On the nature of musical knowledge

Stuart Lock‏ @StuartLock  10h10 hours ago

Just returned home from the most amazing @CottenhamVC Dance show. Super proud of all the pupils. Such hard work from pupils and staff.

Here is a head teacher, may I say with acknowledgement to twitter, celebrating his pupils’ knowledge of dance, a remarkably rich form of knowledge.

But what kind of knowledge is this?

Clearly not propositional knowledge, the true statement of facts, but rather knowledge ‘of’ dance.

But what does ‘knowledge ‘’of’’ dance’ mean?

In last week’s blog (https://wordpress.com/stats/day/jfin107.wordpress.com) I drew upon the work of Louis Arnaud Reid in establishing the primacy of experience-knowledge in the arts. Yes, knowledge by acquaintance or as Reid puts it, the ‘occurrent experience of knowing and coming to know’. [1]

The dancers were of course both thinking and feeling, knowing in their bones and through intuition gaining knowledge unmediated by conceptual thought. [2] And to use another of Reid’s concepts, ‘meaning was embodied’. [3]

For Reid, this kind of knowing defies expression in the form of propositional statements. It is simply not reducible to such statements. Statements of fact about dance or music are another thing altogether, as is ‘knowing how’, or as some prefer, ‘procedural knowledge’. And the idea of musical skill doesn’t come close either.

The occurrent experience of knowing and coming to know are the reason for engagement in music and the arts. This is why they exist. To speak of musical knowledge in terms of the propositional statement of facts alone is a gross dissembling.

Thus, it is regrettable that the current calls for the bringing back of knowledge, for knowledge rich curricular, appear to insist on the one form of knowledge, that is, the propositional statement of facts. [4] Yet, there is a knowledge much more powerful.

We can only imagine head teacher Stuart Lock and the audience experiencing the CottenhamVC Dance show as a delight. They were the dance while the dance lasted. And that is something to celebrate.


[1] Reid, L. A. (1986) Ways of Understanding and Education. Heinemann Educational Books.

In last week’s blog I asked who would read the book ‘Learning to teach music in the secondary school’? In chapter 3 Chris Philpott addresses the question, ‘what is musical knowledge’? In the chapter the question is answered in relation to ‘the what, how and where of musical learning and development.’

[2] Reid uses the term cognitive-feeling as a way of conceptualizing pre-conceptual thought. He points out the reliance of psychologists on the concept of ‘emotion’ and the disregarding of ‘feeling’. Feeling, of course, has a cognitive component.

[3] Much of the world’s music is made without recourse to the propositional statement of facts. In our national system of music education there is a dialogue between different ways of knowing and coming to know ‘about’ music and we think this conversation is valuable.

[4] In the making of the new GCSE examination a new category has been created – knowledge. There is performance, composition, appraising and knowledge (In syllabuses this is expressed as knowledge and understanding.). Disappointingly, the knowledge here is knowledge as the true propositional statement of facts (wonderful things in themselves), a set of abstract concepts. This failure to pluralize knowledge is reflected in what is valued in the exam.


But will anybody read it?

‘It is commonly agreed that a main aim of education is the attainment and development of knowledge and understanding. The ‘knowledge’ which is sought is generally assumed to be what can be expressed clearly in true propositional statements of fact, of ‘discursive knowledge’ about history, geography, science, economics , technology …

The assumption is valid, as far as it goes, and these are important fields of knowledge. But is ‘knowledge’, ‘knowing’, the ‘cognitive’ to be identified with this, and confined to what can be said in ordinary or other symbolic language? Surely not. We speak of knowing through sense perception, of knowing people, works of art, the morally good and bad. We speak of knowing how. Yet we can not say adequately in clear propositional language what it is we know and understand in the various fields. Generally speaking our knowing and understanding of such things must, at least at the outset, be based on direct, personal, intuitive experience.’ [1]

Thus wrote Louis Arnaud Reid at the beginning of the preface to ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’.

Reid was responding to the proposal that all areas of knowledge, including music and the arts, could be understood as being rooted in a body of clearly stated facts. Musical knowledge meant knowledge about music.

Reid goes on to show how this reductive approach to the arts separates thinking from feeling, how music as embodied experience is lost to abstractions.

In our symposium ‘Learning to teach music in the secondary school’ held at this week’s RIME conference in Bath Chris Philpott, Gary Spruce, Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans and myself presented the problematic nature of learning to teach music in the secondary school at this time in the face of so much reductive thinking that is abroad, and not least in relation to how musical knowledge is conceptualised. Official documents assume a unitary concept of knowledge. There is nothing of the richness that Reid was concerned with, that which is intuitive, felt, experienced deeply and the source of meaning.

