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.

Vivaldi vs Status Quo

It’s often said about Vivaldi that he wrote the same concerto some five hundred times. Well, I remember from my rock days that something strikingly similar was said about Status Quo, that they essentially rewrote the same song ad nauseam. The thing is, Vivaldi somehow remains enjoyable for most of those concertos. The vivacity and energy and harmonic movement of a Vivaldi concerto is so infectious. Status quo’s music plods along with the same three chords, and always with the same rhythmic pattern, the blues shuffle: dum da dum da, dum da dum da. Status Quo do the bare minimum needed to be interesting. Three chords are the fewest needed to create harmonic tension, and the standard blues pattern is all you need to keep a dance rhythm. Vivaldi expanded the possibilities of the concerto, whether it be his excited and quick-changing harmonic rhythms, his melodic inventions (for example his use of compound intervals), his unexpected modulations, or the inclusion of programmatic elements — not to mention the wonderful dynamism present in much of his work. It’s no wonder Bach, for one, took great interest in his works.

Is it an unfair comparison? Nah. It’s just that so few people seem willing to discuss the qualitative differences between musics. People can be so damned egalitarian about it. (See Alex Ross, perhaps.)

Here’s Status Quo playing Caroline:

And Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto:

The Prejudice Against Classical Music

Quiet seems rarer than ever before. Televisions blare, phones make these tinny squeals, car engines moan, people chat over the humming and grunting of omni-present technology; and others are inconsiderate of the fact that, when listening to music, many of us do not wish to be disturbed. Music is an activity in itself, and not a supplement to one’s daily activities. If anything, daily life seems hostile to classical music.

I’m starting to think modern society has, knowingly or not, designed itself in sharp opposition to classical music. The topic came to mind when I was listening to a work — a concerto — on my iPhone the other day, and it was described as a song. I hadn’t noticed this before. When I scrolled through my library, every track was in fact described as a song. Songs make up the bulk of popular music but are probably a minority of classical music.

This is a trivial example, but it gets the ball rolling. There is a clear divide between classical and popular music, and the latter has dominance. Popular culture has prioritised music that makes you move over music that makes you feel. The focused, intense and active listening experience is fought against at every turn. The listener is expected to do no work except to let their body react in whichever rude way it wants. Any music without explicit, pulsing metres and immediate accessibility is a big no, then.

The ‘loudness war’ is a side effect of this, whereby the dynamics of all modern recorded music is squashed and raised in order to produce the most bombastic physical effect possible. The dynamic range of classical music is a rude shock to many. It just isn’t as dense and loud enough to block out surrounding noises.

What should be a rude shock to many, but is instead the vulgar norm, is the importance of sexuality in popular music. Even in the most awful Peter Sellars operas, you won’t see a nearly-nude model twerking frenetically. This is so bad that it’s become a novelty in popular culture to see an not-so-attractive person sing well (Adele at the very beginning; at the extreme end, Susan Boyle). Classical performers are not only less sexual, but much of the genre itself is not at all visual either.

The emphasis on performers has denigrated the role of the composer. The era of singer-songwriters (despite the fact many don’t actually write their own songs) means that few understand and appreciate how a classical work is delivered — i.e. how musicians interpret the composer’s work and why that’s important. The worst of this is when someone thinks that classical musicians are dinosaurs, rigidly sticking to a score without any individuality and expressiveness. No, I lie: the worst is when ill-informed people don’t even distinguish between composer and performer.

Perhaps I’m being too much of a miserabilist. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. I must admit I was left hopeful a month or so back when seeing the Aurora Orchestra perform in the streets of Norwich. They are quite an exciting young orchestra who abide by two popular conventions: they play standing up, and they play from memory. A portable orchestra, as it were.

Playing in the gardens, a shopping mall and outside the imposing Millennium Library, they attracted a large interested audience who sat through the entire performance of the outer movements of Beethoven 5. The orchestra did not seem too out of place, and the public clearly enjoyed it. It was Beethoven, so the sounds of cars (although less of a problem in a city like Norwich) and pedestrian traffic had stiff competition. I was close up, so it was doubtless better for me. But still, with the noticeable background noise I didn’t enjoy the music as much as I had when listening to recordings at home.

What I did enjoy, however, was other people enjoying the music. A woman behind me was humming away to the fourth movement; I couldn’t tell if she knew it already or had simply picked up the melody. I yielded to temptation and joined in. I heard another woman, upon the performance ending, say to her friend, ‘luvly jubbly!’

As wonderful as this all is, many people were interested by the performance, I suspect, because it was a novelty. Towns and cities are not spaces conducive to classical music, with many lacking a dedicated concert hall. I enjoyed the event so much because such events are odd in modern life, because classical music is odd in modern life.

I remember walking back, and past the gardens at which the orchestra had earlier played. There now was a ghastly rock band attracting a much larger crowd. And gone was my flirtation with hope.