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.


Making sense of selves in Katy’s workshop

I am sitting in a circle alongside thirty-six second and third year music undergraduates who have opted for a module in Music Education. They are an interesting mix coming as they do from a western arts based course, a contemporary popular music course and a folk and traditional music course.

Their Music Education module requires that they read my work and yesterday I answered questions that this had provoked and more generally about music education, how it is now and how it might be in the future. Many of the questions raised complex cultural and political issues but all served to open up fresh lines of thinking that helped to clarify beliefs, values and find a better purpose.

Today we are being led by secondary school music teacher Katy, through three workshops – Senegalese Drumming; Samba; Gospel.

These musical practices feature in Katy’s Key Stage 3 curriculum (only years 7 and 8, half term projects with music as part of a carousel). Katy’s school has 2,000 pupils and just one and a half music teachers, although there is promise of another. And, Katy is thankful to the Local Music Service for the loan of classroom instruments.

Ready to go now and Katy, with a lively good humour, sets about transmiting the musical material,

Continue reading “Making sense of selves in Katy’s workshop”

In praise of sub-vocalization, lip-syncing and playing the kazoo

One of the core beliefs of those making a case for singing in the school curriculum is its complementarity to the playing of instruments. According to Kemp, being musical through use of the voice, relying as it does on action within, and unseen, is less cognitive and more subjective than knowing through instruments. [1] Some kind of subjective-objective balance is proposed.

The voice within, the instrument without.

Well, there’s a compact rationale for you.

Many vocal advocates highly prize the power of silent singing (sub-vocalizing), the thinking and feeling of music in mind – (body), and thought of as a foundational form of listening.

But what about the art of Lip sync?

‘Lip sync, lip-sync, lip-synch (short for lip synchronization) is a technical term for matching lip movements with sung or spoken vocals. The term can refer to any of a number of different techniques and processes, in the context of live performances and recordings.’ [2]

Here the voice is disembodied, the lip syncer is wearing a mask.

We could think of this as sub-vocalizing with lips moving, a sort of musical ventriloquism. Much listening required in this, much attentive listening. [3]

But now let’s introduce that much neglected instrument, the kazoo patented in 1883. This is an instrument through which humming and other vocalise is transformed into instrumental timbres. Is there a kazoo-ukelele orchestra out there? [4]

Sub-vocalization, lip-synchronization and kazoo playing offer in their different ways forms of intensive listening experience and, of course, the experience of thinking in sound. Thinking in sound – is this what is meant by music as the target language? ‘The target language’ – what an unfortunate expression that is.


[1] Kemp, A. E. (1990) Kinaesthesia and development in music micro-technology, British Journal of Music Education, 7, 223-229.

[2] See

[3] Lip syncing is a cultural practice and I’m not sure about reducing it to psychological behaviour. What do you think?

[4] See

On track 16 of the Naxos recording of Lully’s Ballet Music of the Sun King the kazoo is substituted for the trumpet marine.



Music Education dignified by thought

‘They mirror the whole repertoire of human expereince, and are worthy of study in their own right. It is difficult to imaging a world without arts.’

These words were written in 1998 in the introduction to ‘The Arts Inspected’, a book setting out examples of good teaching in Art, Dance, Drama and Music. No, not ‘outstanding’ teaching, just ‘good’ teaching. (1)

The book offers examples of good teaching in each of the arts across the 5-18 age range. One of these has stayed firmly in my mind. Every time I return to it I am intrigued and caused to think a bit more. It is in chapter 5, the chapter dedicated to Music and written by the then HMI for Music, Janet Mills. It is a story of transition from primary to secondary school. I wont quote the example in full but enough to make a point. Janet writes:

‘Called ”Moving On”, the materials are based around four songs about transport that the pupils learn in primary school, using lively backing tracks if their teachers wish, and also sing during an induction visit to Cosley School shortly before the end of year 6. There are also some optional composing activities and listening exercises, based on compositions by pupils in Key Stage 4, that can be completed in Year 6.

The teacher’s certainty that Year 7 pupils have four songs in common, and his experience that virtually all pupils enjoy the songs, frees him to plan a first Year 7 lesson that uses them as a springboard for challenging composing, performing, listening and appraising activities. The self-consciousness that arises when Year 7 pupils are asked to start singing at secondary school by leaning a new song in new surroundings and seated among pupils that they do not know is avoided.’ (2)

Much of this will feel familiar as having aspects of commonly used transition strategies – the reworking of familiar material, being at home with ‘musical old friends’ (the songs) and having something in common with new friends in my class. But Janet Mills goes on to provide a detailed description of a Year 7 lesson and I now quote just one part of this.

‘Next, the pupils worked on all the songs, responding to advice from the teacher about how to improve the quality of their singing. As this section of the lesson developed, the pupils also answered questions about the music and their singing that required them to develop their ability to replay and rewind music in their heads, increase the focus with which they listened to and evaluated their own singing, and think even harder.’ (3) (4)

In this clear description there is also sharp analysis which explains why this activity has value, is worth doing. The pupils are led to ‘think even harder’ by learning that they are able to ‘replay and rewind music in their heads’. The pupils are called to think, think music and think about it. It is this thinking dialectic that is so fascinating; thinking in sound-thinking through language: musical thought impregnated by language. I wonder how this works. Anyway, Janet Mills has captured the kernal of a music education dignified by thought, allbeit held in microcosm. We should be grateful.

It is fashionable now to share practice through video recording. But do we need a video record of the above musical encounter, or even an audio recording in the light of the description and analysis. This, I suggest, would be largely superflous? It might show enthusiastic singing or not, singing that we would want to improve or not and a great deal more, all of which might inspire action, of course. And yes, seeing is believing. However, and much more importantly, we have a concisely articulated rationale for this musical episode. It is the ‘why’ that is sadly missing from so much practice that we hear about and see presented. That pupils are engaged, singing in forty parts, for example, is hardly a rationale.

On Saturday, March 15th some of us are coming together for a day of ‘thinking and making music together’. Please join us if you want to think even harder. Details here:

Next week’s blog looks at an example of what advanced workshop-ing skill might be like.

(1) ‘The Arts Inspected: Good teaching in Art, Dance, Drama, Music’. Gordon Clay, John Hertrich, Peter Jones, Jant Mills and Jim Rose. Heinemann/Ofsted, 1998.
That the book is concerned with ‘good teaching’ rather than ‘outstanding teaching’ reminds us that values change over time and that the ethos of Ofsted in 1998 is very different from 2014. Different government, performativity regime tightened, more urgent tasks; Ofsted becomes reactive, unstable, ahistorical.
(2) Ibid, pp.68-69.
(3) Ibid, p.69.
(4) A student of Ofsted school reports will note that one of the current stick and paste phrases used in recognition of effective teaching is ‘… and think even harder.’ This is related to teacher questioning and believed to deepen understanding.