Very few people can be the best: everybody can be exceptional

“I'd quite like to be a sweet, or a horse, or a song, or a decoration - any decoration - or paint. Indigo paint. Paint lives for ever, doesn't it.”

So said Ruby, aged 5. Young children’s minds wander, wonder, explore, invent, dream and try to work things out. They’re fascinated by the things around them but, as yet, their thinking is not ordered by the way society works and thinks about things, or at least not as much as our adult minds are. In the space of the time it takes to say one short sentence, that child imagined themselves being an inanimate piece of food, an animal, a sound, an aesthetic physical object and then finally, paint. And she was interested in paint, partly because of its colour and paintyness, and partly because it lives forever.

What careers advisor would ever encourage you to think in such diverse terms as those?


Children’s journeys to adulthood

Of course, even with science progressing apace as it is today, Ruby is unlikely to end up as a horse or a sweet. But the fact is that the diversity of careers and employments today is far greater than it was when anyone reading this was aged five.

And that diversity is set to expand further: long-term forecasts and models around the global labour marketplace are predicting, quite widely, that technology will be able to take on perhaps 50% of the work of today’s doctors, to say nothing of the work of manual workers. Globalisation and the internet have opened up incredible new economies of scale: Apple has a similar annual turnover to the NHS but only employs around 50,000 people, compared to the NHS’s 1.7 million. What if more organisations operated like Apple and fewer like the NHS? There wouldn’t be anything like enough employment for the 9 billion people of 2050.

This is a gross oversimplification of course but, for me, it is one of the many things that points to the fact that today’s children are going to be doing things when they’re adults that we have little idea about now.

When I learnt French at school, we learnt words like farmer, doctor, accountant, shopkeeper to describe what our parents did. That may change. It’s the job of education to help children to prepare themselves for what may come: to help them to be creative, resilient, skillful, entrepreneurial, social, resourceful, strategic, exceptional.

Education: focusing on becoming adults rather than being children?

But often those kinds of attributes are only the peripheral nice-to-haves in education today, where we tend, instead, to focus on children reaching relatively fixed, specific and narrow attainment targets: being able to read, GCSE grades, professional qualifications etc. – national, comparable standards of attainment.

There are often good reasons behind these – the need to be comparable across the country, the need for schools and employers to understand qualifications - but they are only part of what children will need. With the future diversity of employment, we don’t need a small number of people who are best at a small number of things and a whole lot of other people who aren’t as good at them; we need everyone to be exceptional at the different things they could be.

Very few people can be best; everybody can be exceptional. Exceptional is not second to best; it's just individual. Whereas best is, necessarily, exclusive.


What do we mean by progress and progression?

And what’s this got to do with music in the early years and with musical progression?

Well, when people think about progress and progression they invariably have in their minds some kind of destination. Eh? I think you can define these two nebulous terms very simply: progress is getting better; progression is moving forward. The key questions then tend to be “at what?” and “towards what?”. “What should we be looking for children to get better at?” “Where do we want children to have progressed to by the end of the year?” And to think in those terms means, in most cases, that you have to think about defining your destination points: e.g. we’d like children to be able to read, to get GCSE grades, to sing in tune, to have professional qualifications, etc.

In the long term, I’ve suggested, we really don’t have much idea about what those destination points are: the career ladder has turned into an entrepreneurship cloud. But the same principle operates on a much more immediate level too. If we worry too much about where we’d like children to get to, we’ll probably miss out on what they actually can, or could, do.

If we worry about children being best at a small number of things, we’ll probably not help them to become exceptional at what they could be.

Focus on being, rather than becoming, and then the becoming will come.


Being musical: what is that?

Having been involved in music education for quite a few years now, I’ve probably met quite a few hundred people who’ve told me they’re not musical. And quite a lot of them have told me the same story about how when they were at school they stood in a line singing and got a tap on their head from the teacher, which meant that they were no good and should go and sit down. No school choir. No good. Not musical. End of that chapter in their lives.

This story says a lot of different things. One of the main things is that the prevailing definition of being musical is being a convincing musical performer: someone who performs music with technical skill and well-honed ability. “If you’re not one of those, you’re not in my choir”.

Think of a musical person. You probably have in your mind a singer, instrumentalist, pop star, orchestral musician, rap artist etc.; probably not an accountant who hums in the shower; probably not a two-year-old who taps everything she finds to hear what sound it makes. Being musical is much more than being a recognisable musician performing on a stage but it’s this image that most immediately comes to mind when most people think of a musician.

It’s true that for many people, being able to do something with that musicality means developing a technical proficiency with an instrument or their voice or some technology or a group of people. But that doesn’t mean to qualify as being musical you have to have developed some technical proficiency in music.

Being musical is about listening, expressing, experimenting, collaborating, feeling, making, singing, creating with and in response to sound. Everyone will have their own definitions but it’s important to consider that every time you try to help someone with something musical, drawing on your judgements of what they’re doing musically, you’re relying in the back of your mind on what you think being musical is. The image of the pop star, or whoever, is influencing the ‘destination’ towards which you’re helping that person to progress. What are your musician images? What are those destinations?

