Musical Futures

What’s Proposed:
This project aims to examine learner music engagement based on the Musical Futures pedagogy of informal learning combined with further expansive learning opportunities focused on “real world” inquiry, self-reflection, and peer feedback. Musical Futures originated in the UK and is growing in the music education community internationally. It aims to bring informal music learning practices identified by Professor Lucy Green (Institute of Education, University of London) to more formal school music programs. Musical Futures engages youth (aged 11-18 years) in relevant, meaningful music learning that connects in-school and out-of-school experiences. In particular, it focuses on experiences of learning popular music in the way popular musicians learn – through purposive listening and copying recorded music “by ear.” The criteria outlined by Green (2001) for informal music learning includes:

  1. Encountering knowledge and practices outside of a formal educational setting.
  2. Enculturation in musical practices through lived experience in a musical environment.
  3. Interaction with peers, family and others who are not acting as teachers in formal capacities.
  4. Self-teaching by developing independent learning techniques, and acquiring skills and knowledge.

We explored how adding an increased focus on “real world” learning to Musical Futures (i.e., learning that is problem or project-based, constructivist, and experiential) using transformative and participatory pedagogies, might help strengthen the connections between informal music learning and young people’s sense of themselves as musicians, their preferred approach to music learning, and an increased musical appreciation of the popular music musicians they admire.

How it is carried out:
In Phase One, we followed the Musical Futures approach referred to as “in at the deep end.” This means that music learners were given complete freedom to select their own friendship groups to work with, to choose their own song to learn to play, and to learn to play their song “by ear” with no music notation. During this initial stage, teachers were asked to hold back and observe at first and offer help and guidance only after the students had tried to figure it out for themselves and/or came to them with specific questions. In other words, the teachers become “resources” for the students as they engaged in a process of self-directed learning. Learners were asked to take initiative for making music and to engage in creative collaborations with their peers. At the end of Phase One, the students performed their songs for each other using an informal concert approach known as “Battle of Bands” – a concert where each band takes a turn “on stage” to impress the others with their musical skills. In this case, all the students supported each group in an effort that assisted each group in achieving their potential and best performance. Students came up with names for their “band” and came to identify themselves as musicians. Each group’s performance was followed by positive peer feedback that included teacher and peer commentary about what different group members did to make positive and notable contributions to the group’s overall performance of the song.

In Phase Two, we introduced student-led initiatives that were based on the frameworks involving youth-led participatory action research (YPAR). The objective of phase two was to allow students to explore issues such as authenticity, repetition, dedication and future musical opportunities. Students began by writing reflections, and common theme words to emerge amongst group members where then compiled into “word clouds.” Each group was encouraged to decide on an area of interest or “focus of inquiry” related to their song (e.g., comparing different recorded versions of the song, finding out about the lives of the musicians who were famous for recording the song, finding out about who composed the song, analyzing the various instruments or recording devices used in the song, and so on). In addition to their small group inquiry, each learner recorded his/her own reflections on his/her experience of learning the song throughout the process and at the end of the project. In the final part of Phase Two, each group was asked to consider a set of questions they would like to ask another band about the learning process. The question and answer session was held in the style of a press conference, whereby each group responded to questions from the floor and volunteered further information about how they went about learning their song together.

Participants were 44 Grade 7 students (aged 12-13 years) attending a co-educational independent school in British Columbia. The students had been learning to play a band instrument for four months prior to the start of the project. The research team worked collaboratively with the two music teachers at the school and frequently attended classes throughout the 10-week session. Each session was video recorded and reflections from the students and teachers were obtained. The students also competed a questionnaire at the beginning and end of the project that recorded their beliefs and values about learning to play an instrument.

Why it matters:
Results demonstrated that the students were challenged to think about different ways one can learn music, and this encouraged them to develop their own personalized approach to music learning. The students also experienced purposeful music listening and a sense of success at being able to “play by ear” – often to their own surprise. They came to understand that playing by ear is a different, but no less valuable, musical skill than reading music notation or following a more traditional “school band method” of learning to play an instrument.

The findings also demonstrated clear examples of transformative music engagement based on a framework proposed by O’Neill (2012). The students grew in confidence as musicians, with several expressing a recognition that they could now figure out methods by listening and working with others. They came to identify themselves as musicians and found a sense of “musical freedom” through the project. Many students also emerged as peer leaders, supporting and teaching their peers as they struggled with particular challenges. The students also developed collaborative skills by engaging in collaborative problem solving and creative explorations.

In Action:
A unit based on this work is now part of the participating school’s regular Grade 7 band program. In addition, students in senior music classes (Grades 8-12) are also participating in projects inspired by this research. We are currently preparing a handbook of materials to support this work by teachers in schools across Canada. We hope to encourage reflective practice networks for teachers interested in developing these projects in their classrooms.

O’Neill, S. A. (2014). Mind the gap: Transforming music engagement through learner-centred informal music learning. The Recorder: Journal of the Ontario Music Educators’ Association, 56(2), 18-22.

Other Resources and Links:

Musical Futures Comes To Canada – Engaging Students in Real World Music Learning 

The Musical Futures App for iOS (iPhone, iPod, iPad) and Android

More information about Musical Futures

Musical Future Twitter