The 11th Festival of Education: Kevin Rogers' speech Jump to main content

The 11th Festival of Education: Kevin Rogers' speech

Welcome to this presentation on music education, presented by the ISM.

I am Kevin Rogers, Council Member for ISM and previously County Inspector for Hampshire County Council’s Music Service. I shall be looking at some background historical contexts for both music and music education, and then at the implications for schools; after that, Deborah Annetts, the Chief Executive for ISM, will look at the implications for national policy.

The talk has been headlined by these two quotes, which feature in the current National Plan for Music Education, but which were written by two ancient Greek Philosophers:

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, and life to everything… without music, life would be an error. (Plato)

Music has a power of forming the character and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young. (Aristotle)

The question is: were they right - and if so, what are the implications for contemporary education? Now words are all very well, but this talk is about music, so we should start with some sound: I shall therefore play a short clip and ask you to consider – what is it? (Sound clip 1).

Many of you will recognise that it is the Star Spangled Banner – the national anthem of the USA; but it is also the sound of a reproduction bone flute that was found in Germany, with the original dating from some 35,000 years ago. In case you are concerned that the sound may not be realistic, here is the sound of a genuine bone flute found in China, dating from around 10,000 years ago (Sound clip 2), and showing a remarkably similar sound quality!

The point of this is to show that the thinking embedded in our Greek quotes was part of a long and continuing tradition: music had already been important to humans for 30,000 years. And it is still important today: you could probably recognise and relate to the first clip as a national anthem, and you may have had had either a positive or negative reaction to the fact that it was the USA anthem! But this simply demonstrates the truth – music has meaning for us, and it always has.

It is no surprise, then, for our opening quotes to show that music offered real and important meaning to the Greeks: given their influence on western thought, including on education, it is worth exploring exactly what they thought that meaning was.

The Greeks believed in a cosmos that had order: an order that contained truth and beauty, and that was driven by number. Music, they believed, was therefore part of this cosmic order, because the properties of sound that we use to make music are driven by mathematical principles of number (you can see this by reading how intervals and scales are determined by basic mathematical equations).

The Greeks therefore included music in the four areas of study which they believed were fundamental to human understanding of the universe, and our place in it. These four areas were:

Arithmetic – pure number

Music – number in time

Geometry – number in space

Astronomy – number in time and space

Since music was on this list, it was entirely logical to the Greeks that it should be an intrinsic part of education: seemingly a quite reasonable view!

So if music was indeed central to Greek philosophy, has that been sustained across time since? Well, the Medieval and early Renaisance Universities certainly thought the same. They drew on the work of Boethius, the sixth century Roman philosopher, who took those four areas from the Greeks (including music) and called them collectively the Quadrivium; he then added the Trivium (rhetoric, grammar and dialectic argument), and by doing so created the bedrock of liberal arts education in early western universities.

Not only did Boethius retain music as a central part of education – he went further, by defining it in three parts. He described:

a) Musica mundana – the music of the spheres

b) Musica humana – the music of the soul interacting with the music of the spheres

c) Musica instrumentalis – the sound of practical music making we engage with on earth

Moreover, he articulated a hierarchy of importance, with musica mundana at the top, and musica instrumentalis at the bottom – meaning that the ‘musicus’ (the person who understood musica mundana) was more important than the mere ‘cantor’ (the person who made music). This created a division between ‘academic’ music and ‘practical’ music which still exists – and perhaps bedevils – music education today. It is seen most clearly in the distinction between university and conservatoire music courses, but also right down to the debate about what is ‘important’ in music lessons: the theory or the practical?

Nevertheless, the fact remains that medieval and renaissance minds recognised and valued music, and, like the Greeks, saw it as an essential part of any worthwhile education.

While this may seem like ancient history, it is important to recognise that modern science is now showing to be true what the ancient cave dwellers knew instinctively, what the Greeks described through their philosophy, and what the medieval / renaissance universities showed in their education design: music is an essential part of what it is to be human – we are designed to be musical.

This is being proven through neuroscience – the study of the brain and how it operates. By monitoring and scanning people’s brains as they listen to and engage with music, we now know that:

‘Musical activity involves every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem’.

