What is knowledge rich?

The years 1965 to the coming of the National Curriculum in 1992 were a time of energetic debate on the nature of knowledge and the curriculum. The debate yielded a rich body of literature now little known and no part of today’s stuttering and starting conversation around the subject where the race to knowledge organisers, curriculum templates and the reprofessionalising of teachers as the new curriculum-knowledge bearers gathers pace.

‘… we must shift from seeing education as primarily concerned with knowledge to seeing it as primarily concerned with social practices’. 

(Hirst, 1993)

In earlier blogs, and responding to Hirst’s injunction, I worked with the example of bell ringing and mentioned the longevity of the varieties of Indonesian Gamelan playing; and pointed out that particular musical practices will have particular ways of being and thinking; they will have primers and principles, ways of knowing and becoming knowledgeable. But the proposal is not that all musical practices have equal value. There is the challenge of selecting from culture. Writing of musical practices Wayne Bowman notes: 

‘They are good only to the extent they contribute to human, or, in music education’s case, educational ends. No value (no, not even musical value) is ultimate, unconditional, good without regard for situational particulars or ends served. If and when music is good, that goodness is always a function of its contribution to ends beyond itself. The same is true of music education.’ [1]

The value of musical knowledge, in its many shapes and forms, is contingent. Martin Robinson recently blogged drawing attention to knowledge as being of an ‘uncertain kind’ and different to scientific knowledge. And drawing from Mary Midgley comes the idea that there might be ‘knowledge as knowing what to think, what to do, even not knowing what to think and do. This knowledge organised by values.’ [2] 

Yes, values, so distinctly absent from much of the current discourse about knowledge and the curriculum.

As Martin goes on to argue, much of the current discourse around knowledge speaks of a paucity of attention to the ‘value for what’ question.

Martin concludes that:

‘A knowledge-rich curriculum is values driven – and not just one set of values determined as right or wrong – but the difficult search through competing values that help us determine how we might live …’ [3]

I would like to think that there is some synergy here with Bowman’s 

‘ … we acknowledge and embrace musical experience and study as fundamentally ethical resources – as practices in and through which people wrestle with and seek to answer the vitally important educational question, What kind of person is it good to be?’ [4]

But let the arbitrator be an example that might deemed to be, in some sense, knowledge rich.

The account was written in November 2017:

As last Sunday approached I turned my thoughts to what music I should play before and after the morning service in the village church where I was to play. It was Armistice Sunday and there would be times of thoughtful remembrance in the service.

I felt sure that before the service I should play something solemn and fixed on Handel’s Largo as it used to be known. [5] However, I remained far from certain about what music I should play at the end of the service. Should it be bold, loud, triumphant, glorious? I wasn’t sure. By Sunday morning I still had no clear idea about what would be right. I did have the book in which Handel’s Largo featured amongst ‘100 of the world’s favourite pieces’ and my thoughts rested on several possibilities.

In the event, and as the service proceeded, I began to sense what would be right. There were the silences and I thought of my own forebearers killed in both world wars. There were poignant words read by a frail age-ed man and the final hymn was to be ‘I vow to thee, my country’.

I now became clearer about what would be right. I would play ‘I vow to thee, my country’. The congregation would make good sense of this repetition I thought.

As the time approached to play my final part in the service I again felt the mood of the place as I imagined the people’s feelings and sensibilities. And now with a sense of what was right here and now I drew the Lieblich Gedact stop [6] and played the first line of ‘I vow to thee, my country’ slowly and as a single line melody, the second line harmonised and so on with some variation and ending with a lone voice in the lowest of registers.

Later I reflected on what kind of knowledge I had been engaged in.

It wasn’t a matter of knowing that this is the case, these are the facts, here is theoretical knowledge [7] to be applied, but a practical form of knowing bound to particular circumstances drawing upon feeling and intuition to discern what was right. Thought was bound to feeling. It was knowledge that was experienced, felt, saturated with value and independent of concepts and categories and not translatable to any other kind of knowledge.

All this has great relevance for the music classroom and just what it is that is being valued (assessed) and for the ways of knowing that are being prized, for the ways pupils are making sense of their experience.

In response to the demand for a knowledge curriculum, for facts to lead the way, for knowledge to be reduced to statements of truth, for 100 pieces of classical music to be recognised and named, it is helpful to be reminded of a practical form of knowledge that I have tried to communicate above. This will be about learning and living out dispositions towards making music well, finding out what feels right so that all other manifestations of musical knowledge can be imbued with meaning, significance and placed with care in the order of things.


