International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 2 Number 5

November 1, 2001

The Genesis of Musical Behaviour:
Implications for Adolescent Music Education

Colin Durrant
University of Surrey Roehampton

This article addresses some of the concerns regarding music education for the secondary school / adolescent age range. Many tensions are highlighted - the apparent lack of success and engagement by students, yet at the same time, their almost universal need to identify with music within particular sub-cultures. Reference is made specifically to the curriculum in schools for England and Wales and the reports which suggest that all is not well. Inasmuch as it is a complex issue, some illustrations and solutions are outlined, though only as suggestions for exploring a way forward.

The Dilemma

'I gave up music at school when I was thirteen; there didn't seem any point to it. It just didn't bear any relation to the music I was interested in. I played and listened to music outside school. The teacher didn't care about my music. I was there with my mates drumming and mixing but it was totally unrelated to the music at school. So I gave it up at thirteen.'
While this could be representative of the cry of many an adolescent, this was a story revealed in a lecture to a class of music education masters degree students. This was the story of someone who now holds an prominent position in the world of performing arts administration. This is someone who has, since his school days, been involved in making professional recordings of music, someone who has held a lecturing post in performing arts in higher education and someone who is currently involved in instigating and supporting musical enterprises and links around the globe. The conjecture here is indeed a somewhat gloomy one. Does Andrew's perception of his school music experience ring true with others? Is such a scenario similar to the experience of music in schools in other countries in the world? Does this connect with the situation in the other arts?
The question as to whether this is a consequence of poor teaching, a reflection of the status of the arts, and music in particular, in schools, or a simply the nature of adolescence in relation to musical behaviour is key. The dilemma pertains to the argument of whether indeed it is the role of the music teacher to enter the musical world of the adolescent within the school context.
While it should be acknowledged that there are many instances of music teaching that motivates and inspires adolescents, a number of criticisms have been lain at the door of school music for the Key Stage 31 age range in England and Wales in recent years. In the most recent Ofsted2 report on the secondary school curriculum 1997/98 (Ofsted, 1999) the findings indicated that:
'standards in music at Key Stage 3 have improved, but remain lower than those in most other subjects..'

and that class music teaching at Key Stage 3: 'continues to lag behind most other subjects.'
[Ofsted, 1999]

Evidence of problems with secondary school music stem from even further back with Ofsted reports 1993 and 1995 revealing that
'pupils who enter a secondary school at the age of 11 years are often taught by a music teacher who expects less of them than their primary teachers.'
[Mills, 1996: p. 5]

'standards remain poor in too many schools at Key Stage 3'
[Ofsted, 1997]

The suggestion here is that the delivery and quality of music teaching is at fault - indeed, an official government inspection could hardly be expected to comment adversely on the national curriculum itself! It is nevertheless the belief put forward here that the issue is a little more complex.
A comprehensive report on the effects and effectiveness of arts education in schools in England and Wales (Harland et al, 2000) confirmed the low esteem in which music in particular is held by pupils in the secondary age range. This appears to be connected with lack of perceived development of key skills in the classroom and lack of perceived relevance to pupils' current and future needs. Also, it was noted that levels of enjoyment in music decline significantly during the key stage 3 years (Harland et al, 2000: 297). This in turn impacted on the low numbers opting for music at key stage 4, which made music 'vulnerable'.
There is much evidence that, in a significant number of secondary schools, the approach to music teaching and learning differs in style and content from that found in some primary schools. From observations of teachers and trainee-teachers in the University of Surrey Roehampton's partnerships schools it can be seen that in some cases, the music curriculum in Year 73 has not catered for progression from musical activity and learning in the primary school. Significantly, neither has the music curriculum addressed the musical behaviour and development interface with the socio-cultural contexts in which adolescents live. Informal discussions with secondary school music teachers often are concerned with the apparent paucity of musical experience and knowledge of their new pupils from primary schools (also highlighted in Mills, 1996). Yet,
'In primary schools and particularly in Key Stage 2 of primary schools, the percentage of class lessons for which the quality of teaching is satisfactory or better is higher in music than any other subject of the National Curriculum. In Key Stage 3 of secondary school the percentage of class lessons for which the quality of teaching is satisfactory or better is lower than that for any other subject of the National Curriculum. The relative success of music in primary schools results from the teaching of class teachers as well as music specialists.'
[Mills, 1996: p. 6]
In the light of the fact that secondary schools will generally have at least one specialist music teacher and that they are more likely to have specialist accommodation and better resources than their primary counterparts, it begs the question--what is wrong with secondary school music?-- a question posed by Ross (1995) in his radical argument that the arts cannot be 'taught' and that school music teachers have failed to acknowledge the 'fundamental intuition' that the arts cannot be taught. He reports on research findings over three decades which indicate that music has stayed bottom of the popularity stakes in secondary schools alongside Foreign Languages.
'And yet--and here's the most painful point--as everyone knows, most kids are crazy about music. Countless numbers of teenagers have their own bands; many more live for the music charts, local gigs, discos and parties. No problem with music in their lives outside school, as the world of commercial music knows very well.'
[Ross, 1995: 186]
Ross is not only critical of the general nature and style of music teaching in secondary schools, but also of recent curriculum developments which have sought to address the problem. While some attempts have been made to broaden the curriculum content in terms of musical styles and genres, he asserts that the pupils are still not able to be sufficiently stimulated to musically achieve. He sees the problem as essentially a tension between the schools' musical expectations of pupils, usually defined in terms of a series of discrete learning outcomes, and the socio-cultural musical behaviours and interests of the pupils collectively and individually which more naturally occur outside the school.
The relationship between primary (elementary) and secondary school approaches to the music curriculum around the world is variable, but some similarities both with regard to access to the music curriculum and attitudes towards music and the arts as curriculum subjects can be found in Leong (1997). Research carried out in secondary schools in Portugal, for example, reveal an even more depressing scenario, with negative attitudes towards music perpetuated by teachers of other curriculum subjects (Almeida, 2000; Pinto, 2000).

