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.


The pleasures of entering a dialogic space

The dialogic idea has a long history and comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and guises. There is Socratic dialogue in which discussion works towards better understanding of where one stands on moral and political issues. And there is John Dewey maintaining that it is through the openness to enquiry and ongoing dialogue that the school can be a place where democratic principles are lived out preparing the child for their future role in developing a participatory democracy. (We see the respective influence of both Socrates and Dewey in ‘Philosophy for Children’ and ‘Enquiry-based Learning’.)

For Paulo Freire the dialogic principle is a means of emancipation achieved through bringing into the light the existential-political concerns of the oppressed as a way to awakening critical consciousness, while for Bakhatin the dialogic is viewed as the root of thought and language. It is this idea that is currently most influential amongst dialogic theories. Dialogic work is above all else about thinking together.

One influential application of the dialogic principle currently in evidence in some schools is directed towards rethinking classroom talk. The work of Robin Alexander [1] challenges standard methods of instruction – the drilling of facts, emphasis on recall and the imparting of information through cues. In its place is discussion and dialogue. Alexander defines dialogue (teacher-class, teacher-group, teacher-individual or pupil-pupil) as ‘achieving common understanding through structured, cumulative questioning, and discussion which guide and prompt, reduce choices, minimise risk and error, and expedite ‘handover’ of concepts and principles’ [2]. With this the teacher is released from the all too common deadening attempts at classroom interaction through sterile questioning and instead is offered a classroom where all can be engaged in thinking through talking.

The case of music

However, in responding to Alexander’s position there are two matters to note in the case of music. First, if music itself is our primary medium of thought and means of communicating, any consideration of dialogue starts with the idea of musical dialogue. This is what can happen when we improvise music or rehearse music together. Or when a conductor is responding to the responses of the players being led. Call it musical interthinking if you like.

Secondly, in music and the arts we may not be always interested in ‘reducing choices…minimise risk and error’.

And are we wanting to ‘expedite the ‘handover’ of concepts and principles’? Well, certainly there is an important place for this, yes, but here I am moving in a different direction. If you will come with me I want to think about the significance of creating ‘dialogic space’ as a principle of pedagogy for music. Space is of course a metaphor bringing together physical space, time and human relationships. But first some more thoughts about dialogue, each of which can be thought of as a feature of musical dialogue as well as dialogue about music.

‘A dialogue depends upon succeeding utterances and so can never be closed down.’ [3]

‘Listening well requires a [particular] set of skills, those of closely attending to and interpreting what others say before responding, making sense of their gestures and silences as well as declarations.’ [4]

‘When humans enter into dialogue there is a new space of meaning that is opened up between them and includes them within it.’ [5]

The above sentiments can be applied to the processes of making music, to musical utterances, what each other ‘say’ musically as well as what we say about music.

Wegerif speaks of ‘opening, closing, widening and deepening a space’ and this helps to think about the classroom and how it might be as a place where a space can be opened up, nurtured, not closed down or circumscribed by necessity. And unlike Alexander’s moves towards achieving common understandings and consensus we can now move in a different direction, for the opportunity arises for making meaning and the engagement of critical thought which will need some dissensus, not always consensus, different understandings, not always common understandings and some resistance to closure.

In my blog ‘Who will try a dialogic musical gathering’ https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/who-will-try-a-dialogic-musical-gathering/  I provided an example of how we might organise the sharing of responses to musical work without any intention to establish facts about the music or to come to any agreement about its character or how it is.

The February edition of Teachtalkmusic at https://teachtalkmusic.wordpress.com/ is hosting an experiment with a Dialogic Musical Gathering. You are welcome to take part.


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

[2] Ibid, page 30.

[3] Bakhtin, M. (1981) The dialogic imagination. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

[4] Sennett, R. (2012) Together: The rituals, pleasure and politics of cooperation, London: Allen Lane.

