Making a distinctive case

Our sixth 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’.

Can a case be made for strongly distinguishing the arts from the rest of the curriculum? Are the arts concerned with a distinctive kind of knowledge and way of understanding?

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

As with any coin, I feel there are two sides to the first question. The pessimist in me would say, of course – The Arts are clearly distinguished by the fact that they are usually the first to be cut when ‘something has to give’, or ‘money needs to be saved’. While this is a topic for another conversation, it evidences a prominently negative discourse regarding this question. With my positive hat on, I would also say, of course. While other subjects have value in educating children in specific bodies of knowledge, The Arts educate the ‘whole’ child. Other subjects prepare children for certain aspects of life, while The Arts prepare children for life. As Dr Anita Collins states in her TED Talk – The Benefits of Music Education – a large number of scientific studies have found that music “improves our cognitive function, helps our memory systems to work, helps us to learn language, helps us to moderate our emotional states, helps us to solve complex problems, and helps our brains to be healthier into later life”. This doesn’t even take into account music itself.

For me, The Arts are concerned with a distinctive kind of knowledge and way of understanding, which is grounded in immersion. Learning in The Arts is all about ‘getting your hands dirty’. We make music, we make art, we make up a dance or a scene. The way in which we come to know and understand music is through doing, making, and creating. All that comes from this immersion is distinct, to my knowledge, from all others. Having said that, this is something that all Music Educators need to reflect on more and be able to better communicate. I feel this is at the heart of our subject being fully understood and embraced by the wider education community. The knowledge gained through The Arts, and the ways of understanding it, aren’t as tangible, assessable, or reportable as others. Here, for me, lies our greatest challenge and solidifies the fact that I need to reflect some more. I think I’ll go and listen to some music first, though. That always helps me to think more clearly.

David House @House_dg

I am combining these two questions into one answer: Yes and Yes. There are areas of work and ways of working in Art, Drama, Dance, and Music which distinguish them from others. For a start, rather different ways of approaching knowledge – combining knowledge and skills in a finely nuanced way. It most often comes home to me during rehearsals – in our school Senior Choir and Orchestra I have our Heads of Maths and Chemistry – both regularly comment on the very different ways they have to think and work when engaging with Music as opposed to their own subjects. Also, overhearing students in conversation about their work leads me to realise that the way they approach their various subjects is quite different – and not just because of personal preference. There is an area of ‘feelingfulness’ in the approach to Arts subjects which is not encountered elsewhere on such a regular basis. Having aspects to them which are difficult to explain in written form: my mind is drawn back to a wonderful scene in the 1986 film ‘Children of a Lesser God’ where unspoken communication between the two stars is underscored by the slow movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto: achingly poignant and impossible to explain in verbal form.

Jimmy Rotherham @MusicEdu4All

The first thought that comes to mind is that a strong case can be made for almost anything. This is embodied in Blackadders’ defence lawyer, Massingbird, who  convinced a jury that a man who had a bloody knife in front of a dead man, who was seen stabbing the man in front of 13 people and said “I’m glad I killed the bastard” was innocent. “Massingbird not only got him off; he got him knighted in the New Year’s Honours List. And the relatives of the victim had to pay to wash the blood out of his jacket!”

As someone who doesn’t believe in Astrology I get frustrated when friends who believe in Astrology describe me as “very Libran”. Because they are not wrong. I am very “Libran”. If there is a fence to sit on in the middle of something, I’m on it, trying to way up the shades of green grass on either side.

Side 1

Music can be used as a powerful tool for learning in other subjects. For example, I had great fun with year 5s in their maths lessons this year. We learned fractions through dance (dance with half of your body/now the other half/dance with a 1/3 of your body. 1/29th etc) and through composing and arranging, using fractions to inform our creative decisions. (What does the group drumming sound like when 1/3 are playing? when a 1/6are playing? What about if some people miss out the final quarter of each bar?) It’s possible to conceive of a school where music features in almost every lesson like this. It’s something I dream of happening across school, and we are not far off this in Early Years and KS1, and we are improving in KS2. When schools feel like they cannot fit the wider curriculum in, something like Dalcroze can be a godsend – cover your PE, music, dance and literacy objectives, and not just tokenistically,  in a single lesson

Music should be embedded, and completely normalised in school life. I’m a big subscriber to the “everyone a musician” ethos, and for musicians, music is part of everyday life. This must be lived by everyone and can only happen with a whole-school approach to put music at the heart of school life. This will not happen if music is an add-on, for the few, taught in a remote outbuilding, by an external agency, with each class getting a soon-forgotten 20 minutes per week and no opportunities to practise and develop for staff or children. I’m very fortunate to work for a headteacher whose motto is “Music and the arts are the bedrock of academic success” can be backed up with powerful evidence.

