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!)


About drfautley

Professor Education at Birmingham City University, UK.
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11 Responses to What is KS3 classroom music education for?

  1. pepperdog says:

    I think the answer is instruments and performance at KS3. Learning to play instruments in a class setting. Bands. Choirs. Basically the North American system where you choose band or choral (or both). Give students at least three years to get really good at an instrument. Sack composition, “The Elements of Music” and boring worksheets on “The Blues” and play some music.

    • jfin107 says:

      I agree so far as whole class playing, singing, music making should form the core and that small group composing had become a depressing orthodoxy. But new models of composing are emerging breaking that debilitating orthodoxy that you have spoken of.

      My arrangement of Prokofiev’s Troika for performance leaving four bar gaps inviting composition via improvisation has worked well but, and this is important, these four bar sections had a strong scaffolds. The result was fluent and expressive playing (it glittered as year 7 compositions can do).

      I would hope instrumental teachers would tell their pupils ‘did you know that you can compose music?’

      Composing is a way of coming to understand the inner workings of music in a way that a performance training doesn’t seem to be able to do. Clearly, composing offers scope for firm concept formation.

      There are some good compositional pedagogical processes offered in Paynter’s Sound and Structure worth considering, for example. Composing can have a valuable place at Key Stage 3 and there are many fine examples of composing at Key Stage 2.

  2. jfin107 says:

    And here’s my prescription, not too prescriptive I hope.


    To equip all pupils with the knowledge, skills, dispositions and understandings to make music well.

    To induct pupils into existing cultures of making-music as a source of creative and critical engagement.

    To enable all children to become unique individuals, subjectively enriched and able to know a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music made well.

    By the end of Year 9 pupils will have songs, melodies, riffs, rhythms and the character-feel of much music in their heads and bodies. They will be able to recall this music at will. It will be an integral part of their learning how to make music well as shown in their technical know how, fluency, expressive control and in their musical relationships with others.

    This will be achieved by introducing contextually rich music/musical material which keeps offering fresh insights and challenges. Pupils will explore unexpected pathways into deeper learning, responding with flexibility to follow new turnings.

    The pupil’s music making will always reach a musically meaningful standard. When this is achieved there will be value in assessing the work.

    Pupils will be able to reflect on their music making and the music making of others through talk, reading and writing about music.

    They will come to understand how music functions in the world, why and how it is made, how music is used and how music is given meaning. There will be a recognition that music has ‘human interest’; social, cultural and political.

    Classes will work as a community of music makers and critics where the relationship between pupil, teacher and what is being learnt creates an open musical discourse.

    Some examples of practice:




  3. pepperdog says:

    This sounds great. I think I will copy your Troika idea! When I talk to children who have quit music after KS 3, young(ish) parents and many teachers who quit music, they all say basically the same thing about KS 3 Music. “We mucked about on keyboards and messed around in groups”. They all thought composition was a good thing but it always ended up in messing around in groups not getting much done and not really learning anything at all. What all of them said is they wished that they were taught to play instruments properly.

    • jfin107 says:

      Very interesting and well worth researching further and comparing with adults who experienced composition based Key Stage 3s that were rigorous if they can be found.

  4. Chris Philpott says:

    I think it is interesting to consider Martin’s Blog alongside John Finney’s latest (What was your take away?) Martin asks: What is KS3 classroom music education for? Well, like Martin, I do not think it is for musical appreciation or for theory or for a free for all. Any more that it is for learning to play an instrument properly or for composing in small groups. However, all of these do have a role to play in achieving the ‘what for’.

    In his blog John asks some big questions which might help us understand the ‘what for’:
    ‘What does it mean to be musically educated as part of a general education…?’ For me it is the development of mind and body, for what Swanwick calls the work of life rather than the life of work (I think Beck is saying something similar as quoted in John’s blog). In this sense music shares much with the wider education project and yet does this through being a unique symbolic mode where we make meaning when responding to it, creating it and recreating it. In short, doing the things that musicians do.

    John also asks: ‘What kind of knowledge and ways of knowing should a music education be most concerned with?’ For me it is all the types of knowledge required to respond, create and recreate in music, including those that provide us with a critical, cultural and political outlook.

    To transfer this into the KS3 classroom is a huge pedagogical challenge, as I can testify with 16 years of hit and miss in the 80s and 90s. However, if the purpose of music education is to make a unique contribution to general education, and also remain true to itself, this is worth pursuing.

