The Origins and Foundations of Music Education
The Origins and Foundations of Music Education

Gordon Cox

Gordon Cox is the Chair of the History Standing Committee of the International Society for Music Education, and was formerly Senior Lecturer in Music Education at the Institute of Education, University of Reading, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Robin Stevens

Robin Stevens is a Principal Fellow in the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at The University of Melbourne, Australia, and was formerly Associate Professor of Music Education at Deakin University, Australia. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2017


Content Type:

Book chapter

Education Level:

Primary Education



Related Content

Australia: Recurring problems and unresolved issues


Robin Stevens

Robin Stevens is a Principal Fellow in the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at The University of Melbourne, Australia, and was formerly Associate Professor of Music Education at Deakin University, Australia. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Jane Southcott

DOI: 10.5040/9781474229104.ch-016
Page Range: 223–239

As a political entity, Australia began as a set of British settlements and colonies that were established from the late eighteenth century. As with other members of the far-flung British Empire, early colonists attempted to replicate the social institutions that they had left behind in their ‘home country’. By the time of federation in 1901, all colonies had established systems of state-supported schools, which, alongside the various denominational and private schools, provided elementary education for their child populations. This chapter will consider the progress in three Australian colonies (later states under a federal government) that represent the development of music as a subject within compulsory schooling in Australia.

The first colony to institute compulsory school attendance was Victoria in 1872, followed by South Australia in 1875 and New South Wales in 1880. However, as a mandatory subject of the school curriculum, the status of music varied in the respective colonies. Singing was included in the required ‘standards of proficiency’ in New South Wales from 1867 and was a mandated subject in the Victorian ‘course of free instruction’ in 1874 (Stevens 1978). In South Australia, singing – at least by ear – was expected to be taught in schools from 1890, but it was not until 1900 that music became a required subject with a prescribed syllabus (Southcott 1997). These three colonies, with their differing histories, encompass all of the significant issues associated with the introduction of music to compulsory schooling in Australia.

The chapter will discuss the implementation of music in elementary education – the provision of music in schools, the training of generalist and specialist teachers of music and the desired curriculum content and pedagogy. The rationale for including music in the curriculum will be outlined and, lastly, the nature of the school song repertoire and the experiences of the recipients of school music – the children – will be considered. Many of the current issues identified in the 2004–5 National Review of School Music Education (Pascoe et al. 2005) have their origins in the past and it is not only useful, but also, as Aldrich (1996: 3) reminds us, essential to consider the past as a means of informing present circumstances and future directions in educational policy and practice.

The education of indigenous Australian (Aboriginal) children is not considered as a separate topic for two main reasons. First, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, what schooling was available for Aboriginal children was left largely in the hands of missionary organizations. Second, prior to 1967, when Australian citizenship was formally granted to Aboriginal people, an essentially assimilationist policy was in place, which meant that there was no special provision for the education of those few Aboriginal children who did attend their local state school.

Colonial background and context

European settlement of Australia began in 1788 with the arrival in Botany Bay (the site of modern-day Sydney) of the ‘First Fleet’ – a convoy of ships bringing government officials, convicts and marines to establish the penal colony of New South Wales. Further convoys brought more convicts and, as they earned the limited freedom of their ‘tickets of leave’ and as free settlers began to arrive, the colony started to grow and become increasingly self-sufficient. Between 1788 and 1850 over 162,000 convicts arrived by the time transportation ceased (Marvic n.d.). Convicts were accommodated in penal settlements principally at Port Macquarie in New South Wales, at Morton Bay (now part of Queensland), at Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania) and at Norfolk Island. Other settlements were established by free immigrants at Swan River Colony – founded in 1829 and renamed Western Australia in 1836 – and subsequently at Adelaide, where the colony of South Australia was proclaimed in late 1836. In 1851 the southern Port Phillip District separated from New South Wales to become the colony of Victoria. The founding of the colonies of Tasmania and Queensland followed in 1856 and 1859, respectively. With a growing tide of nationalism towards the close of the nineteenth century, a series of referenda and an act of the British parliament in 1900 finally resulted in the proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia in which the six previously self-governing British colonies became a federation of states on 1 January 1901.