Side 2

Music is a subject like no other. Nothing is as emotionally visceral for so many. I know that powerful poetry, a well constructed film or a stunning piece of art can speak to the depths of the heart, but nothing is as immediate, fundamental and primordial, for so many people, and especially for children, as music. So it’s different in that sense, but with the caveat that I am a musician and music teacher and therefore very biased. But I’m sure Massingbird would put a strong case forward, not least on the wellbeing front..

If music is absorbed into the curriculum without being taught discretely, the focus will not be on musical outcomes, and musical development may be lost. Examples of this abound in Primary education – music is reduced to the music specialist, lower in the school hierarchy than the class teachers, preparing a song about vikings for their topic, which teaches the poor children very little about either music or vikings.

In maths, we can enhance the learning with fruit juggling and dancing different angles and raps to remember how to solve equations, and this is very valuable when done well, ultimately we still have to get to working with real numbers and doing actual sums. And so we have to get towards a “pure” study of music.

Does music require distinctive knowledge and understanding? I would say so,  sometimes. It’s not easy to see how understanding rhythm can help with mathematical concepts. However, I’m struggling to see a context outside of music in which pitch-matching would be useful. Imitating wildlife when hunting, perhaps? Some skills and knowledge exist primarily in the musical domain.

If we see music as too separate, we risk it being left out of conversations, decisions and ultimately school life. If we see it as exactly like teaching maths or history, we risk not giving generalist educators the specialist skills and knowledge they need to empower them deliver music in primary schools

I’m therefore very insistent about children’s Kodály/Dalcroze musicianship lessons being regular, discrete lessons in the designated music space. I’m in a very fortunate position to be able to offer core, compulsory music lessons like this, and around it build programmes of cross curricular music learning, music and dyslexia programmes, development of child led/initiated activity in Early Years and project based learning in Key Stage 2, alongside training of class teachers. I have enough time and a senior position in the school to be able to develop it all.

In other words, I can sit very comfortably on that fence and see the greenest grass of both worlds. Music as a standalone, specialist subject but also as an integrated, core part of school culture and child development.  Led by a specialist but also led my non specialists and children. You can’t do all this fence sitting without getting the odd painful splinter occasionally, but it does mean we get to have our cake AND eat it. I know what you’re thinking. I’m such a Libran, aren’t I?

Elizabeth Dunbar @HuntSchoolMusic

Any human endeavour in the real world requires a range of different disciplines to make a project move from zero to completion. Take the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. The Arts obviously played a massively important part in its creation, but so did the hundreds of engineers, electricians, scaffolders, lighting riggers, sound guys. I see it every year with Huntington Arts Festival. Yes, there are the musicians, actors, dancers and artists, but that’s only half the picture. There’s all the other teams, customer facing, technical, and backstage that make it come to life. And you can’t dismiss the fabulous hands on learning that is happening through their participation.

The Arts doesn’t need separating from the rest of the curriculum, the truth is that more people need to realise that the Arts is integral to it. It is a crucial component of the curriculum, and it needs to be valued and cherished as such. Arts subjects are already viewed with suspicion by those who haven’t had the experience of studying them. Music in particular, is still seen as elitist and cliquey by some.

We need to amplify the great work that is happening around the country, in dispelling misconceptions and lowering the barriers between the Arts and the rest of the curriculum. I’m not talking about lowering expectations, or quality but getting people to realise it’s actual worth, and understand all the things that the Arts brings to young people’s lives beyond the final artefact.

If by ‘distinguishing’, we mean that Arts subjects are alone in encouraging the use of imagination and the freedom to fail, then again, we are dismissing other parts of the curriculum, and suggesting that it can’t be done in other fields. Creativity doesn’t belong to the Arts exclusively.

We know that in the Arts we learn by doing and making. You may remember I wrote in blog 2 about ‘Music as activity’, that doing and making is common to all subjects. You write a poem, you construct an argument, you calculate an outcome, you sculpt a figure, you measure the mass of plant tissue.

