In this blog I think about the influential “Swanwick/Tillman Spiral “ and the lesser know discussion on Rock aesthetics by Andrew Chester (lesser known within music education books it seems) and the possibly even lesser well known discussion of musical composition and aesthetics by David Bracket.

I teach AQA music. It has this to say about assessment of composition:

20–17 • The composition is musically stimulating, interesting and satisfying. • The candidate demonstrates the successful and imaginative creation of musical ideas in relation to the Areas of Study and strand. • There is a sense of completeness in the music and there is evidence of development of the musical ideas. • Writing for instruments, voices and sound sources is idiomatic. • The score is accurate and contains detailed performance directions appropriate to the chosen style of the music.

16–13 • The composition is imaginative and largely satisfying. • The candidate demonstrates a sound sense of understanding of musical ideas in relation to the Areas of Study and strand. • There is a sense of wholeness in the music with some development of the musical ideas. • Writing for instruments, voices and sound sources demonstrates understanding of the techniques required.The score contains sufficient detail to reflect the candidate’s intentions, though some details may be missing.

The artificial valorising of the score needs little further comment. Its arbitrariness as a marker of quality in musical composition is something many music teachers would agree on. The inclusion of the need for a “score” reduces the value of a music GCSE. The phrase “appropriate to the chosen style” immediately highlights the contradictions. We can all point to thousands of compositions which don’t have any meaningful scores.

So what might “evidence of development of musical ideas” mean? Or even needing completeness? Why do we need to develop musical ideas and what makes a musical idea? Can a sense of wholeness and musical development mean different things to different musical styles and cultures?

The Swanwick/Tillman Spiral describes 8 levels of musical development.

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 23.30.13

The spiral highlights how composers move from structural surprises to coherent musical statements and novel harmonic systems or newly organised material. Swanwick notes how no level is qualitatively better but subsequent phrases are more complex. At level 7 shows that “Attention is focused informal relationships and expressive character which are fused together in an impressive coherent and original statement.” However at level 4 “Compositions will be fairly predictable and show influences of other musical experiences: singing playing and listening.”

The GCSE composition criteria owe something to the same spirit/ideological viewpoint as the Swanswick/Tillman spiral; a leaning towards the importance of structural coherence, a suspicion of repetition and using other resources. Many musics don’t ever reach level 8 – content as they are to display their own stylistic influences and use basic (or even no) harmonic sequences. It doesn’t take too much to wonder at the culturally specific leaning of this language and the rather suspicious mapping of the level 8 criteria with certain types of 20th century classical music.

For me both the AQA and Swanwick spiral are privileging structural wholeness, a certain kind of development and the promotion of individuality as a compositional goal. The spiral may be rigorously researched but its based on an understanding of a narrow reality. This puts popular musicians at a disadvantage – many aim to display their influences and deliberately use predictable harmonic sequences as part of their aesthetic. It’s not that level 8 is out of reach its just it isn’t valued as a goal.

“Completeness and development of musical ideas,” just what does this mean? There is something about this that leads teachers to pull students in a direction that places a false emphasis on structural and harmonic devices. Why is this? Where do my ideas about musical completeness and musical development come from?

Andrew Chester pointed out a distinction between extensional and intensional forms of musical construction. He argued that extensional musical development (which he aligns mainly with classical music) takes basic musical ideas and from that builds up complex structures. Whereas intensional music takes an already existing combination of chords, rhythm and melody and the complexity is created in how the modulation of the pitches and the subtle deviation from the beat are created. One example he gives: ”The 12 bar structure of the blues, which for the critic reared on extensional forms seems confining, is viewed quite differently by the blues man, for he builds “inwards” from the 12 bar structure not outwards.” Though we may not agree with the division between classical and popular music compositional strategies the distinction is useful.

We tend to privilege the extensional part of the spectrum when looking for complexity. Its harder to do justice to the complexity in subtle variations of melody or the rhythmic placement that take place over a groove. The advice for a student writing a 4 chord based song is to add a middle 8 which can show some development of harmonic language or maybe add a different melody and so on. Bracket’s analysis of James Brown “Superbad” outlines some of the complexities of this song in a manner which seeks to understand the compositional aesthetic which guides it. Brackett argues that much in analysis seeks to privilege the visual (the score) the syntax (harmony/melody/embellishment) and extensional development.

