Skill and knowledge in the music curriculum

Currently there is much talk of knowledge-based education. The minister of state for schools has this to say about it, for example. See

A narrative is created whereby skills are set against knowledge. Skills bad-knowledge good.

While knowledge is being conceived of as subject-based, skills are being thought of as generic and it is maintained that curricula based on generic skills such as the ability to problem solve, collaborate and be creative work to counter the primacy of each subject’s store of knowledge.

Mention skill and the wrath of the new guardians of culture is likely to be roused.

Music teachers however, like to speak of a skills-based curriculum and I think they mean ‘musical skills’ and not generic skills.

So what is a skill? I have added musical examples.


1. the ability, coming from one’s knowledge,practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well:

Carpentry was one of his many skills.
Being able to shape a musical phrase when singing folk songs was one of his many musical skills.


2. competent excellence in performance;expertness; dexterity:

The dancers performed with skill.
The musicians performed with skill.


3. a craft, trade, or job requiring manual dexterityor special training in which a person has competence and experience:

the skill of cabinet making.
the skill of composing music.


In this view a skills-based curriculum is built on and for ever permeates our musical knowing.

But now let’s be reminded of how musical knowing can be thought about. See

In this I make no mention of skill. Instead I refer to ‘knowing how’. So for example we can say ‘knowing how to make music well’. Is skill interchangeable with knowing how. Well not quite. The once skilful keyboard player sadly lost his/her hands in an accident and now, while having know how, is no longer skilful.

The distinction between skill and knowledge is a valuable one.

And if a music teacher wishes to speak of their skill-based music education then it may be helpful to make clear that these are musical skills derived from and feeding musical knowledge while keeping in mind the particular nature of musical knowledge. See


Music curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and the order of things

In last week’s blog I wrote about assessment in music education. As part of this I offered a working definition of assessment.

‘Assessment consists in evaluating or judging the value of something, or someone, in accordance with certain expectations, an idea or a reference, related to personal and/or shared values.’ [1]

I also suggested that assessment, curriculum and pedagogy exist in a symbiotic relationship, needing each other to live and speak. [2]

Ok, so let’s have a definition of pedagogy:

‘Pedagogy, understood as ‘the core acts of teaching (task, activity, interaction and assessment) framed by space, pupil organization, time and curriculum, and by routines, rules and rituals.’ [3]

Here we note that pedagogy is framed by curriculum. So it may be that curriculum has the upper hand in this three-fold relationship.

In my recent post (see I reported on ways of thinking about curriculum as developed by Carolyn Cooke and as set out in chapter 5 of the book Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School. [4] Here curriculum is viewed as ‘lived experience’.

All this prompts me to offer a definition of curriculum and in particular a music curriculum. Here goes:

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

A definition that is partial and of course ideological. Discuss.

In the October edition of the Music Teacher Magazine Anthony Anderson makes a case for ‘Time to Think’ about the music curriculum and above all else the process of curriculum design. [5]

This call would seem to be prescient in view of recent utterances from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools.



[1] Beauvais, M. (2011) Assessment: a question of responsibility. UNIVEST. Retrieved from

[2] See Bernstein, B. (1975) ‘On the Curriculum’ in Class, Codes and Control, Volume III Towards a Theory of Educational Transmission, Basil Bernstein, Routledge and Keegan Paul.

[3] Alexander, R. (2005) Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk. York: Dialogos.

[4] Cooke, C. (2016) What is a music curriculum? In Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School edited by Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce (3rd edition), Routledge.

[5] Anderson, A. (2017) Time to Think. Music Teacher Magazine, October, pp. 47-48.






Music Education and assessment

At the recent Music Education Council’s gathering those of us interested in curriculum came together to discuss the music curriculum. (Wouldn’t it be good to have a whole day together!)

The music curriculum seems to be a kind of dialogue between ‘what’ musical processes and ‘whose’ music. And then there is the view that curriculum, pedagogy and assessment as being inseparable. Each needs the others to live and speak. As was pointed out, the last forty years have produced robust models of music curriculum, alas too easily forgotten in this age of music educational historical ignorance.

I did point out that there were no agreed standards in our curriculum 4-14. This was a surprise to some. Mention of standards and thoughts about assessment arise.

