Reflections on Fifty Years of Reflections on Sound and Silence

On Wednesday 23rd June I attended a seminar, organised by B-MERG, entitled Paynter and Aston’s ‘Sound and Silence’: discussion and response. A tie-in with the 2019 book marking 50 years since publication of the original work, the session offered a few perspectives on the legacy of Paynter and Aston’s book, as well as some discussion of its relevance today. It was a fantastic seminar, and I haven’t really stopped thinking about it since.

Sound and Silence has always been a key text that has shaped my views on musical education. The perfect cocktail of whole-class music-making, projects with such exciting, unknown possibilities, and the overall framing around the thought-processes emerging from 20th Century art music, is one I’ve always found to be intoxicating. My training at Birmingham City University modeled many of the, for want of a better term, ‘ways of musicking’ discussed in the book, and I’ve always held a strong belief that ‘good music education’ should look at lot like the projects detailed in the original book. As such, over the course of the seminar, I was both inspired by the contemporary context that these ideas were given, but also filled with conflicting thoughts on my own practice.

The first speaker was Gary Spruce, whose short presentation situated the ‘dialogical’ forms of music making espoused by the book within current thinking around music curricula. Spruce eloquently summarised the most powerful concepts from the text; namely the focus on process over product, the teacher as mediator, and how we define what creativity is, or might look like, in the projects described. Rightly, the essence of the book was presented in stark contrast to what is currently valued in our education system, namely ‘cultural capital’, and ‘powerful knowledge’.

I am totally on board with Spruce’s arguments that these terms prioritise the western classical tradition as the dominant mode of discourse, and wrongly suggest a focus on amassing of factual knowledge above all other forms, but I wonder how useful it is to present Sound and Silence as a challenge to these trends (even though it definitely is). In my setting, as part of a recent review of our curriculum, I feel I’ve been able to, in a sense, ‘redefine’ the use powerful knowledge and cultural capital, to align with my own philosophies around music education. In my programmes of study, powerful knowledge is knowledge of music (as opposed to that), taught and learnt through the dialogic process espoused in Sound and Silence. Similarly, in my department, cultural capital, though not explicitly defined, is considered as knowledge of the authentic working practices of musicians from across the globe, i.e., students gain this cultural capital through performance and composing activities, akin to those found in ‘real’ music making, and related creative pursuits (and, most importantly, found in Sound and Silence). That’s what I’ve decided those terms mean, and we act accordingly. Is this useful? Should I rage against the machine, and reject the assumed notions inherent in these terms, or should I present an interpretation of them that builds the most musical culture in my school? I was left wondering on this for some time after the seminar (I’m still wondering).

After Spruce’s comments left me questioning everything I’ve ever done in the classroom (a not-uncommon occurrence in my life), after hearing Chris Philpott, I was able to give myself a break. Philpott’s breakdown of the different types/modes of creativity in music, alongside a discussion of the tensions between them all, was enlightening and fascinating. Since ‘curriculum reform’ has become the focus of much of the work in my school, I have questioned my decisions to develop ‘different types of creativity’ across KS3 on a sometimes hourly basis. I was reminded that we, as educators, should be constantly reevaluating our teaching, our decisions about what and how to teach. Philpott presented a ‘sort of’ linear progression from Type 1 to Type 5 (as explained in the latest book), but I was able to identify with my own evolving notions of creativity in my teaching. We are all on a journey with our thinking around these issues, and that’s good.

Finally, John Finney presented an impassioned plea to consider the importance of a child’s agency in the music education we provide for young people. It was heartwarming to hear the creative process described in such a way, namely as ‘a conversation’, which is in some ways contrary to so much that is promoted about ‘good teaching’ from our current ‘overlords’ in government. This, alongside the description of BCU (my own PGCE training provider) as ‘keeping the flame alive’ for this kind of music education, was both uplifting and timely.

