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

[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

[8] See Caroline Dearing’s comments at 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.



Sitting by Lake Geneva (iii)

JF: In last week’s discussion we examined the central role of cognitive structure in your theory and the idea that we build and develop mental schema through the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation. Put simply, our mental schema give us something to think with. We might well have explored the fascinating idea of conservation, the process whereby we learn to hold in mind different aspects of a stimulus and come to see how these relate to eachother (those inter-related musical dimensions, for example). But we must leave this aside for now as I want to raise another matter.

So far we have been thinking about learning and development as a series of cognitive events which develop the mind so that new and better ways of thinking are established. But this form of cognition leaves out feeling. I know you have acknowledged the role of ‘affect’ in learning, but what seems to be significant about the case of music is that to think music involves both thinking and feeling. I have always found the cognition-affective-motor model unhelpful.

The idea of cognitive-feeling has been spoken of in the arts. I believe there is a grave error made by curriculum makers and strategists in the case of music who hold to some general view of cognition, and who reduce it to a matter of ‘ah, now I see and can say’. Knowing music works at a far more profound level than this, surely?

What is it ‘to know music’, ‘what is the nature of musical knowledge?’ Without clarity here dealing with issues such as assessment become confused. Assessment without an epistemological basis will be a birth-strangled babe and cause no end of confusion. And this is why cognitive-feeling is such an important idea.

JP: I see what you are getting at.

As you will know I did carry out work on the nature of play, imagination and dream work, and I think this is relevant to your question here. I recognise that fine musical performance, for example, appears to require a particular form of cognition, and yes, perhaps the idea of cognitive-feeling goes some way to capture this.

What is clear to me is that the form of knowing and understanding of which you speak is free from the tyranny of language. It is a non-verbal form of cognition. And the significance of this form of cognition is rarely appreciated by curriculum makers. Language, for all its immense power – and let’s be clear about this, it is a remarkable tool as Lev Vygotsky has shown – can so easily prevent learning and development.

JF: Yes, this is a very subtle matter in the case of music. Much more work is needed in understanding how language is acquired in the context of music making, and how it enables thought about music.

You mentioned play so allow me to return to those students I spoke about who were adapting badly to their schooling but who operated so well as musical improvisers. I think I can now see that they took to improvising so willingly because it was through improvisation that experience was easily assimilated. Thinking of improvisation as a form of play is helpful, and there needs to be much more of it in a musical education. Indeed, having playful teachers would also help.

I was wondering whether you knew of the work of a fellow Genevan, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze? His eurhythmic classes, where thought, feeling and action worked together, were the basis of growth in musical understanding and where improvisation played an important part. These were taking place in Geneva when you were a child.

JP: But of course, I was in his class. Moving to the music as well as moving the music as a performer-composer-listener is perhaps the finest form of cognition there is!

JF: Another of your ideas was that in reflecting we come to abstract. We need time to absorb experiences and with the passing of time we come to form generalisations and these generate fresh thinking. You refer to this process as ‘reflective abstraction’. I will be doing some of this on my journey home. Thank you.

Sitting by Lake Geneva (ii)

JF: We meet again and this week there is one idea in particular that I am hoping to clarify  and that seems to me to be at the heart your theory of learning.

JP: I think I can guess the matter you are about to raise. Is it the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation?

JF: Yes, that’s it. But let me work with this idea in a very general way – I appreciate that the idea is a part of a whole theory and that I am asking a great deal of generosity on your part. When I first encountered this idea I found that it explained a great deal. At the time I was teaching in a secondary school, and my greatest challenge was teaching groups who were thought to need remedial help. Their grasp of language was weak and they found mathematical calculation difficult. There they were at secondary school aged 14, 15 and 16 with no sign of being able to think abstractly and with little ability to work inside their heads. They made sense through sensory-motor-tactile action, and of course they enjoyed making sense through playing instruments, making music and becoming masters (as they were all boys) of minimalist musical composition, or rather improvisations, sometimes very extended ones.

