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The music education trinity

the music education trinity of composing, listening and performing - teacher and musician

Having now had a look at each board’s specifications for GCSE and A-Level Music, my brain has been well and truly inundated with that seemingly eternal trinity of music education – composing, listening and performing.  With the unit structure of each specification being very clearly built around this widely accepted model, it would appear that it won’t be replaced with anything in the near future.  This is probably for the best; the last thing teachers need right now is yet another externally enforced change.


It was nice to see that some of the boards have made an effort to integrate these three skills (OCR being the most vocal about this) and I dare say that this is in response to changes at the frontline of music teaching.  Increasingly, teachers are delivering music lessons that combine all three skills.  I don’t mean a lesson/unit that goes along the lines of:

  1. Listening test
  2. Composing inspired by listening test
  3. Perform the composition
  4. Listen to each other
The type of integration that I’m thinking of pulls these skills together a little more.  Activities where listening is an integral part of performing is just one such example of this.  The aural learning approach of Musical Futures is a particular favourite of mine for this; pupils have to listen to a piece in order to figure out how to play it.  If they can play it well, then they’ve clearly listened successfully (to both the recording and themselves).  
If the phrase they’re trying to imitate is beyond their performing ability, then they will often come up with a version that does the same job but is playable for them.  There’s a great example of composing/improvising skills; not dissimilar to the arranging process of popular musicians writing their own parts for a song.  

Composing, listening and performing

I’ve had a go at putting this thinking into a Venn diagram identifying how frequently I believe each combination should fit into a scheme of work.  You can scroll down to see the diagram but, first, I’d like to put a little explanation into each idea.  
  • Composing, listening and performing on their own
    • Avoid
      • Listening on its own is probably a little controversial.  As I wrote last week, there’s a definite value in listening for listening’s sake – for enjoyment.  I stand by what I wrote in that blog post: “if we want to improve their listening skills and help them to get the most from it, then the most efficient way I know to achieve that is through practical performing and composing activities.”
      • Composing on its own might make sense with our traditional mental image of a composer agonising over the dots (s)he’s putting on the page but isn’t playing and listening to the musical ideas an important part of this.  To steal one of John Finney’s favourite words, there’s probably a great deal of audiation going on in this process too.  
      • Performing on its own may seem perfectly acceptable but I’d hope it was done with some listening skills too.  It seems perfectly reasonable to expect them to listen to themselves as they perform so that they can make continuous improvements.  
  • Just performing and composing
    • Avoid
      • This really just comes back to the points above – you need to listen to yourself (and those in your ensemble) if you are going to perform and compose well. 
  • Just composing and listening
    • Occasional
      • There’s a place for giving pupils time to sit in front of a computer and compose by clicking but it’s not a big place.  There’s a place for pupils to compose with a blank sheet of paper and no instruments but it’s not a big place.  This should be limited but used as and when appropriate – we’ve all heard the thoroughly mediocre pieces created when pupils compose by pointing and clicking in Sibelius.  
  • Just performing and listening
    • Frequent
      • Performing and listening should, of course, be a frequent combination.  Listening to yourself while performing is pretty vital.  Listening critically to stimulus material is also vital.  This combination of skills should be commonplace in the music classroom.  Little things like taking away worksheets and focusing on aural learning can help with encouraging this.  
  • All three together
    • Frequent
      • This combination seems the most sensible way to get pupils composing.  They should be coming up with ideas, experimenting with them through performance, listening to what they come up with and making decisions about how to structure the piece.  Perhaps no more important than performing-and-listening but certainly a vital part of a good music scheme of work

Where I’m going with this

I’m looking to come up with some resources to help music teachers when they’re planning and/or reviewing a scheme of work, so a lot of my thinking at the moment is about the things that should be involved in that process.  I’ve had a look back at one of my old posts talking about design tenets and had another read of Anna Gower’s post about what should come first.  Keep checking the blog for resources that will help you in this process and please feel free to get in touch if there’s anything in particular that you’d like to see.  
the music education trinity of composing, listening and performing - teacher and musician