Music Education through the lens of Levinas (iv)

Kathryn continues:

What might characterise ethical music education?

Firstly, how might the insights developed through my study contribute to thinking within music education?

How might practices of facing within a Levinasian looking into the face of the Other provide a robust ethical underpinning for thinking about and for reorienting practice in the music classroom?

This ontological basis generates a plurality of epistemological approaches which enable and explore different aspects of music-making, but which all spring from the initial ethical impulse of music-making as ‘putting a world in common’.

This recontextualises competing ideologies of aesthetic versus praxial, for instance.

Aesthetics regains its ethical moorings, where making music is primarily a response to seeking the face of the Other, seeking to put a world in common.

The development of musical practices, competencies and skills is conceptualised as ethical endeavour oriented towards drawing others into a world made common and into the infinity of music and of music-making

So what might the implications be for classroom practice if we look through the lens of Levinas at what we do? See Figure 8 on the handout

  • The teacher learns alongside the pupils
  • The teacher is responsive
  • Complexity is embraced
  • Early closure is avoided.

What might be the implications for educational structures in the light of Levinas?

  • The model of knowing prescribed by exam boards and policy-makers is an ethical issue
  • Room must be allowed for the messiness and costliness of ethical encounters in learning
  • There is a ‘Taking of responsibility’ rather than ‘managerial accountability’
  • Assessment will be non-totalising

And finally, What might be the implications for conceptions of music-making in the light of Levinas

  • The primary orientation of music education would be to bring pupils into an encounter with the Other, enabling ‘the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality’. ‘The Other’ indicates a spectrum from:
  • my immediate neighbour: the pupil next to another pupil in the classroom, the pupil in relationship with me as teacher, the neighbour who teaches Amez the drums


  • the more distant Other of the ‘world music’ lesson, whose musical expressions are brought into the classroom, and into an encounter with whom the teacher seeks to draw the class


  • the infinite Other that is music-making as a social activity, a discipline, an area of the curriculum and a ‘musical work’, which teachers seek to draw pupils further into, and into which teachers themselves seek to enter further, with no end to the processes of learning.
  • This ontological basis generates diverging epistemological approaches.
  1. Aesthetic models of music education emphasise the development of aesthetic sensitivity as pupils they look into the ‘face’ of the Other through music-making, or into a piece of music functioning as an Other, with form and expressivity, through which the voice of another may be heard. As aesthetic sensitivity develops pupils are more able to discern the face, or the ‘voice’ of the Other and to be responsive to the ethical ‘call’ they find there.
  2. Praxial models of music education emphasise the learning of skills within a tradition of music-making which enable pupils to ‘offer the world to the Other’, ‘putting in common a world’ hitherto their own. The pursuit of excellence in performing and composing allows pupils to come into encounter with the Other more fully as they become more proficient in drawing in their audience to the ‘world’ they share with them.
  • A radical openness allows pupils to encounter the music of other cultural settings without needing to colonise or dominate. The voice of the Other is allowed to speak within their own rich, cultural context and leaves a ‘trace’ which changes pupils, musically and ethically.
  • In this journey of encounter and responsivity pupils don’t ‘return to the same place’, as Levinas points out Ulysses did, but find themselves changed, in a different place as Abraham did, deeply challenged, able to experience a transcendence of their own situation and circumstances, finding new musical worlds, new strengths or sensitivities, deeper relationships and responsibilities.
  • The hospitality of which Lee Higgins writes is a response to the ethical call in the face of the Other. Shared cultural forms allow the Other to come to belong as well as to remain distinctive, different.
  • The outward-turning nature orientation grounds musical experience in terms of relationship with and responsibility towards the Other. It reorients the intention of self-expression towards a ‘putting a world in common with the Other’, giving a fresh rationale for developing technical skill and excellence.


For the full text of Kathryn’s thesis see

Music Education through the lens of Levinas (iii)

In last week’s blog Kathryn gave two examples of pupils’ ‘practices of facing’ drawn from many which were observed as pupils encountered the Other through class music-making, and of how they might be understood as agential in response to the layers of social and educational reality which shape their experience of music-making in school.

