The problem with bringing back knowledge

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Music Education and its practical wisdom

John Finney @JohnFinney8

‘… a confident discourse surrounding the nature of musical knowledge, one that is understood and is fluently expressed amongst teachers and music educators; a confident discourse surrounding musical understanding; a confident discourse surrounding musical meaning.’ [1]

What are musical knowledge, musical understanding and musical meaning? And wouldn’t it be good if we were more confident in talking about these things?

The curriculum since 1980 has been framed by ‘knowledge, skills and understanding’. It trips off the tongue. And each subject is expected to set out what knowledge, skills and understanding form the content of its curriculum.

Despite distinguished attempts to set out how knowledge can be thought about in the case of music [2] there has been little enthusiasm for talking about it. Understanding does better and best of all is skills.

A while ago there was a wave of music teachers talking about a skills-led curriculum. Teaching musical skills seemed to make sense. After all music was a practical subject and you need skills to be practical and make music, and skills are developed through practising.

Out in the wider world, and increasingly this means the world of social media often linked to official sources, have you noticed the clamour for a knowledge-based curriculum, a knowledge-rich curriculum and the bringing back of knowledge? Not a wave but a tsunami.

In my meeting with this wider world I run up against the desire to view knowledge as most definitely one kind of thing that approximates to fact or knowing that. To suggest that this kind of knowledge poorly represents what musical knowledge is is frequently met with distain.

While there is some recognition that ‘knowing how’ may be a legitimate way of expressing what knowledge is, there comes the proviso that ‘know how’ be subordinated or reduced to ‘knowing that’, to a body of knowledge or even the theory of music. [3]

To introduce into the debate the idea that to know music is for it to be embodied (embodied knowledge) leads to either incredulity or quite reasonably, a call for clarification.


‘Until the current flows from the toes to the fingers … and you feel the weight and movement of the body … you wont get the music.’ … ‘Don’t try for accuracy before you get the feeling of the motion …’ (Yeheudi Menhuin) [4]

‘The grooves are the feeling and the participatory experience of music …’ (Steven Feld) [5]

Thinking of musical knowledge as chiefly ‘knowing how to’ make music well is a good place to start. [6]

‘Knowing how to’ provides the teacher with a powerful start to a learning objective, for example, and solves the ‘doing – learning’ problem.

And ‘knowing how to’ as practical knowledge embodied is the most powerful knowledge of all. We could then talk about a knowledge-led curriculum and that would go down well in important places.


[1] From Chris Philpott’s address at a Music Education Symposium, London, September, 2014.

[2] One fine example is Keith Swanwick’s ‘Musical Knowledge: Intuition, analysis and Music Education.’ Routledge.

[3] The upcoming GCSE is a good example of a poor grasp of the nature of musical knowledge

[4] Cited in Louis Arnaud Reid’s ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’. Studies in Education 18 University of London.

[5] Cited in Charles Keil’s ‘Music Grooves’. The University of Chicago Press.

[6] By knowing how to make music well I imply something more that mere skill. See  (November 11, 2015) for an example of practical wisdom.


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