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: