Music education euro-centric or worldview?

In my blog of January 29th I drew attention to the ways in which Art and Music are constituted as GCSE subjects. In the case of Art, and unlike Music, students are thought of as burgeoning artists lightly burdened by contextual and theoretical knowledge. Knowing how to master processes of making is highly valued.

In Art the processes of making are considered educationally valuable and therefore assessed (valuable=valued=assessed).

This is not the case in Music.

In last week’s blog I moved on to consider the potential for Areas of Study to bring together subject content in a meaningful way. The statement below is encouraging.

‘An area of study might be, for example, a genre, style, musical device, idiom, musical process, period of time, cultural tradition or contextual influence.’ [1]

And these are only examples.

I proposed that here is an opportunity to include not just a range of music, but to create ‘difference’ by designing Areas of Study that open up different ways of thinking about the ways in which music is practiced.

In particular I pointed out that euro-centric norms can be avoided and in their place a wider view of music and musical practices adopted, what in wider educational circles is called a ‘worldview’ (nothing to do with world music). The distinction between a euro-centric and a worldview perspective is important.

Through a worldview lens all roads no longer lead from and to the mandatory Area of Study – Western European Art Music (WEAM) 1650-1910. Other Areas of Study are not seen through the lens of the mandatory study, although as noted in last week’s blog the list of subject content at present makes this problematic.

My example of four possible Areas of study attempted to create what I called a ‘dialogue of difference’. Each Area of Study would take students to a strange place. If not strange it would need to be made strange. Two examples I suggested were ‘Tonal Stereotypes WEAM 1650-1910’ and ‘The Global Hip Hop Diaspora’. The later might range across Islamic Hip Hop in Luton (or some strain of Hip Hop where you are), urban dissent in Cairo and Sao Palo fusions.

But enough of this, for I suspect that I may be engaged in a dialogue of the deaf and going beyond the scope of official thought and the capacity of those regulating the subject to think differently.

Nevertheless, it’s always good to imagine what might be, even what will never be, how music education at this level might be different, how it might connect with developments in musical scholarship which are rather more sensitive to a changing world than the iteration of GCSE Music syllabuses seem to be.

Is there nothing music education could learn from art education?


[1] See

Dialogue and Difference in GCSE Music

In last week’s blog I considered the balance of exam and no-exam assessment for Art and Music in the GCSE to be first taught in 2016. I highlighted differences in the way Art and Music approach processes of ‘making and thinking’ as sources of valuing what is important (what is assessed). [1]

Now I am thinking about another issue that aroused disquiet amongst those responding to the draft proposals – the singling out of a mandatory area of study.

In the new GCSE for Music, as in the old, the Area of Study acts as the structuring device. It is the place where with imaginative planning all things come together and make sense. The Area of Study can be thought of as the place where music is lived and re-lived together here and now in the classroom, while being in touch with the then and there, the how and why, the who and what of musical practice. There should be at least four areas of study.

In dealing with areas of study the draft subject content for GCSE Music published in July 2014 proposed that

  • at least one area of study must be drawn from music composed in the western classical tradition between 1700 and 1900 [2]

This caused some turbulence, contributed to an ISM campaign and there was a minor twitter storm.

It was seen by many as a symbolic marker of the way GCSE as a whole would be narrowly centered on one segment of the western classical tradition. One argument runs like this:

1700-1900 in the western classical tradition (WCT) marks the establishment of tonality and conveniently secures the theoretical template for everything else.

The list of subject content confirms this.

As a mandatory area of study the WCT 1700-1900 would in effect define other areas of study as Other waiting to be accommodated to ‘the chosen one’, WCT 1700-1900, ‘the special one’.

The list of subject content confirms this.

The objection to a mandatory area of study is that all others would be viewed from the perspective of ‘the chosen one’, ‘the special one’. This would encourage a process of ‘sameing’ bringing the ‘other’ into the totalizing orbit of the ‘special one’ with the ensuing violence done to ‘difference’. Why should other areas be made sense of through the prism of WCT 1700-1900?

The list of subject content presented justifies this question.

94% of those responding to the consultation (606 respondents) declared that the proposed content in Music was inappropriate. In response the government’s final judgment reads

  • at least one area of study must be drawn from music composed in the Western classical Tradition with all or the majority being composed between 1650 and 1910 [3]

The concession is minimal, the doctrine reinforced.

However, we note that:

‘An area of study might be, for example, a genre, style, musical device, idiom, musical process, period of time, cultural tradition or contextual influence.’ [2]

I take this statement as an invitation to uncover different ways of understanding music and musical practices and to explore different ways of studying music. So here might be a potential antidote to the hegemony of the mandatory 1650-1910 WCT.