Reflecting on my own practice, the self-flagellating part of my psyche was left pining for the pre-COVID days, when music education in my department looked a bit more like ‘the ideal’ that I was taught at the beginning of career as a teacher. Though my department is far from where I want it to be, I shouldn’t be too hard on myself; the trying circumstances of the last two years have presented insurmountable challenges, and I’m fortunate to have made as much music with young people as I have. Teachers are too self-critical.

Looking forward, as I move from current school to a new country, and a new education system, I am left determined to promote and embody the music education described in Sound and Silence wherever possible. Both books are inspirational. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to hear them discussed, and I’m so pleased I’ve carved out the time to think carefully about them, 11 years after first reading Paynter and Aston’s masterpiece.


Model Music Curriculum

This week, the long-awaited model music curriculum was published. Having spent most of the week browsing the fallout on social media, I’ve just finished reading the secondary schools’ section of the actual document.

I have many thoughts, but, in truth, I’m not sure any of it really matters.

Defenders of the document will point to the text’s strong inference that ‘proper’ (weekly, non-carousel) music provision is essential for schools wishing to be awarded an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted. In truth, this was evident from the ‘broad and balanced’ rhetoric that has been flying around for some time. Many schools have already responded to this, so, great?

As important as it is to hear that ‘kids should have music lessons’ (in a guidance document that no-one has to follow), if the music lessons subsequently outlined in the document are lacking, the then value of the big ‘takeaway’ is undermined. The rest of the document matters too.

Our subject’s position as a viable GCSE subject is dire; I’m not sure of the exact statistics, but on average only 5-10% of a cohort will elect to study Music at KS4. In my opinion, the overriding message of the model curriculum is ‘you know the ol’ music curriculum that yields a class of about 15 kids out of an average cohort? That is the curriculum you should be doing‘. While reading the document, my heart sank as I came to this realisation.

I guess it is a question of perspective, and, based on the dialogue online, a question of repertoire (and notation). The document contains a lot of what to teach (yes, I know, suggestions, but teachers are time poor so many will stick to the list), and less about how to teach it. My reading is that pedagogy is missing in the new model music curriculum.

Let’s deal with the what first. The ‘old’ national curriculum was a framework on how to teach Music, the idea being that you select the content based on your context. Ideas such as the ‘local curriculum’, as well as teacher expertise, and many other factors, then come into play. I understand lots of teachers ask ‘what to teach’, but I wonder whether a better solution would be to provide a framework for curriculum design (key questions, considerations, etc.), rather than a somewhat arbitrary and non-transferable list of pieces, essentially labelled as ‘do this’.

In some contexts, the works presented would probably work well. The document states that we must adapt the MMC to our own context. It says ‘do it’, but none of the key questions as to how, or the potential processes involved, are investigated properly.

A range of works from different cultures are presented. Aside from the misspellings, wrong classifications and serious misjudgements (which others have described more eloquently than I ever could), I think the list does a disservice to non-Western musical traditions. My personal reading is that they are framed as ‘complementary’ to a fundamentally Western, notation-based Music curriculum. Again, in some contexts, this may be appropriate, but in others music from outside the ‘Western Classical Canon’ is the key to engaging young people with music in schools. The richness of non-Western music, and the power of music to enrich lives, engage students in wider social issues, and bring young people into an education system that isolates so many, is lacking in this document.

The repertoire discussion has dominated much of the discourse, but ultimately this question of ‘what to teach’ cannot be answered easily. I do fear that the required thinking around content is bypassed somewhat when a ‘list of works’ is presented in a document like this.

But pedagogy! After all, any song or work featured in the MMC could be taught brilliantly, or terribly. The pedagogical underpinning of music education, something that was a huge part of my training, and in my opinion, the ‘old’ national curriculum framework, is sorely missing from this guidance. How do you deliver this content to young people, in order to develop their musical knowledge and understanding. How do we perform/study/compose/listen to this music in order to securely embed the desired outcomes in our students? I don’t believe the how of music teaching is sufficiently explored in this document. Maybe this isn’t the purpose, but I fear for a world where a critical mass of music teachers follow this document and it becomes, without tweaking, ‘music in schools’. You can’t just say; ‘here is what they should know, use these resources, let us know how you get on’.

