Writing (riting) music

As part of my work with Sound and Music and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), we’ve been running as series of on-line events during lockdown on the pedagogies of composing, details of which are here. Doing these, one of the things that I have been thinking about a lot is the way in which people use the word ‘writing’ to mean composing. This has troubled me for a while, so in this blog I am bringing some of my troubling into the open, as it were.

I appreciate I may be being oversensitive, but in the wake of black lives matter, I think it behoves us all to think about what we may be doing that could be, albeit inadvertently, racist. Nate Holder’s blog  has some powerful materials on it that give pause for thought. With regard to ‘writing’ music, this usage has long troubled me, as I think what it is doing is making ‘writing music’ important. And what written music looks like is a staff with a clef, a key and time signature, and so on. Never mind that most of the world’s music doesn’t do this, music, to be worthwhile, has to be done in ‘writing’.

Now this use of ‘writing’ reminds me of an article by Ian Stronach, “This space is not yet blank”, which is about as hardcore a postmodern piece of academic writing as it’s possible to get, and certainly not for the fainthearted, or those with an allergy to PoMo articles! Anyway, bear with me…in his complex, but also very playful piece, Stronach says this:

Catching words with words is the name of the game, and we are on their trail hoping to catch them out, or in. So think the ritual of writing, riting’s passage, as a writual of riting as I will have gingerly picked my way, tensely, across this page, step-by-step, leaving word-prints here and there.

Eh? I hear you say! What? Has Fautley finally lost the plot, has lockdown got to him? No! What I take from Stronach that is relevant to my long term worries about writing=composing, is that ‘writual of riting’ wherein ‘we’ (and as I keep saying, whoever ‘we’ are?) use ‘writing’ without thinking (or thoughtlessly, if you like), to mean composing. Which immediately rules out vast swathes of musics as being not written, but ritual, and therefore not worthy of a western classical gaze. To use writing as composing is to conjure up images of a solitary genius, starving in a Paris garret in about 1880, and struggling alone. Or maybe of a modern tech-savvy composer, in their shed in the back garden, or whatever. The writing is riting and the ritual is writual. And ‘we’ who talk about writing when we mean composing are complicit in this. The use of ‘writing’ conveys where we place value.

Sure, when a 14-year-old singer-songwriter says “I’ve written a song” what they often mean is that they have written some words, lyrics, the writing is an aide-memoire. The music is often unwritten, or at least un-crotcheted, it may be a few chord symbols, or some tab, that’s fine. Is a song valid only as sheet music? Why don’t CDs, from hip-hop to Mendelssohn, come with a score as well as the text if it’s that important?

When our colleagues in the art department have a student who has produced a good painting, do we say “I don’t want to see the picture, show me the essay they’ve written about it”?

Why am I banging on about this? Because, for me, it’s a short step from writing = composing, to writing = knowledge of ‘theory of music’, and this takes us to western classical music’s nice cosy comfort zone. Beware of sitting comfortably!

Does this all matter, why do I worry about a word? Because words have baggage, and these days that’s an issue. If ‘we’ (warning as above) use words without thinking about the hidden meanings we can show what we think, and what we value. I value kids making music. I value the doing, the cooperative, the active. I want more children and young people to experience the frisson of live performance, the gratification of hearing something that you brought into being that no-one else has ever done before, is that such a bad thing? If we then say “nice song, but the 7th doesn’t resolve properly, and the voice-leading is rubbish” are we encouraging? English and French may share the same alphabet, but the grammar is different, should we judge Baudelaire by the textual rules of Wordsworth? Stormzy by Mozart? Where is the writual?

So I am worrying about writing to mean composing, and it does make me uncomfortable. And I’ve just ‘written’ a blog about it. Maybe a writ needs enforcing to prevent me?

Sorry, I’ll go back to my beer now…..