I sometimes wonder why in books on music education assessment comes to be considered later rather than sooner.

‘Assessment consists in evaluating or judging the value of something, or someone, in accordance with certain expectations, an idea or a reference, related to personal and/or shared values.’ [1]

In this view assessment is about valuing and we usually enter into teaching music with value intentions.

In the MEC curriculum discussion group I wasn’t alone in lamenting how profligate we are with the past, with those good sturdy ideas that have been thoughtfully established in the past forty years. In the case of assessment we might well turn to Derek Rowntree’s book ‘Assessing students: how shall we know them? first published in 1977. [2]

Recently reading the book I am struck by how little has changed in the way assessment is thought about. Rowntree sets out systematically, chapter by chapter, the nature of assessment, its purposes, the question of what to assess, how to assess and so on.

In Rowntree’s chapter ‘How to assess?’ there is a section titled:

Idiographic vs. Nomothetic Assessment

Idiographic is about the individual while nomothetic is about the making of general laws. [3]

So in the case of assessment the idiographic is concerned with understanding the uniqueness of the individual, how the individual is thinking, how they are making music and what value they are seeking to give to their endeavour.

Set against this is nomothetic assessment that collects data about individuals aiming to understand people in general and this means measuring them against each other and against standards.

In England there are no agreed standards pertaining to the music curriculum 4-14. Music teachers are wary of going down the path of standardisation and there are good reasons for this. Yet, standards are what has driven education policy in England in recent years with standards no longer a matter of the local or national but a matter of international comparison leading to what for music teachers in the UK can be an overbearing and barley tolerable audit culture.

It is this culture that pushes against seeing the individual pupil and their musical work as ‘sui generis’ – in a class of its own. It is the audit culture that exasperates the long-standing tension between valuing the work of the pupil as sui generis and some external standard.

Rowntree cites William James on the tendency to classify and label the pupil.

 ‘’The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and dispose of it. ‘I am no such thing,’ it would say; ‘I am myself, myself alone.’’’

Writing in 1993 Ross et. al. noted that:

‘For many children assessment means enduring a form of mental and emotional derangement, the morbid exchange of a warm, living experience for a cold, dead reckoning.’ [4]

For Ross et. al, the radical solution found was to ensure that judgement in the arts ‘’must be and always remain ‘suspended judgement’’’ and thus provide the pupil with an experience that was uniquely freeing and empowering.

In this view assessment is quite simply a matter of sensitive conversation in which the personhood of the pupil matters greatly and far removed from being a unit of accountability.

‘Assessment consists in evaluating or judging the value of something, or someone, in accordance with certain expectations, an idea or a reference, related to personal and/or shared values.’


[1] Beauvais, M. (2011) Assessment: a question of responsibility. UNIVEST. Retrieved from

[2] Rowntree, D. (1997) Assessing Students: How shall we know them. Kogan Page.

[3] Greek words adopted by German philosophy.

[4] Ross, M., Radnor, H.,Mitchell, S. and Bierton, C. (1993) Assessing achievement in the Arts. Open university Press.


So, does the music count more than the people?

Laura Mullaly
Jun 16
Having a fab night at Homerton May Ball 2017 – Ceilidh and Silent Disco!! @Johnfinney8 where are you??! @HomertonCollege


In last weeks blog I cited Ceilidh and Silent Disco as possible examples of Thomas Turino’s category of ‘particpatory’ music making as distinct from ‘presentational’ music making.

‘Remember, ‘presentational performance … refers to situations where one group of people, the artists, prepare and provide music for another group, the audience, who do not participate in making the music or dancing.’ [1]

And ‘… participatory performance is a special type of artistic practice in which there are no artist-audience distinctions, only participants performing different roles, and the primary goal is to involve the maximum number of people in some performance role.’ [2]

Much institutional music education is predicated on the presentational mode of music making. I wonder if Turino has in mind a presentational approach common to North America in which high-quality concert performances lead the way based on a master –apprentice model of music education. [3] While this doesn’t seem to apply quite so well to the United Kingdom, when we examine the stylistic features that Turino’s ascribes to presentational music making we see, for example, characteristically closed scripted musical forms and organised beginning and ends, rather than short, open, redundantly repeated forms of participatory music, I think it does. [4]

For the presentational ‘Sound counts more than words. Music counts more than people.’ [5]

Laura went to the ceilidh and the silent disco intent on being musical where there were no artist-audience distinctions and where, like going to a party, you not only participate but also contribute to its success. The people count more or as much as the music.

