Is music an academic subject?

On twitter last week a school leader (@StuartLock) posted the following:

“In another anecdote today, when promoting an academic curriculum I got informed that Music is an academic subject. Can of worms…”

“I’m a big fan of music, and want to expand it, but it’s not like History or languages.”

I’m often wound up by this sort of thing (although I’ve met Stuart and know him to be a good and wise man), so this blog asks the question: is music an academic subject?

My definition of an academic subject is a scholarly pursuit, rather than one that is technical or vocational.  In broader terms, it is one which is knowledge rich rather than a practical skill.  And many subjects fit into the latter – Art lessons and exams involve pupils making works of art, rather than writing essays comparing other artists; Drama lessons involve pupils acting and PE lessons have pupils running about and chucking things.  I think this is where the idea of Music as a practical subject comes from – most people only think about Performing and Composing when they think of Music.

But the study of Music has been around for many hundreds of years.  Treatises on music theory (in its original sense, rather than Italian terms) can be found from as far back as the 4th century.  I remember well studying Anonymous 4 (c.1270s) at university.  There is a long tradition of music theorists analysing and writing on music.  It is interesting that they all write about music of previous generations, rather than current practice.  I am prepared to be corrected on this but I cannot think of a similar tradition for other practical pursuits.

So let us go back a generation or so, when there were Grammar Schools and Secondary Modern Schools.  At Grammar Schools, or Independent Schools, in Lower School (now KS3) lessons were filled by listening to music and studying structures, textures etc.  For example, when I was 13 I could write out the structure of a fugue.  The problem with this was that it could be crushingly boring and behaviour (why could music teachers not control classes?) was often poor.  In Middle School, (very few) pupils studied O Level, which was based on music history, analysis with a little bit of performing thrown in for good measure.  I think I’m right in saying that you could hand in your ABRSM Grade 5 certificate and you wouldn’t even have to play.  A question from AEB 1959 Music O Level is, “Why is Henry Purcell regarded as one of the most important of English composers?” A level was much the same.  Practical music was catered for with extra-curricular music: choirs, bands and orchestras, and instrumental music lessons.

At Secondary Modern schools, Lower School lessons were practical: performing (often singing) and composing.  Lessons were often a riot (again) but could be terrific fun.  They led to CSE Music in Middle School, which was a largely practical exam.  There were few opportunities for extra-curricular music but some pupils studied instruments, some to a high level.

Tertiary options were, for the grammar school students, an academic music degree studying music history, analysis etc, and for all there was the opportunity to go to music college to play an instrument and do some music history.  It was possible to go to university and get a degree in music without ever picking up an instrument.  With my degree, although performance was a part of the first year course and I performed every day (as a Choral Scholar), I took no assessed performance as part of my degree.

In the modern era, it fell to the music teacher to do it all.  From exciting, practical KS3 lessons to in depth A level analysis to a full extra-curricular programme.  I suppose it was inevitable that something would drop. And I suppose it was also inevitable, given the prevailing wind, that it was academic content that was reduced – in the change to GCSE, then less again with each successive specification; in A level with the changes at Curriculum 2000, then to a greater extent with the new specifications in 2008.  Up until then my students would usually complain that the gap between GCSE and A level of all their subjects was most pronounced in music.  Not anymore.

So now we have a situation where KS3 lessons are largely composing with some performing and a little bit of listening.  GCSE is similar (this prompted my change to IGCSE, which is much more suitable for my pupils) and you can avoid unfamiliar music altogether until A2 with the most popular board.  Music degrees must be a real shock.  Possibly it’s not just music.  It is most gratifying that on the list of acceptable A level combinations Trinity College Cambridge includes music in its list of generally suitable arts A levels, ahead of “limited suitability” Art, Drama and even Politics.

It is interesting that in the second tweet Stuart said that music is “not like…languages”.  In fact, I think music is very like languages.  It has its own written language, notation, its grammar (cadences, common progressions), its study of former great works written in its language.  I often use the analogy in lessons.  And history? I spent the majority of my time at university reading books and writing essays about music history.  My third year was largely spent poring over (facsimiles of) 16th Century music.

So music used to be very academic and may be less so now but is more than other creative/performing arts.  If you want an academic curriculum, how about the core knowledge curriculum?  Have a look at p.188-9, the 7th grade music curriculum.  Seems pretty academic to me.  Why not give a British version a go?  If you could do it in a way that wouldn’t prove such a snooze for children it could be quite something.  If anyone would like to have a go I’d be interested.


Here are the links:

Click to access CKFSequence_Rev.pdf


28 thoughts on “Is music an academic subject?