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Link to BJME post

Another ‘not a blog post’ posting! the very kind people at Cambridge University Press have made freely available for a few weeks only the editorial research article for the British Journal of Music Education by me and Dr Alison Daubney. It’s entitled ‘Music education in a time of pandemic’, and it’s available here:



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Grading and standards in troubled times

These are troubled times, what with us being confined to our homes, and the associated fears. But everything else goes on, and whilst it is not normality, a semblance thereof has to appertain. Against this backdrop, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which examination grading in the UK for GCSE and A-levels will be taking place this year, particularly with reference to music.

It is well known that I have long been critical of the status quo in England, and feel that many kids miss out on the higher grades because of issues with the process itself. I won’t rehearse those arguments again here, though. But reading through Ofqual’s statement today  alongside this piece in schools week I was struck by how actually what people are saying – and will say – could be interpreted the other way round. Let me explain.

Test validity is a complex and contested area, but one of the areas which is investigated is this: “How well test performance matches expectations based on evidence available from other relevant sources” (NFER, no date). What this means is that we could be saying instead of how well teacher assessments match the test outcome, that a judgement of testing is how well it matches other evidence, including teacher assessments. Important to note that this is not a swipe at exam boards, they work incredibly hard to try and ensure validity and reliability (another complex and contested construct!), but instead to try and restore faith in teacher judgements.

Now I know that  many people are telling us this is not the time to make cheap political points, but I will anyway! Ever since Michael Gove dismantled the education and examination systems in England, trust in teacher judgement has been steadily and deliberately drip-by-slow-and-steady-drip eroded. His infamous statement that “the country has had enough of experts” being but one example of this. What I feel (and this is only a personal opinion, so please take with a pinch of salt!) is that this has steadily transferred to the teaching profession, and many more recent entrants to the profession have known nothing else, and so are not used to thinking that their assessment judgements can possibly be even vaguely correct without some form of external validation. Consequently there is little to no trust built into the system as currently configured and, importantly, this is the results of a series of ideological decisions!

What this means is that this year we get to find out what will happen with an entirely differently configured way of grading attainment for our young people. I am reasonably sure, knowing how the system works, that much of this will translate into more work and much stress for our music teachers, though! But it will interesting to see what will happen, and what will come out of this system change that has been so violently thrust upon us. The system (and Gove again plays a part in this) has been ramping up accountability to the point at which it seems that, as many music teachers tell me, the only thing that matters is grades. SLT: “Oh the choir were on the radio were they? That’s all well and good, but I need your KS3 spreadsheets now, they are what really count in this school”. This translates as education = grades, but as we get further up the school the grades that really matter are those produced by others.

Anyway, I think that’s enough of a rant for the moment. It will be interesting to see what happens this year, and how composing, performing, and listening can be graded.

I wish our young people and their teachers well, and hope that we can all be allowed out again soon. Music is a sociable enterprise, after all.

Take care everyone.


NFER, no date: https://www.nfer.ac.uk/for-schools/free-resources-advice/assessment-hub/introduction-to-assessment/how-to-ensure-a-test-is-valid/

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Another ‘instead of a Blog’ post…(but be quick, this one’s time-limited!)

So instead of a Blog on this site for December, please see the one by me on the Cambridge University Press website linked to below.

Many thanks to the British Journal of Music Education for for making access to latest issue – a WCET special – free for a short while.

Blog by me with access details at https://bit.ly/2PqFokh
Will hopefully be of interest to all those involved in Whole Class Ensemble Tuition in England and beyond.

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In which I worry about whether singing is inherently creative?

I’ve been giving considerable thought recently to something that I hear said a lot nowadays, which runs something like:

The kids are all singing, which is an inherently creative activity…

This made me post a tweet asking the question: ‘is singing inherently creative?’. There were a number of responses to this, and as I write they are still coming in. Interestingly a number mis-interpreted the question, and talked about how singing was a worthwhile activity – which I hadn’t asked! So let me worry away at creativity and singing for a bit longer.

First of all, let me be really clear, I am not asking ‘is singing worthwhile?’. That’s a very, very different question, and not what I am thinking about here.

