Monthly Archives: December 2014

Narrative Inquiry, Stories and Cheating at GCSE Music.

This week in preparation for writing my RD1 (the project proposal and first milestone in the PhD process) I am busy reading about the research method called narrative inquiry. Presently there are two main options I am considering for the methodological focus of my study, phenomenological methods and narrative inquiry. Narrative inquiry is a relatively new method (Webster and Mertova, 2007) and is about hearing and recording stories of people’s lives, finding patterns or the plot within them. It treats ‘narrative knowing’ as a way of learning about aspects of people’s lives or particular happenings.

What is currently interesting me about researching stories is that it seems like a natural way of exploring identity. It’s through stories that we create our identities and the identities of others (Kenny, 2005). Stories are a way of making sense of time, of looking back, looking at the present and looking forward, we construct our identities through this constantly shifting perception of our time line. As part of my study I hope to explore how improvisation becomes integrated into ‘musical identity’ (the musical story of our lives), exploring what part it plays in the stories of music students and how taking improvisation classes contributes to those stories. So, at the moment, narrative inquiry seems to be a good fit for my study, although it is early days.

Recently I’ve found myself telling people stories about my improvisational musical journey. In different contexts with different peoples, I’ve caught myself re-counting the time I learnt this, or did that, in music improvisation. It’s as if my own narrative of music improvisation is coming to mind and informing the path and direction of my research. One story I recently told was about GCSE music (aged 14-15). I took my GCSE’S in 1988 in the first year of the new syllabus. In music education at secondary school level it was a time of experiment and change, and a move away from the western classical approach of the traditional O level. The syllabus I took at GSCE was heavily influenced by John Paynter and Peter Aston (1970), the radical music educators who advocated the teaching of music through exploration and improvisation (authors I have mentioned several times in this blog). The music GSCE explored creating compositions through improvisation. I wrote many compositions during my GCSE music, some of which I can still remember and play on the piano. However, as well as writing some compositions out on manuscript I also submitted improvisations (and pretended to my teacher and to the exams board that they were compositions). I simply recorded the improvisations, made up a title for them and sent them in for my final course work. It wasn’t until I was re-counting this narrative to my Supervisors that I thought, why did I do that, and what was behind it? Possibly I didn’t understand the point of formalising my music, when it seemed perfectly fine as a spontaneous creation, or I might have been acting as a typical teenager and doing as little work as possible in order to pass the course. However, the punch line is that my music teacher (a wonderful women called Dorothy Gallagher) attended a music teachers day for the county on the course work and compositions and I received the highest mark in the county for my improvisations (sorry compositions)! In a way this story also highlights how difficult it can be to make the divide between composition and improvisation in music, that they are one and part of the same picture.

In telling this small piece of musical narrative, the story was brought to life and it forced me to reflect on my actions of the past, creating self-reflection. It also caused one of my supervisors to think about different ways of helping her son to learn music. This improvisational narrative is an event on my time line, a part of a bigger story, a small story within stories, and has partly has led me to this point of researching improvisation in music in 2014.

Telling some of my own improvisational musical narratives, and reflecting on them has started to draw me closer to using narrative inquiry as the underpinning of my PhD study. It’s through the stories that we tell ourselves and others that we understand our lives and find meaning. Hadley (2009) in her moving narrative inquiry of Clive Robbins life and work puts it into words;

In the process of hearing someone’s story, it is already interacting with our own in such a way that is not only brings us to a greater understanding of that person’s narrative, but can encourage self-reflexivity and self-inquiry with regard to our own narrative as music therapists‘ (Hadley, 2007, p.33).

I would encourage you to think about your own musical stories, to reflect on them and tell them often, in doing so, your perception of yourself as a musician can change and develop. Narrative research is about finding a truth that is only found in stories, that stories represent the way we feel about an event. A person might tell a story one way on one day and in a different way another day, both stories are valid, both are true. I am sure a friend of mine who is a children’s story teller would agree, that stories grow and change and reveal the self of the teller and change the self of the hearer. This fascinates me, and might possibly lead me use narrative inquiry as part of my PhD study.


Hadley, S. (2009) Meaning Making through Narrative Inquiry. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy. Volume 12. (1), pp. 33-55.

Kenny, C. (2005) Narrative Inquiry. In: Wheeler, B., L., ed. (2005) Music Therapy Research. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers, pp. 4160429.

Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence, Classroom Projects in Creative Music. Cambridge, London, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Webster, L., Mertova, P. (2007) Using narrative inquiry as a research method: an introduction to using critical event narrative analysis in research on learning and teaching. London, New York: Routledge.


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