What kind of subject is music?

Our second post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week focus on the tasks in John Finney’s chapter ‘The Place of Music in the Secondary School’.

What kind of subject is music? How do you view music as a subject of study? Consider the for and against for the following statement: ‘Music is not a subject, but an activity to participate in’.

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

Scotland’s curriculum (CfE) is designed to provide children with opportunities to develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they need to adapt, think critically and flourish in today’s world. Further to this, Sir Ken Robinson states in his widely viewed TED Talk – Do Schools Kill Creativity? – that, “It’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp”. Framed with these statements in mind, the kind of subject I believe music to be is an essential one. Music is innate, music is everywhere, music is necessary to human existence and navigating life. If we are to understand it, harness it, and utilise it to the fullest, then to study it is essential.

Regarding the statement: music is not a subject but an activity to participate in, my view is somewhat abstract. Let me try and explain: Music is an activity to participate in – I believe so. As music is an activity to participate in, it has meaning and purpose to future preparedness – I believe so. Therefore, there is a need for music to be a subject, as our ability to actively and effectively participate in it, or not, will shape our future preparedness – I believe so.

These most difficult of times that we find ourselves in, I feel, highlight this thought process. The knowledge, skills, and attributes gained from actively participating and engaging in music are essential to achieving all that CfE aspires to, as they are to navigating this future that we cannot grasp. Therefore, it is essential to provide children with the opportunity to participate in, and learn all that there is to learn in and through music, in the form of a formalised subject. When you have a developed understanding of music, can effectively harness its powers, and utilise it to the fullest, then the essential nature of its subject status becomes ever more essential.

David House @House_dg

I view music as an all-embracing subject – from re-creating by playing or singing, to creating by improvising or composing, through aural awareness involved in practical aspects and the act of listening as an activity in itself, to academic study via theoretical, philosophical, psychological, cultural and historical avenues. All of these would be brought to bear in treating it as a subject to study.

Hard to conceive of music as not being an activity i.e. something in which one is not actively involved in in some way: although it could be argued that in many situations and cultures it is an intrinsic part of life and not a separate ‘activity’ per se. I think that the step from this to treating music as a subject, is the step taken to understand the nature of music. This understanding might manifest itself by being part of the activity [investigating ‘at source’ as it were] but can also be undertaken by more ‘secondary’ investigation. Taking part in the activity of singing a Byrd mass will lead to many musical discoveries and a developing of ones musical understanding, but there are also many elements of understanding the music [in particular its context, circumstances of creation and original performance] which cannot be achieved initially through performing [activity] alone.

Elizabeth Dunbar @HuntSchoolMusic

What kind of subject is Spanish? It’s a language. That was easy. People often talk about the ’language of Music’. Is that because it ‘speaks to us’, or is it because musical notation is a form of coded language? Well if Music is a language then Maths is a language. Maths is written in a form of coded language.

We’ve grown used to Music being put into a category called the Arts. Is that because we believe it allows us to express ourselves freely? Is that because like Art, and Dance and Drama, it’s not regarded as a scholarly pursuit? Isn’t it all just running round the woods with flowers in our hair? (Which I’ve got no problem with btw). If the Arts label refers to self expression, then doesn’t writing poetry or a play, fit the bill? Theatre is regarded as a field of the Arts, so doesn’t that make English an Arts subject, and aren’t all Arts subjects ‘practical’ subjects, as opposed to ‘academic’ subjects? Careful now……

Is Music categorised as an Arts subject because it explores beauty. People will happily describe a cello melody as beautiful, or elegant. What if I find the curve of a parabola or a sinusoidal wave beautiful? The doubling of frequency equating with an octave shift – that’s a beautiful thing. I hear it in my food processor every time I shift from one speed to the next. It pleases me every time I hear it.  Does that mean in my world that Maths and Physics are Arts subjects, practical subjects, non academic subjects? This is a pickle.

Here’s the problem – we are all used to Music being put in a box, and being given a label. As soon as you put any subject in a box, you close doors. You put up boundaries. The compartmentalisation of subjects leads to a hierarchy being created.

