But will anybody read it?

‘It is commonly agreed that a main aim of education is the attainment and development of knowledge and understanding. The ‘knowledge’ which is sought is generally assumed to be what can be expressed clearly in true propositional statements of fact, of ‘discursive knowledge’ about history, geography, science, economics , technology …

The assumption is valid, as far as it goes, and these are important fields of knowledge. But is ‘knowledge’, ‘knowing’, the ‘cognitive’ to be identified with this, and confined to what can be said in ordinary or other symbolic language? Surely not. We speak of knowing through sense perception, of knowing people, works of art, the morally good and bad. We speak of knowing how. Yet we can not say adequately in clear propositional language what it is we know and understand in the various fields. Generally speaking our knowing and understanding of such things must, at least at the outset, be based on direct, personal, intuitive experience.’ [1]

Thus wrote Louis Arnaud Reid at the beginning of the preface to ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’.

Reid was responding to the proposal that all areas of knowledge, including music and the arts, could be understood as being rooted in a body of clearly stated facts. Musical knowledge meant knowledge about music.

Reid goes on to show how this reductive approach to the arts separates thinking from feeling, how music as embodied experience is lost to abstractions.

In our symposium ‘Learning to teach music in the secondary school’ held at this week’s RIME conference in Bath Chris Philpott, Gary Spruce, Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans and myself presented the problematic nature of learning to teach music in the secondary school at this time in the face of so much reductive thinking that is abroad, and not least in relation to how musical knowledge is conceptualised. Official documents assume a unitary concept of knowledge. There is nothing of the richness that Reid was concerned with, that which is intuitive, felt, experienced deeply and the source of meaning.

In the symposium we were reflecting on the book that we had contributed to and which is written for beginning music teachers and indeed those more experienced. [2] We wondered who would read it, how it would be used and if ignored what would be in its place. Would the new music teacher simply feed from twitter chat, promotional blogs, official policy documents?

The level of critical debate amongst music teachers rarely rises above the mundane, the self validating and the self protective, and there remains the cry of what shall I do first period on Monday morning. And of course there are some marvellous exceptions.

Yet there surely is a thirst to examine matters such as ‘the nature of musical knowledge’; ‘the nature of musical pedagogy’ and the ‘nature of music teacher education’ and the relationship between these, a thirst to stand back and give serious thought to the why, how and what of music education. There is indeed much evidence of a thirst for knowing about musical pedagogy, but is this in the context of considering the nature of musical knowledge? I think not.

The book ‘Learning to teach music in the secondary school’ provides an opportunity to do this without losing contact with classroom practice.

The book is full of powerful pedagogic knowledge, buzzing with propositions about music education that call for thinking and intelligent responses.

But will anybody read it?

Well the book is in its third edition, so somebody must be reading it somewhere, or is it sitting on a shelf. I wonder.


[1] Reid, L. A., (1986) Ways of understanding and Education. Heinemann Educational Books.

[2] Philpott, C., Spruce, G., Cooke, C. and Evans, K. (2016) Learning to teach music in the secondary school (3rd. Edition). Routledge.

Iris and the country choir singing for meanings

Iris is one month old and it is my turn to cradle her in my arms. Iris sleeps a lot and she is sleeping now. My movements sometimes cause a stirring from Iris and now she sounds out the quietest of cooes. I reckon it’s a high E and with my gentlest falsetto I respond matching Iris’s E. It’s an example of ‘motherese’, the word we use to describe these kinds of early childhood musical relationships. I told this little story at my recent time with teachers on the Trinity Laban Teaching Musician programme. [1]

I was very pleased to have been invited to share with the group a significant influence on my thought and practice. The invitation provided a challenge. Regrettably I would need to leave aside my first and formative teachers, my first piano teacher Mrs McNally and my first lessons aged 14, and my choirmaster Henry George who encouraged me to sing and play the organ, and my school music teacher who asked, ‘had I thought of opting for A level music’? (I hadn’t, but the question was sufficient encouragement for me to follow that path and on to becoming a secondary school music teacher). But then came to mind the transforming experience (and I don’t use the phrase lightly) of higher degree study and being introduced to a vast music education literature. It was news to me that there was a psychology of music, a sociology of music and music education, and I had been only dimly aware that music education had a history. I was to meet the thought of John Blacking, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Theodore Adorno, John Curwen, Emile-Jacques Dalcroze, for example.