    Far from sacking anything it is all about developing pedagogical expertise to make the ‘what for’ a reality. My sense is that the music teacher who settles for mucking about in groups would also struggle with teaching children to play instruments properly (assuming that both of those are worth doing in the first place).

    I think that both Martin and John are asking us to return to a consideration of first principles which, inevitable deja vu aside, is always a good thing.

  5. Francesca Christmas says:

    I love the idea of of ‘the work of life rather than the life of work’. The liberation of education from ideas of preparation for employment or further study feels important for music (and by this, I don’t mean that those pathways shouldn’t be understood, recognised and considered, but that they perhaps shouldn’t constitute the *sole* purpose of school-based education).

    This blog and the comments have made me think of a few things, and not very clearly, and I post in the hope that others more learned will respond and set me right!

    – The difference between experience and knowledge. It can be easy I think to see music at KS3 as a series of experiences – of playing different instruments, of different styles or musical genres etc etc – which then might be built on more formally at KS4. I suppose that to some extent, those experiences do constitute knowledge in some way. But I like the thing Bernstein said about knowledge being a means of freedom – freedom not to be trapped in your own experience, and being able to ‘think the unthinkable’ – and arguably, experience doesn’t do that alone, because how do we then transfer that experience to another context at another time?

    – in which case how does experience differ from knowledge and/or learning? Do we need to think about the difference between curriculum knowledge bought by the school and everyday knowledge bought by the pupil? In some subjects this feels simpler than music (always dangerous to say this as have never known any subject specialist admit that their own subject is simpler!) You could argue that curriculum knowledge is specialised and independent of context, and personal everyday knowledge of the pupil is lived and specific to the context in which the pupil lives and in which it is acquired. But then what of the values and implicit pedagogies which may be inherent within a particular music or genre that the learning is located in? How do we understand those things coming together? Is it a Venn diagram of some sort? I feel like I may have over complicated all of this, and hopefully someone can straighten it for me a bit!

    – So then do we need to more overtly recognise the differences between pedagogy and curriculum so that we can consider carefully what roles they have in education? Curriculum I think is linked to society – didn’t Blair describe education as ‘our best economic policy’? Through testing and exams, and a statutory core curriculum, policy makers can influence the values and content of the curricular delivered in schools and therefore influence the purpose of education. But in a sense pedagogy is better protected because it is (or should be?) reactive to the experiences and prior experiences of the learner, helping them to access the knowledge in the curriculum and see their own experiences in new ways – which I suppose brings me around to point 1.

    – my last point which is related to the one above is that I think ks3 music is often at risk in schools of being seen as a vehicle of ‘cultural restoration’ – stick a bit of Bach into a scheme of work and ensure that all those culturally impoverished young people get a taste of ‘proper’ music. Music is the perfect subject for this as western classical music is such a strong cultural signifier, and a string quartet playing in the Christmas concert an easy win for SLT who wish to assure parents of their commitment to High Art and the Middle classes. (Not to say there isn’t an important place for Western Classical music in the KS3 curriculum, just that I don’t personally think that the ideological values that are inherent within it should be the underpinning of everything that is taught, and anything else is ‘othered’ in contrast).

    That’s a little lengthy and rambling, but I think that the most important thing for me is that the specialists, the music educators, are the people that decide what KS3 music is for, not government or policy maker or exam board. And I think that we will do this most effectively by doing exactly what people like Martin, John and Chris are doing – providing the tools for us to envisage what it could and should be, rather than falling into the traps of either only critiquing the systems which prevail or focussing on the small, peripheral victories which can distract from the systemic issues we must tackle.

    Please -someone come and put me right on all of this!

  6. Pingback: Creativity and music education part 1 | Anna Gower

  7. Anna Gower says:

    There is so much to unpick in this blog and the subsequent comments. Such important questions here too for how KS3 might best engage students and inspire them to consider music as a credible, enjoyable, accessible option at KS4 regardless of their prior experience. And something they feel they can be successful at.

    I want to pick up on the ‘messing around in groups’ comment and John’s comments about whole class music too. It is something I have seen as a visitor to lessons and heard repeatedly when people reflect on their classroom music experience-most recently at the Music Mark conference, “music at school was a bit of a joke really”.