Provision for music in colonial schools and teacher training

As separate entities under the British Crown, each colony was responsible for the provision of elementary education. This has continued to be the case to the present day with school education remaining a state issue. During the early years of the three selected colonies, schooling for the juvenile population was provided by private tutors, church organizations and proprietors of private venture schools. The establishment of schools was often a priority with the early colonists. For example, in South Australia, within the first year of the colony’s existence, three private schools were established (Smeaton 1927). Ten years later, a Board of Education was established to supervise the financial aid granted to licensed schools. Singing was included in their revised curriculum but was not mandatory (Southcott 1997). It was not until the Education Act 1875 that state-supported, compulsory and secular schooling came into being in South Australia (Miller 1986). In New South Wales, given many pressing demands on government funding, it was some years before colonial authorities turned their attention to school education. In 1848 the New South Wales colonial government appointed a Board of National Education (modelled on the Irish National System) to establish a system of non-sectarian schools, as well as a Denominational Schools Board to support the efforts of the churches in providing elementary education. Much the same happened in Victoria, with dual education boards being set up in 1851 (Stevens 1978). However, it was not until 1872, 1875 and 1880 respectively that elementary education became compulsory for children in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales.

Singing, or ‘vocal music’ as it was often called, was introduced as one of the ‘subjects of ordinary instruction’ at the National Model Schools established by the respective National Boards of Education in Victoria and New South Wales. In the National Schools of New South Wales, it was recommended in 1851 that singing should be timetabled for half an hour each day, and that generalist classroom teachers should give singing lessons (ibid.). Unfortunately, the vast majority of national school teachers had little background or skill in music. This is hardly surprising, since most teachers at this time were inadequately trained as teachers of ‘the three Rs’, let alone music. Although vocal music, initially based on Hullah’s method, was included in the course of study at the teacher training institutions attached to the National Model Schools in both Sydney and Melbourne, most teacher education was undertaken through a system of pupil–teacher apprenticeship. However, with supervising teachers generally lacking musical knowledge and skills themselves, this system achieved little in preparing pupil–teachers to teach singing (ibid.).

Given the general lack of musical competence among teachers in all colonies, music was soon regarded as an extra subject rather than as part of the ordinary curriculum. Despite recognizing the importance of music in education, the New South Wales School Commissioners in 1855 could nevertheless ‘only lament its all but universal neglect’ (Stevens 1981: 68). Accordingly, vocal music was introduced to teacher education under the National School system – for example, into pupil–teacher training undertaken in schools and to courses at Fort Street Training School – as well as being included as a subject for teacher classification examinations (the means through which teachers could gain promotion). All these measures were designed to encourage music teaching by generalist teachers, but success was limited (Stevens 1978).

About the same time, educational authorities in Victoria decided to appoint itinerant singing masters to overcome deficiencies in musical knowledge and skill among generalist teachers. The first full-time singing master, George Leavis Allan (1862–1897), was appointed by the Denominational Schools Board in 1853 to give musical instruction at several of its Melbourne schools. More appointments of itinerant singing masters followed. In 1859 a gratuity of £5 per annum was offered to generalist teachers in rural areas in an effort to encourage them to give ‘systematic’ instruction in vocal music (ibid.). Local unpaid singing teachers (generally amateur musicians) were also fairly common in denominational schools at this time. The Board of National Education in Victoria decided to follow the lead of its denominational counterpart and also appointed itinerant singing masters to ensure at least some provision for music teaching in its schools. However, in New South Wales, the teaching of singing was left entirely to generalist teachers to do as best they could. Given that many teachers were still largely untrained and that those who had been through training courses had generally covered little more than the musical content stipulated in the school curriculum, the extent and quality of music teaching by generalist teachers was very limited.