In addition to these concerns, the critiques of the ‘primary’ sections of the document worry me greatly. All of the above become moot if students are failed musically in the early years. I have seen little to suggest that this document provides a practical solution to the problems facing music education in primary schools. I do not have the required expertise to comment on this further, but others do, and what they have concluded concerns me nonetheless.

Maybe this document isn’t for me? My practice; the constant interrogating of my curriculum, and the regular iterations of both its pedagogy and content, suggest I don’t need this framework, and can simply use it as another tool through which I reflect on what music looks like in my school. However, there are many settings that will take this document, and attempt to reproduce it in the classroom. Though not the intention of the authors, this will happen, and I don’t think that will be very good.

Many will disagree with what I’ve written here, as I’ve seen multiple readings of the multiple versions of the MMC that we’ve all downloaded this week. I hope others feel, as I do, that critique is valid (maybe not mine specifically, but the concept in general). I think we can do better, with more nuance, more contextual understanding, and a stronger pedagogical underpinning.

This is what I think. I think.


Music I’ve Enjoyed: November 2020

There are two headline albums I’ve been listening to this month. On Bandcamp Friday I bought the vinyl of Sly5thAve’s The Invisible Man: An Orchestral Tribute to Dr. Dre. The vinyl hasn’t arrived yet, but the album has been playing constantly on my iPod. It has bags of nostalgia mixed with a really modern sound, great guest artists, and an overarching cohesion that really works. I know it is really famous (the vinyl is on its third repressing), but I’ve fallen in love with it this month.

Alongside this record, Mother Earth’s Plantasia, a cult album from the 70s by electronic pioneer Mort Garson, has been played a lot in the office throughout November. I rarely listen to music as I work, as I find it too distracting, but something about the timbres and structures on this record make me feel ‘warm’ (that’s the best adjective I can come up with, but I have no idea what it actually means). I consider my purchase of indoor plants, and my cultivation of a moustache for Movember, to be two events entirely unrelated to my enjoyment of this record, despite them both happening this month.

An honorary mention must go to Ayre, a 2004 song cycle by Osvaldo Golijov. Deliberately evocative of Berio’s ‘Folk Songs’, as a listening experience is intense, moving and memorable. The album page describes it as ‘a brilliant example of 21st-century cultural counterpoint’, which is pretty much spot on.

So instrumental hip-hop, electronic music from the 70s, and modern classical interpretations of Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian and Sephardic folk melodies and texts. Pretty standard listening for me this month.


A ‘stem’, in music production terms, is a (sub-)group of tracks from a mix. So the drums might be one ‘stem’ created from multiple tracks, or the vocals, or something else. Stems are a really useful teaching tool. In my experience, students have no idea how the music they listen to is created (or composer, or mixed, or distributed…) and our curriculum addresses this lack of knowledge.

I have a really good Year 9 lesson on Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, which I intend to blog about soon, but for now I want to let you know how to get stems (people ask me sometimes). There are some floating about the internet, but you can create your own. The website allows you to upload any mp3 and create stems from that. It uses a super-complicated algorithm, and the results aren’t perfect (you might need to play with the options to get the best stems), but it is a great starting point.

Create your stems using the website, upload the individual tracks into a Soundtrap project (or any DAW), and you have a great teaching resource:

  • Isolate drums/guitars/vocals if you are trying to learn the song
  • Remove parts to create a workable backing track
  • Use a set work, or piece from an area of study, and highlight different instruments to make musical features clearer
  • Use a teaching tool to show a range of musical features in context.
  • Use a stem (or two) as the basis of a remix task
  • Show the effects of mixing, or other ‘music tech’ concepts

The list goes on! Just muting and soloing different stems allows students to see music in completely new way – it is very powerful, and not something I’ve seen used elsewhere.

‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga, split into seven tracks for use as a teaching resource

I hope you find this idea useful, please try it out in your lessons. If this changes your life, please consider buying me a coffee to support my blog. Thanks!


Google Meet Feature – Tab Audio

My last post detailed a few tips for live lessons during lockdown. In the forthcoming Music Teacher Magazine resource I talk at length about the difficulties ‘sending’ audio to students. The latest feature addition to Google Meet has (partially solved) this problem. Sharing ‘a chrome tab’ while presenting during a Google Meet allows the audio to be sent directly to students. As long as the audio you require can be pulled up in a chrome tab (Google Drive/YouTube/Spotify Web all work), students will receive the audio directly. This allows you to pause and talk over music clips, greatly enhancing the distance learning experience.

This addition to Google Meet was bundled in with the Zoom-like ‘grid’ view, which gained all the media attention. However, for my music lessons, the ‘tab audio’ feature has made a much more meaningful difference.

I made a video describing and demonstrating the new feature for the staff at my school. It is shared here.

Distance Learning: 10 Tips for ‘Live Lessons’

This week I’ve been writing a resource for Music Teacher Magazine, concerning ‘live lessons’, i.e. video conferencing with students, in the hope of teaching them some stuff.

I’ve thought long and hard about structuring and delivering my live lessons, particularly with my Year 12 class, and I have had positive feedback from both students and staff thus far.

The forthcoming music teacher resource dives into the pedagogical and structural considerations of these lessons in more detail, but ahead of publication I’ve extracted ten short ideas that have really helped my own adjustment to delivering lessons from a distance.

  1. Use the chat function in your conferencing software. Whole class feedback can become a nightmare if all students are speaking, so using the chat function allows for a more controlled approach when gathering student ideas. Remember that you can reply by speaking, instead of typing in the chat (for some reason I constantly fall into this trap).
  2. Use an online interactive whiteboard. Google Jamboard is currently free for G Suite users (you may need to get your IT admin to enable it first), but a Google search for ‘online interactive whiteboard’ will yield a multitude of usable alternatives. I’ve used these tools for short retrieval tasks at the beginning of lessons, asking students to post short ideas from a listening task, or as a collaborative essay planning tool.
  3. Embrace the silence. When you share your screen, you students aren’t visible (and mine are usually muted if I’m delivering content). Talking to your computer while presenting a PowerPoint or Google Slide to seemingly no-one is a very strange experience. Remember to slow down, strive for clarity, repeat salient points, and trust in your ability to teach the students what they need to know.
  4. Pre-lesson listening. Playing music for students mid-lesson in anything like decent quality is nigh-on impossible without specialist equipment. For me this is the one of the biggest departures from my normal way of teaching. Sending out specific listening tasks to students ahead of time has really helped bridge the gap. The lesson can begin with some discussion of the listening, before you teach the related content.
  5. Give students a list of things to prepare. On a purely logistical level, sending out of list of things for students to have open/in front of them can really help the lesson flow. This list could include: pen, paper, instrument, certain PDFs/websites/Spotify playlists/YouTube videos, etc.
  6. Sort your browser tabs in advance. Flapping and frantically searching for the correct site/listening clip/presentation is not good; for you or your students. Order your tabs in advance, or if there are too many to keep track of, produce a list of clearly labelled links in a document, ensuring that if you need to find something, you are always returning to the same place to look.
  7. Be specific about track timings for mid-lesson listening. I’ve found an effective pattern of teaching to look something like this: teach a thing via Google Slides and talking, tell students to listen to <insert piece name here> from 01.34 to 04.56 in order to hear this in context, ask students to comment in the chat when they’ve done that and understood (or not), repeat to fade.
  8. Give yourself a break. The the nature of video conferencing gives the temptation to speak for an entire lesson, with students taking notes the whole time. Plan some time for students to complete some tasks independently, or in smaller groups, giving you time to regroup, address individual concerns, or just pop to the kitchen and make a cup of coffee.
  9. Change the schemes of learning. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented decisions; you might not do things the way you always have. As a case in point, I would usually be teaching Year 10 ‘Rhythms of the World’ from the OCR GCSE specification at this point in the year. The thought of my students not experiencing the Bhangra dance-off, the immersive Indian Classical Music lessons, the Israeli folk dance-off, singing Greek folk songs, and SAMBA, is simply too much for me to take. So, in discussion with my department, we’ve tweaked things. We are currently teaching film and video game music, which lends itself to distance learning (slightly) better than rhythms of the world. We can do lots of folk dancing when we get back to school.
  10. Wear headphones. Headphones will improve sound quality, of both the music you listen to, and your students’ voices (fidelity, maybe not quality). It will give you focus if you are trying to teach in a busy household. Encourage your students to do the same.

