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B. J. Music Ed.

2004 21:3, 265277 Copyright 

C 2004 Cambridge University Press
DOI: 10.1017/S0265051704005820

Boys and girls constructions of gender through musical

composition in the primary school
Brigitte Charles

The purpose of the study is to examine, through interviews and observations, the extent
to which 810 year old children in a London primary school replicate gendered musical
practices and experience gendered musical meanings, and how these may affect their
expectations and the specific practices and products of their composition. I also consider
how primary school teachers participate in the overarching discourse on gender and
music education, by examining their expectations about the nature of girls and boys
compositions. I analyse my findings in relation to Lucy Greens model of gendered
musical meaning and experience. One outcome of the analysis is the development of a
concept of female musical subculture to interpret girls and womens participation in the
compositional world. Secondly, the findings strongly suggest that in their musical practice,
the children in the research are not reproducing ideological assumptions about gendered
musical practices, which contradicts how they operate discursively, for their discourse lies
within the bounds of gendered musical ideology. Thirdly, the findings also indicate that
the teachers are strongly affected by gendered musical ideologies, and have concomitant
expectations about the music girls and boys produce.

Rationale for the research

Historically, very few girls and women have gone into composition in either a professional
or an amateur capacity (I am applying a broad definition of composition to include
improvisation). Scholars have only recently begun to enquire into the situation, and there
is still much ground to be covered (for example, Dahl, 1984; Bowers & Tick, 1986; Citron,
1993; Marshall, 1993; Cook & Tsou, 1994; Halstead, 1997; Green, 1997; Bayton, 1998).
Regarding primary music education, the majority of gender-related research has been on
instrumental choice (for example, Delzell & Leppla, 1992; Bruce & Kemp, 1993; Green,
1993, 1994, 1997; Zervoudakes & Tanur, 1994; Harrison & ONeill, 2002), with relatively
little research on gender and music in relation to childrens compositions (Green, 1993,
1994, 1997, 2001; Chadwick, 1997; Morgan, Hargreaves & Joiner, 1997).
This article concerns how gender affects both the ways in which children compose
(compositional practice) and the nature of the composition itself (compositional product).
By compositional practice I mean, for instance, the ways children organise themselves
when they compose, such as whether they work as individuals or cooperate in a group;
their choice of instrumentation; how they record their music; whether they play pre-
composed tunes or improvise. With regard to compositional product I consider my own
evaluations as the teacher, and the evaluations made by other teachers of specific childrens
compositions in relation to gender.

Brigitte Charles

The research is also about childrens and teachers expectations of girls and boys
musical practices. Although my main focus is on composition, as compositional practices
in primary schools are never hermetic, I also examine how teachers and children evaluate
boys and girls musical practices and products in more general terms relating not only to
composing but also to playing, singing and listening. This discussion has implications
for the broader history of music outside schooling as well as for the role of music
in schools. For example, there is a connection between musical performance-practice
and choice of compositional genre, and this particularly refers to womens choice of
composition historically. Women have been more inclined to compose and perform
for smaller audiences, for example within the confines of the home, salons, or various
associations and societies specifically for the promotion of womens music. Women have
composed smaller works because they have often lacked the musical training and education
to compose larger, more abstract, music; this resulted from being prohibited from studying
specific composition techniques. Despite traditional musical roles of women resulting from
social restrictions within cultural boundaries of the private and public spheres, women
have also colluded in their restricted musical practice in their reluctance to deviate from
conformity in their behaviour and choice of composition genre.

