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Music education as aesthetic education: a rethink

The Music Teachers Association's second collective blogging project continues with responses from teachers reflecting on the article by John Finney – ‘Music education as aesthetic education: a rethink’ (2002)

About this series

Dr Steven Berryman, Curriculum Lead for the Music Teachers Association (MTA), has launched a collective blogging project working with the editors of the British Journal of Music Education (BJME), Martin Fautley and Ally Daubney.

Martin, Ally and Steven have curated a selection of articles from the Journal highlighting some of the key debates in Music Education in the classroom.

Teachers have an article to read each week, and can submit a response by the end of the week. Responses are gathered together to form one blog post shared on MUSIC:ED.

Music education as aesthetic education: a rethink

Our second collective blogging project continues with responses from teachers reflecting on the article by John Finney – ‘Music education as aesthetic education: a rethink’ (2002).


The article uses methods of philosophical enquiry and historical research to clarify questions surrounding the epistemological basis for music education. It critically examines the idea of ‘music as aesthetic education’ in the context of evolving policy and practice within the English National Curriculum. It argues for broadening the concept of aesthetic education as a necessary antidote to an impersonal curriculum where an undifferentiated notion of knowledge distorts the character of goals, pedagogy and the valuing of musical endeavour. 


Lucy Poole

  • Teacher of Music, Cumnor House School for Boys. Doctoral research student with Professor Graham Welch at UCL Institute of Education – @LucyAPoole 

‘What is musical knowledge?’ 

Three key types of knowledge are: 

  1. Know that… factual knowledge 
  2. Know how… procedural/practical knowledge 
  3. Knowledge embodied… experiential knowledge 

The nature of a curriculum, its content and assessment styles, reveal which type of knowledge is valued. In turn, the type of knowledge which is valued most has enormous implications when developing a curriculum. Surely, of the three, knowledge as experience must be the most valuable within an aesthetic education and therefore ought to be at the centre of our curriculum? This is illustrated in Finney’s description of ‘to know the blues aesthetically’ (p. 132): to have knowledge of more than just the chords for the 12-bar blues sequence. By attuning our values to be more aesthetic and experiential in knowledge, we hope to encourage significant experiences for pupils through embodiment of their learning. 

The centrality of values in assessment 

What is assessed through the curriculum reveals the process of values – and the centrality of values. What is assessed is deemed valuable. But valuable to whom? Whose music is valuable enough to be included and should any be excluded? After all, not every piece of music could be given equal weighting even if Music were a core subject! 

Michael Gove famously claimed: 

‘Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding – intellectually, sensually and emotionally – than, say, the Arctic Monkeys’  

This unfortunate statement has absolutely no consideration for human experience or aesthetic value and demands to be questioned: what about gamelan? On what basis can a musical work be given value? Does any music not have social and political significance? If music is all so personal, how do we know what to put into a curriculum? Is it all equally good? 

Our ideas of value within music may be subjective, but subjective ideas can be shared to become inter-subjective and therefore become more valuable and more objective. There is no rule to say that Wagner is more beautiful than the Arctic Monkeys! 

With thanks to John Finney: inspiring me since my undergraduate days at Homerton, Cambridge in the 1990s and as a special guest lecturer for my MA at UCL, IOE in 2017 – the notes of which I have consulted to help me re-think music education once more.  

Lewis Edney

  • Director of Music, Bishop Wordsworth’s School @LewisEdney  

It took a fairly shallow dive into the concept of an ‘musical aesthetic education’ to bring about a fair amount of buzz words: musicality; fundamentals; prior knowledge; previous experience and National Curriculum (if I could include emojis I would use the angry orange face with &$!#% across the mouth).  

I am still undecided on which side of the fence I sit at when thinking about the National Curriculum for music. The blank canvas for us to paint our masterpiece or the complete void which offers so little guidance! I was very fortunate to have Ally Daubney as my guide for three years and have used the Assessment and progression framework, which she wrote with Martin Fautley for the ISM to accompany the National Curriculum, in my planning, and would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone who hasn’t already seen it.  

I was moved to read the article again this evening after the Music Teachers Association Zoom session where we discussed what September 2021 might look like. We will all be hoping to return to some form of normality, if anyone can still remember what that is, but I do hope that this experience will help me to improve my teaching and curriculum when we do. Finney was forced to evaluate his curriculum and its purpose by his school. We have been forced to change, adapt and move our curriculum online as the schools are closed, but I want to explore how we can use this to improve our pupils’ ‘experience’ in our musical classrooms going forward. 

The conversation of the genuine value and validity of assessment throughout the music curriculum is one that I suspect will continue as long as music teachers have air in their lungs, but I hope we can always remember why we love our subject and that is because of the experiences we gain as musicians, not the assessment results!  

Vaughan Fleischfresser

This article unearths and lays bare the constant struggle faced by music teachers, whereby they’re expected to teach music without always getting to teach it in all its abundant glories, benefits, and beauties. My mind is drawn to this quote by Finney: ‘Teachers must know what they are looking for, what their pupils are feeling and finding, how to manage what is a delicate balance between different kinds of knowledge. They must decide on emphasis and weigh the costs’. It is this last sentence which rings most true with my experience. 

