] See

The role of Musical Imagination in the Knowledge-based Curriculum

Keynote given to the Listen, imagine, Compose gathering in the CBSO Centre Birmingham on Tuesday, June 25th.

Were you here at last year’s Away Day? I found it thought provoking and I certainly felt envigerated as I walked towards New Street Station for my cross-country journey home. But as the station came into view I was struck by the foil cladding on the station’s exterior. There was brilliant sun that day and New Street Station was ablaze with mulitiple reflections playfully defying easy comprehension. My imagination was in play and I wondered how that had come about. But that is past and here I must address the idea of the musical imagination, an idea central to the Listen, Imagine, Compose imagination? Are there helpful ways of thinking about this?

David Hargreaves and Alexandra Lamont report a potentially important theoretical advance in this respect, and one supported by the growth of neurological evidence. Imagination can be thought of as the basis for all musical perception and production …musical imagination, [which] consisting of internal cognitive representations, is at the core of both musical perception and musical production …’ [1]

Imagination is the essence of the creative perception of music. Imagination is at work in the activities of composing/improvising, performing and listening. Are we surprised by this? Probably not. Musical imagination is at the heart of our musical life. So, I started thinking, with the support of my imagination, about how we might encourage the musical imagination of our students. My starting point came from something I observed on last year’s day here. 

We had heard from composers that they had come to know ever more about their ways of working. Awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes we call meta-cognition and this we think our students should acquire. Without this they may well be doomed to eternal stagnation in developing and progressing as composers. That is, without knowing about their emerging and developing processes of making music, those that are productive and those that aren’t, little will be developed. So, some questions that might start the meta- cognitive process with our students.

Did you know you can imagine music?

Can you tell me about your musical imagination?

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

Next time you have an ear-worm, 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?

Next week come to your music lesson imagining some music. What if we put all the music that is being imagined into our musical pot?

In our music lesson next week we will do a lot of musical imagining.

A hundred years ago

In 1922 psychologist Marie Agnew carried out a novel experiment – ‘A comparison between the auditory images of musicians, psychologists and children.’ Marie writes:

‘By auditory imagery (usually called mental hearing) we mean the ability to hear sounds in imagination and memory to some extent as if they were physically present to the ear.’

Marie’s chief interest was in the strength of the musical image. In her tests subjects were asked to recall the final notes of the American National Anthem in imagination. One interesting finding was that unlike the musicians, the psychologists resorted to a range of movement strategies (finger pointing, arm waving) in order to recall the music).

So let’s all imagine the last five notes of our national anthem. Now play with those five notes. Play them slowly on a muted trumpet in the style of Miles Davies.

But as Hargreaves and Lamont show it would be mistaken to restrict musical imagination to only sound that not physically present.

Interestingly, only a handful of philosophers have attempted to grapple with the concept of the human imagination. In his review of what philosophers have arrived at Kieran Egan suggests that ‘Imagination is the capacity to think of things as possibly so; it is an intentional act of mind; a source of invention, novelty.’ [3]

Egan goes on to propose that ‘an imaginative person is one with the ability to think of lots of possibilities, usually with a richness of detail.’ But wait a minute, there is an important priviso. 

There can be no imagination without knowing something, without knowledge. We couldn’t have imagined the last five notes of the national anthem played by a muted trumpet in the style of Miles Davies without knowledge. Are we ever without knowledge? My three month-old grand daughter Mabel seems to me to be making and drawing upon knowledge of a kind. Mabel is not without her sucking and grasping schemas.

So what about this knowledge-based curriculum?

I think it helpful to know where it comes from? Wasn’t the curriculum always concerned with knowledge?

In 2014 there was a shift in official policy with the stating of a freshly conceived aim for the curriculum. It is interesting to compare it with the previous curriculum. 

The curriculum of 2008 should enable all young people to become:

• successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve

• confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives

• responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society. [4]

And now:

‘The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’ [5 (my italics)]

It is only now, six years later that the full significance of this statement is being felt in our schools and increasingly by our music teachers. There is talk of bodies of knowledge, disciplinary knowledge, knowledge domains and knowledge organisers and with Ofsted’s new framework for inspection on the case. What sources might we look to in order to better understand this shift of emphasis? I suggest three.

1.The liberal-humanist tradition (The best that has been thought and said in the world…)

In Matthew Arnold’s essay Culture and Anarchy (6) he proposed that culture be the means ‘of getting to know, on all the matters that most concern us, the best that has been thought and said in the world’. 

Arnold introduces the idea of cultural touchstones, those works, and he was thinking chiefly of literary works, the great works of the literary canon, that were considered essential to securing civilisation. 

In the music national curriculum there is reference to ‘the best of the musical canon’. [7]

2.    Core Knowledge (cultural literacy; cultural capital)

In 2009 working in the Faculty of Education in Cambridge I was invited to be a part of group to meet with the then shadow minister for schools. In his possession was a heavily ear-marked copy of a book by E. D. Hirsch titled Cultural Literacy. We were asked what we thought about knowledge. How would you have answered?

