Music appreciation – who appreciates? A lesson from history. (And lots of questions!)

One of the side-effects of working so hard on National Curriculum assessment guidelines recently has been the re-emphasis in my thinking on musical learning. I spent a happy day recently getting cross in public at the ISM conference in Birmingham, where there was a general feeling of concern regarding music education, and governmental policy and funding (or lack thereof). At the same time David Ashworth alerted me to a run-in he has been having with Kodaly people. All of these taken together have made me revisit some thoughts which have been rolling around in my head for many years now. In no particular order these are:

  • What is music education?
  • What is it for?
  • Who benefits?
  • Why does the curriculum look like it does?
  • What is progression within this curriculum?
  • What are the competing ideologies behind any curriculum?

Now, none of these are new thoughts, clearly, but they seem to be ripe for revisiting. I am quite concerned that we are heading for a rematch of the paradigm wars in music education we have been having on and off for many years now. At the risk of boring you, especially those of a certain age, let’s revisit some of these.

The subject for this blog is music appreciation lessons. I’m old enough to have had these at school. I’m not sure how well they worked, and they were a bit of behaviour management nightmare for the teacher, even in the ‘good old days’ of corporal punishment! So what was the point of these?

“ [They]… emphasised the importance of guided listening to music in addition to the performance of music. The appreciation of music was to be improved by analytic study of the form of music, by increasing pupils’ knowledge of the instruments of the orchestra and by giving historical information concerning the composer and the composition.”                                                             (Shepherd et al., 1977 p.203)

The way this worked out in practice was that ‘guided listening’ involved the pupils as passive recipients of a cultural heritage. The pupils were played excerpts from masterpieces and they admired them, as it were, from a distance, something Lydia Goehr has described as ‘the imaginary museum of musical works’ (Goehr, 1992). And, let’s face it, visiting a museum with a bunch of kids needs careful managing.

But schools as museums do not seem to inspire. The values of a complex twenty-first century western society do not fall nicely into the art-as-masterpiece debate. If the pupils’ rejoinder is ‘so what?’, then the music teacher could be considered by them as being isolated, out of date and out of touch. Valorisation matters, to denigrate a musical type that pupils enjoy will not win them over. To point out that ‘their’ music is lacking, is to make a value judgement against which a negative rejoinder simply results in a value-judgement slanging match:

“It is surely not difficult to establish the superiority of Cole Porter over R.E.M.; one has only to look at the incompetent voice-leading in Losing My Religion, the misunderstanding of chord relations, and the inability to develop a melodic line in which the phrases lead into one another with a genuine musical need.

But once you look at modern popular music in this way, you will come to see how gross, tasteless and sentimental it mostly is, and how far it is from our tradition of meditative polyphony.” (Scruton, 1996)

I’m not sure this helps in the classroom, and handled badly will end up as ‘your music is rubbish, mine is good, and your elders and betters agree with me’. That will win the teacher no friends in class 9Z, I fear to say.

But, going back in time to the 1970s again, there were other values going on at the same time. What the proponents of music appreciation were trying to do was to place music onto an equal academic footing with other subjects which could be taught in grammar schools:

“The importance of this movement in the development of school music teaching is that it enabled music to be established more firmly as a ‘class’ subject; if music could be shown to have its own grammar, literature, analysis and history then it could be taught like any other subject and deserved a place in the grammar school curriculum.”                                                        (Shepherd et al 1977, p203)

This strikes me as being where we are heading again today. We are told that exams need to be more ‘rigorous’, and so in music we respond by putting in lots of knowledge about what writer communicated to me recently, as ‘more dead white guys’. Is this rigorous? Is the very fact that they are ‘dead white guys’ automatically more rigorous than living non-white people? What about the rigour of the table player’s apprenticeship, what about the rigour and stamina of the Taiko drummer? What about the rigour of the pub-band’s life? No?

