Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, Special Issue, 1087-109 3
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1087
Educating towards Musical Historical Heritage:
What Difficulties?
Elita Maule1, Dario De Cicco2
1Conservatory of Music of Bolzano-Bozen, Bolzano, Italy
2Conservatory of Music “Giuseppe Verdi” of Turi n-IT, Turin, Italy
Received August 12th, 2012; r evised September 1 5th, 2012; accepted Se ptember 27th, 2012
How does one set about helping children and teenagers to understand the different musical styles and
genres, the historical context pertaining to works of music and composers, or the historical aesthetic ap-
preciation of the musical repertoire? Are these aims achievable and simple to attain with students? This
article intends to focus on this very aspect, deemed important and included in all the national curricula
throughout Europe. It will show that the teacher’s familiarity with the specialist musical code could lead
him/her to take for granted technical knowledge that the student does not actually possess and that the
problems of temporal conceptualization should represent an object of careful reflection for all teachers.
Keywords: Music Education; History of Music; Psychopedagogy
“All European countries have arts and cultural education cur-
ricula setting out learning aims/outcomes to be achieved. De-
pending on whether those curricula are structured as an inte-
grated whole or as a collection of separate subjects, some learn-
ing aims/outcomes may be defined more specifically for the
visual arts, music, drama, dance, media arts and crafts” (Euro-
pean Commission, 2009).
As far as music is concerned, the aims shared by almost all
countries of the European Union concern the development of
artistic skills, which generally involves “learning the different
artistic styles and genres. In that regard, some countries refer to
a repertoire of specific works, in particular for music and drama.
Artistic understanding tends to focus on artistic concepts, such
as understanding the characteristics of different means of artis-
tic expression or the relationship between the artist, his or her
cultural and physical environment and his or her works”
(European Commission, 2009).
Critical appreciation (aesthetic judgment) is among the six
aims most often referred to, while a third aim common to al-
most all the countries is an understanding of cultural heritage.
“The understanding of cultural heritage is promoted through
contact with works of art, as well as through learning the char-
acteristics of works of art produced in different historical peri-
ods and of certain artists’ works (sometimes from a predeter-
mined repertoire or from artistic ‘canons’)” (European Com-
mission, 2009).
But how does one set about helping children and teenagers to
understand the different musical styles and genres, the histori-
cal context pertaining to works of music and composers, or the
historical aesthetic appreciation of the musical repertoire? Are
these aims achievable and simple to attain with children and
This article intends to focus on this very aspect, deemed im-
portant and included in all the national curricula throughout
Europe, but still little investigated in the field of didactic re-
search (Maule, 2007).
Understanding Historical Time
Time is an indispensable element of history: “time sticks to
its thinking like soil to a gardener’s spade”, as Braudel wrote
(Braudel, 1980). Even if there is no shortage of attempts to free
history from its chronological dimension (as in the covering
law theory (Antiseri, 1974) or, regarding music, the a-chronic
line of thought initiated by Treitler) (Treitler, 1989), or reduce
it to a synchronic type of sociological and anthropological re-
flection, the observation of times and durations remains a fun-
damental element of historiography.
Recent trends in the approach to history have brought about
new challenges in the world of teaching and, among these, the
acquisition of sense of historical time has become a central
issue in the debate. This brings into play complex operations
such as a precise awareness of the temporal specificity that
every historical phenomenon possesses (short, medium, long)
and its relation with the formal chronological scale (Bordino,
1983; Mattozzi, 1990a). Furthermore, the student “must under-
stand that even chronology is a product of the historian, who
has calculated the year on the basis of natural cycles, and that
calendars (which may be solar or lunar) were invented by so-
cieties, by civilisations. The historian [...] invented the idea of
the century only at the end of the 1500s” (Le Goff, 1991).
The difficulties linked to the acquisition of historical time,
alongside others, not least of all that of a linguistic nature, ex-
plain why it is necessary, when planning an effective educa-
tional programme on the appreciation of musical historical
heritage, to take into accounts the students’ capacity to under-
stand and their psychological age.
This question has been the object of various recent studies,
which are able to offer the teacher some useful suggestions. “At
school we speak of ‘time’ and in reality we are referring to a
myriad of quite different situations; the concept of ‘time’ is
compounded by problems regarding linguistic, logical and nu-
merical comprehension, and a multitude of information gaps of
varying type” (Calvani, 1988).
