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.


Musicology Later, Politics Now

Considering that white nationalists can barely attract a crowd of more than a few hundred nitwits — a figure that’s hardly changed for decades — and that neo-Nazis and the KKK are so insignificant as to be a fringe movement within a fringe movement, I struggle to see how they are of any real concern. Yet musicologist Bonnie Gordon, writing over at Musicology Now, thinks it’s an urgent problem for her academic discipline. Gordon works at the University of Virginia where the ‘Unite the Right’ rally took place last month. So I can understand why she is particularly concerned, but the conclusions she draws are worrying and, alas, predictable. An excerpt:

To put this in terms of a curricular challenge, it’s relatively easy to get college students to see the grotesque potential of some of the music they love, especially if it includes sounds mobilized by the likes of Stalin and Hitler. And most undergraduates who take music classes learn about sonic performances of nationalism; it’s a box or chapter in many textbooks. But it is so much more work and so much more important to make our students hear the ways that racialized nationalism played and plays out today in our own spaces — politically and musically. We need to make sure they can deconstruct current explicit and implicit fascist movements with the same critical eye that they turn on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. In other words, if we, and our students, can’t read the signs in the current climate and can’t respond to them, then I’m not sure we are doing our jobs.

Can’t read the signs? Where does that leave the thoughtful student who, analysing the situation, concludes that the only signs are those anachronistically erected by their musicology tutor? Under a ‘progressive curriculum’, such free thinking would be punished, I suppose.

Earlier in the piece, Gordon writes of Richard Spencer, leading Alt-Right figure, ‘I want to dwell on Richard Spencer because he reminds me that a progressive curriculum alone does not defend against white supremacy’. So unless we slant the curriculum way to the left, they’ll be an endemic of white supremacy, is that it? But even this isn’t enough apparently. Neither is ‘implicit bias training, inclusive syllabi, and safe space statements’ enough either. Something more is called for. Reading the piece twice now, I can’t work out what exactly she means. And the more ambiguous and broad her statements, the more pernicious they seem. She calls for ‘a willingness to use the musical and musicological toolkit to hear the current situation and speak or sing out against [white supremacy]. This is a good time to remind everyone not only of the white supremacist traditions that undergird all of our disciplines and schools, but of the tradition of progressive faculty and student activism.’ Cleansing history of its whiteness. Doesn’t sound pernicious or anti-academic at all. And of course there will be no time left to actually study, you know, the music.

I’d like to come back to her argument that ‘We need to make sure they [students] can deconstruct current explicit and implicit fascist movements’. Ignoring the postmodern guff, I must make the point that there are simply no contemporary fascist movements. Fascism is now a term used to mean only one thing — racial superiority. This is completely ahistoric. Perhaps the only movement who it makes sense to call fascist, the Italian Fasci, were racial supremacists, but this wasn’t the most central aspect of their ideology. In fact they really didn’t have much of an ideology, and tended to simply instrumentalise ideas towards one goal: state power. (And Italian fascists only became very antisemitic when their alliance with Hitler made it necessary.) One way, for example, that the Fasci consolidated power was by making all professors pledge an oath of loyalty to Fascism. The Fascists were a modern, futurist and progressive movement, one that sought to make sure the young, whom they built a cult around, would have the politically correct ideas. In Gordon’s call for a curriculum so obviously utilised towards political ends, is she edging towards fascism?

I don’t actually think she is, but how easy it is to erect a sign that says ‘here is a fascist’. The logical end-point of this would be an academic world that spends much of its time searching for the fascist hidden round the corner. Academics would be preoccupied investigating the personal failings and hypocrisies of past thinkers, judged by our obviously unassailable 21st century standards. Academia would become an intellectual police force that exists to prevent and correct ‘bad’ ideas. Actual academic discussion would come to a halt.

Perhaps we will see a decline in the importance of universities as this silliness continues. Having a formal education, and the credential that comes with it, just won’t have the same social and cultural weight. There is precedent for this. Michael Faraday was basically innumerate, yet he was one of the most important scientists. Samuel Johnson did not have a degree. Edmund Burke’s Catholicism meant he did not have one. David Hume did not graduate. Will the greatest minds of the 21st century come from outside academia?

Claire Lehmann, founder of the site Quillette, was recently interviewed at Psychology Today, and said this:

I was also pursuing graduate studies at the time in forensic psychology and was becoming increasingly cynical about the university system. I was reading Peter Thiel, and was struck by his iconoclastic views on education; in particular his claim that the higher education system is like the Vatican on the eve of the reformation. So in mid-to-late 2015, I wrote an article for the Herald about universities in Australia being a road to nowhere, dropped out of my course, and two weeks later started Quillette.

