Designing an effective music curriculum

Curriculum design for music has never been more of a hot topic! Many schools are asking what makes an ‘effective’ music curriculum, the first answer to which really has to be ‘it depends on your school!’

Designing a curriculum: things to consider

While it’s important to have an ambitious curriculum, it’s also equally important to be realistic. If you are a state primary school with no music specialist, limited resources, and limited curriculum time your version of ‘ambition’ is not going to look the same as a well-resourced and specialist staffed independent school which may have a greater number of teaching hours in the day! However nor should it look the same, as your curriculum should be specifically designed to meet the needs of your pupils, and it cannot do that if you are unable to deliver what you have planned!

In order to design an effective curriculum, you will need to think about both what is realistic now in your school and what you would like to become realistic in the future. Maybe right now you are a secondary school with music on a carousel, so you can only fit in a limited number of topics, but your aim for the future is for music to become a weekly entitlement for all pupils. Knowing what your ambition for the future is will help you to plan the practicalities for implementing it when that future arrives - you may need to recruit additional teachers, develop additional teaching spaces, buy more equipment etc, and these are not things that can be organised on a whim overnight.

Essentially, curriculum planning for music isn’t just about the curriculum; it’s about staffing, CPD, resourcing, and all the other practicalities that make your subject ‘work.’

Where to start: Intent and Impact

Well before you plan what to teach, you need to consider why you are teaching it. It’s worth spending some time articulating your vision for music, and how that fits with the wider whole school development aims that you might have. Maybe you teach music in your school simply because you think it’s important for pupils to have musical skills, maybe it is a key part of your wellbeing package for pupils, or maybe it’s more about social justice and offering pupils opportunities that they might not have access to elsewhere. Each school will have an individual set of reasons why music is an important subject for their pupils to study. You can work these thoughts up into a list of bullet points which articulate what your pupils will be able to do when they leave you, and this can become the basis for a curriculum impact statement. Then armed with this, you can begin to draw up your curriculum intent statement, which encapsulates why you believe these outcomes are important for your pupils.

Pedagogical considerations: Implementation

Music is one of those subjects where there are seemingly a million competing methodologies and approaches, and it can be hard to see the woods from the trees when designing your ideal curriculum! However, the good news is that most methodologies, approaches, and resources are underpinned by the same core principles:

  • Music should be planned as a spiral curriculum, where concepts return repeatedly over time at greater levels of depth and complexity.
  • The music curriculum should be predominantly skills-based, with the majority of the time given over to practical musical activity.
  • Progress in music is not always linear, we need to consider depth and breadth of learning too.
  • Music is not a set of disparate skills, performing, composing and listening skills all feed from and towards each other, and our curriculum must therefore be planned to integrate these.
  • Our music curriculum must contain the ‘best’ examples of different genres of music, to provide ‘cultural capital’ for our pupils whilst also ensuring that the curriculum is decolonised, and that all forms of music are respected equally, wherever in the world they come from.

When designing your own school’s curriculum you will need to make decisions about which concepts form the core of your spiral. Many schools choose the ‘interrelated dimensions of music’ as their recurring topics, returning to dynamics, structure, texture etc at greater levels of complexity over time. Others choose particular musical styles to return to instead, with recurring topics on ‘The Blues’, ‘Musical Theatre’, ‘Film Music’ appearing throughout the year groups. Some schools even choose to base their spiral around the different musical skills of performing, composing, and listening, however if you do take this route it is important to remember that we need to be doing all of these skills little and often to get the best progress, so a ‘performing’ topic should still include listening and composing even if the ‘performing’ aspect is the main focus.

Pulling it all together

Once you have the base of your spiral, you can then devise the content of your curriculum, ensuring that it is delivered through practical activity, encourages depth and breadth of learning, covers all the skill areas, and includes a range of examples of 'the best of' different musical styles. You should of course remember to refer back to your intent and impact statements throughout this process, to ensure that the way you implement your curriculum is going to deliver your intended outcomes and fulfil your vision for music in your school.

Dr Elizabeth Stafford, December 2022. Copyright © 2022 Music Education Solutions Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Further information and support:

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