[5] Wegerif, R. (2011) Towards a dialogic theory of how children learn to think, Thinking Skills and Creativity 6: 179-190.

Who will try a dialogic musical gathering?

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

Before the gathering, the class chooses a classical book of the universal literature, and agrees on the number of pages to be read before the next gathering; then, each participant reads the text at home and selects the paragraph he or she liked most or that caught his/her attention to share it in the gathering. During the gathering the moderator gives the floor to each participant, who reads aloud the paragraph and explains the reasons why he/she selected it; then, the moderator gives the floor to other participants so that they can discuss that paragraph. The same procedure is repeated with each paragraph for the full duration of the gathering.’ (http://www.schooleducationgateway.eu/files/esl/downloads/21_INCLUD-ED_Dialogic_Gatherings.pdf)

Could there be dialogic musical gatherings?

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

It wasn’t a dialogic literary gathering.

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

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

So what about a dialogic musical gathering?

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

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

Pupils will need to communicate musically as well as verbally.

I will trial this with my U3A Group.


Three possible reference points for DLG.

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

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

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

Aspects of literacy in the music lesson

In last week’s blog I proposed that Richard Trauskin’s writing about Steve Reich’s Different Trains (mediated by the teacher) might serve as a central resource in introducing Year 8 to

contextually rich, complex material which keeps offering fresh insights and challenges’ and that ‘embraces complexity, resists early closure and allows time for pupils to explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.’ [1]

In seeking to find principled reasons for pupils to read about music I am venturing into the realm of ‘literacy’ and the use of language.

By language I mean words as the source of meaning and by literacy I mean meaning made through talking, writing and reading. I am using the term language fairly precisely and the term literacy narrowly. [2]

Since the mid-eighties all teachers have been exhorted to be teachers of English. Of the many possible contenders to assist in creating curriculum coherence, literacy has long been a champion.

I write after a period when the music education twittersphere has bubbled with a surfeit of proclamations determined to ensure that music lessons are musical – ‘is music the target language’, ‘how musical is your lesson’, ‘is your assessment musical’, ‘but was it really musical’, ‘were they musically active’, ‘what was the musical learning?’ And so on.

Let it be said that to live and spend time within the medium of music, to in-dwell musical experience is, we think, the essential core aspect of a music education. Other things, including the use of language, crucially support, yet at the same time can present dangers – too much talking about music when music can do the talking, too much valuable time taken away from the thing itself. And then the problem with the school’s learning walkers on patrol expecting that in music lessons pupils write down what they have learnt. And then there is the tyranny of the ‘key words’ movement. [3]

I am assuming that it might it be principled to read about music in a music lesson, before or after a music lesson and thus contribute to the pupil’s wider literacy development as well as enhanced musical understanding? And I am assuming that reading could act as the catalyst for talking and writing that in turn might further enhance and inform the making of music.

Inspired by my discovery of the relevance of Taruskin’s writing last week I offer ten more examples of source readings each of which could, like the Taruskin from last week’s blog, serve as a central resource in a music education interested in embracing complexity. And of course, why not talk to your English colleagues about all this. [4]

1. As Orpheus grew older, his music became more and more wonderful. When he went to the old place to play, all the animals and birds in the fields and in the forest gathered around him. Lions, bears, wolves, foxes, eagles, hawkes, owls, squirrels, little field mice, and many other kinds of animals were in the audience. … (From Orpheus and Eurydice in Favourite Greek Myths by Lillian Stoughton Hyde, 1930)

2. Music composed in an undisciplined style is always infinitely improved by the imposition of form, even if that makes it less immediately attractive. But music doesn’t have to be disciplined to be pleasant. Take someone who has right from childhood till the age of maturity and discretion grown familiar with a controlled and restrained style of music. Play him some of the other sort, and how he’ll loathe it! … (From The Regulation of Music, The Laws, Plato)

3. And then it happens. The house lights go down, leaving Holiday illuminated by the hard, white beam of a single spotlight. Suddenly you can’t get a drink … (From Billy Holliday Strange Fruit in 33 Revolutions Per Minute by Dorian Lynskey, 2010)

4. Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?

Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;

Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm

Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.     (From the Erl King, Goethe-Schubert)

5. Before sitting down to write, I often fast for a couple of days. This gets me into a clean, spiritual frame of mind, and opens me up to inspiration. I bring along a whole suitcase of titles and half written songs, and I take all my different instruments. … mainly I write with the guitar. … (From Me & the muse, Dolly Parton, The Observer Music Magazine 4.09.16)

6. Their performance space was Palmyra, the city of ruins left by Roman and other ancient civilizations and ruined further by the depredations of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The orchestra played pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and two Russian composers, Sergei Prokofiev and Rodion Shchedrin, in a second-century Roman amphitheater, the set for a 2015 film produced by the Islamic State that featured the execution of 25 people. The contrast was intended to underscore what Russia sees as its underappreciated role in helping Syrian forces liberate Palmyra from zealots and fighting on the side of civilization against barbarism. … (New York Times online)

7. The theory which I am putting forward posits a dialectical relationship between the two types of musical meaning identified. Musical experience in this model, cannot occur at all unless both aspects of meaning are in operation to some extent or other. … (From Meaning, autonomy and authenticity in the music classroom, Professorial Lecture, Lucy Green, 2005)

8.  Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today… Aha-ah…

9. O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), … (From Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament)

10. Jim Morrison’s contribution to the music he made with the band he helped form, the Doors, was, by contrast to Zappa’s, almost entirely lyric: he was the classic, musically illiterate rock & roll singer who had to rely on his band mates … (From ‘The Modernisation of Rock & Roll 1965-75 in The Pleasures of Modernist Music. Ed. Arved Ashby, 2004)


[1] See last week’s blog for Kathryn Jourdan’s teacher and pupil orientations.

[2] I am assuming that there is a strong relationship between language and thought and that talking, reading and writing play an important part in developing thinking – thinking about music.

On thinking see  https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/what-if-music-education-involved-thinking/

On talking see https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/talking-to-think/

I am not, let be emphasised, thinking of music itself as a language, a para-language, a pre-language, a meta-language or any other kind of language. I am not writing about musical literacy or multi-modal literacy. I am not writing about language acquisition. I am not writing about the ways in which music affects phonological processing or the way interventions enhance this. I am not writing about the reading and writing of music.

For a comprehensive account of Language and Learning Music see Chapter 4 of Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School by Chris Philpott, 3rd Edition edited by Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce. Routledge.

[3] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/keywords/

[4] In talking to my English colleague I am learning about the history of choral speaking, orchestral speaking and much more.

The reader will think of many more readings and not least those that live in the huge store of song lyrics. And then all those stories that come with music.







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’.

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 http://www.soundandmusic.org/projects/listen-imagine-compose

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










First Access and general music education

In last week’s blog I set out the programme presented by Ely St Marys C of E Junior School’s Yr3 String Orchestra (scroll down for this).

Since the beginning of the school year ‘Cambridgeshire Music’ [1] has provided an ensemble music making programme making this possible. Specialist teachers have visited the school on Monday mornings when pupils have been taught class by class and in instrumental sections. This has been complemented by String Orchestra time on Friday afternoons.

A principle of such First Access programmes [2] is that while the year’s work is of immediate and longer term musical value, it is at the same time a basis for on-going progression in instrumental learning. The string players of St. Mary’s may, if their parents choose, continue with small group lessons. (Across Cambridgeshire the continuation rate is about 25%.) For those pupils continuing there are opportunities to further develop ensemble music making, firstly in their immediate vicinity and then county-wide and for some  wider still. In this way wider opportunities are created, in theory for all children.

