Commentary: Preserving curriculum music in school, Part 2

Robert Bunting
Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Part one of Robert Bunting's article (MT January, p.40) explored the problems of making music work as part of the national curriculum. In Part two, he suggests some ways of solving those problems to produce a three-dimensional curriculum and a challenging, rewarding and enjoyable classroom experience for all our pupils.


In the second part of this commentary, I will cover teaching and learning themes, three curriculum issues, and ways forward for music education.

Teaching and learning themes

Developing the inner ear

One element much neglected, but absolutely key in teaching and learning music, is developing the inner ear. The MMC (model music curriculum) deserves respect here because it does mention this, but only in terms of ‘aural memory’. There's much more than that to imagining music in the mind. For instance, consider its role in improvising, playing by ear, reading notation, or planning a composition. Young people are capable of far more aural ability than we give them credit for. With a bit of steady, careful teaching, everyone in the class can memorise a song or instrumental piece, improvise with imagination and purpose, and even think through a whole composition in their heads. Once they've bitten the bullet, they don't find it hard; and it transforms their musicianship.


Another core ingredient is a hard-working shared vocabulary that describes the technical features of music in non-technical language. This is an important tool for building understanding. A vocabulary of this sort unifies the curriculum because it can cover everything from singing a song to composing or improvising, and it relates well to detailed discussion of recorded or live music.

What sort of vocabulary? Well, not ‘crotchets’ and ‘ternary form’. Here are some examples: foreground and background; beginnings and endings; regular and irregular; tone colours (dark, bright, shrill, mellow); sustained, cut-off and ringing-on sounds, and so on. A well-thought-through vocabulary is a precious learning tool. It needs to be taught patiently, layer on layer – the language used repeatedly in performing, composing and listening, in talking, reading and writing, reenforced by movement and graphics until it becomes internalised as a firm shared conceptual basis for understanding and communicating.

Design processes

Composing is an essential part of the curriculum, but it's a tricky area. Teachers have to be able to enter into the processes of composing, so that they can say, ‘you could do better than that, and here's how’. Without that, there's no challenge, no demand for excellence; and that's what young people value most in their schooling.

We can achieve this through defining composing as a ‘design’ process. This is a set of objective, rigorous processes: experimenting, inventing, decision-making, planning, problem-solving, completing, presenting, evaluating, and beyond these, interpreting the brief and identifying the intended audience. They're skills you can take ownership of, get better at – skills that can be taught.

Most important, the design approach isn't just for composing; it's another thing that unifies the curriculum. Design thinking can enrich our approach to performing – for example, planning a presentation (as encouraged by the MMC) calls for all those processes. We might even use the design approach to open up that much neglected area: close purposeful listening. Here again the MMC deserves respect for making the listening repertoire the very heart of the curriculum, although it doesn't quite recognise what a rich field of learning this might open up.

Cultural understanding

In the words of the Ofsted research review's ‘three pillars’, we can learn the techniques of playing djembe drums, understand the music's rhythmic construction, and sense its expressive power. But can we fully understand the music if we don't know its culture? Who created it? How do its listeners respond? Does it have a social purpose? (For djembe, to ‘mark the dancers’ feet’ and ‘to gather everyone together in peace’).

The review does acknowledge the importance of cultural understanding but tucks it away in a corner as just one part of the ‘expressive’ pillar. The MMC sets out a vast cultural range of listening but doesn't seem to recognise the teaching involved in unpacking music's varied cultural roles. This is a fascinating field, which is increasingly important in the current climate, and there's not space here to do it justice. It is really a separate fourth pillar, deserving of a new article all to itself.


Three curriculum issues


An essential task of any curriculum is to pass on established skills, knowledge and understanding in a clear progression of learning. But if (as in the MMC) the progression covers just theory, notation, and instrumental technique, it's sterile. Expressive response is important and, even more so, is cultural understanding.

However, teaching three-dimensionally means broadening and slowing down the progression. The progression prescribed by the MMC is over-rapid and unrealistically ambitious. To truly understand the music they study in terms of expressiveness, culture, construction and technique, young people need to experiment, explore and question the knowledge they're being offered; and this takes time. We must learn not to hurry. Learning processes in music are extended and long-term.

