The Ofsted Music Research Review

This is written by music specialist, Dr Liz Stafford.

In a new departure for the inspectorate, Ofsted began publishing a series of research reviews in April 2021, with the aim of collating current subject-specific research evidence that might help subject leaders with their curriculum planning. The Music research review was published on 12th July 2021, and in this blog, we summarise the key takeaways from this document that are relevant to primary music subject leaders.

Ofsted states that:

‘this review starts from the assumption that a central purpose of good music education is for pupils to make more music, think more musically and consequently become more musical.’

This is great news for primary music as it reiterates that it is a practical, skills-based subject and provides an alternative approach to the messaging coming from ministers and the DfE of late (particularly with the publication of the Model Music Curriculum), which places emphasis on listening to, learning facts about, and reading and writing music.

The review begins with an interesting point that music is often appreciated for its wider benefits, but that this is not always helpful ‘if it encourages a view of music as existing in the service of other subjects and competencies.’ The review also casts doubt on whether some of the common claims made about the benefits of music are actually valid. This is interesting given that one of the things Ofsted look for in a curriculum is how it promotes transferable skills.

Ofsted’s view is that ‘what can be said with a degree of certainty is that learning music is good for becoming more musical. Playing the piano is helpful for improving piano performance, singing in a choir supports becoming a good choral singer and writing lots of songs is a foundation for expertise in songwriting. These are wonderful things in and of themselves and need no further justification.’

The review goes on to identify ‘three interrelated pillars that provide the foundation of a musical education’ and states that progress in music requires pupils to develop musically across each of these through the activities of performing, composing and listening.

  • Technical Pillar: competence in controlling sound (instruments/technology) and use of a ‘communication system’ (notation).
  • Constructive Pillar: knowledge of the interrelated dimensions of music and the components of composition.
  • Expressive Pillar: musical quality, musical creativity, knowledge of musical meaning across the world and time.

Each of these pillars is dealt with at length within the review, exploring a range of research materials to establish how they can deliver progressive musical development over time.

Published at a time when there is a focus on ‘knowledge rich’ curricula, this Ofsted research review looks at how tacit (experiential), procedural (skills) and declarative (facts) knowledge can help pupils ‘become more musical’. It is really helpful to see types of knowledge broken down in this way, as the ‘knowledge rich’ approach can often result in reducing the curriculum down to the gathering of facts for regurgitation. This also reflects existing theories of musical knowledge (Swanwick et al.), which acknowledge that in music there is:

  • knowledge ‘how’ (skills/procedural)
  • knowledge ‘about’ (facts/declarative) and
  • knowledge of (links to, but broader than, experiential/tacit).

The Kapow Primary Music scheme of work is based on these three types of musical knowledge and, therefore, also covers the types of knowledge listed in this Ofsted research review. While we do offer supporting documentation for a declarative (facts-based) approach, such as knowledge organisers, catchers, and quizzes, our curriculum embraces the broader definition of knowledge as outlined in this research review, and is predominantly procedural (skills-based), delivered through tacit (experiential) and instructional learning. It is great to see Ofsted reinforcing this type of approach in their research review!

Another useful aspect of this review is that it acknowledges that the amount of time available for the music curriculum is already scant, with most primary pupils receiving just 15-20 hours a year of music teaching. The review reiterates throughout that schools should not try to do too much in the little time that they have available but should instead adopt a ‘less is more’ approach, focusing on repetition and consolidation in order to develop schemas and reduce cognitive load. Whether or not you buy into the cognitive science trend that is sweeping education at the moment, there is a long tradition of research supporting the adoption of a ‘spiral curriculum’ in music, where concepts and topics are returned to regularly at gradually deeper levels of understanding each time. The Kapow Primary music materials are based on a spiral curriculum delivered through a range of musical traditions, styles and genres, meaning that schools can use the little time they have available for music to provide both depth and breadth of learning.

The Ofsted research review certainly contains a mine of information about music curriculum planning, teaching, and assessment strategies, and music subject leaders are likely to want to read the whole document.

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Written by:
Elizabeth Stafford

After a brief spell as an opera singer, Liz embarked on a 20-year career in music education, teaching at early years, primary and secondary. After Liz had her daughter, she started her own business Music Education Solutions® Limited, helping teachers across the UK deliver music with confidence. Liz teaches Foundation Stage and KS1 music in a primary school, and is also Programme Leader for the largest Level 4 Certificate for Music Educators centre in the world! She is Editor of Primary Music Magazine, a writer for Music Teacher Magazine, and a reviewer for the British Journal of Music Education.


Elizabeth has created lesson plans and resources for a wide range of Music topics including KS2 projects on musical theatre and lessons to encourage pupils to create musical compositions to represent Holi.