Music Education’s Love Affair with Literacy (it’s complicated)

There has been much debate recently regarding an article that appeared in The Guardian on March 27th bemoaning the ever-diminishing provision and status of music education in the UK: a valid subject, well worth any number of column inches, given the decline in school music provision not “since 2010, when the baccalaureate was introduced” as the author Charlotte C. Gill states, but since the early 1980s at the hands of Margaret Thatcher[1] and Sir Keith Joseph[2]; a trend that shows no sign of being reversed – at least in terms of government policy. Ms Gill makes some valid points concerning the importance of music education albeit in a confusing and sometimes self-contradictory manner. The two key issues she sees are that music education in the UK has become the preserve of a predominantly white, middle-class, academic mindset (in other words, ‘elitist’) and that teaching with an emphasis on music notation is a dominant symptom of the overly academic approach to musical pedagogy. This, she claims, renders the subject inaccessible and irrelevant to the needs of many if not the majority of school age students. As she puts it, ”music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement”. In response, there has been an outcry of indignation in the form of a letter published in The Guardian, with several musical luminaries among its signatories, and a plethora of articles and blog posts shared on social media. Several of these demonstrate a clear grasp of the issues surrounding music provision, but others, unfortunately, also contain contradictions and mixed messages even to the extent that, in effect, they lend support to some of Ms Gill’s claims. It is not possible, therefore, to come down firmly on one side of the debate or the other since there appear to be extremely valid points as well as errors and assumptions on both sides.

 As regards the content of the original article, one of the first things one notices is an apparent appeal to those who dominate the decision-making surrounding education policy, and who adhere to a set of principles that might be termed ‘economic utilitarianism’. The author cites the contribution to GDP made by the music industry possibly in an attempt to convince them that music is worth keeping in the curriculum. A likely upshot, however, is that the politicians in question would simply take the position that if such a handsome contribution can be made while the provision of music within the state education system is consistently being cut, then there is no need to do anything more about it! She then appears to nod in the direction of political correctness. In a non-sequitur, she suggests a causal connection between the fact that much music tuition is now provided privately and, drawing on the report Musical Routes, the claim that ”In 2012-13, only 10% of music students at universities came from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds”. The statistics may indeed be accurate, but evidence for a link between the provision of private music tuition and ethnic origin is not provided. Indeed, even relatively wealthy parents from certain ethnic backgrounds choose not to provide music lessons for their children for reasons that are often as much cultural as economic.  Furthermore, Ms Gill’s choice of statistics relating to numbers of students studying music at university, which would in the majority of cases require a command of notation and music theory, presents a clear self-contradiction bearing in mind her stated objections to academicism in music teaching.

Her assertion that “music has always been taught in a far too academic way…” is open to challenge provided it is taken to refer to class music as well as instrumental music teaching. In fact, The New Statesman has already pointed out that “Guardian articles bemoaning the sorry state of provisions for music education in the UK will, nine times out of ten, conflate music education with instrumental tutelage.” Concerning class music, it is true that in the early and mid-twentieth century, minims and crotchets together with listening that over-emphasised the ‘classical’ repertoire were frequent features of music lessons. However, partly because of a study in the early 1980s that ranked Music and French as the most unpopular school subjects (it is not difficult to see the connection bearing in mind how Music and languages have traditionally been taught), this has not been the case more recently. The UK National Curriculum, for example, founded on the three key practical areas of composing, performing and listening, prescribes relatively little by way of traditional music theory or literacy in KS2 & 3 and nothing at all at KS1. In fact, student engagement by way of activity and musical experience, with notation being approached as a necessary means of communicating musical ideas, have for some time been considered the most desirable features of effective music teaching. Neither can it be true that “theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement”. If ‘advancement’ means academic success e.g. gaining a degree in music, then, of course, theoretical knowledge would be essential. However, if it means achieving a high level of proficiency or a career as a performer, then her statement is not wholly accurate: theoretical knowledge per se will give you as much chance of getting into the London Symphony Orchestra as a sports degree will of getting you into Manchester United! Furthermore, since the ability to be able to do what is required is of the essence in musical success, the argument that “there are routes into musical careers for the untrained, and many pop, rap and grime artists have never studied music formally” turns out to be wholly valid. However, it is hopelessly self-contradictory.  As for the choirs that “put a huge focus on musical notation” (leaving aside for the moment the fact that without it, they could not access the repertoire), it can’t reasonably be denied that a certain amount of knowledge might well be required although not quite as much as Ms Gill would have us believe.