For instance, why should all pupils by the end of Year 9 be expected to ‘use primary chords in a number of keys and embellish these with bass lines, melodies and rhythmic accompaniment’ (MMC p.37)? In my view, there's really no need to embark on any formal study of chord sequences and harmonising before the beginning of Year 10. At that point, students will learn much more quickly, having developed a good aural imagination and gained a thorough understanding of concepts such as scales and melodic shape in previous years.

Slowing down allows young people the time they need to fully internalise such complex technical concepts as pulse, pitch, scale, metre, harmony – aurally as well as intellectually, expressively and culturally. Slowing down is also essential because it gives the teacher time to pay attention to the learning and progress of every individual.


Planning is an absolutely crucial issue, as all thinking about the curriculum is built on a particular strategy for planning. The current assumption is that our teaching will be divided into six-week sealed-off ‘Units of Work’. In my experience, these units leave no room for individual work, meaning that everything is done in a rush. They make it harder to consolidate previous learning, and make thorough learning, honest assessment, and true progress impossible. We need to plan so that pupils can return to the same ideas and skills again and again over a long period of time – years rather than weeks – learning as individuals, thinking, questioning, consolidating and extending their skills and understanding in different contexts (all of this is in the Ofsted review).

So, the scheme of work should be driven by one, or at most two, strong simple learning themes for each school year (just as examples: a whole year's work on Variations, Dance Rhythms, or Sound and Image). Within this over-arching structure of slowly absorbed understanding and skill, there's room for any number of different ‘units’; they might last anything from a couple of weeks to a whole term or more, but they are always linked to the over-arching theme. There's a clear long-term sense of direction; pupils will be aware of a powerful underlying drive, moving steadily from whole class through to group and individual work as the year goes on.

I know some school leaders will have strong objections to this fluid, long-term approach, but demanding to see individuals ‘progress’ every six weeks in every subject is just wrong. It's one of the major obstacles to effective teaching and learning in music. We have to be realistic: every subject needs to work at its own pace, developing its own approach to planning and assessment. Ofsted acknowledges this, and some school leaders are beginning to accept it.

The primary curriculum

One mighty issue looms beyond all the others: the primary music curriculum. Again, let's be realistic. Music will always be a challenging subject to teach. For most schools, it simply won't be possible to provide a structured early-years-to-Year-6 progression taught consistently by musically skilled people. CPD and published schemes of work have their limitations, and external agencies often offer only sporadic enrichment.

To propose building a curriculum on such foundations (as the MMC does) is well-intentioned, but it's wishful thinking. In fact, it leaves us with the same problem we as a profession have ignored for over 60 years.

Getting this right is the biggest single challenge we face. I believe that primary curriculum music needs to be rethought from the ground up to make it teacher-friendly. It will inevitably have to be quite different from secondary in content, ethos and approach. For instance, expressiveness and cultural meanings will be far more important than musical construction and performing technique. In all likelihood, a whole bundle of new values, processes and strategies would be needed.

Ways forward

Before we even begin to rethink the curriculum as a whole, we need to be clear about the sort of teaching it should be built on. In this article I've identified four oft-neglected approaches to teaching and learning that, in some cases, just need some fresh thinking and loving care:

  • The inner ear
  • A working, growing descriptive vocabulary
  • Design processes
  • Cultural understanding

A single teacher (or a group) could develop just one of these, with just one class, over a term or two. Over time, bringing them all together would form the basis of a fully-fledged three-dimensional curriculum.

I've also identified three larger-scale curricular themes:

  • Progression
  • Long-term planning
  • Primary curriculum

These are essential issues in building a curriculum, but are quite major ones which need continued and extensive discussion and debate. Many music educators and organisations around the UK are currently involved in discussions and projects based on these themes.

Building a network

Passionate though I still am about music education, I'm now retired from the profession. To develop teaching strategies and build a new curriculum are tasks for a younger generation, but I'd be more than happy to engage in setting up a network and exchanging ideas. If you're interested in developing in any of the directions I've outlined, or are already pursuing them, please do get in touch with me.

Ofsted's research review:


Readers can contact Robert at