In Cooke’s study of participatory music learning in a traditional society he reports on the Gaelic ceilidh as a model of social inclusion where community is engendered and individual identity celebrated. It makes room for all present, accomplished and less accomplished. Those present ‘endorse the sentiments of the song and the efforts and sincerity of the singer. [6]

In last week’s blog I suggested that music scholarship  provided a resource for music educators.

What might we take from being introduced to Turino’s categories?

  1. How could we rebalance the dominant presentational ethic with a participatory ethic?
  2. What would this mean for what is valued (assessed)?
  3. Could more attention be paid to music as a source of particular cultural values, the uses to which music is put in particular times and places?
  4. Could the music room be a place where together meaning and new knowledge is made?


[1] Turino, T. (2007) Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. The University of Chicago Press: London. (p. 26)

[2] op.cit.

[3] Allsup, R. (2016) Remixing the Classroom. Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis. (p.100)

[4] See Ibid. p. 59 for Turino’s full typologies.

[5] Allsup, R. (2016) Remixing the Classroom. (p. 100)

[6] Cooke, P. (1978) Music Learning in Traditional societies. In P. Leach and R. Palmer (Eds). Folk Music in School. ISME Yearbook, 9, 99-102)





Why music is not a core subject

Given the research evidence, why isn’t Music central to education policy? What should we be doing better to get that message out?

Why are we not a “Core” subject?

These are the cries of the beleaguered music teacher seeing time for their subject reduced, examination classes cut and staffing reduced.

The research evidence on the power of music is growing by the day. Active music making, assuming that it is regular and of high quality, can contribute to the enhancement of a range of non-musical capabilities and lead to other beneficial outcomes. This is broadly what the research says and what I think music teachers refer to when they invoke research evidence.

In this view Music in the curriculum is able to go beyond itself and serve aspects of general development.

Policy makers, by which I mean the current government, while acknowledging this, move quickly to the value of the subject itself, to its place in the order of things. They don’t dwell on how it is a servant to other subjects or some notion of general human development and well being, but as a subject of the curriculum that never has been ‘core’ and which is destined to remain marginal while at the same time recognised as part of a broad and balanced curriculum.

This is very much how it has been since the advent of compulsory education in 1870. In some exceptional cases headteachers and some former Local Education Authorities have given core status to music and the arts. David Hargreaves attempted this in ILEA in the late 1980s, for example. Today, some headteachers are committed to all pupils having an arts option at Key Stage 4 in spite of the Ebacc. Where there is this kind of commitment it most likely comes from an enlightened view about the nature of a liberal education.

While research on the power of music is heartening (and a life blood to organisations seeking funding) it may ironically serve to undermine the case for music as a subject discipline, acting as a kind of distraction from music’s core purpose of providing a unique way of understanding the world into which young people are growing. (Late edit: This is nothing to do with claiming music’s intrinsic value. See Wayne Bowman above.) From there many good things are likely to be accrue, many of those benefits claimed by the research. Getting this the right way round, I think is important.

Chris Philpott makes the distinction between hard and soft justifications for music in the book ‘Debates in Music Teaching’ and shows what a powerful thing music is, and not in the way that the research referred to above does. Its power lies in the way it is in culture and society as a significant form of meaning making.

Following James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in the late 1970s and the steady moves during the 1980s to form a National Curriculum, the concept of Core and Foundation subjects was established. Despite some making a case for a curriculum that was not hierarchical the Core-Foundation division easily won the day. Nothing much has changed since then except the coming of the EBacc, a throwback to the School Certificate subject grouping of the mid twentieth century. So, all the research in the world showing ‘the power of music’ and its contribution to human well-being and the making of smarter pupils is insignificant in the face of an ideology that champions the core, defines ‘academic’ in a narrow way and that sees STEM subjects as giving citizens economic advantage.