These are the words of Calvani, who already in the 1980s
accused Piaget of having led pedagogic and didactic thought
towards absolutist attitudes to the perception of time, just as if
it were a notion that we either possess or not.
The studies carried out by the Swiss psychologist on the de-
velopment of the notion of time tended to demonstrate how
children possessed no primary intuition regarding time or dura-
tion: initially time seems to be essentially a quality of events
and not a dimension in which the events themselves are set
(Piaget, 1979).
Piaget’s theories of the developmental stages have had a de-
terminant influence on pedagogical thought. From the 1960s
conditioning also regarded the teaching of history, leading
many scholars to have serious doubts about its teach ability: in
fact, since the concepts of time indispensable for its learning,
together with certain necessary formal operations, are not pre-
sent before the age of eleven-twelve years, it seems somewhat
pointless to begin to study it earlier.
While psychology has often tackled the question of temporal
comprehension in terms of narration, of physical experiences or
“lived time”, other issues arise from the comprehension of time
linked more specifically to historical contents.
Jahoda, in his investigations about children’s notion of time
and their progressive interest in history, already proposes five
approximate stages of development: at five - six years mytho-
logical time (once upon a time) is present; at seven-ten years
objective time is present with the possibility to control (some
stories about the past are true, others not); at ten - eleven years
the continuity between present and past develops along with
interest in ancient objects; in pre-adolescence the concept of
historical continuity emerges together with interest in historical
sequences (first biological, then cultural); finally adolescence
sees the development of the concept of historical processuality
and the start of historical interpretation (Calvani, 1988).
Historical comprehension and, more especially, historical
horizon and the estimation of duration, seem to be closely
linked to the more general problem of how the image of history
is formed in the mind of the student: in this context we also
gain a clearer idea of the reductive effects associated with the
transfer and generalization of terms and schemes pertaining to
everyday experience. This is what Calvani believes with refer-
ence to a study he himself carried out, which confirms the in-
ability of children to estimate duration, with a notable “leveling
out” that persists at the age of ten - twelve years.
The image of the unlived past is formed in the minds of chil-
dren by extending the categories of experience into a mental
representation and this can be gathered from the terms they use,
taken from everyday language: the meaning of such terms, and
their content, is extended to the mental picture of the unknown
phenomenon thus explaining the changes that took place in the
past. In this way the temporal connotations belonging to the
familiar action experienced in the children’s daily life are
transferred to the realm of history, and historical changes are
thus conceptualized as separate events and are focalized as
single items similar to those of everyday life (Calvani, 1988).
The author nevertheless concludes by underlining his convic-
tion that temporal acquisitions do not express themselves alone,
but are a correlate of various pieces of knowledge and the in-
struments employed to describe them. The understanding of the
durations pertaining to each phenomenon of the past can be
considerably improved by supplying crucial information about
the nature of the phenomena and by pointing out the fallacy of
certain analogies (Calvani, 1988).
Piaget, in fact, seems to have based his thoughts on a too
structured view of time and it would probably be more correct
to think of a comprehension of time linked to the concrete
situations to which they are tied, the specific contents involved
in each particular instance.
Moreover, Piaget’s studies, or those of his followers, have
never attempted to investigate what a child might learn if the
learning conditions were modified. And it is precisely this fact
that gives rise to the most bitter criticisms, since relying on
modifications and changing the existent is a characteristic
strategy of teaching: “If we taught history only to people with a
refined understanding of adult behaviour and the passage of
time, we should probably only teach it as preparation-for-re-
tirement courses [...]” (Watt, 1972).
Data emerging from post-Piagetian studies have thus demon-
strated that:
comprehension difficulties in children are not entirely due
to the absence of a notion of time or to logical difficulties,
but rather to the linguistic modalities of the account or the
extent to which the material presented corresponds to the
idea of history possessed by the child (using non verbal re-
quests or clearly structured material, positive answers can
already be obtained from children aged four or five years);
errors in questions of time, at all ages, fundamentally stem
from confusion with the spatial dimension since, in com-
mon experience, time is more associated with space than
with any other variable;
temporal conducts exist that precede the notion of time and
can be consolidated and further developed through teaching
(Calvani, 1988). One of the most fundamental examples is
the physiological clock that regulates our periodic cycle of
life (hunger, sleep, etc.); the temporal horizon, which al-
lows a representation of the past and future starting from
the present (our earliest childhood memories become con-
fused with the memories of our parents, influenced in turn
by the calendars provided by the society in which we live);
the estimation of duration, linked to expectation and the
time that opposes the fulfillment of our wishes (Landi,
From a didactic point of view these considerations have
proved highly relevant and justify a course of learning which
starts with the construction of our personal history (musical in
our case) and then extends to the familiar and thus social in
order to consolidate the development of a temporal horizon and
the estimation of duration.