What I now understood was that these students had been exposed to entirely the wrong educational experiences throughout their schooling, and this had served only to disable them. It was as if these molluscs had been taken to an alien environment and subjected to entirely the wrong circumstances. Neither their social or intellectual states of being had been acknowledged as part of their schooling.

JP: There are a number of matters you raise here. But quite simply you are saying that these students had throughout their schooling been expected to ‘assimilate’ too many new experiences without enough space or time for these to be ‘accommodated’. The analogy of digestion is helpful. Their digestive systems (mental structures) were continually overwhelmed. This is very common, and it is why I doubt whether schools as we know them are the best places for humans to develop. I have heard about the current enthusiasm for objectives and prescribable outcomes, for measuring progression to satisfy school managers, Inspectors, the government, and so forth. Such a climate of accountability and distrust is very unlikely to facilitate worthwhile development.

JF: The picture that I formed was of students never having the opportunity to properly assimilate the kinds of new experiences presented to them in a way that they could be accommodated to existing ones. They were always having to accommodate too much to what their teachers demanded. I saw their minds as being like a house with furniture. The teacher came along with more furniture for the house, while the learner was never given enough time or the means to see how it might fit with or replace the furniture that was already there. Once this process had gone wrong, it was as if things could only get worse, and these students then came to me confused, having merely learnt what were coping strategies, or survival strategies.

JP: Yes, that makes sense and I am happy for you to generalise in this way. However, I am sure you won’t mind me pointing out that your analogy of a house with furniture is not so helpful. The analogy is too static. The mind is dynamic, alive. The analogy of the digestive system is better. So, let me explain. I don’t think you have quite grasped it yet. Assimilation is the process whereby incoming stimuli are modified by the child’s mental structure, and accommodation the process whereby the mental structures are changed.

The idea of assimilation and accommodation must however be related to two other ideas. The assumption is that the learner is building what I call a set of schemas. A schema works as a mental model, or a mental frame of reference. It is like a file in the filing cabinet of the mind, a category or conceptual framework.

Each of us from the earliest years of life will have developed an increasing number of schemas: schemas for sucking, grasping, opening doors, running a hundred metres, making song lyrics, playing a particular instrument, shaping a musical phrase and so on. These schemas are always developing, differentiating, integrating, expanding, and this is why understanding can never be a finite matter.

Let me offer an example. If we are presented with a piece of music to perform which we have not before encountered, while we may have a schema to draw upon, it is unlikely to fit the new experience like a glove as you say. If it did this would be pure assimilation. There would be no need for accommodation. ‘I have played in this style before. I know how to shape these kinds of phrases’. However, if not, then our musical phrasing schema will need to be modified and expanded as assimilation and accommodation do their work. It is when our schemas meet new experiences, that is, they don’t too easily fit our schema, that mental structures change. However, this is a matter of very careful balance and great sensitivity. That teachers are expected to get this right with large classes is ambitious.

JF: Right, so our equilibrium is disturbed, we are made to think, readjust the furniture as it were. (Now my furniture is always alive, malleable and moving. I am animating it!) The really important ideas then are assimilation accommodation, equilibrium and schema.

JP: Yes, and in a nut shell, as you say (I like this English expression), the processes of assimilation, accommodation, dis-equilibrium and equilibrium explain how we change, learn, and develop.

JF: As you were suggesting, this then places a great responsibility on the teacher to set tasks that disturb sufficiently and lead to reordering thought.

JP: Yes, that is right, but who is the teacher? The learner, assuming he/she is an explorer, will find the right kind of challenges for themselves. This is certainly how I have learnt and developed. Or what happens commonly is that children will adapt the task set, pervert it so that they can regulate their own learning.

JF: There is a lot to think about and now another beautiful sunset.

