Music as a Modern Foreign Language

A magical harmonic connection between all humans.

Music is a means of expression – it is a language. Anyone who’s seen a toddler dance at a wedding knows that we are born with an innate basic feel for music, just as we are sympathetic to the soothing tone of a lullaby, or can sense excitement or anxiety in a tone of voice alone. Music is universal.

Here, a group of Amazon tribesmen are watching Maria Callas sing Casta Diva:

The young warrior says:

“This music is not our culture. We do not know what it means. We can only watch and listen. But it is touching.”

Just like Modern Foreign Language teachers, music educators’ main goals are to help students to develop their listening and expressive abilities.

What is a tone, if not a word? What is a musical phrase, if not a sentence? By composing pieces with multiple sections, we are creating arguments, expressing more complex thoughts. A change from major to minor key is a twist in the plot – creative writing in a foreign language.

This post is supposed to ask the question ‘Is media-rich technology the answer for music education?’

Well, I will ask the question: ‘Is it the answer for teaching a foreign language?’

Let’s suppose I’m teaching Italian in a British high school. I want to do some listening exercises, so I play a CD so my students hear authentic accents. Is it appropriate?

I want to show my class the wonderful architecture of Rome, but we don’t have the budget for a school trip. So we watch a video on YouTube. Is it any less informative?

We have a writing assignment, but instead of using pen and paper, I take the class to the computer room so they can type it up instead. Is this any less educational?

If the teacher has a learning goal in mind, and technology is used appropriately to reach that goal, then I don’t believe it can possibly be detrimental.

I think that through the lens of a Western Art-Music based curriculum, the use of GarageBand to compose could be seen as somewhat flimsy.

But consider two students:

  • one composes a dubstep track, builds the tension carefully, and creates an exhilarating ‘drop’ at just the right time.
  • another composes a simple melody on paper, puts chords under it and ends in a final perfect V-I cadence.

Is either of these a more valid expression than the other? Is one more difficult than the other? The second is more intellectually rigorous through a traditionalist lens.

But will that student go home and spend hours writing 2 bar melodies? I think the first student is more engaged and excited, and she may even go on to learn about chord progressions and cadences of her own accord.

Carlisle (2013) found that the use of handheld technology in the Music room can:

  • scaffold students’ musical learning – through haptic and visual feedback on pulse, pitch etc
  • enhance self expression – for example by bringing exotic instruments into the classroom
  • enhance timbral relationships – providing a wide range of instrumental timbres with which to practise listening and composition

I believe that the appropriate use of technology in Music education is undeniably a good thing. Currently, 95% of students quit music education at their first opportunity. I believe this is a symptom of a backwards-looking, exclusive system, and that it’s our duty to serve these students better.

As audiovisual technologies improve, I hope they will be incorporated more widely to inspire these students to continue to speak the language of Music, and make that universal, magical connection more harmonious.



Carlisle (2013) Handheld Technology as a Supplemental Tool for Elementary General Music Education. General Music Today. Vol. 27 Issue 2, 2014.


Learner-Led Approaches to Music Teaching

“Talent is a pursued interest. In other words, anything that you’re willing to practise, you can do.” – Bob Ross

Each of our students is unique. When it comes to music, some students live for it, some can take it or leave it. A tiny minority never listen to music for recreation. Bob Ross says that talent is a pursued interest. So the question is, how do we teach it in a way that interests and engages every student?

A traditional approach focuses on reading score, critical listening and revolves around Western art music. A more modern approach will include some of these elements, and focus on popular music, often with teacher-prescribed songs and materials.

But what about incorporating informal learning skills into the classroom? Trying to replicate that phenomenon of young bedroom musicians learning their favourite songs by ear, playing together with friends and thus engendering a virtuous cycle of musical development?

Musical Futures is an organisation that helps schools provide ‘learner-led’ opportunities to make music. Students choose their friend groups, a song they wish to learn, their instrumentation and get to work. In this model, the teacher provides modelling, on-the-fly tutoring and feedback rather than handing out worksheets or pointing at staves.

Hallam, Creech & McQueen (2017) conducted a three-year survey of 733 students and 28 Music teachers who had embraced and implemented the Musical Futures model. The results showed an overall improvement in student attainment:

Teachers reported that all students were more engaged when they chose their own pieces to learn:

“The independence that students were given and the opportunities that they had for working on projects of their own choosing were seen as important in supporting progress particularly for those who the teachers described as moderate and lower attaining students and boys.”

