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A Summary of Ofsted's Music Research Review for Teachers and Leaders

Note from Marc:

Writing this summary has been quite the challenge, which in itself represents the nature of music education in a way which is quite different from some of the other subjects I've written about. Music education is a vast entity, and although I didn't approach this task completely ignorant to features of music (my Grade 7 Violin and Grade 5 Music Theory have served me well 😅), trying to summarise and in many ways 'translate' some of Ofsted's wording was quite the challenge. Therefore, I wanted to point out that whilst I have included a summary of what I deem to be their most important points (particularly for my role as a primary curriculum leader), this might not be as clear as other summaries I have written. In addition to the research report, I have also used information from Ofsted's YouTube channel to supplement some of the information I have summarised.

I have also included a link to download an even shorter summary of the report, at the bottom of this post.

Useful links:


The purpose of good music education is for pupils to make more music, think more musically and become more musical.

Curriculum Planning
  • 🎶 Progress in music requires development across three ‘pillars’

    • technical: translating intentions into sound

    • constructive: knowledge of how components come together

    • expressive: quality, meaning and creativity


  • It’s important for children to be able to think both consciously and unconsciously (thought processes, memory, affect, motivation) about music.

  • Learning is a change in long-term memory - the most important enabler of development.

  • Changes to long-term memory occur through learning tacit, procedural or declarative knowledge. These form the curriculum content and knowledge base we need to consider.

  • Tacit knowledge is knowledge gained through experience.

  • Procedural knowledge is what is exercised in the performance of a task e.g. creating drum grooves

  • Declarative knowledge refers to facts and information e.g. styles, composers.

Tacit knowledge

This is knowledge which can be acquired through enculturation, often from an early age. It is knowledge that a child might not be aware of knowing, such as recognising a style of music without the explicit knowledge of its defining features.

Procedural knowledge

🎻 This is the know-how of music - playing an instrument, for example. Well-developed procedural knowledge depends on pupils learning procedures to automaticity so that they than can also develop expressive and technical competence.

🧠 Acquiring procedural knowledge is very prone to cognitive overload, restricting the amount of content which children are able to acquire on a lesson-by-lesson basis. For example, reading a piece of music presents many potentially overloading elements for a beginner. Automaticity enables new or challenging material to be learned without cognitive overload.

🎚 The level of challenge or diffculty is important: too much challenge and it’s likely that learning will be hindered; too little and motivaton can be affected. Certain difficulties can be desirable, as when appropriate they can focus the learner’s determination or understanding. ‘Little and often’ has a proven record of being a useful approach.

⏳ Generally, procedural proficiency - rather than expertise - can be gained relatively quickly. (A non-musical example might be learning to drive.) Whilst this means that procedural proficiency is therefore within the scope of a school curriculum, it also implies that substantial amount of lesson time would be required for practice. As practice is effortful, this has implications for how much time can realistically be spent in lessons, due to the effort required. Curriculum leaders should therefore be realistic about how much can be learned within the time available (in terms of hours across a key stage, for example)

Declarative Knowledge

🎼 Musical declarative knowledge includes notation, keys, chords, works and songs. The history and culture of music is important and is a signficant aspect of a broad and balanced curriculum which builds cultural literacy.

🧠 Having this knowledge in long-term memory allows complex concepts to be processed: it underpins advanced thinking.

🧪 Building declarative knowledge can be difficult to achieve - ‘like putting toothpaste into a tube’.

🗓 Pupils benefit from regular, spaced-out encounters with lesson content than to block the time.

🔄 Repetition is critical, as this enables pupils to reinforce their learning. Active recall through retrieval practice is one way of doing this, and the form of this might vary. In music, it could be as simple as producing a note.

Components and Composites

  • Components are the building blocks identified as being most useful for subsequent learning

  • Composite tasks should be understood as the complex activity which the components will combine to achieve - they are, as well, more than the sum of the component parts.