So, to start with, let us think about creativity entails. In many ways this reminds me of a critique I received when I had been writing about neoliberalism, which was ‘so are you using neoliberalism to mean everything you don’t like?’. Fair point, and I need to be more concise on that issue. But are we doing the opposite with creativity? Are we saying, in effect, ‘creativity=a good thing’, and then doing a sort of equation:

Creativity = a good thing

Singing = a good thing

Therefore singing = creativity


Which could be problematic. Let me use another example:

Creativity = a good thing

Health & Safety = a good thing

Therefore Health & Safety = creativity

I’m less convinced by that!

What I think muddies the waters here is that, as some respondents noted, some aspects of singing are creative. I think, maybe, as a music education community it might be helpful to work out what these are, rather than bundling all singing in the ‘creativity’ bracket, perhaps?

I also hear, not as often as I used to, fortunately, of instances where kids have been reduced to tears by insensitive comments of the ‘not good enough’ lines, by over-zealous musical directors, especially when a big performance event looms. Is those kids’ creativity valued? Are their tears?

Allied to this are two elephants in the room at the same time:

Elephant 1: Genre

Elephant 2: (A relative of Elephant 1) Hegemony and Cultural Capital

In some of the twitter singing responses some commentators asked if musical style matters? In other words, are kids singing folk songs/opera/art music/etc automatically more ok than singer-songwriters, urban artists, rappers? Sometimes people say “I’ll ask the local opera company what they think”, has anyone asked the local grime artists? Are Youth Music funded projects seen in a different league to ‘high art’? Or, to be blunt, are some sorts of singing valued more than others? How do we feel if we rephrase that, some sorts of kids are valued more than others? Now I’m very uncomfortable! The 2 elephants are well and truly mixed up here. Does contemporary hegemony value choirs more than rappers? Does it value the kids in choirs more than the kids who rap?

Which brings me back to the question, is singing inherently creative? Well, I haven’t even tried to define creativity yet, so maybe I’ll just end with a definition of creativity from the NACCCE report:

Imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value.

I think I think I need to think a bit more, but I also think that we in music education, or as twitter would have it, #musiceducation, also need to do some thinking, as if we are challenged thoughtfully, and with examples on this, we could come a cropper. And for want of a nail, and all that…


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In which I worry about differentiation in music education

I’ve seen a number of posts on twitter recently, and read some blog posts too, that argue that differentiation is a bad thing. I’ve been doing some head-scratching about this, as I’ve always maintained, and say to PGCE students, that every KS3 music class is mixed-ability (a term I don’t like, but that’s another story!). If this is the case, how do we then deal with the range of pupils that present themselves each time a KS3 music lesson is taught?

One of the main issues – for me, and I want to be clear these are personal thoughts – is that there seem to be a number of issues with what we (whoever ‘we’ are, I keep saying that at the moment!) actually meanby differentiation. Let me try and explain. (What follows applies to KS3 music, by the way, I appreciate other subjects and phases will be different.) When we plan for teaching and learning we do so normally at three levels, long-term, medium-term, and short-term. What this means is that long-term planning considers where the learners in this school, with these teachers, will be at the end of KS3. Then medium-term planning translates this into schemes of work and programmes of study, and short-term planning will be individual lesson plans.

So what is differentiation? Let’s take this definition from Munro (2012) as being typical:

Differentiating instruction involves responding constructively to what students know. It means providing multiple learning pathways so that students can have access to the most appropriate learning opportunities commensurate with their capacity to learn. It involves matching students’ approach to learning with the most appropriate pedagogy, curriculum goals and opportunities for displaying knowledge gained …

From this I would want to add three words to the first sentence: “..responding constructively to what students know” and can do. This for me is where differentiation comes in. Our mainland European music educator chums talk a lot about ‘competences’ in music education. This works for me, what the pupils are competent at doing is a good place to start from. This brings us back to planning. I think we see differentiation operating principally in the lesson planning stage. This is because it is here that it finds its outworking in the way we deal this individual group of children and young people in the classroom. And each class will be different, in music.