Kathryn continues:

From pupils’ perspectives upon encountering the Other though music-making were drawn themes which were then developed using the lens of Levinas’ thinking, from which four strands emerged:

Music-making as a language

Music-making as complex and rich in context

The infinity of musical knowing

Music as an end in itself

The first of these took my study down an unexpected alley, and I present it briefly as an example of the to- and froing of the analytical process.

Two of the smaller group of pupil participants, Amy and Kirsty, had repeatedly alluded to music-making in terms of language – Amy talked of musical expressions around the world being ‘in a different language’, yet open to everyone to enjoy, if not to understand. Kirsty commented,

‘Everybody has music. Like languages. You have languages to speak to other people. But not everybody speaks a certain language but everybody kind of speaks the language of music because everybody has music’

Notions of music as a language have been fraught with difficulty over generations, and I was cautious of this particular path of enquiry. But the emerging theme from the two girls’ interview material couldn’t be ignored.

I placed their perspectives alongside Levinas’ writing on language, where the act of looking into the face of the Other is born of the same ethical impetus to reach out to the Other that motivates the act of speaking in every language. Levinas sees the use of language as an offering of the world to the Other, and writes of ‘speaking the world to the Other’ (1969:173-4). Before any meaning is communicated, language reaches out and puts the world in common. Using language is an ethical act which opens up a world between myself and the Other.

Dare we see music-making in these terms, I wondered? Levinas’ reorientations of notions of language powerfully expresses the vulnerability which music-making entails as we are ‘inserted into the world’ as we make music, with, he says, ‘all the hazards and risks of all action’, in a generous offering of the world, putting a world hitherto mine in common (1969:174).

This reorientation would have profound ramifications for an understanding of the ‘aesthetic’ which would regain its ethical moorings lost in post-Kantian thinking, as making music (and creating art) would be primarily a response to seeing the face of the Other, and would seek to put a world in common.

What, I began to wonder, would the music classroom be like if we regarded music-making in this way?

What might my own corner of the music profession look like if we embraced this ethical understanding of what we were doing as we made music?

So a series of ‘What if?’ questions led into my final research question and a presentation of the study’s conclusions

  • What would the consequences be of a conception of music-making as ‘speaking the world to the Other’, as first of all an ‘ethical gesture’ (Levinas, 1969: 173-174)?
  • What would it mean if in the music classroom we understood music-making as first of all an act of reaching out to ‘look into the face of the Other’, countenancing difference without totalising practices?
  • What would it mean for music to be embraced as complex and rich in context within the music classroom?
  • What would it mean for knowing in the music classroom to be open to the ‘infinity’ of the subject?
  • What if aesthetic encounter were understood as ethical endeavour?
  • What if the striving for technical perfection were seen as ethical endeavour?
  • What happens if we understand musical performance as drawing others into a face-to-face encounter with the Other?
  • What happens if we conceive of musical performance as akin to ‘teaching’ in its presenting of the Other?
  • What if we allow the music profession to be transformed by this reorientation?


Note: References will be provided at the conclusion of the Levinas blog sequence.

Music Education through the lens of Levinas (ii)

‘Traditional understanding of human existence has been that it is primarily epistemological: our higher understanding in the sciences, for instance, is grounded in our view of how we can know the world around us. Levinas, however, grounds epistemological practices in the ethical condition that underlies human existence. It is our openness to the Other as we look into their face which is the condition for processes of ‘knowing’. The encounter with the Other ‘calls us into question’ and through this process of interrogation, we can come to know.’ (See Music through the lens of Levinas (i) below.)

In part (i) I introduced the work of Kathryn Jourdan who set out the basis for her research rooted in the thought of Emmanuel Levinas along with her two research questions:

What light does Levinas shed on conceptualisations of music education as ‘ethical encounter’?                                                                               

How do pupils encounter the Other through music-making?

This week Kathryn introduces her fieldwork and provides two examples of ‘facing’.

In the music classroom: fieldwork

So I went into a local high school for one academic year building relationships with staff and pupils, following one class of thirteen to fourteen year olds, in their last year of statutory class music provision, in order to gain some insight into my second research question:

How do pupils encounter the Other through music-making?

A critical realist framework meant that my ethnographic investigation could be situated within a stratified social ontology, following the thinking of Margaret Archer, where properties and powers are identified as they emerge from different levels of social structure, so that it is possible to present something of the interplay between the structural pressure pupils and staff are under, and the ways in which individuals either acquiesce to these pressures, or resist and subvert them, exercising their agency.