There has been talk of giving school leavers an app that will provide government with information about the amount of income tax paid by the individual and correlated with the subjects studied. In this way the value of a subject can then be directly liked to its value – its economic value that is. (By the way, it remains unclear whether there is a relationship between the study of the arts and the success of the creative industries, another common claim for treating music and the arts as significant.)
So music is not a Core subject. This is not to say that it has been and will continue to be valued as being worthwhile and in some places giving the appearance of being central to the school’s work – ‘core’ in a metaphorical sense.
I am a governor of a primary school which has three music graduates on the staff, a subject leader for music, a year 4, 5, 6 choir of over 100 (a third of the cohort), all year 3 engaged in First Access Strings, all pupils experience Steel Band etc. . At governor meetings there is no mention of Music, just improvement plans, targets and data, ways of presenting data, FSM success ratios etc. And in this discussion it is the childrens’ reading, writing and maths that is, well THE CORE.
However, since the debates surrounding the making of a national curriculum for music in the early 1990s, where there were interventions by high-profile celebrity figures such as Sir Simon Rattle and Pierre Boulez, successive governments have been wary of neglecting music. Hence Michael Gove’s swift and politically astute action in moving towards the making of a Music Plan in 2010.
If not officially a core subject it can only be enlightened headteachers, belligerent parents and talented music teachers that can create the illusion that music is core in their schools.

Who will try a dialogic musical gathering?

‘DLG (Dialogic Literary Gatherings) is a dialogic reading activity based on two principles: reading a classical literature book (such as Romeo and Juliet, the Odyssey, Don Quixote) and then sharing meanings, interpretations and reflections with the dialogic learning methodology. DLG are organised as follows:

Before the gathering, the class chooses a classical book of the universal literature, and agrees on the number of pages to be read before the next gathering; then, each participant reads the text at home and selects the paragraph he or she liked most or that caught his/her attention to share it in the gathering. During the gathering the moderator gives the floor to each participant, who reads aloud the paragraph and explains the reasons why he/she selected it; then, the moderator gives the floor to other participants so that they can discuss that paragraph. The same procedure is repeated with each paragraph for the full duration of the gathering.’ (

Could there be dialogic musical gatherings?

I once attended a meeting of a book club. I had read the designated book by Emile Zola and loved it. In the gathering, while there was a moderator present who had great knowledge of literary matters, not all spoke. In my case, despite my many thoughts about the book and lines of interest, my voice was quickly diminished by others who were clearly on the inside of literary criticism.

It wasn’t a dialogic literary gathering.

I recall being a teacher of PSHE (in order to fill my timetable) and using a dialogic approach I enabled group discussion of issues covered. I learnt how my role as a moderator could be minimal. The less the group deferred to me the fuller seemed to be the debate. The dynamics of the classroom changed, relationships different. For me this was learning to let go. Danny Brown tells about learning to let go here:

Back to Dialogic Literary Gatherings – I have heard of a primary head teacher who is thoroughly enthused by this practice, first adopted by one his teachers and now spread to the whole staff. Will there be improvement in the children’s reading, in their speaking and in their interthinking?

So what about a dialogic musical gathering?

Let’s decide on a musical work to listen to. Mmm! Now a technical challenge. How to make it possible for all the class to listen to the music at home? Any ideas!

If we can find a way then the task will be to note a passage in the music that is of particular interest. This may well encourage repeated listening and progressively sharper focus. Back in class I think we will be able to manage the sharing of thoughts about the music.

Pupils will need to communicate musically as well as verbally.

I will trial this with my U3A Group.


Three possible reference points for DLG.

The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas thought big about things and his theory of Communicative Action is no exception. The goal was to promote reason in a world where instrumental reason dominated, that form of reasoning that is dictated by ends, bringing things under control, achieving goals. This gets in the way of mutual understanding, democratic practices and a richer form of reasoning.

DLG models a democratic practice and at the same time touches Matthew Arnold’s “disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.”

While connecting with Richard Shaull, who, drawing on Paulo Freire, Richard writes: “There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

No composing before Key stage 4!

There is abroad the idea, and now shaped into an ideology, that knowledge comes before creativity. Such is the fervour of this poisition that in the case of music this is taken to mean that children should be protected from the art of composing until they reach the age of 14. This is the age that marks the transition from Key Stage 3 to Key Stage 4 and when a requirement of the GCSE exam taken at age 16 is that music is composed and presented for examination.