In the symposium we were reflecting on the book that we had contributed to and which is written for beginning music teachers and indeed those more experienced. [2] We wondered who would read it, how it would be used and if ignored what would be in its place. Would the new music teacher simply feed from twitter chat, promotional blogs, official policy documents?

The level of critical debate amongst music teachers rarely rises above the mundane, the self validating and the self protective, and there remains the cry of what shall I do first period on Monday morning. And of course there are some marvellous exceptions.

Yet there surely is a thirst to examine matters such as ‘the nature of musical knowledge’; ‘the nature of musical pedagogy’ and the ‘nature of music teacher education’ and the relationship between these, a thirst to stand back and give serious thought to the why, how and what of music education. There is indeed much evidence of a thirst for knowing about musical pedagogy, but is this in the context of considering the nature of musical knowledge? I think not.

The book ‘Learning to teach music in the secondary school’ provides an opportunity to do this without losing contact with classroom practice.

The book is full of powerful pedagogic knowledge, buzzing with propositions about music education that call for thinking and intelligent responses.

But will anybody read it?

Well the book is in its third edition, so somebody must be reading it somewhere, or is it sitting on a shelf. I wonder.


[1] Reid, L. A., (1986) Ways of understanding and Education. Heinemann Educational Books.

[2] Philpott, C., Spruce, G., Cooke, C. and Evans, K. (2016) Learning to teach music in the secondary school (3rd. Edition). Routledge.

How might music teachers come to know what and how to think about music education?

Below is a transcript of my introductory comments to the Music Mark Conference Symposium celebrating the publication of Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School in its third edition, edited by Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce. It is published by Routledge.

How might music teachers come to know what and how to think about music education?

Is it from official sources addressing music education, from government documents, from the perspective of Ofsted? Is it from those with sectarian or commercial interests in the advancement of particular forms of music education?

We take the view that this would be shamefully inadequate. Rather, our starting point is that new secondary school music teachers and indeed those currently serving should have ongoing opportunities to give thought to what a music education is, how it might be conceptualized and what it is for, and to be continually stimulated by fresh ways of thinking about music and music education in a way that seeks to bring theory and practice together. Thus, public policy, contemporary trends, off the shelf recipes and the fads of the moment are placed in perspective.

Learning to teach music in the secondary school involves hard work and careful preparation. To become an effective secondary school music teacher requires pedagogical and subject knowledge, an understanding of your pupils and how they learn, and the confidence to respond to dynamic classroom situations. Learning to teach music in the secondary school involves hard work and careful preparation. Learning to teach music in the secondary school requires careful preparation.

In the United States music teachers typically are provided with a three or four-year period of preparation in what is known as ‘pre-service education’. In England we do things differently. Recent government policy means that it is not uncommon for a beginning music teacher to have little or no specific preparation in coming to understand the structure of music as a discipline or a critical and historical understanding of the philosophy, sociology, politics and psychology of music.

The book Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School expresses a commitment to the making of well-educated, articulate secondary school music teachers able to ask difficult questions about how music education is, how it has been, how it might be, and able to critique and respond intelligently to whatever they are confronted with in their music teaching careers.

The book insists that the reader continually thinks, questions, reflects as they are led through fourteen chapters exposing ideas about the fundamentals that comprise a music education: how is a music education justified; what is a social-cultural perspective on contemporary music education; what is there to learn; what is the nature of musical knowledge; what do we mean by learning behaviours; what does progression in the performance of music look like; what is a music curriculum; what is involved in the process of planning; how is language used about music; what if we thought of music education as music criticism; what is assessment for learning in music; what are individual needs and what does this mean for music; how do we categorise Special Education Needs; what is the scope of music technology and what are the implications for pedagogy; what is creativity; how do we learn how to notate music; what is music education now?

You may note that in skimming the contents there is the ‘what is’ question, potentially the most demanding way in which a question can be framed. Gary, for example, asks: what is a social-cultural perspective on a contemporary music education and brings together recent musicological and ethno-musicological scholarship that causes us to own up to some of our longstanding unquestioned assumptions about music. Or what is a music curriculum? But there are ‘how’ questions too: how do we learn how to notate music; how is language about music acquired, and running throughout there is the ‘why’ question: why music education?

The chapters call for both thought and action with 123 tasks to complete. There are numerous examples of classroom practice thickly described. There is a vast array of academic references and ideas for further reading.

It has fallen to me to write the first chapter, and I feel a sense of pride in doing this. What do we expect from a first chapter in a book like this? It is titled ‘The place of music in the secondary school – Ideology – history – justification’.