Firstly, in order to investigate the wider social and educational context of pupils’ experiences of music-making, multiple interviews with staff members yielded perspectives which underwent open coding, along with notes from participant observation, from which themes emerged. These themes were then re-examined through the conceptual lens of Levinas’ thinking.

Interviews with the participant class and in particular with each member of a smaller group of pupils, were similarly coded alongside observations, and emergent themes examined using thinking tools from Levinas. The stories of each participant of this smaller group were told, and themes explored to draw out and identify their ‘practices of facing’.

Just two strands which emerged are presented here, to give a flavour of these analytical and reflective processes, represented in Figures 3 and 4 of the handout.

One strand which became apparent through initial interviews with staff was the pressure to shape the music curriculum of the first two years of secondary school (equivalent to the first three years in England) in order to provide an efficient route into the specifications of the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s examination courses in the subsequent years.

One teacher commented that she simply had to ‘push out the unnecessary’ leaving in the curriculum ‘only what’s necessary to learn’ in order to pass the exams.

The effects of this pressure towards efficient curriculum delivery might be seen as part of the wider discourse of performativity within educational policy-making, where ever more efficient means need to be developed in order to produce defined outcomes.   This in the name of accountability, but a newer version of managerial, audit-based accountability rather than the older one formerly embedded in a professional ethic.

In the classroom, however, pupils did not necessarily accept the restrictions imposed by narratives of efficiency. In a lesson led by a student teacher the class were being introduced to sounds of the Javanese Gamelan, and watched a clip of video showing a group of people playing together in a public space. Here’s what I wrote after observing one pupil’s response:

Amez asks, ‘Is that not rude, Miss, that the older man playing the gong sometimes falls asleep. Is it not rude while everyone’s playing?’ ‘An older man could teach a younger one to do it’. He’s raising rich points for learning, here. These are fundamental questions of about how this music operates in this place as part of this tradition. It affects the way people relate to each other. Amez is sensitive to this.

The student teacher however was under pressure to deliver her predetermined learning outcomes for the lesson. Instead, she hurried the class on, not able to attend to Amez’s enquiry, although this might have led to a rich, if unplanned exploration which might have drawn pupils further into hearing the voice of another, and perceiving the call to ethical relationship. Instead, the class were required to turn their backs on each other, sit at individual keyboards, and this act of communal musical expression from a distant context, rich with social meaning, led into a practical task of reading pitch patterns from the board and reproducing them. The rhythmically compelling features of the music which the class has responded to instinctively earlier in the lesson by drumming fingers on desks, were now forgotten, as only the parameter of pitch was being valued here, a convenient element abstracted from another’s whole.

The commitment to inclusivity and ease of access to the music exams has shaped the written paper, where multiple choice questions and tick boxes have tended to proliferate, and complexity has been eschewed, allowing for ease of marking, in a drive for increased efficiency. This has in turn shaped the nature of the musical knowledge which the SQA values, as I found out one day early on in my year at the school:

The class is given a listening task as a lesson-opener. Using a CD of examples from the exam board, with extracts of music from contrasting genres and cultural expressions, their music teacher poses questions. An extract from the show ‘Riverdance’ is played.

Almost all the girls in the class, sitting apart from the boys, respond to the music by dancing in their seats. A frisson goes round the room as the castanets enter and two girls on the far table pretend to play them, hands held high in the air. Yet the task at hand is now to identify ‘which sort of music this is’, choosing from a selection of ‘concepts’ specified by the exam board’. ‘Folk’ most pupils suggest as they enjoy and identify with the ‘Celtic’ sounds underlying the music’s foreground. ‘It’s the rhythm they make in Latin America’ the teacher corrects, insisting on upholding the neat categorisation into which the exam board had squeezed this track. I empathise with the slightly dazed, deflated response to this outcome prevalent amongst the class. They have enjoyed the music. Some have responded physically and with pleasure, feeling that this was in some way ‘their music’, but they have reached the ‘wrong’ answer. Their responses must be corralled into one of the exam board’s own categorisations. The pupils’ openness to and encounter with the music has been shut down prematurely. The required answer is quite clear, it seems.

