‘Teaching’ Music

What does ‘teaching music’ mean, anyway?

Admittedly, this is (in part) a bit of a flippant question – in some ways we all know what is meant when someone says that they are ‘teaching music’ or that they work as a ‘music teacher’.  However, this question has recently become more of a serious concern of mine and I have to confess to being increasingly unsure of how to answer it.   Given that I spend the vast majority of my working life teaching music in some form, it might be expected that me asking the question ‘what does teaching music mean?’ is alarming.  Actually, I can’t help but feel that this is a natural (and important) question to ask and I worry that any singular definition offered in answer to such a question may be problematic.


The reason that this has become increasingly interesting to me is largely due to the range of teaching that I do.  In the last year this has involved working in many educational contexts and with many different groups of people, including: school students, (primary and secondary), FE college students, university students (undergraduate and postgraduate), independent adult learners, non-formal online learners and community groups, for example.  Subject areas have also been diverse and have encompassed, for example: musicianship skills, music analysis, music theory (in schools, universities and in the context of a MOOC [see here for more information]), research methods, saxophone performance, music in the primary school classroom, jazz, ukulele, improvisation, ‘free improvisation’ for primary school students (see here for more information), ensemble performance, dissertation supervision and CPD sessions for classroom teachers who want to include music in their schools, to name a few.  In each of these contexts my role is different, my approach has to change and the expectations that learners and institutions have of me are varied. That said, I feel that there are still some general principles that guide me and shape my understanding of what I am doing.

One particular course that I have been involved with this year (at the University of the Highlands and Islands) has led me to really consider the question of what is meant by the phrase ‘teaching music’.  This post is a brief overview of some of my thinking on this issue, as inspired by my involvement in this course and the experiences of some of my students – it is my personal musing and is, by no means, intended to be a detailed critique of music education!

‘Teaching and Learning Practices’:

This is a course for 3rd year students which is intended to present and discuss various approaches to the teaching and learning of music and culminates in each student undertaking a teaching placement.  Due to staff changes I have inherited this course and have had to redevelop elements of it and deliver it to a group of students from diverse musical backgrounds and with very different aspirations for their involvement in music education.  This has meant tailoring the course in such a way that is engaging, informative and fun for a group of people with very different ideas of what is meant by music education.  Although this has been frustrating at times, I think that one of the real positives has been that it has encouraged an environment in which student-centered teaching, autonomous learning and constructivist approaches to music education are highly valued.  The majority of students on this course are studying Popular Music Performance but the cohort also comprises students studying Audio Engineering and Music Business. At the beginning of the year, I asked my students (many of whom had no experience of teaching whatsoever) how they felt about embarking on their placements, and for them to inform me of the areas that they felt either anxious or confident about. Of course, many issues arose and were discussed but there were two key areas of particular interest to the current discussion.


The anxiety most frequently reported by my students on this course, when faced with the idea of planning and undertaking their teaching placement, is that they may find themselves in a position in which a student/pupil has more knowledge or practical skill than they do in certain areas.  Although this is an understandable worry for those who have not been involved in such an activity before, I believe that it is a problem based on the perception of what it means to be a teacher.  Perhaps it is this very phrase that is the issue.  To teach, suggests that an expert or authority should ‘show’, ‘instruct’, ‘dictate’, etc.  If we subscribe to this belief then surely, when considering a student who knows more than a teacher or is able to perform something to a higher standard than their teacher, we must conclude that the teacher’s role is invalidated.

Music education, particularly in the school context, has typically focussed on the works of other people.  In instrumental instruction, students learn to play pieces of music that already exists and that are used as benchmarks of ‘skill’, or ‘talent’ or as displays of technical ability.  In this case, ‘teaching’ music is about the teacher (a supposed master) bestowing the secrets of technical success onto a student/pupil in order that they develop the requisite skills to play certain styles (or even just certain pieces) of music.  Repertoire is generally aligned with the instrument that is being studied and thus, ‘progress’ on the instrument is typically viewed in terms of the student’s ability to play more ‘complex’ material.

