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Guest Editorials

Many Years From Now

stuck musoOne of my best Christmas presents ever was a cuckoo clock, which I was given at a very young age. It was pure magic. Providing I regularly wound up the weights, the pendulum would swing and the sounds would begin; the steady tick-tock of the clock and the little bird singing out at regular intervals.

 Then one day the clock stopped working. The pendulum was stuck to one side, but once I had worked out that the mechanism just needed a little oil, everything was fine again.

In the cuckoo clock that is music education, the pendulum sometimes stops swinging. Indeed, at the moment it seems to be stuck in one fixed position. This position we know as ‘teaching music musically’.

This was originally the title of a book by Keith Swanwick, which has since become inextricably associated with the Ofsted diktat ‘we want to see music being taught through the language of music’… So in a mad panic to follow this directive, teachers are trying to replace as much talking and writing as they can with musical gestures and signals. Students are singing and playing instruments for the entire duration of each lesson.

The problem with this approach is that it will only get you so far. It’s great for some aspects of classroom curriculum work and woefully inadequate for others. It’s great for getting kids to make music, and this approach will go some way towards helping them get an understanding of music. But for a fuller, deeper, more rounded understanding of music, there are times when we need words, talking and writing.

I’ve been reading Oliver Quinlan’s book The Thinking Teacher. In the chapter on technology, he counters the argument that kids don’t need to memorise stuff because they can access it so quickly from the vast store of information on the web. The point that he makes is that being able to retrieve data is not enough. If we want to understand the deeper structures, we have to internalise some learning. One example he gives is the learning of multiplication tables – sure we can find the answers fairly quickly on a calculator, but having this information internalized helps us to understand and recognise a vast range structures and patterns, in many different contexts.

It’s the same with music. I can look up a scale easily enough on Wikipedia, but if I have taken the trouble to understand how scales are constructed and how chords work with scales, then I then have insights into some structures in music. Here is an example. I have two students who are guitarists – one has some music theory knowledge and one does not. They were both learning to play the introduction to the Jimi Hendrix version of All Along the Watchtower. They did this by listening, and both ended up being able to play it convincingly. Both worked out it is in the key of C minor. They play the appropriate scale and work out the notes. But here’s the difference. The non-theory player learns the piece and then goes back to his pentatonic noodling. The other player spots something interesting. In the opening phrase, he notes that Hendrix stresses two non chord notes – the note D over a chord of C minor and the note F over a chord of Ab major He comes to recognise and understand how Hendrix’s use of 9ths and 13ths is one of the factors which makes his music so distinctive. The student works with these ideas and is soon able to incorporate this feature into his own improvisations. In other words he can use his basic knowledge of theoretical frameworks to help himself develop as a musician.

The point I am making here is that without some basic knowledge of musical theory and structures, you will eventually hit a brick wall. Hendrix himself freely acknowledged this when he said, towards the end of his life, that he was thinking of signing up for music college so that he might explore ways in which he could take his music further.

Compared with some of the things we ask our students to learn, these musical basics are relatively straightforward skills. Most students will have no trouble understanding the basic concepts of two or three time signatures/key signatures, basic rhythm note values and the notes within the range of a treble clef. These can be instilled at an early age and provide enough of a foundation for those who may need to take them further.

Is it interesting to note that many classical and jazz musicians will continue to make musically creative and innovative music throughout their working lives. But very few pop/rock musicians do anything musically significant after that initial burst of creativity. And the few that do usually have theoretical frameworks they can draw on to help them develop their music over the ensuing decades.

We need to bear this in mind when we are teaching our students. We need to go beyond quick fix/instant gratification solutions that will keep them happy for just a short time. They need the tools and structures to enable them to go on making and enjoying music that will last a lifetime. If we want to help our students to continue exploring music many years from now, we need to keep that pendulum moving…

David Ashworth


34 thoughts on “Many Years From Now

  1. I think you’re right. We do need to keep the pendulum swinging and not forget the theory. Theory helps you to be more creative. If we didn’t learn the theory it will be hard to develop music, hard to understand music, and hard to know about tempo or rhythm. I feel I need to learn more about scales.


    Posted by Jeemin Park | September 1, 2015, 1:27 pm
  2. Great post David. Thanks very much for this. It encapsulates a key issue for music education.

    To consider “why” theory/structure should be learned alongside “what”, “how” and “when” – is one of the fundamental issues for teachers. And I totally agree that the sometimes-seen “instant gratification” of some music learning can be fun for the moment, but can lead no-where in particular. Actually for some that might be fine. But I completely agree that for some others that might be short changing their musical ambition and/or potential.

    I would take issue with your assertion that “…very few pop/rock musicians do anything musically significant after that initial burst of creativity. And the few that do usually have theoretical frameworks they can draw on to help them develop their music over the ensuing decades.”

    I don’t agree that it is a “few”. There are very many examples of musicians working in these genres that have continued to develop and grow artistically and musically. But I probably couldn’t argue against your view that they have the theoretical frameworks. Only because I don’t have the evidence for or against!