  1. I don’t know how I came to reblog it after you had. I’ll get my wrist slapped for that. Anyway, I just wanted to say that when I said it, I was really thinking of the way I’ve experienced Music taught in schools. I maintain that I’m correct, but I recognise that’s not *music*. You’ve convinced me without even reading the links. I’m not sure I’m convinced to promote music per se as part of an academic curriculum because, as I think someone else said and your post outlines, it should be academic, but usually isn’t.

    Nonetheless I was inaccurate and I do thank you for the post. It was most enlightening.

  2. My definition of an academic subject is that engagement with it is intellectually demanding, that it is mindful. Improvising, composing, perfoming music are all intellectual behaviours calling on mind and body. They demand thinking, thinking in sound and thinking about it-critical engagement with it. To bifurcate the making and the thinking is unhelpful.

  3. Since the late 1980s a new musicology has taken hold which views music as much more worldly than allowed for in the former musicology. Academic school music is quite a way out of sync with this thinking.

    • I’m not sure what you’re saying here. I attended university in the 90s and speaking to former pupils in music departments I don’t see a huge change. Schenkerian analysis crops up, early music editing, acoustics and general musicological history seems to fit most music degrees I’ve found. You probably know much more about it than me and I’d genuinely like to find out!

      • I recently came upon the magazine Oxford Today and read with interest the piece ‘The Sound of Changing Music’ illustrating how the study of music at Oxford has ‘utterly changed in recent years’.

        There is now mandatory study of Global hip hop; there is OxLork, the Oxford Laptop Orchestra; the study of the music of the Muslim communities of Bradford and Pakistan; 14th century music and poetry, for example. (see

        Jonathan Hicks tells the reader about the shift from looking at scores, notes and their composer in the 1980s to thinking about music as something alive today in the world where there are people-listeners, critics, producers. ‘Music is experienced live and that is what matters to people.’

        So, a move towards a critical (new) musicology taking the study of music out of its ivory tower.

        Perhaps some university music departments are committed to the change more than others. Newcastle is right there, for example.

        I am wondering what music education can learn from changes in approaches to music scholarship. Why do these changes in music scholarship have so little impact upon the way GCSE music is constructed, for example? Higher education complain that students come not able to think. So perhaps attention to critical musicology in the school curriculum might help. This would involve contesting the idea of core knowledge, for example.

        Yes, I agree scholarship is probably the key word for common understanding. Would this necessarily mean opposing academic to vocation?

        How we conceptualise music comes into all this. The new musicology sees it as a social-cultural-political practice rather than a set of objects that lead us out into the world. Music starts in the world.

      • This is a very interesting post and I agree with the fact that music is both academic and practical. Also with the fact that it is a lot like Maths and not only this, music embraces all aspects of life and almost all the subjects taught in schools. You can obviously experience this when you talk about sound waves in Physics, parts of the body for singing in Biology, chemicals used in music technology to preserve piano bodies and other musical instruments, music business and management, music production and engineering etc. Music is everything and it is vividly with no doubt, a very wide and unique subject that encompasses almost everything you can think about in our world of today.

  4. Found this blog interesting – thank you.

    I only studied Music at secondary school (a grammar school at the time) in Years 7 and 8, but I’ve always sung in choirs and I was reflecting as I drove home from a choral society rehearsal this week how what I learnt in my Music lessons has actually stood me in good stead ever since – just knowing things about time signatures, the values of musical notes, dynamics etc. Obviously this has been reinforced over the years through my experience in choirs, but the foundations were laid 40+ years ago! I can’t remember much from the other subjects I learnt at that time!

    • Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! I think many teachers, not just music teachers of course, often don’t think about the legacy of their lessons. What will be useful to their pupils in later life? Many music lessons emphasise the fun that can be had from making music and playing together, which is great, but surely they should leave something more. Otherwise, music will only be, as Mrs Krabappel might say, “one of their few pleasant memories when they’re pumping gas for a living”.

      • ‘Fun’ has come in for quite a bashing on Twitter – am sure you’re aware! I do see the benefits of making learning memorable and enjoyable but also see that first and foremost we need to focus on communicating content and developing understanding we think is worthwhile. Learning should come first, and the enjoyment/engagement needs to be a by-product of this rather than seen as an end in itself. What do you think?

        I like the idea of considering ‘legacy’. As a school leader (on different levels) I have thought about the legacy I wanted to leave when I moved on (especially as a head). Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the early years of teaching and whether the pupils I taught then (in the early 80s) will have remembered/benefited from what I taught them. (Am currently rereading my diary from 1983 when I was in my fourth year of teaching – it’s making me reflect!)

