Celebrating 10 years of progress to understand how to help all young people to make confident progress in music.

To mark this 10th Anniversary of developments, I’ve decided to share the lockdown work of one of my year 10 students. I’m so grateful to the family for giving permission for the work to be shared. This is an amazing example of the musical learning and creation that’s been possible during the 8 weeks of remote learning. The video presentation of this work is available below…

Back in 2011, I’d been a head of subject for just over a year and I’d noticed there were several questions my students asked repeatedly. In my work, I would be asked these same questions over and over again, many times a day. Most of these questions were simple, such as ‘What is……?’, ‘Where do I start?’ (relating to composition), or ‘How do I make it sound ‘good’?’. These are fundamentals in a music teacher’s life to explain such concepts, but the traditional approach very much created a dependent relationship. 

I’d already learned that for true creativity to take place, students need to be independent. They need to be sufficiently confident about controlling the fundamentals of music to feel the freedom they need to invent ideas without fear. Questioning has an important role, but deeper understanding can be found if the answers to simple concepts are instantly available. 

My students just needed a place to look, but at that time there wasn’t a book to explain these things in a helpful and accessible way. There were books for music theory exams, for GCSE revision and for much higher level musical studies, but nothing for students aged 13-16, relevant to a wide range of learners’ previous or no specific musical study. So I began to write “How to understand music” – that was the original working title!

The first draft focused on defining the elements of music. Texture, structure, harmony and melody were the aspects students needed help to understand most frequently. I shared initial drafts with my students to add a new level of support and the response was positive, but it quickly became apparent that as much as they needed a place to look for information, what they really needed was to understand how all of these musical aspects could work together in a whole piece. 

I’ve already written in previous posts about how fortunate I was in the late 1990s and early 2000s to be invited to several major film post production studios. Many of these conversations began with my fascination of the process of how a creative idea could be developed into a final commercial product. One of the fundamentals I found was about ‘production values’. The process of production is the focus, approach and ethos of every edit and decision. This was gained by constantly listening, inventing, developing, and ensuring every small part is as good as it can be in the context of the overall purpose. With all the small parts working, the overall product is of the highest quality.

The process of composition became the focus, and in the next few years I wrote “How to Write Great Music – Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product”. 

In the summer of 2014, some of my GCSE students had done exceptionally well. A conversation began that would change how I teach composition. The students and I sat down to work out if there was a helpful order in which to learn about the different aspects of music to be able to feel confident enough to write a whole piece. We concluded there were indeed some aspects of music creation that could be controlled first, without needing knowledge of other areas. This was helpful as students could develop confidence and establish strong production values without needing to understand a range of different concepts. Further on, we learned why some elements were more complex to understand. In most cases it was due to a necessity to be able to control multiple other areas first. I.e. textural control and variation required melodic and harmonic control and development. More difficult aspects included structure, texture and harmony. 

The focus on ‘understanding melody’ very quickly became the game changer and also around that time, in a working group with other heads of music, we concluded that ‘control of melody’ (in any genre) was the most important aspect to be able to reach the higher grades in GCSE and A-Level music composition. If the melody wasn’t controlled or written with purpose, this restricted both the standard of the overall work and the musical options going forwards. In my time working as an examiner in the last few years, many students have clearly not felt confident in melody writing. The potential reasons for this is for another day.

Following the 2014 conversation, I wrote the original Progression Tasks Project and this became chapter 21 of my HTWGM book.

The original PTP was a list of 34 tasks that students would complete in order. They couldn’t continue to the next task until they’d proved they had sufficient confidence and control of the one before. Gradually they built confidence in the range and complexity of music they were able to write and they each had a copy of the book to have that ‘instant access’ to look up the music theory and concepts they needed to complete the tasks. 

The positive impact across a range of learners was vast and in the summer after we began to use the book, 100% of attending students passed the GCSE, with 70% achieving A or above. 

By creating this instant access to helpful explanation and a given process to build on their musical understanding, these students were able to independently develop remarkable music. My role of a teacher changed in those lessons. I was no longer someone who taught the same concepts over and over again, but instead a fascinated facilitator who engaged in deeper discussion about music in a wide range of styles. 

