The constructing of music as a school subject

In last week’s blog I bounced off a BJME article to raise questions about what would make a sufficiently robust justification for music being in the school curriculum as part of an education for all pupils to the age of 16.

Justifying music in the school I suggested needed to go beyond popular causes like becoming a musician, achieving musical potential and even the beguiling idea of acquiring a strong musical identity. [1]

I asked three questions.

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

The question attempts to take thinking beyond the populism of much current discourse within music education or what is called ‘the sector’.

Last week I proposed that in response to this first question two more questions are uncovered.

2. 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)

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

It is these questions that need to be addressed in the ongoing construction, reconstruction and justification of music as a school subject.

Below Chris Philpott contributes to the debate that these questions give rise to by considering the ways in which, typically, music as a school subject has been constructed and by implication the ways in which it has been justified.

The construction of music as a school subject

  • What I call a hierarchical dichotomy where the arts, including music, are a balance to the harder and more disciplined sciences.
  • Instrumentalism: the notion that music somehow serves some other greater economic, numerical or literate ‘good’.

There are two seemingly contradictory nuances to this construction. Firstly, there is the construction of music as an amelioration and counterpart to a more rational and (more important) scientific world promoting a stratified, hierarchical epistemology that militates against the arts. Such a construction adopts a dualism that has subjugated music (and the arts) beneath other ‘harder’ subjects thus establishing a hierarchical dichotomy.

However, while on the one hand music is constructed as a ‘soft’ subject whose strengths lie in our inability to ‘measure’, paradoxically it is justified for its transferable and measurable impact on other aspects of our life. In a culture of accountability politicians who ‘sponsor’ initiatives and statutory curricula are attracted by evidence that can show the potential impact of music on wider educational success and thus economic good.

These notions have done music no favours, and one reason for this is that there is

  • No confident discourse surrounding the nature of musical knowledge – one that is understood and is fluently expressed amongst teachers and music educators; a confident discourse surrounding musical understanding; a confident discourse surrounding musical meaning. Quite apart from music being only a softer amelioration to a harder world, the meanings of music are complex, they’re dirty and they’re hard, and I think the justifications in the past have been very much over-sanitised in terms of why music should be in the curriculum. Part of the reason for that is this lack of confident discourse. [2]

In music education there is a lack of confident discourse surrounding the subject’s ontological (what music is) and epistemological (how we come to know music) foundations. And this is a matter of some urgency.

There is a ‘bring back knowledge’ wave sweeping through our schools. Senior leaders are asking of their music teachers to set out the musical knowledge that constitutes the music curriculum and Ofsted in their new-found interest in knowledge will be presenting an attitude towards this. Knowledge will be coming your way.

Clare is a music teacher in a Cambridgeshire school and is part of her school’s working group on a knowledge-based curriculum. Clare tells me how she is growing in confidence in articulating the complexities of the nature of musical knowledge. She is being listened to. [3]


[1] See  for a critique of the ‘all shall be musicians’ mantra.

[2] An extract from a paper presented at the 2014 Camden Town Music Education Symposium. For a full expression of the argument see Chris’s chapter ‘The justification for music in the curriculum’ in Debates in Music Teaching (eds) Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce. Rutledge: London.

[3]  Clare recommends reading;;






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.




So, does the music count more than the people?

Laura Mullaly
Jun 16
Having a fab night at Homerton May Ball 2017 – Ceilidh and Silent Disco!! @Johnfinney8 where are you??! @HomertonCollege


In last weeks blog I cited Ceilidh and Silent Disco as possible examples of Thomas Turino’s category of ‘particpatory’ music making as distinct from ‘presentational’ music making.

‘Remember, ‘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.’ [1]

And ‘… 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.’ [2]

Much institutional music education is predicated on the presentational mode of music making. I wonder if Turino has in mind a presentational approach common to North America in which high-quality concert performances lead the way based on a master –apprentice model of music education. [3] While this doesn’t seem to apply quite so well to the United Kingdom, when we examine the stylistic features that Turino’s ascribes to presentational music making we see, for example, characteristically closed scripted musical forms and organised beginning and ends, rather than short, open, redundantly repeated forms of participatory music, I think it does. [4]

For the presentational ‘Sound counts more than words. Music counts more than people.’ [5]

Laura went to the ceilidh and the silent disco intent on being musical where there were no artist-audience distinctions and where, like going to a party, you not only participate but also contribute to its success. The people count more or as much as the music.

In Cooke’s study of participatory music learning in a traditional society he reports on the Gaelic ceilidh as a model of social inclusion where community is engendered and individual identity celebrated. It makes room for all present, accomplished and less accomplished. Those present ‘endorse the sentiments of the song and the efforts and sincerity of the singer. [6]

In last week’s blog I suggested that music scholarship  provided a resource for music educators.

What might we take from being introduced to Turino’s categories?

  1. How could we rebalance the dominant presentational ethic with a participatory ethic?
  2. What would this mean for what is valued (assessed)?
  3. Could more attention be paid to music as a source of particular cultural values, the uses to which music is put in particular times and places?
  4. Could the music room be a place where together meaning and new knowledge is made?


[1] Turino, T. (2007) Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. The University of Chicago Press: London. (p. 26)

[2] op.cit.

[3] Allsup, R. (2016) Remixing the Classroom. Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis. (p.100)

[4] See Ibid. p. 59 for Turino’s full typologies.

[5] Allsup, R. (2016) Remixing the Classroom. (p. 100)

[6] Cooke, P. (1978) Music Learning in Traditional societies. In P. Leach and R. Palmer (Eds). Folk Music in School. ISME Yearbook, 9, 99-102)





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 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

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

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.