This is a quote from the book ‘This is your brain on music’, by Daniel Levitin – once a highly respected recording engineer and producer, but now one of the world’s leading authorities on the neuroscience behind music. The quote emphasises the enormity and complexity of everyone’s brain as it reacts to music. What is more, the science is showing that music also requires huge communication between these neural networks: between left and right hemispheres of the brain, front and back, top and bottom - the level of brain activity when engaging with music is virtually unique. It is also retained for life – even when the brain starts to decay with diseases such as dementia (as anyone who watched the recent TV series with Vicky McClure will have seen). And critically, it seems that the brain functions are the same whether one is trained in music or not – the only difference in brain scans between trained musicians and the general public is that the musicians’ responses are stronger: the print-outs show exactly the same shape and patterning, but the musicians’ are just bigger than the general public’s - again showing that we are all designed to be musical.

All of this shows why Howard Gardner was able to include music as one of his Multiple Intelligencies – indeed music is the only one of his intelligencies which is a National Curriculum subject in its own right. It is true that some of his theories have been questioned in terms of their application to education; but the point is that he determined the separate intelligencies because they each require a specific and unique brain activity.

Yet as we have seen, in addition to this unique brain activity, engaging with music involves nearly every part of the brain – and the impact on the whole brain is why music seems to affect so many other areas of human activity. There is a growing weight of evidence that engaging with music can have a strong impact on all sorts of other human development – it is worth looking at the report ‘The Power of Music’ by Professor Susan Hallam which pulls together vast amounts of international research. There is probably never going to be a ‘silver bullet’ which shows that doing music makes you ‘better at maths’, or ‘better at english’; but the collective evidence does seem to suggest that music makes you a better learner, and leads to personal and social growth. The reasons are currently not completely understood, but it does seem that music improves a wide range of specific brain functions which are important in other areas of life – including aural perception and early language skills; spatial reasoning; executive function and self-regulation; creativity; empathy and emotional intelligence.

So it seems as though the ancient Greeks were right. The question therefore becomes: how can we continue to make it relevant to contemporary education?

Now of course, there are many alternative views about what education should be like. We can start with the Utilitarian view – that education is solely about preparing young people for jobs and employment, and that its success should be measured in terms of monetary income and GDP growth. This is the kind of view espoused recently by the Onward Foundation, whose report ‘A question of degree’ suggested that degrees which failed to offer monetary benefits to students should be scrapped. This might seem a doubtful view – but if you really want a utilitarian view, then look no further than the government’s own figures regarding the contribution of the creative industries to the UK economy: at £101.5 billion in 2017, it was larger than the automative, life sciences, aerospace, and oil and gas sectors combined.

A popular alternative approach at the moment is the so-called ‘knowledge’ approach to education, largely driven by the ‘Core knowledge’
work of ED Hirsch Junior in the USA. Now knowledge of itself is not an issue – but it does matter what you mean by knowledge. A short search of the term will reveal that there are many forms of recognised knowledge – including posteriori, priori, explicit, tacit, propositional / declarative, procedural . . . . and I would add ‘musical’ to the list, because I certainly think musically. So please, let us not restrict ourselves to a limited range of knowledge, and certainly not to the knowledge found in a limited number of subjects, as the EBACC
seems to imply we should.

But the world is changing rapidly, and we should surely prepare students for the future, whatever that holds. We do know that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to make a huge impact on life in general, and on jobs – after all, a top executive of Amazon recently said that their systems would still have a need for ‘some’ humans! In this context, it is important to note a recent NESTA report (‘Creativity and the world of work’) which suggests that creative roles will thrive – meaning that education will surely need to focus on creativity and problem solving. Again, if you want a business view: a recent LinedIn survey showed that the most in-demand skill for employers is creativity. So knowing how to use, adapt and develop knowledge will be an essential attribute for future generations, and will need to be a cornerstone of education.

On a wider and connected note: the recent UN report on Biodiversity made the point that unless we find creative
solutions to the planet’s problems – including by finding ways other than GDP to measure a country’s success – we will all be extinct anyway! And this of course links to the sense that many of us have: that there is more to life than just living, and as Daniel Levitin has said

‘The power of art is that it can connect us to one another, and to larger truths about what it means to be alive and what it means to be human’

So it seems clear that music should be a central part of education; and it should focus on creativity if it is to retain its relevance to the modern world. What, then, are the implications for schools?

Let us start by considering what we mean by music education – it is complex, has many constituent parts, and we often see confusion over how these parts should operate and interact with each other.

First of all, there is curriculum music – this is class music for all students, with regular, weekly lessons from pre-school up to an including Year 9 (and examination options thereafter). It is at the heart of good provision for music education in a school – as John Paynter said in his summary of the decade-long research programme ‘Music in the Secondary School Curriculum’ (part of the Schools Council Project):

‘Music in the classroom is the core of school music activity’;


‘Music does have a place in the time-tabled classroom subject in the school curriculum, and it should be available to all pupils.’

