To support learning in music education | Skolforskningsinstitutet

To support learning in music education

This systematic review is aimed at teachers who teach music in compulsory and upper-secondary schools. We have compiled national and international research on how teachers can support students’ musical learning. The curriculum states that that the aim of music education is for students to develop knowledge that enables them to participate in musical contexts.

This systematic review builds upon research that has studied teacher–student interaction in music education. The reason for selecting studies with this focus was that we wished to review research that is close to teaching practice and highly relevant to teachers in their work. We adopt a dialogical perspective on teaching, which means that teaching is understood as a form of goal-oriented activity in which students and teachers participate. The focus is on the interaction that occurs during activities in the teaching of music; how students and teachers interact and communicate. Our research questions for these activities are:

  1. What aspects emerge as crucial for students’ learning of music?
  2. Based on question (1), what didactical dilemmas in music teaching can be identified?

Question 1 is answered in Chapter 3, Results, where examples from actual teaching activities show what aspects of classroom interaction emerge as crucial for the students’ learning in the studies. Question 2 is answered in Chapter 4, Discussion and Conclusions, where we discuss the results presented in Chapter 3, on the question of what didactical dilemmas can be identified in the studies.

Results of the review

The studies in the review were all conducted in schools’ regular music lessons. However, classroom teaching differs across the studies, with different lesson content and students of different ages. In this variety of music teaching, four aspects emerge as crucial for student learning. These are:

  1. The framing of the teaching.
  2. Taking the learners’ perspectives.
  3. Teachers’ scaffolding strategies.
  4. Representations of the musical content.

The results of each study could be categorised under one or more of these four aspects, and we created the synthesis this way. In this summary, we bring together the description of each aspect, which is provided in the results chapter, with what is covered by the discussion in chapter 4, on the didactical dilemmas that were identified in the studies.

The framing of the teaching

The way that teaching is framed is important for what can be achieved in the interaction. The framing becomes visible in how assignments are constructed and presented, how teachers give instructions and provide feedback, and how students act and respond to the teacher and each other. The studies illustrate how framing can facilitate and restrict learning. The framing is created and re-created in the interaction between the teacher and the students. The students’ responses and the interaction between the students, teacher and musical material can affect the framing in the short and long term.

One type of framing features musical subject knowledge about the term ostinato, well packaged in a task where little space is given for musical assessment of sounding music. This task gives students the opportunity to learn how a musical concept can be used when creating music, but it gives them limited opportunities to develop their ability to assess the musical qualities of the music.

Significantly different framing is found in teaching in which the experience of music and how it sounds is central. In this framing, opportunities for learning were mainly observed as the students’ experience of being able to play a song together: a shared and enjoyable musical experience.

In another study, the students are also tasked with learning to play a song together, but the framing is different. Teaching is characterised by an informal learning ideal; the students work in a group and are largely expected to find the information they need themselves. The students still ask the teacher for help, but are told to find out how to do it themselves. The students did not progress in their work until they finally received help from the teacher, so this informal learning was likely to limit their musical learning.

Yet another study provides an example of how a framing that focuses strongly on demonstrating musical qualities can lead to problems with gender equality. The rock genre chosen by the teacher in this example is dominated by a masculine-coded aesthetic that the teacher and students appear to take for granted. This musical framing contributes to the boys taking more formative tasks while the girls choose – or are given – supportive, less expressive roles in the ensemble.

Taking the learners’ perspective

This aspect covers what the teacher can do to adopt the students’ perspective on teaching and content. Only when a teacher has information about how the student understands something can they provide support that responds to the student’s needs and experiences. The students’ perspectives emerge at different levels of teaching.

The studies include examples of what it means when teachers and students appear to have different understandings of how the task is framed, for example whether the task is open to the students’ personal interpretations or delimited by rules and instructions. Taking the students’ perspectives may also involve trying to understand their intentions, which can be facilitated by the teacher relating to the “student as composer” during students’ music creation, rather than to the “composition as a product”. This means that the teacher provides feedback on the students’ ongoing work, encouraging them to share their thoughts about what they want to achieve. Trying to understand what the students want to achieve and supporting them can also be described as relating to the students as participants in a shared activity. We also see examples of what can happen when a teacher does not adopt the students’ perspective on teaching and content, and when they do not meet through dialogue, which appears to limit the students’ musical learning.

Taking the students’ perspective can also be identifying the musical problems that challenge them, and the musical knowledge they need to solve them, which in one study is referred to as responsive teaching. However, we can see examples where a teacher – rather than introducing the musical knowledge the students need to solve the problem they have encountered (playing a chord on a keyboard) – helps them by pointing at the keys they need to press. This solves the students’ problem at that moment, but it limits their learning because it does not contribute to general knowledge of the subject.

As shown in one study, a teacher cannot take for granted that the students understand what he or she says or does in the way that was intended. One example is described in a study where the teacher, after every lesson, asks questions about how the student understood the lesson and its contents. This type of dialogue with the student group can also contribute to students’ musical learning by allowing them to experience each other’s perspectives on lesson content.