Let us drill down, or as Ofsted now say, take a deep dive, into what is going on. Some arguments against differentiation argue that you should ‘teach to the top’, and that this will bring the others up to this level. Let’s think about that in KS3. I’m sure many colleagues will have had the experience of teaching a KS3 class where a child has, say Grade V on an instrument. So, do we teach to this child, and assume everyone else will catch up? I don’t think that will go down well! Others recommend ‘teaching to the middle’, so do we do this, and ignore the Gd V child, and risk them being bored in practical work, as their competences will be of a different level? These are questions music teachers have to grapple with every day.

I think that this has become a contested area because so many education social-media pundits never seem to even get as far as thinking about music. I remember well an educator who had been to a CPD event with an orchestra, came back amazed to tell me that not everyone in the orchestra plays the same thing at the same time (well, derr!) and that the violas were playing something different to the flutes (derr, again!). This was revelatory for them in thinking about how different activities contributed to a unified whole. This is so obvious in music that we don’t even bother to worry about it. Of course the drummer plays something different to the lead guitarist, and the bass guitar, and the keyboard, and…and…and.

The upshot of all of this is that differentiation is built into our musical DNA, so of course we ‘get it’, and we enact it.

The problem with differentiation is that it isn’t a conceptual problem for KS3 music, but that others, from other areas, have made it so – now where have we heard that before 😉 ?

Where it does become an issue is doing something about it for every KS3 class, every lesson, of every day. But that is why music teachers are so good at their jobs, because they can do this.


Munro, J., (2012) Effective strategies for implementing differentiated instruction. [online] Available at: http://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1144&context=research_conference (Accessed June 2019)


Posted in Curriculum, KS3, Music Education | Tagged | 3 Comments

England – Curriculum Planning

There is to be a curriculum planning group for music in England, established by the minister, Nick Gibb. I’ve been asked to share some thoughts on this via the Primary Music Magazine, and so these are to be found here: Primary Music Magazine link

Which will, I hope, go some way towards explaining why I haven’t written a blog post recently, sorry!

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What is KS3 classroom music education for?

I’ve been thinking again recently about what the point of classroom music is. This thinking has been caused not only by the usual reasons of academic inquiry, fuelled by John Finney’s thoughtful comments here, but because I have been sniffing the entrails, and I think that classroom music teaching and learning will become a hot issue in the coming months. So, here are some thoughts…

I think one of the first things I want to observe is that until you’ve actually taught classroom music at KS3, day-in-day-out, over a reasonably long period of time, your ideas will not be based on a sound ontological footing. Yes, we should of course listen to all opinions, absolutely, but anyone can dream up ‘castles in the sky’ when they haven’t had to ‘walk the talk’. Classroom music is not graded music exams writ large, nor is it WCET in the really long term. It is based on the National Curriculum, and forms a linearity between KS2 and KS4 (KS2 music is a whole other issue, I am temporarily ignoring! . What the purpose of GCSE music is involves a whole other set of worries, too!)

Then, what do I think KS3 music isn’t:

Musical appreciation We had musical appreciation back in the 50s and 60s, let’s just say it didn’t end well, and if you want to bring it back, I suggest you take a long, hard look at Enquiry 1 (1968)! This is NOT to say kids should never listen to music, but only listening to music by dead white chaps is not the sole reason for the subject existing

Theory. I have no bones about reading and writing music, I’ve written about it before here, but I don’t think it’s the starting point for musical learning. Paul Harris has written eloquently about simultaneous learningand I think that’s probably how knowledge of staff notation is best acquired.

A free-for-all. Sometimes John Paynter gets a bad rap, but I don’t think simply handing out the instruments and saying “make up a soundscape about the sea” is a good thing either. Neither is untrammelled self-expression necessarily good. I think music has a long history of styles and conventions, and some of these are best learned.

