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What is music education and who is it for?

The examples in this toolkit are drawn from experience of teaching primary music in different contexts and they are adaptable and relevant to teachers in different countries and settings. As such, the toolkit seeks to share ideas and suggestions on how to embed high quality music teaching in your own context, regardless of where that may be. Many of the aspects of the toolkit help teachers to understand what music education is and how it can be promoted. A minority of scenarios relate to a specific context, for example, the National Curriculum in England, yet the ideas, philosophies and practices are equally applicable across other countries, for example The Curriculum for Excellence produced by the Scottish government, Music in the National Curriculum for Wales etc. Whilst the nuances of each curriculum will be related to the context, there are so many transferable aspects of teaching music that we hope teachers would benefit from regardless of where they are in the world and the toolkit seeks to help you explore these flexibly within your own work.

On launching the Mayor’s Music Fund in London, Boris Johnson stated1:

'Music isn’t a ‘nice-to-have’, it’s an essential part of every child’s education. From the ages of 5 to 14, all children are entitled to play instruments, compose and listen to music in school, every week. The fact that the National Curriculum guarantees children ten years of unbroken musical learning in our schools is something to be enormously proud of.'

Music education encompasses all sorts of learning and situations. Some of this musical learning goes on in the classroom in the form of weekly music lessons and at other times in the school structure, for example singing assemblies, nativity plays, celebrations, choirs, ukulele groups and throughout the extra curricular programme. Additionally, following a pledge from the then Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett that ‘over time, all primary pupils who want to will be able to learn a musical instrument’ (DfES 2001:12), funding has been available for all children to have access to music tuition on a instrument or singing through a programme of whole-class instrumental or vocal tuition. Funding for this is distributed to Music Education Hubs across England. Find your local MEH lead organisation.

Music education also happens outside school in a variety of places and situations. Children learn from their friends and family, the radio, music groups they attend, the Brownies, music theatre groups, churches, in fact there are so many situations in which music is present that it is difficult and unnecessary to work out where our musical learning comes from! Yet, the musical learning that goes on outside school is no substitute for a rich and inspiring music education in school. John Paynter, pioneer of creativity and composing in schools, devised a set of guiding principles of music education in the curriculum. He states:

'Music education does have a place as a timetabled classroom subject in the school curriculum, and it should be available to all pupils. It should be seen as part of a general policy for the arts in education, because the arts offer unparalleled opportunities for the development of imagination, sensitivity, inventiveness and delight – essential elements in a balanced curriculum.

Music in the classroom is the core of school music activity; from there we can develop extra curricular music making.'

Paynter, 1982:xiii2

As the assessment expectations of schools become increasingly onerous, it is inevitable and distressing that in some schools, the arts have become sidelined in favour of exclusive focus on the so-called ‘core’ subjects. This is a very short-sighted view because music has so much to offer that will draw children into learning across the curriculum. This, though, is not the central point here. We learn music for the experiences, skills and knowledge that musical learning itself brings. The bottom line is this…if you do not give all children a musical education in the classroom, you cannot guarantee that they will get a music education at all. If we do not teach music in the classroom, it is not a right for all children. It becomes the preserve of those that can afford it and those whose families actively seek out the opportunities for their children to learn music.

In order to establish what music education is, it is worth taking a look at the National Curriculum for Music (DfE,2013) and then considering what underpins this curriculum. On the one hand, this document can seem confusing – it is, after all, extremely short. Yet, on the other hand, a great deal of musical learning is evidently expected within the document. Reconstructing it as a word cloud yields the following results:

It is clear from this document that music is a very practical subject, in which the making and creating of music through using voices, singing, using instruments and technologies is central to a child’s learning experiences. As Paynter’s (1982: xiii) guiding principles note ‘making music is more important than musical information – which is only a support for musical activity’. Through active, practical engagement in music, children develop musical understanding and fluency. Notice, too, that the term ‘notation’ is relatively small; we do not need to be able to read or write music to either teach it effectively or learn it.

Another of Paynter’s (1982:xiii) guiding principles states:

'Music is a way of listening to sounds, and musical experience is primarily a way of working with sounds'. This is not to underestimate the power of listening; after all, 'the ear is the only ‘rule’ that exists in music, and aural sensitivity is the key to all musical understanding.'

ibid, p. 126

Breaking all of this down, we can see that music education goes beyond a set of skills, knowledge and understanding that we explain to someone else in the sense that, when acting musically, we embody the learning. We do not need to get too deep into unpicking embodied knowledge at this point; the takeaway point here is that the key thing about music is ‘doing it’. After all, think about musicians you know and admire – what you are probably thinking of is vocalists, bands, ensembles, soloists, composers – all making and creating music. This is what we should be striving for in the music education in our classrooms.

1Greater London Authority (2014). Mayor’s Music Pledge.

2Paynter, J. (1982). Music in the secondary school curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.