What kind of subject is music? A Summary

Here is a summary of our second post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week were a 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 ‘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’. David House agreed and felt since ‘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’. James Manwaring feels ‘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 or “get better at it” then surely it wouldn’t really be a subject’.

Liz Dunbar was wary of restricting what the study of music could be: ‘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’. Liz felt we need to be strong advocates of what the subject can be,  and ‘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’. 

Alex Laing sees music as something we’re hard-wired to engage with: ‘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’. Kate Wheeler sees defines the subject of music as a subject that ‘makes us feel more human’. 

Regarding the statement: music is not a subject but an activity to participate in, Vaughan agreed it is something you can participate in and he sees 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’. David agrees participation is important but and explains ‘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’. David sees participation as not enough for the study of Music, as does James who feels ‘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’. 

Liz expressed her problem with the statement and reasoned with the possibilities;  ‘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. … 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’. I liked how Liz summarised by saying ‘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’. For me as a musician’, wrote Kate, ‘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’. 

Rachel Barnes argued 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’.  Alex reminded us a the end of the post that perhaps music is very much more than the combination of a study and participation: ‘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’. 





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