    A central point is that there has too often there has been binary argument e.g. “sound before symbol” or “notation is crucial”. In a more fluid creative and learning environment where, music itself develops more organically than perhaps any time in the past (and will continue to do so in the future) there is a need to equip young people with a musical literacy that supports their creative and artistic development rather than leads it or impedes it.

    On the other hand, if I had £1 for every time an adult learner (contemporary or returner) said to me ” I wish I’d learned music ” I’d probably be able to buy a cuckoo clock factory.

    Great teachers have a well thought out scheme of learning that is pedagogically sound and focused on learning. They are are able to gauge which pupils need what and when and how. But in reality they are often sublimated into submission by a curriculum design that gives them 50 minutes a week for 36 weeks with a class of 30 over two or maybe 3 years. And a whole school assessment scheme which further corners them into a binary way of learning.

    I refer my honourable gentleman to the coffee answer I gave some (months) ago!

    Liked by 2 people

    Posted by nigelmtaylor | September 1, 2015, 8:33 pm
    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nigel – much appreciated!

      I especially like your comments re simplistic binary arguments which seem to be dominating at the moment. Music and education is much more nuanced than this. To some extent, I blame Twitter for limiting and therefore encouraging users to ‘soundbite’ rather than provide more considered views!

      But I stand by my assertion than pop musicians tend to have a much shorter ‘shelf life’, compositionally speaking, than their counterparts in jazz and classical. Here are some further thoughts on this:

      The first great wave of musical creativity in pop/rock music happened in the mid 1960s when, for a few glorious years, bands such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Beach Boys and many others churned out a seemingly endless collection of classic songs. Well, it may have seemed endless at the time, but it all came grinding to a halt in the early 1970s. While many musicians from these bands continue to enjoy performing careers, there were very few new songs written by these musicians that bear any comparison with the quality output from their ‘golden’ period. So when bands such as The Stones or The Who play Glastonbury, they play material they wrote 50 years ago. Why?

      I think many of them simply ran out of steam. They had done all they could within the perceived confines of the style, and were unequipped to develop their music any further. Maybe the songwriters from that era are happy with that – but I sense there are some who would still like to write great new music, and that must be a source of frustration.

      The only ones who were able to keep on creating interesting new music were the ones who were willing/able to explore other areas of music and incorporate new ideas within a pop/rock sensibility. So Zappa drew heavily on 20thC. classical music, Paul Simon/Robert Plant ‘world music’, Ian Anderson with jazz, Brian Eno exprimental/electronic and so on. And of course, those for whom the main emphasis was words [Dylan, Cohen, Neil Young etc] there are always opportunities to tell new stories even if the music remains much the same.

      The same holds true for subsequent pop generations – glam/punk/new wave/Britpop/indie etc. A few golden years and then it grinds to a halt. Admittedly, the ephemeral nature of pop is one of its attractions – many pop musicians presumably are aware of that and were happy with that. For example, Jarvis Cocker seems happy to have written Common People and to have moved on to other areas of activity. But again, the only musicians from these eras who are still creating interesting new music, are those who are able to tap into other musical areas. Musicians such as David Byrne, David Bowie, Jonny Greenwood etc.

      Women have always been somewhat short changed in all musical styles but Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Bjork have been able to carve out long and fruitful careers because they also had the skills, knowledge and perceptions to tap into a much wider eclectic musical mix.

      But a word of caution – perhaps the great pop songs were great because they were so free of the cultural burden of music ‘theory’. Would My Generation have been even better if Pete Townsend had a music A level? Would Waterloo Sunset be improved if Ray Davies had first completed a masters in composition? Nope.

      So there is a fine line to tread here. As Nigel says there is so little time for curriculum music, so any time spent on developing musical theory/literacy will need to be carefully considered!


      Posted by davidashworth | September 4, 2015, 3:21 pm
  3. A very interesting post here and one that deserves some attention. It’s only right to challenge the perceived status quo, just in case we’re missing something.

    Then again, I’m not sure that the problem you describe is all that prevalent. The ‘teaching music musically’ parade has been going on for quite some time but I don’t think anyone is suggesting that this should be at the cost of learning or acquiring knowledge. In fact, your example towards the end seems very much in line with what I consider to be teaching music musically – exploring a concept through musical processes until greater understanding is achieved.

    Is this less a dichotomy and more a case of finding the overlap?


    Posted by John Kelleher | September 2, 2015, 5:14 pm
    • Thanks, John

      I agree that reinforcing and extending knowledge of musical concepts can and should happen in the context of music being made. However, this is a necessary but not always a sufficient condition. Picking up knowledge on the fly in this somewhat haphazard, ad hoc way certainly gives you bits of the jigsaw, but crucially does not provide you with the broad overview of how the ‘system’ works. Students do need this overview, if the knowledge picked up on the hoof is to make any sense in context. It would be like picking up pieces of the jigsaw, without knowing what the finished ‘big’ picture looks like.