Teachers’ scaffolding strategies

This aspect covers the teacher’s strategies for further supporting students’ musical learning. Some of the teacher’s support consists of using questions that focus the students’ attention on certain musical qualities. The studies provide examples of both when the teacher’s questions contribute to the students’ musical learning by focusing the students’ attention on the musical content that he or she wants the student to learn, and when the teacher’s questions do not have that effect. Even if questions can function as a means of focusing the students’ attention on what they should learn, they may need to link to the students’ intentions and understanding of the task.

Systematic variation can also be a way of directing students’ attention. For example, by contrasting music that uses duple metre and triple metre respectively, to highlight the metre of the music. However, it is important to be aware that the variation the teacher intends to draw attention to may not be what the students perceive so, where possible, it is important to limit what varies.

The studies also show how questions can be used to break down problems that students are working on into smaller parts, making them easier to solve, as well showing how teachers support student learning by praising and encouraging the students in a way that helps them believe in their abilities and motivates them to continue working.

Representations of sounding music

This aspect of the interaction and communication between teachers and students demonstrates how musical content is represented in teaching. We understand the representation of a musical quality, such as a rhythm in the form of a gesture, as translating the aesthetic quality – rhythm – into a representation (a gesture). As a subject, music can be said to contain a universe of translations. There are translations from music to representation and from representation to music, and translations between different representations. These translations are central to the teacher and students’ joint creation of meaning and are necessary for students’ musical learning.

The studies included in the review show that language has an important function in interactions between teachers and students. One study demonstrates how the need for musical terms that communicate the musical qualities of music becomes clear when students do not know the terms for the musical quality to which the teacher wants to draw their attention. We can see in the studies that other forms of representation, such as gestures and onomatopoeic words, can function as a shared platform for further musical learning, when students do not have the musical concepts. Gestures are a form of deictic references, a form of expression that requires the people communicating to be present in time and space. The teacher introduces musical terms for what the students express through gestures, enabling learning that allows the students to communicate about these aesthetic qualities even in other contexts.

Another form of representation that appears to be important in the studies is graphic representation. One study shows that a graphic form of representation produced by a student, such as a painting, allows students and teachers to talk about what the student hears in the music. Graphic representations of the form and structure of a piece of music jointly created by teachers and students can support students’ musicmaking.

In the studies, translations to graphic representations are sometimes so central that they provide structure for the entirety of the teaching. For example, this is seen in teaching where sheet music has an important function when students are practicing a piece on instruments. In one of the studies, the notation comprised both traditional Western notation and signs created by the teacher, which were easier to understand than traditional notation. The teacher’s own signs become a shortcut to shared and enjoyable musicmaking. Here, there is a similarity with the previously described deictic references, as the teacher’s homemade signs can solve specific problems in a given context, but they are of limited use outside that context.

These studies also demonstrate the risk that representations of musical aspects replace what they are representing. In one study, teaching about the circle of fifths is conducted with no direct links to the music it represents. In another study, the form of representation – clapped patterns intended to represent different metres – become superior to the sounding music they are intended to represent. One study illustrates the challenge of using aurally perceived music, which is fleeting in itself, to represent an aesthetic quality.

In summary, we see that many of the review’s results are found in different contexts in music education. The same types of conclusions – on the importance of framing, of taking the students’ perspective, of providing support and translating between forms of representation – are shown in studies of ensemble teaching, musical creation and music theory. This leads to an overarching conclusion in relation to the review’s aim of contributing to improved music teaching: there is great potential to develop quality by focusing attention on interactions between the teacher and the students in the classroom. Otherwise, the development of teaching can easily come to mean developing new methods for teaching, planning and assessment.

Utilising the results

The research we have compiled in the review aims to contribute to teachers’ knowledge of music teaching, to provide perspectives on their own music teaching and how it can be developed. The studies describe, and provide an understanding of, situations in music education that we believe teachers will recognise in one way or another. This offers ideas about what the challenges are and what they need to be aware of and pay attention to. The proposed reflection questions in the review are all focused on classroom interaction – the teacher and student dialogue – and are applicable regardless of the age of the students or teaching content.

Selection of research

The review is a compilation of 14 research studies that were systematically selected after extensive searches in national and international research databases. Eight of the fourteen studies were conducted in Sweden, two in the US and one in each of the following countries: Norway, Singapore, Spain and the UK.

The systematic review is available as summary, information sheet and full report (in Swedish).

Project Group

The project team consists of external researchers (specialists in the field) and staff at the Swedish Institute for Educational Research.

External researchers

Cecilia Wallerstedt, PhD, Professor, Department of Education, communication and Learning, Gothenburg University

Olle Zandén, PhD, Senior lecturer, Pedagogy: Music, Dance and Drama, Gothenburg University

From the institute

Karolina Fredriksson, PhD, Project manager

Maria Bergman, Assistant project manager

Eva Bergman, Information specialist

Catarina Melin, Project assistant