Why music in 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.’ (http://www.schooleducationgateway.eu/files/esl/downloads/21_INCLUD-ED_Dialogic_Gatherings.pdf)

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: http://www.squeaktime.com/blog/letting-go

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)

Interesting musical practices

A group of sixteen secondary school trainee music teachers had noted that Indian music featured in a current GCSE syllabus and decided to explore the musical practices of India and the Punjab together as a group. There was already some knowledge of this within the group. Some had attended classical Indian recitals and there was knowledge that had recently been researched in preparation for the session.

I joined the group for the first part of the morning and had in mind the question:

How could a GCSE Area of Study that included the music of the Indian sub-continent open the minds of pupils to fresh ways of thinking about music and the ways in which it is practised?

What would it mean to view it as a socio-cultural practice?

How could its otherness be recognised?

I had written earlier about the dangers of ‘sameing’ that lead to an avoidance of the complexities of difference. (See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/gcse-music-and-the-dialogue-of-difference/) Was I making a fuss about nothing?

In Gary Spruce’s ‘Culture, society and musical learning’ chapter in the book ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School’ he points out that recent music scholarship proposes that ‘ … music can be understood fully and by implication, taught effectively if only one takes into account the social, political, cultural and economic factors that impact on its production, dissemination and reception.’ [1]

In this view the musical features, techniques and processes of Indian Classical music can only be made sense of inside a much larger web of human worldly activity that is much more than a GCSE syllabus is likely to recognise. And much more than what is conveniently labelled as ‘context’.

‘Context’ would seem an inadequate way of describing what is being proposed. The idea of context allows this worldly-wise music to be reduced to an add-on-by-the-way category and with culture thought of as a way of life discounted.

Turning to the trainee teachers and their workshop, they were well into making Indian Classical music. I’ve long been fascinated by the alap with its tasting and testing of the rag and then the moment of change locking into the thing itself. I think I would want to explore this in some depth along with why this rag and how can it claim to possess a particular ethos.

How are such meanings socially-culturally constructed?

What political circumstances lie behind the need to fix musical meanings?

As I thought about possible talking points I was reminded of the industry that has grown up around GCSE Areas of Study, the bite size information packs and the vast store of information about the music of India that is out there. Alas, information is not knowledge of any variety.

One trainee wanted to know about how Indian classical music had changed over time. Were its practices time-bound?

Just how old is the classical Indian musical canon?

How do its religious roots relate to its developing structures?

What is the significance of cyclical patterns?

Then, of course there is Bhangra and Bollywood and more opportunity to

‘embrace complexity, resists early closure and allow time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’ [2]

To offer such a rich topic as just one segment of an Area of Study would seem to be parsimonious by an exam board.


[1] Spruce, G. (2016) Culture, society and musical learning. In (eds) Carolyn cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Learning to Teach in the Secondary School. Routledge.

[2] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2016/08/25/music-education-through-the-lens-of-levinas-iv/

And  https://wordpress.com/post/jfin107.wordpress.com/5813





Knowledge, creativity, music education and making special

A strong current within contemporary educational discourse within England is to subjugate the idea of creativity to the power of knowledge. Simply put – you can’t be creative until you know alot and there is talk of a knowledge-based curriculum the fruits of which may in due course be creativity. The creative impulse is held in check until such times as sufficient inherited wisdom has been assimilated. This position rests on closed conceptions of both creativity and knowledge. [1]

However, like knowledge, creativity can, and often is thought of as a multi-varied concept. It can be defined and deployed in a variety of ways.

One way in which to celebrate this fluidity is to link creativity to the act and art of making things, making music, for example – making a perfomance, making a piece of music. ‘Create’ and ‘make’ would seem happy enough bedfellows.

Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayke uses the term ‘making special’ in her book ‘Homo Aestheticus: Where art comes from and why’ arguing that art is central to human evolutionary adaption. The act of making special, a creative act, is a human behaviour that enables participants to grasp and reinforce what is important to their cognitive world. [2]

I wonder what kind of knowledge is being invoked here.

Art educator Richard Hickman develops the idea of making special.

‘There are many who do not consider themeselves to be artists, but exhibit all of the tendencies which artists often display: a passionate desire for creating something which looks good and feels right – something which has particular significance, whether it be a birthday cake, a garden, or a hairstyle. In such activities intuition, expression, skill and a consideration of aesthetic form – all attributes of artistic activity – are considered important. What everyone needs is the opportunity to create something of aesthetic significance, that is something which has meaning for the person who created it. The term which I prefer then is ‘creating aesthetic significance’. ‘ Creating’ because of the word’s association with creativity and inventiveness, concepts which have particular resonance when talking about human development; ‘aesthetic’ because because we are concerned with the senses, while ‘significance’ is associated with meaning and ‘signs’ which are highly expressive and invite attention. I am not aware of any culture in the history of mankind which does not create aesthetic significance.’ [3]

‘Intuition, expression, skill, aesthetic form’ – I wonder what kind of knowledge is being invoked here and how will it interact with knowledge of existing musical practices? It is the creative management of this interaction, which will include the judicious selection of what is placed before pupils, that requires the teacher to exercise great responsibility.

The call then is to give dignity to creativity within the curriculum at all ages and stages and to see it as co-habiting with multi-varied forms of knowing lest the calls for a ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ become a destructive dogma.


[1] For a valuable discussion of closed and open concepts see Goehr, L. (2007) The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An essay in the philosophy of music, Oxford University Press pp. 90 n.

A full overview of the idea of creativity can be found in Pope, R. (2010) Creativity: Theory, History, Practice. Routledge.

[2] Dissanayake, E. (1999) Homo Aestetheticus: Where art comes from and why, University of Washington Press.

[3] Hickman, R. (2005) Why we make art and why it is taught. Intellect Books, pp 103-103.





Some problems with conceptual musical understanding

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.

Choral reading

Talking, reading and writing about music is my straightforward way of thinking about the part music education can play in whole school literacy development. In my Aspects of Literacy blog (see  https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2016/09/08/aspects-of-literacy-in-the-music-lesson/) I placed these activities outside of the medium of musical expression itself. They were presented as the means through which we can think about music. Talking about music, reading and writing about it as means of extending musical understanding. That was my line.

But of course talking and speaking, can become the music too, as can reading out loud, and are closely allied to what in music education we refer to as vocalisation, thought by many to be the most elemental source of musical cognition. Vocalisation is the term we use to encapsulate the myriad ways of using the voice musically.

Motherese, rhyming, chanting, rapping, singing, reciting and choral speaking, for example, are examples of culturally embedded modes of expressing the musical impulse and sources of making meaning.

At the close of my Aspects of Literacy blog I recommended talking to the English teacher. The english teacher will know a lot about language and literacy. My experience of such discussion highlights the complexity of finding common ground such are the differing perspectives of the English teacher and the Music teacher. However, I have found these discussions nearly always enriching.

I recently had the pleasure of adjudicating a primary school poetry speaking competition. Here was poetry coming alive involving movement and drama and learnt by heart. I was pleased to tell my English colleague, Gabrielle Cliff Hodges, about this leading to Gabrielle telling me about her trying the approach of choral reading within her subject.

The term choral reading is used to mean a reading in which multiple voices are ‘orchestrated’ in order to construct a reading of a poem. Gabrielle told me how English trainee teachers create poetry anthologies through a process of using their voices like musical instruments to create their readings of different poems. In coming to decide on how to read the poems, groups find themselves arguing about meanings and the range of vocal qualities that can be brought to bear. Human voices are used like musical instruments to create harmony or dissonance, rhythm or counterpoint, hence a choral reading. [1]  Oh, and what about cadence?

All this reminds me of a way of working with vocal material in music lessons. We might call it orchestrating the song although that would imply the use of instruments. I have in mind song arrangement and not really the same as making a cover version.

The song/vocal material, as in the case of choral reading above, has meanings to be argued about alongside decisions to be made about the use of expressive devices in order to re-present it.

The song/vocal material is of course a form of poetry and we will have something to talk to our English colleagues about from the music teacher’s perspective. In turn listening to the English teacher will be instructive. And I know one school where time is allocated for perspectives to be shared and common understandings to evolve between music and English.

As is quite usual I am writing from a secondary music teacher’s perspective. How different must be the primary teacher’s perspective on all this. Or is it?

And do secondary school music teachers think of themselves as teachers of english? Ofsted expect music teachers to promote literacy in their lessons. But doesn’t this need to be handled with care even if ‘all teachers are teachers of english’.

I wonder, has my love of language come through my music? Anyway, wherever it came from I am grateful.


[1] Gabrielle describes the process in more detail in a forthcoming article due to be published later this year.