      • I agree! Learn first, the fun comes from achievement & challenge. It is easier, I think, when you teach in a school where the year 7s get excited if you tell them they are copying from the board for the lesson. But then it gets harder when they are year 10s and are taking music as their ‘fun’ option (aka the one they won’t bother to work in).

        Facebook has meant that I have been able to keep in touch with those I taught in 21st century at least. Their recollection of music lessons is very interesting! And I wish I’d had the discipline of keeping a diary when I was a new teacher.

      • I suspect beginning teachers nowadays use blogs in the same way as I used my diary – both to record my experiences but also to process them! Hope they can reread their blogs in 30 years’ time….

  5. I am really grateful for this post because it encapsulates so much of what I think about music as an academic subject but was too afraid to articulate. Like Jill Berry I studied music as a Key Stage 3 subject. In hindsight I wish I had taken music as a GCSE subject. However the knowledge of major and minor scales, time signatures, transposition and dynamics stayed with me whenever I was taking part in choirs or university orchestras. It has also helped me to try and listen more deeply and actively – when I listen to a piece of music I will listen to the various elements of the piece (melody, rhythm, harmony, bass, timbre) rather than just simply putting the music on in the background.

    Part of the problem with the ‘Bacc For The Future’ campaign was the rebranding of arts subjects as ‘creative subjects’. It is almost as if we are afraid to use the terms ‘arts and culture’. Labelling arts subjects as ‘creative’ was far too disparaging of mathematicians, scientists (natural and social), linguists and historians denying the role of creativity in their respective fields. Although arts subjects were included in the eight subject average point score, I cannot help thinking that the word ‘creative’ put off as many potential supporters as it attracted. Instead of using creativity as the sole foundation of the campaign it would have been much more beneficial to emphasise cultural literacy and living traditions as two better ones.

    I don’t know of a single music curriculum in the world which is planning to abandon composition and performance completely in favour of music theory. For any music qualification to be worth having as a subject it has to have a combination of both practical and theoretical aspects and avoid the polarities of the old O-level and CSE that you have described. It would be more constructive if people didn’t always view music theory from the cursed vantage point of ‘relevance’.

    • Thank you so much, Debashish. It’s nice to know that something gets through. It is wonderful being able to hear the structure and other features at a concert (although more of a problem when in a pub, restaurant or lift) and to recognise what you are playing or singing.

      I was initially a fan of the Ebacc, as I believe that most children should receive an academic education until the age of 16. I remember that before the list of subjects came out Michael Gove talked a lot about Music as if it was to be included. He was obviously talked out of it. Meanwhile set sizes are falling throughout the country in both GCSE and A level. I don’t think that was the intention but what could be done? I think you have it spot on with the label “culture” rather than “creative”. If the emphasis could change.

      Finally, I can see that we are singing from the same hymn sheet on ‘relevance’. My next post (unless some major report appears about music ed this week) will be about composing and it’s place or otherwise in exams. There’s a little teaser trailer right there.

      Thanks for reading.

  6. Thanks for this post! Lots to think about. I have a music degree, although I earned it through mainly as a musicologist and composer. Very little of what I did was musical in the sense of producing heard music. Even as a composer, many a tutorial would involve discussions of concepts rather than the actual sounds I was notating. So the sort of academic music you describe is perhaps much more about musicology than actual musical practice.

    Also, when people talk about the curriculum, is academia really what sets the bench mark? As I see it, Maths and English hold central positions because they are seen as fundamental to a persons employability. Although I have my own philosophy of music education, I feel like we are yet to really collectively define why we teach music in schools at all!

    I can recommend Stephanie Pitts’ ‘Chances and Choices’ – a great study of musical life histories in Britain over the last 60 years.

    • Thank you for reading. It really was a response to a perception of music as ‘non-academic’, with all that implies for the curriculum. And that is a hot topic in education at the moment. You don’t say if you are a teacher but my perception is that there is an emphasis on making the school experience a largely academic one for most children. I approve of that but include music in that academic experience, whereas many school leaders consider it part of a group of ‘creative’ or ‘soft’ subjects, more for spare time/extra curricular experiences than study.

      And I massively agree that we have yet “to really collectively define why we teach music in schools at all” – which would seem a valuable first step.

      Thanks finally for the book recommendation. I’m not normally drawn to books about music any more but I might give it a look.

  7. See also ‘The justification for music in the curriculum’ by Chris Philpott in Debates in Music Teaching, Routledge. Chris sets out ‘hard’ justifications in opposiition to ‘soft’ ones. Books about music and music education are good for the growth of mind and academe.

  8. Fabulous, and just right. I’ve been shouting this argument from the rooftops for years in my own schools, and have always used the Trinity website to show students that CU sees Music as academic. This is a post that should be seen by all secondary Heads!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s