      So, for example, it would be no use explaining to my ‘non theory’ guitar student about 9ths and 13ths, as he has no understanding of how scales or chords are constructed, the names of the notes or even where these notes are on the fretboard. He just knows the scale fingering patterns. So if he is ever to break through that brick wall, he will sooner of later have to put his guitar down for a few minutes and start to get his head round the ‘theory’…


      Posted by davidashworth | September 9, 2015, 1:05 pm
  4. I still remember clearly the tension I felt as a self taught musician when, after having left an engineering career, I went back to college to study music. I had been experiencing the kind of creative explosion you mention David and had chosen to follow my passion.

    Never having taken a music GCSE or A level, I lapped up the music theory as part of the HND. It just made so much sense and I was able to look back at my output with fresh eyes, “Ah so that’s what I did.”

    With that said, my compositions in that first year were not nearly as accomplished, and paradoxically, as interesting in terms of the nuts and bolts of the theory underling them. I found it incredibly hard to verge too far from the “rules” now that I knew them.

    I know this does not really address the points that you raise David, and also appreciate that the figures you mention such as Byrne, Bowie etc. were not artists who were bound by “theory”, but immersed themselves in new musics in order to reinvent themselves. However I do find it interesting that it took me some time to unshackle myself and restore balance to the force. (sorry… balance between sound and symbol, getting excited for December!)

    I wonder if anyone else has had a similar experience?

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Martin Said (@saidthemac) | September 5, 2015, 12:48 pm
    • You raise a very good point, Martin. Indeed, my own experience was something similar.

      Initially the rules can serve to constrain, but eventually most of us break on through to the other side and emerge wiser …and happier.

      I think the danger can arise when you try to ‘front-load’ too many musical rules. This can indeed be stultifying and may eventually discourage some students from pursuing music much further.

      I think the answer must lie in providing some broad skeleton overview of the system – and then carefully helping to fill in the pieces of the jigsaw at appropriately judged moments.


      Posted by davidashworth | September 9, 2015, 8:18 pm
  5. Thank you David.

    Several more questions sprang to mind.

    1. If I am to teach my students theoretical constructs such as scales, how to form chords etc. then how do I ensure that they are understood in sound, with fingers and bodies rather than just as technical ideas? How do I make sure that my students know how this knowledge can be used effectively? I have also found that people tell me that they wish they had learned ‘music’ – but these people are frequently from a generation that had been taught notation in school – they just hadn’t retained it. I have a flute student who gained Grade 1 theory at school but didn’t touch an instrument until 30 years later. I know that people like Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze asked themselves similar questions. Perhaps we should spend some time with them.

    2. If Swanwick’s ‘teaching music musically’ is apparently synonymous with teaching music chiefly through the language of music – and that this in practice appears to be translated into simply playing music and not inviting discussion or analysis, isn’t it time for us to read Swanwick again? Isn’t it time for us to develop our own, well-informed vocabularies as to how we use musical sound in lessons so that we might be part of a useful dialogue with each other and can approach Ofsted’s statements in a nuanced way? It’s no good being stuck with a to-ing and fro-ing pendulum between one partial view of music education to another. The more we think, and read and talk with one another the better we will be.

    3. What should I be aiming for? Have I let my students down if they leave knowing how to strum some chords but not knowing what a 9th or a 13th is? Is it insufficient to know how to sing in tune, but not be able to read music?

    I think this is a tricky question. I have taught undergraduates who are in exactly that position. I met a student who felt deeply let down by her school education because she could sing but not read music. Although she was a good singer, she felt less able than her classically-educated counterparts. So perhaps we should teach every class as if everyone there might need a theoretical underpinning. I think that the trouble with this however, is that many students (including her) have been taught notation in class – but not well; or not at the right time; or not for long enough; or not with sufficient attention to the way that these symbols are servants to sound and the ideas and the expression that people put into music. Of course, most people won’t choose to go on to study music formally. Does that inform how I should behave?

    And so the responsibility seems to fall upon us as teachers: not Ofsted and not a curriculum-maker in Whitehall. Is it possible for us to watch our students’ musical explorations and know when to introduce them to a theoretical concept? Or invite them to theory club? Or samba club? Or tech club? Or debating society? Or offer them trombone lessons and a trombone? Or stop and have a class discussion? Or go on a Youtube safari? Or go home and research something that seems of interest to a class? What I should be aiming for may not be something that anyone other than me in relation with my students, can decide.