But taking a step back from musical progression thought of in this way, the question in need of attention is, how does First Access fit into conceptions of a general music education for all pupils at the primary stage? After all the majority of pupils will not be on the flight path to wider opportunities.

St Mary’s is fortunate in having its own specialist music teacher able to build on the musical knowledge, skills and dispositions established through the String Project.

So what might these be?

Most fundamentally these pupils are learning how to think and feel music (often more weakly expressed as the development of aural skills). While I haven’t observed the Monday morning sessions, I know singing, moving and playing is integral, and this involves the imaging and imagining (thinking and feeling) of music whether it be absent or present.

A highlight of the Ely Cathedral performance was Concertino requiring pupils to count, listening, and play together whilst other parts were being played, a process of de-centering musical thought and a significant step in a child’s musical development.

The capacity to differentiate between musical stimuli simultaneously presented, the capacity to attend to one in the context of another is an example of what Charles Bailey refers to as a ‘serving competency’. This  is a capability that enables future ‘knowledge, understandings, makings and doings to be valuable in themselves.’ [3]

Charles lists seven dispositions that enable in this way.

(i) attend to something or somebody,

(ii) concentrate on something,

(iii) cooperate with others,

(iv) organise time, thought and actions,

(v) reason

(vi) imagine possibilities, and to

(v) inquire – try to understand [4]

So, we can say that here in Ely St Mary’s Year 3, soon to be Year 4, the pupils’ music education is serving the future flourishing of musical makings and doings, musical knowledge and understandings and greater fulfilment as part of a broad and balanced musical education. The pupils of St Mary’s are fortunate in having a music curriculum on which First Access can build.

While First Access is not designed to offer a complete music education, it can assist in contributing to a comprehensive music education that is worthwhile in itself, a music education that reveals music’s significance in human life and culture. And this will be much more than learning to play a musical instrument.


[1] Cambridgeshire Music ‘Music Explorers’ programme embodies the principles of First Access and is targeted at the primary age range. (See http://www.cambridgeshiremusic.org )

[2] See http://www.nmpat.co.uk/work-in-schools/first-access-whole-class-instrumental-lessons/Pages/what-is-first-access.aspx

[3] See Bailey, C. (1982) ‘Beyond the Present and the Particular: A Theory of Liberal Education’. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.

[4] Ibid page 113.

Below the children of Ely St Mary’s String Orchestra with thanks to the Ely Standard.

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.


Representing musical experience

‘Ultimately music education should be about an experience.’ [1]

On October 1st 2015 pioneer cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner reached his one hundredth birthday.

First published in 1966 Bruner’s ‘Towards a Theory of Instruction’ offers a wealth of useable ideas about teaching and about learning. You will find depth to concepts like ‘modeling’, ‘the spiral curriculum’, ‘the personalization of knowledge’, ‘scaffolding learning’ and ‘the role of language in learning’, for example.

A good idea

I have long been attracted to Bruner’s proposal that humans represent the world in three ways – ‘three ways of capturing those invariances in experience and action that we call ‘reality’. [2]

Music teachers will be able to identify with the following:

‘We know many things for which we have no imagery and no words, and they are very hard to teach to anybody by the use of either words or diagrams or pictures. If you have tried to coach somebody at tennis or skiing or to teach a child to ride a bike, you will have been struck by the wordlessness and the diagrammatic impotence of the teaching process. (I heard a sailing instructor a few years ago engage with two children in a shouting match about ‘’getting the luff out of the main’’; the children understood every single word, but the sentence made no contact with their muscles. It was a shocking performance, like much that goes on in school.)’ [3]

Music teachers well understand how often language falls short in their teaching of others to be musical. Knowing music in the bones is what counts.

However, imagery, language and notations are thought to be part of how we re-present musical experience as an aid to cognitive growth and furthering the musical intellect – the capacity to think music and think about it. And this is where Bruner’s theory of representation may help.