In order to assess/evaluate the work, it is typical for students to perform the pieces of music that they have learned, to people who are qualified to make a judgement on how accurately the music was played and how stylistically suitable it is, for example.  Think, for example, of graded music exams and performance exams within national curricula – students learn pieces of music and perform them in a recital situation (summative assessment) for which they will receive a grade, and possibly some feedback. Such an approach, in my opinion, encourages replication and repetition and stifles creativity and individuality while also reinforcing the learner/expert dichotomy. The whole situation is based on a hierarchical relationship in which the composer is the most powerful as the writer of the music and the student is the least powerful as they merely (learn how to) reproduce this music under the instruction and judgement of the teacher. It is little wonder, then, that these young fledgling music educators (and even some older and more experienced ones) fear a situation in which any of these distinctions may become blurred.

The anxiety that these students report is essentially a worry about having to be (or be seen as) an expert or authority. This is entirely understandable and I have a great deal of sympathy, having felt similar fears when I first started teaching. However, it is an unfortunate situation and one that tells a sad tale about peoples’ conceptions of teachers/educators. It explicitly suggests that teachers are in possession of a corpus of knowledge, which they hand down to students. This view is of a relationship in which students learn what teachers teach. Instead of seeing this as teachers being put on a pedestal and hailed as ‘wise knowledge-givers’ (a view that many of my students seen to have – hence the anxiety) I believe that this actually devalues the very idea of an educator and reduces them to little more than a ‘middle-man’ between the student and the subject being studied.


The area in which my students report that they feel most confident, on the other hand, is working with students/pupils to create music.  This could be writing original compositions, improvising, arranging and reworking existing material for example. There is a subtle but important difference here.  In this case, I am talking about people assuming an entirely different role and for a different purpose.  My students, in this case, feel that they are acting as guides – using their skills to build on the knowledge and interests of their students/pupils in order to help them to develop as creative musicians.  I believe that this is, in part, because they are students on a Popular Music degree and that this way of working is, for many, embedded in their very understanding of what it means to be a musician.  However, importantly, in such situations the power-relationship changes and these ‘student teachers’ no longer believe that they have to be authoritative figures who feel pressure to instruct people in how to perform certain tasks and then judge or evaluate their success. Instead, they feel relaxed and empowered to engage with their pupils musically and creatively in a process of ‘guided discovery’, engaging in formative assessment processes continually while participating in a meaningful dialogue with the learners.

This is extremely heartening to me as someone who is passionate about music education in general and, more specifically, as someone who is keen to develop effective and appropriate approaches to popular music pedagogy. I strongly believe that this type of constructivist approach in which students are actively involved in exploring a subject while developing skills and knowledge is hugely important and is something that should be embraced more in music education, generally.

So, what does ‘teaching music’ mean, then?

As I stated at the start of this post, I don’t think that there is a single answer to this question. However, in my opinion, I believe that it is my responsibility as a music educator to empower people to become critical, reflective, creative, collaborative musicians.  To me, this is about much more than just simply instructing people in how to play specific pieces, or execute particular techniques, for example. It is about guiding people in the development of skills (analytic and practical) and the construction of knowledge that allow them to understand, engage, and participate meaningfully.

Instead of asking what ‘teaching music’ means and how to ‘do it’, I believe that we should spend more time asking what we mean by the phrase ‘learning music’ and then developing approaches towards this phenomenon. It is certainly the case, in my opinion, that this has to involve a student-centered approach and that, in many areas, the idea of the teacher as an authoritative expert will be less relevant. So, in this sense, I would encourage my students to retain an element of the anxiety described above and remind them that (at least in my opinion) the role of a good music educator is to assist students in learning how to learn about music.

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Dr Zack Moir is a Lecturer in Popular Music at Edinburgh Napier University, and the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has a strong research interest in popular music pedagogy, music in higher education, musical improvisation and popular music composition. Zack is also an active musician and composer performing in ensembles and as a soloist, internationally. Zack is one of the editors of the 'Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music Education'.

One thought on “‘Teaching’ Music”

  1. Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.
    – Leonardo da Vinci

    Interesting reflections Zack, and I agree, especially in a university, one frequently encounters students with a particular focus connoting mastery surpassing one’s own, or possibly anyone else’s, anywhere. One can only hope that students with exceptional gifts will continue to gravitate to universities, enriching us in the process.

    Obviously, viewing such students as tantamount “threat” to one’s own perceived mastery reeks of didacticism and such defensiveness has no place in academia, nor perhaps in education anywhere.

    Students with particular research obsessions can beneficially be invited to contribute as resources in many ways. A recent example that comes to mind is Wagner Week, held this year in the Atrium, where papers were presented by students on topics dear to their hearts. The scholarship motivating such contributions benefits everyone when shared in such surroundings.

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