The Secondary Music Curriculum

If we examine the contents of the revised National Curriculum for Music (1999) for England and the interpretation of it by music teachers we may be in a position to assess the efficacy of the generative interface for the manifestation of musical behaviours in adolescence. The introduction to the curriculum describes the 'distinctive contribution' of music to the school curriculum referring to its varying functions culturally, socially and individually. Music as a form of communication and expression and as affecting our 'emotional wellbeing' are indeed accurate descriptions of how music functions in the world. It also refers to the 'transferable' skills that music offers to other areas of experience and learning. In what might be regarded as a contribution to the economic wellbeing of the nation it states:
'In addition, it stimulates the acquisition of the those skills, attitudes and attributes needed for employment and life such as listening skills, concentration, aural memory, presentation and teamwork. It also develops creativity and risk taking, intuition, aesthetic sensitivity, perseverance and a sense of satisfaction.'
The National Curriculum for Music (1999) for England is on the whole an innocuous document in which the programmes of study for key stage 3 indicate that musical learning is concerned with the development of skills, knowledge and understanding that are experienced through (i) controlling sounds, (ii) creating and developing musical ideas, (iii) responding and reviewing own and others' work and (iv) listening and applying knowledge and understanding. Inherent in the curriculum content is access to a wide variety of musics across styles and genres.

The Curriculum and Adolescent Musical Behaviour

In essence these are the mechanisms used by Andrew in his quest for musical status among his identified group, playing and experimenting, reviewing and listening attentively to the sounds his group was creating in the shed, bedroom or studio - but it took place outside the school environment. They were playing 'their' music. The tension between the music in school and outside school may therefore be determined not by any curriculum content, but rather in the manner and context in which it is delivered and presented to adolescents. The school 'sub-culture' may therefore conflict with the 'youth sub-culture' (Epstein, 1994; Zillmann & Gan, 1997). Music happens 'outside' school through musical experiences, whereas the interpretation by teachers of a musical curriculum tends towards the implementation and assessment of a prescribed series of outcomes. Planning and assessment are the key words in contemporary educational ideology in England and Wales, and Ofsted inspections are geared towards ensuring that musical outcomes are planned and assessable. Again, conflict between the arrangement of musical activities and learning in the school and outside it. Music is used as a 'badge' of social identity for adolescents:
'Despite its capitalistic orientation, popular music is the defining element of youth sub-cultures'
[Epstein, 1994]

'all adolescents have the same problems, all adolescents pass through peer groups, all adolescents use music as a badge and a background, a means of identifying and articulating emotion.'
[Frith, 1981: p. 217]

'The whole adolescent milieu is penetrated at many levels by an active interest in music... adolescent discourse is centered around the language and terminology of rock and that music provides the core values...'
[Roe, 1987, p. 215]