  • Identifying components can be a challenge for curriculum leaders and it is advised that they be understood as illuminating aspects of knowledge, rather than being reduced to being abstract and disconnected.

The Scope of the Curriculum

⏰ The report acknowledge that even the most generous of timetables provide a relatively short amount of music lesson, suggesting between 90 and 120 hours in total at primary school, and between 60 and 120 in KS3.

⏱ This means that in primary, children typically receive between 15 and 20 hours a year, and at KS3, between 20 and 40 hours a year.

⏲ The time limitations affect what can be achieved in any music curriculum and illuminate the importance of using the available time in the best way possible.

😣 Difficult decisions need to be made about what will be included to ensure that the curriculum is possible and to prevent it lacking any depth at the expense of its breadth.

👍 Some advice from the report is that:

  • mapping curriculum sequences to genres might not work

  • it is sensible to decide on curriculum goals and the specifics of the content, rather than having a principles-approach and assuming content will work to demonstrate these principles

  • the curriculum content will affect the form of pupils’ musical understanding

🧠 Cognitive load theory (CLT) has important implications for the scope of the curriculum as working memory is limited and affects how much children can learn, based on the amount of new knowledge and the prior knowledge a learner brings to the lesson. For children to be successful with complex thinking, they need to have had time to learn, practise and develop automaticity with the necessary component knowledge.

🎼 Schemas are the knowledge structures held in long-term memory. Schematic development reduces cognitive load, enabling progress to be made with more challenging tasks. e.g. finding the chord shapes on a ukulele frees up working memory so the learner can concentrate on another aspect of the music, such as singing.

🤯 Cognitive load is an important consideration for curriculum leaders, especially with regard to pupils from low-income backgrounds or with low prior attainment. Each step within the curriculum should be planned so that all pupils can access the learning, and time needs to be dedicated for consolidation.

🎶 The gradual introduction of new ideas, methods and concepts, taking cognitive load and time into consideration, will support the achievement of curriculum expectations.

Curricular opportunity is expanded by the development of concepts in pupils’ long-term memory.

Pillars of Progression

🎶 The report describes progress in three areas (pillars):

  • technical

  • constructive

  • expressive

⛓ These three pillars have significant cross-over as well as individual characteristics: they contribute collectively to ‘musical understanding’. They should not be understood as silos.

Robust, direct and incremental teaching underpins a good music education.

🎼 Pupils should acquire knowledge of music’s technical and constructive aspects within the context of music’s history and provenance.


This includes:

  • The technique of singing (posture, projection, control) and playing instruments (hand and body, control over the instrument)

  • Technical knowledge of music technology - understanding the music and the technology

  • Knowledge of technical systems for notation, tablature (guitarists) and programming (music technologists).

🎻 Technical progress includes sound production and the manipulation of sound, with the goal of pupils developing their ability to represent their imagination in sound.

🎶 Technical procedural knowledge should be carefully sequenced.

🎵 A challenge for curriculums is the extent to which pupils might be able to generalise across instruments and styles.

♯ Time is a significant consideration. It requires substantial practice for pupils to develop the fine motor skills on any instrument. Having shallow experiences with lots of different instruments will limit pupils’ outcomes. Narrower instrument choice improves the expressive quality of pupils’ sound production.

👂 Technical development also affects listening proficiency.

Technical - Communication

[The National Curriculum requires that pupils learn to understand and use staff notation (KS2 and KS3)]

Research from early reading can support with principles and processes for teaching how to read staff notation:

  • exploration of sound

  • familarity with music and musical activities

  • teaching decoding of individual notes

  • developing accuracy and automaticity

  • developing expressive quality

Throughout these stages, pupils will develop their fluency and independence.


This includes:

  • Knowing how music works - concepts such as scales, chords, keys, systems, forms and structure.

  • Both deconstructing and constructing music - analysis and creation

🎹 Musical elements include pitch, texture, tempo, structure, timbre, dynamics and duration.

🎼 These concepts can be developed throughout the curriculum journey through the use of well-chosen and numerous examples.

