Music or Music History?

Remember – pupils should be increasing their knowledge of music through engagement with musical sound, supported by acquiring further verbal knowledge about music.

I completely agree with this statement from the recent OFSTED professional development materials for music education. The music should come first. What fascinates me is when the history and theory, this ‘further verbal knowledge’, becomes too little or too much. Are there limits to the amount of history we should be teaching, and when does the history mean we are not exploring the music sufficiently?

Two things that interest me particularly:

  • How important is the study of music as a score-based activity? Do I alienate those that find the reading of western notation tricky by exploring repertoire at the score level? Do I remove an essential part of the study of a piece analytically by avoiding the notation and focusing on the performance of the work via recording or live performance? Is there a balancing point?
  • How important is it for pupils to know about the biography of musicians and composers? Where, again, is the balancing point? How much is enough, how much too little? Should we be encouraging a historical study of music that places works at the centre, composers, styles or are there other ways of creating the bigger picture of music history?

Why does all this matter? With regards to western art music, I want pupils to develop the bigger picture, to see the connections with the past and become increasingly aware that we continue to perform these historical works (i.e. anything written before today!). This is why music is so fascinating – we continue to recreate works of the recent and distant past through performance. Every performance is a historical re-enactment, no? All music is history…?


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