The shadow minister’s thoughts were bound to the writing of E. D. Hirsch who maintained that an educated citizenary would be one that would share in the kind of understanding that would be required to understand the cultural references found in a broad sheet newspaper. For this to be achieved a curriculum would need to be clear about essential items of knowledge that would make the literate citizen. On New Street Station I would be able to sit with strangers and while not discussing Wagner’s Tristan chord  we would know and have experienced say Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Miles Davies’ Kind of Blue, probably not Stormzy. To know the best of the musical canon provides us with cultural capital. [7]

But there is a third source. This comes from the sociologist Michael Young and it connects in various ways with 1 and 2. 

3. Powerful Knowledge

Those who acquire powerful knowledge can see beyond their everyday experience-it is not reliant on context;

It frees us from living in the present; 

This knowledge is acquired in specialist educational institutions, staffed by specialists i.e. schools;

It is organised into domains with boundaries and these domains are associated with specialist communities, music being an example;

There is a strong boundary between out of school knowledge and that acquired within school. [9]

So, all in all we are now living with a freshly created discourse with potent propositions to persuade us of a course to follow. 

Knowledge is power;

Some knowledge is more powerful than others; 

There is deep and there is shallow knowledge;

There is disciplinary knowledge and this can be ordered and sequenced;

It is a knowledge-based curriculum that will provide for cultural capital, social cohesion and social justice.

For this dominant discourse to work there needs to be one way of thinking about knowledge. The knowing of this and the knowing of that. That this is a trumpet, a muted trumpet, for example, is a form of knowledge easily set down as an outcome of learning and a contender for the knowing of essential facts. In the case of music the tendency, let me emphasise tendency, is to make a list, a mono-cultural list of listening and performance repertoire that can be placed into a logical sequence. This is to the exclusion of what is contemporary, diverse and unsanctified by the dominant tradition. Creativity is viewed as an aspiration and deferential to the best that has been thought and said rather than being of the essence, a life force drawing us to music and driving it along. In the dominant scheme composing music is contingent upon knowing a lot of particular things. 

Are there other ways of thinking about knowledge, about what it is to know music?

Yes, there are many. My choice today is to invite Aristotle to give a lead through his three-part model.

1. Episteme

This is theoretical knowledge, a pure form of knowledge detached from practice (contemplation about  theories of music, for example). 

2. Techne – a form of craft knowledge-knowing how to make things – a reasoned productive state of mind (musical skill and knowledge are a unity).

3. Phronesis, leading to breakthrough thinking and creativity and enabling the individual to discern and make good judgements about what is the right thing to do in a situation. Practical wisdom. (Knowing how to make and do music well here and now.)

There is no hierarchy here. Theoretical knowledge is not at the top of the mountain. Each form is distinctive and has an integrity of its own. Neither techne nor phronesis are reducible to the theoretical.

And of course it is though composing music that we can come to know music in all three ways proposed by Aristotle. And a key part of this will be through the tasks we set bearing in mind that our coming to know will flourish with the musical imagination in play. [10]

Task setting and releasing the imagination

Project 12 of Paynter and Aston’s Sound and Silenceis titled ‘Short Sounds and Long Sounds’ is an exploration of the ways in which instruments have limitations as well as versatility in respect to duration.

Using instruments (but not voices), explore the production of long and short sounds. Which instrument is able to produce the longest sound? 

Shall we imagine a very long sound, a very short sound? 

What technique will give you the shortest sound? 

What possible techniques can we imagine?

Concentrate on the relationships between sounds of different length and silences of different length. 

Notes of any pitch may be used: it is the ‘shortness’ or ‘longness’ of the sounds which matters. Create a piece of music out of these sounds and silences.’ [11]

In accepting this exemplar the teacher of composition is given great responsibility and required to exercise a considerable amount of judgment. There is no script to follow. Just how much support will be needed? What will the teacher offer themselves by way of a model? How much information (know how) will be shared to enable work to commence, to spark imagination, to arouse curiosity? What kind of classroom climate will need to be engendered for motivation and musical impulse to be stimulated, for experiment and exploration to be embarked upon, for boundaries to be set in a way that both constrain and at the same time release imagination. 

In the example above there is an invitation to explore but there are constraints. 

Thus, in accepting Paynter and Aston’s assignment we have entered the truly secret garden of what is a complex dialogue between teacher and pupil, pupil and their medium, and the creation of musical knowledge.  

What are you now imagining? What is this classroom like? What will the music emerging be like?

‘Imagination is the capacity to think things as possibly so …’

Three Questions

How do you make clear to your students the significance of imagination?

How can task setting with its interplay of freedoms and constraints open up space for imagination?

Can recognizing musical knowledge as existing in a variety of forms be helpful in reconciling a knowledge-based curriculum and imagination? 


[1] Hargreaves and Lamont (2017)  The Psychology of Musical Development. Cambridge University Press. Page 49. 

[2] I regret to write that I have lost touch with this seminal paper. I am sure it is out there somewhere. 

[3] Egan, K. (2001) Imagination in Teaching and Learning. Routledge.

[4] See

[5] See 3.1 in

[6] Arnold. M. (1869) Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Cultural and Social Criticism. John Murray.

[7] See

[8] See, for example

[9] See internet references to Michael Young and Powerful Knowledge.

[10] See for example

[11] Paynter and Aston (1970) Sound and Silence; Projects in classroom music. Cambridge University Press. Page 53.