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The place of composing in curriculum design

The Music Teachers Association's second collective blogging project culminates in this final post in the series with excellent responses from teachers and academics reflecting on the article by Martin Fautley and Alison Daubney – ‘The place of composing in curriculum design’ (2019)

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.

The place of composing in curriculum design

The Music Teachers Association’s second collective blogging project culminates in this final post in the series with excellent responses from teachers and academics reflecting on the article by Martin Fautley and Alison Daubney – ‘The place of composing in curriculum design’ (2019)


One aspect of school music education in Britain that often draws comment from those based in other jurisdictions is that of the place and role of composing in the statutory curriculum for all children and young people in schools.

It may well be the case that much of this is due to the work of two former editors of the British Journal for Music Education, John Paynter and Keith Swanwick, who both published significant works in this field many years ago, including, but not limited to, nearly 50 years ago with John Paynter and Peter Aston’s Sound and Silence (Paynter & Aston, 1970) and 40 years ago with Keith Swanwick’s A Basis for Music Education (Swanwick, 1979).

There have been many publications in music education since those, but it is significant that the impact on pedagogies of music education in Britain have been significantly impacted by their contributions. It is worth pausing to consider what this means for teaching and learning in school music today, and what the international community might learn from experiences in UK schools.

Music education, as we have observed before, is a broad endeavour, and composing, listening, appraising, analysing and performing all figure to various degrees in it, in different parts of the world.


Ian Axtell

20 years working as a classroom music teacher. Now based at Birmingham City University running professional development masters courses. I have just completed a Doctorate in Education where my thesis used critically reflexive auto-ethnography to question my place, position and purpose in the field of classroom music education. The response below is only a small extract from my EdD thesis. I would be very happy to share more if anyone were interested.

Paynter (1997: 18) identified that ‘composing is . . . the surest way for pupils to develop musical judgement and to come to understand the notion of thinking in music’. I prioritised pedagogic processes that were initiated by performing activities to promote engagement and thinking. There was a progression from an initial performing activity, where key concepts, techniques and structures were identified through making connections with existing music, towards spaces for pupils to think about music and to make judgments about music by engaging in composing. Their compositions provided the vehicle to share their thinking and judgments. Composing was ‘part of the ‘real stuff’ in music’ (Mills, 2005: 45), a pedagogic tool that enabled everyone to access, develop and share their own musicality within creative and democratic learning environments (Lamont and Coll, 2009: 109). Highly developed instrumental skills were not a prerequisite for composing, particularly when using music technology, and composing together in groups provided opportunities to create effective communities of thinking (Harpaz, 2014) with appropriately distributed cognitions. In my KS3 and KS4 music classrooms, links to previous knowledge helped to establish an environment of critical enquiry where pupils were incentivised to engage with new knowledge and knowledge creation. Composing was not entirely ‘child-centred’ (Paynter & Aston, 1970: 2) but based upon explorations and discussions of existing musical ideas through shared performances and listening. Composing was supported by a range of creative practices to establish frameworks from which the learner’s own musical ideas could be supported and developed. As Hallam and Rogers (2010: 107) point out,

‘Composing without such a framework is very difficult, although too much detail limits creativity. An overarching framework is not only helpful but necessary’.

Pupils were encouraged to think and apply judgments about music rather than just copy existing ideas. Composing became more than knowledge reproduction and moved towards embedding forms of knowing. My concern was that focusing entirely on pastiche, with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, would create depersonalised learning environments, leading to unmotivated pupils. Composing based on pastiche can promote looking backwards, where ‘the control of knowledge, in this case musical knowledge, [serves] to preserve the ideological values of the dominant social group, in this case through the reproduction of the form of culture valued by the dominant group’ (Wright, 2010: 24). Instead, the pupils’ composing was valued as unique art forms, created at particular moments in time. This was particularly important at KS3 where the knowledge, skills and understanding to create effective pastiche were limited. My teaching sought to encourage pupils to share their perceptions of the music they had previously explored through their own composing: ‘Where students [pupils] and teachers engage with different types of music in the classroom or the community – play with it, rather than look at it as though through binoculars – the creation of a new type of music through fusion is a normal musical outcome’ (Mills, 2005: 151). My classroom composing included fields of practice, starting as “an ensemble of relatively autonomous spheres of ‘play’ ‘ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 16-17) and structure through cultural reference points to provide frameworks for distributed cognitions. My aim was that KS3 GCM composing should be informed by traditions but not restricted by them.


