Relational Pedagogy

Relational pedagogy is valued for its willingness to create a clear space that allows and even calls each person to articulate his or her own values and beliefs.  

The freedom of the ‘dialogic’ allowing for exchange: inviting voices to be heard, so that each becomes more aware of their own views/musicianship and able to understand each other, requiring attentiveness and responsiveness to the ‘other’ (person and their music); allowing thinking to be called forth and connecting with lived experience (existential concerns and human interests), providing the teacher with a responsibility to place something of significance before the child. Music education as an ethical pursuit. 

Informal Music Learning in the Year 2 Classroom

As an important supplement to last week’s blog I have reprinted Leslie Linton’s account of her research first published in the Music Mark Magazine 2013, a publication now defunct. I have not been able to activate the photographs that form part of it.

The work is an example of systematic enquiry seeking to better understand a significant issue in music education at this time. It may encourage others to similarly engage in enquiry.

One interesting finding from the research noted how much the children knew about how they were learning and how they were thriving on thinking about their musical thinking (metacognition).

Informal Music Learning in the Year 2 Classroom

Leslie Linton

The University of Western Ontario

October 2013

In January 2011, I travelled to England, along with a team of researchers from the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, elementary and secondary school teachers, a principal, and a school board superintendent for a week of intensive training on the Musical Futures informal music learning approach. We visited a number of Musical Futures Champion Schools, spoke to Chris Philpott and his colleagues at the University of Greenwich about their activities preparing student teachers to work with informal music learning and attended a lecture and roundtable discussion session with the informal music learning project’s originator Professor Lucy Green. 

Upon our return to Canada, we launched a pilot project introducing informal music learning to two schools (one elementary and one secondary) in Southwestern Ontario, Canada. The success of this project has attracted interest from other music educators across Canada and is leading the way to a new chapter in music education in Canada.  Numerous professional development days, conferences, and demonstrations of the Musical Futures Program (especially informal learning) have piqued the interest of music educators across Canada. Many schools are beginning to adapt their current programs to include informal learning approaches with great success. 

The success of ‘Musical Futures Canada’ has provided an interesting situation for Canadian music teachers.  Canadian music education is very different from the sorts of models found in the UK as will be discussed later in this article. Teachers and students have been faced with considerable challenges to their previous conceptions of what music education is and their previous self-conceptions of roles of learner, teacher and musician. 

The elementary school where the research took place was a Catholic elementary school in a rural area in Southwestern Ontario and included Junior Kindergarten through grade 8 students (UK year 1 through year 9). As a research assistant assigned to the elementary school, working in the pilot project with grades 6,7, and 8 (UK year 7,8, and 9). I was completely amazed at the level of interest and engagement in informal learning demonstrated by the students. The participating grades had music class once per week, and rarely – if ever – was a student absent on that day. Their enjoyment was overwhelmingly strong and passionate, so much so that the music teacher gave up her lunch breaks to provide students with extra rehearsal time. 

My interest in the younger grades began as I watched the process of new students entering the second year of the pilot project.  They had not yet had the opportunity to learn in such a way, and their adjustments were not as much musical ones as they were in terms of learning style and social interaction.  Subsequently, I wondered what this program would look like if all students had the opportunity to participate in music classes through informal learning approaches, and whether or not it would be possible for the very young students to achieve these levels of cooperation, collaboration, communication and creativity. As a result, I wondered what their music making capabilities would be like if they already had the skills to work together, solve problems, create, motivate, and take charge of their learning.

In this article I will describe the most significant results of the study I consequently undertook; presenting one theme arising from the data related to each research question.  The first is the transition from the formal to informal approach, and how I accomplished this. The second is the skills that were learned by the students, and finally, I will discuss what informal learning ‘looks like’ and ‘sounds like’ with young children.

Background of Elementary General Music Education in Canada

Typically, music education in the elementary grades is based on formal approaches following the philosophies of Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze.  There is a specific set of skills that are taught according to grade level as a whole class in a formal style.  Even compositional or improvisational activities at an early age are ‘formalized’ through the pedagogy that is used featuring structured exercises to develop an understanding of Western Art Music traditions.  At around grade 4 (UK year 5) many students begin learning the recorder, until grade 7 and 8, (UK year 8 and 9) where formal band instruction often begins and continues throughout secondary school. The wind band tradition is prevalent in all provinces across Canada, although some programs begin in elementary school and others in secondary school, depending on the school board and funding.  Canada is a vast country with pockets of multicultural musical traditions interspersed throughout cities, communities and provinces, all of which affect the music education program in some way shape or form.  Although it is difficult to generalize in terms of what every Canadian student experiences in their music education, we can extract a few salient points that prompted my research.

  1. Most elementary students experience general music education, which is taught formally based on the philosophies of Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze.
  2. The field of education is changing and looking towards 21stCentury learning skills and these skills are not often reflected in the formal music classroom.
  3. Most students in Canada experience formal music education and now some are involved with Musical Futures.  There is a strong and sudden shift between approaches which may have a negative effect on teachers and learners as they negotiate between the two pedagogies.