Here, the exam board’s categorisations of musical expressions from different places around the globe has brought about a totalising brand of knowledge, which allows no room for the pupils’ responses, visceral and joyful. Nor does it allow for complexity, for multiple influences, But the pupils manage to allow infinity to break into to closed circles of totality in these two examples, exercising their agency and subverting to some extent the totalising practice imposed upon them.

These are just two examples of pupils’ ‘practices of facing’ drawn from many which I observed as pupils encountered the Other through class music-making, and of how they might be understood as agential in response to the layers of social and educational reality which shape their experience of music-making in school.

Music education through the lens of Levinas (i)

Last week saw over 1,000 music educators gather at the 32nd World Conference of the International Society for Music Education in Glasgow. There were keynote speakers, symposia on a range of topics, concerts, poster sessions and the reading of research papers. There was an embarrassment of riches.

During August I will serialise one of the research papers- Kathryn Jourdan’s ”Through the lens of Levinas: ‘practices of facing’ in the music classroom and beyond”.

In this Kathryn presents an ethically grounded perspective on music education. I hope you will find it challenging and thought-provoking. Following the fourth installment I will place the whole in the scholarly articles section of the blog site with full referencing.

ISME paper July 2016

Through the lens of Levinas: ‘practices of facing’ in the music

classroom and beyond

Kathryn Jourdan

  • Introduction

This paper aims to give a brief overview of my recent PhD research.   The central focus of the paper concerns the field work I undertook in a Scottish high school.

At the heart of my presentation is an attempt to briefly unpack two strands of Levinas’ philosophy, strands which provide tools with which to explore my observations in school. Through this lens, I present what I have termed pupils’ practices of facing which I conceive of as agential. From these are drawn the paper’s conclusions, which propose an underpinning, ethical orientation to anchor a diversity of approaches within music education.

I aim to give glimpses of different stages of the research process through a small number of examples.

A series of questions emerged for me, as I went from playing in a symphony orchestra and working in inner city schools on creative projects, to teaching practice in the music classroom of an affluent rural secondary school:

‘How do young people encounter difference in the music classroom?’

‘What sort of responsibility does the music teacher have in these encounters?’

‘Is it even ethical to use another’s music in the classroom?’

Ten years after these formative experiences I went back to university to explore these questions.

For my Master’s fieldwork I visited a setting on the fringes of Britain where, for geographic and historical reasons, encountering difference has become a habit of daily life. At Shetland’s main High School in Lerwick, and in the wider community, I observed some inspiring practice, where music-making, rooted in a thriving local tradition, provides a mode of encounter, enabling a welcoming–in of the stranger, bringing fresh sounds and perspectives which open up the world and enrich local musical expressions.

As I moved into doctoral study, I began to trace the development in the research literature over the past few decades of conceptualisations of music-making as relationship, then as ethical relating, which gives agency to the participants.

Christopher Small’s influential work on ‘musicking’ suggests that it is from within the local, situated set of relationships, which come into being when people make music together, that musical meaning arises, where ‘ideal’ relationships as understood by the particular community who are making music together are ‘modelled’.

More recently, Lee Higgins has drawn upon the work of Derrida – someone close to Levinas – to build a conception of community music-making as an act of hospitality, welcoming others in to cross the threshold, inviting them to come to belong.

Using the language of ‘virtue ethics’ Wayne Bowman sees experiences in music-making as ‘ethical resources’:

‘as practices in and through which people wrestle with and seek to answer the vitally important educational question, ‘What kind of person is it good to be?’

And critically, Bowman challenges the division between intrinsic and extrinsic values, between the inherent and instrumental benefits of music education, which have been debated since Plato’s time. Something can only be of value if it is a contributory good to human thriving.

Drawing upon these building conceptualisations from the literature I sought to investigate how ethical encounters through music-making might work.   And in exploring notions of ‘the other’ I came across the writings of French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and formed my first research question:

What light does Levinas shed on conceptualisations of music education as ‘ethical encounter’?                                                                                

  • Levinas

Levinas is known for his exhortation to us to ‘look into the face of the Other’.

A rather clumsy term, the ‘other’ has long been used in social science to denote those marginalised or ‘othered’ by social practices.

Hegel was among the first to introduce the idea of the other as a constituent of selfconsciousness – the self needs the other in order to define itself.

So notions of the ‘Other’ have come to suggest ‘that which is not us’, whether it be the one we see face-to-face or the distant Other as radically different from our self, whose difference is crucial to the very formation of ourselves, our own subjectivity.