But what also happened back in the days was that a side effect of developing this way of working meant that the study of the grammar of music (ie western classical ‘theory’) could be done to the exclusion of any form of musical activity which involved sounds! This view ultimately led to the silent harmony lessons which were a characteristic of my old O-level examination. The aim of this style of music teaching and learning was

“…to provide pupils with the technical competence to express their ideas. Acquisition of skills in harmony and counterpoint, familiarity with the styles of the great masters and the ability to imitate them, and an understanding of instrumentation were priorities”.             (Jones, 1986 p.69)

 Yup, silent music lessons. I remember a deputy-head in one school I worked in summoning me and saying “I could clearly hear music coming from the music room as I walked past. This won’t do.” I can also remember my sarcastic retort (maybe not the best idea, but we live and learn!) “well, you teach geography, and by all accounts precious little geography takes place in the room or beyond!” (whoops, oh well!) But that was the point I was naively trying to make. Pupils should be learning about music, not through music was the deputy head’s point, mine was the exact opposite.

But, back to the 1960s now, there was a hegemonic and axiological side to music appreciation lessons too:

“The primary purpose of musical appreciation is to inculcate a love and understanding of good music. It is surely the duty of teachers to do all they can to prevent young people falling ready prey to the purveyors of commercialised ‘popular’ music, for these slick, high-pressure salesmen have developed the exploitation of teenagers into a fine art.”        (Brocklehurst, 1962 p.205)

And this is where I fear we are going again today. The hegemony of education being discussed today being about, as Malcolm Arnold put it, “the best that has been thought and said” (Arnold, 1896/1993 preface ). This contains within it a tacit assumption when rearticulated nowadays, namely that the music to which the students should be aspiring is ‘high’ art western European music. In terms of Young’s (1971) sociological analysis of the school curriculum, ‘serious’ music is defined as high status knowledge, and ‘pop’ music as low status knowledge. A corollary of this view, from the standpoint of the 1970s, was that for ‘success’ to take place the pupil had to accede to the views of the teacher, if they did not the teacher had to account for this. Some commentators placed this perceived failure into the domain of cultural deprivation:

“In order to preserve the rigid stratification of knowledge in schools and the consequent rigid hierarchy between teacher and taught, the culture of the pupils has to be seen as a deprived one, so that cultural deprivation becomes a plausible explanation for educational failure.”                      (Shepherd et al 1977, p207)

A major part of the stratification involved the notion of the individual students’ response to music. ‘Cultural deprivation’ need not only refer to attitude, but to access to the manifestations of the culture from which deprivation is deemed to be taking place. The manifestation of the ‘Classical’ aspect of music was a prime cause for concern, and lack of familiarity with the mores of the concert hall has often been identified as an issue. In the Western Classical tradition:

“The listener’s experience of music is essentially private; the structure and seating of a concert hall or opera house does not facilitate communal interaction … The music is concerned, not with the assertion of community through ritual, but with the communication of a personal idea from composer via performer to each individual listener. It celebrates the autonomy and the essential solitariness of the individual in post-Renaissance society.”(Small, 1977 p.29)

For the ‘deprived’ students, group identity was one of a multiplicity of causes in their not going to such venues. A problem for the teachers was, and can remain today, to remove the music from its context, and to try to be ‘culture-free’ in using different types and styles of music equally.

But for us nowadays, a long way removed from the 1960s and 1970s, let alone the 1870s, we have the issue of the ubiquity of music. Just about everything is available at the push of a few computer keys. So, some questions:

  • Does this mean that cultural relativism should take place?
  • ie that all music is equal to all other music?
  • Or is some music better than others?
  • What does better ‘mean’?
  • Do we need to work this out for ourselves, or for the young people we teach, in this school, now?
  • Do we want to take our youngsters on an exciting musical journey?

In which case, if as chairman Mao observed, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”, what does our musical journey entail? So, more questions:

  • What is the first step we take?
  • And where are we going thereafter?

Linked to this are questions of an axiological (and hegemonic?) nature:

  • What is good music?
  • Who says so? (Me? The pupils? Governmental advisers? Curriculum designers?)
  • What does valuing music entail?
  • What music do I want the young people in this school, this year, this week, to listen to and critique?

All of these are hard questions, yet they matter, as there is so little time for music in KS2-3 that we need to make every minute count. So, these are things I will be worrying about in the coming weeks. Especially as more questions that often trouble me include:

  • What would have happened if Mozart’s dad hadn’t given him music lessons?
  • What would have happened if Paul McCartney hadn’t learned to play the guitar?
  • What would have happened if Louis Armstrong hadn’t found the trumpet to his liking?

And, finally, and very personally:

  • What happens to the missed Wolfgangs, Pauls, and Louiss in our schools today?