Popular music is viewed as compositionally inferior as it lacks these dimensions. The GCSE criteria and the Swanwick/Tillman Spiral tend to compound this inability to recognise the complexity of the music composed by popular musicians. Many teachers when moderating musical compositions do find it easier to find complexity in the extensional/syntactic and visual. It would be a brave teacher to send in a composition based on 3 primary chords and yet uses chord IV as the harmonic centre – almost as if the composer didn’t know that chord I was the tonic and the “home” chord. This is one of the features of Superbad – Brackett argues this is an example of ‘Signifyin.’

Brackett discusses the discursive space of black music. He notes that when many white missionaries in the States tried to teach hymns to black slaves, the slaves often got it ‘wrong’ singing in a way that did not adhere to the model that was given to them. He uses this history of racist positioning of black music making to inform the modern understanding of “African-American” music. He discusses how issues of musical difference were always remarked upon in accounts of African-American music making even when using similar musical devices to European music. He argues that this issue of difference cannot be ignored when discussing music. He notes how the widely shared ideas around black music can be used as way of dominating the other emphasising difference and stereotypes. He shows that at the same time it is also used positively as source of “identification, communal strength and solidarity.”

He uses this discussion to introduce his analysis of James brown and Superbad. For him Brown is an artist closely linked with black music in the 60’s and 70’s. He starts his discussion with the lyrics noting how here the lyrics illustrate the difference between Black English and Standard english. He draws upon Henry Louis Gates’s use of Signifyin(g) to outline the differences. He shows that in “Superbad we find an extreme emphasis on the materiality of the signifier, an almost lack of emphasis on narrative and on syntagmatic or chain like continuity.” He discusses an emphasis on “reusing and recombining stock phrases in in an original way from one context to another rather than on creating phrases that are strikingly original in themselves. “ This he calls an example of intertextuality. (122)

Brackett shows how commentators might have seen no melodic variation or any interest but that there are in fact many variations and slight alterations of phrases like “I’ve got it’, “I’ve got soul” and “superbad.” What his transcriptions show is that there is an amazing amount of subtle melodic variation in the repetition of what seem like simple melodic ideas – what he describes as “signifying”. He shows that the use of intertextuality, the deliberate use of stock phrases and musical ideas from other songs is a deliberate aesthetic choice which in this case, he argues, is also a political statement about difference and being black.

His analysis of Superbad brings in sharp focus some of the issues with the Swanwick/Tillman spiral and the GCSE criteria. The requirement for novel harmonic systems becomes a denial of a black aesthetic – a term which Brackett would continually question. Many discussion of James Brown note his use of repetition, they emphasis the “spontaneity ‘ and ‘improvised’ quality of his music. However closer, careful analysis demonstrates a carefully constructed piece. The lack of ‘completeness’ in the piece is a deliberate comment on traditional forms of harmonic proportions, and development lies in the many ways Brown varies the stock phrases and ideas he uses.

This questions our assessments – in what ways do we reinforce a largely Euro-centric version of excellence in composition and wrongly attribute to various forms of rap and modern R’n’B a “spontaneous,” “improvised” quality and lack of (structural) development? It questions how we structure our curriculum to enable students to reach these Eurocentric standards but also makes us rethink what we mean by spontaneous and improvised. How often do we hear an improvised quality to music when it is quite precisely constructed and composed. Do we educate students to under appreciate certain forms of musical development and privilege others?

It makes me wonder how often I advised a student to change their music making in a way that just leads them to a more “white” vision of musical aesthetics and standards. The common way whiteness seems unable to see itself and remain invisible is particularly problematic and difficult in music. In what ways do I continue the tradition of the original missionaries despairing that their slaves would not sing hymns properly.

It makes me wonder if expressing a black aesthetic – one that uses the kind of intertextuality and “Signifing’ strategies Bracket outlines – confines my students and denies them the highest grades. In trying to ensure our student gain the top grades how far are we erasing and denying central aspects of their identity?

Swanwick in his chapter in “Debates in Music Teaching” asks some reflective questions:

”Listen to some student compositions and performances. How useful are the cumulative criteria outlined in this chapter for evaluating them?”

His title asks: “What is musical development and can education make a difference?”

These are interesting questions in the light of Bracket and Chester.


The Swanwick Spiral can be found everywhere – For example Debates in Teaching Ed Spruce and Philpott.

The Andrew Chester Article (Second Thoughts on a Rock Aesthetic.) is in the collection of essays On Record eds Frith and Goodwin.

and the David Brackett article (Jame’s Brown Superbad and the double voiced utterance) I took from his book Interpreting Popular Music

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s