A little profane music education [1]

This week I took part in two quite different events, one local, one national. Locally I attended Ely Folk Club, nationally I attended the Music Education Council’s ‘The Future of Music Education for All: 2018 to 2020 and Beyond.

It was only the second time I had ventured into the world of Ely Folk and having an anthropologist’s eye I did so with the question ‘well, what is going on here?’ That’s not to say I was withdrawn or aloof from the musical experience but rather a fully participant observer with vague strands of theoretical thought lurking in mind, any of which might be triggered into fresh lines of thinking and understanding by what unfolded.

Ely Folk meet in the Old Dispensary of 1852, a narrow space and of necessity for the evening’s music, set out in rows. As on my previous visit the evening presented first a warm up songwriter prior to the main musical offering, this time a three-piece band -singer/guitarist, accordionist, double bassist.

I arrived a little early, paid my eleven pounds and took a seat in the third row and soon to be joined by a lady with her aged mother, both in jolly mood and apologising for the kerfuffle that was to follow involving cushions being taken from a bag to support mother which mother resisted before surrendering. Once settled I asked whether their attendance was regular. This led to telling me about regular attendance at the summer Ely Folk Festival and an enjoyment in general of Folk along with other kinds of music. Then the not uncommon conversation and clarification that you didn’t need to be a Folk Music buff in order to enjoy, understand and appreciate the music.

As song followed song I was struck by the depth of creativity in the lyrics, the richness of meanings, and fascinated by their sources in the mundane patterns of life. That’s the idea I know. I was catching up.

This was profane culture, the vernacular, material culture. No claim to transcendence or the sacred or any rarified notion of the spiritual. No cultural halos, no cultural citadels, no sign of gatekeepers protecting some imagined great tradition.

‘Sitting on the back seat of fate’s fast car.’

What an idea for a song.

And then what was announced as a ‘real’ folk song – the story of Lord Franklin and his ill-fated journey into the North West Passage.

At times the lady next to me quietly moved to the music and I could discern covert singing in the audience finding full voice when invited to join in with the pithy choruses.

‘This time men with checked shirts, this time ladies, this time without making a sound.’

Yes, this was didactic. It was music education for the fifty or so gathered in the Old Dispensary, all more or less of a similar age, class fraction and ethnicity. Music certainly brings people together as well as leaving them apart.

And that other event I mentioned, the Music Education Council on the next day. What fresh lines of thinking did that engender. I will tell next week.


[1] See http://www.sociologyguide.com/socio-short-notes/sacred-and-profane.php for the sacred-profane binary.



In praise of the British Journal of Music Education

‘The research highlighted the tensions between different conceptions of the purpose of music education and in particular the nature of the curriculum.’ [1]

This is just one of several valuable discussion points made in the report of research carried out over a three year period into the relationship between informal learning and musical progression. It is the case of Musical Futures Champion Schools. (I recommend subscribing to the British Journal of Music Education and reading the article in full.)

For the teachers involved progression was expressed in terms of pupils

Demonstrating higher levels of attainment

Developing a wider range of musical skills

Developing a good understanding of a range of musical genres

Having mostly exceeded my expectations when it comes to improving their musical skills

Fulfilling their musical potential


For the pupils the development of their musical skills was expressed in terms of

Becoming a better musician

Learning to listen to music differently

Doing thing things as well as others

Feeling confident in music lessons

Having good musical skills

Having achieved a lot in music lessons

Thinking they are a musical person

‘Overall, teachers reported that Musical Futures had enhanced the progression of their students and increased take up at Key Stage 4. In some cases this had led to changes in the qualifications on offer with an emphasis on those which were vocational rather than academic. This created some tensions in catering for the needs of different groups of students who had a range of different musical skills.’ [2]

But back to the top and those tensions between different conceptions of the purpose of music education and in particular the nature of the curriculum.