I eventually fixed on Christopher Small and my reading his Music-Society-Education. [2] The encounter was not a Damascus Road experience but rather a slow burning fuse and only now am I realising the fuller implication of Small’s thought on the way I understand what music is and the implications for music education and of course on reflection its limitation.

In his seminal Music-Society-Education Small addressed the symbiotic relationships between music, society and education. Without understand how music is in the world, how it has functioned in societies past and how it functions here and now throughout the world, there can be no understanding of the role of music education in society.

The work provided the ground for Small’s subsequent thinking. In his next book, now little known, he coined the term ‘musicking’ and provided a framework of thought about the nature of music as a social practice.

Music of the Common Tongue published in 1987 has a sub-title: ‘Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music’. [3] Here Small examined the search for identity and community of millions of Africans in the Americas through their encounter with a European tradition, taking from it what was needed to explore, celebrate and affirm who they were and who they might become.

[I told the group how depressing it was to continually meet with the woefully inadequate idea that there were two musics –classical and pop. What a relief to speak of Afro-American music and to imagine the richness and complexity of its infinite diversity, for example.]

It was in Small’s 1987 book that he makes clear:

‘My first assumption is that music is not primarily a thing or a collection of things, but an activity in which we engage … the act of musicking is central to the whole art of music the world over. In most of the world’s musical cultures this is taken for granted without even having to think about it; it is only the dominance of the classical tradition that obliges us to state it so bluntly.’ [4]

What a talking point.

Ok, yes, music is a thing. When I cooed to Iris my cooing was a sound, a physical thing, an object of consciousness, a thing. But Small rejects the objectification of music in favour of activity. In doing this musical meaning is detached from the musical work and its fixed intra-sonic properties and moved to the here and now of musicking. New relationships are created, new meanings experienced.

In his 1998 book Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening he writes:

‘Musicking creates a web of relationships between, and among, musical sounds and people situated in the physical and cultural space of musicking. Observing these relationships makes it possible to gain an understanding of the society that gives birth to musicking’. [5]

Thus, we are freed to ask the question wherever there is musicking: what is going on here?

All this has proved helpful to me and I have grown to love what is a kind of anthropological perspective on music and music education and to understand music education as being fundamentally relational in character.

A conundrum for myself and others is Small’s insistence that musicking has no moral dimension. It is not a matter of good or bad musicking. There is just musicking. The idea is ethically neutral. It exists as a conceptual tool.

Randall Everett takes up the problem in his argument for an open philosophy of music education. [6]

‘Small longs, like many of us do, for an open conception of music that is free of predetermination and prejudice and in which ‘’the value of the [experience] is tied to the consequences of the actual ‘event’ of musicking, and these consequences can not be determined beforehand, as they change according to the actual conditions of the ‘event’.’’ [7] But for teachers and learners who wish to work and play outside of prevailing norms, or for musician-artists who want to call attention to injustices and indecencies, Small’s vision is insufficiently venturesome, leaving critics struggling to articulate an open and inclusive concept of music education in which a multitude of values and perspectives intersect.’ [8]

Small’s insistence that musicking is to be seen as being beyond ethical consideration is out of tune with much contemporary philosophy of music education which sees music education as being essentially ethical in nature. Wayne Bowman, arguing for thinking of music education as induction into a set of musical practices points out that:

‘… musical practices like human practices are places where we learn and rehearse right action: where we learn to formulate and address the fundamental human question, what kind of person it is good to be, what kind of people we wish to become. Practices, musical and others, are where we learn our most important lessons about who we are and who we aspire to become. On this account, human practices [including musical practices] are profoundly important ethical resources.’ [9]

On Maunday Thursday I joined a rural Norfolk church choir to sing the plainsong/Vittoria St. Matthew Passion. My part was that of Jesus set in a low bass register which suited me well. Here was a case of musicking and for Small all who were present were part of this seeking to affirm a common identity. Most of the choir had never been in a choir or thought of themselves as singers until the recent formation of the group. In Small’s terms our musicking created ‘a web of relationships between, and among, musical sounds and people situated in the physical and cultural space of musicking.’ [10]

Thinking about these relationships makes it possible to gain an understanding of the micro society that gave birth to this musicking, and its relationship with a much larger society and how the coming together of people from three small village communities created meanings there and then. I think there was an ethical dimension to the event as there was to my recent cooing with Iris as we learnt about who we are and who we aspire to become.


[1] See http://www.trinitylaban.ac.uk/about-us/overview/the-teaching-musician

[2] Small, C. (1977/1996) Music-Society-Education. John Calder.

[3] Small, C. (1987) Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music. John Calder.