The research design and methods

The research was conducted at a primary school in south-east London where I was class
teacher and Music Co-ordinator. The children were predominantly working class and multi-
ethnic (Turkish, Afro-Caribbean, African, White, Bengali, Indian). During this time there
were approximately 380 children in the school. The methods involved were participant
observation, semi-structured interviews, and the use of independent judges. I used three
techniques because the sample was small and from one school, therefore the triangulation
strengthened the validity. From February to July of 1998 I collected my empirical data,
working with 89 year olds (Year 4) and 910 year olds (Year 5). I observed (as a participant
observer in the role of a teacher) 107 children working in single-sexed groups of 5 or 6 (9
girl groups and 11 boy groups). I interviewed 40 810 year olds in the groups in which they
worked (4 girl groups and 4 boy groups) and also conducted 22 individual interviews. The
independent judges consisted of 29 teachers and the majority were from different schools to
judge the resulting compositions. The teachers levelled the compositions using the criteria
from the Swanwick and Tillman (1986) Spiral of Musical Development. I used the spiral
as an assessment tool because the model has been tried and tested with reliable results
in a variety of situations (see Hentschke, 1993; Stavrides, 1995; Silva, 1998; and see also
Swanwicks later discussions, for example 1991 and 1994). The teachers also had to judge
the sex of the composers as Boy , Girl or Either (if they could not decide). For the Pilot
Teacher Study conducted in October 1998 I used 21 MA (Master of Arts) students from the
Institute of Education, University of London, to level 14 compositions. These teachers came
from a variety of backgrounds including primary and secondary classrooms, instrumental
teaching and other roles, and several from different countries. For the Main Teacher Study
carried out in September 2001 the exercise was refined. This time all the teachers were
primary and only 8 judges and 8 compositions were used. The teachers came from two

Boys and girls constructions of gender through musical composition in the primary school

different primary schools in south-east London. The teachers had the opportunity to discuss
the exercise and write down reasons for their evaluations.
Whilst analysing my data I was influenced by the method known as grounded theory,
originally developed by Glaser and Strauss (Glaser, 1978, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967;
Strauss, 1987). Strauss and Corbin (1998) maintain that grounded theory, a theory-building
method, creates new and theoretically expressed understandings (p. 8). Apart from Greens
(1997) theory of gendered musical meaning and experience I did not begin this research
with a preconceived theory in mind. The interpretation and organisation of data involved
a procedure of reduction where categories were located in terms of their properties. I
developed categories by adapting terms used in the literature, and applied these to the
findings as explanatory concepts suggesting a theoretical framework.

The main f indings

There was much evidence that showed how widely accepted ideologies about mens and
womens musical practices are reproduced by young children in the primary school (8
10 year olds). The history of womens roles in music was reproduced in a particular
primary classroom. The children in the research carried on ideological assumptions that
are passed down through history about what girls/women and boys/men ought and ought
not to do and what they are like as musicians. I found that the children had gendered
expectations in relation to music and had strong ideas about the differences between
girls and boys musical practices; I call these ideologies of gendered musical practices.
When interviewed, the children gave many examples, and I have chosen but a few for
the purposes of this article. I found some evidence that the children acted in gender
roles in relation to compositional practices; however, the most interesting findings were
contradictions between the ways that children talked about things (their discourse) and how
they operated in practice contradictions which they did not seem to notice themselves.
The teachers also displayed quite entrenched gendered assumptions about boys and girls
musical practices and products. In this research I use the concept of discourse in the
traditional linguistic sense. By discourse I mean language as used within particular social
frameworks (for example, see Pecheux, 1983; Fairclough, 1992). As an outcome of the
research I developed a theoretical position about girls/womens musical subculture that
I refer to as the concept of female musical subculture. The concept interprets girls and
womens participation in the compositional world.
The findings are also analysed in relation to Greens (1997) model of gendered musical
meaning and experience. Green argues that we must keep open some level of pure musical
meaning that is inherent and free from symbolic content. When heard, these are then
affected by the values that exist outside the musical notes themselves, in other words
delineated meanings. In relation to her model Green states that musical composition
requires knowledge of the technology of voices, instruments or other sound sources, and
this knowledge implies masculine delineation of mind which conflicts with patriarchal
constructions of femininity (ibid.: 93). Green describes the concept as twofold because it
is not only about the cerebral control over knowledge and technique but also that history,
itself patriarchal, results in an assumption that a male creator/genius is behind a piece of
music (ibid.: 88). The delineation of masculinity in the construction of musical meaning is

Brigitte Charles

associated with the public sphere the mind, technology and non-conformity whereas
the delineation of femininity is associated with the private sphere the body, emotions and
Ideologies of gendered musical practices were replicated in musical practice, and I
suggest that this has occurred because of the strength of the delineation. Boys appeared
to have a positive relationship to technology, and this was reinforced by their choice of
abstract compositional titles (Loud and Soft 1 boy group and 0 girl groups; Heavy
and Light 1 boy group and 0 girl groups; Wooden and Metal 3 boy groups and 0
girl groups) and by a compositional title called Jazz and Rock 1 boy group and 0 girl
groups (see Comber, Hargreaves & Colley, 1993; Caputo, 1994; Armstrong, 2001 for other
examples of research in the field of gender, music education and technology).
Girls and boys related girls to singing and dancing, activities dominated by girls in the
school, for example:
Girls comments:

Girls usually sing in the background . . .