While the success of the Musical Futures program has been well noted in the targeted grades of the Canadian pilot project, (grades 7 and 8 in the elementary school, and grades 9, 10 and 11in the secondary school), I worried about the disconnect between pedagogical approaches facing younger students and how this might affect their learning.  I also wondered if an informal approach in the early grades would change the musical skills that students acquired, specifically, would they be the same as those prescribed in the Kodaly, Orff, and Dalcroze approaches?  With this in mind, I developed a research study aimed at investigating whether or not such a program could not only be possible with very young students, but might actually benefit their learning in the music classroom and further connect to the type of learning they will experience with Musical Futures.  

Theoretical framework 

My main starting points came from Lucy Green’s research (2002, 2005, 2008), Katherine Marsh’s (2008) investigation of children’s music on the playground, and further Harwood & Marsh’s (2012) development of children’s musical cultures compared to Green’s (2002) study on popular musicians and informal learning. I found no documented studies which apply the main tenets of informal learning in the school setting to very young children. Therefore, by joining Green’s principles of informal learning to young children’s playground practices as Harwood & Marsh’s research (2012) has done, and by adding a pedagogical connection to the planned informal learning study, an approach was devised as follows: 

Informal LearningPrinciples(Green, 2008)Playground & Out-of-school practices   (Harwood & Marsh, 2012)Planned Informal Learning(Linton, 2013a)
1.  The learner chooses the music for personal goals. 1. The learner chooses the music to meet social and personal goals.1. Learner chooses the music to meet social and personal goals
2. Copying music by ear is the primary method of skill acquisition. 2. Copying music is achieved through aural/oral and visual methods. Movement, eye, ear, and gestural coordination is essential for learning.2. Music is presented holistically and copied by ear.  Music is presented aurally and explored visually.
3. Learning takes place in peer or friendship groups. 3. Learning takes place in friendship groups or familial groups.  There are many levels of participation (observer to song leader) and children participate or withdraw at will.3. Learning takes place according to friendship groups, which guide their choices of music.  Students are presented with a choice of music.
4. Skills are acquired in a haphazard manner, non-linear manner.4. Skills develop according to repertoire selected.  Holistic repetition is preferred.4. Skills are explored through repertoire and teacher facilitated activities.  Repetition is encouraged.
5. Emphasis is on creativity through listening, performing, composing, and improvising.5. Communal improvisation and composition occurs occasionally according to accepted conventions.5. Students are able to create through listening, performing, and improvising.

Table 1: Planned informal learning: An extension of Harwood & Marsh’s (2012) comparative chart. (Linton, 2013a)

Research design

Using this chart to guide the study provided a framework from which I designed three informal units guided by the following research questions:

Research Question 1: Can informal learning pedagogy, developed from the musical practices of popular musicians (Green, 2008), be successfully adapted for (Grade One) students?

Research Question 2:What adaptations are necessary for informal learning pedagogy to succeed in Canadian elementary schools, which are heavily focused on the more formal approaches of Kodaly, Orff, and Dalcroze?

Research Question 3: Can the informal learning practices of children’s playground activities as described by Marsh (2008) and Harwood & Marsh (2012) be transferred to the classroom, in effect bringing childhood culture to the classroom? 


In this study I worked with two classes of grade one (UK year 2) students. Each class had 18 students with an equal representation of males and females, as well as a mixture of European ethnicities.  The principal arranged the schedule so that both classes occurred at the same time of day (11:10-11:45), on alternating days. 

The participating teacher was a music specialist teacher with an Honours Bachelor of Music Education, Bachelor of Education, Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music and additional training in Kodaly methodology. With over 20 years of experience, she was a willing participant but was also aware that she was still required to ensure that students met the curricular expectations.

Description of informal Units

Unit 1 – Listening and copying vocally

Three songs were selected from a list generated by discussion with the students, and approved by the teacher and principal of the school.  The three songs were; ‘Trouble’ by Taylor Swift, ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry and ‘Go, Diego Go’ which is the theme song to the Nickelodeon Junior television show ‘Diego’.  I purchased the sheet music and audio files of each piece, along with 3 small MP3 players and 3 small portable speakers. I used the freeware audio program Pitch Shifter to change the tempo of the songs, so each MP3 player had one song with three tempos; the original song unchanged, medium and slow.  

In this unit, the students selected their groups according to the music they wanted to sing. They were all given lyric sheets for their piece, along with a task sheet. In some lessons, they were to set their own goals that was a new activity for the students. Some goals were verbal and some were written on the sheet of paper. At the end of the unit each group sang their song either with or without the MP3 player.  

        Figure 1- Student Achievement Chart for the Diego group

Figure 2 – A screen shot of three girls practicing Taylor Swift’s ‘Trouble’. 

Unit 2 – Playing familiar melodies by ear

In Unit 2, students formed friendship groups of any size, and were given a xylophone along with an instruction sheet with a list of familiar songs. Their task was to figure out how to play the first phrase of a selected song. The unit culminated with performances for either the teacher, researcher or the class.

Figure 3– Student Achievement chart – the sticker indicates that this group figured out the song on the xylophone. 