I’m not going to rant on about the perceived difference between what are labelled ‘academic’ subjects and ‘practical’ subjects, or the Ebacc, or the damage that the list of so called ‘facilitating subjects’ has done. I’m not even going to try to make some tenuous links between Maths and Music as an argument for academic parity. There shouldn’t be a division between analysis and musicology and the acts of making music, because since when was the act of composing, improvising or performing not a deeply intellectual and challenging process?

Once you give Music (or any other subject for that matter) a label, people will happily turn to their preconceived ideas.

GCSE options evenings are exhausting for Music teachers, as a colleague of mine calls them ‘the most depressing night of the year’. Parents will happily tell me that their son/daughter is going to take Music because they ‘need an easy subject as a balance against their academic ones’. Other parents will tell me that their son/daughter won’t be taking GCSE Music ‘because it’s not going to get them a job’ or ‘it’s nothing to do with what they want to do for a career’. I often wonder which other subjects they say those words to.

The job for us as Music educators is to convert the non-believers. Show them the difference that a good Music education makes to young people’s lives. Change perceptions rather than fight corners. Be the sun, not the wind…..

Argument for and against the statement “Music is not a subject, but an activity to participate in”.

To begin with I had a problem with the statement. That’s probably as a result of spending so much of my working life tackling misconceptions. Then I was reminded of what a colleague says to me when I get down in the dumps about all of this. ‘Let’s write down the facts, let’s make 2 columns of the things we can change and the things we cannot change. Then let’s set to work fixing the things we can change.’

So, with the chip removed from shoulder here are the facts:

A ‘subject’ in education is a branch of knowledge, it’s a discipline, it’s a specialism.

Number 1: Is Music a branch of knowledge? Yes.

Number 2: Is it a discipline? Yes.

Number 3: Is it a specialism? Yes.

Ok then, let’s move on to what an activity is.

An activity is a pursuit, a form of recreation, but most importantly, the word activity refers to an educational procedure designed to structure learning by first-hand experience. Now we’re talking. In every subject we learn by making and practising and doing the thing? In truth aren’t all subjects ‘practical’ in that sense. All subjects need to be taught through first-hand experience. You write a poem, you construct an argument, you calculate an outcome, you sculpt a figure, you measure the mass of plant tissue.

The truth is that a good quality Music education, like any other field, is a symbiosis of subject and activity. One side is significantly weakened by the absence of the other.

Rachel Barnes @RachelBarnesMus

What is a subject?  “An area of knowledge that is studied in school, college, or university” is the definition in the Cambridge Dictionary.

I’ll leave the definition of musical knowledge for a later blog, but I would argue that music is a subject AND an activity to participate in.  However, this possibly raises another question: are being a student of music or/and a participant distinct domains?  My instinct is that these domains are intrinsically linked; however, in my career as a music teacher there have been distinct cohorts of students at KS4 – those who wish to ‘study’ music as an academic subject and those who solely ‘participate’ or ‘do’ music; writing empirically, I refer to those students who, for example, love exploring the nuts and bolts of music theory and who are fluent in working with staff notation, and those young musicians who attend every enrichment activity and use music technology creatively, yet who are not interested in the study of music as a ‘subject’.  Of course, this isn’t black and white, and I equally value and promote the musical interests and activities of all young musicians.

The provocative statement implies that music as a subject is non-practical.  Questions that I have frequently asked students around why they like music as a subject or have chosen to study it at KS4 receive a common answer: “Because it’s practical.”  Their perception of music has been that they will be active in lessons.  (Hence there can be a disconnect between KS3 and KS4 pedagogies.)

Is participation in music solely practical?  How do we define active musical participation?

Over the years, my aim has been to ensure that all students participate in their study as active musicians; by this I mean that they, as well as performing, improvising and composing, analyse, debate and evaluate.  Analysis can be done through composing, evaluation through performing.  My students have been able to engage practically with music theory – try mirroring phrasing with tennis balls or creating a shape with your body that reflects a perfect 5th (as I did at a Dalcroze Taster Day in 2015).