From Piaget to Vygotsky
The line of research linked to the psychology of cognitive
development of a Piagetian type, in an attempt to extend the
considerations formulated in the scientific and mathematical
field also to that of history, demonstrated the incapacity of stu-
dents to perform hypothetic-deductive reasoning in the latter
field before the age of 16.5 years (as opposed to the 12 years
reported for science) (Booth, 1994; Hallam, 1967). Hypothetic-
deductive thought, like that of time, is also considered an in-
dispensable ingredient in the comprehension of history and of
musical history.
The studies carried out in England by Hallam (1967, 1970,
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
1972), which would act as a starting point for many others,
therefore offer results that are “quite discouraging for teaching:
if the obstacles to the development of historical thought are in
fact caused by the limits of the intellectual operations available
before the stage of formal operations, then, assuming that for-
mal operations are practised some years later in the field of
history, one can only adjust one’s teaching to the relative stages
of cognitive development, or even, more radically, question the
very presence of history in school programmes before a certain
age” (Rabuiti, 2005).
Subsequent studies, however, have accused Piagetian-type
research of adopting inadequate investigation methods; of hav-
ing used materials and evidence poorly suited to the purpose; of
having reduced historical reasoning to a series of formalized
techniques and to a “set of logical relations that have more
force among psychologists than among historians” (Wineburg,
1996). In any case, as Wineburg observes, “despite the criti-
cisms and negative conclusions, the studies of a Piagetian type
[...] not only reopen among psychologists the question of “his-
torical sense” posed by Bell at the start of the century (What is
historical sense? And how can it be developed?) and long since
abandoned, but also stimulate a series of further studies, with
more encouraging results for teaching” (Wineburg, 1996).
The latter include the study promoted by the English gov-
ernment in the 1970s regarding the experimentation of a history
curriculum destined for pupils aged between 13 and 16 years,
which provided important results in advocating a style of
teaching that abandons the chronological and factual approach
in favour of one that focuses on the learning of processes and
procedures (Wineburg, 1996). Other studies have suggested
that difficulties in the learning of history can be ascribed not so
much to cognitive factors, but to the context of the teaching, the
experience and style of the teacher, and the materials used
(Dickinson & Lee, 1984; Ashby & Lee, 1987).
The change of perspective that, from the 1980s, influenced
research on history education, owes much to an increasing ad-
hesion to the principles of Vygotsky (1935-1983) regarding the
development of the mental processes (Wigotskij, 2005). The
Russian psychologist considers not only the genetic dimension
of the mental processes but also, and above all, the socio-cul-
tural aspects, in which that of language play a determinant role.
Of particular interest is what the scholar defines as the “zone of
proximal development”, “that is to say, the set of cognitive
processes that can be stimulated by an opportune educational
intervention” (Landi, 2006). The psychologist in fact believes
that “the only efficient type of education is one that precedes
the development and guides it; it must be directed not so much
towards the mature functions, but those in phase of maturation”
(Wigotskij, 1980). In other words, by preceding the develop-
ment in a certain sense, education could enable the consolida-
tion and structuring of roughly sketched processes already in
course (Landi, 1987; Wigotskij, 1980).
On this basis, studies on history education therefore turn to
the investigation of the problems involved in the understanding
of history rather than examining the logical operations involved
in the construction of the concepts, that is to say they are con-
cerned with the product as opposed to the process and “focus in
particular on—or look for relations between—specific skills in
the learning of history, for instance the use of sources, historical
reasoning and the understanding of historical concepts, study-
ing the effects of the acquired knowledge (misconceptions and
convictions) on specific skills” (Rabuiti, 2005). In this way it is
possible to pinpoint, and better delineate, certain issues useful
for improving the learning of history instead of sanctioning its
unteachability at an early age, as we shall see in the next sec-
Linguistic Structure of Historiographic
As pointed out by Ivo Mattozzi (1990b), historiographical
knowledge is first and foremost writing, with a compositional,
linguistic and rhetorical structure; cognitive operators act on
them at a functional level.