. . . I make up songs . . .

. . . The best thing I like is singing . . .

. . . Im very good at singing . . .

. . . girls wanna be singable and danceable.

Boys comments:

. . . theyve got better voices . . .

I think girls have more talent at singing . . .

Girls just sing . . .

. . . girls have got throats and voices to sing with.

More girl groups chose compositional titles associated with emotion and nature rather
than objectivity (Happy and Sad 3 girl groups and 0 boy groups; Day and Night 2 girl
groups and 1 boy group; Rain and Sunshine 2 girl groups and 0 boy groups). The findings
strongly suggest that girls in their discourse and to some extent in their practice were acting
as members of a female musical subculture. Girls have reproduced traditional gendered
musical practices and have carried out expected roles connected with the private sphere.
The term subculture rather than culture is used in this research because womens
experiences have been marginalised by male culture, and this leads to a location where
commonalities emerge. Marginalisation in turn discourages and causes the music not
to be produced. The concept of female musical subculture is used to explain womens
musical practice within the context of patriarchy and does not imply anything that is
essentially female. It acknowledges the category of woman as a social construction (see
de Beauvoir, 1988; Barrett, 1988; Riley, 1988; Wolff, 1991; Nash, 1994) and is about
women perpetuating traditional musical practices for social/historical reasons. The concept
is concerned with the perception of feminine behaviour drawn from the ideological

Boys and girls constructions of gender through musical composition in the primary school

private/domestic sphere in which musical production involves little or no technology, for

example the female singer accompanying herself on a stringed or keyboard instrument or
the woman singing to her baby. However, women also reproduce preconceived ideas about
the music they create in their musical practices and products and are therefore contributing
to their own suppression.
The central finding in the research the contradiction between discourse (ideologies
of gendered musical practice) and observable musical practice was broken down into
subcategories that are about perceptions of conformity and non-conformity : Classical and
Popular Music, Musical Behaviour, which centres on the views girls and boys expressed
of one another, and Apparent Confidence. Within the category Classical and Popular
Music girls in their group interviews perpetuated the traditional notion of femininity and
the private sphere in relation to female musical practice. In discourse they talked about
forming dance bands and wanting to dance and sing, creating songs and tunes, playing
and preferring soft and slow music and the playing of smaller, feminine instruments, for

. . . I would like a band . . . A singing and dancing band . . .

. . . we like quiet noises.

I like to play my instrument because it wasnt too loud it just, was just like sweet and

B.C. What did you like about your composition?

The slow bit . . . because it got too noisy in the Happy.

I liked playing the harp because it made soft noises and I didnt like playing the drum.

. . . some [girls] do play normal guitars and er flutes and violins and things.

B.C. . . . What sort of instruments would you play in your band?

. . . keyboards, guitar, flute, harp.

Girls did not believe that they improvised during the process of composition. No
evidence was found of girls referring to their graphic scores as unhelpful. This suggestion of
feminine perseverance and conformity can be connected not only with classical music but
also with the role women play (even today) in jazz as arrangers and orchestrators, rather
than as instrumental improvisers (Dahl, 1984). By being girls, describing their music as
soft and slow and having a preference for soft and slow music, they are against themselves.
The girls in this research are perpetuating the discourse on gender and music concerning a
womans inability to work in larger, more abstract forms.
When talking about boys, the findings indicated that girls thought boys had innate
musical ability, although this was mixed with reference to their self-esteem and opportunity.
They believed boys did not write their music down, and that boys improvised and played
loudly. Boys too portrayed themselves as non-conformist when describing their spontaneous
musical production, reproducing the concept of the creative male genius (see Dahl, 1984;
Battersby, 1989; Green, 1997; Bayton, 1998). They said they preferred and had a talent for

Brigitte Charles

producing loud and fast music (see also Boyce-Tillman, 1993). Boys and girls believed girls
played classical instruments and boys played popular music, for example:

Girls comments:

They might think theyre better than us . . . Because they are for real.