Those of you who’ve followed my work in the last 2 or 3 will know I’ve been working to develop a GCSE pathway for students wanting to use technology as their instrument. I have to admit, the original PTP project became less in my thinking, but as we returned to school (in September 2020), after Covid national lockdown 1, the students really needed a sense of the structure the PTP gave, but I hadn’t included it in their course so far. 

In November 2020, I began a review of the 2015 book. I found the book itself to be just as helpful as it was before and decided it was unnecessary to write a new edition for now, but I really wanted to challenge the students to go even deeper into composition and decided there was an opportunity to design an updated Progression Tasks Project.  

PTP2021 contains many of the original tasks. I’ve added more steps to help with the understanding of melody and included tasks requiring a demonstration of the music both in the written form and using technology. There’s a new column to confirm the evidence required to pass each task, an e-book of charts to complete and a series of on-demand YouTube videos creating access for every young person, not just those in my school. Just as in the original PTP, vocabulary is at the centre, encouraging students to use the most appropriate musical language as they explore, create, listen and compose their music. 

The project now includes an advanced composition section. Tasks 32-40 are designed to be accessible to all students, but to especially challenge those aspiring to a grade 9. 

PTP2021 was first used by year 9 and 10 students in January 2021, as we entered the 3rd National Covid lockdown. The progress of the 69 students was extraordinary and gave them much confidence at a time when learning had to be remote. 

To mark this 10th Anniversary of developments, I’ve decided to share the lockdown work of one of my year 10 students. I’m so grateful to the family for giving permission for the work to be shared. This is an amazing example of the musical learning and creation that’s been possible during the 8 weeks of remote learning. The video presentation of this work is available here       

The PTP2021 Task List and Chart E-book is available as a free download at www.davelowemusiconline.com

How to Write Great Music: Understanding the Process from Blank Page to Final Product is available here

Listen to the finished compositions of some of Dave’s students here

Access to the On—Demand videos for PTP2021 here 

A solution to help ‘students who are not actively playing or writing music’ to find confidence in the understanding of music theory and language

This amount of learning is vast for an 11-12 year old student. That every single individual learner is engaged and wanting to do more, is awesome. The learning potential of this approach with the addition of Kahoot is amazing!

When I think back to my own high school music studies, I felt the freedom to compose and had the confidence to perform, but I struggled to describe my music and developing confidence in music theory was a real challenge to begin with. This memory has always given me determination to understand the needs of my students and to find the level of ‘breaking-down’ each requires to grasp a musical concept. Having said that, I was an active musician, rehearsing, performing and composing regularly. The challenge for a ‘students who is not actively playing or writing music’, is significantly greater.

I’ve written a lot in the last couple of years about the two GCSE Music pathways we offer at Manor CE Academy, York. Ultimately both cohorts achieve the same AQA GCSE qualification, but one course is designed for musicians and the other for ‘students who are not actively playing or writing music’. The two groups learn in completely different ways. All can access the full range of examination marks, but their approach to musical understanding is very different, with the ‘students who are not actively playing or writing music’ relying more on technology to learn and perform.

One of my major development projects in the ‘Music Production Via Technology’ pathway is finding methods for students to truly understand how music works and how it is described by listening. Importantly, they don’t have the opportunity to ‘internalise’ music as is one of the key benefits of playing an instrument. 

The biggest successes until recently were my ‘WordWall’ and ‘Tune of the Week’. Wordwall became a visual focus for all music students from years 7-11. Its prominence, covering the whole of one of the classroom walls, showing its importance for use and the coloured categories for each element helping students to see terms in their element categories. This tool has always helped with spelling and to help students to learn which terms are related to each element. However, it is just words on a wall and teacher explanations and demonstrations are needed to bring it to life. Brilliant for a whole class demonstration, but limited if used alone for students’ independent further study, other than as a starting point for things to look-up.

‘Tune of the Week’ was instantly successful as it took away the stigma students have of approaching musical styles they don’t normally listen to. Students became quickly aware that the first thing they would be asked to do at the start of a new week of learning in music was to listen. It developed a curiosity of what the next piece to explore would be. In addition, by studying the same ‘Tune of the Week’ as students in other year groups, some students began to have musical conversations between age groups, which is great for building a musical community bothered about what they can learn together. 