Having said all that, what I do think is that we need to revisit classroom music at KS3 before someone else revisits it for us, especially if that someone else has a cunning money-making wheeze attached to what they think schools want (which I’ve long argued is not the same as what schools need!).  We also know how some people with a firm ideology have had the ear of those in power, and we need to be wary of them too.

All of which is to say that I think we need to take a long hard look at KS3 music from within, and then decide what we think it is for. And in my view of this, one of the things may well be that it will look different for different schools, teachers, locales, and kids. Music is so wrapped up with youth identity and cultural coding that a one-size-fits-all probably wont!

So why is all this about assessment? Or isn’t it? Well, I’ve also said often enough that simple things are simple to assess. Whether a kid can hit A-B-C on a glock is easy to assess. Whether said kid can play A-B-C musically is much harder to deal with. In the sense that I think that all assessment starts with curriculum, then it is to curriculum that we should look to as the starting point.

Whoever it was said “the only certainty is doubt” then that’s my position, but maybe I’ll have changed my mind by next week. But how can I be sure I’ve changed my mind? 🙂


Schools Council (1968). Enquiry 1: Young School Leavers. London, HMSO. (NB Now out of print, and I can’t find a web version, sorry!)


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Mrs Curwen’s surprise on Twitter!

The most retweeted and most ‘liked’ tweet I have ever made was a recent one, wherein I said this:

Sometimes I read things on edutwitter from someone who thinks they have discovered something amazing, which often sounds profoundy, thinky, or researchy, and I sigh and reflect on how music educators have known said thing for years. In evidence I give you Mrs Curwen, 1886:

  1. Teach the easy before the difficult.

  2. Teach the thing before the sign.

  3. Teach one fact at a time, and the commonest fact first.

  4. Leave out all exceptions and anomalies until the general rule is understood.

  5. In training the mind, teach the concrete before the abstract.

  6. In developing physical Skill, teach the elemental before the compound, and do one thing at a time.

  7. Proceed from the known to the related unknown.

  8. Let each lesson, as far as possible, rise out of that which goes before, and lead up to that which follows.

  9. Call in the understanding to help the skill at every step.

  10. Let the first impression be a correct one; leave no room for misunderstanding.

  11. Never tell a pupil anything that you can help him to discover for himself.

  12. Let the pupil, as soon as possible, derive some pleasure from his knowledge. Interest can only kept up by a sense of growth in independent power.

(Curwen, 1886)

A number of people commented on which ones they liked the most, and also which they didn’t! The controversial one in the list was number 11. This is unsurprising, as there has been for a while a meme on education social media that discovery learning, project based learning, guided discovery and their cognates are ‘bad’. This ranges from the “just bloody tell them” approach, to a general dissing of pupil-centred learning. So to be expected to be controversial, then. But a number of readers also pointed out that what Mrs C actually says is “Never tell a pupil anything you can help him to discover for himself” which places the emphasis away from the “never” if the teacher can help the learner (C19 gender specificity aside) discover it themselves. For a number of respondents this was their favourite one of the dozen anyway!

What is interesting  (at least I found it interesting!) was that this was picked up, liked, and retweeted many times far beyond the music education community, by people in all sorts of other subjects. This got me thinking about why this would be the case. I can think of a number of reasons, but I am going to concentrate (selfishly, I know but it’s my blog!) on two:

  1. We don’t have much space for teaching and learning history of education on current ITE courses
  2. Music education has a long and proud tradition of pedagogy which is often neglected by practitioners from within, let alone without.

I think number 1 here is interesting for a number of reasons. I don’t think it’s the fault of teachers that they don’t know very much about the history of education. I think this has been a deliberate act by politicians to remove this from ITE courses. And in-service CPD is so precious that it cannot be squeezed in as something which is simply of interest. History of education is only one aspect of what is missing, all sorts of things which may count as being ‘theory’ have been squeezed out, or removed:

…the Government has decided to resolve the tension between theory and practice by simply cutting out theory altogether, to leave only practice. (Northcott, 2011, p.9)

This seems a little sad to me. I am not for one moment casting aspersions on ITE, or ITT, but this removal of ‘knowledge’ from teacher preparation courses seems at odds with the “knowledge-rich” curriculum that some aspects of the Government and teaching profession prefer?

