Music in Schools (DE)

Political Framework

Germany, reunified in 1990, 82 million inhabitants, is a federal republic with 16 states. The declared will of the Federal Republic of Germany was the re-establishment of decentralised structures because political centralism was regarded as an essential factor for an authoritarian state – as experienced by Germany especially during the National Socialist dictatorship (1933-1945). At the same time this decentralisation was perceived as a way of preserving the regional diversity in Germany that had evolved through the centuries. Thus, each of the 16 states has its own parliament, government and ministries as well as its own police force. Germany’s federal structure is particularly apparent (and in the European context also problematic) in the education system: each state has its own education laws and reaches its own decisions regarding the form, organisation and priorities of universities, the school system and the curricula. While there is a national conference of state ministers of education and the arts (Conference of Arts and Education Ministers, KMK) that tries to coordinate the states’ education policies in an elaborate political and bureaucratic process and produces structural directives especially for international tasks, educational policy in Germany is nevertheless characterised more than anything else by regional and structural disparity.

School System

The school structure is composed of primary education, which usually lasts four years (six years in Berlin), a lower school (secondary I) of four to six years and an upper school (secondary II) of two to three years. Since the 1960s there has been intense debate focusing primarily on the structure of the lower school and on whether a division into three distinct streams (Hauptschule – general secondary school, Realschule – intermediate school, Gymnasium – grammar school) or a comprehensive school is preferable. Most states offer both a tripartite and a comprehensive system. In some states, the Hauptschule and Realschule are incorporated as two streams of the same school, or the various school types are combined as cooperating school complexes which (at least theoretically) allow increased freedom of movement between the school types.

Organisation of the upper school (secondary level II) is comparatively homogeneous all over Germany. The Conference of Arts and Education Ministers (KMK) has agreed on harmonised standards in most areas applicable to all 16 states.

Music Education in School 

In every state, music is a compulsory subject in grades 1 to 7. Only in the upper school (secondary level II) pupils can choose between music and arts (and sometimes drama and literature as well).

The number of hours of music taught per week differs from one school to another. At primary schools between four and approx. six hours are taught overall each week (approx. 1 hour per week per grade) and between approx. eight and ten hours per week at secondary level I (one to two hours per week per grade). In the first year of secondary level II pupils can choose to take two to three hours of arts or music per week. In the last two years of the upper school music can be chosen as an examination subject (with a total of three hours per week in each grade) or as a special subject (with a total of five to six hours per week in each grade). In the final grades the minimum number of hours of music per week is two hours (as an alternative to art).

Since 2007 Abitur exams in 14 of the 16 states have included tasks set by the state governments for all schools. This means there are compulsory core curricula for the upper school almost everywhere. For music as a school subject this means that a canon of musical works to be studied is usually stipulated, although the way they are studied varies greatly from state to state. Abitur tasks usually focus on analysis and interpretation but may also include creative musical activities such as composition and arranging.

Besides the compulsory tasks there is a wide range of optional topics and tasks within the subject of music, and individual schools, i.e. individual music teachers, decide how much of each activity is taught. Secondary schools with a focus on music have established themselves in some states, such like Bavaria, Saxony. The option of more in-depth music education in grades 5 to 6 or from 5 to 10 (music classes that have one additional hour of music) has become more common. This concentration on music frequently involves concepts of music-making as a class (brass, strings, choral, guitar, keyboard or percussion classes).

Besides these specific activities, optional compulsory subjects relating to music are also offered at secondary level I. These generally focus on playing instruments or vocal performance and often take place in conjunction with other school projects in the arts field such as theatre, film and computers.

Although there are enormous local and regional differences, the wide variety of school choirs, orchestras and bands is very important for musical activity at school. As with the widespread brass instrument class models there is often close cooperation with municipal and/or private music schools, or, in rural areas, with music societies and ensembles in this area.


The federal structure means that there is no national curriculum in Germany: instead there are 16 different basic frameworks, which differ again according to the type of school. Taking into account all the different forms that exist in Germany it can be assumed that there are roughly 50 different curricula for music alone. This does not include several recommendations for teaching activities and model tasks as part of the preparations for the school-leaving exams.

It is nevertheless possible to identify basic precepts – even if these are inevitably rather vague – according to which music as a subject in general school education should be organised in Germany. The following translation of an excerpt from the education plan for grammar schools in the state of Baden-Württemberg serves as an example of the purport of introductions to such documents.

Music as a school subject has an indispensable role to play in education, and this role consists on the one hand in offering pupils the chance to work creatively with music, to experience it emotionally and to explore it from an artistic perspective and on the other in enabling them to appreciate and understand music and to argue rationally. Experience of a wide variety of types of musical practise enhances the capacity for aesthetic awareness; intellectual work and reflection on many different musical phenomena broaden the field of thought. One important objective of music education is therefore making pupils aware of this interrelationship and equipping them with the ability to use the skills and knowledge acquired to enrich their own lifestyle.

If we view all the general guidelines for general music education in Germany as a whole, an unquestionably homogeneous “pan-German” picture emerges. The following skills to be acquired through education are repeatedly cited, albeit with varying emphasis:

  • Knowledge of the functional, stylistic and historical complexity and variety of music (including popular music and the music of other cultures),
  • The ability to recognise and assess the significance of the various ways music appears in media and audiovisual forms (such as music in everyday life, music in films and on television), 
  • The ability to appreciate and use music as a means of supporting processes of individual and social identity-formation and to recognise the significance of music as an important cultural repertoire of symbols (history of music as history of culture, music in multicultural contexts, music as a means of shaping individual lifestyles),
  • The ability to reproduce music vocally and on an instrument alone and in a group for specific occasions and situations and to acquire a set of vocal and instrumental skills for that specific purpose,
  • The ability to work with the multitude of different iconic and symbolic levels of every type of notation as specific visual representations of musical texts,
  • The ability to verbalise and justify activity relating to music and to develop criteria for the “cogency” of creative musical processes.

Common to all the various curricula the practice of music is evidently intended to be linked to processes of reflection.

The way multi-perspective music education is understood is made manifest in the various curricula by the terms used to describe music-related “approaches” which, depending on the terms generally used in education policy circles in each state, are called “fields of activity”, “fields of work” or “areas of competence”. Essentially these are musicology, music-making, transformation of music (painting, dance etc.), listening, information and reflection.

However, the importance placed on these separate areas varies in the different curricula. There are also large differences with regard to the choice of materials and the order in which the learning activities are taught.

In the wake of the introduction of national minimum standards for the PISA subjects German and mathematics by the Conference of Arts and Education Ministers, some states have requested core curricula for the so-called “soft” subjects. Music in schools is far away from that.