So, let’s consider, for example, four areas of study working as a ‘dialogue of difference’ and offering alternative ways of thinking about music and thus furthering critical thought about musical practices.

The Hip Hop Diaspora: three case studies 1) local 2) far away 3) ……..

The Great American Songbook 1920-1950: making a canon

The rough and smooth of music 1750-2015: the uses of music in society and culture

Diatonic stereotypes 1650-1910

Some elaboration for this one. (I’m getting some really good ideas for the three above as well.)

Heinrich Biber’s Passacaglia in G minor composed in 1676 is for solo violin and shows Biber’s variation technique. The notes G-F-Eb-D are repeated sixty five times. These are the first four notes of the descending melodic minor scale or if you prefer the diatonic tetrachord. The pattern is a Baroque stereotype.

Other stereotypes 1650-1910 – any ideas?

In order to counteract the process of ‘sameing’ and its threat to ‘difference’, careful thought will need to be given to areas of study.

The example above attempts to explore what this might mean. In this example subject content would be defined in fresh and interesting ways. Means and ends could keep up a conversation.

What is urgently needed now is imagination from the exam boards and a conversation with teachers and pupils. In this way some of the tensions existing between differing standpoints might be alleviated and a GCSE in music might emerge that is more than a minor variation of the existing one.


[1] See

For ‘making and thinking’ read ‘performing, composing, appraising’.

[2] See

For the source of governmental ideology see blog below 18.12.2014

[3] See


GCSE and Music Education’s process ambivalence

This week saw the publication of the subject content for GCSE Music as part of the reformed programme for GCSE, AS and A Level examinations to be first studied in 2016.

Also published were the Confirmed Assessment Arrangements for Reformed GCSEs, AS Qualifications and A Level qualifications for first teaching in 2016.

Central to this are decisions about the balance of exam and non-exam assessment. The difference between the case of Music and the case of Art is striking.

‘GCSE in art and design are currently assessed wholly by non-exam assessment, because of the practical nature of the skills being assessed and the content focusing on the student as the artist rather than on art appreciation or art history.’

‘We propose that marks for non-exam assessment in GCSE, AS and A level music qualifications should be 60 per cent, reflecting the balance between the practical and theoretical elements in the subject content.’

In Art the content recognises ‘the student as artist’.

In Music there are ‘theoretical elements’.

In Art the skills assessed are of a ‘practical nature’.

Are there no theoretical elements in Art?

In Art is there no appreciation or art history?

Of course there is. It is inscribed in the process of art-making.

Art education understands that critical and contextual understanding is developed as part of the student being engaged in artistic processes and made manifest through their art-making. And, of course, this art-making is heavy with theory. Understanding of theoretical elements are made manifest in the out-workings of the student.

Different arts subjects have different histories, different trajectories.

Can Music Education learn anything from Art Education?

Might it have the desire to develop a curriculum and pedagogy that has trust in the process of music-making, trust in valuing the process of making, that is assessing and giving value to process?

Art Education has long set out how this is achieved without loss of reliability and validity while maintaining integrity. Art is a popular subject in part because of this along with its approach to the discipline and rigour of art-making.

Yet, Ofqual concludes that Music Education is not equal to this.

I suspect that there are voices within Music Education who would rather Music Education were not equal to this.

And now on to consider those Areas of Study and the opportunity to imagine the unimaginable. [1]


[1] For further discussion relating to the conceptual formation of GCSE Music see blogs of 29.08.14: 16.05.14; 04.04.14.

No, this is not scientific – just trying to improve my teaching

‘A composing conundrum’ was the title of Liz Glead’s blog last week. [1] It rang a familiar bell and connected with Ellie’s research (see last week’s blog below). And now Kate ‘On Developing Compositional Capabilities’. [2] Yes, another example of a music teacher researching their own practice. One of Kate’s intentions was ‘to resolve, in some measure, the persistent problems that blight GCSE composition in the context of a year 10 class.’

Kate set out to test ‘the capability approach’ through three cycles of action research. [3]

While we often speak of musical abilities, aptitudes, achievements, attainments and potentials, rarely do we speak of musical capabilities. Put in its plainest form, capabilities are the opportunities open to a person. [4] So, what composing opportunities do year 10 students identify? Starting from here opens up a fresh way for stduents to see their development as composers. It has a positive trajectory.