[1] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/scholarly-paper-the-ethical-significance-of-music-making-by-wayne-bowman/

[2] See https://martinrobborobinson.wordpress.com

[3] Ibid

[4] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/scholarly-paper-the-ethical-significance-of-music-making-by-wayne-bowman/

[5] ‘Ombra mai fu’ from the opera Serse.

[6] See http://www.organstops.org/l/lieblichgedeckt.html

[7] Just to note that Michael Young’s Powerful Knowledge is theoretical knowledge.

Knowledge and creativity in conversation

For Michael Oakshott education is a transaction between the teacher and pupil. The teacher’s task is to engage the pupil in a conversation that brings inherited ways of understanding the world, made up as they are of distinctive human practices, into a conversation with the present. Conversation here is thought of both metaphorically and literally. Oakshott, a political conservative, is the voice of a dynamic form of traditionalism.

Many of the new traditionalists in our own time are exercised by the notion of creativity. Their claim is that if creativity is to be recognised at all then it is the reward for the acquisition of vast amounts of knowledge. And here knowledge is conceived of in a unitary form – propositional knowledge approximating to fact.

The real enemy lurking here, and why creativity is viewed as a suspect concept, is what is loosely labelled as discovery learning. Thus a dichotomy is set up in an uncompromising manner and crudely presented as a traditional-progressive divide. Knowledge good, creativity bad.

In this blog I will consider the complex matter of knowledge and creativity. It will obviously be very limited in its scope. Nevertheless it may at least help me to think more clearly and hopefully others too.

Knowing from the start

The first point to make is that humans from before birth have perceptual capacities that have knowing qualities. There isn’t a blank slate. We are never without knowledge. From infancy mental schemas are formed, a schema being a way of organising experience into a framework of knowing. The child comes to know how to manipulate objects, how to open a door by turning the door handle to the right and so on. For the infant, at least, these are action schemas and in the case of music manifest chiefly in vocalisations. There is a musical mind developing in response to and with the support of the environment. The musical gestures that are the babbling child can be thought of as a nascent form of creativity, as symbolic vocal gestures seeking to make sense and find meaning. The child’s babbling is a way of knowing, a form of knowledge. Thus the child has knowledge to draw upon.

The child comes to school with songs and rhythms in mind and body. There is always material on which to work. The question now arises, and it is at the heart of the dispute – to what extent is this knowledge and the capacity to remake it (creativity) to be recognised in educating the musical mind?

The new traditionalists insist on the sustained transmission of codified knowledge, carefully organised into a logical sequence through direct instruction. Only then can the possibility of creativity be considered. Creativity, as mentioned earlier, is conditional upon the accumulation of a particular form of knowledge sometimes strangely referred to as the theory of music.

The case of exploring melody

Let me take the case of Project 18 in Paynter and Aston’s Sound and Silence titled ‘Exploring melody (1) Runes and incantations.’ [2] The new traditionalists are likely to immediately raise objections. Projects are hostile to ordered learning and why explore melody when it can be directly taught?

However, the Paynter and Aston project begins by making connections with music in culture and society. There is an anthropological basis for the exploration. It is rooted in human practice.

‘The project will explore melodies that arise naturally from words of runes and incantations’. [3]

The first assignment is for a group of about four people – ‘chant this rhyme together’ is the instruction.

The expectation is that with repetition this will become half-speech, half-song. Nascent creativity is drawn upon.

The teacher encourages this tendency to ‘sing-song’ but instructs that the pitch be kept low in view of the mystery of the words. And now the instruction is to work on it to make it into a dirge-chant perhaps accompanied by solemn drum beats.

The project continues and always rooted in musical social practices.


So here is an example of creativity nurtured by context and constraints that allow for imagination to work. What I refer to as nascent creativity is recognised and celebrated. There is space for the child to feel a sense of agency and to find meaning. And if you are looking for knowledge there it is in abundance, not a list of key words or abstractions but knowledge of different kinds, knowledge about music in society, about pitch, about melody, vocal cadence and phrase and the creation of musical character and meaning, as well as knowledge of culturally rich material. There is knowledge as experience, knowledge embodied, practical knowledge and most significantly, knowledge made through imagination and creativity as part of the transaction between teacher and child. Yes, a conversation.