The thesis that the core of adolescents' personal identities is their musical tastes is argued by many (Moffatt, 1989; Prinsky & Rosenbaum, 1987), and that they have become avid consumers of music (Larson & Kubey, 1983; Frith, 1987; Andreasen, 1994). Zillmann and Gan suggest that adolescent maturation is concerned with seeking and joining a 'taste culture' as part of the journey towards self-determination and independence. Russell (1997) puts forward the argument that:
'The role of music in reinforcing the generation gap between young people and people of their parents' generation suggests possible limitations on the influences of family and school on the musical tastes of children.'
[Russell, 1997, p. 150]
The tension then between the sub-culture of school music and the music forming the adolescent sub-culture is heightened. The social context in which music operates, is consumed and practised outside the school context will be related to the maturational, emotional and situational associations of adolescence (Gibson et al, 1995; Wells & Hakanen, 1991). How far the school context or sub-culture attends to such associations is debatable. Modes of operating in the school context, expectations and management of behaviour, time constraints and organisation of lessons interrupt the flow of creative musical experience or 'collective effervescence' (Durkheim, 1897; also Csikszentmihalyi, 1992) experienced in being involved either as an attending listener or music maker. Yet, identities are developed through music beyond the adolescent sub-culture into other sub-cultures. People have a need to continue to belong to sub-cultures, be they a choral society or folk band and use music to construct their identities (Durrant & Himonides, 1998; Roberts, 1993) and seek 'pathways' (Finnegan, 1989) to 'induct, foster, perpetuate (and transform) musical traditions across successive generations'. Here the tension re-emerges between such musical pathways and the more developmental routes expected in the school context and within the traditional musical pedagogies. The tension is even further accentuated when examining the development of human physiology as shown, for example, in adolescent vocal development (Cooksey, 1992; Cooksey & Welch, 1998), and musical expectations in the school curriculum and its practice. Let us further explore the singing phenomenon and the tension between musical (singing) development, school curricula and adolescent culture.

Singing Activity and the Adolescent

Singing is referred to in the National Curriculum in England:
'pupils should be taught how to sing songs developing vocal timbre and range'
[Key Stage 3 programme of study]

which has developed from:

'pupils should be taught how to sing songs, in unison and two parts, with diction, control of pitch and a sense of phrase'
[Key Stage 2]

which in turn has developed from:

'pupils should be taught how to use their voices, singing songs, chants and rhymes with an awareness of pitch'
[Key Stage 1].

These statements infer that to develop vocal timbre and range is suitable only for pupils between the ages of 11 and 14. What vocal timbre is appropriate is not clear. The suggestions here are heavily culture specific and do not necessarily take into account the adolescent changing voice (a physiological development) or the fact that, for example, diction is a not vital vocal entity across all cultures. The reality of the singing phenomenon in secondary schools presents a challenging scenario.
A number of research studies into singing in schools have been carried out by colleagues and graduate students at the University of Surrey Roehampton. One boys' secondary school music teacher in inner London reported in an interview that there was
'evidence of a communal reluctance to sing, it being a very personal and exposing experience for most kids. I have to think about material carefully and tend to go down the pop route'.
[interview with Head of Music of a London secondary school]
His attempts at forming a choir within the school have resulted in only five or six pupils regularly attending in an extra-curricular capacity; there was not, he stated, a good 'club culture' within the school. In the classroom context he stated that singing activity exaggerated the problems of the music class and considered it a 'risky enterprise' and that maintained that 'whole class activities were getting harder'. However, the music teacher reported that when asked to perform Christmas carols in a local church, there was a positive response. The music had been transferred outside the school sub-culture into the wider community, where there was a recognition among the boys that choral music more naturally occurred and was accepted in this context. The expectation became a social reality. The adolescent social phenomenon in respect of their vocal maturation was also recognised:
'... boys have a tougher time. They have an identity crisis... much more a problem. They become self-conscious. For those whose voices have not yet changed it becomes problematic. Those with early changes just won't sing. There is a degree of anxiety therefore within boys' groups; boys lose their anonymity whereas girls don't. Girls can feel part of a group... choral singing is a group activity.'
[Interview with Choral Animateur working in same London secondary school, (Durrant et al., 2000)]
There is, nevertheless, an expectation, fostered by some music teachers, that singing in schools is waning and some like to give reasons for it, blaming the rise of instrumental teaching and instrumental work in the classroom, the development of technology or the requirements of the National Curriculum. A survey carried out by the Church of England in 1992 stated that:
'Many teenagers feel embarrassed when asked to sing.... Other than at football matches and on school journeys, people sing less spontaneously than in previous generations.'
[Report of the Archbishop's Commission on Church Music, 1992, p. 133]
Other speculations for the apparent demise in singing in secondary schools are given:
'Many young people see choral singing as less glamorous and challenging than playing in an ensemble.'
[Everett, 1997, p. 45]

