Sounds of Intent


An innovative approach to the understanding and teaching of musical development for children with complex needs

The Sounds of Intent project was set up in 2001 to investigate the musical development of children and young people with severe learning difficulties (SLD) or profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD). It was a joint initiative of Roehampton University, the Institute of Education (University of London) and the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and has involved teachers and therapists from across the country. The project has been made possible through the generous support of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation over the years.

Sounds of Intent grew out of earlier research that examined the provision of music in special schools in England for children with complex needs, published in the PROMISE report of 2001. While the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in England had, in the same year, set out a music curriculum for pupils with learning difficulties as part of the P levels, it appeared that their work was not based on music-developmental research. References in the “Performance Descriptions” for music seem to be largely anecdotal and often suggest using music as a means to different ends, such as fostering communication or encouraging movement. While music has a vital role to play in promoting wider development, we believe that a curriculum for music should principally be informed by how children develop musically. Of course, once this is established, there will be value in “reading across” to other areas of learning (and work on this is underway), but it remains the view of the team that such efforts would be more secure and, ultimately, more helpful to practitioners, if music development in its own right was better understood first.


Figure 1. Sounds of Intent framework of musical development in the domain of SLD and PMLD.A fresh approach

Given the almost total lack of research in the field, we decided to take a step back and have a fresh look at the children themselves, both through systematic observation by members of the research team, and by utilising the expertise of a group of practitioners, importantly, both specialists and non-specialists in music. For a period of 24 months, video recordings were made of children in action, and the nature and patterns of their musical engagement were analysed in detail. Researchers noted the children’s actions, responses and interactions, and sought to gauge which of these were representative, exceptional or in any way indicative of musical attainment or progress. As ideas emerged, they were used to inform a new developmental model, which went through a number of iterations.

These findings were contextualised in two ways. First, in the background, lay contemporary research as to how musical development typically occurs, which, it was recognised, may (but need not) be the same as the development of children with SLD or PMLD. Second, the team considered how we all typically make sense of music, using theories from the field of cognitive science, and considered to what extent these may be relevant for young people with PMLD.

Framework of musical development

On the basis of these three sources of evidence, the thinking of the Sounds of Intent team is that there are six key stages in the understanding of and engagement with music by children with SLD or PMLD. These can be remembered using the acronym CIRCLE, and may be summarised as follows:

1.    Confusion and Chaos
2.    Awareness and Intentionality
3.    Relationships, Repetition, Regularity
4.    Sounds Forming Clusters
5.    Deeper Structural Links
6.    Mature Artistic Expression

Figure 2. Level 1 of the Sounds of Intent Framework.

We considered various ways in which this pattern of development could be depicted that would make it readily accessible, while conveying the idea that one phase builds on those preceding without replacing them. The team also wanted the model to give a general feeling of growth and expansion – of moving out into the world from an inner core. After several attempts, the following approach was adopted, which uses concentric circles. The phases are divided into three distinct sectors: reactive, proactive and interactive. These correspond to listening and responding to sound and music, causing, creating and controlling sound (including musical sounds) and participating in sound and music-making with others (Figure 1).

Of course, in reality, the boundaries between segments are not clear-cut, as shown in Figure 1, but fuzzy.  And while it is possible to read across from one sector to another to segments that are in some sense equivalent (for example, “encounters sounds”, “makes sounds unknowingly” and “relates unwittingly through sound”), it is quite possible that a child’s profile of development will not show this symmetry; in the team’s experience, reactivity is likely to lead to proactivity which in turn is likely to occur before interactivity.

Continuing to work closely with practitioners, the researchers broke down each of these “headlines” into detailed elements (‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’). These enabled teachers and therapists to develop a fine-grained account of the levels at which their pupils were functioning. Here, for example, are the elements of Level 1 of the framework (Figure 2).

As this work progressed, feedback from over 30 schools was obtained. This indicated that, in order to be of greatest value to practitioners, particularly non-specialists in music, the brief description that was captured in each element should be unpacked as follows. There need to be:

  • a more detailed account of the observation that practitioners were required to make in order to gauge that a child was functioning at a particular level
  • strategies that would help promote further development (ideally these should be illustrated with pictures, and exemplified with audio and video excerpts)
  • curriculum materials at the appropriate level for the child concerned
  • references to strengthen and broaden the conceptual thinking of practitioners
  •  a simple numerical system that would enable a child’s attainment and progress to be gauged in the small steps that were deemed essential to recognise the achievements of those with profound and multiple learning difficulties properly.

To meet these needs, the Sounds of Intent group produced more detailed materials.

Next steps

It is anticipated that, within twelve months, the Sounds of Intent framework will be freely available on a range of IT platforms – ideally via touchscreen technology – for practitioners to use in three main ways:

  • as a tool to assess the musical development of children with complex needs
  • to promote further development through providing suggestions of “what next”, through appropriate resources and teaching strategies
  • to enable children’s progress to be recorded directly using a small digital video camera and microphone.

The concentric rings (shown in Figure 1) will form the opening page of the software package, with each segment constituting a potential link to its four, more detailed elements (see Figure 2), which will lead in turn to a page showing the material illustrated in Figure 3, complete with the requisite links. The framework will be web-based, to facilitate easy communication between schools and the research centre, to enable resources that are found to be useful to be shared easily, and to ensure that evolution of the framework is ongoing, relevant and responsive to real-life developments in schools and elsewhere. Finally, it is our aspiration that comparable materials will eventually be developed for other curricular areas.

Further information

Adam Ockelford is Professor of Music at Roehampton University.
Graham Welch is Professor of Music Education at the Institute of Education, University of London.
Sounds of Intent project:

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 45: March/April 2010.

Adam Ockelford
Author: Adam Ockelford

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