The new traditionalists promoting knowledge-based curricula are likely to have only a faint understanding of the kind of relationship between knowledge and creativity as set out above.

To summarise. Let it be recognised that:

  • music is a human practice rather than a body of knowledge
  • musical practices exist to be conversed with, critical examined and refreshed
  • there exists an easy relationship between creativity and knowledge
  • there needs to be a space made if the child is to use imagination and find meaning
  • it is creativity that allows for knowledge to be made

Why explore melody when it can be directly taught?


[1] Oakshott, M. (2001) Education: The Engagement and its Frustrations, in T. Fuller (ed.) The Voice of Liberal Learning. Indianapolis, IN, Liberty Fund.

For a thorough philosophical engagement with Oakshott’s paper and a healing of the traditional-progressive dichotomy see Sheppard, S. L. (2011) School Engagement: A ‘Danse Macabre’? Journal of Philosophy of Education, 45, (1)

[2] Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence. Cambridge University Press. Page 142.

Musical autonomy revisited

I have been interested to see which of my blogs have been most read over time. There are two that stand out and still draw in readers daily. The one ‘representing musical experience’ written in honour of Jerome Bruner and providing deep insights into the bridges between musical experience and the ways in which we represent it through enactive, iconic and symbolic means. If you want to discuss musical notation acquisition then this is one place to start.

The other, ‘what is musical autonomy’? gets the most read prize.

There are three points that should be added in republishing this blog.

  1. It is not about ‘musical autonomy’ understood as the contentious aesthetic concept that raises music above its social-cultural existence. That is quite a different thing to
  2. The idea that we can become musically autonomous beings with the agency to act independently musically. Much lazy talk within music education latches on to this and that was my motivation for the blog. Perhaps the title was disingenuous.
  3. The blog deals with the educational aim of achieving rational autonomy. One obvious critique of this position is its rejection of human interdependence.

What is musical autonomy?

If a goal of education is to develop self-governing critically engaged citizens, and if this is considered fundamental to making a democracy, then there needs to be a carefully considered balance between autonomy and heteronomy. These are big ideas. First autonomy.

The idea of ‘autonomy’ emerged from the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, that time when we came to understand ourselves a bit better and imagined that with the aid of rational thought we could make progress and achieve a more perfect state of humanity. Most haven’t given up on this despite disappointments. [1] 

The idea of being an autonomous human being is very attractive. We take this to mean that we exercise the capacity for self-government. Our actions are truly our own. We have agency and we can act authentically. [2] Music teachers like the idea of pupils having autonomy over their music-making. Autonomy is thought to be a good thing and a worthy goal. 

But autonomy has an antonym, heteronomy, meaning ‘under the will of others’. This is interesting because until recently it was under the will of others that autonomy was thought to be achieved – the will of the school, the teacher, peers, examination boards, for example. 

Education’s big idea, the achievement of what has been called ‘rational autonomy’, expected a submission of the will to the authority of the past, its store of knowledge, know how and the formalities of the school.

This noble educational goal was to bring students to a point of rational autonomy through taking them beyond what they already knew or felt at home with. Education released the student from being bound to their immediate context and limited experience. Their thinking would become ‘context independent’. It was the school and the teacher who were vested with the authority to mastermind this process. 

Despite a common conviction that the music teacher can take their students from what they know (i.e. their music) to what they don’t know, this process of musical enlightenment has not proved successful for the majority. 

Now it is argued that heteronomy must give way to autonomy in order to make space for musical critical thinking and reflection to be achieved, and that this requires space in which students are able to express their opinions and to participate in the making of their musical cultural environments. [3]

While there is currently much energetic and enthusiastic rebalancing of the autonomy-heteronomy scales, little attention has been paid to defining the curriculum in these terms. The focus has been on pedagogy. [4] 

In Ronald Meighan’s view the place to start is to be clear about how the curriculum is defined. A conception of curriculum precedes pedagogy. [5] Three possibilities are offered.

Consultative Curriculum
Imposed programme; student given regular opportunities to input thoughts and feelings. Feedback can be reflected upon by the teacher and modifications made.

Negotiated Curriculum
Power sharing between teacher and student is increased, and where a common understanding is developed between both about the course of study that is to be undertaken

Democratic Curriculum
The learners create, deliver and review their own curriculum.