All this laid the foundations for three of the major issues that have bedevilled school music education in Australia ever since:

  1. the provision of music teaching in government elementary schools, specifically the issue of whether generalist or specialist teachers should teach music;

  2. the inclusion of music in teacher education, specifically courses of training for elementary generalist teachers who generally come to teacher education with little or no prior musical experience; and

  3. the notion that music can be an optional inclusion in school curricula.

Nevertheless, singing was still highly valued by education authorities, and in New South Wales it was formally introduced to the ordinary school curriculum in 1867 by the new (consolidated) Board of Education. Under this arrangement, generalist classroom teachers were responsible for teaching singing to their pupils according to a prescribed syllabus based on the tonic sol-fa method, notation and curriculum sequence. Vocal music through tonic sol-fa was also introduced as a compulsory subject for teacher training courses as well as for the system of teacher classification examinations. With the formation of the Department of Public Instruction in 1880, music continued to be a mandatory subject of the school curriculum, and by the 1890s virtually all children in New South Wales public schools were being taught music by generalist classroom teachers, with 75 per cent to 80 per cent cent pass rates being achieved at the annual school inspectors’ examinations (ibid.). The system was supported by a superintendent of music whose role it was to train teachers in music and to assist established teachers to prepare the music requirements for their classification examinations. Initially, this role was taken by James Fisher (1826–1891), the officially appointed ‘Singing Master’ (Stevens 2002), and then, from 1885, by his successor, Hugo Alpen (1842–1917), the first Superintendent of Music (Stevens 1993).

In contrast to the steady progress made in New South Wales, school music in Victoria regressed during the period of the Council of Education that had replaced the dual board system of National and Denominational Boards in 1862. This was due chiefly to the introduction in 1864 of a special fee of one penny per week for children attending singing lessons. The fee scheme was designed to offset the now substantial cost of maintaining a staff of specialist teachers – the itinerant singing masters – in public schools. Under these arrangements, music effectively became an optional extra in the school curriculum and, due to the extra fee involved, the number of children receiving musical instruction declined markedly (Stevens 1978).

With the coming of ‘free, compulsory and secular’ schooling under the Victorian Education Department in 1872, fees for singing were abolished, and the subject was included in the ‘course of free instruction’. Singing was to be taught ‘where practicable’ in what were now termed ‘state schools’ either by an itinerant singing master or by a generalist classroom teacher who was licensed to teach singing and who received an annual bonus of £10 for giving musical instruction. Itinerant singing masters and licensed generalist teachers were supervised by an inspector of music. Although it was intended, over time, to replace the specialists with generalist teachers properly trained in music, the economic depression of the 1890s forced the government of the day to withdraw all paid instruction in singing from state schools, retrench professional singing masters and abolish the post of inspector of music. Therefore, despite its mandatory inclusion in the school curriculum, the teaching of singing ‘by note’ all but ceased in Victorian state schools and, for the remainder of the century, children were generally taught only singing ‘by ear’ by musically untrained generalist teachers (ibid.). The vulnerability of music as a school subject taught by specialists rather than generalists in government elementary schools continues to be a significant factor in school music education to the present day.

In South Australia prior to the Education Act 1875, which established state-supported education as compulsory and secular, there were several attempts to manage schooling in the colony more effectively. The first ten years were difficult but, in 1847, financial aid was given to schools and a supervisory Board of Education was established. The Education Act 1851 created an independent Central Board of Education. Initially, this semi-governmental body had considerable impact, but the achievements of the enthusiastic but largely untrained teachers varied considerably. It was not until 1860 that the regulations for Board Schools recommended the teaching of singing, but this was not compulsory, nor was any method suggested. However, with the active promotion of music teaching in schools by Alexander Clark (1843–1913), initially as head teacher of the demonstration model schools in Adelaide from 1876 and then more widely in the colony as a school inspector from 1884, singing – at least ‘by ear’ – was prescribed in the Education Regulations 1890. Clark developed a school music syllabus modelled on the contemporary English code and adapted for use in South Australia that came into force in 1900 (Southcott 1997). This course was similar to the requirements of the Elementary Certificate of the Tonic Sol-fa College and also formed the basis for the music curriculum taught to students at the Adelaide Training College, which opened in 1876.