[4] Ibid, 50-51.

[5] Small, C. (1998) Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan University Press. p. 9.

[6] Everett, R. (2016) Remixing the Classroom: Towards an Open Philosophy of Music Education. Indiana University Press. p. 133.

[7]Odendaal, A., Kankkunen, O., Nikkanen, H. and Vakeva, L.. (2014) What’s with the K? Exploring the implications of Small’s ‘Musicking’ for General Education. Music Education Research 16, (2) 163.

[8] Everett, R. (2016) Remixing the Classroom: Towards an Open Philosophy of Music Education. Indiana University Press. p. 133.

[9] See jfin107.wordpress.com ‘scholarly work’, The ethical significance of music making. Wayne Bowman.

[10] Small, C. (1998) Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan University Press. p.9.









Why music in not a core subject

Given the research evidence, why isn’t Music central to education policy? What should we be doing better to get that message out?

Why are we not a “Core” subject?

These are the cries of the beleaguered music teacher seeing time for their subject reduced, examination classes cut and staffing reduced.

The research evidence on the power of music is growing by the day. Active music making, assuming that it is regular and of high quality, can contribute to the enhancement of a range of non-musical capabilities and lead to other beneficial outcomes. This is broadly what the research says and what I think music teachers refer to when they invoke research evidence.

In this view Music in the curriculum is able to go beyond itself and serve aspects of general development.

Policy makers, by which I mean the current government, while acknowledging this, move quickly to the value of the subject itself, to its place in the order of things. They don’t dwell on how it is a servant to other subjects or some notion of general human development and well being, but as a subject of the curriculum that never has been ‘core’ and which is destined to remain marginal while at the same time recognised as part of a broad and balanced curriculum.

This is very much how it has been since the advent of compulsory education in 1870. In some exceptional cases headteachers and some former Local Education Authorities have given core status to music and the arts. David Hargreaves attempted this in ILEA in the late 1980s, for example. Today, some headteachers are committed to all pupils having an arts option at Key Stage 4 in spite of the Ebacc. Where there is this kind of commitment it most likely comes from an enlightened view about the nature of a liberal education.

While research on the power of music is heartening (and a life blood to organisations seeking funding) it may ironically serve to undermine the case for music as a subject discipline, acting as a kind of distraction from music’s core purpose of providing a unique way of understanding the world into which young people are growing. (Late edit: This is nothing to do with claiming music’s intrinsic value. See Wayne Bowman above.) From there many good things are likely to be accrue, many of those benefits claimed by the research. Getting this the right way round, I think is important.

Chris Philpott makes the distinction between hard and soft justifications for music in the book ‘Debates in Music Teaching’ and shows what a powerful thing music is, and not in the way that the research referred to above does. Its power lies in the way it is in culture and society as a significant form of meaning making.

Following James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in the late 1970s and the steady moves during the 1980s to form a National Curriculum, the concept of Core and Foundation subjects was established. Despite some making a case for a curriculum that was not hierarchical the Core-Foundation division easily won the day. Nothing much has changed since then except the coming of the EBacc, a throwback to the School Certificate subject grouping of the mid twentieth century. So, all the research in the world showing ‘the power of music’ and its contribution to human well-being and the making of smarter pupils is insignificant in the face of an ideology that champions the core, defines ‘academic’ in a narrow way and that sees STEM subjects as giving citizens economic advantage.

There has been talk of giving school leavers an app that will provide government with information about the amount of income tax paid by the individual and correlated with the subjects studied. In this way the value of a subject can then be directly liked to its value – its economic value that is. (By the way, it remains unclear whether there is a relationship between the study of the arts and the success of the creative industries, another common claim for treating music and the arts as significant.)
So music is not a Core subject. This is not to say that it has been and will continue to be valued as being worthwhile and in some places giving the appearance of being central to the school’s work – ‘core’ in a metaphorical sense.
I am a governor of a primary school which has three music graduates on the staff, a subject leader for music, a year 4, 5, 6 choir of over 100 (a third of the cohort), all year 3 engaged in First Access Strings, all pupils experience Steel Band etc. . At governor meetings there is no mention of Music, just improvement plans, targets and data, ways of presenting data, FSM success ratios etc. And in this discussion it is the childrens’ reading, writing and maths that is, well THE CORE.
However, since the debates surrounding the making of a national curriculum for music in the early 1990s, where there were interventions by high-profile celebrity figures such as Sir Simon Rattle and Pierre Boulez, successive governments have been wary of neglecting music. Hence Michael Gove’s swift and politically astute action in moving towards the making of a Music Plan in 2010.
If not officially a core subject it can only be enlightened headteachers, belligerent parents and talented music teachers that can create the illusion that music is core in their schools.