    I recently read an article by Shelby Sheppard which contrasted two ways of looking at the word ‘engagement’ – not specifically in the context of music. Having read it, I was able to think more clearly about short-term fun vs. long-term graft arguments:

    The author considered two forms of engagement… one where the person that is engaged is deeply committed to the thing to which they are engaged: We become engaged to one another. We become deeply committed to a cause for which we are prepared to make great changes to our lives. When we choose to seek our continued musical improvement by spending time and effort (that we might have spent elsewhere) – then we are deeply engaged. The engagement resides inside ourselves and we seek routes to further our involvement. A child (or indeed an adult) deeply committed to their musical education might be prepared to spend hours practicing, hours researching, hours experimenting and hypothesising. Those musicians that you mentioned were perhaps already highly committed to their musical education before they decided that it would be worth the commitment to learn jazz or whatever…

    Another type of engagement is something that is temporary. There is no existent deep commitment residing inside the person leading them to seek out greater involvement. Instead the engagement is rather more to do with the attractiveness of the thing with which he or she is temporarily amused. Our attention is diverted by something for a short while – we temporarily enjoy a game of I-spy on a long car journey, we lose ourselves in a great film, we are transported by a trip round a stately home, we are excited by our ability to play the ‘Smoke on the Water’ riff etc. To be briefly engaged by any of these things does not mean that we go on to become committed to careers as lexicographers, directors, art historians or lead guitarists. On the other hand some brief engagement might do exactly that – an hour musing on the antics of ants might lead to a lifetime in biology, a night being on the same line-up as a jazz musician might lead up an avenue of substitution chords and collaboration. Singing a mining song might lead us to a committed interest in folk music, or in social justice, or we find that we like singing and that singing can be something a bit different to what we thought it was… Something lights our touch-paper and off we go…

    I think we need to aim to enable students to inhabit rich musical, feelingful, intellectual, thoughtful worlds but we might need to coax them in. We need to aim to show possibilities and create possibilities. Perhaps we need to cultivate watchfulness.

    I would argue therefore, that we need to look, not to whether our lessons are filled with music-making or theoretical understandings… but how flexible we are. How far we are enabled to make good decisions about what is right for these students that we have in front of us, right now. I return to my earlier point. The responsibility lies to a great extent, not on Ofsted or on Whitehall policy makers – but on ourselves and our ability to cultivate good quality relationships with our students and our continued exploration of what it means to be educated musically. We can play with a balance between thinking in and about music. We can experiment with the porousness of these two types of thinking. We can explore when to disrupt and when to go with the flow.

    Liked by 3 people

    Posted by Jennie Francis | September 7, 2015, 1:31 pm
    • Thank you so much, Jennie – you are asking some really interesting questions which will hopefully give some useful breadth to this discussion. For the moment, I’ll just take your first question.

      It is, of course, important that exploring theoretical constructs is not divorced from hearing sounds and the sorts of physical embodiment you describe. Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze did indeed successfully address these issues, but although we mention their names frequently in dispatches, we tend to shy away from actually using their ideas systematically in today’s classrooms. The previous generation of music educators, including Paynter, Mills and Swanwick recognised the importance and found ways of making them relevant in the classrooms of the 1960s and 1970s. With the possible exception of John Finney, there don’t seem to be any high profile organisations and individuals who are really pressing for this.

      Yes, we should look backwards and find ways of working with these pedagogies in today’s settings. But we are now able to go a stage further. Mobile technologies and music apps allow those who are not familiar with, or do not have access to, the layouts of musical notes on keyboards, fretboards and other instrument interfaces to explore chords and scales much more easily than hitherto.

      It should not be too difficult a task to forge the best of the old with the opportunities of the new to enable us to come up with some systems that will effectively address the concerns you raise. But who is going to take this on?


      Posted by davidashworth | September 10, 2015, 6:13 pm
      • Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze are perpetuated through their respective societies chiefly as methods. Leaving methods behind there are principles to be discerned. Their unifying principle, if there is one, lies in the significance of the body as a knowing instrument, a source of feelingful knowing, and this being the basis for finding meaning in technical matters.

        Jennie writes: ‘If Swanwick’s ‘teaching music musically’ is apparently synonymous with teaching music chiefly through the language of music – and that this in practice appears to be translated into simply playing music and not inviting discussion or analysis, isn’t it time for us to read Swanwick again?’

        Reading Swanwick you will find a set of principles supporting the catch phrase ‘teaching music musically’. I wonder how many music teacher know what they are.

        Liked by 2 people

        Posted by jfin107 | September 10, 2015, 7:03 pm
      • Jennie and John both urge us to go back to reading Swanwick’s “Teaching Music Musically”. For those teachers who might want to do this, but may understandably baulk at the thought of having to part with the best part of £30 for a slim if excellent paperback…. you will find online a transcript of a presentation Swanwick gave in Belo Horizonte in 2001 covering all the essential points he makes in the book.

        Click to access num04_cap_03.pdf

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by davidashworth | September 10, 2015, 8:06 pm
      • Hi David,

        Thanks for your response… What kind of mobile technology/mobile app do you have in mind? Do you mean apps that turn physical gesture into sound? Perhaps this is rather simple – but I like the idea that our bodies might help us to make sense of something. We can consult our physical responses. Choreograph the first 5 notes of star wars – one gesture for each note. What are you doing on notes 4 and 5. Why? Listen to/sing the rest of the phrase. How many times can you fit your 5-note choreography in? What does that tell us about how John Williams wrote his music?