In the book ‘Masterclass in Music Education’ secondary school music teacher Eleanor Vessey analyzes the move from a consultative to a negotiated curriculum. [6] A remarkable degree of trust was built up between teacher and pupils opening up the possibility of an ongoing mature dialogue about how the curriculum might unfold. The teacher’s authority was enhanced. The pupils became self-governing and critically engaged and on the road to achieving musical autonomy. The Democratic curriculum beckons. 

Meighan’s model may be more useful than the ‘Informal, Non-formal; Formal’ one.


[1] The Enlightenment project, as it is called, has come under severe criticism expressed in the move from modernity to post-modernity. Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘The Dialectic of the Enlightenment’ argues that the dominance of scientific rational thinking has served to dehumanize and instrumentalize society. Christopher Small’s seminal work ‘Music, Society, Education’ critiques the tradition of Western European music as being hidebound by scientific rationality.
[2] The idea that we are free to act authentically is of course challenged.
[3] See ‘Music Cultural Pedagogy in the ‘’Network Society’’’, Winfried Sakai at http://jets.redframe.com
[4] One example of the emphasis on pedagogy is Lucy Green’s influential ‘Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy’.
[5] See Meighan, R. (1988) Flexi-Schooling. Education for Tomorrow, Starting Yesterday. Ticknall, Education Now Publishing Cooperative.
[6] See ‘Masterclass in Music Education’, (Eds) Finney, J. and Laurence, F. 2013, Bloomsbury.Advertisements

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The struggle for the music curriculum

If music is to be a part of general education then any consideration of music education’s purposes needs to engage with wider educational debate.  And this will involve considering what conceptions of education we hold alongside our conceptions of music education.

Of course, conceptions of education and music education have never been fixed or agreed upon, rather continually contested. There have always been, as we might say, ‘interested parties’, groups promoting this or that as the desired purposes.

Raymond Williams proposed that the 19thcentury debate about the purpose of education could be best understood in relation to three such groups:

  1. The public educators (who saw education as a natural right).
  2. The industrial trainers (who saw education as a means of economic efficiency).
  3. The old humanists (who saw education as a liberal or humane way but not as vocational training).

Williams maintained that the school curriculum which emerged was a compromise between all three with the industrial trainers holding the upper hand. [1]

Gordon Cox, in his distinguished account of music education in England 1924 -1999, suggests that ‘the struggles between groups representing different conceptions of what musical experiences should be embodied in the curriculum, and to what ends the curriculum in music might be directed’ [2] can be understood with reference to analysis by Kliebard. [3]

In characterizing the groups who have competed in promoting what conception of education should prevail Kliebard proposes that there are:

1. The humanists, the keepers of tradition, tied to the finest developments of the Western canon, and committed to the traditional skills that were associated with it.

We might note the current interest in establishing a knowledge-based/knowledge-rich curriculum.

2. The developmentalists, committed to a curriculum in harmony with children’s real interests.

We might note the ongoing advocacy for a learner-centred curriculum.

3. The social meliorists, who maintain that schools act as major forces for social change and social justice.

We might note claims made by both 1 and 2 above in the cause of social justice.

1. Being the birthright of all and providing all with a particular form of high cultural capital derived from 1 above where social change would take a cultural restorative form, and

2. In liberating children and young people from the structures that prevent equity and the hegemonic power of 1 above.

4. The advocates of social efficiency, who believe that social utility was the supreme criterion against which the value of school subjects was measured.

We might note the 21stcentury skills movement and the linking of music education with the creative industries.

Of course, such typologies are not intended to be exclusive and I have barely used them to analyse the case of music education. Therein lies a task for the reader that I hope will  cause reflection on the purposes we each promote and the kind of curriculum we each desire.

Gordon Cox points out that while all this changes to some extent over time, it is the humanist tradition, (1) above, that has always been pre-eminent. Its relationship to academic status works powerfully in its favour in the case of music. (The new model music curriculum will demonstrate this presumably.)

One response to all this contestation is to seek out the dissolving of the types into one unified conception.

Alas, music education, like education itself remains, and is likely to remain a contested concept.

There are struggles to pursue and compromises to be made across what are for the most part irreducible tensions. [4]


[1] Raymond Williams (1961) The Long Revolution. Penguin Books.