My own experience of curating musical material for a whole class has often led to a mixed reaction from my students. With younger years, this tends to manifest in a boy-girl divide, with some songs favoured more strongly by one group or the other. So I can see how a learner-led model would be universally beneficial in terms of engagement.

However, the study also identified at least one disadvantage:

“…some teachers expressed concern that Musical Futures was not meeting the needs of those pupils who they perceived had high level traditional musical skills.”

In these circumstances, the researchers suggest to assign the more talented students to a new instrument, or encourage them to take a leadership role within the friend group.

Lamont & Maton (2008) suggested an ‘elite code’ which contributed to low uptake of Music in later study (GCSE in the UK). This is an unsurprising effect of rigid traditional teaching, where weaker students believe they aren’t ‘musical’ from an early age, and this lack of confidence leads to poor performance throughout their curriculum experience.

I believe that, in the hands of a willing and able Music teacher,  a learner led approach will give these students confidence and enrich their musical and personal lives, as well as encouraging the further development of more gifted students. And what’s more, if students can choose music that’s important to them, making music is more likely to become a pursued interest, another string to their bow, a talent.



Bob Ross – The Joy Of Painting (TV Series)

Hallam, S., Creech, A., & McQueen, H. (2017). Can the adoption of informal approaches to learning music in school music lessons promote musical progression? British Journal of Music Education,34(2), 127-151. doi:10.1017/S0265051716000486

Lamont, A., & Maton, K. (2008). Choosing music: Exploratory studies into the low uptake of music GCSE. British Journal of Music Education, 25(3), 267-282. doi:10.1017/S0265051708008103


Flow in the Music Classroom

I recently read Cain & Walden’s paper  for the British Journal of Music Education entitled Musical diversity in the classroom: Ingenuity and Integrity in sound exploration and found it quite inspirational. The study they carried out involved highlighting the practises of 5 passionate music educators who are successfully integrating music from other cultures into their typically western-focused curricula.

A passage that jumped out at me was this, from Jane – one of the teachers interviewed. She set up an ensemble based on African percussion, interspersed with storytelling:

. . . they don’t have to read music, they don’t have to know anything about music. They get to hit things . . . You’ve got some kids who come in believing they are not going to engage and then they come out at the end of it with a performance. They can be on stage, they can celebrate that learning; their parents can come in and watch them and go, ‘Wow!’

I think the way Jane describes the student’s experience is perfect – he or she goes in with some expectation, and all of a sudden the lesson has flown by and they have achieved something. I think everyone can relate to this, as the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun.

This is the feeling formally identified by Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ model (1992). This describes nine components of enjoyment you may feel when pursuing a hobby or leisure activity:

  • there is no worry of failure
  • there are clear goals every step of the way
  • there is immediate feedback
  • distractions are excluded from consciousness
  • there is a balance of challenge and skill
  • self-consciousness disappears
  • sense of time becomes distorted
  • action and awareness are merged
  • the activity becomes autotelic (worth doing for its own sake)

Any musicians will recognise each one of these from their musical life. Some people get these from snowboarding or reading literature, but no matter the activity involved, if you’re in a state of flow, it feels great. It’s rewarding and fulfilling, and in the case of music, you often have something to take away at the end – a composition or recording – something that you created.

Reading through Cain & Walden’s paper, I get the feeling that each teacher interviewed is working to create environments that are conducive to flow. It got me thinking about how I can plan my spaces and lessons to do the same thing.

After doing a little more research, I found that one factor seems to be the crux – the balance of challenge and skill. When working with groups of differing abilities, a teacher instinctively differentiates tasks – setting more reachable tasks for weaker students, and more challenging extensions for early finishers etc. This is certainly a recurring theme in Cain & Walden’s paper.

There is a wide range of emotions and states that can be realised through this simple balance. Massimini & Carli (1998) expressed this very finely in the figure reproduced below.

Here, we see how flow can be achieved by pitching a high challenge to a highly skilled student, and boredom if you issue the same student a moderate challenge. This much is obvious from common sense, but the spectrum of emotions and states – worry, anxiety, apathy, relaxation – is shown here in a way I find very useful.

