Sidelining Classical Music in Schools

A 17 year-old UK pupil at a comprehensive secondary school (that’s a public high school for US readers), has written an excellent blog post for Gramophone about the slow banishment of classical music from school life. As he’s still a pupil, he writes anonymously. (I’ll refer to him as Pupil.) These accounts of studying music at school are invaluable. Classical music has been quietly undermined in schools. The curriculum has been dumbed down, with classes given almost no importance in school life — in our school they were little more than glorified playtime. I have written a little bit about my experience here. When I was 17, there were only 3 people in our music class (the total numbers of pupils exceeded 1,000). There was no orchestra, no choir, no classical ensemble — not even a jazz ensemble. Just a load of rock bands so awful that only doting parents could tolerate listening to them.

Anyway, here’s Pupil’s account:

The illogicality was clear from when I started secondary education; lessons were focused on electronic music, rap and djembe drumming, and while this music is important, it completely overshadowed classical music on the curriculum. Bach: mentioned in one lesson. Elgar: mentioned in another. Meanwhile, the lesson on Mozart consisted of the first 20 minutes of the film Amadeus. This reluctance to discuss classical music (let alone hear it) at young ages generates the stigma against the form in later life; the labels so frequently attached to classical music as lacklustre, upper-class, and unendurable exist only because people have failed to listen to classical music in the first place.

In the relentless drive to maintain the perceived interest of young students, teachers seem increasingly to favour what they see as ‘popular’ music, which seems to be anything but classical. Whether out of fear of negative student reactions – despite the presence of classical music in a myriad of film scores – or out of a lack of knowledge on their own behalf, classical music is increasingly relegated to the side. In speaking with various Year 11 students, I found that they could name, at best, two composers: Mozart and Beethoven. Classical music, in their eyes, died in the 1700s, so there is little hope of them identifying Thomas Adès, Robin Holloway or Hugh Wood any time soon. And in GCSE Music classes, students regularly struggled to identify fundamental instruments of the orchestra, such as clarinets, trumpets and timpani. Increasingly, it seemed, classical music was becoming alien to the majority of students.

For 17, he’s remarkably articulate — the school must be doing something right. This seems to prove it:

Yet such ignorance seems largely exclusive to music. By the age of 15 the same students would have encountered several plays by Shakespeare, novels by Orwell, Steinbeck and Golding, and poetry by Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, yet not a single symphony by Beethoven. They may recognise the theorems of Pythagoras, the theories of Plato, and the work of Mendeleev (upon whom, alongside Newlands, there was an entire section in the GCSE AQA Chemistry paper). Rightly so. Yet while it is certain that many of those students could have identified Duffy as the Poet Laureate, it is doubtful they could have identified the Master of the Queen’s Music.

By the age of 15, I had not encountered Shakespeare except through the Leonardo DiCaprio film, just as his peers had only encountered Mozart through Amadeus. Neither had we read Orwell, Plato, Golding nor Mendeleev. We may have read a poem by Duffy or Armitage, I think, and we definitely suffered through Steinbeck (though again, eventually we just fell back on the film). Pupil continues:

Such contempt for classical music means that children must approach the form themselves, rather than being introduced to suitable works by enthusiastic teachers. This reliance on self-discovery – a direct result of the curriculum – means many students who could be drawn to classical music miss out. Realistically, people need to be given a guiding hand into classical music in order for it to become intelligible in many cases; otherwise, an hour-long symphony appears more as a rambling to a young person, unless they comprehend the complexities of sonata form, thematic development and the context in which it was written.

The first half is very true. But he loses me with the second half. Most classical music can be picked up by repeated listening. Studying it helps, but it’s not necessary. All you need to know is that, while you may not understand a Beethoven symphony on first listen, with each subsequent listen its logic will become more apparent and you will enjoy it more. One can intuit what is a theme, where it is developed, where it returns etc.

The problem, which he later addresses, is that people are unaccustomed to the kind of listening classical music demands. Music lessons that focus on popular music help to further discourage active and patient listening.

Well worth reading the whole thing.


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