Music across the creative curriculum

Models of cross-curricular learning

Tokenistic learning

As Barnes notes, we should not really consider tokenistic learning to be cross-curricular. It is an exercise for the sake of it, not for adding any purposeful learning from the perspective of music. An example might be singing ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ at the start of a science lesson. 

Hierarchical learning

In some instances the way in which subjects are used together forms a hierarchy. In hierarchical learning, one subject is used to support the learning in another; as Barnes (2012: 140) describes: ‘playing the handmaiden’s role, humbly serving a more important subject’. Examples might include singing songs to learn the times tables. The focus here is not on the quality of the singing but instead of developing the mathematical skills. That is not to say that this is not valid – there are so many ways in which music could be used to support learning in another subject. 

It is not uncommon for a teacher to ‘teach the children a song on the Victorians’ or another topic. In some schools, this is unfortunately viewed as musical learning and is the sum total of music education. To be clear, unless there is a clear focus on developing something related either to the quality of the music or musical experience, or to develop specific musical skills or musical understanding, this contributes little, if nothing, to musical learning. Yet, as a way to learn the days of the week in French it is potentially very useful; likewise for learning phonics sounds, for example hitting a tambourine or boomwhacker every time the ‘sh’ sound is heard. 

The Sing Up song bank1 is tagged to be able to search songs by topic and age, which makes it very straightforward for a primary school teacher to find suitable material for a specific theme. There are many other published resources with a specific purpose, for example books of phonics songs and chants with ideas about how these might be used. 

However, music does not always have to be the ‘subservient subject’. In other contexts, other subjects might support the musical learning, for example drama games to help convey the mood of music or to help children understand the historical or social context of the music, or even bouncing balls around the classroom to mark the beat.  

Multi-disciplinary learning

A slight shift of focus from a hierarchical model can mean that the learning becomes multi-disciplinary, i.e. ‘several subjects are called on separately to bring understanding to a theme, experience or idea…[creating] powerful and emotionally significant experiences for the children and teachers’ (Barnes 2012: 141) and, through this, enabling learning in all included subjects.

There are many examples of this. In the examples above, the teacher may have purposely worked on the production of sound in the French days of the week song, or focussed on clear diction and the blending of voices.  In the example using instruments, the children may have been encouraged to really think about sound production and how the sound for ‘sh’ would be different for ‘s’ and ‘h’ when not blended. Using these three sounds, they could create a short piece of music. 

Using an example from Brighton and Hove, the annual Primary Schools Christmas Concert in 2014 included songs written using ideas from children in the City’s special schools working with animateur James Redwood.  The lyrics and ideas were based around life in the trenches, and children in local schools studied historical accounts and poetry from that time to help them understand both the history and the context. There was equal focus on development of musical quality – specifically part-singing, developing ensemble skills and conveying a story through their singing. A ‘powerful and emotionally significant experience’ was created through the inclusive performance of this new work with 1,400 children, singing, signing and through the use of assistive music technology in order for voices and sounds from all children to be incorporated into the work. 

Interdisciplinary learning 

The example shared relates closely to interdisciplinary learning, which Barnes (2012: 144) describes as ‘creatively combining the approaches of two or more subjects…subjects are not just applied to a single experience, theme or event but are combined in response to that experience’, leading to increased understanding in each subject.  Some significant and impactful examples of interdisciplinary learning can be found in the English Folk Dance and Song Society Resource Bank2, particularly those around The Full English3 and The Full English Extra4 work. These excellent projects brought together music, dance, drama, literacy, visual arts, geography, PSHE, and cultural and social history to encourage children to explore their past and develop new ideas. These projects really brought together tangible and intangible cultural heritage and encouraged teachers, pupils and communities to create bespoke, relevant and inspiring learning across the curriculum.  This comment from Ben Stevenson, Head teacher at Marton Primary School, sums up his thoughts about the term’s work that took place in his school:

'I hoped The Full English would be a way of bringing local history alive in a relevant and purposeful way, but it surpassed my expectations. It reached across the curriculum. It improved the standard of imaginative writing. It prompted us to start a community band. And it definitely deepened the children’s love of history … They could see themselves as a link in a chain that stretches back generations. That has given them another strand in their sense of identity and a renewed respect for the community.'

(Daubney et al., 2014: 8).

Opportunistic learning

This is learning which children bring themselves – Barnes (2012: 146) describes it as ‘child-led, unpredictable and including an element of risk’.  Early years teachers are often masters of this, taking elements of learning in the direction chosen as initiated by young children. In music education there is also much potential for this, especially because children bring their own music into school and into the classroom at various points – go and watch children choreographing songs in the playground, exploring sounds in their environment and humming and singing as they go about their daily lives. You could take any of these ideas and bring them into the curriculum – even if for short interludes or lesson transitions, or better still, as a basis for part of a co-constructed or negotiated curriculum idea with some learning goals that you have defined. These might be musical or related to many other subjects. 

Double-focus learning

Barnes (2012: 148) describes this as treating a subject ‘firstly as a separate discipline with its own rules, language and knowledge and second, in combination with other subjects’. In other words, the subject focused learning in music then leads into subject focused learning in another subject. In music there are many example of this.  An example might include where a piece of music has been used as a stimulus for pupils to explore their own ideas (e.g. thinking about the mood and how to create and adapt different moods to create a piece of music). Through talk, language relating to the moods may be emergent, leading into story openings and creative writing.  The same could easily happen the other way round – books and stories may generate ideas for creative music making.