Figure 4 – Students working together to figure out a melody

Unit 3 – Playing harmony and singing melodies by ear

The final unit involved singing a melody and playing harmony on a ukulele at the same time, after learning an unfamiliar song. I chose Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and used English lyrics. The students indicated that they were not familiar with the tune even after it was played. I chose two YouTube videos to ‘teach’ the song to the students. The first was a flash mob with a full orchestra and choir ( The second video featured the Muppets character Beakersinging the tune “Ode to Joy” to the sound “mee” (  The video includes intricate harmonies and is a 6-way split screen ending with Beaker’s experiment exploding at the end of the song. The students asked to see the video several times, as it is very entertaining.  

I chose the key of C-Major for this song for several reasons:

  • Differentiated learning – the C chord is easy to play on ukulele, and the G-chord is difficult.
  • Some students were taking piano lessons, and most piano method books start in ‘C-Position’. Using this key may have provided a link between school music and music at home through the piano, and allowing them to learn it by ear on another instrument.
  • All of the xylophones and other Orff instruments are in the key of C-Major, which facilitated the addition of other instruments in their performance.

The students were given a lyric sheet of the English words, a ukulele, and two chord sheets for C-chord and G-chord. The students were instructed to sing the song while playing the chords, and that they could do this in any formulation they wished.  Some alternated chords between peers, some conducted and sang while others played, and some used percussion instruments.  This unit was by far their favourite for several reasons, all discussed later in the analysis section.   The unit culminated with performances by each group. Some students indicated that they had ukuleles at home, however, none knew how to play specific chords or melodies, nor were they aware that the instrument needed to be tuned a certain way.

Figure 5 – Ukuleles were always tuned before class.

Figure 6 – Students learning ‘Ode to Joy’ from a YouTube video of the Muppets character Beaker.


This study utilized an action research methodology. In this 6-month qualitative study, the regular music specialist teacher and I worked alongside one another to deliver 3 informal learning units that I designed. Approximately 460 hours of audio/visual data was collected, along with researcher field notes, teacher field notes, and mid/ post-study interviews with all students and the teacher.  

At the conclusion of the study, the recorded video was transcribed and further divided into categories, themes and then specific codes.  A codes to theory framework (Saldana, 2012) was used to refine themes and produce one overarching category.

Research Question1, Theme 1 – Transitioning from the Formal to the Informal

My initial attempt at dropping the students ‘in at the deep end’ as it is described in the Musical Futures document, and successfully accomplished with older students, presented extreme challenges to students.  One student asked me, “When are you going to start teaching us?” These young students had already been well socialized into the expected patterns of school through two years of kindergarten, and perhaps preschool or daycare: that they are to listen to the teacher and only do what they are told to do. For example, kindergarten students are told when it is playtime, when it is story time, and how to walk down the halls. They begin to rely on instructions as information and knowledge, and when asked to do something without instruction, they have a difficult time. 

The formal versus informal approach should not be thought of as a dichotomy, but instead as a continuum (Folkestad, 2006).  In addition, the formal approach is focused more towards ‘how to learn to play music’, whereas the informal approach is directed towards ‘playing music’ (ibid). Informal learning pedagogy may enable teachers and students to participate in emergent pedagogies thereby positively affecting their potential to become lifelong learners of music. To address this very important issue, I developed a process to transition along the formal-informal continuum, and used improvisation as the element which disrupted traditional teaching and learning and encouraged more flexible boundaries and musical risk taking. I created the following diagram to guide the various lessons, which occurred over approximately one month. 

Table 2: Transition from Formal to Informal with Improvisation as the link (Linton, 2013b)

This diagram begins with the Formal Instruction circle; the first point is that the teacher chooses music.  This is a common occurrence in all music classes.  The second point refers to learning visually – through music notation. At an early age such as the grade one students in the study, visual cues are very important. Although formal notation was not used in the study units, it was noted that the absence of visual cues initially hindered their overall performances in Unit 1. For example, from my field notes:

‘I have been so puzzled by the difficulty the students are having with Unit 1; singing along to their favourite songs with the audio recording. I have watched them struggle in their groups, on their own, and even asked them why it was difficult (to which they had no answer).  I wondered what was so different from regular music classes, and I even wondered if the Unit design was wrong. Then today something amazing happened. I watched the teacher teach them a new song at the end of class. She played the intricate piano part as she taught it because it was going to be for their next mass. It was a very complicated piece, with words they hardly knew how to pronounce. To my amazement, they all sang the correct words, correct pitch and rhythm. I had an “Ah-ha!” moment that almost knocked me off my chair.  All the students were indeed learning visually but not by notation; they were watching every move she made. They watched her mouth, shoulders, eyes, eyebrows, and her upper torso.  These were theirformal cues they use for how to sing the song, and in Unit 1 I have taken their formal cues away and forced them to use their ears instead. I think they are experiencing the ‘sudden shift’ into informal learning.’

It occurred to me as we went along through formal activities into improvisation, that many students were uncomfortable. Some would freeze when it was their turn, some would refuse, and others looked worried and anxious. It was not immediately evident whether they were uncomfortable being the centre of attention , or with the musical activity, or both.  The teacher mentioned that it was difficult to watch her students in an uncomfortable situation, however, I encouraged her and the class to continue with the improvisational activities.  It turned out to have a tremendous impact on the socialization between students and bonding with the whole class.  They displayed moments of empathy when a student showed discomfort, and after a short while every ‘improvisation’ received an enthusiastic round of applause and shouts of ‘Good job!’ and ‘Well done!’. An interim interview with the music teacher illustrates some of the transitions the students faced:

Interim interview – Music teacher

Teacher – But you still need to prep for this, you need to prep for the uncomfortableness, with little games, focusing activities, improvisation, just like you did.