The nature of and rationale for music in colonial schools

Clearly, the colonial educational authorities in the early days had difficulty providing even a rudimentary education in ‘the three Rs’, let alone including music in the school curriculum. However, from the outset, there seems to have been a desire among educational authorities, parents and the general public to include music in schooling. It is reasonable to ask what the nature of and rationale for music in schools was during the colonial and subsequent federation periods. The school curriculum per se and its inclusion of music were part of an inherited tradition from Great Britain – the ‘home country’. The system of national schools in New South Wales and Victoria, established in the early 1850s, was closely modelled on the Irish National System[1] and colonial educational authorities simply adapted the existing Irish National School Curriculum, including vocal music, to local circumstances.

The introduction of school music had a strongly utilitarian basis founded on the belief that music could be of great value as a humanizing and civilizing influence on society in general and on children in particular. The social environment in which many colonial children found themselves during the mid-nineteenth century was often far from good. Most colonies were initially populated by convicts and then by free settlers, many of whom were redundant paupers or dissidents from Great Britain. The situation was aggravated by the influx of fortune seekers following the gold strikes of the early 1850s, many of whom were considered by respectable colonists as ‘undesirables’. The situation on the goldfields in New South Wales and Victoria represented a highly unstable environment for many children. According to James Bonwick, a school inspector, children on the Victorian goldfields at this time lived in a world of ‘gambling, swearing, drunkenness and licentiousness’ (Stevens 1981: 67). Even without the presence of convicts or the decadence of the goldfields, South Australian government authorities perceived music in schooling as an antidote to larrikinism and roughness – vocal music could be a powerful agency for refining the individual (Southcott 2004).

Colonial education authorities were anxious to imprint whatever civilizing and reforming influences they could on rising generations. Music, in the form of class singing, was widely held to be of value in this respect. For example, the New South Wales School Commissioners in reporting the ‘all but universal neglect’ of music in the schools during 1855 cited its ability to soften manners, prevent intemperance and civilize. In 1857 the Victorian Denominational School Board recognized the importance of school music for children living on the goldfields by appointing itinerant singing masters. Two years later, when a shortage of educational funding threatened the dismissal of singing masters, the public response was one of indignation. A petition from the residents of Ballarat district argued that the music teacher helped the intellectual and moral progress of lower-class children (Stevens 1981). In New South Wales during the same year, Inspector William Wilkins put forward a scheme to encourage national school teachers in country districts to teach singing with much the same idea in mind, adding that it would make schools popular with parents (Stevens 1978).

By the late 1860s the recreational value of school music began to be recognized by education authorities. In advocating an extension of music teaching in New South Wales in 1867, Inspector William McIntyre maintained that school music preserved morals, offered innocent amusement and had a cheerful effect on all endeavours. A colleague, Inspector Allpass, added: ‘[F]ew teachers seem to understand that a burst of song acts as a safety valve to children of excitable temperament, and enlivens those who are sluggishly disposed’ (quoted in Stevens 1981: 68).

In South Australia, from the 1890s, there was a vigorous campaign to improve the vocal tone of both children and teachers. In 1911 the South Australian Minister for Education gave a very clear directive to schools, stating that: ‘It was felt necessary to eradicate unclear enunciation, general slovenliness of speech … [and] Australian twang and slang’ (Parliament of South Australia 1911: 24). Singing was seen as a major weapon in this campaign and was also perceived as a relieving break between other subjects that could both calm and enliven children. Singing could be a ‘pleasant break’, relieve the ‘tedium’ of ordinary lessons and included at ‘odd moments, never interfering with the work, but just giving the necessary stimulus to classes in danger of weariness’ (Southcott 1997: 84). Singing could also be an accompaniment to mechanical activities such as sewing and, particularly, drill. At this time, almost every school had a drum and fife band, which could accompany drill and perform at school and community functions (Southcott 1997). There was also some recognition of the ‘intellectual progress’ attending the study of ‘music by notes’ (Stevens 1978) – in modern-day parlance, promoting cognitive skills through a study of music theory and development of music literacy.