You can certainly make the case for the Arts to be separate from the rest of the curriculum, but it doesn’t mean that you should.

Are the Arts concerned with a distinctive kind of knowledge and way of understanding?

Once again, you could argue this for any field of study. My response is going to have to be from a Music perspective because by generalising about the Arts I would be ignoring the nuance of individual disciplines.

From a Music perspective it is that we have to be able to ‘hear’ the answer. We work to a certain extent in the abstract. The answer isn’t in text in a book. It’s in sound. And it is really difficult to explain to other subject specialists that you can’t just do a load of flash cards and a list of bullets to prepare for this.

How do put into words what happens on a sommelier’s pallet?

Once again, you can’t just do a mind map or a ‘card sort’ for that.

In an ‘unfamiliar work’ question at A level, students have only their ears, backed up with their aural memory of repertoire to tease out salient features,

eg features reminiscent of Ravel’s writing for woodwind in ‘Daphnis et Chloe – Lever du jour’

or Stravinsky’s use of prelest in ‘Scherzo fantastique’

or Debussy’s colouristic harmony in ‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui’

The trained ear hears when a chord is too ‘thirdy’. It hears when a texture is overcrowded or top heavy.  It’s a difficult concept, and a difficult skill to learn and an even trickier thing to teach really well. It’s not difficult for us any more (I imagine everyone reading this is a musician), but for the untrained or inexperience student it is different to every other subject they study.

So the answer to the question is yes, there is a distinctive kind of knowledge and understanding that takes place in the study of Music, and it can be learnt, it can be taught. You just need the right teaching environment.

Sean Dingley @DGSMusicdept

Over time, I have become less and less convinced that grouping subjects such as Art, Drama, Dance and Music together under the name ‘Arts’ is a logical thing to do. The foundation of this separation seems to have come from the idea that some subjects are based around writing and the Arts are not. The problem with this is that the pedagogy of each of the Arts subjects is often very different – the way in which you teach and Art lesson is very different from Music.

I have had greatest success in improving my own teaching by reflecting on different subjects as different forms of language – English is clearly spoken and written language, Maths is the language of number and Art is a visual language. All these disciplines communicate but in different ways. As such, Music is the subject of sound and so we, as musicians, communicate through sound.

When I am teaching, I have found it helpful to consider teaching Music as teaching a new language. Talking with teachers of MFL, I believe that often MFL is a closer sibling to Music than Art and Design and so I don’t believe the current groups of subjects is necessarily helpful!

James Manwaring @TWBSMusic

I think a case can be made to distinguish the arts from the rest of the curriculum. What we do is different, and we need to make sure that our senior leaders understand that. The very nature of a music lesson is that it is at times highly practical, very different to some subjects. Music lessons don’t always require much to be written down and assessment can take different forms. Whilst this can be true in other areas, it does seem somewhat unique in music and the arts.

I see the arts not as a lesser curriculum area, but just one that looks and feels very different. I am not suggesting it is less or more academic, just different. And that is a good thing, it is the very thing we should be stressing. We offer something that other curriculum areas don’t and therefore we can and should distinguish the arts from the rest.

And I think yes, we are concerned with a distinctive kind of knowledge. Within the arts we are teaching highly creative, emotive and physical skills. We are encouraging students to link performing, listening & composing in almost every lesson. The knowledge is potentially delivered in the same way but comes to life in very different ways for the pupils.

But I guess this could easily be said for other areas, so is it a problem that subjects are all unique? Surely it is better to see that the curriculum is made up of lots of unique subjects that all pursue knowledge and understanding in different ways. This allows us to perceive lessons as individual, relevant and important. If we simply gain the same kind of knowledge from different lessons, then why have those lessons. The arts therefore provide a very important role within our schools and that hasn’t changed over time.

And the way in which students understand music is very unique. Some will understand from the perspective of a performer who is focussed more heavily on playing ability. Another student will understand music from the point of view of composition. And other students will understand music as a listener and analyser. We aim to bring all these factors together, but it is important to note that someone can compose and be very good at it without playing an instrument – or at least not necessarily the instrument they have composed for.

If we make the case clear, then we show the true place of music & the arts in our schools. We offer something that other subjects don’t. But what I want to see is variety in curriculums. Where they are narrowed, we deny students the chance to learn in different ways and gain/apply knowledge in different ways.