Leslie – Right. The feeling of the isolation within the group.

Teacher – And we treat them like a little blob.

Leslie – And I think that is why they are little uncomfortable, because they are doing something different than their neighbour and they keep looking over and noticing that.

Teacher – That’s an interesting thing yes, and they are 6 now.  We have always been having them doing the same things up until now.

Musically, some students had extreme difficulty with small, short improvisation activities and would ask me to tell them what to do. Others began the transition with more ease and allowed their imagination to guide their actions. By the end of the transition, all students were quite adept at improvisational activities and were ready to move to the informal part.  Many began creating songs at home and writing them down in their Language class during journal time.  These spontaneous moments of creativity were met with great joy and appreciation during music class when they would perform their compositions and then teach the entire class.  Many would tell the ‘composer’ how much they liked their song.

Figure 8- Composition “Bad Boy”

Figure 9 – Composition “If I could fly” with lines indicating duration of specific notes.

In summary, the transitional phase from formal to informal appeared to be a critical aspect in the development of their creativity and confidence. Creative aspects were seen through the many compositions that were brought to the class. This seemed to connect music classes to other classes, and to activities at home.  Their confidence increased as their improvisations were always met with applause and praise. The most significant aspect, however, was the bonding and support offered between students.  Their kindness and trust in each other while emotionally vulnerable during musical improvisations demonstrated a depth of maturity in empathic behaviour. This type of relationship continued into their informal groups and became an essential element of their learning process.

Research Question 2, Theme 1 – Adapting expectations to meet the potential of 21stCentury Learners

One of the most alarming aspects about elementary general music education is the lack of focus on the potential of the child as an independent, intelligent and engaged learner. Curriculum expectations dictating the skills required in music for each grade have not changed in many years, yet, mathematics, science, and language arts have all moved forward; so that children now learn concepts in grade 1 that may have been previously found in grade 3. Although music education is not only about the skills acquired, the curriculum skill expectations are an indication of what an influential body of music educators believe children can do – and most importantly, may become what educators will allow them to do.

One of the informal units in this study showed that students are able to play the C-Major chord and the G-Major chord on the ukulele, alternating when necessary, while singing in-tune to the theme of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.  This skill – to play and hear the chord progression I-V is listed in the Grade 5 expectations. It should be noted that in my research classes all students were able to do this with the exception of one special needs student with decreased motor function in her arms.

Prior to this unit, none of the students indicated that they had heard the theme ‘Ode to Joy’.  I used two YouTube videos to teach the song to them. One was a flash mob with full orchestra and sung in German.  The other was a Muppets character ‘Beaker’ who sang the tune to the sound ‘me’ (strong emphasis on ‘e’).  From there, the students were given chord sheets to follow and the English lyrics. I provided copies of chord sheets and lyrics so that in the future if the students forgot, they could reference them easily.  I also hoped that perhaps when taken home, another family member (parent etc.) might look at the sheets and try playing along.  At the end of the study, the students took home a binder of all activities undertaken during the study.  I provided this binder to all students and included lyric sheets, sheet music, colouring activites, etc so that they could view their progress at any time. 

The students formed groups of varying sizes; containing anywhere from 2-7 children, and created different versions of the song.  Although all could switch from C-Chord to G-Chord while singing, some groups split the parts; C-Chord plays and sings, then another person plays the G-Chord and sings. These spontaneous solos were very interesting as students had to be concentrating on the other person and following exactly where they were in in the song in order to join in with their partner at the right time.  Other groups added percussion instruments, and other groups had conductors.

Figure 10 – Boy demonstrating the C-Chord. Note the green dots that assisted in locating the G-Chord

Figure 11 – Girl demonstrating the C-Chord. Note the lyrics sheet in the background that she followed while playing, without indicators of chord changes.

In post-interview questioning, the majority of students indicated that this was their favourite unit.  They liked playing the instrument and having the freedom to choose how they were going to present the song. They also indicated that they ‘felt like a real musician’ because they could play and sing.

Interview Transcript: Researcher (Leslie) and two girls

Leslie –  What did you like best that we did over the past 6 months?

Girl 1 – Ukulele

Girl 2 – Ukulele

Leslie – Why do you like it?

Girl 1 – That we get to make music with it.

Leslie – What does that mean, that you get to make music with it?

Girl 1 – That we get to play with it.

Girl 2 – Like with the frets.

Leslie – So if you were singing but not playing ukulele would you feel like you were making music?

Girl 1 – No

Girl 2 – No, not really

Leslie – But you feel like you are making music with the ukulele?

Both – Ya

Leslie – So what does it mean to make music? If you are someone who can make music, what can you do?

Girl 1 – You can play an instrument

Girl 2 – You can play the melody and harmony

These type of comments were found in almost every student interview; that if you can play an instrument you are a musician.  The students have pre-existing notions of what it means to be a musician and it is interesting that at such a young age they are able to verbalize the values that they hear and see in the music that surrounds them.