In antiquity, by its inclusion in the quadrivium, music was a “high status, exclusive” subject; I’d argue that it is a subject that deserves parity alongside the ‘core’ in a 21st century curriculum.  Music educators must ensure that all students are able to participate fully in and have opportunities to actively engage with music, as a subject.

James Manwaring @twbsmusic

There is no doubt in my mind that Music is something that we can study. Whilst it is something to experience, enjoy and “benefit” from, it is also something that we can develop in. Through our own playing, composing and analysis we can develop as musicians, improving our knowledge, appreciation and understanding of the subject. If we couldn’t develop of “get better at it” then surely it wouldn’t really be a subject.

As a subject to study it is no different to any other curriculum area. There are past examples to learn from, experiments to be made and patterns to be learnt. The study of music involves looking at different ideas, angles and examples. It is about learning a new language, and the application of this language to written & practical work. If we couldn’t study music, then we couldn’t advance our own abilities in the subject. Through the study of “great works” we can start to develop our own music, and of course bring our own emotions, experiences and prior learning to the table in the process. Through the study of musical history, we can start to see patterns and how culture and society influenced music. The study of music enables us to engage with the analysis of music, and such critique helps us develop opinions, ideas and pathways for our own musical discovery.

Music is an activity to participate in, of this I am convinced. But it is almost impossible to engage with music without some sense of learning. Music is therefore a subject that we participate in through learning and learn to participate in. Where other subjects may rely less on participation, music opens this door to students in a unique and relevant way. Music as a subject allows students to develop an understanding of how to learn through doing. We can learn skills and acquire knowledge in a highly practical & creative setting – this is what makes music education exciting.

And yet music teachers can all too easily kill off the love of music and its subject relevance through activities that don’t truly allow the language of music to flourish. Activities that limit music to a paper exercise and nothing more seek to make music no different to other subjects. It is only when we utilise the unique characteristics of music that the subject comes alive in our classrooms. Music becomes just like any other subject when the tasks and outcomes are not connected with the inherent physical, creative and auditory qualities of music. When music exists simply on a page it is indeed the study of music, but it would be like an experiment that simply existed in a textbook. It is when we bring to life the music on the page that students truly experience it as a subject.

When we allow students to write their own page of music (having studied a wholesome repertoire of music) and bring that to life through composition and performance then we display the true nature of Music as a subject.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

It seems like a simple question to answer. Music is the subject of organised sound; it’s a multifaceted in how it can borrow approaches from so many different disciples. We can investigate the musical data of a musical work, we can explore the context and creator and we can perceive the music as a window into a culture. We can study the performance, recording and creation of music. We can be practitioners and scholars. As a subject it enables engagement and scholarship in a seemingly diverse range of ways. Music, to me, is an art form but I wonder if all music is art. Does that mean the subject should be considered an art? A cultural practice? A socio-cultural practice? Does that push the subject into a humanity? It fascinates me to look where Music sits in higher education and which faculty the subject is placed; It tells you a great deal about the approaches adopted in the study (and teaching).

If we consider music an activity it captures the physical nature of playing and creating; to ‘make’ music. But is participation the same as study? If I participate in something am I taking any leadership or ownership? I participate in a choir but do I participate in composing? To participate suggests I am not alone. To participate suggests I do not lead. Music can be purused alone. Music can listened to (and enjoyed) without being involved in performing or creating; I can enjoy music without participation in the comfort of my home via recordings. Am I participating as a listener when I attend a live concert? Is this passive participation? Music as a subject involves more than physical participation. I can conceive musical ideas in my mind without participating in any sound production; I read about a symphony without ever hearing it. If we relegate music to an activity do we deny the body of music created as a canon to enjoy at our pleasure?

Kate Wheeler @Katemariewheel2

I remember reading the poem ‘Why Teach Music?’ to staff at previous school before being made redundant due to the narrowing of the musical curriculum.  With tears streaming down my face I realised the magnitude of our subject.  Music is: Science, Maths, Foreign Languages, History, Physical Education but most of all Music makes us feel more human. The poem is much more detailed and shows the intricacies of our subject that quite often go un-noticed. While our classrooms sound full of fun with pupils engaging in practical music making underpinning all of that activity is the knowledge and teaching that is required in order for those pupils to achieve understanding. The way in which we teach the theory and knowledge behind music depends upon the pupils we teach. The key to engagement and ultimately success is teaching the correct ingredients of music at the correct time and providing a balance of activities in order to solidify understanding.  For me as a musician being able to participate in ensembles and perform music is fantastic however understanding how and why the music is presented and the history behind it only adds to the performance and this should be the same in the classroom.