Sitting by Lake Geneva (i)

Back a while I made reference to the thought of Jean Piaget. This provoked questions from readers and I promised to address these in the future. Time to respond.

In August I will write four blogs in the form of an imaginary dialogue between Jean Piaget and myself. In this way I hope to draw out the significance of his work. The blogs draw heavily on ‘Sitting by Lake Geneva’ first published in ‘Sound Progress: exploring musical development. National Association of Music Educators. 2009.

First an introduction.

The influence of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) on the way we think about human development has been considerable. Piaget was interested in children’s thinking and the changing structure of their minds. How was it that a child’s thinking went through qualitative changes as they matured towards adulthood? How was it that the child started life as an intelligent sensory-motor-tactile being yet unable to reason in the way an adult could? How did the mind of the child grow through interaction with its environment? It was Piaget’s view that the mind was an active organism continually working on experience, continually being disturbed, continually finding new levels of equilibrium only to be disturbed again and so on. The mind was self-regulating. It was the learner who made sense.

These ideas have had a profound impact on the way we view learning and development, and which we may now take for granted or perhaps find rather disturbing.

Piaget’s critics have been many. Some reject the way his approach distorts and contains childhood, some show the limitations of his experimental method, some point out what his theory can’t explain, while some maintain that he offers merely a description of what cognitive development might look like rather than an explanation for how it is.

However, there are those who hold to Piaget’s basic tenets and operate as neo-piagetians and others who have created newer and equally powerful ways of thinking about human development. In the case of Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky, for example, both language and culture have a much greater role to play. And now there are neuro-biological insights that lead to fresh perspectives, although even these frequently make reference to aspects of Piaget’s work, checking out their discoveries against his and acknowledging the visionary quality of his ideas.

Some have applied Piaget’s thinking in very specific ways to the classroom, some more generally. What is undoubtedly valuable is the way in which Piaget helps us to focus on the development of the mind, on the ways in which children think and learn rather than attending to content, context and individual differences. Instead, these matters are provided with a powerful point of reference.

While what follows is fanciful, it also is an attempt to draw out a number of powerful ideas that are likely to be of value for some time to come.

Sitting by Lake Geneva

John Finney: Sitting here near where you were born, and where you so diligently observed the lakeside molluscs growing through their adaptation to their environment, you must feel satisfied about your life’s work and the contribution made to twentieth-century thinking about human development.

Jean Piaget: I was little more than a boy when I began work on what was to be my doctoral thesis setting out to understand the relationship between nature and environmental nurture. My teachers in school were wise. I was what you now refer to as a ‘gifted’ child, and they realised that I could learn more without them than with them and that I was asking more questions than they could answer. Schools are rarely the best places to learn. My school in fact was extremely enlightened. We were encouraged to argue with our teachers and to ask them difficult questions. Now, so I understand, you have strategies teaching teachers how to ask their pupils questions. This does not seem to me to be the appropriate way to encourage curiosity. Shouldn’t pupils be asking the questions?

JF: Maybe you’re right, but we must leave such matters for now as I want you to clarify one point at the outset. Many have mistakenly thought that you were a psychologist, when in fact your area of study was biology and more specifically genetic epistemology. Can you explain what this is?

JP: Well, let us consider that mollusc there. By watching and studying change carefully, it became clear to me that a mollusc has the potential to grow and develop rather like all molluscs before it. This is a genetic reality. However, it can only grow through a process of adaptation to its environment. It has the capacity to either be very good at this or not so good, depending largely on its environment. Applying this to human growth and development seemed to me an obvious step to take. You must remember that I was beginning my experiments at a time when there were worrying beliefs emerging about the determining influence of genetic characteristics and this was leading to a belief in eugenics.

JF: So, as a genetic epistemologist you were interested in knowledge – how a human being comes to know and understand, how knowledge is created, how ways of thinking change and the part that both maturation and the environment play in this.