        Posted by Jennie Francis | September 12, 2015, 10:46 pm
      • Hi Jennie
        The sort of apps I have in mind are those that allow you to pre-define and select the notes in the scale you are using [a bit like removing certain bars from a glockenspiel] Thumbjam is a good example of this. The user is then free to focus on making music with these notes without having to worry about the ‘non-diatonic’ ones. The chord sequence player in GarageBand is also a useful feature, which helps young students making connections with harmonies and melodies


        Posted by davidashworth | September 17, 2015, 9:19 am
    • MFL provided Ofsted with the idea of ‘the target language’. Teachers of MFL are challenged with the question: when is it principled not to use the target language?


      Posted by jfin107 | September 11, 2015, 3:09 pm
      • If the pop musician/potential pop musician is in an educational setting the teacher (or more knowledgable other) has a resonsibility to attend to two kinds of needs. 1. Those expressed by the pupil 2. Those inferred by the teacher. In the case of 2. the teacher has a responsibility to go beyond 1. and lead, mediate culture. Thus the teacher is more than a facilitator.

        Jennie writes: ‘How far we are enabled to make good decisions about what is right for these students that we have in front of us, right now?’

        The danger will be that 1. there is little scope for pupils to express needs 2. the teacher will shy away from inferring the pupil’s needs.

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by jfin107 | September 11, 2015, 3:52 pm
      • Another side-track comment: we need to move beyond the binary categories of pop/classical; practice/theory; and beyond the ‘good’ words – ‘engagement; integration; creativity; high-quality; effective’. All of which weaken our discourse and say nothing about value, worthwhileness or means and ends.


        Posted by jfin107 | September 12, 2015, 2:58 pm
    • The ‘theoretical underpinning’ you refer to is important. The problems are that a) it is often taught badly and b) there is often too much of it!
      What I’m suggesting is that we just need to get across the absolute basics of how the ‘system’ works – and then we can be free to add further detail in the ways you describe. For example, your wonderful Mozart lesson below….


      Posted by davidashworth | September 17, 2015, 1:08 pm
    • I love the way these discussions twist and turn, and take us in richly varied and interesting directions. Jennie’s reference to Shelby Sheppard, and the unpicking of what ‘engagement’ means is an instance of this.

      As John F says, all too often we use the standard buzzwords such as engagement, creativity, integration etc without really thinking through why or how we are using these words.

      It is helpful to unravel two types of engagement so that we can be aware of how we can work with these ideas in our teaching approaches – and how one type of engagement might help and support the other….


      Posted by davidashworth | September 21, 2015, 11:00 am
    • The problem you are encountering is due to a lack of foundational skills. Basically, the job of secondary music teachers is being made especially difficult because there is not enough basic theory happening in Primary schools. I teach Early Years and Key Stage 1 music, so children from 3-7 years of age. Some teachers think these children are not capable of much music making. They are very wrong. I teach them to sing and sight-sing using the Kodaly approach and I teach them all to read basic rhythmic notation. I spend regular weekly time on aural skills and I think it is this aspect that has been neglected in the curriculum. We play instruments like most other primary schools but the difference is that I spend little time on composition and more on performance. It is here that the time is being wasted in my opinion, the children in schools up and down the country are trying to get little children to compose who have absolutely no idea what they are doing and then asked to work in small groups and construct their own learning from scratch. It does not work. All secondary teachers should not have to teach notation because all children should be able to do it by the time they get to year 7. The British National Curriculum for Music in Key Stages 1 and 2 fits on 1 side of A4. I suggest we look at the Alberta curriculum from Canada where it is on 14 pages of A4. Here is the link: https://education.alberta.ca/media/313004/elemusic.pdf. This curriculum is stable, it has been in place since 1989 and it is rigorous. Everything that is marked with a star is a compulsory outcome – the music teacher can be sacked if the children cannot do those things. I have taught music at all Key Stages and in my experience you need to really start from the bottom up and at each transition a new music teacher needs to know exactly what the children can accomplish before even starting the first lesson.


      Posted by Dan Guerrard | October 22, 2015, 3:13 pm
  6. Interesting discussion. The key thing for me is that learners are all different with different needs and interests in respect to learning music. Not really sure I agree with the pop musicians drying up creatively as such because of a lack of theoretical music knowledge. Where is the long list of jazz musicians churning out lots of varied and developed content over the years? McCartney was a song writing genius, but clearly his best stuff was in the 60s. Do you think if he understood music theory, e.g. modes, augmented intervals etc. it would have helped him write more and better songs? I doubt it. My mate played and still plays in one of Scotland’s top pop bands. Most of their hits including no1s were in the 80s and 90s. He can’t read a note of music but knows and can play every chord under the sun, an utterly stunning musician. For most young people wanting to play in bands, having a good grasp of music theory is only one aspect to be considered. For some it might help them develop ideas, but in my experience most good pop musicians rely on their ear. At college as a student I always had music on a stand in front of me. When I joined a band we played an hour set with not a written note to be seen. Interesting debate, I come down on the side of sound before symbol every time.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Alan Cameron | September 7, 2015, 10:19 pm
    • Thanks, Alan for raising some interesting points. The ‘long list of jazz musicians’ is indeed very long and gets longer. All the jazz greats [Miles Davis, Ellington, Monk, Mingus, Brubeck, Tracey etc] continued to create great new music right up to the very end. Most of today’s established jazz musicians keep producing exciting new and original work. Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny, Ralph Towner, Art Blakey, Kenny Burrell, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock ….indeed, it seems to be an expectation for jazz musos that you bop till you drop.