Music curriculum content and implementation

In all colonies, there was an assumption – based on contemporary English and Irish curricula – that vocal music should be taught ‘by note’ rather than merely ‘by ear’. In all three colonies, Hullah’s fixed-doh method had been tried, but found wanting. In New South Wales, William Wilkins promoted tonic sol-fa as the most effective teaching method and notational system for use in schools. Tonic sol-fa teaching was undertaken by James Fisher, who was appointed as Singing Master in 1867. Although Fisher’s professional conduct was later deemed unsatisfactory, the tonic sol-fa method became the basis of a movable-doh’ staff notation method that was successfully developed and implemented by his successor, Hugo Alpen, the new Superintendent of Music. In Victoria, the ‘tonic numeral’ method (an application of the numbers one to seven on a movable system to staff notation), based on the principles of the English clergyman John Waite (Rainbow 1967), was adapted to local needs by the senior Singing Master George Allan during the 1850s. The method continued to be officially endorsed and supported by the Inspector of Music, Dr Joseph Summers (1839–1917), who was appointed in 1878 (Stevens 1997). During the 1880s, however, the tonic numeral method was challenged by proponents of tonic sol-fa, led by Dr Samuel McBurney (1847–1909) who later succeeded Summers as Inspector of Music (Stevens 1986). Both methods were later put on an equal footing through the publication in 1890 of a Tonic Sol-fa Programme, which supplemented the earlier 1884 Programme of Instruction in Singing for State Schools (Stevens 1978). In South Australia, after an early and unsatisfactory trial of Hullah’s method, tonic sol-fa was introduced by Alexander Clark (Southcott 1995), and its promotion was continued by his successor Francis Lymer Gratton (1871–1946), himself a talented product of the South Australian public school system (Southcott 1996).

By the turn of the twentieth century, school attendance had been compulsory in Victoria since 1872, in South Australia since 1875 and in New South Wales since 1880, and music was now mandated in the elementary school curricula of all three colonies (from 1867 in New South Wales, from 1872 in Victoria and from 1900 in South Australia). However, with technological innovations (such as the gramophone) and new methods of manufacture (such as the mass production of fifes and other musical instruments), singing as a school subject now became known as ‘music’ to reflect a broadening of content and the introduction of new approaches to music education. From the 1920s school music began to include music listening and appreciation and percussion band activities. The ubiquitous school drum and fife bands that had existed in Australian schools from their inception were now acknowledged in the syllabus. Other forms of instrumental music – such as the Manby group approach to teaching violin in Victoria – were introduced to schools (Cameron 1969; Southcott 1993), and Dalcroze eurhythmics was introduced through radio broadcasts from the 1930s (Pope 2006). Few of these developments were uniquely Australian, most being modelled on overseas practices. This trend continued with the introduction of school recorder playing in the 1950s, the Orff Schulwerk and Kodály approaches in the 1960s and creative compositional approaches from the early 1970s.

The school music repertoire and the experiences of children

The songs chosen for class singing were, especially in the early years of the colonies, carefully selected to include moralistic and didactic texts. As well as inculcating religious and moral values through hymns and other such edifying songs, the singing repertoire chosen for children could also carry texts that evinced the virtues of home and family life.