Quillette also has an excellent and highly relevant piece up at the moment by Ben Sixsmith: Defending Western History from Political Propaganda. A sample:

Classics are the foundation of Western civilisation. No amount of scare quotes will obscure Aristotle’s impact on science and philosophy; the Homeric influence on literature; the Athenian origins of republicanism and the Roman promotion of Christianity. The belief that this is true does not make one a white supremacist. The Chinese think Confucius, Laozi and Sun Tzu built the foundations of their culture but this need not make them Chinese supremacists.

In truth, there is little Nazis like about Western civilisation. Enlightenment values are clearly verboten. Christianity is suspect, as a universal faith, not the preserve of whites. Classical societies are uninspiring, as they dwell far more on civic virtues than blood and soil. This is why Nazis have drawn on ancient pagans, aristocratic esotericists and other such eccentrics. Their racialism – that is, their idea of one European spirit (embodied, according to the historian Francis Parker Yockey, by Adolf Hitler) is ahistorical.

Allan Bloom on Music

By coincidence, I happen to be reading Allan Bloom’s 1987 book criticising the state of education (though primarily higher education) while this musical literacy controversy has unfolded. In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom argues against a creeping moral relativism and an education system that tries to make students not into ‘scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue — openness’. Paradoxically, it is this same ‘openness’ that has closed minds — ‘openness results in American conformism’, Bloom writes. One thinks of the classic G.K. Chesterton line, that ‘the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.’ If you never close your mind on something, you’ll be intolerant of or indifferent to anyone who argues with you — in other words anyone who has themselves sensibly closed their minds. A rejection of certainties and absolutes and truth will limit the extent to which you can meaningfully engage with and interrogate the world. And this idea is of course very popular now on the right and the ‘anti-left’, if you will. (Though I would say the only prominent contemporary public academic who is equally as articulate as Bloom on the matter is Jordan Peterson. Mostly the discourse is pretty lousy, which he kind of predicted; I’m not sure Bloom would have been impressed by the rise of ‘alternative media’, for instance.)

Somewhat unexpectedly, there’s an entire chapter on the state of music education. In it, he argues that rock music in particular ‘ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.’ Bloom follows a long lineage of thinkers who have been suspicious of many aspects of music. With the exception of Lenin, who was only suspicious of music because it encouraged beauty and niceness, most of them were religious: certain early protestants, Islamists, Augustine in his Confessions detailing the seduction of chant, and both Orthodox and Roman Catholic suspicion of musical instruments instead of voice. Bloom goes even further back to Plato who similarly saw music as ‘the barbarous expression of the soul’. ‘Music,’ Bloom writes, ‘is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror’. (That sounds positively Burkean.)

He argues that classical music attempts to tame the soul’s raw passions by forming them into art. It is a civilising process, the application of reason and education to a wild passion. Bloom isn’t arguing that music is any way neutered by this process. Instead, music education should give people the means to extend and manipulate this joy in pursuit of a greater version of themselves. ‘Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be.’ But what are we to make of works that very skillfully exacerbate the intrinsic barbarism of music? Bloom seem to be suspicious of young people’s fondness for Ravel’s Bolero, for it has ‘the beat of sexual intercourse’. Where did he stand on a deliberately savage work like Rite of Spring? Do works like these discourage ‘cooperation of the sentiments’? Don’t these provide ‘premature ecstasy’? I am somewhat weary of exercising what seems to be a moral judgement on music itself. There are more reliable ways to argue that modern pop music is largely bad music and bad culture. Sure, music definitely needs to be formed into something good and meaningful, but why must the starting point be barbarism and not, say, innocence?

Bloom argues that the lack of talent or virtue in the music makes it it an easy and dangerous drug: ‘it artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavours’.  Those who take drugs and have gotten over it, ‘find it difficult to have enthusiasms or great expectations’. This extends to those addicted to rock music, whose untamed ecstasy can lead the young to find normalcy — reality — grim and harsh, once they get over rock music. Okay, but considering most people have not gotten over rock music, and that their passion for it has not really subsided, this prognosis hasn’t survived the test of time. What he is right to point out is that ‘as long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its pro-longed use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf’. In that way, it is a numbing drug. And that deafness is very real, and can be difficult to crawl out of, as I can personally attest. The best analogy is sexual, as music is arguably the most sensuous of the arts. Fetish and pornography will dull one to the beauty of sex. You have this exciting, visceral, barbarous music. But without being civilised, it only starves and steals from the soul. Bloom convincingly portrays the resulting musical culture as dystopian:

Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvellous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.