♮ Which elements to draw out and when to do so is an important decision for curriculum designers.

🎶 Schools should avoid organising their whole curriculum be single elements, though these may be the focus of a particular lesson. Instead, progression in understanding these individual elements should be enabled through encountering meaningful examples embeded within wider units of work.

Constructive - Composition

🧠 Composing is a highly complex and composite activity.

🎼 Working within tight constraints for composition can actually free up cognitive processing abilities, rather than overwhelm them.

⛓ Composition includes the use of constructive, technical and expressive knowledge.

🧩 Pupils make progress successfully when learning sequences plan for the component knowledge that will be used in composite tasks, lowering cognitive load. Curriculum sequences on composing should aim to develop pupils’ procedural knowledge through well-chosen components that have a clear purpose to the desired outcomes.

🤯 It can be a challenge for curriculum designers to decide on the component knowledge and its relationship with other components, and requires significant subject-informed judgements to be made. Schools must also consider the nature of creativity how domain-specific knowledge affects it.


This includes:

  • Knowing music’s provenance - its history, culture, social context, geography, purpose and meaning

  • Knowing how musical elements work together in an inter-related way to give musical expression

  • Applying technical and constructive knowledge to give music a personal meaning

🎻 It can be difficult to judge whether performance or composition is ‘good’ or not, but quality should always be the first consideration that teachers make when listening to pupils’ outcomes.

To develop pupils’ perfomances, the curriculum should:

  • secure highly-developed technical expertise

  • provide plentiful opportunities for listening to skilled musicians

Expressive - Creativity

⛓ Pupils need both constraints and freedoms when being creative. They need to know what to include as well as what they can miss out.

🤔 Teachers need to take creative risks and encourage this with their pupils.

⚖️ Pupils benefit from a degree of autonomy with how to use the tools they have been taught - too little and this can be limiting, too much and this can be unhelpful and unproductive.

Knowledge of Music

Pupils need to learn about the procedural aspects of music as well as its wider aspects, such as culture and history. The report suggests several categories of musical knowledge:

  • formal - the internal logic of the music itself

  • symbolic - its associations with events outside of music e.g The Last Post

  • personal - meaning which comes from personal experiences

  • social - the meaning music has within communities

👨🏻‍🏫 Teaching these aspects can be done alongside or separate to practical activity, though music-making is more important than music information. However, what is taught should be expected to be retained in the way that other aspects of the curriculum are. The report recommends stories, emotional engagement and activities commonly associated with supporting storage in long-term memory (active recall, spaced repetition, inter-leaving and retrieval practice).

SEND Education

There are some general principles which are particularly important for SEND learners. Namely, these are:

  • cognifive load theory

  • explicit teaching of curriculum ‘components’

  • clarity of instruction.

🔓 There is no one-size-fits-all approach; however, when barriers are identified and overcome, potential can be achieved. High expectations for all pupils are therefore so important.

📚 Research suggests the following strategies are important to consider for SEND learners:

  • breaking down tasks

  • reducing the burden on working memory

  • using appropriately supportive routines

  • using a combination of learning modes which enhance clarity or accessibility

  • the adaption of materials to ensure good challenge which is achievable.


The success of a curriculum’s implementaton is dependent on teachers’ effectiveness.

Teacher Effectiveness

  • Organisation

  • Teacher-pupil relationships

  • Memorable lessons

There are some high-impact features of curriculum implementation:

  • productive struggle - a desirable level of difficulty

  • cognitive activity - focus on what pupils are thinking about rather than what they are doing

  • practice opportunities with diagnostic feedback - practising the components of composite tasks


✅ Diagnostic feedback is one of the most significant learning opportunities a teacher can offer.

💬 Formative assessment is far more important in music than summative judgements.

💫 Feedback which responds to errors is a frequent form of feedback in music, and should be addressed at the component level. Clearly articulating these components supports teachers in identifying them in their feedback.