Research Question3, Theme 1 – Childhood culture; What does it sound like?

This question is an important theme in the informal learning process. At first, just like the older students, it appears that there is very little learning happening.  To outsiders it might look chaotic, noisy, unstructured, and that the children are not on-task. Taking a closer look, however, shows a completely different story.  

For example, this event took place during a music class when they were working on Unit 2.  Their task was to figure out ‘Mary had a little lamb’ by ear and play it on the xylophone.

Video observation – Group of 4 students; 2 girls, 2 boys.

All 4 students are playing different notes on the small xylophones at the same time. One girl does a glissando up and down, and then the other 3 copy and play glissandos. There is no conversation between the students while they play the glissandos. They watch each other and look to each other, smiling occasionally. This continues for about 2 minutes until the teacher enters the room. She approaches the group and they stop playing. The teacher starts singing Mary had a little lamb on solfege and the students begin playing mi-re-do as instructed. The teacher leaves and they return to playing glissandos.

After approximately 3 minutes of constant glissandos, they start playing Twinkle Twinkle little star.  The teacher returns and asks them to play Mary had a little lamb.  They play part of the song but it appears far from completion. The teacher leaves again and the students play glissandos non-stop until the entire class returns. 

Each group is asked to demonstrate their progress with Mary had a little lamb. As other groups are playing the 4 students in the observation group are quietly whispering to each other back and forth. When it is their turn to play for the class, the following occurs:

The girl begins the group by counting them in ‘1-2-3’.  

They play the entire piece together (2 phrases) in unison with every note correct.  They all play without letting the notes ring; they hold their mallets on each bar.  The piece ends with a girl playing one glissando up the xylophone.

This situation is very interesting for a number of reasons.  First, we have a group of students who initially appear not to be ‘on task’ and need to be reminded by the teacher to keep practicing the assigned song.  Second, we see that this group is actually quite well-coordinated and have decided to be ‘on-their-own-task’ by doing something they find more engaging; the glissandos.Third, while observing this video we could correctly assume that when asked to perform the piece, the students would be unable to do so; partially because they have not played it through once, and because they only played glissandos for 15 minutes. However, they figure out the notes before it is their turn, decide to change the texture of the sound by holding the mallets on the bars, one person counts the group in and the same person ends the piece with a flourish.

These students are obviously quite capable of playing a simple nursery tune, which leads us to wonder to what extent educators underestimate the abilities of students, and misinterpret their behaviours? Perhaps these behaviours may serve as indicators that the students are capable of more differentiated tasks.  

Another feature of the students in this study was their imagination and creativity.  It seemed that the informal learning process nourished and encouraged these musical extensions and provided a source of joy and excitement for students. One student, interviewed below, was particularly passionate about music:

Interview Transcript

Leslie – You had a journal, right?

Girl – Yes.

Leslie – You had some very interesting compositions in your journal.

Girl– Does composition mean songs?

Leslie – Yes it means making up songs.

Leslie– First of all, how old are you?

Girl – I am 6 ½

Leslie – And what is your favourite subject in school?

Girl – Music! (with great exuberance) 

Leslie– What makes music your favourite subject?

Girl – Well, I kinda want to be a singer when I grow up.  And like I have dreams, and I was thinking about this in class.  In my closet its like a little fort, and I was imagining that there is a lever and you pull the lever and it would like make a hole in the floor and there are music notes leading down to a music land.

Leslie – That is great, is this real?

Girl – No, but I wish it was!

Leslie – So you want to be a singer – do you listen to music now at home?

Girl – Yes, um for my birthday and for some presents I usually get CD’s.

Leslie – Oh and, what kind of CD’s?

Girl – Well I have a (inaudible) from my godparents and like its about Jesus and that stuff.  I just love this one song.  It is called J-e-s-u-s. (She sings a little of the song.)And its like so the dad’s part, mom’s part, older sister who broke her leg in the last show and I got to sing live.  And the other is Minipops. My favourite one on minipops is Party in the USA.  

Leslie – Who is the singer of that?

Girl – I think it is Hanna Montana.  She is my favourite person right after Taylor Swift.  She’s my favourite.

Leslie – What is your favourite Taylor Swift song?

Girl – Probably ‘Trouble’.

Leslie– What is one thing that you find easy in music class?

Girl– I would say that in music class it was easy to sing on the microphone.  Once I sang it and someone in grade 3 plays the drums and Mrs. D. played the piano.  I sang Rolling in the Deep. (she starts singing it)

Leslie – Good for you!

Girl – It was kind of like a band. I was over in the corner with all the grade 7 and 8 instruments.

Leslie –  What has your favourite thing that we have done since I got here?

Girl – Um probably Ode to Joy because we did a group of 4 and that was really cool.

Leslie – What was your least favourite thing?

Girl – I don’t have one.  

Leslie – Let’s say you are really good at music, what can someone do?

Girl – Probably play instruments, and sing without stage fright, do videos, do concerts, all that stuff.

Leslie – What’s stage fright?

Girl – Its when someone goes on stage and they are frozen.

Leslie – Do you have that?

Girl – No.  But the ——- do.  They live in the states and we are going to visit them.