I think that . . . boys, got better than us because um they have different
instruments . . . Because . . . they play better than us . . . They play loud.

I think that when we was writing down on the sugar paper [the graphic score] the
boys were messing about, so I dont think the paper really helped them.

. . . they just think well make up loud noises and play whatever we want.

Boys comments:

Whats a piece of paper? Just get on with it.

Ill go into the tune and start playing . . .

. . . just getting into the groove . . .

. . . we ended up just playing it.

. . . Just remembering it.

Sounded loud and like proper music and when everyone joined in it sounded better
and higher.

. . . at first youre thinking I want to go to sleep and then you hear all this loud stuff
and you wake up and you listen to it all.

The boys like all fast music . . .

. . . the Storm was even better with all the noise.

Were better at fast . . . Boys know what fast is.

However, in observed musical practice there was evidence that girls played loud and fast
music on instruments associated with popular music, in this case drums and cymbals.
Evidence was found of girl groups not using their graphic scores as a planning tool
or reading them during performance. As distinct from many boys verbal portrayal of
themselves as improvisers, whilst observing the children many examples of boys using and
reading their graphic scores during performance were found. Their scores were detailed,
meticulously presented, well organised and refined in each session. Also there was evidence
of boy groups approaching their compositions methodically rather than spontaneously. In
addition, boys created soft and slow compositions using smaller classroom instruments.
Within the category of Musical Behaviour girls in their discourse displayed affirmative
feminine characteristics, portraying themselves as enabling and conformist. Girls believed
that they worked hard, did as they were told, paid attention, persevered and were well
organised. As with the previous category, girls were against themselves: they believed that

Boys and girls constructions of gender through musical composition in the primary school

they achieved musically because they practised and applied themselves to their work, and
there was no suggestion that they thought they had natural ability, for example:

. . . we do the right things what were told.

We listen.

. . . they [boys] havent got time to practise like we have time . . . Girls are practising
more but all the boys are playing football and theyre not interested in what they are
doing . . .

Boys had similar beliefs to girls about girls musical behaviour in the classroom. Girls were
of the opinion that boys did not take music seriously, follow instructions or listen but did
things their own way. Their behaviour during music lessons, in which they did not apply
themselves and work hard, prevented them from achieving, implying that they had ability
that was not fulfilled, for example:

Some boys are really silly and do silly things to the instruments . . . they just muck
around with things.

. . . they dont listen and all that . . . people say something and they might do different

. . . boys dont really practise properly and they dont spend time.

I think boys behave very badly banging the drums very hard, as if they were toys.

There was also the suggestion that boys bad behaviour was a result of their susceptibility
to peer pressure (avoiding music because it is a girls activity) and having other interests:

. . . I think some boys might have a talent in music but their mates think thats a girl
thing like music and stuff. So they might like forget about it and just go and play
football or something a boys thing . . . I think they behave badly because some of
their mates um say Youre rubbish mate then he copies because he feels left out
and if like all his mates say Go on then, you play music and well play football, he
feels left out, so he copies them.

A comparison can be made here with Kozas (1994) findings and research on gender
role development (for example, Best, 1983; Damon, 1977; Thorne & Luria, 1986), where
children avoided and responded negatively to activities that were not appropriate in terms
of their ideas of normal gender behaviour. The boys in my research were seen to be avoiding
music, a girl thing. In conversation, boys also reiterated a macho image in their views
of themselves. They said they did not follow instructions or apply themselves and that they
rushed, were naughty and messed around in music lessons.
By contrast to the ways in which girls and boys depicted themselves and each other
discursively, there was evidence of girls lacking perseverance, frequently changing their
instruments and being unproductive in the observation of their practices. Some girl groups
did not behave well. They were uncooperative, disorganised and argued and played very
loudly to the extent that they were disruptive. There were examples of boys behaving well
and being conscientious and concentrating for sustained periods, whether working within