Turning to the second aspect, that of music eduaction and pedagogy, we know that there have been key texts on this for many centuries. Michael Mark’s pivotal “Music Education – Source Readings from Ancient Greece to Today” (1982) kicks off, as the title suggests, with Plato, and then takes us through a gamut of texts on this topic. (I don’t know if he includes Mrs Curwen, as with so many of my books I’ve lent my copy to someone!) But music education practitioners in England, at least, are trained according to precepts outlines above. This means that there is precious little time on a PGCE to develop thinking about teaching and learning in contemporary music education, without digging around in history. And bearing in mind that the Swanwick-Tillman spiral(Swanwick & Tillman, 1986)and ‘Sound and Silence’ (Paynter & Aston, 1970)are music history (meaning being published before the teachers were born) then anything much before then is seriously unlikely to get a look-in!

But even so, we music educators can have a hard time agreeing with each other, after all, as Bernarr Rainbow observed over 20 years ago:

Nor even among those who have defended music’s place in the curriculum has there been a greater measure of agreement on how it should be taught. Children have had their heads stuffed with facts – sometimes expressed in a dead language – before being permitted to utter a note. Some pupils have been limited to rote-singing; others have been obliged to sing everything at  sight – from manual signs, from the Gamut, from numerals, from sol-fa, from fixed or movable do, from sundry patent notations, or from the staff. …Certain of these disagreements – and others at least as contentious – survive in our own day. Contrary opinions are still expressed, and it is far from unknown for an earnest teacher to spend energy devising and trying out experimental methods which have already been tested long ago, and failed. (Rainbow, 1995, p. 43)

So why do I think Mrs Curwen’s ideas stirred up so much interest and agreement? I think it is because they are universal in nature, and apart from the C19 gender-specificity, offer elegantly phrased maxims that serve us well in our contemporary pedagogic quest.

Of course, as with all things, we are not the first to re-discover Mrs Curwen, and in Music Education can I point interested readers to Keith Swanwick’s “Music, Mind and Education” (Swanwick, 1988)where he discusses Mrs C’s maxims, and compares and contrasts them with those of Murray Schafer. This chapter is in turn commented on by Jonathan Savage, in his book “The Guided Reader to Teaching and Learning Music” (Savage, 2013).

But I also think it is often the case that the wealth of knowledge, experience, and understanding that we have as music educators can go unrecognised by our colleagues in other subject areas, who, through no fault of their own, are unaware of the long history that music education has in pedagogic, psychological, and practical research, and, let’s be frank, wisdom, that can inform other areas of teaching just as well as our own.

But it is also nice to see that Mrs Curwen is still relevant for the 21stCentury!




Curwen, A. J. (1886). The Teacher’s Guide to Mrs. Curwen’s Pianoforte method (the child pianist). Being a practical course in the elements of music. London: Curwen’s Edition.

Northcott, D. (2011) What do teachers want from teacher education? IN In defence of teacher education, SCETT, 2011

Paynter, J., & Aston, P. (1970). Sound and Silence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rainbow, B. (1995). The Challenge of History. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 3(1), 43-51.

Savage, J. (2013). The guided reader to teaching and learning music. London: Routledge.

Swanwick, K. (1988). Music, Mind, and Education: London: Routledge.

Swanwick, K., & Tillman, J. (1986). The sequence of musical development: a study of children’s compositions. British Journal of Music Education, 3(3), 305-309.


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Why Music Educators Really Understand Skills – BJME editorial

I have been a bit busy and haven’t had time for a blog entry for a while. However, please have a read of my latest editorial for British Journal of Music Education entitled “Why Music Educators Really Understand Skills” available at https://bit.ly/2J4L2EF (Hopefully it’s open access!) which provides my current thinking on this matter.

I wonder if this is another peculiarly English phenomenon?

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