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Pop CultureNovember 29, 2016

Writing songs in class: Songwriting accepted as an NCEA subject


Songwriting has been accepted as a Level 3 NCEA subject from 2017. Play It Strange CEO Mike Chunn got the scoop and asked some of New Zealand’s best songwriters what they thought about it.

This is a watershed moment. Songwriting is now an NCEA subject. Specifically – Level 3 with the Achievement Standard number of 91849. Write that on the wall. I suspect Level 1 and 2 standards won’t be too far off.

What does this mean?

It legitimises the imaginative craft of songwriting such that students and their parents, school administrators and teachers see songwriting as they do drama, art and the rest of the creative subjects: arenas of experiment, adventure, cooperation, performance and reward. And it widens the options for students interested in the pursuit of a life with contemporary popular music.

Perhaps the most relevant difference between Level 3 Composition (the time-honoured writing subject in Music) and Songwriting is the presentation of the ‘work’ for assessment. In Composition you present a score, you know – crotchets and quavers – as notation. If you are a 15 year old Douglas Lilburn, for example, this works in ideally with your ambition to have orchestras and the like perform your compositions.

In Songwriting, notation is a recording of the song. The only graphic requirement is having the lyrics written out and a chord sequence positioned in the appropriate places above the words. This ties in perfectly with how those who target a career/life in original songs work. My days in Split Enz and Citizen Band? We worked off cassettes. We never read any music. And of course there was an enormous amount of work that went into writing lyrics. Many top songwriters will tell you that writing the lyrics is the hard part – ask Neil Finn.

In January 2015, I met with Trevor Thwaites, a cool drummer but also a senior lecturer at the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy, Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland. Trevor has been involved in much of the music curriculum achievement standard writing to date so we ordered a beer each and we got talking about songwriting. It didn’t take long before a plan was made. Trevor went out to the music teachers online group, MusicNet, for comment on the subject of Songwriting in the curriculum. The responses were very positive. It was that response that led to a steering group getting together.


Here is some feedback from the education world:

I 100 per cent support recording as notation; the best albums in history would not exist if those writers were forced to notate them before they recorded them, it is a no brainer!  – Matt Bodman, Head of Department Music, Otumoetai College

I’d be all for a new songwriting standard which acknowledged the importance of lyric writing and quality recording as part of the assessed process. – Andre Worsnop, Head of Department Music, Diocesan School for Girls

I would fully support this initiative, I have had many students over the years who are passionate about songwriting, and crafting songs to a high level of complexity and originality, and I would love to see an academic acknowledgment of the skill… – Saali Marks, Solway College


Time for consolidation. Music teachers from two contemporary-minded (as in rock ‘n’ roll) schools, Jeni Little from Green Bay High and Tim Randle from Manurewa High, along with NZQA national moderator of music, Delysse Glynn and Trevor Thwaites delivered a draft achievement standard to Geoff Gibbs, lead adviser at the Ministry of Education for consideration. Gibbs reported back that feedback from music teachers was very positive, pointing to a new subject being introduced that runs parallel to what already exists.

And there was the original plan up-and-running. We were after an expanded musical environment, not trying to change it. Compositions and songs are very different. I asked a number of noted New Zealand  songwriters as to their thoughts on songwriting in the classroom.

Yes, I totally agree the subject of Song Writing should be included in all music curriculum. How are music students meant to learn about the ‘real world’ realities of being a musician if they don’t learn and develop their own writing, performance and recording skills? – Barnaby Weir  (Black Seeds, Fly My Pretties)

Of course songwriting or contemporary song should be in the syllabus! In my own personal experience, I wasn’t drawn to study music at high school because the level of classical proficiency became too great to do it… – James Milne (Lawrence Arabia)

I couldn’t agree more.  If a kid discovers they have a real passion for music then they should be nurtured and prepared for the real world where music can become a career. There are so many talented kids out there! If they are given tools that nurture their talents, whether it be in songwriting, recording, arrangement or performance while at high school, it’ll be invaluable. – Jon Toogood (Shihad)

And so the change is made. Songwriting is in the NCEA curriculum. Let the show begin!

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