Creative thinking in music education

I took note of this tweet

Dave Aldridge‏ @zudensachen

Creative thinking is a ‘responding to’ something that comes before, in the manner of call and response. Thinking ‘with’. Fairfield #pesgb17

I had tended to think that call and response belonged to music education and as one of its most foundational pedagogic devices.

Attending this year’s third round of the FA Cup to see Southampton play Norwich at Carrow Road, I found myself in the heart of the Southampton fans. We were seated, well mostly standing, not far from the most vociferous section of the Norwich fans.

It wasn’t long before we started singing. The repertoire included a short snatch of a song that made reference to the Woolston Ferry. Where did that reference come from I thought. The Woolston Ferry (The Floating Bridge I knew it as) was replaced by the Itchen Bridge in 1977. Wow, this was heritage stuff. Fathers to sons folk memory I romantically imagined. But with a little research I discovered this


and with a little more I found the song on the album ‘Super Saints 20 Southampton Classics’.

The snatch used by the fans was the beginning of the chorus line.

I will get to the matter of call and response; for now one particularly loud Saints fan stood on his seat and bellowed across to the Norwich fans and in due course one Norwich fan responded. Pretty tribal and rather like war- lords stepping out in front of their armies. What followed was a short spell of call and response between the two. As far as I could tell each drew from the depths of their abuse repertoire. A kind of creative thinking with responses to something that comes before. It was unlikely that fresh material was being generated in this instance.

Call and response as a pedagogical device in music education of course has roots in its evolutionary story and there exists a rich world of antiphonal musical practices. But I wonder how commonly it is now used in our music classrooms as a creative thinking device. There’s plenty of call-echo meaning call-copy. But that’s not call-response.

Let’s think of the step from call-copy to call-response as being vast, the first requiring thought certainly, but the second requiring the creation of a mental space in which the mind is called upon to make sense of the material offered, manipulate it, re-order it, re-create it, think with it.

This is creative thinking and an example of the proximity of musical knowledge acquisition and musical creativity.

‘Responding to’ something that’s comes before. Is it in danger of becoming a lost pedagogy?

And it was just a passing tweet.

Dreaming about a Key Stage 3 Music Classroom

I dreamt that I was in a school where Key Stage 3 students were being assessed twice each half term. First came a progress check and the setting of a target, and finally at the end of the half term the students moved up a sub level if the target had been met. This policy applied across the school and was being implemented in the year 9 music classroom in which I was a guest.

It seemed to be a perfect example of assessment determining how teaching was likely to proceed and how the curriculum was likely to develop, and what kind of knowledge was likely to be valued, that is, assessed.

In this class the students knew what chords were and their starter quiz served as a great reinforcer in this respect and they were able to distinguish between major and minor chords. Their keyboard task that followed the quiz was supported by differentiated criteria for success.    Expectations were clear, technical rather than expressive. Is more better than less?

Knowledge about chords was strong.

But what was this knowledge for I wondered?

How did it bring about keyboard fluency and some sense of musical completeness, music made well?

This was a concern to me and I thought ‘no meaning without fluency’.

You see, fluency belongs to another kind of musical knowledge and here unwittingly subjugated to knowing what a chord is and how chords work together.

Fluency belongs not to knowing about things but to knowledge felt, knowledge embodied, knowledge experienced.

So today we had the cart before the horse, the cart without a horse, the cart without any wheels. Perhaps the knowledge gained about chords will come to serve musical experience in the future. But if music in the classroom is not a time in itself, meaning made here and now, music experienced, there is loss and lack.

But there are those who currently champion the primacy of knowing about things, knowing facts and there is I detect within music classrooms a trend in this direction, not new, but trending at this time.

Knowing about musical things, knowing this and that about music is indeed a wondrous thing, but it so easily leads the way to what are tokenistic musical activities. These are activities that typically illustrate knowledge about things, about chords, for example. They quickly become activities that are not so much about making music, creating something fresh, fluent and meaningful, but rather a flirtation with such a possibility, a promise of the really wondrous thing that is perpetually denied.

But, my goodness, they know what a chord is, so let’s test that and move up a sub-level.

Awaking from my dream I thought, thank goodness that was only a dream …………. or was it?

Back to sleep and my favourite recurring dream.