[2] Gordon Cox (2002) Living Music in Schools 1923-1999: Studies in the History of Music Education in England. Ash gate. Page 129.

[3] Kliebard, H. M. (1995) The Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893-1958. Second Edition. Routledge.

[4] The process of reforming the GCSE (2013-14) examination makes for an exemplary case of such struggle.Advertisements

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Appreciating Music

‘The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that 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.’(1)

In response to this the first of the curriculum’s two aims, the new National Curriculum for Music proposes that ‘As pupils progress, they should develop critical engagement with music, allowing them to compose, and to listen with discrimination to the best in the musical canon.’(2) Elsewhere there is reference to ‘great composers’ and ‘the history of music’, reinforcing a commitment to a curriculum that conserves and honours the past – the best that has been thought and musically created – as a birthright of the educated citizen. 

The new curriculum is striking in its deployment of the retro language of ‘the canon’, ‘the history of music’, ‘appreciation’ and other prompts recalling the period following the Second World War when such language was common currency in our schools and when ‘music appreciation’ was a distinctive entity within the music curriculum. 

Classroom ‘music appreciation’ lessons involved listening to recorded music supported by a teacher underlining points of significance through talk and piano demonstration. It was a practice inherited from the pioneers of the music appreciation movement responding to the invention of the gramophone and the wireless at the beginning of the century. The intention had been to cultivate musical taste through the introduction of music from the classical repertoire not easily accessible to the average child. 

However, its introduction was not without some concerns, as seen in the Board of Education pamphlet of 1933, which noted:

‘…that singing of songs may be elbowed out of the syllabus by over-indulgence in Eurhymics; that listening to a wireless lesson leaves little time for the less colourful but very necessary practice of sight singing; that our children enjoy more and more culture and perform less and less music.’ (3) 

The rigour experienced through singing, sight singing and music reading was threatened by a time consuming and overindulgent music appreciation lesson as well as other novelties of the time. 

By the post second world war period the problem posed by ‘music appreciation’ was one of a narrowly conceived repertoire coupled with ways of teaching that were increasingly linked with pupil passivity and disaffection. One influential response came from the publication ‘Sound and Silence’ in 1970. John Paynter and Peter Aston’s 36 projects inviting creative experiment were interpenetrated by some 350 musical works. A fresh relationship was being struck with the past and its authority. The school music canon had become differentiated if not dissolved.

There now came the possibility of music being known and appreciated in the context of pupils’ own creative work. Disparate components of the curriculum could be seen in a more integrated light where the acquisition of skill, including the skill of discrimination and judgement, went in tandem with the development of pupils’ creativity. A die had been cast that opened up imaginative approaches to bringing an eclectic range of musical practices into close proximity to pupils’ own making and thinking and thereby furthering their appreciation of music.

Whether through approaches developed by educational outreach such as the LSO Discovery programme, where music from the orchestral repertoire came to be known and appreciated through compositional workshop-ing, or through newer forms of integrated practice derived from the informal learning practices of popular musicians, pathways to fuller appreciation of music have become many and diverse. 

Taking appreciation to imply learning to value, respect, understand, give due regard to music’s provenance and to do so with a sense of pleasure and even gratitude, we have a counterweight to ‘I know what I like’ and the contemporary search for personal authenticity. 

However, the proposal that an undifferentiated musical canon exists to be deferred to and appreciated, where there is a ‘one best’, is at odds with much that is vibrant about contemporary music education as it finds a synergy with the energy and fluidity of lived culture at the current time. It is to be hoped that the tensions created will be productive.


(1) National Curriculum Framework. DfE, October 2013.

(2) Music Programme of Study for Key Stage 1-3. Department for Education, October 2013.

(3) Cited in ‘Music in Education in Thought in Practice,’ p. 282. Bernarr Rainbow with Gordon Cox, 2006, The Boydal Press.Advertisements

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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOdMBDOj4ec

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

[3] See http://www.mantleoftheexpert.com/studying/articles/KE%20-%20Cognitive%20Tools%20of%20Children%27s%20Education.pdf

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 www.qca.org.uk/curriculum

[5] See 3.1 in https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-framework-for-key-stages-1-to-4/the-national-curriculum-in-england-framework-for-key-stages-1-to-4

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

[7] See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-music-programmes-of-study

[8] See, for example https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-20041597

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

[10] See for example http://infed.org/mobi/aristotle-on-knowledge/

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