Linguistic-conceptual comprehension therefore represents a
crucial element in the learning of history, but also a source of
Towards the end of the 1980s, especially in the United States,
studies of a psycho-linguistic nature began to focus on the stu-
dents’ comprehension of historical textbooks. This resulted in
the highlighting of the substantial defects of what are often the
only materials available for the study of history: the texts are
difficult. The explanations offered are not really explanations
because they do not allow us to determine the purpose of an
action or an event, to plan for reaching a purpose, or the action
produced in response, the result. The texts often presume
pre-knowledge that is not present, especially regarding the con-
text of the facts narrated. The conclusions are unanimous: the
texts need to be rewritten taking into account models of the
comprehension and learning of complex material ela borated by
psycho-linguistics (Beck, McKeown, Sinatra, & Loxterman,
It has already been shown, for example, how only 13% -
30% of subjects with an average age of 14 effectively under-
stand the political, economic, religious terms most frequently
used in the text-books and how, in reality, the misunderstanding
of terms is more common than teachers actually imagine. Even
in first-year high school students the results offer little comfort:
less than 1/4 of them understand concepts such as Nation, Gov-
ernment or Republic; only towards the age of 16 are they able
to distinguish between king and power, while the term “com-
merce” is differentiated into its various phases still later (Cal-
vani, 1986).
Recent research has nevertheless demonstrated experiment-
tally that children who were given an adapted history text in
which the cause-effect concatenation was explained very clearly,
were able to remember much more easily (Rabuiti, 2005; Beck,
McKeown, Sinatra, & Loxterman, 1991).
At the same time, the narration literacy of the text should
prevail over the historical literacy, given that the latter is in any
case grounded on narration as its basic material and as a means
to explain the causal and temporal links; once again it has been
experimentally demonstrated how the quality of the texts influ-
ences the results of learn ing.
The history text, then, presents the historical knowledge that
has come down to us through specialist research. It has a spe-
cific communicative structure that responds to the characteris-
tics of the object in question: narrative when dealing with
events, descriptive when dealing with the context in which they
are set, argumentative when illustrating the explanation offered
by the historian of the issues that he/she has identified. One
may, or one must, help the student to understand the funda-
mental essence of the history text, by exploiting its communi-
cative structure, recognizing its functional structure, so that it
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1089
leads along an autonomous route to the historical knowledge
presented in the text. To do this it is necessary to transpose the
expert text into one that is functional to the operations of the
didactic mediation.
Historical Explanations and Interpretations of
the Past in Students
A second problem investigated by recent research concerns
“reasoning in history, explanation and in particular causal rea-
soning”, a source of notable difficulty for the students who tend
to adopt categories taken from their everyday experience to
explain complex historical phenomena.
Piaget had already noted how children seem to conceive the
past in terms of the present, whereas the understanding of how
history unfolds tends to upset this perspective; the past is seen
as a “reservoir” which contains all the embryons of the ma-
chines or tools of today; furthermore, children, like uneducated
adults, tend to absolutize their assumptions and believe them
universally valid (Calvani, 1988). This aspect can also be said
to include the tendency to personalize, that is to say the ten-
dency to explain complex historical phenomena as actions and
events that are connected and determined by great personages
(individuals or collective entities, these too seen as “persons”)
overlooking the set of causal variables involved (Carretero,
Lopez-Manjon, & Jacott, 1997; Carretero, Jacott, Limon, Lo-
pez-Manjon, & Leon, 1994). “The results, though heterogene-
ous, of the numerous different studies that have been carried
out in various counties from the 1970s till today, have nearly
always shown how common this phenomenon is, not only
among students but also among adults, apart from experts in
history. [...] As well as recognizing the quantitative significance
of the phenomenon and the difficulties involved in explaining
to both children and adolescents, the studies show that such
personalization decreases with the increase in age and scholari-
zation [...] and is sensitive both to the type of historical events
considered [...] and the type of general cultural education re-
ceived [...] as well as to the quality of history education at
school, so that in Italy and in the 1970s, for instance, the phe-
nomenon is more common in technical and professional
schools than in high schools” (Rabuiti, 2005).