As with each chapter I start by setting out its purpose.

By the end of the chapter you will be able to:

Discuss with other beginner teachers, with music teachers and school administrators the value placed on music education in the secondary school;

Examine critically the validity of arguments supporting the place of music in the secondary school;

Distinguish between justifications made for music education and music education advocacy;

Read with insight official documents defining the place of music in school and its contribution to the whole curriculum;

Create in outline the case you would want to present in support of musical study, whether in a job application letter, at interview or at a meeting of parents and governors.

In summary I write:

‘We have seen that the justification for music education:

Has a long and winding history tied to social systems and political arrangements;

Has been influenced by the power of ideas often serving particular interests, both individual and group, that have shaped ways of thinking about music and music education;

Has been conceived of as a civilizing influence, a shaper of character, a marker of the educated citizen, a great symbolic form, a language or indeed something that is good for you.

Whatever the justification, there remains a call to each new secondary school music teacher to ask: ‘Why music?’ Our responses can quickly resort to enthudiastic rhetoric and vague advocacy or draw on too many diffuse claims and arguments. We should take time to rehearse our case and be able to defend it in theory and practice.’

We (gesturing) the old timers make bold to pass on the Promethean flame of music education, if that is not too romantic an idea, in a way that the reader is able to identify the principles, musical and pedagogical, that underpin good music teaching. This would seem to be a worthy enterprise.

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





Why is learning from music classroom examples so difficult?

Randall Allsup, writing about laboratory learning says:

‘To illustrate what I mean by a musical laboratory, I offer some insights from my own practice. Yet I share Estelle Jorgensen’s caution that in reimagining practice it is ”easy to slip into a descriptive mode and address only literal situations in schools …. when teachers hear situations described that they believe do not apply to them, they are inclined to dismiss the entire argument … The difficulty of using literal examples is that they are taken literally rather than figuratively.” ‘ [1]

To take examples literally rather tha figuratively is an interesting point.

So what Estelle is saying I think is that as teachers there is a tendency that we observe/fix on an example of classroom practice and respond to it literally. ‘So is this what I am being recommended to do – replicate this way of working as seen here?’

At that point we may well say, ‘but my classroom is not like that and I …’ and thus dismissal takes place and the wider value offered by the example is lost.

I think this kind of thing happens a lot in music education.

There is the extreme response ‘we couldn’t do this here’. Perhaps the teacher is simply saying ‘ I can’t see myself in this, so it’s not for me’. And I have an extreme example.

In 1980 I spent a day being introduced to the work and principles of the School’s Council Secondary Music Project. In one of the examples shown to the secondary school music teachers we observed a teacher working in a  music room that had two grand pianos. They weren’t being used. The grand pianos were no part of the teacher’s work. However, one teacher present pointed out that he would be unable to work like this as he didn’t have two grand pianos in his classroom. This needs some thinking about. He was taking what he saw very literally.

One way forward might be to treat examples of practice as case studies and to do this thoroughly. The term case study is used widely to mean simply example. But case study is much more than this. It is a unique example of a practice and not in any way generalisable or replicable. It belongs in one place and at one time. It is history.

So if a case study is to mean anything, if it is to resonate with the outsider it requires a great deal of contextual information for it to have significance and validity. For a classroom musical practice to be understood and learnt from the outsider needs to know not only general information about the uniqueness of this situation but importantly what specific constraints and freedoms allow this practice to exist.

Then I think we may be able to move from the literal to the figurative and to engage with what is being offered.


[1] Allsupp, R. (2016) Remixing the classroom: Toward an Open Philosophy of Music Education. Indiana University Press. (p.69)

And cited Jorgensen, E. (2011) Pictures of Music Education. Indiana Press. (p.14)






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.





Worthwhile music making in ‘the wasted years’ [1]


It is difficult to imagine music existing other than in context, that is, in relationship to human interactions in specific places and at specific times. Well, we could think of music as residing in a library, in a score or on a recording existing in some purified realm free from danger. Helpfully we have moved away from such conceptions of music towards focusing on the act of music making, what people-groups of people do in the world. But when we make music in the classroom we will be taking part in a process of re-contextualising what is a living practice. In the classroom it can’t be as it was or is out there. It can’t replicate the relationships and meanings made elsewhere at specific times and under specific conditions. We have no alternative but to re-present it. How to re-present it is a challenge.

Equally challenging is the responsibility for selecting what is brought to the classroom in the first place. Some criteria, implicit or otherwise, for what material is thought to be worthwhile will be in play. And values and beliefs will be exposed through the choices made. Teacher and pupil orientations will soon be evident.