And not many subjects have quite the same level of Extra & Co Curricular opportunities as music. Maybe we are more like sports departments than we realise?

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I suppose a case can be made for distinguishing ‘the arts’ from the rest of the curriculum in that they are called upon to provide more to a school than may other subjects in that there is an expectation that as well as deliver a curriculum, school ‘Arts’ department are expected to deliver extra curricular sessions as well as performance/showcases at various times of the year as either discreet subjects or combined in events such as school musicals. The fact that lots of students who may not study an arts subject as part other KS4 or KS5 curriculum but may undertake lots of extra curricular ‘arts’ activities. Referring back to the curriculum, I think that the arts are amongst the most misunderstood curricular subjects with many governments unsure of their place within the curriculum. I was always quite amazed that music and art made it into the National Curriculum as foundation subjects. Although it ensured that they were taught, before the Academisation of schools, there was still quite sparse guidance into what content needed to be delivered.

This was both a help and a hindrance to arts teachers as it allowed a lot of freedom but also meant that is settings where non-specialists taught music or art, some quite poor teaching took place in some instances as the requirements of the National Curriculum were quite vague. Arts subjects is also a tricky in that a lot fo the learning that goes on through in non curriculum time through practice and exposure as well as well as formal learning. There is also the questions of ‘what is good’ art and individuality/finding ones own voice with many pupils not being able to reach that stage in their artistic development before they leave the secondary education system.

The arts have a very distinct kind of knowledge and understanding attached to them. As well as historical, contextual, stylistic knowledge needed, there is also the skills of being able to draw/paint/project voice/ sing in tune/ move in time etc that is needed to be able to create an artwork in one of the various forms. There is also as well as the practical side of reproducing already created work, the creative side of producing new work is also something that as well as being taught, needs to be practiced by students under the guidance of teachers. It is not just the case that teachers can teach the knowledge and theory and expect students to be able to produce original work, the student needs a regular feedback cycle with an expert teacher in order to help them develop their own creative skills and ideas.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

I’ve been thinking about the nature of music for a while now. Nearly two years ago I penned a short article for the Chartered College Journal Impact and the article was quoted by Martin Fautley in a recent issue of the British Journal of Music Education. I’ve put the quote Martin used below: 


Music educators do need to reflect on their own beliefs about the curriculum that they wish to offer their students: we want to recognise that we can explain musical skills as musical knowledge, and that creativity can be seen as the creation of knowledge rather than something that is only made possible through extensive knowing. We need to decide what content and products will shape the curriculum, and to what extent we see music as a subject that deals with a human practice or as one that celebrates a canon of ‘great’ music. How far music embraces the practices of the students should be considered, but the fundamental question remains: to what extent will musical skills and musical knowledge be balanced in a curriculum? If we are to retain music as a discrete curriculum subject, we need to find the balance.

We are in a unique position in the arts – we combine scholarship and craftmanship in equal measure (I love how this is expressed in the Durham Commission report). I think it justifies giving arts a distinct status as to see these subjects as only craft is to deny the rich opportunity to gain insights into past, present and future cultural experiences and objects; to deny the craft would achieve the same missed opportunity. How we balance the practice of music by our pupils with the practices of others we seek to explore is also important. Denying one or the other in the arts seems less than ideal, but what balance is possible and desirable? I can’t answer that. But young people should be part of the curriculum we provide and not merely passengers. This living curriculum makes the arts distinct. 

I have even ranted about how music is much more than an activity and playing instrument. We have a complex ecology of music education experiences that finding how these experiences co-exist and co-operate in one’s context is something that takes time and careful thought. You do need to decide, as a Head of Department or Curriculum Lead, how this ecology manifests in your own department: how do you balance scholarship and craft; making and doing; creativity and whatever else could exist in your music department. 

Placing the arts as distinct causes problems. We find it more difficult to be part of whole-school curriculum issues as might feel we don’t belong and we’re not understand because genericism with regards to pedagogy fails to recognise the complexity and idiosyncrasy the arts provides. Some could and would argue that sophisticated pedagogical practices exist in the arts, and these should be explored beyond the arts as there is much to offer. I’m inclined to agree. Arts teachers deploy a rich vocabulary of pedagogy that is subtle, pupil-centered and grounded in the art form. We deserve greater recognition for this pedagogical virtuosity. This might be gained through further distinguishing the arts from the curriculum. Or it might be lost in the process. 