The three modes of representation:

  1. The enactive mode
  2. The iconic mode
  3. The symbolic mode

‘You represent the world (e.g. musical experience) in action routines, in pictures, or in symbols.’ [4]

These are the ways in which we translate and represent experience into a model of reality. Without a model of reality we are ‘thoughtless’ and‘mindless’.

The case of music

The enactive mode – physical gestures that more or less faithfully represent the thing, the experience. E.g. pitch in space; the shape of a melody; the intensity of the beat; the roughness of a sound.

The iconic mode – visual images and language that more or less faithfully represent the thing, the experience e.g. graphic notation; poetic/expressive language.

The symbolic mode – notations and language that through their abstraction of the thing, the experience, no longer faithfully represent the thing, the experience e.g. staff notation, linguistic generalizations (technical terms) i.e. culturally determined conventions.

Bruner originally thought of moves from the enactive through the iconic to the symbolic as a progression, and that still holds to some extent, but later as the way each mode complements or re-affirms the others.

An example

Enacting a glissando with an upward or downward sweep of the arm is close to being physically faithful to the thing, the experience that is glissando. The iconic representation would capture the glissando through some kind of regular or irregular continuous rising or falling line. [5] While at a symbolic level there is a conventional symbol, a zig-zag superimposed on a stave. Not any old ziz-zag but a very specific one.

Enactive = movement representation – personalised

Iconic = visual representation –personalised

Symbolic = generally agreed convention – loss of personalisation

In moving to generalised cultural conventions, personal and poetic ways of representation give way to abstractions. Just think, the term ‘glissando’ has no faithful relationship to the thing, the experience. Glissando is a fairly arbitrary term in that it has no one-to-one relationship with the experience, the thing. Yet it is commonly agreed that it serves the musical experience that it represents.

Glissando generalizes for the countless number of particular glissandi and becomes a musical concept, a musical generalization.

An example beyond music

The case of numbers.

Physically counting with fingers = enactive

Two sticks represented visually = iconic

2 = symbolic

Some speak of ‘twoness’ which I think may be a way of holding together all three modes and preserving a feelingful conception of what ‘two’ is.

More musical examples

In this example the enactive is integrated with the iconic and melded with the symbolic.

Take the singing of the falling soh-mi interval (soh-mi = iconic), with hand signs (iconic + movement = iconic-enactive) transported onto a two-line stave as it moves towards the convention that is staff notation (enactive-iconic-symbolic).

Hand signs+ sol fa + stave = enactive/iconic/symbolic re-affirmation illustrating how the symbolic level can be reached with support.

The case of rhythmic reading works in similar fashion.

French rhythm names (faithfully representing the thing, the experience and unlike ‘coffee-tea’ etc. = low fidelity) to stick notation to conventional rhythmic notation.

Another example:

Hitting a gong represented by a large gesture (enactive), long horizontal decaying line (iconic), breve with pause sign on a stave with diminuendo mark (symbolic).

And a guitar example:

Wrist and finger pose (enactive), tablature (iconic), E minor (symbolic)

The example of glissando again

We might say ‘sliding’ or ‘gliding’ (iconic) as we gesture (enactive) before at some point arriving at glissando.

Wait a minute, do we need the word glissando? What’s wrong with slide or glide?

David Ashworth writes :

‘Guitarists tend to bob and weave: some will say slide some will say gliss – probably no consistency.’ [6]

In Indian Classical Music there is the Meend.

This reminds us that symbolic representations are bound by cultural usage. [7]

Talk of key words and musical vocabulary to be learnt and there is the ever-present danger of language being reduced to meaningless labels that become millstones around pupils’ necks, rather than language alive with imagery and enaction infected with personal meanings and which comes to be spoken and written of the pupil’s own volition meant and understood. [8]

So perhaps Bruner’s theory of representation could be helpful, and not only with the acquisition of language, but in identifying misconceived approaches to language acquisition and the mastery of music reading.