In Levinas’ philosophy the relation to the Other becomes the first concern before all else – pre-ontological, or ethics as first philosophy – except Levinas uses the term ‘ethics’ not in a traditional sense as a code of morality or moral decision-making, but rather as a relation of our unending responsibility to the Other, in whose face we perceive an ethical call.

In his first major work, Totality and Infinity Levinas draws out two contrasting orientations to the Other:

  1. In the first, Totality, we seek to make the Other the ‘Same’, categorising in order to control, and to dominate.   It was in response to the dehumanising processes of the Holocaust that Levinas, sensing a ‘crisis of humanism’, was motivated to find a path towards a ‘new humanism’, seeing that the ‘totalising’ orientation of our Western philosophical tradition has led again and again to colonisation, oppression and destruction (Katz, 2012a; 2012b).
  2. Levinas exhorts us to take on a fresh orientation, where we perceive Infinity in the face of the Other. The Other is profoundly different from us, but for whom we are unendingly, ethically responsible, and who ‘teaches’ us, always bringing us ‘more than we contain’. Levinas talks of the ‘face’ to suggest a whole which overflows perceptions of features and which cannot be categorised or fully grasped. In the face of the Other we glimpse an infinity, he says.

Traditional understanding of human existence has been that it is primarily epistemological: our higher understanding in the sciences, for instance, is grounded in our view of how we can know the world around us. Levinas, however, grounds epistemological practices in the ethical condition that underlies human existence. It is our openness to the Other as we look into their face which is the condition for processes of ‘knowing’. The encounter with the Other ‘calls us into question’ and through this process of interrogation, we can come to know.

The notion that radical otherness, diversity, is essential for us to be able to come to know is one that we would do well to dwell on in our current political times.

Levinas writes that language is born out of this relation; ‘The beginning of language is in the face’ (Levinas, 1988: 169-170).

To speak is to make the world common, to create commonplaces (Levinas, 1961: 76).

Language is understood by Levinas as a reaching out to the Other, a primordially ethical act before it is a communication of any specific meaning.

  • Levinas and education

So what might this mean for education?

Levinas published his first major philosophical work after many years as a teacher, and saw teaching as transformative – ‘the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality’ (Levinas, 1969: 171).

Philosopher of education Paul Standish’s view, following Levinas, is that the content of the curriculum may be seen as a form of relation to the Other. He writes that

Subjects are language to the extent that they are ways of thinking and reasoning about the world that have passed down through the generations, where this thinking and reasoning essentially is language (Standish, 2008: 65).

The role of the teacher, according to Levinas, is not that of the Socratic midwife attending at the birth of knowledge in the learner. The teacher’s role is rather to point beyond, drawing pupils further into the infinity of the subject and the questions it raises.

Standish writes, ‘To cast the teacher as the conduit to the Other in this way, through the language to which she gives the learner access, is to see herself oriented by her own relation to the Other’.

  • And music education…

So what does this mean for our understanding of music education and of music-making if we are to ground our practice in a profound responsibility for the Other, listening out for, and hearing the voice of the Other

And if we seek to eschew totalising practices in order to remain radically open to infinity?

What might such ‘practices of facing’ look or sound like in the music classroom?

  • In the music classroom: fieldwork

So I went into a local high school for one academic year building relationships with staff and pupils, following one class of thirteen to fourteen year olds, in their last year of statutory class music provision, in order to gain some insight into my second research question:

How do pupils encounter the Other through music-making?

Music education’s existential strand

I was recently involved in interviewing a prospective PGCE Religious Education student. I enjoyed this. You see, while I have sought to contribute to the process of re-conceptualizing music education, I have long been interested in the way in which the process of re-thinking RE has been developing. Is it a subject that is comforting, therapeutic, socially and personally harmonising or one that demands critical attention, and that is disruptive and essentially philosophic in nature?

During the course of the interview my RE expert companion explained to the candidate, and myself, that the RE curriculum had in recent times two strands, knowledge about religion and ‘knowledge for the pupil – the existential bit.’

It was this second strand that interested me. Here was a subject that recognized what was important to the pupil’s state of being in the world, their making sense of themselves. And clearly, this wasn’t thought of as some soft, therapeutic effect. No, much more significant. Why is this that I am learning important to me in my life? So, an existential strand.