    And of course it happened when I was at school, my friends and I just took it in turns to play things we already knew on the piano, did our hair, chatted, argued, and it happened when I was teaching too in my own lessons for reasons I have tried to outline below….

    If we might consider how learning often takes place in KS3 music ie the structure of lessons, the set up in which the musical learning is meant to take place, as well as what is learned and why then I find myself constantly wondering why versions of the following blueprint seems so entrenched:

    -Teacher-led exposition (that used to be a compulsory part of the lesson plan when I was training a million years ago now, is it still a thing?) – perhaps some music is played to them via audio/video or the teacher might model the task, sometimes the class might play something together but mainly the class are told what to do, reminded of some objectives and sent off to do something in a group.
    -They go into groups probably with a worksheet and a maybe a limited set of tools-you can use these 5 notes to create this outcome, if you can do that then add some chords chosen from these etc
    -Then come back and perform something

    But music is more than a few given chords or limited to 5 notes and some ‘I can’ statements. What if I can play more than 5 notes am I allowed to?

    To sound like music it needs a musical context. A backing track, a groove, something that places the limited objectives into a recognisable musical whole. Where stylistic features of the original are assimilated as parts are learned and added, where things can be heard and copied and built on far more than can be represented easily on a worksheet. Then the music becomes the practice tool, a safety net which can gradually withdrawn and replaced by new music that has grown around it.

    And successful group work comes with a whole wealth of challenges.

    Before you even get to start the task there is organising space, equipment, relationships within the group, keeping everyone engaged while the guitarist learns their part or while one person steps up and tries to get everyone on task. That’s not easy for a group of young people of any age!

    Relying on the students themselves to be able to make good decisions about allocating musical roles that are appropriate, at the right level, not too boring for those that can do more, engage those who might not have been inspired by the choice of musical genre or piece made for them by the teacher etc.

    Do we really support students as young as Y7 who have never worked this way before to be able to do this in ways that even allow them to then make a musical contribution of any sort before time is up and it’s time for the performance/recording/reflection/target setting?

    Too often I have seen groups do absolutely nothing musically in the practice room, come out to perform and just play something that was of an acceptable standard to the teacher. So if they could do this already without needing the group time to prepare it, was the group task even needed at all?

    In the last few years I have become such a passionate advocate for whole class music making. Using this as a way to give students the musical tools they need and model how to use them, then use small group work to consolidate, practice, rehearse something they can then come back and contribute to the whole bigger musical outcome in ways that are better than they could do before.

    The tools are essential, modelling is essential but the challenge is in doing this in musical ways that keep it all open and not restricting what they are allowed and not allowed to do. Also allowing time and appropriate supporting resources to encourage musical experimentation in musical ways. Not easy.

    In my lastcouple of years in the classroom I did more of this, made so much easier by the fact that I only had one room, very little breakout space and best of all a room full of silent workstations cobbled together from equipment I had found around the department and a funding bid for a few HS5s. I have never seen KS3 classes so engaged. Group work became a fluid part of the lesson, rehearsal time, consolidation, and we just switched the amps on to all play together or listen back whenever we needed to. I could keep a track playing from the front or create supporting tracks on the ancient iPads that plugged into each workstation.

    The best thing about whole class approaches is that playing music together as large group allows you to get to know the students musically. The Troika activity above is a great example of this. Opening up musical opportunities for exploration through improvising, trying something out, building confidence, experimenting. Doing this within a musical structure where there is a safety net of musical context – a backing track, the rest of the group holding a groove or chord pattern together, some stop time, anything that keeps the musical contributions musical and allows all to contribute something, even one note but one note that they chose and played because they wanted to see if it might fit.

    Then it doesn’t matter whether you are performing, improvising, creating music. Music is made and things are learned through making it.

    I think ‘how’ is really important.

  8. The answer to ‘what is KS3 music for’ could have one simple answer – which is to build on and extend KS2 music learning – which then invites what is KS2 music for? – ans. to build on KS1 music – and so on. It seems to me that considering KS3 music in isolation is part of the problem resulting from a disconnected, sectorial approach to music education and a neglect of the earliest stages. I would add that as a generalist classteacher at KS2 I had the luxury of being able to allow musical activities of all kinds to happen as and when they could across a whole week of working with all subjects with one class of children I came to know very well. The rigid timetable slot and seeing one class after another is part of the problem. Unresolvable, I realise. And I have been a KS3 music teacher as well, so I can ‘walk the talk’.

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