A distinguished cognitive psychologist’s view

Marion Long writes:

‘Taken individually, I feel that these concepts (enactive, iconic, symbolic) have a strangely diluting and almost trivialising effect in relation to musical experience. If they are superimposed, however they become more flexible, supple, powerful and representative of the congruency and potency with which musical experience can deeply connect us with ourselves and our sense of belonging together.

I suppose there are many examples of music acting very powerfully in the way that this model describes – perhaps singing the Marseillaise in recent weeks would illustrate this very well.

Somehow in our society we have developed a mindset that prefers concepts to be nailed down so that their “meaning” is fixed, delineated, bounded and defined. Clarity is a good thing. However, I would suggest that our cultural preference for a static and fixed perspective on building conceptual knowledge is possibly somewhat perverse – everything about our experience of life is actually dynamic and fluid in the way that music is.

The fluidity of interactions is beautifully reflected in music.’ [9]

Final thoughts

Marion had led me to think about iconic musical experiences, fixed and vivid in memory.

As with any powerful idea, such as the one explored above, there is the sense in which it is never quite understood, never tied down (Marion’s fluidity) because its endless possibilities and limitations invite testing, exploration, expanding. The conversation continues.

But for the time being, Jerome Bruner, thank you for the gift of a good idea and congratulations on reaching one hundred years.

‘Ultimately music education should be about an experience.’ (Ingrid McLean)


[1] See https://goo.gl/tujCjm

[2] Bruner, J. (1996) The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press. Page 155.

[3] ‘Towards a Theory of Instruction’ 1982 (ninth impression) Harvard University Press. Page 10.

[4] Bruner, J. (1996) The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press. Page 155.

[5] Lis McCullough, wise primary school music teacher, tells me that her pupils would likely draw this as a fine zig-zag and so representing the movement over tuned percussion bars. (email correspondence 9.12.2015)

[6] Email correspondence 9.12.2015

[7] See David Ashworth’s comments on how language can colonise at https://goo.gl/um4F0s

[8] See Caroline Dearing’s comments at https://goo.gl/fNbvsR as an example of a dynamic classroom where there is rich musical discourse. Children like big words like metamorphosis and aquamarine.

[9] Email correspondence 9.12.2015

Sitting by Lake Geneva (iv)

… a week later I think further about my meeting with Jean Piaget and note how much we now take for granted about human development that originated from his ideas, and how little we know still.

His genius was to investigate how children’s minds work and to show the value of creating theories about how these minds develop, and so finding better theories.

A simple point to make that is derived from this tradition of thought is that every musical utterance, every musical gesture, every musical statement placed before the teacher by the child embodies the child’s (feelingful) thought offering a window into the child’s perception, cognition, schema formation and this includes the state of their threshold conceptualisations. In other words, how they are developing musically.

Amongst the many powerful insights provided by Piaget, in conclusion I will privilege just one. This was his proposal that it was the earliest sensory-motor action of the child that constituted intellectual behaviour. Yes, sucking, looking, grasping and all those unrefined spontaneous physical gestures were acts of the intellect. These were mindful actions. They were acts of perception and cognition. The body was a thinking-feeling-knowing instrument.

And now, instead of Piaget’s stages there is the idea of ’embodied cognition’, and this as a continuity from infancy to adulthood.

This should be good news for the music teacher.

However, we note that in our systems of education the body is given low priority. Practical knowledge (or if you prefer knowing how) struggles to be recognised alongside the sovereignty of ‘academic knowledge’ narrowly defined. In music education the term ‘practical’ is too often used to imply something un-intellectual, non-theoretical and something that must be brought into the real world of knowing and knowledge through the mediation of language for it to count as knowledge. This is a grave mistake. Yehudi Menuhin has something to say about this:

Until the current flows from the toes to the fingers … and you feel the weight and movement of the body … you won’t quite “get” the music.