Alex Laing @KHSArtDirMusic

These questions are enormous and taken as a set have caused volumes to be written about them, full of insights and further questions.  This is a short blog so I will take a very straightforward approach. A subject, any subject, is an engagement with something in the world.  A subject consists therefore of two elements – doing it and responding to it.  Those engaged in a subject may be more responders than doers or vice versa, but because humans are social animals, human endeavour requires both: praxis and response.

Some subjects can be tackled quite economically.  One can imagine doing mathematics alone on a desert island at any level from counting coconuts and seashells to working out theories about wave patterns.  And a philosopher might get on quite well in such a situation too. But not all subjects can be done entirely in the mind and, being social animals, the response is ideally a shared one. We need an audience even if the audience, in the case for instance, of a history essay or a chemistry test, is mainly our teacher.  With the word ‘audience’ we immediately find ourselves thinking of particular subjects, music being one – along with drama and dance.  And if we substitute ‘spectator’ for ‘audience’ we could add any sport and also the visual arts.

Music is a subject that can on one level be economical in that it appears to be hard-wired into the human brain in a more direct way even than language.  A tiny baby very soon learns to bat at a jingly cot toy to make it ring. And as soon as she can sit up she enjoys bashing with a wooden spoon on an upturned saucepan.  Response to hearing even natural rhythms from nature is often movement linking music and dance at a very fundamental level.  But at higher levels of attainment music becomes more prodigal of resources even than drama, dance and sport.  Practitioners of those subjects may undergo rigorous training to learn multiple skills, often from more than one teacher. They then use these (under direction) to interact with fellow practitioners and (in the case of dance also musicians of course).  But who can say how many people and how many man-hours go into the making of a symphony orchestra and its programmes? The making of the instruments, the teaching and learning of the instruments, the writing of the scores, the training of the conductor, the rehearsals, the publicity and the concert(s).

This might seem to suggest that music  – and drama and dance – are indeed  ‘activities to participate in’. And there is certainly a lot of physical training and the learning of techniques involved in their practical application.  But all practising musicians know that study must also be involved.  Even at the pot banging stage music involves not just tone and rhythm but structure.  The study of the ever-evolving structures not just of Western classical music but of, say, Indian raga, New Orleans jazz or the myriad ethnic folk traditions world-wide, opens in each case a wider and deeper understanding of both their praxis and our response.  Sound, rhythm and evolving structures.  Music is also mathematics.  And at the higher levels I know that mathematicians would say that maths itself has its music.  Music in all its complexity locks into our brains and develops them in ways that enhance everything else that we do.  It cultures our intellects and our emotions.  Does that make it a subject or an activity? It makes it a lot more than both.


One response to “What kind of subject is music?”

  1. Thanks all, this is really interesting! And already I think I can detect that there may be differences between you in some of the nuancing of how you perceive & formulate your answers to the Q’s posed at the outset of the exercise.
    I wonder lots of things, some of them are about routes and pathways, others are about what you value in music education. When Alison Daubney & I were working on our ISM curriculum materials (https://bit.ly/2yd4wG) we posed a number of Q’s, including that one I’ve just mentioned: “What do you value in music education?”, and in some of the responses above values are beginning to peep out at times. Personally, I find this really interesting. I also think it is a strength of the profession that we do have so many different approaches to the subject. (But…. !)
    What I also find interesting in the above was the ways in which different respondents addressed the notion of music as an activity [‘activity’ would be in italics if I knew how to do that 🙂 ]. I wonder sometimes whether as musicians we ‘music’ in so many different ways that we then need to work out ways in which that music-making has to be fitted into a curriculum?
    I have more wondering to do, but will save some of that for when I’ve read your future outputs in this fascinating blog series!
    Keep up the thought-stimuli, please. Thanks!

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