photo of a student playing the trumpet

New NSW music syllabus puts students behind the beat

25 March 2024
New high school NSW music syllabus leaves little time to play music
Dr James Humberstone, senior lecturer in music education, analyses the new NSW music syllabus for Year 7 to 10 high school students. The new syllabus is the first review in 20 years and will be rolled out in 2026 across NSW.
photo of a man sitting at a piano

Dr James Humberstone, senior lecturer in music education and composer, analyses the new NSW music syllabus. 

The NSW Year 7 to 10 Music syllabus is the most important in Australia. The NSW government last reviewed and renewed it in 2003, so the recent publishing of a new version, to be taught from 2026, was a once-in-a-generation opportunity,to create a world-leading syllabus embracing  latest research and drawing on the most engaging and beneficial teaching practices from around the globe. 

It fell far short.

It’s not terrible. There are some good things about it. It doesn’t prioritise one musical culture over any others, any more. The first draft, released over a year ago, still prioritised classical music. Its published Aim is as noble as in 2003, mentioning ambitions for teaching and learning music such as “active engagement”, “enjoyment”, and (this is my favourite) to “develop a lifelong sense of wonder and curiosity about and engagement with music”.

There is a definite de-centring of The Score as the “text” for music. Inthis work-ready world that feels about-time, given that the “text” for music is sound passing through time. And most musical engagement nowadays happens through streaming services, with music jammed live, produced on computers, or created and disseminated in other digital mediums.

Music syllabus: why it’s important

This syllabus matters because although NSW’s K-6 Creative Arts syllabus mandates the teaching of music, research suggests a clear majority of schools do not have the specialist-trained staff to teach it. 

Not only that, but the NSW Department of Education doesn’t even have an employment code for a “music teacher”, and the New South Wales Education Standards Authority (NESA) does not even offer a music specialism accreditation for a qualification for a primary school teacher. 

At the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, we teach primary music approaches as part of our secondary teaching qualifications, simply because we know that our students will be in demand in the primary schools that can afford them – but technically they are all accredited as secondary school teachers.

That the Government systematically makes it impossible for schools to deliver the education promised in the same authority’s syllabus is one thing. At the same time, NAPLAN pressure, the teacher shortage, and funding pressures on principals push music to the edge of the curriculum.

Specialist music teachers are vital

There are wonderful advocacy projects seeking to remedy this problem, such as the Richard Gill teacher mentoring program, which pairs specialist teachers up with classroom teachers to kit them out with the skills they need to teach music. But we need systemic change, government-down, to fix such a large-scale and widespread problem. 

All of this means that the chances are students arrive at high school in Year 7 having never had a class taught by a specialist music teacher – someone who actually plays, sings, writes music, arranges, gigs, leads ensembles, and all of that traditional music teacher stuff. 

But at this age, we provide it, at last. We provide at least 100 hours of specialist-led music classes, in a syllabus that has historically centred the integration of all those wonderful music experiences, labelled “performing, composing, and listening”. 

I call this the most important music syllabus in Australia simply because NSW has the most children of any state or territory. And in terms of participation, we are doing well.

And that’s why that “Aim” statement is so important. Classroom music at this level isn’t designed to produce the next Yehudi Menuin or Taylor Swift. We’re not trying to produce classrooms full of professional composers and performers – as I say to my trainee-teachers, wouldn’t it be awful if you called a plumber to fix your leaking shower and all they did was sing you a song about it? The aim of this short experience in music is to grow the love children already have for music, which according to a recent UK report is the most important thing in their lives, equalled only by video gaming.

This music education experience is to nurture that inherent love that they bring, and then open their ears and eyes to other musical cultures. It’s to give them enough of a taste in music that they think they can, and maybe they’ll do a few more years in music, or maybe later they’ll join a band, or a choir, or produce some dope beats on their laptop.

The intrinsic and the extrinsic

There is already wonderful advocacy work pushing the extrinsic benefits of learning music, especially in Australia by Anita Collins and the crew at the Albert’s/The Tony Foundation. While I do want your principal to know that there is correlation between learning music and doing well in all kinds of other subjects at school, I rather feel that I’m not going to push teaching music to make kids’ maths better until maths teachers are pushing maths to make their music better.

Music is important. So what’s wrong with the new syllabus?

I’ll explain the main shortfalls here quickly, because it’s too easy to get stuck in the detail. I’ll get into that on my own blog and podcast over the coming month, if you’re interested in finding out more.

The crowded curriculum is very real

And yet for some reason, NESA thought it would be great to give teachers 56 Content Points to check off in the new syllabus (and another 57 points in years 9 and 10). That’s one tick to be assessed every 1 hour and 47 minutes in a 100-hour course.

Music teachers are experts at teaching music. The same syllabus pared down the assessable Outcomes to just 3, only to shoot itself in the foot with pages of bullet points to be covered. And 19 of 22 content points focus on what NYU Professor Emeritus David Elliott and Monclair State’s Professor Marissa Silverman call “verbal knowledge”, knowledge about music not making music.

A step back from praxial music-making

One of the main problems my colleagues and I have written about in classroom music education in NSW is the segregation of “prac and theory”. In other words, music teachers can be tempted to draw on other subjects in the curriculum which have discrete theory components and practical skills to learn. Being an embodied skill, music-making is best learned by making music. If you’ve ever learned a musical instrument, you know this instinctively. 

This was encouraged in the 2003 syllabus with a statement that learning experiences should be integrated. The new syllabus calls those learning experiences “focus areas”, which suggests they should be learned on their own (i.e. in focus), and it also removes the integration language. The result, combined with 56 Content Points to be checked off, is going to be a lot more worksheet rote learning, instead of musical learning, in our classrooms. This will be off-putting for children.

Adopt and adapt is mainly adapt and ignore

The Australian Curriculum’s music syllabus for this age range is not a perfect document, but it is one that is regularly reviewed and updated to meet feedback and research. 

The NSW government have an “adopt and adapt” approach to the Australian Curriculum, but this document does very little adopting. Some terminology has been used, but it is used in such a piecemeal and inconsistent manner that it is not compatible. This has two disadvantages for Australian teachers and their students: first, resources created for teaching music in other states and territories who have more consistently adopted the Australian Curriculum will have to be “translated” to make sense in NSW. Second, teachers (and publishers) making resources here in NSW will not have reach into the rest of the country.

Which brings us full circle

What a ground-breaking syllabus would look like is probably the topic for another blog, but this certainly isn’t one. It is a syllabus with some great statements, a few improvements, and a whole lot of compromise and busywork for teachers.

That it took 21 years for us to review and refresh (this poorly) the last syllabus, which for its time was quite progressive, is the fault of successive governments of both major parties. NSW promises its citizens that their children will get a music education, with all the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits that that brings, and then fails to deliver for most children in primary schools, and keeps the brakes on the experience in this important window in high school. Other states and territories review their syllabi every three to five years.  We deserve better, our children deserve better, and if we could just commit to that kind of work, with a much more transparent writing process, we could inch our way there.

Let’s just hope it’s not another 21 years.

Dr James Humberstone is a senior lecturer in music education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, at the University of Sydney. He specialises in teaching music pedagogies, technology in music education, and musical creativities. James publishes traditional research focusing on music teacher worldview, technology and media in music education, and artistic practice as research. He is also a composer and producer whose music is performed in major venues around the world. His intercultural work with poet and rapper Luka Lesson, “Agapi and other kinds of love”, is currently touring Australia.

Top photo of a student trumpet player: Shutterstock