In the same way, people’s definitions of ‘the musician’ also influence how they rate their own musicianship. “I’m not musical” might often more accurately be “I’m not musically confident”, or “I’m nothing like my own definitions of what I think of as a musician, therefore I don’t think of myself as musical”.

But very few people don’t enjoy listening to music or can’t say what particular kinds of music they do and don’t like. A miniscule proportion of people have a rare condition where the presence of music provokes an immediate strong reaction of disgust or discomfort. Another rare condition – musical anhedonia – means that roughly 3% of people have little or no emotional reaction to music. And only about 4% of people are actually ‘tone deaf’ in the professional estimation of acoustic scientists – far fewer than will tell you they think they are. Think, for instance, how much musical thinking you do every time you interpret someone’s sentiment from the tone of their speech.

Music isn’t something that belongs to professional musicians or music teachers. It belongs to you.

Which children are musical?

A few years ago I saw, courtesy of a Finnish Neuroscientist called Minna_Huotilainen, some extraordinary images of newborn, one-day-old babies with tens of wires stuck to their heads. Peculiar though it looked, this fascinating and harmless research had found, amongst other things, that at the point of birth, children – just about all children it seems – have incredible aural abilities. They can detect minute differences in musical pitch. They can respond to musical patterns. Their cries imitate the speech melodies of the voices they heard in the womb, particularly of their mothers. (If you don’t believe me, think of how parents can quickly read their babies cries for different messages, or of how babies can respond to different tones of speech – angry or soothing.)

These are the three abilities – aural perception, musical pattern recognition and analysis, and accurately imitating sounds – that are essential musical attributes.

In other news, anthropologists and social scientists have frequently identified that musicality – in different guises, in different shapes and sizes, in different cultural forms and functions – seems to be common to most of humanity, present and historic.

Elsewhere, neuroscientists looking not at music but at the brain as a whole have nevertheless found that music seems to have a special ability to stimulate what is called our ‘old brains’ – the parts of the brain that deals with very basic functions like breathing.

So it looks as though musicality is a pretty fundamental part of who we are as humans. Instead of asking “who is musical”, or “which children are musical”, perhaps we should be asking “how are they musical?” In other words, maybe it’s the narrowness of our own definitions of what musicality is that prevents us from seeing how other people – including children, or ourselves – are musical. If we can’t see how they’re musical, we’re unlikely to be able to do anything positive about it.

And if music stimulates such basic functions in our brain – penetrating deep inside us – is it any wonder that we feel as strongly about the music that we feel strongly about? Perhaps “this child is not musical” is actually “this child is not musical in the way I’ve come to value musicianship with music that I like”.

If virtually all children are born musical, what if we – parents and educators – knew how to and wanted to help them develop that musicality - not all of them to be musically the best, but musically exceptional as themselves?

Listening to children’s own musicality

“I'd quite like to be a sweet, or a horse, or a song, or a decoration- any decoration - or paint. Indigo paint. Paint lives for ever, doesn't it.”

One of the things I like about that opening quotation from five-year-old Ruby is how clearly you can hear (I think) what she’s thinking – you can follow the journey her mind is taking. Listening to children’s own musicality, which is often not the same as listening to children making music that we like or understand, must be one of the first steps to helping children’s musical progression. But it isn’t always easy, or obvious.

Colwyn Trevarthen and Stephen Malloch’s work on Communicative Musicality is a good example of this. They have shown, startlingly convincingly, how from the earliest age children communicate through sound, through proto-speech, through musical sounds and melodies. They’ve shown that if you carefully analyse the dialogue between parents and very young babies – sometimes called motherese (as in Japanese) – you can see consistently that babies are not making arbitrary sounds and merely trying to imitate their parents, but they are seeking to make conversations and interacting with those people around them. In other words, if we pay attention to and listen to babies, we find they are talking to us, singing to us, making music with us.

The same research has also shown that if we don’t listen to children’s musicality, they will stop communicating with us. Imagine the following conversation between two people:

“Hello, what’s your name?”

- “Yes, how lovely, what’s your name?”

Er, yes, so what’s your name?”

- “Mmmm, Oooo, what’s your name?

“So will you tell me what’s your name?”

- “Very good! What’s your name?”

“I give up. I’m off.”

The first person is trying to spark up a conversation with the second person. But the second person doesn’t understand and just keeps on repeating the first person with patronizing compliments and tone of voice. After a while, the first person gives up. This can happen between a young baby and a parent: the baby is trying, not just to make a sound, but to communicate and set up a dialogue. But the parent doesn’t understand and just imitates. After a while the baby gives up.

In the same vein, children sing to themselves and to each other, they make up words, they listen to sounds with an untainted naivety that we can no longer hear, they tap things, they bang things, they pull things, they experiment with mechanics and rhythms, they hear atmospheric sounds that we’ve learnt to tune out, they pick up and reproduce the sentiments of adult speech with remarkable accuracy, the hear and learn words and sounds that they will only reproduce much later, and they generally understand language long before they can use it themselves.