The statements above provide examples of purpose and I select three which I think are popular and immensely attractive, and sound sensible reasons for engaging in the practice of music, and self-evidently so. [3]

Fulfilling musical potential [4]; being musically skilful; becoming a musician – often expressed as achieving a musical identity.

But are these sufficient in the name of a music education claiming subject status in the school curriculum and sponsored by the state?

And perhaps as important, are they sufficient in the light of the national conversation about the purposes of education in general and the place of music in the school curriculum? Much of that conversation revolves around issues such as knowledge and culture.

Hence the question that is needed:

What does it mean to be musically educated as part of a general education for all children and young people to age 16? [5]

And which I suggest might form the starting point for conceptualising both the nature of music as a subject of the school curriculum and the character of that curriculum.

And so two further questions:

To what extent should the purposes of music education address the nature of music as a human practice historically and contemporaneously manifest in the world? (Ontology)

What kind of knowledge and ways of knowing should a music education be most concerned with? (Epistemology)

Perhaps the point to make is that rarely are such questions aired let alone discussed. And in the words of John Paynter:

‘Understandably, the tendency has always been for us to skip the philosophy and go straight to the ‘’meat’’: the ‘’things to do’’. [6]

The BJME paper ‘Can the adoption of informal approaches in school music lessons promote progression?’ is to be welcomed. And it must be acknowledged that the issue under consideration was ‘progression’. But the research does provide a vivid case of a current curriculum conundrum and so offers a source for ongoing debate about purpose and the nature of curriculum.

But is such a debate welcome? Will we continue to start, as John Paynter put it, in another place?

A look at popular conference programmes (e.g. Music Expo, Music Mark) would suggest that we will.

The existential struggle for recognition, the competition for scarce resources, the gadarene scramble for declaring what works, the uncritical adoption of promotional slogans and the exigencies of liquid modernity together easily crowd out and silence possible debate or much hope of taking time out to address purpose.

Such is the way of the world and of music education.

Ah! But we do have the British Journal of Music Education.


[1] Hallam, S., Creech, A. and McQueen, H. (2017) Can the adoption of informal approaches to learning in school music lessons promote musical progression? British Journal of Music Education, 34:2, 127-151.

[2] ibid, p. 127

[3] The development of musical skills is the way many music teachers express their core endeavours.

[4] ‘Fulfilling potential’, a term much cited by politicians as a short cut for all manner of things. I don’t know about you but I hope my potential is never fulfilled.

[5] I am labouring the point that discussing the purpose of music education in general is distinct from discussing its purpose for all children and young people up to the age 16 as part of a general education.

[6] Paynter, J. (1982) Music in the Secondary School Curriculum. CUP: Cambridge. p. 14.




Music scholarship, music education and fresh thinking

Thomas Turino’s Music as Social Life: the politics of participation [1] is a fine example of musical scholarship and as such thought provoking. And, for me, this means that I reorder some of my conceptions of what music is, what it is for and just what is a music education. [2]

I often wonder to what extent music scholarship should shape the way we think about music education.

Thomas Turino is professor of musicology and anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign.

At the beginning of chapter 2 titled Participatory and Presentational Performance he writes:

‘Because we have one word – music – it is a trick of the English language that we tend to think of music making as a single art form. Certainly we know that there are different kinds of music. We have lots of words ranging from rather broad ones – folk, classical, world music – which are meant to encompass everything, to ever more specific labels – (rock) roots, psychedelic, alternative, grunge, glam, punk, (metal) heavy metal, speed metal, death metal. Musical categories are created by musicians, critics, fans, the music industry, and academics alike. These labels are used to distinguish styles and products, but they tell us little about how and why people make the particular music they do and the values that underpin the ways they make it.’ [3]

Turino is interested in why people make the particular music they do and the values that underpin the way they make it. In this way he is able to create two fresh categories, two frames for better understanding the nature and purpose of music making. There is the participatory and the presentational.