Brahms starting the conversation

In this school the Head of Music tells me that she has taught 16+ examination syllabuses from pre GCSE times through to the latest manifestation of GCSE. And it is the OCR Board that is being worked with this time round, a change which fits well with the way a music education is conceived of in this 11-16 school.

While there remain misgivings about aspects of the performance component of the exam and in particular its harsh discrimination against informal and self-taught musicians (i.e. the four-minute requirement) and those without the resources to fit the model GCSE performer, the opportunity to work with Rhythms of the World and the other Areas of Study makes good sense.

Today I am observing a year 10 GCSE class of 30 being taught by a beginning music teacher in the school. The Area of Study is The Concerto Through Time, 1650-1910. We have reached the Romantic Concerto and the class is presented with a YouTube performance of the slow movement of Brahms Violin Concerto.

All that follows in this two-hour lesson draws from the performance. It is what the class move out from and back into, a continual to-ing and fro-ing. It remains the source of conversation throughout.

Students appear keen to know more about what’s going on here and to widen and deepen their grasp of not just this example of the Romantic Concerto but of Romanticism as an artistic movement. Other than musical forms of romantic expression open up fresh thinking with links to the student’s historical, literary and wider artistic knowledge. It is easy to overlook that students come to music lessons with these perspectives.

Working sometimes as a whole class, at others in their carefully created triads, there is a lot of talking and thinking in response to poetry and artwork. A student reads some Byron and another refers to the ‘angstiness’ of a painting. But we are never far away from the Brahms as the class get to know the performance with ever-increasing attention to detail and without any loss of the whole as a musical experience in itself.

Gary Spruce in the chapter ‘Culture, society and musical learning’ chapter in the book ‘Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School’ points out that recent music scholarship proposes that ‘ … music can be understood fully and by implication, taught effectively if only one takes into account the social, political, cultural and economic factors that impact on its production, dissemination and reception.’ [1]

Well, GCSE music hasn’t caught up with contemporary scholarship and this year 10 aren’t there yet either.

To have a GCSE component titled ‘listening and appraising’ rings feebly from this perspective. Perhaps ‘critical and contextual’ would move things forward.

However, here is a music department eschewing any kind of reductionism or teaching to the test. The class isn’t doing practice listening questions and there was a memorable whole class performance reconstruction of a concerto grosso earlier in the term. Their minds are expanding and there may well be a ‘dialogue of difference’ to enrich their critical acumen as they place Rhythms of the World alongside Concerto Through Time. [2]

Their Key Stage 3 curriculum has taught them well about difference. No monochrome curriculum dominated by culturally colourless musical performing skills, nor an incoherent tour of the world. Rather a curriculum of music making calling for thinking and feeling, and where fluency and expression are valued highly.

I am wondering whether the student’s grasp of 19th century musical techniques will impact on their composing?


[1] Spruce, G. (2016) Culture, society and musical learning. In (eds) Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce, Learning to Teach in the Secondary School. Routledge.

[2] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/gcse-music-and-the-dialogue-of-difference/






Year 9 music doing ok

This school is a 13-18 school. Not so common but where such upper schools exist they create a quite different feel to the way music education is approached. While to some extent dependant upon their feeder middle schools, they are often very good at creating new experiences for their students that hardly rely on what has gone before. With an 13-18 perspective and with a large cohort post 16 there is no question that music will feature strongly post 16 and assist in creating a mature musical culture that impacts throughout.

Today I am observing a year 9 class. Their topic is Film Music. The work has been schemed out carefully and, perhaps typically, a number of lessons have been spent in the analysis of film music as a musical practice, that is, how composers of film music go about their work (why think of film music as a genre when it can be thought of as a practice?). As a topic the practice of composing film music has much to recommend it and is frequently found at examination level and in higher education. What better way to understand how musical meanings are mediated and to engage critically with the process of composition.

This teacher had indeed studied the practice at degree level and has planned for thorough appreciation of it. Today ‘Kamaji’s Boiler Room’ is the film clip, lasting 9 minutes, serving as the stimulus for class discussion. This relies upon students applying what they had previously learnt and there is a good range of student responses. The teacher’s classroom presence has authority and this authority is expressed with ease as particular students are called upon to share their grasp of the techniques at work in the clip.

Now attention to the matter of character leit motives and composition work, next week to be linked with underscoring and so on building step by step, technique after technique to inform what is composed. Students are using the Seesaw app as a compositional notebook.

It’s a method that is usually successful. It’s what art teachers do as well.