Why read music education research?

17th November 2000 at 00:00
AS a first year tutor I welcomed undergraduate students starting their courses in primary school teaching each year. I always asked how many had learned an instrument when they were younger. A majority of hands would be raised. I then asked whether they would regard themselves as "musicians". Virtually every hand would be put down again.

I often pondered how learning a musical instrument could create such a shared perception of musical incompetence or disability. It may have been the question andor the public context in which it was asked ("What's the next question?" "Will I have to perform in front of this lot?"), but discussion usually revealed a concept of "musicians" as a small minority of highly skilled performers.

I was reminded of this when I read the news reports of the latest research for the Royal Society of Arts undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research: Arts Education in Secondary Schools.

Schools still fall short of the standards set by the best. Too often, pupils see music as for an elite. My own experiences as a primary school teacher and university lecturer indicate that such a limited view is inappropriate.

It is extremely rare to meet a child who is "unmusical", given an appropriate task and supportive environment. The research bears this out: everyone is capable of musical behaviour. At one year old we have some musical preferences. By five, we enter school attuned to musical scales and sensitive to harmonic structures. In adolescence, our musical tastes change and gender differences become more perceptible. We are surrounded by music in our ives. But not all educational experiences develop our potential.

Despite the Government's wish for education to be a research and evidence-based profession, the research is not really reflected in the new national curriculum for music. The text of the programmes of study is much more focused on teaching content, as exemplified throughout by the wording "pupils should be taught how to...". The wonderful world of individual musical development is not explicit. Small wnder the links between research and everyday practice are difficult for the busy classroom practitioner.

Yet research evidence is available to assist teachers,. The UK has one of the most active and gifted research communities in music education in the world. For example, recent research has reported that:

* secondary school music often has low status and teachers feel undervalued.

Cox, G (1999). "Secondary School Music Teachers Talking" Music Education Research 1 (1), 37-45).Tailor amp; Francis Journals. Tel: 01256 813000. www.tandf.co.ukjournals * success is more likely if secondary pupils are encouraged to demonstrate their feelings about the music.

Mellor, L (1999). "Language and Music Teaching: the use of Personal Construct Theory to investigate teachers' responses to young people's music compositions" Music Education Research 1 (2), 147-158) * gender preferences for certain instruments (girls for piano, flute, violin; boys for trumpet, guitar and drums) can restrict instrument choice, but these can be countered if teachers provide appropriate models.

Harrison, A C amp; O'Neill, S A (2000). "Children's Gender-Typed Preferences for Musical Instruments: An Intervention Study." Psychology of Music 28 (1), 81-97. Journal of the Society for Research in the Psychology of Music and Music Education. www.srpmme.u-net.com. E-mail: K.Burland@sheffield.ac.uk. Fax: 0114 266 8053.

* teachers may be misled by pupils' performance errors into teaching strategies that ignore pupils' complex musical understanding.

Brand, E (2000). "Children's Mental Musical Organisations as Highlighted by Their Singing Errors." Psychology of Music 28 (1), 62-80.

* music often serves as a means of "mood management" with positive benefits being reported from diverse locations , including the special needs classroom.

Savan, A (1999)."The Effect of Background Music on Learning." Psychology of Music 27 (2), 138-146.

Graham Welch

Professor Graham F Welch is chair of the Society for Research in the Psychology of Music and Music Education

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