Having taught music at all levels, my experience is one of the emphasis – and the cost of the chosen emphasis – drastically changing the further along the school music journey a teacher or pupil finds themselves. In the primary phase, the opportunity for teachers to emphasise the aesthetic and focus on the aesthetic journey of each pupil is significantly greater than that at any stage of the secondary phase, the reason being that the cost of this emphasis is less burdening for the teachers in these early stages than in the later ones. The expectation of meeting criteria, preparing for exams, and reporting are significantly greater and more prescribed in the secondary years, thus reducing the opportunity for meaningful and individual aesthetic engagement. 

As a primary music teacher, the freedom I have to plan and shape the journey of each pupil from an aesthetic standpoint is in stark contrast to my time as a secondary teacher. As Finney states, ‘… music as aesthetic education allows teachers to consider their pupils’ moral, spiritual, personal, social and cultural development as inevitable sub-elements of an aesthetic education that concerns their burgeoning identities’. When teachers are focused on meeting the expectations of accountability discussed in this article, which are separate from the aesthetic, then their ability to engage pupils in the aesthetic becomes further and further from their grasp. Music is a multi-faceted shape that cannot be placed in a square hole. The sooner policy makers stop expecting music teachers to push their pupils through these square holes, the better.  

Zoe Ansley-Green

  • Teacher of Music, Kew House School – @mrszdag  

This was a hard read but worth sticking with to explore the whys of what we teach. I am relatively new to music teaching and therefore was interested to see how much it had changed over the years, particularly in terms of assessment, although some of the same problems clearly still persist about what we teach and how we then assess it. 

Finney’s discussion of assessment was particularly thought-provoking. Oh how I wish we lived in a world where we could learn about music without having to assess it!! How ideal would it be to encourage children to explore sounds, filling in the gap where the music that they want to hear doesn’t exist yet, and be free from having their explorations and creations marked or graded?

One thing to take away from the article: I am glad that it promotes the wider benefits of music education, going beyond the vague ‘listening skills’ or ‘team work skills’, and getting to the really meaningful heart of what we can discover through music education. The discussion of blues music at the end is beautifully written – ‘What does the Blues mean now, to me in my life, to others, to all of us?’. This is what we should be discussing in the classroom. Yes, we need to understand the chords and the sequences in order to play, absorb, and appreciate it; however, the important bit is putting it into context and understanding why the Blues is the Blues, why it is important to us, and how it tells stories.   

David House

Aesthetics, creativity and the concept of flow. All of these stand out as I read this article, and also the issue of different kinds of knowledge (something which has been a thread in John Finney’s writings]). I am also particularly drawn by the final section which brings in the ideas of an immersion in a musical world (style, genre, idiom etc) and consequent questions which form – alongside the analogy of a lake. This is where we are heading, surely, to enable students to become so enthralled with their music that finding out more (why it was created, why does it sound like it does, what chords do I need to play that, what lives did the people lead who created it, what emotional impact does it have and many, many more). 

Such a questioning approach is one which has been emerging in my mind recently as I rethink the curriculum in the light of lockdown, remote learning, bubbles, restrictions on activities and so on. It chimes with a recent book written by Samuel Wright for the Middle Years Programme of the IB, the chapter headings stimulate such a questioning approach: ‘Does music have a story to tell?’, ‘Is rock plagiarised?’ and ‘Does music have boundaries?’, for example.

To foster inquisitive, sensitive and musical approaches towards music in young people is our aim and I rejoice when this occurs – such as at the end of a recent Y11 lesson when a student stayed in the lesson call to ask ‘Why does the use of minor iv give such a melancholy feel to music? I have noticed it in these songs [quotes some examples]’. And I am so glad that the final sentences in the article include reference to the fact that engagement with music also fosters moral, spiritual, personal, social and cultural development – not in a box-ticking fashion I would point out, but in a very real way which will have a lasting impact on students’ lives.   

James Leveridge

  • Teacher of Music in Newham, London @jleverED 

Finney’s article leads me to reflect upon where music currently sits within the curriculum and the extent to which music is currently recognised as an aesthetic discipline. Finney describes the complicated relationship between assessing music and identifying it as an ‘artistic-creative endeavour’. Furthermore, this complexity is recognised in Finney highlighting Preston’s (1986) report which argues music is ‘more rewarding’ when separated from assessment, a point which as a teacher I recognise. Whether conscious or not, assessment criteria may influence student/teacher dialogue and may potentially hinder the extent to which students’ engagement and outputs in music are truly authentic and expressive.

As teachers working in time-limited school environments, sometimes under assessment-related pressures, we may not always initiate opportunities for our students to engage in creative projects, enabling them to participate in musical dialogue and explore and express themselves musically. Additionally, reflecting on the extent to which music is valued and explored as part of an aesthetic education within our environments is crucial and perhaps too often neglected.