By knowledge is meant knowledge about musical notation (and sometimes referred to as ‘the theory of music’) and knowledge about the music of composers from the past. It might encompass knowledge of how to sing and play well, how to sight sing, but I rather think this will not be included in this particular conception of knowledge.

In pronouncing ‘no composing before Key stage 4’ we see highly stipulative definitions of both knowledge and creativity.

In an act of music educational conciliation I offer the following – how to incorporate knowledge of notation into your teaching in Year 7 and how this can enable musical composition. And how to broaden conceptions of both musical knowledge and creativity.

Notation is often introduced through playing the keyboard or some other instrument. Often teachers are mindful that this shouldn’t be some kind of code cracking exercise but that this involves aural grasp of what is to be played, so let’s sing it first, think-imagine sound etc.

Or let’s approach this through sight-singing? Here are some ideas.

Sing songs that have characteristic use of simple time rhythms ta tate ta ta-a  = crotchet, quavers, minum.

I realize that this takes Year 7 back in so far as they are capable of much more complex rhythms. But stay with me.

Up my sleeve I have the slow movement of Beethoven 7 and the rhythm ta tate ta ta  etc. and its four two bar phrases [late correction].

Introduce pitch- soh, la, me as found in song repertoire; play with a variety of patterns and variety of rhythms;

Use a two-line stave with sight singing of soh-me-la (G,E,A) with hand signs. Lots of playing with this over time, drills and starters.

Move to staff notation still on a two-line stave with ta tate etc rhythms.

Whole class instrumental call-copy using EGA patterns. Then call-respond.

Compose say Marches (have a characterful title eg March to the …; March for a…) using EGAD (two four bar phrases or say two one bar phrases plus on two bar phrase) add drone or ostinato bass. Notate on two-line stave; play each other’s marches; add missing three lines; add treble clef.

Sight singing in two parts. Two part songs.

Listen to In the Hall of the Mountain King – tate tate tate ta etc; rhythmically notate …….

So, year 7 composing with much knowledge: knowledge embodied, knowledge of processes and if the pupils’ creativity has been awakened, thought of as a life force, then we might expect aesthetic knowledge too.

What I have offered is a closed form of music education but one that makes sense of pupils composing music before Key Stage 4 as a source of providing a rich and varied form of musical knowledge and with the possibility of nurturing the creative impulse.

We might now be emboldened to engage in whole class improvisation using Beethoven’s rhythm as a starting point. Perhaps playful improvisation might contribute to fluent and expressive performance of music in general. Thus we move from closed forms to open forms.

Perhaps we might be inspired by Grieg’s creativity and conceive of a workshop approach as seen here:

Walford Davies, Master of the King’s Music  1934-1941 and Professor of Music at Aberystwyth University, is remembered in music education for his radio broadcasts for children at the beginning of the second world war. Music education historian Gordon Cox has this to say about his convictions.

‘His central concern was that ‘rhythmic melody’ could be regarded as a veritable mother tongue. He pointed to children who could rap out rhythm and develop four bar tunes: he had received such examples from four-year olds.

At the heart of his thinking, however, was the belief that written sounds were a trifle compared with the experience of the thing itself. The priority was first to teach children by ear, encouraging hearty team singing, then cultivating a decent tone, and developing the ability to sing by sight. But he was adamant that only when musical construction and design were addressed would ‘the full Hamlet’ be achieved. Therefore children should be given the chance to design their own tunes.’ [1]

Should not the ‘full Hamlet’ be available before Key Stage 4?

Should we not note the way in which very young children work on the songs their parents sing to them, playfully transforming the musical material?

Should we not note children’s capacity ‘to rap out rhythm’?

Should we ignore young children’s spontaneous song making so common in mid childhood and adolescence?

Should we really deny children’s creative impulse until the age of age 14 when music in school is no longer compulsory?

Should we not develop a plural concept of musical knowledge along with variegated notions of creativity?


[1] Cox, G. (2002) Living Music in Schools 1923-1999: Studies in the History of Music Education in England. Ashgate. (pp. 33-34)