‘Tune of the Week’ was also successful by students using the TOTW template to answer questions each week. Students ‘knowing where to look’ and how to read the questions are aspects I’d overlooked before. Students quickly became more confident about writing down musical language. Together with the WordWall they found they ‘knew where to look’ more quickly, which is so important when searching through the 516 possible answers. 

Each week the activity is marked by student/teacher discussions, which in a 1-1 situation would be fine, but the waiting time for others is far from ideal. Students keep the record of the wrong answer and type the correction in the next column. A conditional formatted cell turns red or green to allow us to quickly see students who need more support. As useful as all this is, the activity takes 20 minutes each week so takes up a significant period in the first of the week’s two GCSE lessons. A restriction is that all students are given the same help, the same feedback and the same time to read and answer questions. The listening materials on Spotify, without lots of editing preparation, can only be played as full tracks, which is often challenging for ‘students who are not actively playing or writing music’ to unpick, as they ultimately will need to do for their GCSE exam. It certainly isn’t as ‘broken-down’ as would be preferred. 

Students learn simple musical terms first, then recognising them into the element categories. It is one challenge to learn the right word in the right category and to correctly define it by listening in a musical moment, it is another to have the confidence to write it down, and further to have the confidence to write it in a concise, meaningful, grammatically-correct sentence. 

A better, new solution using Kahoot!

The addition of the Kahoot app, has been a further significant advancement in the last three weeks. 

I took two decisions. Firstly to convert my ‘Tune of the Week’ GCSE resource into Kahoot quizzes and then to expand the method into the KS3 programme to help students to grasp key terminology earlier. I’m also currently working on the possibility of a solution useful from year 3 to 16 that could be rolled out into primary schools to support them. Into the future, this would be the ideal solution to support each individual student’s progress in music. 

Kahoot quizzes are easy to programme. Each 10-question Kahoot takes between 15-30 minutes to programme, including the time it takes to add YouTube video links. There’s a really helpful bank of Getty Images photos to quickly search for within the app and it’s easy to find suitable images. For specific theoretical ideas I want to show, just as I would draw on a white board, I can draw on my iPad with an Apple Pencil and then upload the image to the question.

The opportunity to display part of a video or a fragment of a notated score helps students to focus on the aspect they’re trying to understand.

I’ve upgraded my Kahoot membership to ‘Premium’ to be able to offer challenges to 2000 people at once, which although so far used only within my own academy, will eventually be offered to colleagues across the trust and beyond (at no charge). The premium membership also gives me additional question types, including the ability to request a specific, correctly-spelled, typed answer in additional to the multiple choice selections. It costs me £48/yr.

Students must type the answer with the correct spelling to be successful. It is possible to program a range of possible answers.

The greatest feature however, is the ability to select a very specific start and end time for my chosen YouTube clip. Using this, in addition to giving my students a full length clip to play, I can isolate a specific few seconds clip to focus their listening on the required aspect in the question. For example, in a focus on a classical piano sonata I wanted my students to be able to recognise specific melodic devices such as: scale, sequence and arpeggio. I chose excepts that gave students clear examples of these. Once discovered within the quiz, immediately students chose to discuss these using the appropriate terminology and discovering their meaning inspired them to try to use them in composition ideas. One improvement I will suggest to the team at Kahoot is to allow students to re-listen to the shortened clip when reviewing errors – currently they can only listen once and then listen to the whole YouTube video.

In the first week, the Kahoots were instantly appealing to the students. We always talk openly about how helpful the different resources are for learning and this new approach has been positively received. However, students’ experience of Kahoot-type quizzes before had been seen as a ‘game of chance’, which was fun because you could choose a crazy nickname to appear on the big screen and have some kind of online game-play in a school lesson. For this reason it was initially a challenge to encourage students to actually read the questions and answers, rather than just guessing the answer and watching the game unfold. I tweeted to suggest a period of time could be programmed into the game to prevent students from answering without thinking time. This was echoed by others online. 