Figure 16.1. Empire Day, Mount Templeton School, South Australia (Education Department, South Australia 1915: 169)

Later, particularly with contingents of colonial soldiers being sent to the Sudan War and the South African (Boer) War, songs with patriotic and nationalistic words were popular as a means of promoting imperial citizenship. For example, one important national celebration was Empire Day, first officially celebrated in Australia in 1905. On this day children listened to stories about the Empire, sang ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Advance Australia Fair’, performed callisthenic and martial drill exercises, participated in patriotic tableaux and took part in march-pasts and trooping the colours. One schoolgirl memory was typical of many: ‘Empire Day was a very special day. I can remember being Boadicea one year, wearing a white flowing gown and the British flag and a gold-painted helmet and three pronged fork’ (quoted in Hetherington et al. 1979: 99) (see Figure 16.1). The celebration was not complete without songs, some Australian, but most British, such as ‘The Sea is England’s Glory’ and ‘Ye Mariners of England’ (Southcott 2002). As the colonies moved towards federation, school singing also became an important medium for imbuing children with feelings of national identity.

Perhaps the most authoritative statements regarding the value of music in colonial education came from William Wilkins (1827–1892), chief architect of the New South Wales’ education system. In 1870 he recounted the reasons for including singing in the new public school system. Wilkins cited the example of Germany, which had, by the influence of music in schools, been changed from the most drunken to the most sober nation in Europe. He reiterated his belief in ‘the humanizing and civilizing influence of music as an instrument by which a child might be trained in those social feelings which frequent intercourse with his fellows nurtured’ (quoted in Stevens 1978: 51). This was seen as being particularly important in sparsely populated regions where opportunities for social intercourse might be few and far between. Even more, music had a strong disciplinary influence, by which a song could render corporal punishment unnecessary.

Figure 16.2. Alexander Clark and the Thousand Voices Choir rehearsing for the Decoration Society Concert, 1912 (Education Department 1912: 216)

Although a natural outgrowth of class singing, the development of choral singing festivals enabled children to experience music as a performing art in the same way as adults did in choral societies or church choirs. End-of-year and charity concerts, musical pageants and system-wide events appear to have been fairly common in colonial schools (Stevens 1978). In New South Wales, massed singing by school children was arranged for important public occasions, such as in 1868, when Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, visited the colony. Ten thousand children from Sydney schools, accompanied by military bands and conducted by James Fisher, sang ‘God Save our Noble Queen’ in apparently faultless unison and with ‘glorious effect’ on the lawns of Government House (ibid.: 98). A schools choir of a similar number performed choral and massed singing items – including Hugo Alpen’s ‘Federated Australia’ – at the 1901 inauguration ceremony for the Commonwealth of Australia at Centennial Park in Sydney, again evincing the strong patriotic and nationalistic sentiments (Chaseling 2003). Later still there were annual choral festivals, such as the South Australian Decoration Society concerts that featured the ‘Thousand Voices Choir’ (see Figure 16.2), which, in modified form, continues to the present day as the Primary Schools Music Festival.

Other songs simply allowed children to enjoy singing about such aspects of their lives as games, toys, outdoor adventures and other childhood pleasures. For example, ‘Paddling Song’ described the experience of the Australian child running across the beach: ‘Across the shining sand we fly, With naked feet and gowns pinned high’ (Macrae and Alsop 1910: 1–3). One of the recurring themes in such recreational songs was that of nature, particularly the Australian bush. One of the earliest songs about Australian fauna was the ‘Joey’s Song’, published in 1879. This was included at the back of a cautionary tale in verse form, entitled ‘Marsupial Bill or the Bad Boy, the Good Dog and the Old Man Kangaroo’ (Stevens 1879). Another example, ‘Tale of the Bellbirds’, composed by Samuel McBurney in Victoria (see Figure 16.3), again has a cautionary aspect to it, with words that tell of children attracted by the bellbird’s call becoming lost in the bush (Stevens 2006).

Figure 16.3. ‘Tale of the Bellbirds’, music by Samuel McBurney, words by Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson (S. McBurney, n.d. [c. 1895]: 35–6) An excerpt from a late nineteenth-century Australian children’s song with both staff and tonic sol-fa notation.