Leslie – Let’s say that you are the teacher, what would you do?

Girl – I would probably do 10 times Taylor Swift Trouble, then 10 times Rolling in the Deep.  Then everyone would get a turn to go on the drums, bass, and microphone.  You can keep track of who had a chance to have a turn.

Leslie – You would be a good music teacher, I want to be in your class! 

This interview demonstrates how important music is in this young girl’s life as she imagines the ‘musicland’ in her closet and asks for CD’s for her birthday.  Among the other interviews, all students showed a preference for specific musicians and were quite enthusiastic when describing their favourite songs and groups of musicians. The difference between this group of students and other student not in the study, is that their favourite songs were a part of their learning in the music classroom. This element assisted in connecting their learning to home activities and connecting home activities to the school music program. Some students mentioned that their parents would try and play along with them, either through an instrument such as guitar and piano, or sing along with the songs they were learning. Her imagination about being the music teacher was interesting and there were other interviews of children with ideas about what music education should look like. It was also interesting that she imagined the music program with the instruments used for the upper years; drums, bass guitar, and microphone. In this study I specifically chose not to use those instruments to more closely duplicate what is typically found in Canadian music classrooms. This student’s proactive and engaged attitude about learning is especially important for continued interest and participation in musical activities. When given some freedom of choice, it appeared that the students become empowered and seemed to gain ownership over their learning; an essential element in every subject area.

The Sociology of Childhood and Informal Learning

This study is informed both my music education research on informal learning and by research in the ‘new sociology of childhood’, which emphasizes  that children exercise agency in interpreting and reproducing childhood, while acknowledging that they are part of the overall social structure of childhood (Corsaro, 2011).  Peer cultures and agency influence behavior and learning in music education, even in the grade one classroom. This is possible because of the informal learning approach, as it is not a linear approach to development.  

According to Morrow (2011, p. 21-22) there are three main points to consider in the new sociology of childhood:

1.     Children are agents and active participants in the construction of knowledge.

2.     Childhood is a variable of social analysis because the ideas of childhood change through space and time.

3.     Childhood is also structural in that it is a permanent social category where the members change but its relationship to adulthood continues.

The new sociology of childhood is still a relatively young branch within the field of sociology and has yet to find its way into the general social structural analysis (Bühler-Niederberger, 2010). Understanding different perspectives is essential to the new sociology of childhood, which challenges researchers to question how we can better respect children in our thinking, how we can elevate the status of youth while drawing on the complexities of the everyday experiences of children and how we can use the diversity of the discipline to keep children’s best interests at the forefront (Morrow, 2011).The results of this study will provide insight into the appropriateness and success of informal music pedagogy in facilitating primary students’ agentic learning of music.


It is hoped that this study may result in a broader conception of expectations of music outcomes and schooling for young children that acknowledges the roleinformal learning may play. Informal learning may result in uncertainty surrounding the role of the teacher. However, the shift in focus away from the teacher to the learner is what is critical for music educators. Those who have been immersed in the western art tradition (whether as musicians or non-musicians, teachers or students) may have specific ideas of what constitutes ‘teaching music’ versus ‘learning music’ versus ‘musicking’ (Small, 1998) and values associated with each.  Addressing these beliefs may require further research and reform our expectations with respect to the values involved in the teaching and learning of music.  

Elementary music education may benefit from informal approaches as students in this study became extremely engaged in their own learning, often seeking additional musical information which was outside of their current tasks. When given the opportunity to become autonomous learners in the music classroom, the students in this study became collaborative learners, creative in their musical performances, communicated with each other both verbally (while in the planning stages; teaching each other, encouraging each other, etc.) and non-verbally (while playing music together), and displayed advanced critical thinking skills through their analysis, discussion, reflection and informed responses to their musical tasks and projects.

In shifting the focus away from how the teacher teaches and towards how the learner learns, we may begin to remove expectations concerning what each individual elementary music program should look like.  The shift away from prescriptive approaches and pedagogies may disrupt teachers’ beliefs with respect to the nature and purposes of music education as well as challenge their understandings of their roles as professional musician/teachers. This will in essence redefine and re-form the nature of music learning and the values associated with ways of learning in all settings whether formal or informal.


Buhler-Niederbeger, D. (2012). Childhood sociology – Defining the state of the art and ensuring reflection. Current Sociology, 58 (2) p. 155-164.

Corsaro, W. (2011). The sociology of childhood 3rdedition. London: Sage

Folkestad, G. (2006). Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs formal and informal ways of learning. British Journal of Music Education, 23,(2), 135-145.

Green, L. (2002). How popular musicians learn: A way ahead for music education. London: Ashgate.

Green, L. (2005). The Music curriculum as lived experience: Children’s ‘natural’ music learning processes. Music Educators Journal, 94(4), 27-32.

Green, L. (2008). Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy. London: Ashgate.

Harwood, E. & Marsh, K. (2012). Children’s ways of learning inside and outdis the classroom. In G. McPherson & G. Welch (eds.) The Oxford handbook of music education, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Linton, L. (2013a/b). Informal Learning in the Grade 1 ClassroomPaper presented at the 8thInternational Conference for Research in Music Education, April 9-13, 2013, Exeter, UK. 