In history, as in everyday life, action, whether individual,
group, institutional or social, requires an explanation based on
the relation between fine beliefs—values—considered within
the context of the action performed and its consequences. This
requires, from the students, a historical empathy, in other words
the capacity to place themselves in the part of the actor.
Studies carried out in England have shown that such histori-
cal empathy in students is characterized by stages each with
their particular conception of the past: in the first phase history
is stupid and men from the past take on stereotyped roles; at an
intermediate level history is considered as a system of explana-
tion but the past is still seen in terms of the present. “Only at a
higher level [...] are the differences recognised between the
mentality of the past and that of the present and actions are
placed in a wider context of beliefs and values” (Rabuiti, 2005).
Recent studies have also focused on the “epistemological be-
liefs” enacted by the students in order to interpret the past.
“Despite the different approaches, the studies highlight the
pervasive influence of more or less naive beliefs on the cogni-
tive elaboration of learning processes and the difficulties en-
countered by the students at various ages. They reveal that the
epistemological beliefs change with age, are linked to the level
of scholarization and may also come from places far from the
school classrooms: from the media, from popular culture, from
the church, or from the family. Moreover, they show that it is
possible to identify a sequence in the development of episte-
mological beliefs which [...] go from an absolutist view (where
knowledge is absolute and unproblematic) to an absolute rela-
tivism (where knowledge is ambiguous and not certain) and
finally to a mature epistemology in which knowledge, in con-
tinuous construction, is based on the sharing of the norms of
investigation” (Rabuiti, 2005).
The picture emerging from the results is therefore quite
negative: the conceptions remain reductive even while studying
at university.
With this in mind, recent substantiated trends propose a style
of teaching based on the comparison of contrasting versions of
a historical question, so as to encourage the students to decen-
tralize their personal points of view, or they insist on a greater
use of the document in the class, so that students can become
accustomed to building history instead of learning its contents
by heart.
These are just some of the investigations made by psycholo-
gists and scholars of education, and such considerations should
also be kept in mind by the teacher in order to profitably teach
the appreciation of musical historical heritage set its own cul-
tural context. Moreover, the fact that we have offered informa-
tion valid for the compulsory school age does not mean that
more adult students are exempt from such difficulties. “On this
matter it should be remembered that we can never consider the
problems linked to temporal assessment to be completely re-
solved (not even in adults) because the question does not de-
pend solely on maturity, but also on many other factors include-
ing experience and culture” (Landi, 1988).
The language used by the teacher can often be a frequent
cause of comprehension difficulties also in adult students and
even more so among students from a lower socio-cultural
background, leading, just as frequently, to a lack of interest in
the subject. Some studies, in fact, have shown that “the relation
between cultural familiarity and the understanding of historical
language is clearly confirmed: historical terminology “dis-
criminates” students in relation to their socio-cultural back-
ground and the middle school is unable to bridge the gap that
already appears wide in the elementary school” (Calvani,
It seems worthwhile, therefore, to look further into such dif-
ficulties and try to identify them more specifically in the realm
of music history teaching.
A Problematic History of Music: The Times and
Language of Music History
More than thirty years ago a conference held in Florence
about the teaching of music history (Miceli & Sperenzi, 1987)
tackled this sensitive issue: on the one hand it highlighted the
problem of the inadequacy of language as a reason for the stu-
dents’ lack of comprehension and demotivation in learning; on
the other it criticized the strictly chronological way of handling
material which tends to obstruct any real knowledge of the
phenomena in question (Maule, 2007).
The history of music, with its peculiar status, seems to pre-
sent problems of comprehension still greater than those already
pointed out for “global” historical comprehension.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
As far as the treatment of time periods is concerned, a brief
look through some music education text books for the second-
dary school reveals a temporal arrangement of the historical
references characterized by the following features:
the use of temporal parameters such as the 20th century, or
the 1800s, the 1500s;
the use of historical-aesthetic terms to describe periods, for
example, “Humanism and Renaissance”, “Romanticism”;
the use of dates to place events, composers, works;
the use of “elastic” temporal segmentations linked to a con-
text or civilisation such as “The music of the ancient world”,
or “The Greeks”, “The Romans”.