‘Presentational performance … refers to situations where one group of people, the artists, prepare and provide music for another group, the audience, who do not participate in making the music or dancing.’ [4]

On Friday last I was the member of an audience, mostly parents, appreciating the performance of thirty year 5 and 6 children in their choral performance. The ethic of presentational performance is a dominant one in many systems of music education.

On the other hand there is ‘participatory performance’.

‘… participatory performance is a special type of artistic practice in which there are no artist-audience distinctions, only participants performing different roles, and the primary goal is to involve the maximum number of people in some performance role.’ [5]

Turino’s examples are drawn from his field work amongst indigenous Peruvians, rural and urban Zimbabweans, and old-time North American musicians and dancers. The ceilidh, the silent disco, the Sheffield Christmas-time pub carolling are examples close to home. These are times when people gather knowing that they will in some way take part in a musical event (performance) in which all will take part. These events inspire participation because they welcome new timers and old timers alike. It’s like going to a party. You expect to participate.

Turino analyses participatory values. Unlike presentational performance values ‘the success of participatory performance is more importantly judge by the degree and intensity of participation than by some abstracted assessment of the musical sound quality’. [6]

The values and goals of presentational performance lead in the direction of abstracted assessment criteria relating to the qualities of musical sound.

I am reminded of my account of a school’s silent disco https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/04/17/putting-assessment-back-in-its-box/ and implications for the process of valuing (assessment).

In another example a music teacher highlights the distinction between Turino’s two modes.

At the end of a recent GCSE recital an informal 45 minute jam broke out, led by the students (though after a while the teachers couldn’t help but join in). Students began to play and mash together various songs that they had studied at Key stage three – Seven Nation Army, Sweet Dreams, Thrift Shop. There was a sense that the students were claiming this music as their own. The outpouring of joy was palpable (although a small number of students did not feel that they could easily include themselves in this musicking and so left.)’ [7]

The GCSE recital exemplifies presentational musical performance while the jam shows something of the participatory ethic which is likely to have had something of the intensity that Turino speaks of. Were the jamming to become a reason for the players to come together in the future then this would more fully qualify as participatory music making.

I have tried above to set out in general terms the way music scholarship and the creation of fresh categories can open up new thought. I do of course recommend reading the Turino in full to compensate for my lack of depth.

Next week I will explore some possible inplications of Turino’s categories for music education.


[1] Turino, T. (2007) Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. The University of Chicago Press: London.

[2] I am a restless soul in this respect.

[3] ibid, 23.

[4] ibid, 26.

[5] ibid, 26.

[6] ibid, 33.

[7] Email correspondence.















What is the point of First Access?

I am in the second row this year and fascinated by the quiet preparations of the assembled 110 year 3 pupils making up the string orchestra. One girl with cello is silently rehearsing a measured pizzicato involving a flowing arc of the arm between imagined sounds. Another is finding the balancing point of her violin bow and a boy sits proud on his double bass stool able to stay in tacit communication with parent.

The concert begins. Each piece has a backing track requiring the children to know their place in the music, to be aurally cued and to faithfully maintain their part.

A year ago I wrote about this annual event here


In that blog I set about justifying this First Access programme in terms of a general music education rather than a special focus on learning to play a string instrument.

Secondary school music teachers sometimes ask:

‘What is the point of First Access?’

Presumably such teachers see First Access as a promise that pupils with instrumental skill will transfer to their school. But of course this is a promise never made and one that in any case could never be kept.

In my case very few pupils continue learning their instruments after their year 3 experience.

However, watching the performance of the year 3 strings I was again convinced that here was an example of a fine foundational musical experience if not yet qualifying as an example of a fulsome musical education. (See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/?s=First+Access)

The question arises:

Could such experience be achieved in other ways, as part of a normal classroom music programme and as part of a broader view of music education?

If the answer is yes then the point of First Access could be sharpened and resources deployed more expeditiously.

Why no aesthetic education to age 16?