Ouch. Take out ‘Walkman’ and ‘MTV’ and replace them with ‘smartphone’ and ‘YouTube’, and that paragraph sounds truer today than it did in 1987.

And on that bleak note, how about some Elizabethan melancholy? John Dowland’s brilliant chromatic fantasia, Forlorn Hope Fancy:

Is Romanticising Musical Illiteracy Anything New?

There’s been a great and reassuring backlash to Charlotte E. Gill’s piffle suggesting, essentially, that to help students learn music we much teach them less, and to a lower standard. The dissenting letter warns that ‘Gill’s position could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised yet further in state schools.’ I get the impression, however, that this revolution Gill advocates has been underway for some time.

In the UK, children have weekly music lessons for the first three ‘key stages’ (years 5-14). Somewhat understandably, it isn’t a compulsory subject in key stage 4 (14-16) — though quite useless subjects like computing and citizenship are. But neither is music, as often taught in schools, a particularly useful subject. The lessons I had (this is little over half a decade ago) were a great example of the aimless and undisciplined cacophony that comes with profound musical illiteracy. It was rare that students would even get to the stage of bashing out a few notes on a xylophone or flimsy keyboard. Idle chit chat would be interspersed with what resembled a kind of very childish playtime: fiddling with all the amusing sounds on the keyboard, ones that sounded vaguely pornographic or others that were just absurd, such as one key which when pressed would produce an exclamation of ‘dictionary!’. It is a struggle to come up with something we learnt in three years of music lessons (from 11-14).  Being generous, there were a couple of decent lessons on ragas (so much for Gill’s assertion about the hegemony of classical music).

So my experience runs counter to Gill’s impression that ‘for a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement.’ And in my school at least, I and many other progressed just fine with very limited theoretical knowledge, a fact that I don’t celebrate. GCSE curriculum is very accommodating for non-classical music, and except for the Bach chorales, you could get away with very minimal music theory. A Level music can be a lot tougher. You have to have a solid understanding of Western Classical Music and be able to identify styles and periods and instruments by ear, as well as being able to notate musical extracts by ear, and in many cases you have to study — gasp! — entire orchestral works. Now, I just think, So what? But I do remember back when I was sixteen and without any knowledge of classical music that this was indeed a very daunting task. It was, and no doubt still is, quite a jump to that even basic analytical standard. If the idea of musical literacy were better introduced into the key stage 3 lessons in many schools, the numbers doing music later on would grow from their pitiful levels now, and indeed the diversity of music students, as Gill is concerned about, would increase.

However, even at A Level, there are ways to bypass musical literacy. You can study popular music, modern musical theatre or jazz in place of the Western tradition. And again, this betrays the Gill’s ignorance in thinking music education isn’t diverse enough — indeed, it may well be too diverse. I’m not sure, either, that those who actually study classical music at A Level show any great level of understanding — or at least, they are not taught or encouraged to think about music except in lifeless analytical or dubious programmatic terms. Here’s what I mean, in an apparently ‘exemplar’ A Level music essay on ‘How did Baroque composers convey the meaning of the text in their music?’:

Composers often used tonality and harmony to convey the meaning of the text. For
example, in choruses such as Handel’s Hallelujah and Glory to God, both of which are in the oratorio the Messiah, the tonality is D major and although this immediately evokes an emotion of joy because it is major, since they were in D major, the baroque trumpets were able to play and be prominent which is vital for movements with such celebratory libretto such as ‘Lord God omnipotent’ and ‘good will to men’. In fact, the entire of Monteverdi’s Versiculus Responsorium, the first movement of his Vespers is played and sung on a D major chord following the opening chant.

I remember this style of essay well: the regurgitation of ‘analysis’ which was spoon-fed to us and unsurprisingly meant we all wrote pretty much the same thing, unthinkingly. (This is, however, hardly unique to the one subject.) And how one can confidently talk of antiphonal writing or counterpoint, say, in an essay while having little idea what they mean.

Anyway, I’ve not experienced this great tyranny of music theory in schools that Gill describes. But one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and I rather wish Gill’s description of an ‘elitist’ music education were closer to the reality. Surely the best schools are the ones with orchestras and high levels of music theory and an ambitious and disciplined approach to music education?

I also wrote an immediate response to the article a few days ago, but it wasn’t especially interesting, which is why I felt compelled to write another.

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.