My blog is an extract from my thesis that considers the place of composing in my curriculum design when I was working in secondary schools with pupils aged between 11 sand 16. The references used include:

  • Bourdieu, P & Wacquant, L J D (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago
  • Hallam, S & Rogers, L (2010) Creativity. In: Hallam, S & Creech, A. (eds.) (2010), Music Education in the 21st century in the United Kingdom: Achievements, analysis and aspirations. London: Institute of Education, University of London: 105-122
  • Lamont, A & Coll, H (2009), Sound Progress: Exploring musical development. Matlock: NAME
  • Mills, J. (2005) Music in the school. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Paynter, J & Aston, P (1970) Sound and Silence: Classroom Projects in Creative Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Paynter, J (1997), The form of finality. British Journal of Music Education. 14(3): 5-16
  • Wright, R (ed) (2010) Sociology and Music Education: SEMPRE Studies in The Psychology of Music. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Sue Walker

  • Primary School Teacher, Music Educator, EdD Student – @Sue_MusicEd

I am only really talking from a primary school teacher’s point of view, having taught music for 25 years through the comings and goings of various curriculum support documents. Composing is very much part of my own design….because the children love it! Why do we teach music in primary schools…what is the point? Is it to teach notation and encourage the next generation of orchestral musicians? I have to say I don’t give this a moment’s thought. I love teaching music to give fun, stimulating and exciting experiences that will develop the child’s emotional well being, give them an outlet for expression, let them experience a variety of musical instruments (you never know…they may find one they are really good at), explore the joys of singing, of working as a team, being part of something bigger than just themselves, exploring social issues, finding out about the world…the list goes on.

However, in all the schools I have worked in, there is one dominant activity that the children want: to get their hands on the instruments and create! If I give them a choice of composing on garage band or percussion instruments, 90% would choose percussion every time. Some love using the instrument they are learning outside school or in peripatetic lessons, some just want to play a xylophone and experiment with melody and harmony. This is the activity that is requested when I give them a choice at the end of the term for a one-off music lesson.

Times may have changed since Paynter and Swanwick wrote about composition in the classroom, and children’s opportunities may have developed, but they are still children who are inherently creative and inquisitive and who just want to sit with their friends and make music.

Stephen Jackman

  • Head of Curriculum Music, Shrewsbury International School, Bangkok – @sjeeves

It’s good to remember that composition isn’t a central feature in all Music education curriculums around the world, as this article states, many have ‘primarily a performance modality’ which thankfully isn’t the case in Britain. I work at a British international school in Thailand so Music broadly follows the British? English? UK? National Curriculum from EYFS upwards and then we offer Edexcel GCSE & A Level Music & Music Technology. Composition IS therefore a central feature of our British style curriculum.

As the article says, ‘one of the strengths of composing pedagogies in the UK and elsewhere has been nurturing the creative responses of beginning instrumentalists’. A recent curriculum development for us born out of the current pandemic is that our class instrumental program in years 5 & 6 has morphed into a creative project based on Hans Zimmer’s BBC 10 Pieces composition, Earth. Rather than using our originally intended (shared) wind and brass instruments we have mostly switched to classroom percussion and iPads to combine live instrumental, synthesised and pre-recorded samples to make soundtracks to students’ original video material culminating in a live concert/installation next term.

For me, the place of composition within the curriculum and also the main purpose of Music education can be found in a project like this: The seamless integration of group performance, listening and composing which I would identify as Musicking (Small 1999) combined with the multimodal affordances of digital technologies such as mobile phones and tablets. Then there is the wide spectrum of formal-informal learning – a mixture of teaching, workshopping and independent learning with a strong sense of student agency.