What is musical understanding? Some musings.

Musical understanding is commonly cited as a justifiable goal of music education.

Roy loved music with a profound understanding, or so it seemed to me. In his recent passing I have lost a dear friend who I admired and learnt much from. I shared a room with Roy at college. There was me a music student flushed with adolescent musical arrogance pinning a picture of Stravinsky to my locker while Roy was telling me about Sarah Vaughan and how his mother had, in his early childhood, sung him to sleep with ‘Little man, you’ve had a busy day’. I became a secondary school music teacher, Roy a secondary school science teacher.

In later years I would occasionally visit Roy and we would spend time listening to music taken from his vast CD collection, sometimes sharing what we both knew well, sometimes Roy introducing me to the music of composers that I had barely heard of and sometimes introducing me to new voices coming onto the Jazz scene.

Roy had been largely self-educated musically – the songs his mother taught him, a vivid memory from school music days, rugby club singing, ventures into composing morality song cycles for his grandchildren using the programme Band in a Box all featured. Spending time with Roy it seemed to me his understanding of music to be profound.

Robert Walker writing in the preface to Harold Fiske’s ‘Understanding Musical Understanding’, proposes that musical understanding is what the human brain is wired to do and the remarkable thing is that it gets on and does it. It is a part of everyday cognitive activity and this makes musical understanding something personal and private, and intensely meaningful and special to each individual. [1]

For John Sloboda musical understanding is a matter of mind endowing ‘musical events, collections of sounds, with significance: they become symbols for something else other than pure sound, something which enables us to laugh or cry, be moved or be indifferent’. [2] Sloboda goes further maintaining that understanding music is a necessary pre-condition to being moved by it in much the same way that we won’t get a joke unless we understand it. We have to be in the know as it were, be familiar with the ‘language’, know the syntax, and in the case of music something possible through exposure and experience. Kemp, however, argues that this doesn’t account for the way people make sense of music, are moved by it and ‘get it’ without levels of cognitive complexity suggested by the analogy of getting a joke. [3]

Let’s call for help from musicologist Hans Heinrich Eggerbrecht. Making clear what is to be understood by understanding is the starting point. Eggerbrecht tells that

‘Understanding is a process by which something that is external to us loses its externality and gains access to our inner self. Object and self, self and object are drawn together and unite through understanding, in degrees of identity which correspond to the degrees of intensity and understanding. Understanding makes the world our own’. [4]

In broad outline Eggerbrecht proposes an evolving process for musical understanding involving a sensing – perceiving – feeling – intuiting – cognizing – conceptualising spectrum of the human mind seeking understanding and making sense.

Musical understanding is a justifiable goal of music education. It seemed to me that Roy was one of the most musically educated people I have known.


[1] Walker, R. (2008) ‘Forward’ in H. Fiske, Understanding Musical Understanding. Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press.

[2] Sloboda, J. (1985) The Musical Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[3] Kemp, A. E. (1996) The Musical Temperament. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Eggerbrecht, H. H. (2010) The nature and limits of musical cognition. Farnham: Ashgate.

Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music: Reimagining the possibilities for classroom music education

Gary Spruce concludes the launch of the book:

Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music has a Janus-like quality.  It both looks back to the work of, particularly, John Paynter, through celebrating and critically reflecting on the paradigm shifting influence of Sound and Silence, whilst at the same time looking forward to consider what these ideas might have to offer contemporary, classroom music education.  Inasmuch as Sound and Silencerepresented the possibility of new ways of working for music teachers in the seventies so the present book considers how a reimagining and reworking of these ideas, fifty years on, might offer new possibilities for music educators both  in and beyond today’s schools.

One way of understanding the book is as a bridge between these two worlds and this is particularly true of John’s chapter on Recontextualising Sound and Silenceand of the Voices section.  In the latter,  those who worked directly with John Paynter – or who came into contact with his ideas as they emerged from, for example, the Schools Council Project-  describe how his personality and the ideas he promoted have had a continuing influence over their professional practice and thinking sometimes for more than half a century.  However, as many also note, the educational world into which Sound and Silence was born is very different from the music education world of today. In the seventies, teachers had much more agency  to experiment and try out different approaches without feeling they were, as Lucy Green writes ‘under surveillance from  the government or inspectorate, or  a head teacher in ways that they were to feel after the introduction of the National Curriculum’.(26)

This sense of surveillance has increased significantly over the last ten years. In  a recent article about the policy and practice of music education in England over the last decade,  Jonathan Savage (2020) writes how music teachers increasingly experience feelings of ‘reluctance compliance’ as they are compelled not only to comply with things they may not believe in but also find themselves conscripted as standard bearers for the ideologies that are imposed upon them, which are often at odds with their lived experiences and beliefs. Such ideologies include those which seek to promote arguably narrow conceptions of for example, musical knowledge and of the nature of childhood and being a child. 