Marsh, K. (2008). The Musical playground. London: Oxford University Press

Morrow, V. (2011). Understanding Children and Childhood. Centre for Children and Young People Background Briefing Series, no. 1. (2nded.). Lismore: Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University

Small, C. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Wright, R. & Kannelopolous, P. (2012). Informal music learning, improvisation, and teacher education. In Karlsen, S & Vakeva, L. (eds), Future prospects for music education: Corroborating informal learning pedagogy. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


Flashmob of Ode to Joy

Beaker singing Ode to Joy

In praise of systematic enquiry

It is now some five years ago since I had the privilege of reading the doctoral submission of Leslie Linton of the University of Western Ontario. The title: Interpretive Reproduction and informal Learning in the Grade One Classroom. [1] And I have now read Leslie’s chapter in the book ‘Twentieth Century Music Education’: Informal Learning and Non-Formal Teaching, Approaches in School and Community Contexts’ published by the Canadian Music Educators’ Association in 2016.

Leslie worked for six months mostly as a non-participant observer alongside a class music teacher developing an informal pedagogy, which brought together the research findings of Lucy Green [2] and Kathy Marsh [3]. Leslie’s was a planned informal learning. (‘In at the Deep End’ just didn’t work!) 

Leslie designed three units of work, each having its own set of informal learning principles.

Unit 1 Listening and copying vocally
Unit 2 Playing familiar melodies by ear
Unit 3 Listening and copying vocally and harmonically

The research was carried out in the context of Canada’s adherence to Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze concepts, methods and principles, chiefly Kodaly. These ways of working are well established in North America and fit well with the curriculum goals set out by the province, in this case Ontario. [4]

Leslie’s approach disrupted the teacher-led, sequentially prescribed curriculum and adherence to a Kodaly approach. [5]

Underpinning the planned informal learning approach was the recognition that the children’s musical experience beyond the school (their musical enculturation) was vast and it was through YouTube clips, for example, that the children learnt to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy so well in tune. This was a revelation to their class teacher. 

What became clear was that the established school music programme underestimated the pupils’ capabilities. This was chiefly the result of disregarding the pupil’s well-developed processes of musical enculturation. 

The step-by-step approach (simple to complex) offered by ‘Kodaly’ showed no appreciation of the pupils’ capacity to work with what were complex rhythmic and melodic musical materials in their own musical lives, their immediate social heritage. In this respect the formal curriculum was regressive and oppressive.[Late edit: regressive and oppressive is OTT, although regressive may have some credibility. Thanks to @WyHighPerArts for challenging my unreasonable use of language.]

In becoming agents of their own musical education with the teacher as partner in this, these pupils were developing understanding of what learning music and becoming a musician involved. The data arising in response to Leslie’s third research question: How do Grade One students describe their experiences with informal learning? showed the emergence of what Lucy Green refers to as ‘critical musicality’ or what others more generally identify with critical pedagogy. 

In all this there is a way of thinking about childhood, not as a state of immaturity where the child is moved step-by-step up a ladder but as abounding with agency and social maturity. 

In recent weeks I have written blogs on learning to think critically about music as it works in tandem with learning to think in sound. There is no doubt that these children were doing both in abundance and out-striping curriculum expectations.

Leslie’s research, of which only a taste has been given here, raises important questions about our conceptions of childhood and how we think children learn and develop, and for what purpose. More research like that reported here is urgently needed if we are to better understand and develop planned informal pedagogies in music. At the moment practice is running ahead theory. While this is exciting it may be counterproductive.


[1] Grade 1 equates with Year 2 in England i.e. 6-7 year olds.
[2] Green, L. (2008) Music, informal learning and the school: A new classroom pedagogy. London: Ashgate.
[3] Marsh, K. (2008) The musical playground. London: Oxford University Press.
[4] North American music educators appear to be less eclectic in forming pedagogy than is the case in England.
[5] Both Leslie and the class teacher were trained in the Kodaly concept.

Singing and those silent corridors

Yesterday news came of the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, endorsing an initiative to tackle unruly behaviour in our schools. The endorsement included the practice of silent corridors, pupils moving between lessons in silence as a mark of disciplined behaviour. Such an idea inevitably gives rise to debate or rather the forming of polarised positions attached to deeply held values. And I won’t pursue the debate here. Instead simply tell about a practice I had heard of a good number of years ago, one that had lingered in my ever curious mind. Yes, here were children going between lessons, not in silence, but singing their repertoire of national songs. This was in Switzerland and under the influence of the reforming educator Johann Pestalozzi. I find the image appealing in the light of some of current debate.

This silent obedience being called for in schools at the present time provides an image at odds with the joy often associated with singing, singing playgrounds and the contemporary call to Sing Up and for singing to permeate the whole life of the school – indeed a stark contrast to the Swiss children of two hundred years ago,

Of course, the silent corridor could be populated by pupils singing silently but it would likely result in body movement thought to transgress the behaviour expectations of the silent corridor.

Presumably silent corridors expect docile bodies.

The deep dive that turned out to be a shallow disappointment

The headteacher had nominated music as a place for the inspector to make a deep dive. And the music teacher felt just a little flattered at being selected. The inspector appeared in the music department just as the school choir were singing Seal Lullaby. It was sounding good. Did he want to listen?