Brigitte Charles

their groups, in pairs, in threes or individually. These boys were well organised and thought
carefully about their choice of instruments and the sounds they produced.
The category of Apparent Confidence showed that when girls appeared confident it
was not overt. For example, girls believed that they were good at playing an instrument
because they had been either taught it or were familiar with it, or they said they were
good at music because someone had told them they were good at the subject. There was
also evidence of girl groups appearing pleased with their compositions as a group product.
The girl composers in this research (as with many women composers in history, such as
Corona Schroter (17511802), Maria Theresia von Paradis (17591824), Fanny Hensel
(180547), Clara Schumann (181996) and Emma Lou Diemer (b. 1927)) had difficulty
in finding themselves positively reflected in their products of composition. For example,
when asked about their musical ability and performing their composition to others, they

I felt nervous.

I dont think Im that good.

Not good at all . . . because everybody else was better than me in my group.

But when we did it on our own we thought My God I dont want to do it on my


. . . I thought they would laugh and there would be a lot of laughing and Id feel
silly . . .

. . . I give myself 5 out of 10 because . . . with instruments, I find it a bit hard.

The above comments reflect Fanny Hensels evaluation of her eight-voice piece. She wrote
to her brother Felix Mendelssohn in July 1829:

It wont be much but it will be something . . . You know how concerned I always am
that my imagination will run away from me, so therefore Im happy if I succeed in
writing down some notes, without having much of an idea at the start as to how it will
turn out afterwards. Later, of course, I fret if its bad! (Cited in Citron, 1993: 55)

In the light of Citrons (1993) argument it could be said that the girls have experienced a
sense of Other and an anxiety of authorship. Their sense of Other is another dimension
to the concept of female musical subculture. Citron (1993: 1778) says that the female
listener may have problems identifying with music because society is patriarchal and as a
result the works of few women composers have achieved canonic status and are therefore
outside mainstream history. The negativity the girls expressed in their discourse was part of
gendered musical meaning and was also a product of their gendered musical experience.
On the other hand, boys in their discourse came across as extremely confident. They
talked about just playing their music, shrugged off mistakes and gave the impression that
they believed that they could convince an audience that their composition was good. The
boys appeared to experience full celebration in the music they created and also believed
that they possessed innate musical ability, again reproducing the concept of the creative

Boys and girls constructions of gender through musical composition in the primary school

male genius and the masculine delineation of mind:

. . . boys have got more talent.

. . . boys are the best . . .

. . . Weve got more brains than them girls.

. . . think Im brilliant.

. . . and Im fantastic.

Were artists.

In the girls musical behaviour, as distinct from their talk during interviews, there were
suggestions that they felt relatively confident. As previously mentioned, many girls
improvised, barely used their graphic scores and played loudly and individually. Some
findings also indicated that boys musical behaviour was distinct from their talk during
interviews. There were examples of boys relying heavily on their scores whilst performing
(as stated above), and only boys asked the teacher directly for help.
The teachers were also affected by gendered musical ideologies. The levelling of
the compositions was not statistically significant in relation to gender of the composer
(they were not marked higher if the composers were thought to be boys). However, the
results from the Pilot Teacher Study were significant in relation to how gender appeared
to affect the teachers views of pupils compositions. For example, pieces were rated
highly as boy or girl compositions if they sounded masculine or feminine in terms of
ideological attribution of masculine or feminine characteristics to music. The findings from
the Main Teacher Study also strongly showed that pieces sounding typically masculine
(loud, fast, use of larger instruments such as drums, bass xylophone and electric keyboards)
were judged as boy compositions and those sounding typically feminine (soft, slow, use
of smaller instruments such as Indian bells, glockenspiels, recorders and tambourines)
were judged as girl compositions. Comments were made by the teachers that reflect and
embellish the childrens discourse on popular and classical music, their musical behaviour
and their confidence. Not only have gendered delineations formed an essential part of
the musics meaning during the listening process, but these delineations are historically
and ideologically biased and place the music that girls produce into a female musical
subculture. Only boys music was placed within jazz and popular idioms and associated
with the creative male genius. For example, it was described as loud, fast, driving,
complex, experimental, free form, egocentric, deep rhythm, funky, confident.
Girls music, on the other hand, was seen as conformist, soft and melodic, produced
through cooperation, carefully thought out, tentative, simplistic and safe. These value
judgements about the music created by boys and girls are a reproduction of comments
made by 19th- and 20th-century critics when interpreting music composed by men and
women (for example, Upton, 1880; Howes, 1966).
The interpretation of the teachers judgements of boys and girls compositions
disagrees with the notion put forward by Cox (1991), McClary (1991) and Citron (1993) that
music is culturally gendered. Cox states that What is . . . needed . . . is more attention to the

