I teach knowledge, I foster creativity

A recent tweet from a composer at the RAM concerned about A-level music failing to prepare students to succeed as composers has prompted this blog post. I asked for greater clarification on this matter but it was not forthcoming. I believe we must open up a conversation here; we are all concerned with engendering a love of our subject and creating the future generation of musicians and music-lovers.

Directly related is the debate surrounding the return to a knowledge-rich curriculum versus 21st century skills (oh hey there, creativity). 

  • Is a knowledge-based curriculum at odds with the creativity we should be fostering in our musicians? 
  • Is this why the A-level music curriculum and assessment criteria are perhaps perceived as restrictive or stifling by some?
  • Are we stepping away from more creative pedagogies? 

Lamont and Maton (2010) found that many students still believe that musical ability comes from natural, innate talent. Some teachers and students believe composing cannot be learnt and taught, therefore influencing their own confidence in their ability to compose and teach composing (Devaney, 2018). This stems from and feeds into the idea of the ‘creative genius’ – Mozart, Beethoven et al. Dangerously, this notion extrapolates the compositional output from the knowledge that is a prerequisite of this creativity.

Creativity must come from knowledge. David Didau has written extensively on this matter. Knowledge does not always result in creativity; creativity is not an automatic by-product of knowing more, but creativity is impossible without knowing lots.

“All great minds throughout history that we celebrate as creative were already experts before they saw a new way of thinking or doing”


“creativity depends on and is activated by knowledge”.

Didau, Making Kids Cleverer, pp 186-7

Practice at applying this knowledge is also required. Creativity is a function of knowledge and practice. Therefore:

C=f(K, P)

Also Dylan Wiliam: “As E.D Hirsch points out, skill is content, and content is skill. The so called 21st century skills like creativity aren’t really skills. They are collections of skills that are specific to a discipline, and require massive amounts of content knowledge.” And “skills can be improved by the acquisition of more knowledge”. Creativity is the disposition of people who are very much trained in a discipline (Ohlsson, 2011).

Tom Sherrington has also blogged about the idea of creativity. He says the road to creativity is to focus on “maximising knowledge and encouraging practice. The more knowledge you have the more options you have for combining knowledge in original ways. The more practice you do, the better you get at it.” In relation to music this would mean teaching musical concepts and giving students the opportunity to practice using these concepts when composing. Listening to music is another important way to build this knowledge. 

Sherrington goes on to discuss how improvements in his own musical knowledge have improved his ability to compose: 

“…improving my knowledge of chord shapes… has allowed me to write various pieces of music”.

Sherrington adds an extra element to Didau’s formula; the disposition of the creator:

“…that willingness to explore, to try untested ideas, to take risks, to break from conventions, to go down the less trodden path”.

Sherrington, 2019

Therefore there are three factors which determine creativity:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Practice
  3. Disposition 

As Sherrington says, creativity should be regarded as an “emergent outcome” rather than something that can be taught per se. But it can, and most definitely should, be fostered. This is echoed in Claxton and Lucas (2014) and Lucas and Spencer (2017).

Brad Mehldau (2010) writes about the importance of knowledge to the jazz musician,  particularly the knowledge that is gained from a close familiarity with the repertoire: “The creative musician is a vessel of information… the input is all the music he or she listens to, and, more generally, everything he or she takes in – literature and other disciplines, emotional experiences and sensory stimuli. The output is what one will then produce after one takes all of that in.” Another argument for the importance of knowledge in the many forms it is presented to us. 

In addition, Mehldau discusses the idea of authenticity: “Authenticity is cherished, and authenticity is directly determined by how well a player has absorbed the “lessons” of his or her predecessors”. This means that the idea of authenticity, which is strongly aligned with creativity, is directly proportional to our knowledge of our subject, or more specifically the genre in which we are composing.

In my experience, mark schemes for GCSE and A-level music allow students to demonstrate knowledge and be creative in the way they apply it. Assessments by definition must involve a measurement of knowledge, however there is so much choice within this; choice of style, structure and instrumentation, for example. Students are able to create their own brief. The open-endedness of the tasks ensures creativity as a disposition can be fostered. GCSE and A-level composing coursework tasks are sufficiently open-ended that they allow for creativity. The mark schemes are asking students to demonstrate they have the required level of conceptual understanding to compose a piece of music; in addition they give the freedom to apply this understanding in a creative and innovative way. 

The innovations of creative geniuses such as Mozart and Beethoven were not god-given, but a product of knowledge (through lessons and exposure to a rich musical heritage) and hour-upon-hour of practice. From examining a wide range of GCSE , A-level and IB composing work it is evident that a lack of knowledge leads to a lack of creativity. It is always the students who demonstrate the ability to apply musical concepts who produce the most creative work. This comes from learning and applying musical concepts and/or from in-depth listening to the genre in which they are composing (ideally, both!).

Assessments seek to assess knowledge, without which we would not have any genuine innovation or creativity. Should part of this assessment include an evaluation of the process with less emphasis on the final product? Perhaps, but this is a separate argument and perhaps one that might form the content of another blog post.

Knowledge and creativity are not incompatible. This is why a knowledge-rich curriculum is the safest bet to foster ‘creative genius’ and the next generation of composers. The higher standards demanded by the newly reformed qualifications are there to support this idea. As teachers it is up to us to make sure we are equipping our students with this knowledge, giving them plenty of opportunity to practice applying it, and fostering an environment where creativity is valued. But most importantly we must teach the knowledge. 

GCSE and A-level music teachers are key players in ensuring the next generation of students go on the study music at university. Let’s celebrate these teachers and students. And going back to my opening point, let’s open a dialogue about the required and desirable skills of our future composers.

Key references

  • Claxton, G. and Lucas B. (2014) Educating Ruby. Crown House Publishing
  • Devaney, K. (2018) How Composing Assessment in English Secondary Examinations Affect Teaching and Learning Practices
  • Didau, D. (2018) Making Kids Cleverer. Crown House Publishing
  • Lamont and Maton (2010) Unpopular Music: Beliefs and behaviours towards music in education
  • Lucas, B. and Spencer, E. (2017) Teaching Creative Thinking. Crown House Publishing
  • Mehldau, B (2010) Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane https://www.bradmehldau.com/carnegie-06
  • Sherrington, T. (2019) Eureka! Teaching for creativity https://teacherhead.com/2019/02/02/eureka-teaching-for-creativity-c-f-k-p-d/

Published by Victoria Hughes Ed Blog

Head of Academic Music and EPQ, Bradfield College, Interested in teaching and learning, professional development, collaborative planning, lesson study and education research.

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