'Girls too can lose interest in singing in their teenage years when they become self-conscious about their bodies and reluctant to make the physical effort required to sing well. It can be difficult for them to resist the peer pressure which identifies choral singing as a 'sad' occupation.'
[Stevens, 1998, p. 5]

'It is relatively easy to identify reasons or make excuses - physiological changes during puberty, uninspiring or inappropriate repertoire available, too many leisure activities on offer... not to mention the decidedly 'uncool' image that singing in choirs can conjure in the mind of the average teenager.'
[Lansdale, 1998, p. 3]

A graduate student's research study into girls' attitudes to singing in an independent girls's school revealed that there was a distinct drop in choir attendance in Year 7 and 8 from Year 6:

'this appears to show that the drop occurs earlier in adolescence than previously thought, when vocal inconsistencies are only just beginning to be experienced...'
[Research assignment: Sarah Aylen, 1998, University of Surrey Roehampton]

While initially attributing the decline to physiological maturational considerations, she does recognise that social factors often determine adolescent participation in school musical activities.
The evidence and reportage of this 'dilemma' rarely ventures into the realms of the social psychology of adolescence. The commonly stated reasons by teachers for the reluctance of adolescents to take part in, for example, singing activity, appear to be concerned with repertoire, voice development and change or curriculum pressures (Fuller, 1999). To be anecdotal for a moment: my own children's state secondary school has a wealth of musical pupils; although a mixed school, the choir consists almost exclusively of girls. On asking my children (girls) about singing in the choir, they responded that I (being a choral trainer and former secondary school music teacher) 'would never be able to get the boys to sing in the choir'. Yet in a performance of the musical West Side Story a few years ago, boys were flocking to take part in the stage production, and sang and danced with great passion and commitment. Whether it was the music itself, the theatre or the fact that these were the extroverts who wanted the stage, it was nevertheless clear that this was a different cultural context in which they operated. The performance--the gestalt--was the goal, not the individual learning fragments that teachers now seem to have to be concerned with in their class teaching. The pupils were absorbed by the sub-culture represented by the musical. Also, the singers could 'hide' behind the musical's fictional characters and become someone else. This context alerts us to the distinctiveness of drama in enabling young people to develop creative and re-creative skills.

Some Solutions

The question remains whether the secondary school classroom is the most appropriate and efficient way of delivering a musical education to adolescents. Research into the evaluation of projects with musicians and schools at the South Bank Centre in London (Swanwick, 1999) reveals that attitudes towards music by pupils were enhanced when they were involved in music and working with professional musicians outside the school. Results of the research indicated that, over a three-year period with 'project' and 'control' classes:
project and control classes all show a decline in attitude towards music in school, though the project classes significantly less so;

the project classes retained higher levels of group homogeneity in attitudes to music in school, to school, to peers and to music in general;

qualitative data support quantitative findings and indicate positive gains in social maturity, students' valuing of music, regard for musicians from a range of styles and practical musical outcomes.
[Swanwick, 1999, p. 97]

The results from this research further imply that school music in isolation from other cultural contexts may not be the most effective way to musically educate adolescents. Contact with professional musicians and other schools to explore, listen to and make music from different styles, genres and contexts may be the way to engage pupils and reverse the decline in attitudes to school music. A more radical approach to musical education is needed, so that the classroom is not seen as a sub-culture unrelated to any other, causing distress to teachers and pupils alike. This would also more likely address the interface between the developmental aspect of the individual adolescent the social-cultural context to which s/he belongs.
A further illustration is provided. In July and August 2000 a group of young musicians (Haringey Young Musicians) from North London, forming an orchestra, big band and drummers toured South Africa. The tour was the first stage of the three year project--Empowering Partnership through Music Making--which intended to foster links with communities South Africa. As well as formal concerts, music-making through shared workshops with a variety of young musicians in schools and communities took place and was universally considered by those who took part as the most memorable and musically significant parts of the tour. Particularly noticeable was the informal and unplanned music-making that took place (see video extract) in two black townships--Umlazi near Durban and Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg. These were among the most breathtaking moments of the tour when young people interacted and made music without the intervention of adults. In the Soweto workshop, after the formal playing together, the young musicians taught each other songs and improvisations--and music just happened. As these activities took place outside, the music attracted onlookers from the neighbourhood. Soon a host of people were involved, dancing and joining in the singing. The video footage and photographs that were taken can only give a token portrayal of the atmosphere of relaxed enjoyment and real cultural interaction that was promoted that Sunday afternoon in Soweto. What can be learnt from this?