In my provocation at the recent Listen, Imagine, Compose event and in response to Fran, Ruth and Sarah, the three researching teachers, I picked up on their references to the impulse to compose.

I noted that the teachers made reference to ‘the inclination to compose’; ‘the confidence to compose’; ‘why would you compose?’; ‘more meaningful compostions’; why?’ All of this I took to be a concern that the pupil had both a need and reason to compose, that they were meaning makers. They were being viewed as not merely satisfying a compositional brief but engaged in creating work that was important to their making sense of themselves in the world.

For these teachers this meant that they had an important role to play in providing stimulus and ongoing nurture to ideas and meanings.

While we hear a lot about pupils’ musical engagement, their empowerment, their expressive voice, it is rare to hear about their musical impulse, their impulse to compose/make and where this comes from. So, I asked:

Why are children expected to compose music without first experiencing a felt provocation to do so?

Do such provocations lead to composing music that has stronger character and thicker meanings?

Why does music education have so little human interest?

Why do music teachers teach musical skills without rich content?

Consider this example.

On the day I gave the example Stuart’s composition of 1988 titled ‘Forty Years of Peace’ bringing together fragments from Dire Straits, echoes of Russian Cold War rocket launching signals and much more into an authentic musical expression. Stuart’s impulse was strong.

Ok. It can’t always be like this. But, perhaps that existential strand of education, living its sub-terrainian and often forbidden existence, might sometimes be recognized, harnessed. And I’m not sure that the inherent-delineated meaning dialectic necessarily does it.

Back to that RE interview. The high spot was our three way debate about how it all started – big bang, creationism etc. and how this would be mediated for pupils. Do you know

First Access and musical composition

In last week’s blog I attempted to place First Access in the context of a general music education for all children. I proposed that the year-long engagement of all yr3 pupils in their string playing had provided a worthy musical foundation and a set of ‘serving competencies’ on which they could now build. It would provide a valuable basis for their development as composers of music, for example. And it was the matter of composing music that I was involved in last Friday.

The Listen, Imagine, Compose project [1] was holding an away day sparked into life by Pam Burnard’s creative metaphors and through the presentations of three secondary school teachers who had embarked on programmes of action research and who were now reporting on it.

Fran, Ruth and Sarah were addressing important questions: why compose; how to nurture the confidence to compose; sustain pupil’s journeys as composers; achieve more meaningful composition work; understand the significance of collaborative composition. These were some of the matters enquired into and that the teachers were exceptionally articulate about.

It’s not easy here to do justice to the ways in which the teachers were involved in intense levels of reflective practice. (Their powerpoints will no doubt be available later.) But it was clear that these teachers were changing, learning – and their pupils were too. Both teachers and their pupils were coming to understand what it meant to compose music, and it seemed to me that the climate of their classrooms was changing too. Conversations were becoming richer. Dialogic practices were emerging.

Of course, I may be over interpreting to soothe my own predilections. However, together the teachers illustrated well the power of carefully conceived action research to bring about change and to secure ongoing reflective action.

Fran, Ruth and Sarah provided the meat on which we could chew for the rest of the day.

In the afternoon and before small group discussion of key themes, Kirsty Devaney tuned us up for debate by leading us in a whole-group interthinking exercise by presenting us with ‘talking points’ (or at least that’s what I call them).

Talking points are not easy to create and I thought the question ‘Is bird song music?’ an especially good one.

Kirsty asked us to literally show where we stood on this. Those responding ‘yes’ stood at one end of the room and the ‘noes’ at the other.

I quickly decided ‘no, bird song is not music’. I had in mind that music was humanly organised sound. That was that.

However, in recent days I have thought about the question again and recall reading a book called ‘The Music between Us: is music a universal language?’ [2] in which there is discussion of animal musicality. On further reflection I think the issue might revolve around whether we believe there to be a boundary between the human and the animal. I like a music education that involves thinking about music, whether about how it is made, practised, what it’s for or what it might mean.

One of the small-group discussion points that followed addressed ‘listening and the development of aural imagination’.

To imagine music is to think (bring to mind) what is not present, what is absent but that could be present. This was my starting point.

My suggestion that asking a pupil to imagine the trumpet that was being listened to be heard as a clarinet was a bit too much for other members of my group.