🥇 Using the idea of components allows teachers to assess declarative and procedural knowledge in identifying areas for feedback, without having to use summative assessments from compositve tasks.

👨🏻‍🏫 It is highly likely that children will benefit more from teacher feedback in music education due to the need for novices to receive feedback from someone which much greater expertise.

Pupil Attention and Motivation

Children’s attention is often limited and the effect of instant gratification from social media et al. is a very real consideration for teachers. This presents particular implications for teachers.

  • Pupils need good feedback when they are learning new material as they are often unable to provide self-feedback at this stage.

  • Keeping the surface structure of tasks simple and consisent provides more space for pupils to think about the crucial details.

  • Peaceful, calm classrooms are conducive to pupil learning.

  • Smartphones often have a negative impact on learning in the music classroom.

  • Pupils need to pay attention otherwise it is unlikely they will gain or remember the content of the lesson - though it is important to be realistic about levels of attention throughout a lesson.

  • Attention is influenced by peers: promoting group attention can encourage waverers to pay more attention.

  • Motivation affects attention and effort.

  • Good outcomes enhance instrinsic motivation.

  • Tasks which provide well-judged challenge have a positive impact on motivation and attention.

  • There is a case for offering some pupil choice in promoting motivation. This does not necessariy have to be at odds with a pre-planned curriculum, although teachers should use their judgment carefully about which opportunities should be provided to expand their repertoire.


Interestingly, the research review only refers to marked work.

It suggests that one purpose of marking is to judge whole-school effectiveness.

Summative assessment should be infrequent so that it does not detriment delivering the curriculum.

Testing pupils is a useful learning activity which supports pupils in retaining knowledge in long-term memory.

Primary and Key Stage 3

In EYFS, effective assessment is centred on supportive, encouraging feedback. Excessive assessment should be avoided with more time given to providing opportunities to learn and play music. Careful observation of whole-class activities could be a useful alternative - such as identifying which children are able to clap in time, for example.

In KS1, KS2 and KS3, schools need to decide on their own assessment systems. Summative assessment should be done frugally otherwise assessment might drive the curriculum. Whole-school policies on assessment schedules which are one-size-fits-all can also increase the likelihood of this.

Teachers should pay attention to progression in each of the three pillars mentioned earlier. There are three further considerations regarding assessing progress:

  • some aspects of progress are linear, others are not

  • sufficient time for consolidation needs to be provided

  • it is difficult to reliably judge musical quality, but this should not then place too much focus on one pillar of progress e.g. focusing on technical skill over quality.

Examination Years

Assessment at KS4 and KS5 should be focused formatively on components during earlier stages of learning, otherwise this could limit what students could learn.

School Systems

Effective subject and school leadership drives a high-quality music education.

Providing sufficient curriculum time is the first step - the non-statutory DfE ‘model music curriculum’ suggests at least an hour a week.

The idiosyncracies of music education need to be taken into account - the quality of music education can be distorted by the imposition of ill-fitting whole school policies and schedules of assessment.

The wider school experience of music is more similar to PE than to most subjects, with experiences such as clubs, workshops and trips being important contributors to children developing a passion for music.

Good music departments often provide three learning environments:

  • music in the classroom - the taught curriculum

  • tuition for instruments and singing, and membership of ensembles

  • musical events - such as singing in assembly, performing in concerts and shows, and trips to professional concerts.

In order to achieve this, music departments require flexible support from the school and its systems as they must be able to run lessons, ensembles and concerts with various size groupings and timings which conflict with other curriculum lessons or sit outside of normal school time.

There are significant financial implications of music education, particularly with ensuring equality of opportunity and social justice.

Teachers’ CPD is an additional consideration for primary schools as well as the provision of support for many teachers who do not feel confident. Findings from research signal that CPD which focuses on teachers as musicians will be beneficial, as this develops their confidence and understanding of how to deliver quality musical education.


You can download a high-resolution version of this graphic by clicking the link below.

Summary of Ofsted's Music Research Review
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Thank you , these are all really helpful

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