The sticky problem of threshold concepts in music


I came across the idea of threshold concepts in David Didau’s book What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? In the book he refers to the work of Jan Meyer and Ray Land, who describe threshold concepts as portals that ‘open up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something’. Basically, these are the points at which students tend to become stuck, and if they remain stuck, they will not be able to progress further in their understanding. Identifying what they are is of enormous help in planning a good curriculum and sound teaching.

Of course, this got me thinking about what threshold concepts there might be in music. Where to start? With what music actually is? So, we could say

Music is the organisation of sound. People then invest this with meaning in lots of different ways.

But really, that’s not really a threshold concept, as music is so part of human existence that we all know that, even if we haven’t thought about it explicitly or put it into words. If we haven’t thought about it explicitly it’s still not going to stop us developing further musical thinking.

So, onwards. I came up with three that I reckon are pretty sound:

The unit of time in music is a beat, which might be short or long, depending on the tempo.

Beats are grouped together in bars (mostly).

One C is pretty much equivalent to any other C, although they are in different octaves or played on different instruments.

This one, I think is OK:

You can think about pitches as being organised in sequence (horizontally, i.e. a melody) or in parallel (vertically, i.e. a chord). Often these things happen simultaneously.

After that I came up against some that caused me problems:

Most pieces of music only use a limited number of different pitches at any one time (a key). The relationships between these notes, and how they fit together, are very important.

In staff notation, one blob = one sound (except for ties).

In music, a balance of variety and repetition is a very good thing.

The problem that I have with these is that you might very well get quite a long way without them, depending on what type of musician you are. If you are a performer who plays from staff notation, you need the second concept, but could be an excellent player without giving the first and third any thought whatsoever. If you are not a notation-based musician, you could create all kinds of great music through performing and/or composing without the second.

It’s pretty obvious that there are different kinds of musicians, and that there are different threshold concepts that apply to these. As teachers, though, we need to think very carefully about what kind of musicians it is that we are developing. This is necessarily going to involve making some value judgements about what a ‘good musician’ actually is.

So I’ve been thinking about all the musicians I have known whose musicianship I have admired. Nearly all of them have been more than just good performers. Not all of them have been composers, but they have understood how music is put together, have incredible aural skills and a deep understanding of harmony. I think I’m with John Finney when he says ‘to know music though the mind of a composer adds greatly to understanding what music is.’

Those are my priorities, perhaps because of my upbringing as an old-school, traditional musician. Another teacher’s could be different. Another sticky problem with these threshold concepts in music is that true musical understanding is non-verbal, and someone might have a phenomenal understanding of any of these concepts, but not be able to articulate it. The music itself has to do the talking, which often doesn’t sit too well with the way schools expect things to be (i.e. the idea of ‘evidencing’ progress: I am coming to loathe the concept of this even more than I loathe making a verb out of a noun!).

I reckon I’ve missed some really important threshold concepts here. Would yours be different? I would be very interested to hear people’s views.



  1. Hi, Nice blog.

    I’ve always thought when students stop improvising by going up and down the scale and start using phrasing, gaps and repetition seems like a big musical leap forward.

    As for misuse of nouns to verbs I know my SLT would be keen for me to evidence threshold concepts if they thought Ofsted might like it… But I like changing the noun music to a verb. Seems useful. In the above threshold concepts are “new ways of thinking about something” whereas music concepts need to be more embodied as it were I think. Which matches your view that music has to do the talking. Its a new way of feeling/thinking/being in musicking which can’t be reduced to the verbal – though it is easier to evidence the written/spoken.


    1. Ah yes, making music into musicking is one noun-to-verb transformation that I do like!

      We need to stand firm on defending the non-verbal, I think – otherwise we fall prey to McNamara’s fallacy of assessing only that which is easy to assess.


  2. Thanks Jane. I’ve been thinking a lot about these too, along with the related notion (in my head at least) of ‘signature pedagogy’. I think these are related as the type of concept affects the pedagogy of teaching it. Thus if we look at a Paynter-inspired creative music (in the 1970s sense) curriculum project, we find a very different set of concepts and constructs, and consequently a very different pedagogy from one looking at, say triads and inversions. Now I know this is far too simplistic a division, but I do think it’s important. It goes right back to something Ally Daubney & I talk about in our assessment roadshows, “what do YOU value in music education?”. And answers to this vary tremendously. If I were director of music at a Cathedral Choir School then I would value …. (fill in the gaps), whereas were I at an inner-city school I might value something different. And so the threshold concepts for each would be different, but, and this is important, I would want both to be aiming at inclusivity, musicking, and quality. Not simple. And, as you point out, somewhere the (what I refer to elsewhere as ) ‘notation argument’ will rear its head.

    Oh well, all makes music such an interesting subject to teach!


    1. Good points, Martin , although its important to remember that Paynter wasn’t just about fluffy, creative open-ended projects. Quite a few chapters in “Sound & Silence” and “Sound & Structure” are given over to projects on the more heavy duty concepts we associate with the classical end of the spectrum – triads, inversions, scales, note rows etc. The difference is that when Paynter does it, he does the job properly…


  3. Thank you Jane. Threshold concepts. I have been wondering what they are. I think you are on to something that is very important. We needn’t think of concepts as things apart and aloof from music-making. (Should we respect Christopher Small’s ‘musicking’ as having a particular meaning I am wondering?) In the past musical concepts have been thought of as, well – conceptual and thus living in a cerebral realm, or rather like Plato’s forms, out there somewhere waiting to be made glimsed into.
    But concepts are embodied in our musical actions. So what could threshold concepts be? As you suggest: ordering musical time through various means; ordering space – verticle and horizontal through various means. Big ideas. History teachers have first and second order concepts. Not grasped this yet either. Anyway, I am for embodiment. See my blog tomorrow.
    Thanks for the thinking.


  4. Made me think of this when I observed a year 7 ‘gamelan lesson’. What was worth assessing?

    knowing how to make sonorous sounds; knowing how to coordinate pulse and tempo; knowing how to make melodic patterns

    Perhaps these are threshold concepts. Could add a few more and then we may have cracked it!


  5. Hi Jane

    I wish I had read your blog before writing this month’s TTM Editorial! It seems as though we have been musing on similar lines over the summer…

    I think what I am striving towards is some sort of framework, similar to your threshold concepts’, which gives aspiring musicians an overview of how the music ‘system’ works, without getting too mired down in the detail. The phrase you quote, portals that ‘open up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something’ elegantly describes what I am reaching for.

    I think you have made a promising start with sketching out what these concepts might look like – and John F is nudging us further in this direction. Let’s agree to keep working on this. I think it is probably leading towards something very useful and worthwhile…


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