  • Michael Fordham @mfordhamhistory

Music, art, drama and dance are all crucial parts of a child’s cultural heritage. All children should be doing at least one at GCSE.

Giles Fullard‏ @rgfullard 20h20 hours ago


A broad education and one that attempts to enrich students’ cultural capital. We narrow the curriculum far too early.


John finney‏ @Johnfinney8


Replying to @rgfullard @MrHistoire

It’s the aesthetic dimension of human existence seeking meaning through artistic expression and which is culturally significant for all.



This was part of a twitter discussion set in motion by Michael Fordham advocating and no doubt elsewhere justifying the place of the arts in a broad and balanced curriculum to age 16.


I recall, somewhen about 1985 in my Basingstoke comprehensive school, the question being asked by a parent at a year 9 options evening: why don’t pupils continue their study of all subjects in years 10 and 11?


This question was asked in the public forum and alongside other parents who questioned the compulsory ‘aesthetic option’ requiring all pupils to study an arts subject post age 14. The next day teachers of art, ceramics, music, film and drama were called to a meeting with the head and deputy. We sensed that our highly prized aesthetics option was under threat. We went to the meeting armed with chapter and verse on the value of the arts. At the time There was no shortage of philosophical enquiry into aesthetic and artistic knowing and the uniqueness of this way of understanding the world. We presented the head and deputy with reasoned arguments supporting our place in the curriculum. We deployed the weight of intellectual authority with confidence and conviction.


The aesthetic option lived on and in end of course evaluations pupils expressed great satisfaction with the ways in which the uniqueness of the arts had enriched their lives. It was part of a comprehensive comprehensive school education, a result of progressive 1970s thinking reviving a liberal education and saving education from a lazy traditionalism.


Now, some thirty years later there is the EBacc and the arts are excluded and only a few enlightened liberal educators feel confident enough to sustain an argument for a post 14 aesthetic education. Some point to the compulsory nature of English and English Literature and all that is offered there in the cause of an aesthetic education. But many will have noticed a general shift in discourse towards a certain view of rigour, competence and functionality. The idea of an aesthetic dimension to education is now unheard of and long silenced to be replaced by myopic reductionist notions of knowledge.


You will notice that I am talking of the aesthetic dimension of human existence in preference to Michael Fordham’s focus on cultural heritage and Giles Fullard’s cultural capital.


I do this not to deny these things but to remind us that there is an existential component to education that challenges dominant ways of thinking about knowledge and the prevailing limited ways in which culture is construed.


Pupils between the age of 14 and 16 will be wanting to give meaning to their lives through artistic expression and aesthetic experience and there should be a broad range of options available across a school’s aesthetic offering.


Did you know that the first proposal from the DfE in respect to the formation of the new GCSE examination in music was that 80% of the marks should be allocated to a written paper and that the ABRSM graded theory exams were considered as a model?


Interestingly, in the final reckoning there is a component of the exam referred to as ‘knowledge’, not aesthetic knowledge, not the wonder of occurrent knowledge. personal knowledge or embodied knowledge but, you’ve got it, propositional knowledge.


Alas, our current political masters have a poor grasp of the order of things.








Just imagine the music

This morning I went to a local supermarket and headed for the newspaper stand. As I approached, a song came into my head, from where, I don’t know. It was so strong that I found myself singing it, albeit quietly, as I found my newspapers. The song – See the conquering hero comes by Handel. I was feeling upbeat for some reason. But where did the song come from? I hadn’t consciously willed it and it wasn’t an ear worm. Once it had come I was in full control of it and once I got to the end there was no involuntary return.

The poet Stephen Spender writes:

‘There is nothing we imagine which we do not already know. And our ability to imagine is our ability to remember what has already once been experienced and to apply it to some different situation’ [1]

I assume that we all have an unconscious life of fantasy feeding our imaginations, including our musical imagination. Well, there it was in my long-term musical memory and awoken by my mood of the moment and being applied to a specific situation.