This notion that curriculum music is for all is crucially important – every other aspect of music education has an element of choice in it at some point; but curriculum music must be a guaranteed provision for all. It is also important to recognise that curriculum music has the strongest element of creativity within it – we’ll come to this again shortly.

Secondly, we have instrumental/vocal lessons and ensemble membership (that is, being a member of a choir, a recorder group, a jazz band, etc.). Now we need to be clear: learning an instrument is an essential part of music education, and must be offered to all – but it will be a choice as to whether students carry on with their learning. Of itself, therefore, learning an instrument is not music education – it is a part of it, but only a part: so let’s not be seduced into thinking that music education is primarily about providing the star performers of the future.

Thirdly, we have musical ‘events’ and opportunities: assemblies, house music competitions, student concerts, school shows, workshops, residencies, arts weeks, trips to professional concerts – all those opportunities that are so important in making music come alive across a school and be a presence throughout the whole school community. Indeed, they are critically important to how students feel about music, and how they feel about the community they belong to: they provide the ‘wow’ factor! As a headteacher I spoke to recently said: ‘Music contributes strongly to the spiritual communion of the school: it positively affects pride in the school’.

So we have three key areas of music education. It is essential to recognise that although they are distinct from each other, they are also interlinked – and all three areas need constant attention: if you diminish one area, you diminish the whole, so you do have to keep looking at all three.

Which begs the question: what should I should be looking for in each?

Curriculum music is, fundamentally, about all students developing their musical understanding. This must be done through creative, practical exploration of sounds and music – we are not talking about passive ‘musical appreciation’. But is is about understanding, getting to know how music works, and how it therefore conveys meaning (which, going back to the beginning of this talk, is why we could identify the Star Spangled banner as an anthem).

And creativity is the hallmark of good classroom music. This means that we can’t just get all children to sing (in assembly?), and think we’ve got curriculum music covered. Nor can we ask all students to play ‘Ode to Joy’ on the keyboard – it simply does not pass the creativity test. Rather, we need to design curriculum music learning that requires
creative thinking and sonic problem-solving. We can do this by creating sequences of composing challenges at the heart of our schemes of work – so much more effective than the typical ‘let’s learn about Reggae music by finding out about Bob Marley, then all singing Three Little Birds and finally doing small group performances of it’. And if genuinely creative work is happening in the classroom, we will surely find that we need to provide composing clubs as part of our provision of ‘ensembles and music making groups’ - because students will want to extend their composing skills as much as their instrumental skills.

Instrumental and vocal learning, by contrast, has practical skills as its focus. Of course, we need students to develop skills in the classroom as well, or they will not be able to access the practical activities we want them to engage with. But the depth and demand of skills here is really important, and marks out the learning as quite different from curriculum music. Developing these skills over a long period also helps to develop many of those wider, personal skills we touched on before – especially perseverance and resilience. Musicianship too: instrumental learning should never just be about getting ‘all the right notes in the right order’! And of course, ensemble membership
is all about teamwork – when to lead, when to follow others, how to support the group identity, etc.

Finally, the events and opportunities: in a fractured, fragmented society, there is nothing better than collective musical endeavour to bring people together in mutual collaboration and respect. In the process, young people will learn about – and value – other people’s cultures and types of music. They are also likely, when inspired through the experience of working with exceptional musicians and performing to appreciative audiences, to want to engage more with the other aspects of music education – to take up an instrument, to be part of a choir, to create their own music in classroom lessons and to find their own musical voice in the process.

So in summary, curriculum music must be at the heart of music education: it must be for all, and be provided in a sustained way. It is worth remembering that, up until the most recent incarnation of the national curriculum, government agencies’ guidance stated that the programmes of study were designed on the assumption that students would receive around 45 hours of music lessons every year. The implication was clear: if this amount of time was not provided, students would not be able to complete the learning expected of them. And we must remember that creativity is at the heart of curriculum music – it is essential that every young person learns how to engage practically with music making in all its forms.

For further details on some of these ideas, please do look at the ISM’s new publication ‘Providing a broad and balanced music education in schools’. This is designed to provide clarification for school and strategic leaders about the range and purpose of different areas of music education, and offers clear guidance on developing a coherent and properly balanced music education provision.

This is your brain on music, Daniel Levitin, ISBN 975-1-84354-716-7

Music in the secondary school curriculum, John Paynter, ISBN 13: 978-0-521-28860-6