Brigitte Charles

relationships of personal, social, and cultural conditions of the composers to the nature and
structure of the musical compositions themselves (1991: 332). McClary locates semiotic
codes in sonata form and argues that music participates actively in the social organisation
of sexuality (1991: 9). Similarly, Citron identifies codes of gendered representation in
sonata form and maintains that the codes tell us a lot about the representation of women
and men in society, how ideologies affected how music itself was conceptualised and
described, and how music had close ties with ideals and processes in society (1993: 137).
I am putting forward the argument that the way teachers listen to the inherent meanings
of compositions is affected by their presuppositions about the gender of the composers.
When listening to the childrens compositions the sex of the composer was identified by
the way the actual notes had been manipulated. This cannot be possible as boys can write
in a feminine style and girls in a masculine style.

The findings strongly suggest that within the context of the music classroom microcosmic
meaning is drawn from macrocosmic meaning; childrens and teachers discourse on
the musical practices of boys and girls in the primary classroom reflect views about
gendered musical behaviour that have been socially and historically constructed within
the larger society. Microcosmic meaning drawing from macrocosmic meaning concerns
larger totalities of history and humanity (where past and present connect) that are unifying
patterns of beliefs. In the case of this study, in their discourse children defined their being
and consciousness in relation to the social world, to others and to the system of beliefs
and values that is already in existence about gender and gender and musical practice. This
was then reinforced by teachers views about boys and girls composition. Epstein (1995)
states that schools and classrooms constitute discursive fields within which meanings are
produced about social relations . . . the discourses in play will include and be drawn from
those current in the world outside the school (p. 67).
I suggest that the notion of free action may be applied to the contradictions. I argue
that the age of the children in this research may have had an impact on their musical
behaviour and has led to what I call non-ideologically informed practices. I consider
the view that 810 year old children are operating at a relatively pre-ideological stage
compared to 1416 year old children and adults and are not fully socialised. They are
not yet carrying out in practice what they have said in discourse because their behaviour
lags behind their discursive approaches to their problems. They have learnt the discourse
of how to represent gendered musical practice that is adequate to adult expectations and
this fits in with the wider social organisation of music. In addition, the taboos on gendered
musical behaviour are not as strong at this age. The discourse on musical practice has
more power over their thinking than over the nature of the music that they produce, or
the nature of their musical practice. In other words, the power of ideology has influenced
their conscious thinking and has affected their interpretation of what is actually happening
in the real classroom situation. Where contradictions were found, the children in musical
practice acted freely and were not determined by their social situation. My notion of free
action is not about emancipation, because children need to be fully socialised in relation
to musical practice before this can take place. The children are demonstrating free action

Boys and girls constructions of gender through musical composition in the primary school

because much of their practical activity has not been influenced by the perceptions of
their social world. Their musical practices were free of gendered delineations and were
undetermined and abstract in this sense.
My argument, in the light of dialectical thought, is that the social system of gender
relations is a result of both cause and effect. Although imposed externally by outside social
forces, it also arises out of self-imposed boundaries; however, the findings strongly indicate
that in their musical practice young children do not necessarily reproduce ideologies.
All things are in a continuous process of change and humanity is always, whenever it
participates in social relationships, open to continual socialisation. This has implications for
the speculations I can make about the findings, for example, where some discourse has had
a strong influence over practice. I predict that it is only a matter of time, once the children
are at secondary school, before the strength of ideology becomes greater and contradictions
between musical discourse and practice decrease. Another hypothesis worth considering
is whether contradictions may be more available in relation to musical practice than other
cultural practices as a result of the highly abstract nature of music. Citron suggests that it is
easier to identify content in other art forms and that the very indefiniteness of instrumental
music increases the potential for a greater number of interpretations (1994: 17). I speculate
that music is particularly susceptible to revealing the contradictions between practice and
thought in gendered respects because it has an abstract quality.


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