That bothers me.




Arnold, M. (1896/1993) Arnold, M 1896/1993 Culture and Anarchy and Other writings (Ed. Collini, S) Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Brocklehurst, J. B. (1962) Music in Schools, London: Routledge.

Goehr, L. (1992) The imaginary museum of musical works, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Jones, T. (1986) Education for Creativity. British Journal of Music Education, 3, 1, 63-78.

Scruton, R. (1996) ‘Review of Simon Frith: Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music’. Times, The.

Shepherd, J., Virden, P., Vulliamy, G. & Wishart, T. (1977) Whose Music? A Sociology of Musical Languages, London: Transaction Books.

Small, C. (1977) Music, Society, Education, London, John Calder.

Young, M. (Ed) (1971) Knowledge and Control, London, Collier-Macmillan.



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4 Responses to Music appreciation – who appreciates? A lesson from history. (And lots of questions!)

  1. jfin107 says:

    Martin, one way forward on the problem of cultural relativity is I think offered by Wayne Bowman by bringing together the idea of ‘musical practices’ (rather than music al la Small, Elliot etc.) and music education as ethical encounter. So we attend to ‘…practices whose value depends upon whether and how they distinctively enable their practitioners to thrive, none of which follows automatically or necessarily from musical engagement. The values afforded by music-making depend on the kind of music at hand, the ways we engage in it, and the uses to which that experience is subsequently put’. (Music Mark Magazine Winter 2013-14) This takes us away from music a grammatical object which is of course what is driving the new new National Curriculum.
    (See also the last chapter of my book.)

    Presumably, the phrase ‘develop a love of music’ in the NC is a code for ‘musical appreciation’ with roots in the examples you give.

  2. Jason says:


    Nice blog! That Scruton quote is a classic – what a snob! He he!!

    I agree that going back to music appreciation would be a disaster! Still Sruton is probably just the sort of person to advise on a new curriculum. Unfortunately….

    I find it interesting to relate this sort of conservative assertion of Western Classical music and its values alongside the rise of ED Hirsch and the Common Core. There are questions here: why now? why this strong sense of worry about proper sort of culture? Why – at this moment? Where does this displacement of identity politics and issues of difference come from? It seems increasingly popular to assert middle class white heritage as a focal point of study because this is the sort of cultural capital the poor need to bring them to a level footing with middle class privilege. Why this division between the official knowledge of schools and the unofficial knowledge of students? It seems to fall into the music as object trap John F mentions amongst other pitfalls!

    I always thought that Small made quite a strong case for music as a cultural practice – Musiciking not music so I would be interested in reading more about the distinction between Bowman and Small.

    “ practices whose value depends upon whether and how they distinctively enable their practitioners to thrive, none of which follows automatically or necessarily from musical engagement. The values afforded by music-making depend on the kind of music at hand, the ways we engage in it, and the uses to which that experience is subsequently put”

    This seems quite a challenge – what does it mean for a practitioner to thrive and how can we decide if the uses are good ones? For example I have read quite a few interesting critiques of certain forms of classical music practice. Is classical music stopping the majority of people from thriving musically? Which teachers would be happy supporting the forms of popular music that resisted and challenged authority? Showing my age here: Whether ND and the Death Metal of “Scum” or Conflict’s punk “ungovernable force” or the hip hop of NWA? Or would the music of the Spice Girls have been considered to allow people to thrive? If not why not?
    The “ways in which that experience is subsequently put” – Interesting! This is open ended and puts the onus on reception – back to the people who use music – I like this. A recognition of the importance of the relationship you have with music and that its importance is social, unique and very much about who you are, who you might be and where you come from.

  3. jfin107 says:

    Jason, the final paragraph is spot on, just the kind of questions that need asking and which could lead to more informed music educational practice. We can’t deny that music has a presence as an object of our consciousness but its actuality is social where values are in play creating a practice. Christopher Small’s last piece of writing works with the example of a Republican politician nicnamed ‘The Hammer’ who uses ‘If I had a hammer’ as his theme song. Thus Small points out that music is continually being re-understood within sets of human relationships eg. our classrooms. So what are we doing here and now with the music of the Spice Girls. What’s going on here? What are we doing with Schubert’s Erl King? These are questions for the whole classroom.

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