In Kate’s case students raised fifty-two capabilities e.g ‘have a long period to compose in’; ‘share work with others’; ‘feel good about composing’; ‘be individual or unique when composing’; ‘have freedom to just play around with ideas’; ‘continue composing after completing GCSE’… These fifty-two capabilities formed the basis of Kate’s composition teaching through year 10 and this involved continual re-evaluation of capabilities as the students’ composing progressed. [5]

Kate’s study met the six principles I previously set out as qualifying teacher enquiry to be thought of as research. Was it scientific? No.

While much educational research aspires to meet the conditions of science in order to achieve knowledge that is thought to be objective, reliable and verifiable, much doesn’t work like this. It works from a different set of assumptions. In the case of Ellie and Kate’s research the assumption is that in researching their own practice, their own classroom, there is no attempt to find some general truth about teaching, in this case composing at GCSE, as if this could done.

Instead there is an attempt to understand better their own teaching and to improve it, in this case improved teaching of composing for the benefit of their students. The teacher’s subjectivity is recognised and steps are taken to reduce this and to find some objective distance through the way data/evidence is collected and analysed.

While Ellie and Kate are unable to generalise their findings, they are able to offer theoretical ideas that support approaches to teaching composing for others to consider. They are able to make recommendations to their respective departments and schools as well as others more widely. In these cases teacher professionalism has been strengthened. Ellie and Kate are better equipped to evaluate the research findings of others and especially those presented to them within their schools. All this is part of their continual development as teacher-researchers and their increased standing as professionals.


[1] See
[2] Masters thesis 2014.
[3] The first cycle was evaluative, the second and third based on continual reflection and adaption.
[4] See Biggeri, M., Ballet, J. & Comin, F. (eds.) (2011). Children and the Capability Approach. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Capability theory is ultimately concerned with human flourishing and well-being. Composition capability=compositional well-being.
[5] This approach exemplifies a systematic application of student voice.

‘Miss, I’m sorry, but I hate composition …’

‘Miss, I’m sorry, but I hate composition – I’m rubbish at it. Why do we even have to do it?’’ said Rachel, during a year 10 composition lesson. Unfortunately, Rachel was not expressing an exceptional or unusual opinion. [1]

Teacher research starts with the teacher identifying a problem.

In this case Ellie was intrigued by the fact that although her GCSE class showed negative self-perceptions in respect to their composing capability, they were actually good composers.

PRINCIPLE 1: A particular problem is identified.

I will use the example of Ellie’s research to illustrate what might count as valid teacher research bearing in mind that teachers are in any case likely to be continually reflecting on their practice and changing it in the light of experience. But what counts as teacher research?

Ellie had identified a problem of professional significance to her practice affecting her students and herself in her situation together with them. Ellie writes:

‘The fundamental aim of this research project is to develop a better understanding of how I can cater to the needs of a GCSE Music class that is made up of different types of musician when teaching them to compose.’ [2]

This involved Ellie examining the notions of formal and informal music learning and the categories of formal and informal musician. This was important as in Ellie’s GCSE class, and from her relative inexperience as a teacher, there existed a clear distinction between these types each with a very distinct attitude towards composing.

Further to this, Ellie needed to stand back and review the place of composing in the curriculum. Why was it there? What was it for? How is it taught, how is it learnt? And why is it that experienced musician-teachers find it a challenging area to manage?

PRINCIPLE 2: The problem is made explicit by placing it in a wider context drawing on existing knowledge.

This enabled Ellie to pose three research questions:

1. To what extent am I able to facilitate my pupils’ access to composition tasks using skills that they already possess?
2. How can I enable my pupils to recognise the validity of their music ideas and to feel capable of composing?
3. To what extent can I help my pupils to develop and improve their compositional ideas without restricting their creativity?

PRINCIPLE 3: The problem is framed as an enquiry through the construction of research questions.

Ellie now makes clear that these questions can be answered best through an action research approach and makes a research plan. This involves planning a series of lessons comprising the first cycle of research. These lessons marked a departure from Ellie’s usual practice while the second cycle that followed resembled her normal way of working.

For each of the research questions Ellie identified sources of data which included questionnaires, group interviews, teacher observations and the assessment of pupils’ work. Thought was given to how the data would be analysed.

PRINCIPLE 4: Both methodology and methods are made clear.

In due course Ellie presents her findings by addressing each research question in turn and sets out the themes or issues that have emerged. These now inform her future practice but not before some reflection.

PRINCIPLE 5: Findings are presented and discussed with self-critique.

Teacher and pupils experience change. The teacher has developed professionally and the problem identified has been to some extent resolved.