As I make clear in my piece for the magazine – we can’t be as musical as we are in the music classroom, the circumstances simply don’t allow for it. We just have to do the best we can for our students, and for subject, whilst also ensuring we are taking care of ourselves and the ones we love during these challenging times.

I wish you all the best with your distance learning; please comment below if you have any other suggestions, and feel free to contact me if you wish.


Teaching Set Works and Areas of Study

So, as requested, below is the PowerPoint I used in my session at the Expo today. I thought it was quite good:

Teaching Set Works and Areas of Study – Expo Presentation

There were three threads to my session:

  • The importance of a ‘knowledge-rich’ KS5 curriculum.
  • Lots of amazing ideas.
  • The key idea of pedagogical content knowledge, and music teachers being empowered to teach the curriculum in the way they see fit (we are the subject specialists, and we know best).

I really enjoyed talking to a small but appreciative crowd. More to follow.


Stupid things I do when teaching set works

This week I’m speaking at the Music and Drama Expo, and I’m really nervous. My session is entitled ‘A Practical Approach to Teaching Set Works and Areas of Study’. Here is my cool advertising banner:

KS5 Music.png

The title suggests I’ll be discussing practical ideas, and to a large extent I will be, but I’ll also be talking much more generally about my teaching philosophy when it comes to teaching set works (and why I love it so much).

So, in preparation, I’ve been auditing my A Level resources, and looking back over my lessons. What is more than apparent (and this won’t be a surprise if you ask my students), is that I do really really silly things when teaching set works. Some of my past ‘genius’ ideas have been:

  • Competitions to see which student can draw the best pictures of composers and/or instruments (set work related, obviously).
  • Idiotic true or false quizzes about composers (this one is particularly ‘good’, because ‘ten facts about Berlioz’ is false).
  • I once hid pictures of Henry from ‘Thomas and Friends’ under every chair. While studying ‘The Magic Flute’, students were asked to link the picture to the opera (i.e. the predominance on the number three in ‘The Magic Flute’, and Henry is the No. 3 engine). Shame on me.
  • This ‘quiz’ about pianos ahead of studying a work for prepared piano.
  • So. Many. Puns.

These aren’t particularly musical, so I won’t be mentioning them on Wednesday (there are some examples that are both stupid AND musical, but I’m saving them for the Expo).

I think there is value in things like this, as I just polled my students stupid things I’ve done, and they remembered more of them that I did. With so much content in Music A Levels students need a variety of ways of approaching set woks. They need something to ‘spark’ their long-term memory. If, when faced with John Cage in an exam, the thought of my stupid quiz helps them retrieve relevant information, then I’ve done something useful.