Music education has arguably been complicit in such ideologies through its increasing embroilment in the narratives of advocacy.  These narratives often pay little attention to the purposes of music education, and particularly the purposes of classroom music education. Wayne Bowman notes how advocacy narratives often fail to distinguish between musical engagement and music education and even less between music education and music training; thus, ironically, making it more difficultto argue coherently for the purposes of music education and particularly music education in schools.

What then might our book offer to music education and particularly school music education? Firstly, it seeks to reaffirm, particularly in its projects, the central importance of music making as the primary means through which children and young people develop and demonstrate their developing musical knowledge and understanding. Secondly, it articulates the centrality of the role of the music teacher and of music teacher agency in the unique circumstances and pedagogical relationships of each individual classroom; through what John has referred to as the ‘adventurous conversations between teacher, pupil and what is being learnt’ (47).   As with the projects in Sound and Silencethe projects in this new book do not seek to provide fully worked out lessons which can, in the language of contemporary education, be ‘delivered’,  but rather provide ‘gateways for teachers to devise work appropriate to their own context, and as a means of evolving their own practice in the music classroom’ (7). The agenctic capacities of teachers are foregrounded.

Thirdly, and again with a focus on teacher agency, the book similarly offers gateways into the discourses of music education. Discourses defined here not simply as debates, conversations and discussions – important as these are- but the means by which power and influence are obtained and exercised. Many- if not all- of the chapters seek to make visible and then disrupt and challenge dominant conceptions of pedagogical relationships promoted through official discourses e.g. relating to direct instruction, powerful knowledge, knowledge rich curricular as well as  beliefs about what it is to be a child and childhood itself that underpin such conceptions. As Chris writes in his chapter on musical meaning, the intention is to examine ideologies and identify ‘the potential for the discourse to challenge’ them (134)

Subject to particular scrutiny are the ideologies surrounding the concept of creativity. Almost all chapters seek to deconstruct the term from their particular perspectives with the aim of, as Derrida (in Rehn and De Cock 2009 23) says, spotlighting what dominant narratives seek to consign to the periphery, and which would make the assumed hierarchy fall apart. The chapters trace the historical and ideological development of creativity as a concept, challenging the Romantic notion of creativity as being solely the outcome  the individual creative genius, set apart from society producing great works, demonstrating how both the beliefs and  practices of creativity are socially constructed, pluralistic, participatory and central to music making as a form of praxis.

 Finally, and returning to the issue of the pedagogical relationships of the music classroom, the book seeks to foreground central, ontological questions about children and childhood. In an age where, as Pauline Alderson has noted, traditional discourses often adopt a neophyte view of children- one consequence of which is that creativity is seen as contingent on the acquisition of an often undefined body of knowledge-  the book seeks to adopt a more nuanced understanding of childhood perhaps as a continuing dialectic between what Sue Young in her chapter describes as the ‘balancing act between providing for all children to be musical and become musical’ (105).  

Sue makes a compelling argument for close attention being paid to, particularly, young children’s music making as having value of itself. Such attention she suggests, offers us the opportunity to rethink fundamental assumptions and premises about music and childhood. An outcome of such rethinking maybe, as John suggests,  ‘the child … no longer … constructed as immature, dependent and without agency…[but].. wanting respect and recognition as a potential agent in their own being and becoming and, in conjunction with adults, having a desire for some degree of self-determination’ (45). The projects, in particular, offer sites for the unique working outs of the dialectical relationship not only between being musical and becoming musical but the dialectical relationship between the teacher, the child and what there is to learn. The projects and chapters hopefully offer both innovation and challenge for teacher and pupil as well as causing us to reflect on the nature of music and childhood music making within it. 


Rehn, A. and De Cock, C. (2009) ‘Deconstructing Creativity’ in T. Rickards, M. A. Runico and S. Moger (eds) The Routledge Companion to Creativity. London and New York: Routledge.

Savage, J. (2020), The policy and practice of music education in England, 2010–2020. Br Educ Res J. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3672

The One-Minute Solo

Nicely contrasted to Elizabeth’s project, Tim Palmer introduces us to Project 13. The One-Minute Solo.

