Sound foundations Jump to main content

Sound foundations

Music Education for pre-school and primary pupils was the focus of the Sound Foundations seminar on 27 February. Sharon Mark went along.

It was a bright, chilly Saturday morning when almost 60 of us met in central London for the Music in Education Section’s seminar ‘Sound Foundations’. The ISM’s new Chief Executive Deborah Annetts reminded us of the importance of consultation in music education. Certainly, as the day unfolded, there was evidence of a need continually to re-evaluate practices and processes in music education in line with advances in neurological and societal research – and indeed technology.

Rachelle Goldberg, MES Warden, introduced the challenge of ensuring and sustaining ‘sound foundations’ in the early years; as established and reflective music educators, we can use consultation as a powerful tool. Rachelle referred to an article in The Sunday Times last November which suggested that brain development is at its most rapid between 0-3 years (Grimston & Gadher, 2008), and other research found children’s inactive lifestyles contribute to their stunted dexterity.

Rachelle discussed ‘The Cambridge Primary Review’, a major strategic initiative (the most comprehensive enquiry into English primary education since the Plowden Report of 1967). The findings have relevance to music education. Rachelle pointed out that although initiatives such as Wider Opportunities and Sing Up are in place, the all-important issue of sustainability is (as usual) counteracted by financial limitations.

New Times, New Challenges – A view from the Early Years

Dr Susan Young, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, gave an insight into the pathways of progression and change in early years’ music education.

Susan informed us that, fifteen years ago, little research had been done into young children’s musicality. Over the last decade, theories into the musical development and learning processes of young children have gradually emerged as a result of neuromusical and psychobiological research, experimental studies and observational studies of children’s spontaneous musical behaviours. During the past five years, more changes have been evidenced due to increasingly advanced research procedures and ‘new childhoods’ brought about by factors such as cultural diversity and digital technology.

We live in a world where music making for some cultures is ‘everywhere and treasured by all’ (Chappell, 2006). However, in the UK, it’s possible that we are over-familiar with the encumbering term ‘unmusical’. After watching a video clip showing a young child’s spontaneous and fully-engaged musical response to the music making of an adult, Susan’s comment was disconcerting, mainly on account of its credibility: “To become ‘unmusical’ has to be learned.”

Building Foundations for Key Stage 3

Leonora Davies MBE, a music education consultant, referred to the findings of a recent Ofsted report stating that over half the schools observed were, musically, doing very well. Terrific opportunities for live performances exist: we saw a video of pupils from Lyndhurst Junior School perform whole-class jazz at the Barbican. Leonora reiterated the significant and increasing impact of technological influences on young people’s involvement with music - in today’s world it seems that even very young children have a self-assured grasp of technological advances. Leonora also spoke of the necessity to ensure sustainability prior to the setting up of initiatives such as Wider Opportunities and Sing Up, and of the importance of creating positive and relevant experiences for instrumental learners.

Video Teaching

Alan Cameron, an Education Officer, reinforced how technology can be used to enhance access to music education. In 2004 Alan approached the Scottish Government with a pilot proposal: to provide instrumental lessons for pupils in remote schools in Scotland via video conferencing. We observed extracts from some of these lessons with brass tutor Grant Golding, who has been teaching 30 minute lessons on a weekly basis to small groups of school children for over three years via video conferencing. The huge advantage of this innovation is that instrumental teachers can teach young people in four to five schools 80 miles apart without actually travelling. The University of Warwick’s findings on this project also suggest that pupils receiving instrumental tuition by video conferencing show ‘a strong move towards student autonomy’. (A copy of this report is available at

Alan reported that the trial had received over £80,000 in funding and that video conferencing currently costs £9 per hour to run. The imminent move to broadband will completely slash these running costs and contribute to the sustainability of the concept. The engagement and interest shown by a class of young instrumentalists from a school in Scotland during a masterclass with Rod Franks (Principal Trumpet, LSO), live from the LSO’s St Luke’s Centre in London, made for interesting speculation regarding the potential for this innovation.


Margareta Burrell, a trained Dalcroze practitioner and music therapist, introduced us to how the Dalcroze approach can be used to develop young children’s listening skills, their ability to respond to signals and explore their powers of imagination by using their body as their musical instrument.

Sarah Carling, a director of Music for Starters and a senior advisory teacher for the Voices Foundation, illustrated how basic musical concepts can be explored with young children by teaching participants a variety of action songs and rhymes. She also looked at how music can support a child’s holistic development from personal, social and emotional development to problem solving, reasoning and numeracy.

The day concluded with practical activities led by Margareta and Sarah, involving the use of drums, props and games.

Clearly, the first decade of the new millennium is seeing a large scale shift in terms of digital technology and it seems that even the youngest of children are a part of this intriguing culture of independence. Change can be scary, but unless we are prepared to face the challenge of change we may fail to maximise the music-making and learning experiences of young children.


  • Alexander, R. (2009) ‘Primary Schools: Testing could be compromising the rest of the curriculum’: Also see Primary Music Review:
  • Burnard, P. and Hennessy, S. (2009) Reflective Practices in Arts Education. Dordrecht: Springer
  • Chappell, S. (2006) Making Musicians: Lessons from abroad (Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship Report)
  • Grimston, J. and Gadher, D. (2008) ‘Youngsters lose hand co-ordination’ The Sunday Times: 9 November 2008
  • Young, S. and Glover, J. (1998) Music in the early years. UK: Routledge
  • Young, S. (2003) Music with the under-fours. UK: Routledge Falmer
  • Young, S. (2008) Music 3-5. UK: Taylor & Francis Group
  • Sharon Mark MA, PGDip, DipMus, ALCM is the ISM’s Regional Councillor for Northern Ireland. In addition to working as a professional piano teacher, and as a principal tutor on the EPTA(UK)/Purcell Practical Piano Teaching Course, she is a music practitioner for various early years’ organisations.