We can tell them to be quiet, or we can listen and respond. We can show our disapproval and tell them it’s no good, or we can encourage their ideas and inspire them with new materials and experiences.

There are two early years music approaches that I’d mention here, both of which are well known.

The first is Nancy Evan’s work on Tuning into Children, which is about finding ways to listen into children’s musical worlds and, most importantly, to get beyond the “Oooo, what’s your name” and responding rather than just imitating.

The second is Sightlines’ work on the Drama of Sound, which is about carefully and open-mindedly co-working with young children to explore and develop their musical ideas and musical abilities.

Purpose and motivation: the ultimate driver for learning

People in education, particularly in early education, often talk about child-centred learning. In fact, children are always at the centre of their learning – it is only they who can do the learning and no one else can do it for them. But they are by no means always at the centre of their own education, at least as far as some of the other people involved in that education are concerned.

This is not the space to go into child-centredness but I don’t think a discussion about progress and progression should go without mentioning the importance of purpose and motivation. Put simply, people learn most effectively when they themselves have a purpose and motivation to learn.

In the fictional conversation above, the baby gives up when her conversation descends into mere repetition: it has become pointless for her. If the boy tapping on all the pipes and tubes he has found is told repeatedly it’s an irritating waste of time, he will stop investigating the sonic properties of different materials. When the children standing in the line singing their hearts out are told there’s no way they’ll get into the choir they give up for decades. When children are taught a song that their teacher loves but which they neither like, nor understand, nor can associate with, nor see any relevance in, they will struggle to learn it.

Conversely, if children are in an environment with interesting and beautiful instruments and objects that they can explore, perhaps with some guidance and suggestion from an adult, they may be minded to find out about instruments and how to play them. If children can see that adults recognise and value their musical experiments, that recognition and praise will motivate them to continue and develop. If children are inspired by ideas and demonstrations they may be stimulated to try new things themselves.

Play, question, encourage, inspire.


The purpose of music in education?

The arguments and the evidence for music in education have been accruing in this country and elsewhere for decades now. We know that musical activities in the early years, for instance can help develop mathematical and linguistic abilities in the young developing brain. We know that music and other arts activities can have vital impacts on the development of rounded personalities with strong family attachments. We know that musical activities can help to develop self-discipline, self expression, teamwork and collaboration. And much more…

But, in this context, I wanted to mention how I see, or predict, and perhaps hope, that music, the arts as a whole, and creative expressive practice will, or could, play a vital role in children’s futures. Of course a small number of children will grow to become those highly recognisable performers on stages that I talked about earlier – the most obvious musical manifestations. But most won’t. The fact that most won’t, and also the fact that some parents and educators (and mortgage providers, it seems!) don’t value being a musician very highly as a career, sometimes means that music, as with other arts, are often seen as nice-to-have but not essential.

I conjectured earlier on a workplace made up of Apple-like employers. Well it turns out that many young technology companies aren’t made up only of managers, scientists and computer coders. Most of them have in-house design teams. Many have in-house sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists to help them work most effectively with and for people. Technology companies are broad communities.

Many computer games have full orchestral sound tracks. In a recent IBM survey of the world’s biggest companies, CEOs saw creativity as one of the key attributes of the future workforce. Economists are talking about entire new economies based not on products or services but on experiences – the things that the arts have always been about.

One of the things I see through all of this is a future world where people need confidence, inner understanding of themselves, ability to persuade and move others, ability to work carefully with other people, where people rely very heavily on their creativity as a professional skill, where people are becoming successful not by being the best of their game but by being exceptionally good at who they are, alongside others doing the same.

These are all things where people’s musicality can help them: music not as something that people do as their job, but something people can use as part of who they are and what they do. That, for me, is why support for music, the arts, for creativity and expression are important and worthwhile.

So what does progression in musical journeys look like?

It looks like children who are growing in their ability to express themselves through music, to explore and develop their musical ideas and imaginations, to use their voices and instruments with increasing sophistication and enjoyment.

It looks like children who listen attentively and explore a widening range of music, musical sounds and experiences, and to make music, in all its forms, with other people – children who are discovering their individual musical selves and how they can use music across their lives.

I think just about everyone can see this when it’s happening, perhaps if they believe in themselves to do so. But nobody should try to support children’s musical journeys on their own!


useful links and resources

- is a recently launched campaign for parents and other adults supporting young children to share ideas and experiences about children’s creativity and how they’ve supported it

- Seven self-reflection questions for nurturing creativity

- Ingredients for creative arts in the early years

- Long-term labour market forecasts, e.g. The future of jobs, Economist, The great mismatch, Economist Special Report, IBM Global CEO Study

Musical Progressions Roundtable - a network of people and organisations looking at what musical progression is and how it’s most effectively supported

Ben Sandbrook is a Music Education and Creative Learning Consultant