Thanks to Chris, Gary and John for this chance to talk about my small contribution to ‘Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music’.  I have written two projects for it, and would like to talk briefly about one of them, titled ‘The One-Minute Solo’. This is a description of a project that I carried out many times whilst teaching on the ‘Musicians in Education’ Secondary PGCE programme that Trinity Laban shared with the University of Greenwich for many years. The project was normally carried out just with trainees on the programme, but on some years we managed to organise a few school children to participate as well in order to help the trainees understand how this type of work could transfer to the classroom. 

I thought of this project after reading again through Sound and Silence in detail. The book seems to me to be in three parts: the first is a dynamic and intuitive exploration of sound from first principles; and the third is a kind of participatory harmonic learner. This is a division – the traditional and the exploratory – in music education that Swanwick wrote about later in 1988[1]. Whilst these were both revolutionary in their way, it was the central section, projects 19-26, that really grabbed my attention. It was here that I found a careful intertwining between the affective and exploratory elements from the start and the introduction of the grammar of music. However, I sensed a frustration in myself that this golden zone for those keen to introduce learners to the entanglement of music’s forms, content and meanings was over too soon, squeezed into just seven projects. I was also disappointed that the two final ‘capstone’ projects seemed to reflect the fragmented nature of the book, and failed to harness the experimental and the grammatical together in a show of unity. 

So, I thought of a project that carefully intertwines both affect and the working out of harmonic entities; the latter in an agentic, playful devising manner, rather than through the adoption of ‘ready-made’ musical frameworks. It is my firm belief that it is through playfully exploring and generating pitch and harmonic structures we learn much more about how they relate to the soundsof music and to our affective intentions for a piece. This is what Peter Wiegold calls a pedagogy of ‘both grammar and imaginative exploration’[2]and is something that is often lacking in composition teaching, with pupils falling on either side of the divide: harmonic pastiche on the one hand, often composed through notation rather than privileging the ear, or experimental sound worlds on the other that fail to grapple with the multiple dimensions of structured relationships available to the contemporary composer.

By starting the ‘one-minute solo’ project with a self-chosen narrative stimulus and initially offering very limited parameters around pitch, participants are empowered to focus on carefully creating relationships between pitch choices and the intended emotive response. The frameworks of the project gradually move towards the collaborative creation of new modes – a task that Paynter suggests – closely tied to negotiated structuring narratives, all privileging the communicative intent.

This all matters because, especially at the early stages of learning, pitch systems need devising and refining as part of the affective realm, not as unrelated abstract theoretical entities. Our reliance upon notation in Western Art Music has placed the analysis of pitch and rhythmic relationships at the top of a music curriculum hierarchy, whilst simultaneously suppressing the importance of the sonic and the listening skills needed to make sense of sound. When we tie these two back together using agentic, playful pedagogies, we hit a sweet spot that not only offers a genuine form of ‘powerful knowledge’ – meaning knowledge that you can DO things with’– that can empower learners as creators rather than consumers of music, but also offers us a pathway into more meaningful and diverse forms of engagement with music as a broad set of human practices. 


Swanwick, Keith. Music, Mind and Education. London ; New York: Routledge, 1988. 

Wiegold, Peter. “Appendix: A Practice.” In Beyond Britten: The Composer and the Community, 261–83. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015.

[1]Swanwick, Music, Mind and Education.

[2]Wiegold, “Appendix: A Practice,” 281.

Propaganda, politics and protest in the music classroom

The launch featured two contributions from our project writers. Elizabeth MacGregor introduces us to Project 3: Propaganda, politics and protest.

Anyone familiar with Sound and Silence will be well aware of the extent to which Paynter and Aston emphasise the importance of understanding music in its social context. They describe how “our special subject [music] cannot live if left in a box by itself, a set of disciplines and techniques unrelated to anything else. It is part of the wide field of human experience and needs to be understood in that context first” (Paynter & Aston, 1970, pp. 2-3). They go on to explain how artists and musicians “function as visionaries and commentators: their job is not simply to entertain us. We rely upon them to help us come to terms with life and its problems” (Paynter & Aston, 1970, p. 4).

            But reading through the projects in Sound and Silence, it becomes clear that Paynter and Aston’s focus is more upon musical materials – the exploration of sound and silence – than it is upon music’s social context. The projects take a “practical” rather than “praxial” approach. Paynter and Aston understand music as a “practice”, involving a practical knowledge of how music-making contributes to an understanding the world, but without any differentiation between the hypothetically “good” or “bad” outcomes of making music. In contrast, understanding music as “praxis” means fostering ethically-responsible praxial knowledge of how music-making contributes to human flourishing (Elliott & Silverman, 2017).