Ellie is able to make a model showing how informal and formal musicians progress differently through a composition task before making recommendations that other teachers might consider, that is, if they see in this research similarities to their own situation. Others generalise and test relevance in their situations.

PRINCIPLE 6: New knowledge (theory) has been created and can be shared with others.

This knowledge is reasonably grounded.

Ellie now better understands her role in creating composers and better equipped to spot those snake-oil salesmen.


[1] ‘Creating composers: An exploration of the teacher’s role in GCSE composition.’ Univerity of Cambridge, Faculty of Education, 2013, page 1.
[2] Ibid. page 5.

Proper and improper listening in the draft GCSE for Music

Bullet point three under Appraising in the draft GCSE Music subject content document makes reference to

‘… attentive listening (rather than just hearing)’ … [1]

I had a quiet smile. You see the distinction made between listening and hearing has form (or should we say provenance?). It has been around for some time. For example, in Brian Brocklehurst’s ‘Music in Schools’ (1962) in the fulsome and informative chapter on musical appreciation we read:

‘Teachers of music must give careful thought to ways in which this tendency to hear but not to listen can be counteracted.’ [2]

The suggestion is that our students may be hearers rather than listeners. But how much do we know about how children and young people listen to music? Not very much I suggest. While we may know quite a lot about what they listen to and how frequently, there remains the suspicion that they may be listening in the wrong way, a kind of non-listening. That is, they are listening without sufficient attention, and further still, that they may be listening to the wrong kind of music inducing casual, lazy listening, treating music as merely background and above all without the intellectual seriousness and sanctity that proper listening to music demands. Hence the categories ‘proper listening’ and ‘improper listening’ (hearing).

It strikes me that this distinction merely patronizes children and young people.

Recently working with 13-14 year olds they told me about four ways in which they listen.

Dreamy listening;
Listening for inspiration;
Listening for detail;
Listening for imagery.

I wonder, does dreamy listening fit the improper category of ‘hearing’? Well, dreamy listening may well be a state of heightened attentiveness and a source of critical thought and the making of critical judgements? Who knows?

The distinction made between listening and hearing is zombie theory and an indicator of a deeper ideology in play that there is a right way to listen to music. That short utterance ‘attentive listening (rather than just hearing)’, which I have tried to give some context, may be the ‘give away’. [3]

Point 2 in the introduction to the Draft GCSE for Music states:

‘[GCSE music specifications] must encourage students to engage critically and creatively with a wide range of music and musical contexts, develop an understanding of the place of music in different cultures and contexts and reflect on how music is used in the expression of personal and collective identities.’ [4]

This powerful and highly commenable statement makes the case for recognising a relationship between music, society and culture. It celebrates difference. I wonder if the writers realise the radical implications of such thought and what critical engagement might mean for music thought of as a social-cultural practice. [5] Point 2 is an indication that some foundational thought has been engaged in by the writers of the draft. It is to be hoped that the exam boards will engage in even more foundational thought without eyes being distracted by the market.


[2] ‘Music in Schools’ by J. Brian Brocklehurst, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1962, 66-67. (0.1 p from Amazon)
Brian makes reference to a speech given by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1955: ‘This is the Golden Age of Music and Musicians. Music today is everywhere. It pours from every loudspeaker. It has degenerated into a public nuisance and should be downed.’ (From a speech given at the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund Dinner, St. Cecilia Day Festival, 1955)
[3] See Chapter 11 in ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience’, Routledge 2007 in which Gary Spruce examines the ways in which the ideology of aesthetic listening calls the tune.
For example, will different Areas of Study call for different ways of understanding listening?

Musical criticism and implications for GCSE

At the end of last week’s blog I posed six questions. The sixth question:

Do talking points lead to a mature culture of ‘musical criticism’ embracing what currently falls under ‘review, appraisal, evaluation, reflection’?

The English National Curriculum for Music 2013 opens with a ‘Purpose of study’ statement. Here we read ‘As they [pupils] progress, they should develop a critical engagement with music…’

I wonder what is meant by ‘critical engagement’?

The key word is ‘critical’. To be critical implies to be thoughtful, discriminating, analytical, reflective, evaluative, knowing, gaining insight and a symbol of becoming wide-awake to the world; musical experience calls for this. It calls for a growing awareness of what music is, how music is used, how music is given meaning and how meanings are continually negotiated and re-negotiated. It calls for a recognition that music has ‘human interest’; social, cultural and political. Without criticism we cease to be human. Without criticism music ceases to be a subject of significance.

‘A mature culture of musical criticism’.

The term ‘musical criticism’ has rarely been used in the context of music education, yet it has a long history and is what in part helps to constitute music as a human discourse. Of course, there can be no musical criticism without ‘music making’ and acquaintance with much music.