      McCartney is an interesting case. I avoided mentioning him because he really merits a whole blog – such is his importance. Indeed, the title for this Editorial comes from one of his songs. I agree he is still musically very vibrant. Actually, I do think some of his more recent songs bear comparison with his work with the Beatles, so he is one of the exceptions. This is partly because he is an extraordinarily talented musician, who has also been fortunate to have had the likes of George Martin [and others] as mentors.

      Your closing statement “I come down on the side of sound before symbol every time” seems to me to be an example of what Nigel T refers to earlier in this thread as taking a binary position, when in fact a more fluid, nuanced approach might be what is called for….


      Posted by davidashworth | September 8, 2015, 3:47 pm
      • I have to admit, I’m not a jazz aficionado and bow to your superior knowledge on this. I am however keen to have kids involved in jazz and this month we’re privileged to be working with Richard Ingham and Richard Michael with our Dumfries & Galloway Youth Jazz Orchestra. They’ll be performing at the Lockerbie Jazz Festival where we hosted the legendary Acker Bilk a few years ago.
        Perhaps jazz, as a discrete music form, lends itself more naturally to progression and ideas development than pop music with its limiting i, iv, v oft used patterns. For me, and I suspect most people, I prefer concordant music with satisfying simple structure and pattern. Pop musicians tend to be highly reliant on words. Poets like Dylan and Bowie I guess show longevity. Elton John’s longevity is perhaps down to Taupin’s skills.
        Nice to see you giving George Martin credit. I agree. I was even lucky enough to record in Air Studios, London in 1999 with him as exec producer. His theoretical musical ability is often overlooked. His influence on songs like Eleanor Rigby was very significant. The Liverpool lads, brill as they were, didn’t have arranging cellos in their skill set.
        I do agree theoretical musical knowledge is of great benefit to young people looking to a career in music. It’s just that most won’t follow that path and I think it’s more important they enjoy playing music before learning about treble clefs.


        Posted by Alan Cameron | September 8, 2015, 8:24 pm
  7. Music theory is not one thing. There are concepts such as the octave which are universal. But the other models are fairly specific to particular styles of music I think. With years three and four I found it useful to teach the ukulele chord charts. I think they learnt that some aspects of Music can be captured on paper .
    I cannot type at the moment so please excuse errors as I try to master voice recognition.
    [two minor typos corrected -well done, LJ! – Ed]


    Posted by LJ Radick | September 8, 2015, 3:19 pm
  8. Some more typos for David… I was very struck by a Jenny’s comment about the need to make sure students learn with their fingers. This has become more concrete for me since I injured my shoulders. Over the last two months music has become less meaningful to me because I cannot react to it with my fingers. This has made me think about what it would be like To have music lessons based on theory and listening with very little practical application. Based on my current experience the word that springs to mind is impoverished. It follows that any “theory” must follow naturally from a practical activity involving climbing inside a piece of music. This creates challenges if, over the course of the year, we have “climbed inside” pieces of music from disparate styles.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by LJ Radick | September 9, 2015, 8:34 pm
    • I love the way that LJ talks of “climbing inside”. I wrote the following vignette to describe a lesson in which I responded to the stipulations of a syllabus which required my students to learn aspects of the first movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. (Of course, as LJ says – this Western Classical theory is not the only theory. We must be careful not to assume that it is.) I’m including it in this conversation because perhaps this is an example of ‘climbing inside’ and it represents something that I think is important when teaching people theoretical things: when we’re talking about music I want to know that my students know what we’re talking about.

      A GCSE classroom in which there are 39 year 10 students and two teachers. The students have a mixed variety of performance skills. Some are singers who learn by ear (by listening to recordings), some are classically trained (who can fluently read western classical notation), some are rock guitarists (the majority of whom read guitar tablature, or who learn by ear). Some are drummers, rap artists, and music technologists. The syllabus requires that we learn, for a listening exam, significant features of the first movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony in G minor, whose tempestuous opening is a prime example of the classical ‘storm and stress’ style: Sturm Und Drang. I wanted them to understand these features, not as a list on a revision guide, but understood through their voices and through their instrument-playing bodies. I wanted them to hear the analytical words with which they would need to become familiar in rehearsal, or in playful compositional experimentation. I knew that an introduction to this piece via a score-reading exercise would be alienating for the majority of them (reading an orchestral score is difficult even if you can read music) and that even listening to recording might ‘turn off’ quite a number of them.