But there was enough in that first week to suggest that this could be a very helpful tool, if I could solve the timing problem.

That solution was found by using the ‘student-paced challenge’ option. Rather than starting the quiz all together in the lesson, students received a link from me through Showbie a couple of days before the lesson. I could programme sufficient information to allow the students to begin independently and despite not sharing this plan, many students engaged without prompting. When I explained to the students that the question timer had been switched off, it was greeted  with much appreciation. Students told me how frustrating it had been that they didn’t have time to read and think before answering. The ‘student-paced’ option had majorly ticked the ‘differentiation’ box, as all individuals could take the amount of time they needed. Some students asked questions to confirm they had understood what was being asked and results were much higher instantly. It also became possible to be a ‘reader’ for those students who had that as an exam concession without the need for additional TAs.

Puzzles challenge students to sort information into a correct order to prove understanding. In this example the challenge is to sort the 4 2-bar phrases into the correct structure.

Another great part of the new challenge format is the instant opportunity to review the questions and audio clips they hadn’t understood. For many, this was the first time they’d understood what a sequence was in music and they now had an example to revise from. When played other examples, they could now identify all the melodic devices with more confidence. 

We’ve yet to test it, but the additional challenge to repeat the quiz 7 days later sounds like a good idea to consolidate learning. 

I tweaked a few things by the end of the 3rd week of testing (based on students’ feedback). The most helpful is routine. The successful routine for the KS3 experience is as follows:

All students arrive with better punctuality, looking forward to their music lesson

All students know the expectation to enter and begin their Kahoot at their own pace, recognising that the knowledge they’ll develop will help them in the practical work 

Students have 10 minutes to complete the quiz and revisit any problems, ask questions etc. (note the reduction in time from the original Tune of the Week)

I use the Apple Classroom app to lock all student iPads, which is their cue to move to sit at the front of the class

I model the practical task, directly based on the understanding developed in the Kahoot. This part of the lesson is short but allows time for whole group discussion with merits given for students who can confidently describe key aspects using the correct terminology

A set period of time to complete the practical task (15 mins max). The first 10 students who complete the work to the required (high) standard receive merits and become ‘Mini Mr Lowes’, spreading out across the room to support those who need help or have questions. Mini Mr Lowes may choose to develop their understanding further by solving problems with others or attempting more advanced tasks. All students have opportunity for feedback and help within the lesson. The environment for learning is electric and absolutely every student is on task.

We repeat the Kahoot at the end of the lesson to consolidate learning, as another chance to win merits and enjoy being able to confidently answer together. This is a choice for students – some prefer to continued to develop their work.

The lesson ends and it is a genuine challenge to get students to leave for their next lesson!

Students’ focus at the start of GCSE music lessons is improved by having the student-paced Kahoot at the start.

The most exciting aspect is the amount and depth of musical learning made possible for all learners. To show an example of this, these are the concepts covered in last week’s 1-hour music lesson for year 7.

  • Understanding a bass guitar, including discovering how it’s different to an electric guitar
  • Understanding the role of a bass guitar in a band, including how the bass player will listen to others to make their part ‘fit’
  • Understanding how to read bass notes from a lead sheet
  • Understanding and reading bass notes written on staff notation
  • Understanding note durations and rhythms including relevant terminology
  • Understanding metre and beats of the bar including helpful methods of counting
  • Understanding quantisation values and using them appropriately
  • Engaging in critical listening and based on findings, making musical improvements
  • Performing to a given pulse
  • Recording a musical part to fit dynamically and rhythmically with other parts
  • Editing a musical recording using technology to adjust note lengths and velocities
  • Understanding the process to develop a high quality music product
  • Understanding a positive workflow with frequent listening at the centre
  • Understanding the construction of a popular song
  • Understanding methods to develop work together as well as independently

This amount of learning is vast for an 11-12 year old student. That every single individual learner is engaged and wanting to do more, is awesome. The learning potential of this approach with the addition of Kahoot is amazing! 

More to come I’m sure…

Students at Manor CE Academy discussing analysis of Copland’s “Saturday Night Waltz” using Kahoot!