Recognising that the young people involved in these activities in the townships were already 'engaged' in music, it is nevertheless salutary to accept that music-making should be 'allowed' to happen. Teachers cannot and should not seek to control everything. Trusting in our students' own willingness and expertise to get music going is, for some, a conceptual leap of faith. Chloe, an 18 year old English student, shared her thoughts in her journal:
... in the townships everyone joined in singing and dancing and all that seemed to matter was the music--a huge contrast to the musical experiences we had in places like Pretoria where it was a struggle to enthuse the audience...
Within a curriculum context, this is difficult to plan for in terms of measured outcomes and standardised assessment. In this respect, it could be said that music 'lags behind' the other arts. Music perhaps needs to reassert its creative function and divergent function. No amount of curriculum documentation or government edict can make that happen; it is not always predictable.
To offer some kind of solution in terms of planning a music curriculum: the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO)4 has recently designed and developed a new music curriculum examination for 16-19 year olds, intended both for those who wish to study music at conservatoire or university and for those for whom it is an interest. It is intended as a 'pluralistic' curriculum, seeking to reflect how music occurs in the varying cultural and social contexts throughout the world and seeking also to address how music develops in the individual. It is designed with a series of options to suit the stage of musical development of the individual student, recognising that there can be no prescribed 'route' that is applicable and suitable for everyone around the world. Each student, through the support of the teacher, will follow his/her own 'pathway' (Finnegan, 1989). The components of the curriculum and examination can be taken at 'higher' or 'standard' level and include Performance, Composition, Listening and a Portfolio. The performance also includes a 'Group Performance' option. Here candidates who take part in musical ensembles where they do not necessarily maintain a discrete, individual part (as in a solo or duet) but are members, for example, of a choir, large band or gamelan, can be recognised for their contribution to that ensemble and awarded credit accordingly. This innovation in an examination context reflects not only how musical activity occurs around the world and how people take part in it, but also reflects the fact that, in some societies, people work collaboratively in an academic context (Mertz, 1998). The portfolio component of the curriculum also encourages students to investigate particular music both from a culture with which they are familiar and also from one with which they are unfamiliar.
As with the pupils who have taken part in the South Bank music projects (see above and Swanwick, 1999) and the Haringey Young Musicians visiting the townships of South Africa, so International Baccalaureate students are seeking new musical experiences both inside and out of the school context. Harland et al (2000) suggests from analysis of successful school music situations that 'the importance of contexts and backgrounds should not be overlooked in the understanding of effective music education (op cit: 492) and that a supportive and relaxed atmosphere should be constituent elements in a hands-on structured, practical environment. Let us reflect on how music operates in the world and not just seek to invent or maintain a school's sub-culture for its own sake, possibly causing tension in the interface between the musical development of the individual and the socio-cultural context of the adolescent. The way forward is to look outside.


1 Compulsory schooling in England and Wales is organised in four key stages; key stage 3 is the secondary school stage for 11-14 year olds; key stage 1 is for 5-6 year olds, key stage 2 for 7-10 year olds, whole key stage 4 is for 15-16 year olds.

2 Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) is the government’s school inspection organ.

3 Year7 – the first year of secondary schooling at key stage 3 for 11 year olds.

4 Further information on the International Baccalaureate curriculum can be found on its web-site:


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About the Author

Colin Durrant

Dr Colin Durrant is Principal Lecturer in Music and Music Education at the University of Surrey Roehampton, UK. He conducts the university choir and Barnet Choral Society--a large community choir in London. He has, following research into the area of effective choral conducting, designed and developed a graduate programme in Choral Education, the first and only one of its kind in the UK. He has also been Deputy Chief Examiner in Music for the International Baccalaureate for whom he has presented papers, workshops and seminars on curriculum development and teacher training in Europe, South Africa and North America. Colin has written a number of journal articles on the subject of choral conducting and co-authored the book Making Sense of Music with Graham Welch. He has recently been guest conductor, clinician and teacher at universities in North America and South Korea as well as within the UK. Colin is on the council of the Association of British Choral Directors and is the European commissioner for the International Society for Music Education's 'Music in Schools and Teacher Education' commission. He is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Research in Choral Singing. For the 2001/2002 academic year he is Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Music at the University of Maryland, USA, where he conducts the university Chamber Singers.


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