JP: Yes, this is true. What is more, it became clear that we all pass through a series of developmental stages, and while this will happen to some extent at different ages for each of us, these stages remain invariant. The sensory-motor way of knowing the world will always come first. This is the first way of thinking for a human being, for all human beings. It is a fascinating stage where all the senses work together to ‘make sense’.

I was concerned with a particular kind of intellectual development, the development of logical thought and yes, sensory-motor thinking was its foundation. (By the way, I do have a quiet smile when I hear of the recent interest in multi-sensory learning. It is coming back into fashion, so I hear.) Sensory-motor-tactile knowing is intelligent behaviour, a form of cognition, a form of thinking. From here the child comes to understand, through acts of intuition, to know and to operate, first in a concrete way and later in a more abstract way. The child proceeds from thinking in action to thinking through internalised actions or mental operations.

All thought is action, outer first, inner later. (I think you speak alot about the process of internalisation in music education and quite unlike other subjects. I find that interesting.) I was fascinated to discover how we come to think abstractly when clearly this was not possible in early childhood.

JF: So, your interest was in the growth of the child towards being a fully fledged logical thinker able to solve abstract problems. You will appreciate that this may not be entirely helpful to those of us who have an interest in musical development. We tend to believe that musical intelligence, if indeed there is such a thing, is quite different to the form of logical-deductive reasoning that you had in mind, although of course there could be some interesting relationships and overlaps with musical thinking.

JP: Yes, of course. It would be a wonderful life’s work to understand the nature of musical intelligence. What a challenge this would be! I hope somebody attempts to clarify this most complex idea.

JF: The sun is setting across the lake and we must stop for today. Hopefully we have made a start in understanding your ideas. When we meet next week I will begin with an important question that goes to the heart of the developmental process.

JP: I look forward to this.

Foundational listening in the music curriculum

In 1899 William McNaught identified three mental faculties that all methods of teaching listening assumed children to possess.

  1. the observation of what is heard at any given moment
  2. the recollection of what has previously been heard
  3. the comparison of what we hear now with what we have recently heard [1]

We would perhaps want to add

  1. the prediction of what is to come

McNaught was writing about the teaching of listening and the methods by which children are taught to listen. [2]

Might it be a good thing to teach children that they possess the potential to

  1. observe what is heard at any given moment
  2. recollect what has previously been heard
  3. compare what they hear now with what has recently been heard
  4. predict what is to come? [3]

This would require some deliberate teaching about how to think in sound.

Powerful knowledge and valuable know how for those acquiring it, an example of meta-cognition. [4]

Pupils would of course learn to do this anyway in their own time and without being taught.

Deliberate teaching implies formal learning with the intention of empowering the pupil and overcoming the unpredictability of ‘own time’ learning.

McNaught’s bigger picture was the teaching of sight-singing.

If you can sight-sing you really can claim to be able to read music.

I have often wondered what is meant when we talk about reading music. What is actually meant? Clearly it is more than cracking a code-decoding symbols.

Sadly, there is no shortage of poorly conceived approaches used to teach children to read music in 2015, and perhaps rather more than there were in 1899.

McNaught was getting close.


[1] McNaught, W. G. (1899-2000) ‘The Psychology of Sight-Singing’, Proceedings of the Musical Association 26, 33-35 cited in G. Cox (1993) A History of Music Education in England 1872-1928, Scolar Press: Aldershot.

[2] This was before the gramophone and the music appreciation movement. The idea of listening was embedded in the act of making music – singing and playing.

[3] In Lucy Green’s theory of musical meaning ‘inherent’ musical meaning works in the same way. For a thorough discussion of the significance of inherent meaning see Green, L. (2005) Meaning, autonomy and authenticity in the music classroom, (pp. 3-19) Professorial Lecture. Institute of Education: London.

[4] Furthermore, this might lead to think of listening as being a foundational element of a curriculum rather than a part of the listening, composing, performing trinity.