This paper investigates the place of music programs in the two case study schools, specifically in relation to differentiation as pedagogical practice. Drawing on interviews with teachers and students, observations in the school context and current literature, we investigate the tensions around music programs within the broader curriculum context and policy demands on teachers and schools. There is a large body of research linking music-making to academic achievement in other curriculum subjects, increased general well-being and engagement in school life. Benefits of music programs are increasingly being investigated in relation to students who have had few opportunities to participate in music-making. Recently, Caldwell and Vaughan's (2012) study across several New South Wales' primary schools drew together compelling evidence of the advantages of a strong arts-based curriculum in schools, linking their findings firmly to benefits for marginalised and disengaged students. However, providing the resources needed to develop music skills has largely been left to individuals and families. At a secondary school level, some students arrive with several years of individual instrumental tuition, ensemble work, performance experience and a level of musical development that puts them in a very different position from others who may only have had access to one, weekly, general classroom music lesson.
At the same time as educational policy has narrowed curriculum focus to literacy, numeracy and 'accountability' through mandated assessment and reporting practices, there has been an increased expectation that teachers deliver 'differentiated instruction' (Queensland Department of Education, Training and Employment). For many years school music programs have provided clear examples of how a differentiated curriculum can function, often providing a wide range of opportunities for individual, small and large (often multi-age) ensembles, engaged in music-making activities both within the school and in the broader community. However, this level of differentiation is rarely available to students unable to meet audition requirements. For these students, the music curriculum remains limited, occupying the space of 'harmonic support' to the main literacy/numeracy focus. Those who advocate for increasing the range of music programs may feel their calls are little more than background noise, yet there are signs that some music practices are establishing a 'counterpoint', an independent but complementary 'melody', often taking place around and between core subjects. These programs are helping to increase student engagement and develop skills, but curriculum differentiation alone, without considering other factors such as resourcing, may lead to a very tentative performance.