From the later years of the nineteenth century it was usual for all Australian schools to have a drum and fife band of between ten and forty members (see Figure 16.4). Initially, these bands were extra-curricular, but they eventually became part of the school music programme. The bands, militaristic in their practices, often accompanied school drill. In 1894 Alexander Clark was one of the co-authors of the official South Australian Education Department’s Manual of Drill that was modelled on the British Army Manual. As part of the school concerts, boys often performed their physical drills – carbine drill (with mock or real weapons) was visually impressive and particularly popular. There were other callisthenic drills for boys and girls, the latter often using apparatus such as hoops, wands and clubs.

Figure 16.4. Sturt Street School Band (South Australia) 1917 (Postcard in the author’s possession)

The lessons of history for contemporary policy and practice

There are several major issues to have emerged from this review of music in compulsory schooling during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that remain relevant to the contemporary Australian situation and from which ‘the lessons of history’ may be drawn in terms of future policy decisions. There are three overriding ‘lessons’ to be learnt. The first is that there are inevitably economic constraints on the provision of elementary school music teaching through any system of specialist teachers. This has generally not been a problem in the non-government school sector – the so-called independent schools, most of which have a religious affiliation. With the exception of low-income church schools (such as some Catholic parish primary schools), music has had an assured status as an integral part of the school curriculum, and music teaching has usually been undertaken by specialists. However, the situation in government schools, particularly at the primary school level, has often been precarious, especially in times of economic recession – as occurred in Victoria in the 1890s – when specialist teachers were dismissed and responsibility for teaching music in primary schools was given to largely ill-equipped generalist teachers. Moreover, when specialist teachers were again employed as the principal means of providing music in Victoria from the 1950s, history repeated itself, although more through a change in curriculum policy than for economic reasons. In the late 1970s the Music Branch of 107 specialist music educators, most of whom taught music as itinerant teachers in primary schools, was disbanded in favour of school-based music teachers (Stevens 1978). Unfortunately, the new system failed to adequately deliver music teaching in schools due to progressively more school-based music positions being filled by specialists in other curriculum areas.

Since that time, the situation in Victoria has seen little if any improvement, with generalist primary teachers having nominal responsible for delivery of a music teaching in the absence of specialist appointments. It has been much the same in other Australian states, with the notable exceptions of Tasmania and particularly Queensland, where specialist music teachers have been appointed to primary schools. These appointments remain tenuously linked to the economic climate and political will. After several draft versions, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) released The Arts [Learning Area] Scope and Sequence in 2013 (ACARA 2013b) as part of the new Australian Curriculum for Foundation to Year 10 that has been endorsed by all state education authorities. The Scope and Sequence document includes curriculum objectives for music as well as the other four subjects forming The Arts Learning Area and is currently being customized by those states who have endorsed the Australian Curriculum: The Arts (ACARA 2013a).[2] However, the actual implementation of the music curriculum will be quite another matter, given that, in the case of state government schools in most states, responsibility for ensuring that the curriculum is taught to all children still lies essentially with generalist teachers. Despite some cutbacks in recent years, the provision of specialist music teachers for Years 7 to 10 (and beyond) in government secondary schools is generally more secure. Nevertheless, it is a matter of historical record that the place of music in schools in the past was never fully secure and with the problem of implementing the music curriculum set out in the Australian Curriculum: The Arts in primary schools through a workforce consisting mostly of generalist teachers being responsible for teaching the subject, there was no great cause for optimism, particularly in times of economic restraint. Aside from Queensland and Tasmania, where specialist music teachers are appointed centrally, there are many government primary schools in other states that are without a music teacher to implement a sequential and continuous music programme. Where they are appointed – for example, in some Victorian primary schools (see Heinrich 2012) – it is due to individual school decision making and to the availability of specialist teachers rather than to system-wide policy.

