I’m on a week’s holiday with the family, which prompts tweets like this one:

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To which David Ashworth sent a fascinating, almost spooky reply, given that Little Nephew (who is 4) had also enthusiastically demonstrated and then delegated the performance of the various sound effects of Yellow Submarine:

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David’s tweet prompted thoughts about music that has interesting features, but is not good to listen to.  For example, I have no doubt that many GCSE teachers are glad to see the back of Peripetie!  I personally love some of Schoenberg’s music, and the logical bit of me can understand why that particular piece was included in the old anthology – but I did not enjoy listening to Peripetie regularly, and often found myself encouraging pupils to listen to Verklarte Nacht for a bit more context about Schoenberg’s output.  I imagine it’d be a bit like learning all about Yellow Submarine without ever hearing Yesterday or All You Need Is Love.

Then Nigel Taylor saw my reply to David, and made this fabulous point about the different ways to experience music:

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All of this reminded me of a recurring conversation amongst music teachers: is it a good idea to get kids playing the music they like to listen to?  Will it inspire them, or put them off? And if the latter, why?  Because we are trying too hard to make our lessons relevant and ‘cool’?  Because the resources available aren’t ideal for replicating the recordings that they are used to? Because the music is too technically demanding, or not demanding enough?  Because teachers try to make it conform to western classical norms by the use of staff notation or other inauthentic alterations?  I raised concerns about this last point in a recent presentation about the permeation of the western classical music canon and its approaches into school music education generally – but that’s another story.  And of course the frequent assumption that using recently-released music automatically equates to informal learning and/or “fun lessons” is another story again.

And there’s the media response whenever we have new exam specs that include popular music: in 2015, AQA featured in the press for “refreshing” the GCSE listening paper by including The Beatles (that’s The Telegraph’s word, not mine).  But to our pupils The Beatles are OLD.  And whilst I’m definitely not saying that this means young people won’t enjoy studying their music, we should recognize that it is not necessarily any more “refreshing” to them than, say, Mozart.  Indeed, when teaching the legacy Edexcel GCSE course, I found that my classes often mentioned the Mozart and Handel pieces as their favourites in the anthology, and not because they were ‘classical kids’ who performed Mozart and Handel outside of school.  In a list of 12 pieces, these were no more relevant or irrelevant to them than the popular music and 20th century music choices.

Thanks then to both David and Nigel for raising some useful questions about interesting and good music, and about different ways of experiencing music.  After half term, I’m going to ask them to my KS2 classes and see what they have to say.  Finally, this seems like a great photo/blog matching opportunity.  Bananas are yellow, like the aforementioned submarine.  I really hate bananas, but I liked that this one had been personalized – and was somewhat disturbed to find it abandoned in the road.  We should be less willing to abandon music that contains interest, even if it is not good to listen to.





4 thoughts on “YELLOW SUBMARINE

  1. Yellow Submarine has the misfortune to appear on an album which is arguably The Beatles finest and contains many, many terrific songs – Eleanor Rigby, She Said She Said, Here There and Everywhere….

    Written as a throwaway ditty for Ringo to sing, it nevertheless contains many fine moments and is a great example of the sheer amount of work this band would put into a song. It will always be a hit in primary classrooms, but in secondary it is a much tougher sell. The way to do it is to go under the bonnet and look at some of the wonderful things that are happening:

    • From the very beginning it is interesting. This song begins on the dominant chord rather than the tonic
    • Listen to the percussion part – highly unusual just tambourine and interesting bass drum pattern!
    • First sound effect – the waves on so we sailed. The rhythm of the waves fitting into the tempo of the song…
    • The ‘friend’s’ chatter leading into the short brass band insert. All that work for a few seconds of music!
    • The astonishing ‘nautical’ sonic collage in the middle of the song. George Martin recalled his comedy show producing days and raided the Abbey Road basement for junk he had used in making The Goons et al. – chains, whistles, hooters, hoses, handbells and even an old tin bath. Lennon would blow bubbles into a bucket while someone else would rattle chains in the bath…
    • The final verse where Lennon echoes Ringo’s lines – ending with a manic Goons style laugh.

    Set a class the task of doing something similar and you are onto something….

    Coda: Just last term I worked in a highly multicultural secondary school with a class with high EAL numbers. I chose another song from this same album: Tomorrow Never Knows. I thought this would be a good one because the song is call and response with highly repetitive responses. And so for students with very little English it made sense. They were less than enthused until I played them another version by Sheila Chandra. We compared her use of Indian instruments with the Beatles original, which used technology to produce a similar sounding backdrop. For the performance we used a tabla player, a keyboard player using synth pad drones and a good electric guitarist. Went down a storm….


    1. Wow, thanks so much for these suggestions David! I do love how supportive music teachers are of one another. This analysis is a really useful starting point for anyone wanting to explore the song with their classes. And maybe your response will inspire a future blog about the potential for cover versions to rescue our lesson plans!


  2. Great stuff David – and as you say. it can be helpful to “go under the bonnet” to seek out some of the musically interesting content – and that could apply to any piece, whether or not we “like” to listen to it.

    Which brings me on to a kind of explanation for my little contribution to Alison’s twitter post and David’s reply. I was reminded of a performance I conducted of a pretty well known choral work (first written at the very end of last century and premiered at the beginning of this century).

    I discovered after our performance that:
    – a sizeable majority of the audience loved the piece and its performance
    – a small number of the choir was distinctly unenthusiastic about the piece
    – a large majority of the orchestra positively disliked the work and were not especially keen on performing it

    Whilst this cannot in any way be regarded as a scientific study of musical perception, enjoyment or value, it serves to illustrate that we all come to a piece of music with a variety of prior experience, different “tastes” (and preferences), and leave with different emotional and intellectual responses that may, or may not, be borne of prior experience, taste or context.

    And most importantly the phenomenon that a listener can perceive a performance very differently those who are performing it.

    A tiny example to illustrate this is a great clip on you-tube in which a trumpet player (sitting behind the bell of his instrument) clearly hears the sound he is producing differently to what the conductor hears (standing in front of the bell). The fact that the conductor is Leonard Bernstein and that the trumpet player is being slightly argumentative shouldn’t be of any relevance

    There’s probably a PhD for someone in all of this; most likely one has already been completed somewhere! No matter, I think we all come to different pieces of music with a variety of baggage (spiritual and temporal) and sometimes we choose to leave the music still carrying it.

    This may have some deep relevance to music education. Or it may not! I’ll leave it for others to decide.

    Liked by 1 person

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