While I think it is possible to engender flow in classroom practise, and try to do so for every student, the real challenge remains in assessment. Music assessment often leads to a system where ‘correctness is being rewarded rather than creativity’ Sheridan & Byrne (2002). Is there an assessment model that is compatible with flow, engagement and creativity in the music classroom? Feel free to share your thoughts below.


Is Curriculum Content?

This piece is intended as a research-based reaction to Professor Stephen Heppell’s opinion piece in the Financial Times, first published in July 2013 and available to read here.


Heppell’s article states his opinion on the economic impact of traditional vs a more creative system of education, and argues for the empowerment of institutions, teachers and communities over a one-size-fits-all government-issued national curriculum.

Learning to Learn

The first assertion made in the article is that independent learning, or ‘learning to learn’, is a more effective and beneficial method than the traditional rote learning methods employed throughout recent history.

If the benefits of independent learning aren’t immediately apparent, then they are empirically shown in research by the Higher Education Academy and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).

Anthony McClaran, Chief Executive of the QAA states:

” Independent learning is critical to students achieving at the level demanded by higher education, and developing the skills and mind set employers value.”

Moreover, the study showed the benefits of technology and data-rich analytics within an independent learning context:

” The increasing use of website analytics and monitoring of student interactions allows us to identify patterns of behaviour and intervene when students are perceived to be at risk of failing or withdrawing.” (Open University)

The success of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) over the last decade or so is another illustration of the benefits of technology in education on a worldwide scale.

Economic Impact

But what effect does investment in education have at a national level? Professor Heppell claims that although “much else contributed too,” Hong Kong and Singapore’s shift to viewing education spending as an “investment” rather than a “cost” had a positive effect on their Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

This is a somewhat tenuous claim, as there is no strong evidence to suggest that an increased investment in education overall has a positive effect on GDP. Harvard research describes the evidence of a link as ‘fragile at best.’

This is partly because more wealthy nations can afford to invest more in education and continue to see their GDP rise, so this correlation is a “false causality” (Bills and Klenow, 2000).

The research concludes that some kinds of educational spending tend to positively affect a country’s wealth, namely investment in technological research and innovation.

Traditional vs New Schools

The next part of the article praises the UK Government’s proliferation of diverse schools, such as Free Schools and Academies. These schools have much more freedom to teach as they wish in many subjects. Heppell describes them as:

“…precisely what is needed for the kind of vibrant learning communities where exploration and experimentation are integral.”

This may be so, and I am inclined to agree from subjective experience, but the data we have does not show a significant improvement in performance of these schools as opposed to local authority schools (who must adhere rigidly to a content-based curriculum).

In fact, given the freedom to stray from much of the curriculum, research shows that many Academies are reticent to take advantage of the apparent benefits:

” A 2014 survey of academies by DfE found that 87% say they are now buying in services previously provided by the Local Authority from elsewhere, 55% have changed their curriculum, 8% have changed the length of their school day and 4% have changed their school terms.”

While the majority of services have been found elsewhere, only half the schools have changed their curriculum. It is unclear if these schools are ‘testing the waters’ – perhaps they will become more bold in their choices in the future.

As far as results go, there is no statistical difference either:

” The analysis found that the differences in school GCSE performance between sponsored academies that have been open for between 2 and 4 years and a group of similar maintained schools were generally small and mostly not statistically significant.” (National Foundation for Educational Research)


There’s no question that acquiring the skill of independent learning is of paramount importance for anyone; formal student or otherwise.

In my opinion, examining the education sector purely through an economic lens is reductive – and it remains a slippery question even for economic researchers. Educational institutions benefit societies and individuals in boundless different ways, not only by generating wealth.

Educators should be given freedom to teach creatively and passionately, but the evidence above from Academies and Free Schools shows that, in the UK at least, society is currently unwilling or unable to run with that freedom.

Heppell argues that more freedom should be given to “the schools, the teachers, the parents and the children” but how would that look in practise?

Free Schools have existed for 8 years, and still there is no clear evidence of their superiority. Either we need to enhance the way we measure success, or wait to see the evidence over forthcoming years. Granting further freedoms at this point could be ineffective, or worse; detrimental.