And now I have introduced the term ‘music making’. I think this is useful in that it is inclusive of the manifold ways in which music is created enabling the terms performing and composing to be opened up to diversity of practice, indeed it helps to see music not as a thing but as a set of human practices. Composing is hardly an adequate term to describe electronic musical production or song writing, for example. Music making and musical criticism are equally dependant upon listening thought of as music experienced either present or in mind.

At the time of the creation of GCSE Music in 1986 the Performing, Composing, Listening structure radically reworked the existing scheme, a loose framework of musical theory and practice. The assumption now was that composing, performing and listening were primary musical behaviours and of more or less equal standing. Yet, this was always problematic as listening has a strong claim to being a foundational behaviour and best understood as a multi-layered form underpinning music making and critical thinking about it.

‘Music Making’ and ‘Musical Criticism’ as an overarching two-part framework I would maintain enables a more integrated and coherent approach to the study of music. The disaggregation of listening disrupts the potential for a close-knit mutually informing making-critical dialogue. It is the quality of this dialogue that is the hallmark of meaningful arts education where by placing critical thought in the service of music making, the making and thinking process is enriched. In turn this calls for a respect for and appreciation of the provenance of diverse music and musical practices. This is what Visual Art in the school achieves so well. Art is a popular subject because it accepts the students’ artisic expressions as revealing their artistic knowing, a form of knowledge rigorous and disciplined. Music has been less sure about this.

In the case of GCSE music has been ambivalent about its identity, wishing on the one hand to achieve the outcomes attributed to an arts education while being reluctant to let go of ‘esoteric’ forms of knowledge as an emblem of rigour and academic credibility. In this the listening component in the form of a listening examination has become a peculiarity unconsciously informed by an old form of musicology which was dying at the time of the inception of GCSE. The potential for re-conceptualizing the subject through a reformed GCSE is great. At the same time the scope for re-imagining GCSE without a listening examination but with ways of showing critical thought about music is great too.

My morning newspaper reports that GCSE will be setting new standards, raising the bar, and there will be a consideration of what this will mean for music. How music is conceptualised as a subject will be critical in this. Apart from an uncritical attitude to how content is currently organised ie.’the holy trinity’ of Perfoming, Composing, Listening, one serious error will be to fall back on esoteric knowledge and what LJ calls a focus on ‘static elements’. [1] Another error will be to narrow what constitues legitimate music making and to privelege certain forms of musical knowledge over others.

Critical engagement with music. I wonder what the writers of the National Curriculum had in mind?


[1] This is a reference to a Teaching Music website forum post where LJ noted the imaginative teaching of a Chopin work. See The point made was that in this kind of teaching student’s understanding was being expanded beyond the requirements of examination questions and focus on ‘static elements’.

Teaching musical composition

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

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

Some teachers, I am one, are interested in the student’s impulse to compose, what gets them started, what is it that draws them on, what is it that needs to be expressed? In all this it is the musical idea that holds most fascination, where it comes from, what’s it for? Without idea there is nothing. Without some concept of what the work is there is nothing. The impressive LIC report (1) thinks of this as being related to the idea of ‘intentionality’, one of the ten themes emerging from the research.(2)

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

What struck me about the work of these beginning composers was the originality of their ideas. I encountered no musical idea that wasn’t fresh, imaginative. No derivations, no plagarisms, nothing ordinary. Every musical idea had a character of its own, a sensuous particularity, and the more I listened to each the more I wanted to hear it again to better understand its particularity and to see in it what I had previously failed to see/hear.(3) Sharing this process with its maker was how I was being a teacher of composition. These conversations can rightly be thought of as assessment, not assessment as measuring but as dialogue where interpretation, judgement and discrimination are at work. (4)

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

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

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

(1) See Listen Imagine Compose (LIC) Report (2014) Martin Fautley,
(2) See Witkin (1974) ‘The intelligence of Feeling’ for depth attention to ‘intentionality’ within the creative process.
(3) You may recall from a previous blog (May 5th, 2014, Teaching Music website) I dealt with the concept of ‘identity violence’ which reduces the scope of perception and experience. In this instance I am working to counter it.
(4) See LIC theme 4.
(5) Judgement, discrimination, interpretation at the heart of musical-artistic-aesthetic hermeneutic understanding ie. assessment with an epistemological basis.
(6) The interplay between intuition and analyis- see Swanwick, K. (1994) Musical Knowledge: Intution, Analysis and Music Education, Routledge.
(7) LIC theme 7.