With this in mind, in writing the project “Propaganda, politics and protest” for Fifty Years of Sound and Silence, we believed that it was of utmost importance both to interface with Paynter and Aston’s original supposition that music-making “help[s] us come to term with life and its problems”, but also to adopt an ethically responsible, praxial approach to music-making’s role in “life and its problems”, as understood by twenty-first-century children.

“Propaganda, politics and protest” therefore explores some of the practical aspects of music-making evident in Paynter and Aston’s original, such as the emotional impact of chanting (Project 18, 1970) and the use of word sounds as musical material (Project 20, 1970). But it also goes beyond practical music-making to explore music’s praxial implications. It provides historical examples of music used in propaganda and protest, such as the development of national anthems; it offers more recent examples of music used in race equality and environmental movements, such as the civil rights movement and climate justice protests such as Fridays for Futures and Extinction Rebellion; and it suggests classroom assignments which provide opportunities for children to explore political issues which are meaningful to them which they may have been exposed to through personal experience or the media.

In this regard, “Propaganda, politics and protest” therefore has the potential to encourage children to become increasingly aware of the way in which music can be used for both good and bad (Philpott, 2012), and to incentivise them to take an ethically-responsible approach to “life and its problems” through their own music-making.


Elliott, D. J. and Silverman, M. (2017) “Identities and Music: Reclaiming Personhood”, in MacDonald, R. A. R., Hargreaves, D. J., and Miell, D. (eds) Handbook of Musical Identities. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 27–45.

Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence: Classroom Projects in Creative Music. London: Cambridge University Press. 

Philpott, C. (2012) “The Justification for Music in the Curriculum: Music can be Bad for You”, in Philpott, C. and Spruce, G. (eds) Debates in Music Teaching. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 48–63.

Creative and critical projects in classroom music: Fifty years of Sound and Silence is launched

On December 1st, 2020 our book was officially launched through the auspices of The Insatiate of Lifelong Development at the University of Greenwich. In a series of blogs posted over the next two weeks I will published the proceedings.

First, Chris Philpott tells about the genesis of the book and its justification.


It was over a pint a few years back, somewhere near Kings Cross (a luxury that we have missed since last February!), that John Finney pointed out to Gary and I that 2020 marked 50 years since the publication of Paynter and Aston’s seminal text Sound and Silence, and that would it be good to do something – perhaps a book. 

All three of us, and many others here this evening, are in a sense ‘children’ of Sound and Silence. It was part of a movement that marked unprecedented developments in the philosophy and pedagogy of music education and crucially, it established a focus on the child as artist and composer, that all children can compose, and that this was possible in the general music classroom. This was paradigm shifting stuff!

Anyway, after the to and fro, the sprint and hiatus, that is typical during the genesis of a book, Routledge agreed to our proposal. The challenge was to get it out in 2020 and having not left ourselves much time, we made it with just two months to spare!     

In alighting on a structure our first port of call was to pay homage to the original by commissioning practitioners to write new projects for the classroom which acknowledge the legacy of Paynter and Aston, and yet also offer a contemporary take on musical creativity. This became the third and final section of our book.

We also wanted to set the ideas of Sound and Silence in context and the introductory section aims to do this, of which more from John in a moment. Particularly important here are the ‘voices’ of those who lived through the impact of Sound and Silence and also worked moved these ideas on. Some of these giants of music education are here this evening.     

However, we also wanted to include scholarly chapters that critically engaged with the concept of musical creativity in the classroom and where possible to propose themes that might contribute to a new agenda. These chapters make up the central section of the book and we will hear more from Gary on these later.

When read together all of this amounts to four broad themes that the book aims to address:

  • Firstly, it is a celebration of Sound and Silenceand to a certain extent the subsequent work of John Paynter;
  • Second, it is also a critique of the same (Sound and Silence does not get an easy time);
  • Third, it offers a critical account of subsequent work on the creative music classroom over the last 50 years;
  • Finally, it sets out proposals for fresh thought that aim to inform the ongoing debate on the creative music classroom.    

John Finney will place both books in their historical and intellectual context.