I had thought of this example after hearing from Hertfordshire music teacher Lizzie and about how she gets her pupils to use (perhaps its training) the aural imagination. There they are hovering over a xylophone and yes they can be asked not only to imagine what the sound they are about to make will be like but also asked to think about the sound they are about to make as something quite different to what they know the xylophone is capable of. In playing the xylophone can they, for example, imagining the sound of a flute. All very fanciful you will say.

By the way, can you catch your earworm and manipulate it?

I wondered whether pupils even know that they can imagine music. Could they be taught/trained to imagine music on the way to music lessons?

I was clearly in the wrong group as I later learnt that another group had been talking about audiation and coming much closer to my starting point. It was only a starting point for thinking about aural imagination and I recognise the danger of reducing such a vast and dynamic idea.

It’s good that days like this don’t seek to find answers or even agreement. Just get us thinking, that’s enough.

And remember First Access has a place within a much bigger scheme that is a general music education and where composing music might even have a central place.


[1] See

[2] Higgins, K. (2012) The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language? The University of Chicago Press.










Year 7 talking and thinking about music

I have previously blogged about the role of pupil talk in music learning and the use of talking points to stimulate pupil talk. I see the purpose of pupil talk as developing pupil’s thinking about music and closely allied to their thinking in sound. (See Blogs of 22/3/14; 30/3/14 and 24/10/14)

In using talking points the teacher moves away from asking questions to elicit responses to allowing pupils to respond openly and talk themselves into understanding.

There will be many opportunites for teachers to use talking points, none of which should detract from making music well, making it thoughtfully and finding fluency of expression. In fact quite the opposite.

In the example that follows music teacher Anna is embarking upon a project with year 7 and is using movements from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to stimulate thinking.

Anna writes:

Talking points comments – some snippets of conversations…

In reference to ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’

Conversation 1:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

L: So when I listen to it, it makes me think of a cat and mouse. (Does actions) The mouse is like running really fast, doing little steps. And the cat was coming along with lower notes.

B: You know when it goes higher gradually? I kind of picture them climbing up the stairs or something.

A: I think that it’s in a wood and there’s loads of rabbits and mice and things and you know there was like two long notes (sings notes), I think of that as kind of signalling that someone is coming and then it gets more frantic as they start running around trying to find hiding places.

B: Does it paint a picture in your mind?

E: Maybe like a cat and a mouse. And the cats like running but it can’t keep up with it.

Conversation 2:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

E: I think if it was a cat and mouse chase like we’re saying, there’s too many different sounds.

I: It could be a bumblebee.

E: As it got louder there could be more cats coming in. Like multiple cats.

Talking point 4: It could be more interesting if…

E: It could be more interesting if it was simpler but there were more better ways to describe what he was thinking of.

G: Yeah, if it wasn’t so high pitched cos it’s like really high pitched and it doesn’t make me think of a painting.

Conversation 3:

Talking point 5: I like this combination of instruments because…

M: They’re different but they’re not like massively different because they all fit together.

J: Yeah, they all fit.

B: I think it’s cos they are all playing short high sounds and none of them are like oddly different, like saxophones or trumpets. Maybe if some of them were playing long notes it wouldn’t work.

In reference to ‘Bydlo’

Conversation 4:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

B: It reminds me of something really sad, like a funeral.

L: It makes me think of a film, like panning across the forest.

L2: Yeah it’s like a funeral.

L: I think it’s like the funeral march.

Talking point 2: There’s not really a story at all here, it’s just music

B: I think there is like a really small story behind this music.

O: About something that’s sad or something.

Conversation 5:

Talking point 1: When I listen to this piece of music it creates a picture in my mind.

A: It’s very dark and mysterious. Like the lion going through the grass and being all scary and stealthily.

L: Yeah, and the instruments kind of make that picture.

B: It sounds kind of like a march.

A: Even though there aren’t many instruments playing, it still sets a picture in your mind.

B: And it’s so simple, there’s just like a repeated idea that goes through it.

Talking point 3: This music is too complicated

A: Yeah so the music isn’t too complicated at all because there was so few instruments so you didn’t have to try and pick out certain bits, it was just there laid out for you. There aren’t many instruments to make it complicated really. And it’s simple because there aren’t many quick notes, except at the very end. There are just like slow, long, deep, repeated notes.