The second ‘lesson’ is that there is a need for all generalist elementary teachers to receive comprehensive training in music education through both pre-service and in-service education – as was the case in New South Wales during the last decades of the nineteenth century – to ensure their ability to implement effective music programmes in elementary schools. The historical justification for this claim is the success, using an appropriate music teaching method (tonic sol-fa), of the ‘generalist approach’ in New South Wales, where by the early 1890s nearly all children in New South Wales public schools were being taught music with 75 per cent to 80 per cent pass rates at the annual school inspectors’ examinations (Stevens 1978).

Aside from the teacher training provided for secondary music specialists,[3] the current situation in Australian primary teacher education is somewhat more problematic. A recent survey of mandatory music discipline and music education content in pre-service primary courses identified that, on average, 41.75 hours were allocated to creative arts subjects, but only 16.99 hours were available in the surveyed teacher training programmes for training in both music discipline content and music pedagogy (Hocking 2009). The variation between institutions ranges from zero and 52 hours for music. The point was also made that the average of credit points dedicated to music within primary teacher education courses was a mere 1.51 per cent of the total course (ibid.). Therefore, if the provision for music teaching in primary schools remains the responsibility of generalist teachers, the only way of adequately ensuring the place of music in primary education will be for music education within pre-service courses to be given considerably greater emphasis and for there to be widespread and sustained professional development for already practicing teachers in order to adequately upskill their musical competency.

The third ‘lesson’ is that music educators must continue to advocate for the inclusion of music as a mandated school subject in its own right. As is currently the case, the Australian Curriculum: The Arts and several previous state and national curricula have included music as one of many arts subjects which, though the requirement that all arts subjects in an already overcrowded curriculum should be given their fair share of class time, may well result in school students not receiving a sequential, developmental and continuous music education from Foundation to Year 10.[4] To deny children such a holistic education by failing to fully accommodate such an important subject as music is reprehensible.

Like many other countries, Australia continues to suffer from several longstanding and unresolved problems in its provision of school music education in its public schools. Accordingly, the lessons of history should be considered in the formulation of future policies in school music education.


Aldrich, R. (1996), Education for the Nation , London: Cassell.

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Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting and Authority (2013b), The Arts Scope and Sequence : Foundation to Year 10 (by band) , Canberra: ACARA, http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/the-arts/content-structure (accessed 28 February 2015).

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (2013c), Music Curriculum – Band Descriptions, Content Description and Achievement Standard, http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/the-arts/music/curriculum/f-10?layout=1 (accessed 28 February 2015).

Cameron, A. E. (1969), ‘The class teaching of music in secondary schools in Victoria, 1905–1955’ (unpublished MEd thesis, University of Melbourne).

Chaseling, M. (2003), ‘The Great Public School Choir’ in K. Hartwig and G. Barton (eds), Artistic Practice as Research : Proceedings of the XXVth Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Music Education , Sydney: AARME, pp. 25–43 .

Education Department, South Australia (1912), Education Gazette XXVIII (312).

Education Department, South Australia (1915), Children’s Hour , Classes IV and V, Grades 7 and 8, XXVII (308).

Heinrich, J. (2012), ‘The provision of classroom music programs to regional Victorian primary schools: a mixed methods study’ (unpublished MEd thesis, LaTrobe University).

Hetherington, H., R. Sharam and P. Rymill (1979), Penola Primary School Centenary History , South Australia: Penola Primary School Centenary Committee.

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[1] For details, see McCarthy, Chapter 4 in this volume.

[2] Most specialist music teachers have completed a three-year Bachelor of Music degree and a one- or two-year course of teacher education.

[3] More detailed information regarding the Music Curriculum – Band Descriptions, Content Description and Achievement Standard – is at http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/the-arts/music/curriculum/f-10?layout=1 (accessed 6 April 2016).

[4] Since the introduction of more broadly based arts curricula generally consisting of five subjects (Dance, Drama, Media, Music and Visual Arts) in government schools from the 1980s, some secondary schools have taught arts subjects on a rotational basis over four school terms or two school semesters, which, in the case of music, is not conducive to a sequential and continuous development of musical concepts and skills.