On March 1st in The Economist there was an article titled ‘Total eclipse of the arts: the quiet decline of music in British schools‘ which detailed the decrease in uptake for music at both GCSE and A-level. There have been many such articles in recent years and all have bemoaned the drop off in funding for music education, particularly for instrumental tuition, whilst drawing nostalgic comparisons with the Britain of 50 years ago when free peripatetic lessons were common and music – at least in glass-half-full comparison – was booming.
This article was an eloquent paean to a past age but, as is so often the case, it failed to make any argument for why we should take a different approach. There is absolutely no doubt that the value placed on music in schools and the curriculum is low at the moment. From year 1 music takes a back seat unless you are fortunate enough to be at a school with a particularly engaged member of staff.
But an elegant paean is not going to persuade anyone that we need a different approach. What we need is solid evidence that music is valuable not only in and of itself but also as part of full education. Not only that, but what is the value of music to society in general? What is its economic value? Its social value?
The problems in the provision of instrumental and vocal peripatetic music lessons are deeply embedded in a system that stopped functioning properly over 20 years ago. The unwillingness to value music, and the arts in general, as a central part of our national curriculum is also embedded in attitudes set in place decades ago.
Sir Ken Robinson wrote a full and inspiring government report on creativity in schools in 1999 which was completely ignored. His frustration at the lack of government engagement led him, in part, to emigrate to the US.
So, is there an approach that can, in fact, make a difference?
I believe that there is but the starting point must be to establish why music is a valuable academic subject. The arguments for the intrinsic value of the study of music are nuanced and, necessarily, philosophical in nature. However, the arguments for the peripheral benefits of studying music are well-researched and incredibly clear.
There have been so many studies into the academic and cognitive benefits of studying music that it should be generally accepted that music belongs at the centre of any education curriculum. Those who study music perform better not only in the key skills of maths and literature – a study by Opera North, reported in 2015, showed dramatic increase in SAT scores amongst primary children who took part in a year-long singing project.
Donald Hodges and Debra O’Connell provide a fascinating overview of many studies into the effect of music on academic achievement in their chapter ‘The impact of music education on academic achievement’ in the 2005 book Sounds of Learning: the Impact of Music Education. Their conclusion is that, given the correct circumstances, music can have a significant effect on academic performance across the board.
Of course, it is not true to say that if you put your son in a band then he’ll do better at maths. Accruing the benefits of music study means significant effort and engagement. That process, however, will change your brain. It will improve your ability to process information, to learn new skills, to switch skills quickly.
It is abundantly clear that music has an enormously beneficial impact on the individual in education. That is to say nothing of the social benefits of involvement in music. It is, almost uniquely in a school setting, a place in which all age groups intermingle. The school orchestra could easily have an 11-year old violinist sat next to a 17-year old. The principal clarinet could be five years younger than the number two.
But, more than this, the study of music should be a deep insight into the way we organise ourselves as humans. In Ancient Greece, music was considered one of the most important subjects for study because it taught us about balance: balance between melody and harmony, between tension and release, between order and chaos. The greatest music is a constant balancing act, setting up expectations and then thwarting them, running the line between what is comprehensible and what is novel, taking the best of the past and taking it into the future.
The study of music allows us to access experiences that are simply not open to any other subject. The deep psychological connection we have with music can enable emotional experiences unmatched by any other art form. It can open up joy, grief, fear, anger, even spirituality. Music can allow us to develop our human understanding in the most profound ways possible.
The difficulty with music’s intrinsic (but more abstract) educational value is that it relies on high quality musicians as teachers and a necessarily discursive approach to the subject. Allowing exploration in this way doesn’t encourage focus on scores and results but it does encourage the development of language as a way of articulating complex musical concepts.
If the impact of music on academic performance and its intrinsic value as a subject isn’t enough, then the third arm of this argument is economic value. According to UK Music, the value of the core music economy in 2016 (exactly what defines ‘core’ is unclear) was £4.4bn. Over 27 million people attended live music events in the UK. One in six albums sold worldwide in 2015 was by a British artist.
This doesn’t even include industries associated with music making. The restaurants, cafés, bars, and shops that thrive around concert halls, venues, and opera houses. The tertiary industries associated with the many music festivals across the country; the work of printers, editors, copywriters, website designers…
So, in this total eclipse of the arts, does any of this matter? I think so. Is it enough? I don’t know. But it is surely the right approach to reversing the marginalisation of music in the curriculum. We need solid, meaningful arguments to persuade others of the value of music. It will take advocacy and determination to effect real political change. It will need people to engage with full, nuanced arguments and not soundbites. But it is our responsibility to win that fight. It helps noone to sit back and say how awful the situation is without providing evidence for why and how it could be different.
Receiving a music education is not a right and the field of music is not an equal one. If we want equality of opportunity, that is going to cost money. And as music services and schools across the country are constantly telling us, it is cripplingly expensive to manage and provide music tuition.
So we have to be armed with information. We have to know why music is valuable – not just to the individual, but to all of us, those who study music and those who do not. What do we all lose if music falls off curriculum? The answers are complex and require engagement with multiple topics on multiple levels. We have to be the ones to make that engagement happen.