Understanding music at a higher level involves a sense of chronology of how music has developed over time. This used to be taught explicitly but now has been replaced with topics being inserted throughout with no sense of the overarching scheme of how it all fits together. I will try to now explain why this is problematic.
The subject that has been most dissected in the past has been History. My chronological knowledge of History is so poor because I have no idea how it all fits together. I know certain epochs are from ancient history and some old and some more recent but really that is it. The only dates I learned were 1066 and 1914-1918 and I know I am not alone in my ignorance.
A number of years ago I did a course on how the Bible fits together from Creation to New Creation and it was a complete revelation if you pardon the pun! Stories I knew and thought I understood actually made some sense when put in an overarching narrative of how the God of the Israelites worked through history to the present day through a system of promises, signs and covenants. It actually made some sort of logical sense for the first time, even though I had been a regular church-goer for many years.
In music, most people do not know the different periods of musical history and in a drive to become more “relevant”, now study predominantly 20th and 21st Century curriculum. If you think that I am being unfair here, read the 2013 Ofsted Report into music education Music Hubs – What Schools Must Do. Here is a quote from the really damning report:
Classical music, as a serious component of the curriculum, was treated as a step too far in most of the primary and secondary schools surveyed, at least until Key Stage 4. It was felt by teachers and leaders to be too difficult or inaccessible for pupils. This reluctance created an unnecessary gap in pupils’ musical and cultural education.
So when should we start to show that music has developed through time? I would argue the time to start this is in Key Stage 2. In Key Stage 1 the priority must be rhythm and pitch, texture, timbre, tempo, structure and dynamics to understand how music is made before moving on to when it was made. I think the chronology should be referred to explicitly throughout Key Stage 2 but I would put a specific mini course at the end of Year 6 to show how it all fits together. All children should be able to know by the age of 11 that there is a tradition of Western notated music from the Medieval Period to the present day. They should know about the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic and a little about the 20th and 21st Centuries. I would probably leave much of the 20th Century to Key Stage 3 as you cannot make any sense of the variety of music in these periods without a solid understanding of reactions to Romantic music, particularly the composer Wagner.
The worry most teachers have is that this could be incredibly dry and uninspiring. It does not have to be that way whatsoever but does need a shift away from entertainment to actual learning. If we are to help our secondary colleagues we need to prepare the children they inherit for a curriculum that will require a more robust theoretical and academic approach. That is if we are to take the Ofsted music report seriously and actually engage with its recommendations.