In the introduction to Sound and Silence the question is asked: what is creative music? The answer:

‘First of all, it is a way of saying things which are personal to the individual. It also implies the freedom to explore chosen materials. As far as possible this work should not be controlled by a teacher. His role is to set off trains of thought and help the pupil develop his own critical powers and perceptions. The processes of composition in any art are selection and rejection, evaluating and confirming the material at each stage. It is essentially an experimental situation.’ (Paynter and Aston 1970: 7)

Thinking of the classroom as a place of open-ended experiment where the teacher’s role was one of facilitation rather than instruction represented a break with long-held assumptions about the nature of music as a subject of the school curriculum. Placing their work within 1960s progressive thinking Paynter and Aston write:

‘If any one aspect of education is characteristic of the whole, it is the change of emphasis from children being instructed to children being placed in situations where they can learn for themselves.’ (ibid: 5)

Paynter and Aston had in mind the failure of music education to commit fully to the majority of pupils as part of a general education.  Music as a subject of the curriculum had taken on a form that progressively excluded the majority of pupils, based as it was on the acquisition of tutored skills associated with instrumental performance underpinned by and frequently dominated by information about music. 

They noted how Art, dance and drama were at ease with placing children’s creative work centre stage and in finding inspiration from the work of contemporary artists, from modernist movements of the twentieth century, for example. 

Paynter and Aston maintained that music was a language of expression giving those creating music a means to say things in and through music.  And the way to do this was through making up music – musical composition.   

It was these lines of justification that provided the structuring principles of Sound and Silence and that were able to give a sense of coherence to the 36 projects. Paynter and Aston write:

‘[The projects] represent ways of thinking about creative music-making, and we see them as only gateways. From any one of these, teachers may devise for themselves courses of work through which a great deal of music could be taught. In this sense, the projects we offer are not complete in themselves: we hope teachers will evolve others like them.’ (ibid: 9)

This was not the way text books were meant to work. Instead of a teaching manual here was an invitation to re-imaging the classroom that would envigorate the professional lives of music teachers.

Robert Bunting is the first to write in chapter 3 of our book where we hear from music educator’s responses to Sound and Silence. Robert writes:

‘Two years into my teaching career, in 1970 Sound and Silence struck me like lightning from a clear sky. Rather than a tame, tidy teaching manual, it was a buzzing, glittering bundle of radical ideas. Here was a complete rejection of academic music education with its complacent conservatism; instead, our pupils found themselves venturing into often unfamiliar sound-worlds, as if breathing the air of another planet. This was tremendously exciting. So too was the astonishing idea that young people could think musically for themselves, that teaching could be a dialogue between their ideas and ours.’ (Bunting 2020: 23)

The publication of Sound and Silence was followed by the Paynter-led Schools Council Project – Music in the Secondary School Curriculum with its slogan – Music for the Majority – establishing the music teacher as an agent of change. By the 1980s musical composition was finding a place in examination syllabi and notably in the new GCSE examination while establishing a place in the National Curriculum for music. 

However, reaction to the progressive trends of the 1960s have been strong and politically co-ordinated. In the case of music attention has been drawn to the disregard for long-established ideas about progression in learning, centred around the acquisition of foundational skills logically ordered. Progressive trends have been seen as defacing tradition, lowering standards and undermining discipline. This voice of conservation has in the past fifty years gained in political traction bringing the very notion of creativity under the spotlight and in effect progressively diluting the manifesto of Sound and Silence.

Quite unlike the time of Paynter and Aston much of music educational discourse of the present time is overwhelmed by the shrill voice of public policy, rampant instrumentalisation of schooling and the scourge of classroom performativity. This leaves restricted space in which to ask questions about the nature and function of music in society and in education in the way that Sound and Silence was able to do. 

The introduction to Sound and Silence concludes:

‘We hope teachers will try to release the natural creativity in those they teach, whatever the age and ability of the pupils. Creative experiment is only one small part of music in education: but we believe it is a very important part and one that should not be neglected.’ (Paynter and Aston 1970: 8)

That one small part was the cat out of the bag. A fire had been lit. And the flame still flickers. 

Fifty years on it is easy to fall into nostalgia and yes, I am a romantic. But when philosopher Michel Foucault was asked about the value of nostalgia he noted its potential to offer a source of critique. Above all else our publication seeks to view Sound and Silence in a critical light while keeping in mind the questions posed by Paynter and Aston: Why do we teach music anyway? How do we fit into the pattern of education today?  

These questions pertain to the place of classroom music within a general education, one that is neither specialist nor vocational. In response to these kinds of questions our book considers the character of music education as a distinctive classroom entity and with its potential to open minds freed from the calls for heavily prescribed outcomes so often demanded at the present time. It considers how such an education can work with the musical imaginations of children and young people by negotiating the sources of the musical impulse. In the dialogues that ensue we might learn what authority should be given to the musical past and what significance be given to the musical present understood as liquid musical modernity and far removed from the twentieth century modernism that had in considerable part inspired Sound and Silence. These kinds of dialogues will be required between pupil, teacher and what is being learnt. In this way the classroom can at the same time be hospitable and disruptive to children’s musical worlds. It can again be receptive to their nascent creativity and boundless search for meaning. 


Bunting, R. (2021) Voices. In (eds) Finney, J., Philpott, C. and Spruce, G., Creative and critical projects in classroom music: Fifty years of Sound and Silence. London and New York: Routledge.

Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence: Classroom projects in creative music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Next time Elizabeth MacGregor tells about Project 3: Propaganda, protest and politics.

A contribution to the conversation that is music education

Monday, November 2 is publication day.

This new work celebrates the contribution made by

to the conversation that is music education, a conversation as old as the human race and now energised by our new work.

In the Music in Education magazine of 1978 a section is devoted to Books on Music in Education. Victor Payne makes a selection.

Sound and Silence features. Victor writes:

This modern ‘classic’ takes the whole business of music in education by the neck and gives it a shaking that was long overdue. … It sets out to provide suggestions for creative experiment in music employing thirty-six projects that owe their origins largely to principles which underlie the various directions of twentieth-century music has taken. These principles are adopted in so far as they are relevant to educational development and practicality. The depth of philosophy expounded, the convincing scholarship displayed, the refreshing and stimulating pace have contributed to the success of what is probably the most significant book produced on the subject in recent years.’

This new publication aims to:

·     Celebrate seminal work on musical creativity in the classroom. 

·     Promote the integration of practical, critical and analytical writing and thinking around this key theme for music education. 

·     Contribute to initiating the next 50 years of thought in relation to music creativity in the classroom.

We hope you will find it stimulating.

Fifty Years of Sound and Silence

It’s 1970 and John Paynter and Peter Aston’s Sound and Silence: Classroom projects in creative music is published, their highly original contribution to music educational thought and practice.

Sound and Silence is a substantial text – three hundred and sixty five pages, thirty six projects along with rationale and guidance for the teacher – replete with a glossary of 60 musical devices and a discography listing 132 musical works imbuing the project as a whole with a rich core of musical knowledge and cultural legitimacy.

The work, apart from its english speaking diaspora was translated in part or whole into seven languages. It remained in print for nearly twenty years. [1]

Paynter writing in 1989 notes:

‘Peter Aston and I would be gratified if it were felt that Sound and Silence has stimulated people’s thoughts about the place of music in the school curriculum and had given some help with the development of classroom practice.’ [2]

A music teacher of the time recently noted:

‘Two years into my teaching career, in 1970 Sound and Silence struck me like lightning from a clear sky. Rather than a tame, tidy teaching manual, it was a buzzing, glittering bundle of radical ideas. Here was a complete rejection of academic music education with its complacent conservatism; instead, our pupils found themselves venturing into often unfamiliar sound-worlds, as if breathing the air of another planet. This was tremendously exciting. So too was the astonishing idea that young people could think musically for themselves, that teaching could be a dialogue between their ideas and ours.’ [3]


To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Sound and Silence Chris Philpott, Gary Spruce and myself, along with twenty four other contributors, offer Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music: Fifty Years of Sound and Silence – both as a celebration and extension of John Paynter and Peter Aston’s groundbreaking work on creative classroom music.

And this is at a time when creativity for all children is under deep scrutiny in a neo- traditional swing of the educational pendulum.

Like the original, we move against the flow seeking to stimulate people’s thoughts about the place of music in the school curriculum and provide some help with the development of classroom practice.

You are invited to view


for a description of the book and a table of contents.

Thank you for reading.


[1] Copies of Sound and Silence remain available at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sound-Silence-Classroom-Projects-Resources/dp/0521095972

[2] John Paynter (1989) Sound and Structure, CUP: Cambridge. Page 7.

[3] Robert Bunting recalling his meeting with Sound and Silence in Finney, J., Philpott, C. and Spruce G. (2020) Creative and Critical Projects in Classroom Music: Fifty Years of Sound and Silence, Routledge: New York. Page 23.

Making a Music Curriculum

The music curriculum can be defined as a dynamic set of musical processes and practices framed within historical and contemporary cultural discourse that comprise the musical encounters of pupils and teachers.

For what purposes do we make a curriculum?

To musically equip children and young people to understand themselves, both as individuals and as members of a complex and rapidly changing society as future citizens in that democratic society. 

We therefore:

  • equip all pupils with the knowledge, skills, dispositions and understandings to make music well.
  • induct pupils into existing cultures of making-music as a source of creative and critical engagement.
  • enable all pupils to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom through music made well.

What are our intentions?

By the end of Year 9 pupils will have songs, melodies, riffs, rhythms and the character-feel of much music in their heads and bodies. They will be able to recall this music at will. It will be an integral part of their learning how to make music well as shown in their technical know how, fluency, expressive control and in their musical relationships with others.

This will be achieved by introducing contextually rich music/musical material which keeps offering fresh insights and challenges. Pupils will explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.

The pupil’s music making will always reach a musically meaningful standard. When this is achieved there will be value in assessing the work.

Pupils will be able to reflect on their music making and the music making of others through talk, reading and writing about music.

They will come to understand how music functions in the world, why and how it is made, how music is used and how music is given meaning. There will be a recognition that music has ‘human interest’; social, cultural and political.

Classes will work as a community of music makers and critics where the relationship between pupil, teacher and what is being learnt creates an open musical discourse.

Depth, provenance and critical engagement in the year 7 classroom

In this secondary school year 7 pupils are learning to sing O Waly Waly.

The teacher has selected O Waly, Waly ‘simply because it is a beautiful song’ and is intent on teaching the class to make a beautiful sound.

I’m interested to know whether the singing is accompanied or unaccompanied.

The teacher adds:

‘I play the piano, sometimes big, juicy, arpeggiated chords, and sometimes simple, still chords. Always with much dynamic contrast and rubato. They follow me well, and enjoy it when I prolong the silence before the penultimate line. When they get it right, it is magical.’

‘I select these three verses. The meanings of the whole song are complex, so just three verses.’

The water is wide, and I can’t get over

And neither have I wings to fly

Build me a boat that can carry two

And both shall row, My love and I

There is a ship, and she sails the sea

She’s loaded deep, as deep can be

But not so deep as the love I’m in

I know not if I sink or swim

Oh love is gentle, love is kind

As sweet as a flower, when first it’s new

But love grows old and waxes cold

And fades away, like morning dew.

But wait a minute. What’s this:

‘I prolong the silence before the penultimate line.’

The teacher explains:

‘I think the silence creates a moment where not a single student can escape from being musical or from being ‘in flow’. In that silence, every student is compelled to engage in musical feeling, watching, breathing, pitching, and enjoying a resolution. All bodies need to be dancing together.’

O Waly, Waly is a song of good provenance as they say. [1] Some claim it as a song from the sixteenth century, some that it has Irish origins, some say Scottish, some English.

An internet search shows a great many performance versions and arrangements, and even a discussion forum relating to its provenance.

A Pete Seeger version of the song is near the top of the internet library along with responses from listeners. One response told that the performance was intended to draw attention to the pollution of the Hudson River. Well, we know Pete Seeger was a political activist.

As you will have noted, the teacher’s choice of O Waly Waly is leading me to open up a conversation with the song and to examine its provenance. I am reminded of Chris Philpott writing:

‘Each piece of music (whether we are performing or creating it) comes with an ‘attitude’ of its own and along with our own values and beliefs (which Gadamer calls ‘prejudices’)  engages in a playful dialogue in order to construct meaning.’ [2]

The teacher above achieves this playful dialogue with the ‘silence’ before the penultinate line of each verse. I have taken the idea of playful dialogue to a second level in searching out the song’s provenance. And I have only just begun.

O Waly Waly – the teacher has something of a treasure in her hands opening up ‘complex webs of meaning’ and placing interpretation at the heart of a music education. And this means critical engagement, and rather more than what is usually taken as appraising.

This seems to me to be worthwhile opening up the possibility of depth and rigour.


[1] Provenance seems to have two meanings, the first begets the second.  First ‘origin’, and then ‘history-lineage’; we find the term provenance much used in relation to antiques. What is its source, origin, its life history, its condition, how has it been looked after?

If ‘musical provenance’ is important, as Ofsted suggests, we should ask ourselves: is the content of what is brought to the classroom rich, thick with possibilities? Will it defy easy assimilation and mastery?  Will it call forth thinking? Will it defy methods of assessment that prohibit openness? Will activities defy being matched with tidily delineated outcomes?

It is interesting to note that after Mark Phillips HMI introduced the concept of ‘provenance’ and its addition to the criteria for making judgments about a music department’s quality of provision, nobody has taken a blind bit of notice. I think it a valuable idea that as I have tried to show can enhance an enfebbled notion of appraising.

[2] Philpott, C. (2013) The justification for music in the curriculum, in (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Debates in Music Teaching. Routledge: London.

Teaching musical composition (a blog revisited)

‘The things that stimulate children to improvise and compose music are essentially those things that motivate all composers: personal experiences, things seen and heard (including other works of the imagination: literature, poetry, paintings and sculpture) or hear about: significant events past and present, things of joy and things of tragedy: sounds themselves: shapes and patterns. Eventually the piece, as it begins to grow through working on the ideas, takes over and dictates its own directions. In a sense then, starting points are not all that important. What is important is that they should stimulate musical ideas of distinctive character that can be worked upon and developed (i.e., made to ‘go on’ in time).’ [1]

Teaching musical composition is likely to continue to be something of a conundrum and certainly when it is framed by the requirements of a public examination; for example, the UK General Certificate of Secondary Education. A good number of teachers opt for what they consider to be a reliable formulaeic approach even if it means all students produce near identical waltzes. It gets the grade. That’s justification enough they say.

On the other hand there are those teachers who remain intrigued by how we learn to compose and even compose themselves to better understand the process which their students are being asked to engage with. I am one of those teachers. I have been composing quite a lot lately and thinking about the nature of musical ideas, where they come from, how they are ‘sculpted’ and made to mean, what happens to them and how they work to make a whole where there is some sense of completion and a musical work. This of course is a pretty traditional view of composing music. The goal is to find closure, completion and quite likely some sense of organic unity rather than making what is infinitely open and incomplete, another way of thinking about composing. I am sure there are many more.

Some teachers, I am one, are interested in the student’s impulse to compose, what gets them started, what is it that draws them on, what is it that needs to be expressed? In all this it is the musical idea that holds most fascination, where it comes from, what’s it for? Without idea there is nothing. Without some concept of what the work is there is nothing. The impressive LIC report [2] thinks of this as being related to the idea of ‘intentionality’, one of the ten themes emerging from the research. [3]

So, it was with great interest that I entered a year 10 GCSE composing classroom to talk with a group of embryonic composers and to find out what kind of musical ideas they were having and what they were doing with them. They had worked on a composition using the stimulus of images from a graffiti exhibition. The choice was theirs. I knew nothing else about the teaching process they had been part of and I was reminded of the view that composition teaching only really begins when the pupil has created something, only then is the composer’s thinking made available.

What struck me about the work of these beginning composers was the originality of their ideas. I encountered no musical idea that wasn’t fresh, imaginative. No derivations, no plagarisms, nothing ordinary. Every musical idea had a character of its own, a sensuous particularity, and the more I listened to each the more I wanted to hear it again to better understand its particularity and to see in it what I had previously failed to see/hear. Sharing this process with its maker was how I was being a teacher of composition. These conversations can rightly be thought of as assessment, not assessment as measuring but as a dialogue where interpretation, judgement and discrimination are at work. [4] 

I should explain that the music had been made through the programme pro-tools and that may have assisted in creating musical ideas that were refined and seemingly well-intentioned. But, and it was a big but: why so many ideas? In each case, weren’t there more than enough ideas, enough ideas for quite a few compositions? And as I listened even more closely it wasn’t that the ideas were being thrown away without any kind of development. It was unusual for this to be the case. The question became one about time span and what kind of time span did the material need to do the material justice? Was all the material needed? 

What I felt to be most important as a teacher of composition was to affirm what was being presented to me [5] and to sharpen each composer’s perception of what they had made, and together review the innumerable compositional techniques at work, many unbeknown to the composer. Thus analysis conversed with intuition. [6] Indeed, I moved steadily towards an analytical orientation. I wanted to help the composers make visual schemes of their compositions in order to objectify what was there as a way of thinking about the work as pieces of architecture and to create talking points: whys, hows and what ifs? I wanted to draw in what other composers had done and think about why they had done this or that, and why not that. How did they manage material within their time spans? [7]

As a teacher I was being both facilitator and mediator, mediating knowledge and culture, a pretty basic call upon being a teacher through which the teacher, the pupil and what is being learnt at best find a poetic unity. 


[1] Paynter, J. (1995) Working on one’s inner world, in (ed) Edwin Webb Powers of Being: David Holbrook and his work, Associated University Presses, Inc.

[2] See Listen Imagine Compose (LIC) Report (2014) Martin Fautley, http://www.soundandmusic.org/projects/listen-imagine-compose
[3] See Witkin (1974) ‘The intelligence of Feeling’ for depth attention to ‘intentionality’ within the creative process.
[4] See LIC theme 4.
[5] Judgement, discrimination, interpretation at the heart of musical-artistic-aesthetic hermeneutic understanding ie. assessment with an epistemological basis.
[6] The interplay between intuition and analyis- see Swanwick, K. (1994) Musical Knowledge: Intution, Analysis and Music Education, Routledge.
[7] LIC theme 7.Advertisements