No. Where is the department office? May I see your curriculum planning document?

Lesson observed. Questioning of pupils. Then the conversation with the music teacher.

And this revealed an inspector out of his depth. For it seemed he had no knowledge of the variegated nature of musical knowledge. Rather, for this inspector, musical knowledge corresponded to words. (Scroll down for last week’s blog.)

That grasp of a concept about music might take time to grow in a way that would give it meaning was not understood.

Is it fair to expect inspectors to go on deep dives and get out of their depth?

Some problems with conceptual understanding in the case of music

Using the so-called ‘elements of music’ was helpful at the time, that is, in the early 1980s.  We had found a fresh way of structuring what we did.  There they were – pitch, timbre, rhythm, pulse etc.  These were thought to be the building blocks of music. And we could see how this was paralleled in visual art: colour, line, perspective, composition etc. And even better, these elements could be thought of as ‘concepts’. Yes, music had a conceptual framework of sorts and something was needed in order to replace the ‘Theory of Music’ as a legitimate framework. (How can a theory be a conceptual framework?)

But as Keith Swanwick pointed out, music doesn’t have elements, it has features, and it is these features that give music character, interest and stylistic distinction and that get noticed. Not elements. These are abstractions, monster words and some distance from our musical perception. No wonder then that for the last thirty years music teachers have been coercing children to say them without much success. In fact the key words movement seems to have achieved very little.

The distinguished Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky had something to say about this.

‘Pedagogical experience demonstrates that direct instruction in concepts is impossible. It is pedagogically fruitless. The teacher who attempts to use this approach achieves nothing but a mindless learning of words, an empty verbalism that stimulates the presence of concepts in the child. Under these conditions, the child learns not the concept but the word, and this word is taken through memory rather than through thought.’ [1]

Vygotsky compares this empty learning with ‘living learning’ implying that the concept needs to be internalised and in some sense personalised before it is useable. In the case of music, itself being non-verbal, while allowing concepts to be formed about it, the distance between experience and concept appears especially great. Thus we attempt to place conceptual musical understanding in a relationship to existential musical understanding. That is, what this means to me in relation to what this means more generally.

Of course, musical features can be thought of as concepts as well as elements. But at least they are what strike us about the music we encounter; a characteristic rhythm, a facet of melodic movement, a sharply articulated short sound, for example. End Licks, Snaps, Turn Arounds … these are the features that contribute to our sonic meaning making and that are everywhere to be sensed, perceived, felt, cherished and that inspire emulation. These we could refer to as first order concepts, although I am bit unsure about this. One thing that I am clear about is that in music our concepts need to be open and dynamic rather than closed.

So what might count as second order concepts?

Oh no! Please not the elements of music.


[1] Vygotsky, L.S. (1987). Thinking and Speech. In L.S. Vygotsky, The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky, Vol. 1, Problems of general psychology (pp.39-285) (R.W. Rieber & A.S. Carton, Eds.; N. Minick, Trans.) New York: Plenum Press.

Breadth and balance post 14.

I recall, somewhen about 1985 in my Basingstoke comprehensive school, the question being asked by a parent at a year 9 options evening: why don’t pupils continue their study of all subjects in years 10 and 11?

This question was asked in the public forum and alongside other parents who questioned the compulsory ‘aesthetic option’ requiring all pupils to study an arts subject post age 14. The next day teachers of art, ceramics, music, film and drama were called to a meeting with the head and deputy. We sensed that our highly prized aesthetics option was under threat. We went to the meeting armed with chapter and verse on the value of the arts. At the time there was no shortage of philosophical enquiry into aesthetic and artistic knowing and the uniqueness of this way of understanding the world. We presented the head and deputy with reasoned arguments supporting our place in the curriculum. We deployed the weight of intellectual authority with confidence and conviction.

The aesthetic option lived on and in end of course evaluations pupils expressed great satisfaction with the ways in which the uniqueness of the arts had enriched their lives and how the experience had been sharply different to other subjects. It was part of a comprehensive comprehensive school education, a result of progressive 1970s thinking reviving a liberal education and saving education from a lazy form of traditionalism.

Now, some thirty years later there is the EBacc and the arts are excluded and only a few enlightened headteachers feel confident enough to sustain an argument for an entitlement to a post 14 arts education.

Some point to the compulsory nature of English and English Literature and all that is offered there in the cause of an arts education. But many will have noticed a general shift in discourse towards a certain view of rigour, competence and functionality. The idea of an aesthetic dimension to education is now unheard of and long silenced to be replaced by reductionist notions of knowledge.

Pupils between the age of 14 and 16 will be wanting to give meaning to their lives through artistic expression and aesthetic experience and there should be a broad range of options available across a school’s offering.

Did you know that a first DfE proposal in respect to the formation of the current GCSE examination in music was that 80% of the marks should be allocated to a written paper and that the ABRSM graded theory exams were considered as a model?

Interestingly, in the final reckoning there is a component of the exam referred to as ‘knowledge’, not aesthetic knowledge, not the wonder of occurrent knowledge. personal knowledge or embodied knowledge but, you’ve got it, propositional knowledge.

Alas, our current political masters have a poor grasp of the order of things.