B: I wasn’t expecting the ending.

A: No, no one was really.

E: I thought there might be a big bang or something. It quite surprised me.

A: Well maybe there’s more to the piece. Maybe it carries on.

Talking point 2: There’s not really a story at all here, it’s just music.

A: As we said before, there is a story here cos there’s always a story in music. I think of music as a story, but a story of sound.

E: You can always imagine your own story to music.

A: Yeah, you can always think of a story to go with the music, if there isn’t one already.

Anna comments:

Main benefits of using talking points seems to be:

  • The way students talk about musical features of the music and how these relate to the picture in their mind. They seem to be getting at the very nature of musical analysis.
  • Students are also able to demonstrate sections with their voices and with actions.
  • Furthermore, students make links to other pieces of music and styles of music, perhaps suggesting they are beginning to join up their thinking and experiences of music.
  • They also begin to evaluate the effectiveness of the composition, such as the use of only high pitches making it seem less interesting.

The questions that they asked about the pieces also demonstrate that this is a really useful way to make students truly engage with the music. They are beginning to think analytically and focus on lots of musical features.

Some questions which arose from the pieces of music included:

  • How long did it take the composer to write this piece?
  • What inspired the composer?
  • When was it written?
  • How many instruments are playing?
  • How did he choose the instruments?
  • Why does it sound so depressing? (in reference to Bydlo)
  • What happens at the end of the piece?
  • Is it made for a movie or a dance?
  • Where was it performed?
  • How was the piece constructed?
  • Why did he/she write something so low? (in reference to Bydlo)
  • Which are the most important instruments?

 My comment:

Talking points have led to pupils asking questions which open up further lines of enquiry. As Anna points out, the pupils are thinking analytically. They have become evaluators, appraisers, musical critics.

The pupils will have much thought, a good number of questions and problems to solve as they compose in response to Mussorgsky.

And the classroom now has dialogic space. I wonder how this will change the climate of the classroom and the pupils’ future expectations.

And I am wondering whether a bridge is being built towards that elusive critical predagogy, so necessary in our age of musical participation.


Ground rules for writing talking points
(Finney and Earl 2013)

• Talking points must be inclusive so that everyone can understand them and find them interesting.
• Talking points need to be constructed so that there are simple answers and more complex ones. This keep groups engaged.
• Talking points need to be ‘enquiry’ based not focussed on developing specific skills.
• Talking points work when pupils don’t want to stop! Building them, in a spiral curriculum,’ to the KS3 curriculum should help pupils develop their own ‘thinking (rather than just ‘fixing’ strategies) by the time they get to KS4 and 5)
• You need to keep groups to time when they do talking points (no more than 5-7 minutes initially) and encourage them to explore as many as they want to/can. Otherwise they just get stuck on the first talking point and never explore any wider or deeper.
• Everyone’s ideas are treated as worthwhile.
• Talking points work best if you pilot them first (e.g. with other adults?) and see which ones in practice promote exploratory talk (Mercer) rather than cumulative or disputational talk. If they work for you they’ll work for your students, usually.
• Talking points need to be contextualised in the lesson at a point where it is ‘natural’ to expand talk for exploring a ‘line of enquiry.’ e.g. just before a group performs their own composition or just after they have sung, They aren’t ‘starters and plenaries.’
• Writing good talking points is a new skill for many of us and it takes time to learn which ones work. Be ruthless in eliminating TP’s which turn out to be about ‘pushing’ an angle of our own or which just ask pupils to ‘comprehend’ what a particular aspect of music is. The teacher needs to be clear what mix (or separation) of making, social practice and/or ‘big questions’ the talking points are directed at.
• Talking points which involve researching something outside the context (making ,social practice, big questions) usually don’t work.
• Talking points work on the principle that the teacher does know, basically, the range of possibilities of what might be discussed. So they are ‘mediating’ the inter-thinking, not just allowing ‘any old thing’ to emerge.
• However the potential for a wide range of ‘pupil owned’ ideas is enormous, so write the talking points in a way which ensures they can work from their own music practice ‘then and there’ rather than speculating about ‘music in general.’
• For use in the classroom (and once you are sure what works), produce high quality powerpoint slides or cards and laminate them/keep the images up to date for re-use It builds an expectation in pupils’ minds that the activity is worth doing.