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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The Irrelevance of Classic FM

There has been a minor kerfuffle about the Ultimate Classic FM Chart. Classic FM is a very popular UK classical music radio station. They have 5.8 million listeners in total, and recently boasted about having 1.2 million listeners under 35. (For comparison, BBC Radio 3 has about 2 million listeners.) This isn’t as remarkable as a figure as it seems. Classic FM specialise in ‘light’ classical music and the dreaded crossover genre. They are the kind of station that thinks describing Arvo Part as ‘relaxing’ is a compliment.

The Ultimate Classic FM Chart is a list of the best-selling classical music records of the last 25 years. So it’ll be albums like Gould’s Goldberg Variations, or the Kleiber Beethoven symphonies, right? No, of course not. The top 10 is all crossover music, including two Russell Watsons, two Katherine Jenkins, and the Titanic soundtrack.

The subsequent debate is not an unfamiliar one: is Classic FM useful to classical music lovers, or a thorn in our side? In her Guardian article, Kate Molleson suggests that Classic FM — well, specifically the Titanic soundtrack — could be a ‘gateway drug’ to classical music.

The thing is, there really isn’t much crossing over involved in ‘crossover’ music. Thomas Ades fans don’t listen to Charlotte Church, and Charlotte Church fans don’t listen to Thomas Ades. Stravinsky fans don’t listen to Hanz Zimmer, and I bet you Zimmer has never been a gateway drug into the world of Stravinsky.

Classical music listeners are generally excited by challenging music. Classic FM listeners are put off by challenging music, so the radio station offers them easy listening. Their listeners don’t migrate over to ‘serious’ classical music (for want of a better word). I couldn’t see any Beethoven in the Classic FM chart. Neither is there any Haydn, nor any Monteverdi — not even any Tchaikovsky! There is a Shostakovich, but it’s Shostakovich: The Jazz Album. The only genuinely classical names I can see are Gorecki, Tavener, Vivaldi, Holst and Mozart.

‘Pliable’ (author of the On An Overgrown Path blog) made the point that ‘Classic FM audience trends have little relevance to the future of mainstream classical music’. I’m more Obstinate than Pliable, and would say that Classic FM is irrelevant to classical music, full stop. He’s quite right to suggest that ‘some of the more progressive forms of rock music and jazz may well be more productive hunting grounds for new audiences than the popular classical audience.’ Indeed. That’s where I came from, and it would seem I’m not alone. The philosopher Roger Scruton has written about how, to his surprise, metal fans are among the most receptive to classical music:

The true Metal fans could talk about its merits for hours, and it amazed me that they had such a precise knowledge of the chords required at every moment, and of the importance of the bass line in maintaining the tension behind the voice … it was the Metal fans who saw the point most clearly [that classical music is worthwhile and invites judgement], since their music had been for them exactly what Mozart had been for me, namely a door out of banality and ordinariness into a world where you, the listener, become what you are.

I have no ill feeling towards Classic FM and its listeners, just those who think that with the right marketing and a few superficial alterations, Classic FM listeners can become avid fans of ‘serious’ classical music. They’re a totally different and contented musical tribe. There are other listeners constantly searching for the new and challenging, who take music seriously but have, for whatever reason, found classical music unattractive. We should court them instead.

Boosting Classical Music

We should have classical music that’s more like pop: compressed and bass heavy. Wait, hear me out! Here’s the oft-stated problem:

  • Classical music has an enormous dynamic range and lacks the punch of pop music.
  • This is a practical downside. Most of it can’t really be listened to in your car, or walking on the street, or many other spaces in our noise-polluted world.
  • Without that extra oomph, classical music just seems very unexciting; people want visceral music.

Now, I was building myself up for a rant on this, how the modern world is so bad and unfair and ugly and yada yada yada… But then I began asking myself, if people are accustomed to heavier music — music with a powerful bottom end — why shouldn’t there be more classical music written with this in mind? We’re not talking about digitally altering recordings or introducing amplification into the concert hall. This could be done by composers deciding to write music that is more bottom heavy, and/or orchestras restructuring themselves for this purpose.

Similarly, why not deliberately compress the music? Again, no technology is needed. We use a chasm-wide range of dynamics now, but centuries ago there was much less dynamic variation. When there was, it was used more for textural reasons than sheer volume change. There’s no reason why this stylistic trait can’t re-emerge. Composers could simply write music without having the liberty of specifying dynamics. That would go a long way.

All this could surely be a fruitful compromise with popular tastes. Good music is a product of borders, of deliberate limitations. So why not introduce a new style that takes as its borders these two traits of popular music, at the very least? And perhaps more controversially, why not use these traits as a way to reinterpret past works? Some compressed bottom-heavy classical music might just be what the 21st century needs.

It would only be appropriate to end this post with a pop song. I have come to reluctantly believe that there is but one great pop song — just one that perfectly encapsulates the absurdity, the gaudiness, the fun, the addictiveness, the danceability and the memorability of pop music. Yes, I’m awfully sorry to say, It’s Raining Men: