Whither Music Education in Britain?

Music education is now only for the white and the wealthy, or so Charlotte C. Gill recently wrote in the Guardian. The gist of the article is that music education too inaccessible for most students, and that instead there should be a less formal curriculum that is enjoyable for more students and thus able to breed greater diversity.

Starting off, the author notes research that shows the ‘huge benefits that music brings to children’s happiness and learning’. It’s a good and important point that needn’t have been backed up with scientism. Everyone knows music has many useful functions. But moreover, many people also know that music is wonderful in and of itself. Advocacy for music education should not have to rely on its usefulness in combating mental health.

Music GCSEs did indeed get harder some years ago, which was about the time I took them. They didn’t get harder for snobbish reasons, though. The problem was that GCSE music students would get to A Level and be completely unable to comprehend an orchestral score, let alone analyse it. That gap had to be bridged. As I understand it, the point was to make it so that more students were intellectually able to do music A Level and do it well. And even then, there were people who got through the new GCSE with almost no grasp of music theory. 

Many of us we’re helped along by private lessons and a bit of self-study. She rightly points out such a reliance on private tuition is a problem. This could, however, be alleviated if these tougher academic materials were incorporated into the syllabus. Why not get all students to grade 8 theory standard by the end of the GCSE? It’s far easier than the complex algebra I remember struggling through. And it’s far more interesting.

‘For a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way’, she asserts. Who said it was a ‘creative subject’? It’s probably more a discipline than a creative subject. And besides, you’re not going to have much of a creative capacity unless you study harmony, for example. Music is communicative, and to have no understanding of the language is to make yourself dumb and your audience wish they were deaf. Ah, but ‘many pop, rap and grime artists have never studied music formally’!

Music notation, we are told, is a ‘cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people’. Her solution — almost Blairite in its genius — is to make that number even smaller. Relating her personal experience, she says that despite learning Mozart and West Side Story and being able to sing in Latin, German and Italian to grade 8 standard, she still cannot sight read. Somehow, she extracts from this that being able to read music isn’t indicative of talent. I would point out that passing your grade 8 exam does not mean you are or should be a good sight reader. I did grade 8 theory and still couldn’t sight read. I didn’t then deduce from this that I would never be able to sight read. I continue to practise in a disciplined way, and lo and behold, my ability to read music is improving.

The worst is yet to come: ‘sure, we may not be able to tell the difference between the bass and treble clef,’ she concedes,’ but we can play our favourite songs. That is all I ever wanted from music.’ Uh huh. When I was younger all I ever wanted was to play fast, loud guitar solos. But even with my very inadequate music education, quite often autodidactic, new possibilities became apparent to me. (Thank goodness there was no one who took my teenage self too seriously when I thought music theory and classical music was irrelevant.) Now I listen to and study classical music for pleasure, and get a real kick out of learning 16th century lute and vihuela pieces on guitar. How much we limit education if we never push the imagination and ambition and expectations of a child!

And how patronising it is. Which is exactly why 200 musicians just denounced the article in an open letter as ‘simple anti-intellectualism’. The letter also points out that jazz, pop and non-Western traditions now occupy a lot of space in the curriculum. I remember studying ragas and and gamelan and jazz more than we ever did classical music, until A level at least. I also wish we had studied those traditions more rigorously. Instead they were treated as little more than cultural novelties.

I’d just like to point out, though, that the Guardian provide some of the best coverage of classical music in a newspaper. So while I know many will want to have a go at the Guardian and their hatred of Dead White Men, they’d probably be wrong to do so in this case. Many papers and news sites on the opposite side of that culture war contribute much less to high culture.

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