Teacher and pupil orientations

Figure 8 and figure 9 in Kathryn Jourdan’s ISME handout address the orientation of the teacher and pupil respectively. Download accompanying handout here

Amongst other things, Kathryn proposes that the teacher

‘introduces contextually rich, complex material which keeps offering fresh insights and challenges’

and furthermore that the teacher

‘embraces complexity, resists early closure and allows time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’

For the pupils’ part there is the call for

‘learning to be responsible to each other as they play, compose listen, craft, discuss together, leading each other into deeper engagement, facility and sensitivity’


‘to learn to stay in the encounter, resisting the desire for easy answers with which to close down learning.’

In thinking about all this my recent conversation with secondary music teacher Jo gave me insights into how this might be. Together we developed ideas about how to present to other teachers the possibilities opened up by introducing ‘contextually rich, complex material’ while keeping in mind infinite possibilities and the avoidance of early closure. Jo has been working with Steve Reich’s Different Trains with year 8.

Thinking Different Trains

Richard Taruskin writes:

‘’… in Different Trains (1988) Mr. Reich went the full distance and earned his place among the great composers of the century. …  Mr. Reich based the melodic content of the piece on the contour and rhythm of ordinary human speech. But in his case the speech consisted of fragments of oral history, looped into Reichian ostinatos, then resolved into musical phrases conforming to normal tunings, scales and rhythms of ‘Western music’, imaginatively scored for string quartet. These speech melodies were set in counterpoint with the original speech samples, all of it measured against a Reichian chug.’’ [2]

What if we presented the above for year 8 pupils to read? What sense would be made of it? You might say, ‘not much, it’s packed with sophisticated concepts’. I counted twenty-five! A lot of abstractions there. Please, not a list of ‘key words’. No, no, please. Handle abstractions with care.

But what is a speech melody? I guess year 8 know what a melody is and they have sung and imagined a good many musical phrases. Fragments of oral history? Counterpoint? Reichian ostinatos? String quartet? Not so likely.

Perhaps these will be things we talk about, ideas that become a part of our classroom discourse over time.

What do these pupils read in their English lessons, History, RE lessons? What would their English teacher say about the appropriateness of the above passage?

Well, a suggestion from Jo – what if we rewrote the passage above for year 8 to read or whichever group we might have in mind? And before they come to the lesson?

Taruskin continues by telling about the significance of the Different Trains. Reich’s childhood train journeys from coast to coast and the train journeys of children to Auschwitz.

I note above that Richard Taruskin places Different Trains in the 20th century canon of art music and Reich becomes a ‘great composer’. What a ‘talking point’. Jo’s pupils are well schooled in purposeful talking with ground rules well internalised. [3]

And there are lots more talking points. Who is a great composer? Who decides? What is art music? What is a canon? What’s your canon? Why does it change? Does it?

So perhaps the Taruskin text rewritten by the teacher could be a central resource.

Assuming there will be lots of reasons for making music in response to Different Trains, why would pupils have a reason for writing about their encounter with the music?

What narratives, musical and literary, will they produce as they develop their processes of making and how could these be shared with others?

What range of musical techniques might be taught?

How will technologies serve the musical impulses that arise?

At what points will Steve Reich be invited (metaphorically) into the classroom as a guest?

What range of intervention (disruptions) might the teacher prepare to help deepen and sustain the work?

What will mark the culmination of the work?

How will it generate fresh thinking, further possibilities, ideas about other good places to go?

How will the project be evaluated? What will be worth assessing?

Well, that’s enough. We should be ready now to ask one or two questions that will frame the project. Here’s one possible question:

How do personal histories become music?

Final thoughts

In Figures 8 and 9 Kathryn presents the idea of teacher and pupil orientations. How are each disposed towards encountering music? This I think is a helpful way of approaching the question of what is ‘worthwhile’ and one way of responding to Ofsted’s concern about the wasted early years of secondary school.

What contextually rich, complex material do you have to bring to the classroom?

How will you embraces complexity, resist early closure and allow time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings?

I have presented the case of Different Trains. There are a thousand other possibilities waiting to be explored.

The continuity between projects will be the processes of making and thinking music and therein will lie progression.


[1] See https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/459830/Key_Stage_3_the_wasted_years.pdf

The report is based on observations in subjects other than music.

[2] Taruskin, R. (2010) The Danger of Music and other Anti-Utopian Essays. University of California Press: London. p.101.

[3] I am hearing from music teachers about the value of teaching their pupils how to engage in productive talk. For example, Karen in her Norfolk school is impressed by the way classroom conversations now seem natural. See blogpost March 22, 2014 for ‘Talking to Think’.