Speaking of John Cage, I think something of his mischievous nature spoke to me when I was preparing resources for this set work. I realised I’d given out a lot of sheets, and wider reading, and general bits and bobs. I set the ‘John Cage Selfie’ home learning task to ensure students took the time to review their learning. I asked students to post a photo of themselves, with a well-organised set of John Cage notes, on Google Classroom. Most did as intended, submitting photos like this:


The last submission I received was entitled ‘Paint me like one of your John Cage girls’ (a ‘Titanic’ quote, I believe). Knowing the student, and the list I’ve already mentioned, I supposed I should not have been quite so surprised to open this photo:


I wish you could see the expression on his face. At least he has a well organised set of John Cage notes ahead of his revision.

I wrote this post hoping to interest people in my session on Wednesday. I feel I may not have entirely achieved this goal…

See you Wednesday?


Posted in KS5

A quick idea – Saariaho Set Work and Sonic Pi

I think, I hope, that I’ve created simple and effective resource that goes some way to helping students engage in the Kaija Saariaho set work (Edexcel A Level Music).

Click here to access a small piece of code that runs in Sonic Pi, the free live-coding music synth that works great in schools.

Essentially it takes live sound as an input, and adds reverb and harmoniser effects akin to those in Petals, the set work. I’ve attempted to annotate the code below:


There are a few things to note:

  • You need to set your inputs and outputs up in Sonic Pi. It’s easy to do. It does work with laptop speakers and mic, but feedback is a problem. An audio interface with monitors is preferable (though feedback can still occur).
  • As mentioned in the picture, the harmoniser effect is subtle. Changing the numbers to other whole numbers adds more discernible intervals.
  • The effect doesn’t change over time like the Saariaho effects. If you can, change the dry/wet mix on your interface to create a ‘Saariaho-like effect’.

Though it seems complicated, essentially all you need to do need to do is open the code in Sonic Pi, run the code, and play an instrument. It does work!

All I do is set up a mic, and get students to come and play their instruments. They can play long and short notes, explore their range, as well as extended techniques. Any sound will work. They then hear the ‘processed’ sound live.

My students enjoyed this, and it helped them understand how the electronics were changing the sound of the ‘cello in the Saariaho set work. Feel free to use my little piece of code, and ask any questions if you need help setting it up. I hope it is useful!


Chrome Music Lab

The other day, I stumbled across Chrome Music Lab, a series of musical ‘experiments’ compiled by Google. At first it seems like a bit of frivolous fun, perhaps worthy of a few minutes of your time. However, I think there is a little more to it than that. Here are a few ways in which I’ve used these little trinkets in my lessons.

First up is the Spectogram, a ‘picture’ of sound. It shows the frequencies that make up a particular sound, and how it changes over time. An understanding of the harmonic series is essential for any music technology enthusiast, and this is a neat way of showing what frequencies are present in different sounds. You can use the presets (which include the trombone, for bonus points), or use a microphone to analyse a sound of your choice. An additional resource for explaining the harmonic series is Harmonics; I’ve used this in conjunction with the Spectrogram when teaching the the Kaija Saariaho set work, and discussing spectralism with my A Level students.

For more on sound waves, Oscillators, Strings and Sound Waves all offer visual representations of some of the fundamentals of acoustics. Chords and Arpeggios offer analytical and composition tools that could work with any year group. Kandinsky is weird, but really fun.

Rhythm was the first thing I clicked on when exploring this website, and I recommend you spend some time with this ‘app’. There are four ‘rhythm grids’ that you can manipulate (though unfortunately you can’t change the tempo), roughly corresponding to classical percussion, a rock drum kit, latin percussion, and African percussion. On the surface it is a bit twee, but I think this part of the site has many uses. For example, you can demonstrate the cross-rhythms in 12/8 Ghanaian drumming, you can approximate the polyrhythms of cuban son and other latin styles, you can show the essential elements of a rock drum beat, and show that orchestral percussion is actually pretty cool, especially when played by cartoon monkeys.

Sometimes we just need to look at things from different angles, to get the penny to drop with a particular class or student. Bookmark the Chrome Music Lab, and the next time you need to explain a chord, rhythm, music tech concept, or something else, it might just do the trick.