      I didn’t tell them that we were learning Mozart. I told him that we were learning a song from a musical, a particularly angst-ridden song:

      There’s a hole in my soul and it’s scary
      There’s a trap that will snap the unwary

      There’s a pain in my brain and it’s burning
      What a mess, feel the stress and the churning

      And I don’t know where I’m going!
      And I don’t know what to do!
      Please tell me what to do!
      Oh Please
      Oh Please, Oh please
      Oh please, Oh please, Oh please!

      We learnt it by ear and we rehearsed it so that each of us knew the shape of the melody and so that it was performed with increasing attention to the stressful mood. When it was known, I asked them to ‘work it out’ (at least the first four ‘lines’) on instruments. They were not to use traditional notation. Some used their own instruments and many used school xylophones and guitars. Those that needed help were assisted, but on the whole they were able to use their singing voices to work out which notes to play. After we had rehearsed it for a while and its true provenance had been revealed, including a (speedy!) singalong with Bernstein conducting (via Youtube), I told them that we were going to work out a mathematical formula to describe how the melody ‘went’: “There’s a hole in my soul and it’s scary” could be described as x x x y. We played it and talked about it until that relationship was clear. We found that the rhythm of x (“there’s a hole”) could be meaningfully associated with the traditional notation, and that it came back a lot of times: we started to use the word “motif”. Through playing, talking, drawing we found that the word “sequence” was useful to describe the relationship between lines one and two and lines three and four. We found “semitone” and “disjunct” useful as well. Because we could play it, we could also play a game of “what if Mozart had done this…?” We could then compose sentences to describe the melody and its relationship to the stressful mood.

      In the following lesson, we performed the chords from the opening bars of the piece as an ensemble. We rehearsed them, paying close attention to articulation, dynamics and balance. Harmonic and structural features were mentioned as part of the rehearsal. Then some added the tune. It sounded good, especially when we put in exciting accents but generally kept the volume low.

      After that we composed a whole-class sonata form movement complete with tonic-relative minor modulation, pedals and circles of fifths. We started by individuals and pairs experimenting on guitars and xylophones to create a short characterful tune that you think the rest of the class could play and remember pretty easily. After we’d picked one and learned it and altered it a bit to make it work better and described the mood we then set about creating a mini-tune that had a contrasting mood…

      This was a far cry from the early days of my GCSE teaching in which meticulously planned worksheets were met with inertia. Over time I have learnt to spend more time playing with the music, and creating spaces to talk about it, stretch and manipulate it.


      Here’s a different kind of lesson. It was in response to noticing the way that students were talking about Ebola. The class were a group that were given extra music due to their reduced diet of GCSEs. Quite a lot of the lesson was spent talking about what Ebola was, why it was in the news, what might be done, whether it was something we should be concerned by, and why. Then we listened to two songs: one by African artists (in various languages – we had a written translation to refer to, revealing the very practical advice that was being given) and the one put together by Bob Geldof. We compared them, we thought about the feel of the music and the kind of language that was being used – who they were for – what we thought of them and which we would download. The students requested to hear the African song again, some joined in. Several students left the room humming it. One did download it. We didn’t play anything, or (formally) sing anything, or use any musical vocabulary particularly, but somehow it felt like a good music lesson.


      I was pleased with the Mozart lessons because I felt that the students were getting up-close to the music. Later, when I was talking with students about relative minors, pedals etc. I felt able to refer to something specific about which they had direct experience and with which I had tried my best to encourage them to connect. (In my view David’s guitarist, now he has All along the Watch Tower in his fingers, and in his musical imagination, now that he’s interested in it, may be just ripe for being introduced to the vocabulary and the technical know-how to help him understand some of the underlying harmonic processes.) My colleagues and I made it a general rule of thumb that we muck about with pieces and musical concepts as a class before going into smaller groups or before asking them to respond in other ways. We could drop in vocab, ensure that everyone had experienced playing, singing, conducting, dancing, empathising through, composing or otherwise being a part of a Specials ska stroke, a Handel hemiola, Reich’s note addition, Schoenberg’s expressionist techniques, a Donegal slip jig or whatever. We made a point of working on it a little bit so that we got better at it and so that it felt (to me at least) more like music. Then we were in a position to talk about it as music (as a physical experience where we were attempting to make some kind of gesture that required adjectives such as smooth, surprising, balanced, lively, angry – where some kind of commitment is made) rather than just a technical thing that some people do to sound.

      I was pleased with the Ebola lesson – I think that we worked on building a relationship with a piece of music (particularly the African one) and I think we were the better for it. I think we opened ourselves up to a worthwhile experience, which may or may not have had an impact beyond those few minutes.

      There’s a musical philosopher called Thomas Clifton who argues that the key to understanding what music is lies in how it is experienced. He suggests that,

      “Music is the product of an intentional act, a personal belief that a given event is musical. This is not the product of logical deliberation, but an act of personal commitment concurrent with music’s unfolding. And it is a dynamic process, subject to continuous revision and requiring constant renewal. Where belief falters and possession ceases, music slips back into sound, becoming just a sonorous thing “out there” in the world.”

      I find this helpful. I think that I have been trying to cajole students into making this commitment and I have become wary of spending time in music lessons doing stuff (be that operating musical instruments or learning theoretical concepts) without trying my best to help students to make sense of (commit to?) what they are doing.

      Liked by 2 people

      Posted by Jennie Francis | September 12, 2015, 11:03 pm
      • Jennie’s descriptions of relational music teaching show how wasteful endless semi-abstract discussions about music educational issues can be. We need better questions, examples of what we are talking and better theory making which will lead to better questions and better discussion, more thought less opinion like this statement.

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by jfin107 | September 13, 2015, 7:56 am
      • Hi John
        Agreed – but it seems that it is only through these ‘semi abstract’ discussions that we are able to tease out these rich descriptions of music teaching. The only exception to this is your book: “The Story of Music Education Now”.


        Posted by davidashworth | September 17, 2015, 9:15 am
  9. I hated theory: Grade 5 theory to be exact. Failed all the practice papers, passed the real thing. Waste of time.

    But it wasn’t. As someone who arranges and composes all the time in a variety of styles, I simply could not do without it. It was only when I started teaching composition that I learned how vital theory was: for example, we avoid doubling the (major) third not because we are told to, but because it sounds hideous! The same goes for resolving suspensions in jazz harmony: not necessary, but satisfying to the ear. Modulation without a strong theoretical knowledge is impossible (with the exception of the ‘X Factor’ up the semitone naturally!). Dissonance is not just random: it is created by 2nds and 7ths, and that has to be learned before it can be used. And, contrary to what some people seem to think, it is not innate knowledge for all musicians, so they have to be taught it.

    And what about when I am teaching singing? All my pupils are made aware – whether they like it or not – of the soothing effect of the Major 9th, or the ambiguity of quartal harmony/ the missing 3rd. The composer has chosen that chord for a reason, and he/ she has spent time considering the options. It affects the way they sing the word/ phrase to which it is set. And it happens all the time: just this week, whilst teaching ‘Far From the Home I Love’ (from Fiddler on the Roof) I realised that the tedious. repetitive melody is deliberate, representing the nagging, inescapable situation that won’t go away (the need to leave her home) the daughter finds herself in: a genuinely obstinate ‘ostinato’. And don’t even get me started on those people who resolve the harmony at the end of ‘Something’s Coming’ from West Side Story, instead of leaving the ‘maybe tonight’ hanging there, uncertain and ambiguous as Bernstein intended. That is theory, that is harmony, and we can all benefit from a knowledge of it.

    This is theory used in practical music, and teachers (of all types) should spend time teaching their pupils how it works. Of course it must then be put into practice – in the form of sound – but does it really have to be based on luck? Shouldn’t pupils have the right to LEARN and BE TAUGHT the emotional/ aural impact of different chords and intervals, of functional and non-functional harmony, of the interrupted cadence, and then work it into compositions and songs? That is not anti-creative surely, just giving them the necessary ‘kit’ they need to compose effectively.

    As a composer I know – from bitter experience – that the ONLY way to find out if my music works is to HEAR it, and as someone who directs both youth and adult ensembles I am fortunate to be in the position of being able to try out my work on a regular basis. When I was younger I made lots of mistakes and I still do of course, but not as many, and that is because I have learned what works and what doesn’t. And much of that learning has been through my teaching, whether it be piano, singing, GCSE or A level. As a consequence of my ongoing teaching and learning I am able to produce much more effective compositions and arrangements (although they still do not all work of course!). That is theory in practice, not theory for theory’s sake, and I am 100% in favour of it. Once a young musician understands the point of what they are being taught – predominantly by hearing the result – they will be in favour of it too, and they have a right to reach that point. That is why we must teach theory in our classrooms, and that is ‘teaching music musically’.

    So no, students should NOT be playing/ making music 100% of the time, but any time they are not making music must be specifically used to take them back to their instruments in the near future, equipped with increased knowledge which will allow them to be more adventurous and braver composers, willing to experiment, make mistakes, and learn from them. Isn’t that what all education should be about?

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by pgazard | September 11, 2015, 11:08 pm
    • Good comment. An established published and internationally performed composer friend of mine used to always say how much he disliked dominant 7ths. I do think it important that musicians could engage with him in a discussion about it. For my part, the big issue is not whether we should teach theory as part of music learning, but how to integrate it as part of the musical learner journey in an interesting, fun, coherent way. It takes great skill as a teacher to turn mundane facts into a fun, relevant learning experience. So what’s needed in my view is an indivualised personal approach to learner needs because everyone is different and at a different point on the path. Performing, listening, composing, improvising should all have aspects of musical theory embedded. I don’t think many young people enjoy sitting down with a theory book for too long. Let’s be more creative in how we teach theory through all the various elements of musical learning.

      Liked by 1 person

      Posted by Alan Cameron | September 20, 2015, 12:40 pm
  10. I would like to go To the music class That Jennie talked about . Though I wonder how I would feel About of those lyrics 35 years later when they were still stuck in my head every time I heard the Mozart


    Posted by LJ Radick | September 17, 2015, 8:33 pm


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