While approaching the historical aspect in a variety of fash-
ions, text-books, including those aimed at the high school, gen-
erally use all the temporal categories outlined above, giving
preference to some parameters to speak of certain aspects or
historical areas (it is difficult to speak of the ancient world, or
of extra-European music, using dates or precise indications of
the centuries).
Similar features are also present even in texts that deal with
the historical side in the form of “complement files” not ar-
ranged chronologically but functional to other didactic projects.
The problem of periodization in music history, which in-
volves and concerns the whole specialist area, seems to be even
more accentuated in the education sector, that is, the sector that
deals with the diffusion of the historiographic product.
According to Nattiez, for the historian “the difficulty lies in
finding convincing criteria for relating the periods to the works,
styles and genres on the one hand and the external criteria on
the other. In reality no music historian works purely along just
one of these three lines at the exclusion of the others” (Nattiez,
2004) and this is why, generally speaking, it becomes necessary
to make reference to various different temporal measures. “Mu-
sic written in a given period can be explained through features
characteristic of that same period; the definitions may be those
of musical categories (for example musical realism) or notions
borrowed from the history of figurative art (baroque, postmod-
ernism) or else from general history (the modern age)” (Nattiez,
The problem of periodization therefore concerns mainly the
point of view adopted by the historian, in other words it hinges
on the explanatory grid that justifies the links between the items
that have been chosen for investigation; it also depends on the
type and quantity of information and traces that have survived
till the present. In this way, the music of ancient cultures with-
out written music is investigated by collecting together groups
of facts and temporal categories different from those of eras
closer to our own which have left us a great deal of music in
written form: this explains, for instance, the substantial differ-
ences in research methods, in the contents selected, in the peri-
odization, between histories like The rise of music in the an-
cient world (Sachs, 1943) and The classical style. Haydn, Mo-
zart, Beethoven (Rosen, 1971).
If we now try to put ourselves in the position of the students,
we can note how the use of times in the history of music repre-
sents a crucial element in its understanding. The simultaneous
adoption of various temporal parameters requires the posses-
sion of necessary prerequisites that more often than not are
1) to have learned to attribute meaning to dates and dating;
2) to have assumed sufficient information so as to be able to
manage important events within a framework of permanencies
and thus to pass from a chronological dimension to one relative
to the durations. At times, in fact, despite the chronology, some
composers can be placed in a later time-frame, as they do not
appear to share the styles of their era. In school text-books, for
example, it is now common to find Debussy (1862-1918) and
impressionism in the 20th century (Fiorenza, 1992): the student
is thus expected to know how to make comparisons and corre-
lations between different measures of time and identify any
correspondence between style, century or historical era;
3) to possess an understanding (and to have had sufficient
listening experience) of stylistic concepts, techniques, etc. (Ro-
manticism, The age of polyphony, etc.).
Without these prerequisites no real comprehension of the
musical phenomena of the past can be achieved. The use of a
chronological scale, the conventional measure within which
musical contents with their specific temporal connotations of
varying type should find a place, remains one of the most com-
plicated obstacles to surmount in order of difficulty. Nobody
wishes to deny its importance for arranging events subsequen-
tially. However, the specific scope of historiographical research
“is not only to order phenomena in time, but above all to recon-
struct a meaningful picture of the past by establishing a variety
of relations between the different dimensions of human life [...]
in order to make it possible to identify the relations that exist
between the different historical periods. Therefore, understand-
ing the meaning of a date does not signify simply setting it at a
certain distance from ourselves, it means, above all, being able
to identify the logical correlations that make a certain historical
phenomenon worthy of being remembered in a certain way
with respect to others. Chronology is an essential tool but it
must be shaped very gradually. The identification of dates
should be seen as the conclusion and not as the beginning of
historical knowledge. At school, instead, they begin [...] from
the end” (Landi, 2005).
For these reasons, the dates of birth and death of composers,
still much loved by the most widespread text-books, or the
chronological placement of certain “facts” in time has no basis
if we do not first learn to attribute a “sense” to such figures, in
other words if we do not know what they are for, or why, or
with respect to what. Furthermore, is the detailed use of dates
useful and meaningful for a history, such as that of music in the
compulsory school that lays no claims to being so specific or
These considerations confirm the need to provide the school
with explicit didactic interventions capable of offering a repre-
sentation of our historic musical heritage, and its times, which
the student can build up little by little. Otherwise, it should
come as no surprise if the most able students of music history
in universities make frequent anachronistic errors in exams,
especially if the questions concern the very ancient times. “The
way we perceive certain events to be near or far varies depend-
ing on the relevance these have to our culture and in any case is
strongly influenced by the state of our knowledge.