Alex Laing @KHSArtDirMusic

The Arts and Humanities have long been distinguished from the Sciences, for convenience if nothing else. They are different, in that the Sciences are seen as ‘hard’ disciplines, because they deal in ‘facts’. They involve the observing and collection of data, mathematical and/or logical reasoning based on the data, and the subsequent arrival at firm conclusions, which in their turn may be used as a basis for the next step(s) in the accumulation of  ‘scientific knowledge’.  In the Sciences (on the whole), results or conclusions will be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  The Arts and Humanities are seen as ‘soft’ subjects, where facts and right or wrong answers are a matter of perception, negotiation and interpretation.  In practice, of course, we all know that the distinction between Arts and Sciences is a cline, with many subjects – such as archaeology, linguistics, and the social sciences –occupying a grey area in the middle of the cline.

As I pointed out in my first contribution to this blog, all human endeavours consist of a praxis and a response.  In some subjects the praxis is more physical than in others. I would find it, therefore, more interesting in this case (and given the cline mentioned above) to draw a distinction between the performing arts and the rest of the curriculum – what one might refer to as the ‘purely academic’ subjects.  Here I think there is a genuine distinction, which may partly explain the dissatisfaction expressed in the background reading to this question. This states that, as late as 1995, music was thought to have ‘lagged behind’ the other arts subjects as taught in school.  It sounds as if it was being treated as a purely academic subject rather than as primarily a performing art, which (like all creative subjects) is very rightly supported, informed and enriched by academic study.  Music, dance, drama, art and literature must be created and performed before they can be studied.  This is surely the difference between them and subjects that study things that are already ‘out there’ in the world.  Up till recently, and perhaps still, music could be said to lag behind in this respect because, all too often, instrumental and singing lessons are seen as extra-curricular. On the other hand, there is merit in fostering the opportunity for individual tuition for something as complex to learn as a musical instrument, and it is hard to see how most schools would manage to run choirs, orchestras, bands, and chamber-music ensembles without the support of such individualised timetabling.  The parents of children who are particularly interested in music (or dance or acting) may choose to have them go to extra classes outside school too. 

The performing arts (especially instrumental music, dance and drama) involve the learning of complex physical techniques.  It is by now well established, from the research of data based and clearly demonstrated scientific study, that the learning of such techniques greatly enhances the capacity and connectivity of the brain.  Learning and playing a musical instrument, at any level, helps the learner to do better at almost everything else.  Practical musicianship trains physical co-ordination, as well as the aural centres of the brain, and the creating and maintenance of these neural pathways eventually lead to a sense of focus, concentration and rhythmic balance – both physical and mental.  Here we see again that the top sports performers and the top musical performers both display these qualities at an optimum level, and often appreciate it in one another.

In summary – the Arts are different from the Sciences in that they have a different quest.  A scientist can be satisfied (even if only temporarily) that an answer is ‘correct’.  A performing artist will never be fully satisfied, and will never perform the same twice.  A performing artist has to learn to become happy with imperfection because artistic perfection can never be fully attained (as all painters who have ever ‘over-painted’ a work which they should have left alone half an hour ago will know).  Performing artists such as musicians are kept going with magic moments of communicative glory in a performance, but by definition these will be unrepeatable.  This learning to be happy with the incomplete is partly why music is so good for mental health.  It brings connectivity to the brain, which is good for it, and an endless but fascinating quest for the next ‘fix’, which maintains one’s interest and one’s keenness to strive on.   This is why it is possible (and good) to say to a musician, ‘Mistakes are cool’, but why an engineer or a neurosurgeon taking that attitude would be in trouble.   

2 responses to “Making a distinctive case”

  1. Interesting stuff – thanks all.
    Short today, as I’m v busy! But for me, a big issue is that music ‘happens’ in sound, & for some teachers, sound=disturbance! So music in the music room that ‘leaks out’ can be an irritant. This makes us different (although drama has this issue too?) so ‘we’ need to find ways of dealing with, or at least addressing this.
    However, maybe I’m rewriting the question as “Can a case be made for strongly distinguishing disruptive, noisy subjects from the rest of the curriculum?”
    Sorry – must dash….

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