There’s a lot of talk about musical creativity less about the musical imagination.

John Paynter had something to say about it.

‘Every conscious involvement with music in performing, composing ”and” in listening is the result of an independent imaginative response. It can not be quantified or reproduced exactly a second time. It is personal and individual. No matter how much we analyse the mechanic of a piece of music, or pay attention to what other people tell us about it, music will not ”happen” for us unless we ourselves enter into the particular sound world it inhabits.’ [2]

Yesterday I enjoyed very much the compositions of the year 7s of the City of London School for Girls performed in the Museum of London where they had been working all day and responding to ‘The City is Ours’  (see http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/whats-on/exhibitions/the-city-is-ours).

There were eight newly created works, none of which I or the girls could possibly have imagined at the beginning of the day. Their teachers I imagine entered into the day without giving much thought to ‘learning’, rather more thought to the subtleties of their teaching and being sensitive to the personhood of their pupils. (I like the idea of teaching without learning. [3])

What seemed important about the girls’ musical work was its uniqueness, and this means that it is irreplaceable.

Perhaps it’s time to stop, think and cherish the human imagination and its capacity to remake the world. I wonder if today the girls will be experiencing involuntary visits of their Museum Music. I am going to have a silent sing of that song.


[1] Spender, S. (1982) The Making of a Poem in Creativity (ed) P. E. Vernon, Penguin Books.

[2] Painter, J. (1982) Music in the Secondary School Curriculum. Cambridge University Press.

[3] See Gert Biesta’s ‘The Rediscovery of Teaching’, Routledge for the significance of this proposition.

Creating a music curriculum

In my recent blog The year 9 class and their changing musical behaviour (see https://wordpress.com/post/jfin107.wordpress.com/6949) I cited the thought of Carolyn Cooke, one of the editors of Learning to teach music in the secondary school (3rd edition). In the recent symposium reflecting on that book at the Research in Music Education Conference at Bath Spa University Carolyn also spoke about Chapter 5 in the book, What is a music curriculum? written with Gary Spruce. Carolyn explains how her two chapters are linked:

‘It is this overriding principle of young people’s agency which tie together the Behaviour for Musical Learning chapter and the What is a Music Curriculum?’


‘This chapter was conceptualised as a provocation – asking music student teachers to consider their own views, images, and experiences of the term ‘curriculum’ and then providing the resources and ideas with which to critique, and conceptualise curriculum in different ways. This ‘opening up’ comes in two forms in the chapter. In the first half, the term curriculum is itself scrutinised introducing the concepts of ‘curriculum as content’ and ‘curriculum as product’, arguing that both are reified forms of curriculum in which the document, content, objects within it become seen as concrete, fixed, unmoving and one in which young people have little to no agency. This is then contrasted with the concept of ”curriculum as a lived experience”, where young people become the curriculum makers. Cornbleth defines curriculum in this view as ‘an ongoing social process comprised of the interactions of students, teachers, knowledge and milieu’ (Cornbleth 1990). It is within this interactional, or ‘dialogic space’ that the curriculum isn’t just enacted, but is created.

The second half of the chapter explores this notion of curriculum creation by starting out with a metaphor used by Doll of the ‘Dancing curriculum’ – where nothing is fixed, or static (Doll in Fenwick et al. 2011). Where everything (resources, materials, environment, knowing, meanings, experiencing) are moving and dynamic and therefore where the curriculum is always evolving or emerging in response. It is here that complexity theory helps us to conceptualise what this means for re-conceptualising what a music curriculum is.’

The chapter sets out eight tasks for the reader and by the end they should have quite a lot to say about ‘what is a music curriculum?’ I think many of us would be a little tongue tied in answering this question or perhaps have only a summary phrase or two,

It seems to me that at the present time we need Carolyn’s chapter to sort out quite a bit of muddled thinking about our music education. I hope you will read the chapter.