The less we know about certain periods the more they tend to
contract, also spatially, in the representation we form of them.
And the study of history can help us to correct these very de-
fects of short- or long-sightedness, also common among un-
educated adults” (Girardet, 1983). We should not even be sur-
prised if the best students in music history remain dumb-
stricken when faced with simple questions such as: “How long
did composers continue to write motets”? Due to the influence
of chronology, a temporal category that forms the mainstay of
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much text-book writing, the apparently clever student overlooks
the more recently composed motets, linking the form to ancient
times because it has been studied exclusively in that context.
The problems of temporal conceptualization and the assign-
ment of times to phenomena of the musical past should there-
fore represent an object of careful reflection for all teachers.
Before starting an activity in the class they should dedicate a
few moments to considering the difficulties involved in the task:
what conceptual operations are needed for its comprehension?
What prerequisites are called for in order to effectively achieve
the goals of the operation? Is the selected material adequate and
comprehensible? Does the language of the chosen text/texts
present any difficulties and could it give rise to any misunder-
The teacher’s familiarity with the specialist musical code
could lead him/her to take for granted technical knowledge that
the student does not actually possess and the effect of interact-
ing factors, derived from everyday experience or from more
habitual verbal communication, may often result in error.
Examining an extract taken from a widely used text-book for
the Italian middle school, dealing with the life and music of
Chopin, Galli offers an example of linguistic difficulty: the
terms given here (Table 1) all refer to the style and work of t he
The author concludes that “without the careful guidance of
the teacher, the reading of the piece in question could lead to
misunderstandings or could simply appear meaningless. The
language of music history, especially in the extract examined,
often uses metaphors, parentheses and quotations; the result is a
complex syntactic composition that requires explanation, avoid-
ing, though, the error of oversimplification” (Galli, 1990).
Discussions and Proposals
The considerations hitherto presented aim to underline how
education towards musical historical heritage is a complex op-
eration. Such complexity, long felt and already resolved in the
teaching of other areas such as that of “general” history, has
never been sufficiently considered within the sector of music, a
sector intent on imposing on everyone, irrespective of the level
of school and the age of the pupils, a notionalist and verbalist
model of learning motivated more by academic music histori-
ography (Universities, Music Conservatories) and the contents
Table 1.
Musical terms.
lexicon Semantic
polyvalences Technical expressions and
Exile Anonymous folk Melodic fantasy
Virile Landscape
Harmonicoriginality and
Lyricism Poeticexpression
Longing/torment Polonaises Polonaises
Exile Nocturnes Nocturnes
Performing modes
that is held to be “important”, rather than by the sciences of
education and developmental psychology.
The fallacy of such transmission of knowledge has led to two
consequences: 1) a general disinterest among students in our
musical historical heritage; 2) a very poor knowledge of this
area at the end of their compulsory schooling (Gasperoni,
Marconi, & Santoro, 2006). Possible solutions to the problem
could be:
a) Introducing contents closer to the students’ own experi-
ence, based, as advocated by the new structuralist approach to
history, not on the Great Composers (Beethoven, Bach, Mozart,
Rossini…), on their biographies learnt in rote-like fashion and
on a list of their works, but on musical contexts experienced by
all (What did people at the time of Mozart dance or listen to?
Did men and women have the same musical tastes?);
b) Trying to find a link between historical music culture and
the experience of young people, perhaps making use of multi-
media sources or new technology (What music by Beethoven
does Walt Disney use in the cartoon The Music Land and why?
What music by Vivaldi is often used as a ring-tone for cell
c) Trying to exploit local culture, as close and as accessible
to the students as possible (What sort of music was played at
the mediaeval cas tl e in your town?)
d) Trying to promote a self-study scheme similar to that
characterizing historiographical research (not grounded, there-
fore, on the rote learning of information taken from the pages of
a book, but on research, on various texts, the internet, etc. an-
swering questions posed by the students at the outset).
This approach has the advantage not only of motivating the
students, but also of taking into account the difficulties in-
volved in studying musical historical heritage, thus guarantee-
ing the acquisition of methodological as opposed to merely
cognitive skills.
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