Turning our attention away from the non-sequiturs and self-contradictions characteristic of the Guardian article towards the ensuing discussion in relation to the roles of theory and literacy in music education, we might remind ourselves that the article and many of the responses seem, as has been suggested, to be expressing views pertaining primarily to musical performance. For example, Charlotte Gill complains that “The insistence on theoretical understanding is underpinned by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, which sets the most widely-used music exams. To meet its requirements, pupils must work through limited repertoires of old, mostly classical music, focusing most of their efforts on mastering musical literacy…”. In an apparent objection to this negative view, Francis Wilson writing on her website The Cross-Eyed Pianist, relates how an approach that taught music theory alongside instrumental technique, featuring regular graded examinations, worked well for her: “by the time I reached Grade 5 at the age of about 10, I was sufficiently confident in my music reading to start exploring beyond the confines of the piano grade syllabus.” Both Ms Gill’s assertion and Francis Wilson’s endorsement of the approach she criticises can only be considered valid arguments concerning specialist instrumental or vocal music, where exam syllabuses are indeed the backbone of many teachers’ activity and where there is still a strong emphasis on musical literacy. There is, of course, much more to music education than just learning an instrument and it should be noted that associating it solely with instrumental performance is one of the things that has the potential to make it exclusive and expensive.

With reference to other objections to the article in The Guardian; Pamela Rose’s representation of an approach that does not have notation “at its roots” as adumbing down of the curriculum”, is symptomatic of the narrow view that sees the aim of music education as being to produce ‘classically trained’ performers.  Would Ms Rose seriously see the musical education received by the Indian masters taught via the oral tradition as having been ‘dumbed-down’?  What about Elvis Presley, Miles Davis or The Beatles? An impression that is hard to avoid is that they would be considered inferior rather than just different. This would not be helpful simply because it would serve only to reinforce the view that music is a highbrow activity for the chosen few. The approach to integrating notation and aural awareness from the beginning as featured on her embedded video has much to commend it.  Unfortunately, however, it does little (with its single, apparently middle-class, student seated at a splendid grand piano) to counter the notion that music has become an activity for a wealthy, middle-class elite.  She goes on to state that, “Too many teachers leave notation teaching until some unspecified time in the future. This may make music more accessible and ‘fun’ initially but it does nothing to encourage musical independence for the student who can only copy.” The first thing one might ask is, ‘What is wrong with making lessons accessible and what is wrong with fun?’ Surely, if lessons are accessible and enjoyable, then students might be more motivated to continue long enough to extend and benefit from their musical activity – which may well include reading notation. Furthermore, as for the ‘independence’ born of reading music from the outset, what of the note-bound musicians who can’t do anything without ‘dots’? I have written at length on this elsewhere and so have several others.[3] Fortunately, many teachers, including those who work in classrooms with thirty-plus possibly underprivileged and often unruly children, do indeed “know how to integrate notation into their teaching” without making it seem like a difficult and painstaking process and in such a way as simultaneously to develop musical skill and awareness.

The assertion that lends The Guardian its headline for the open letter written in response to its article, i.e. that musical illiteracy has been ‘romanticised’, is hard to justify as is the contention that the author’s “conclusions about musical notation and theoretical skills amount to simple anti-intellectualism.” Ms Gill’s description of music notation as “a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education.” probably contains a grain of truth in fact. If we were to survey the entire
population and not just the minority who have chosen or indeed had the opportunity, to take their
musical studies beyond their classroom activity, we would probably find that between 5% and 10% could read music although reliable statistics are scarce. It follows, nevertheless, and is borne out by experience, that an enormous number of people do in fact find music notation obscure and indecipherable. Ms Gill’s subsequent statement that “Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off.”  probably refers to a rare phenomenon, but there are examples within one’s own experience.[4]  Her pronouncements need not, therefore, be interpreted as a recommendation that teaching notation
be abandoned, nor do they necessarily imply anti-intellectualism or plead any kind of case for illiteracy. They do serve to remind us, however, that we need to be careful about how notation is taught and at what stage, lest we discourage young learners to the extent that they give up before reaching a stage where they would see reading music as necessary or desirable.

Of course, the ability to read and write music is indispensable in many contexts, but by no means all. A passage on the OpenStax CNX (RICE University, Houston) website Planning for Musical Literacy: An Inquiry recognises this; “Music literacy includes skills, such as being able to read and write musical notations, that can be crucial to a musician’s progress and success. However, different kinds of musicians may need different kinds of music literacy, and some find that they do not need it at all… Learning to read and write music is not an easy task; even music students with good teachers and plenty of opportunity to practice can take years to become very proficient at it. You may not want to spend a lot of time and energy perfecting skills that you do not need.”  In the light of considerations such as these, and the fact that the music industry commended by Ms Gill for its economic contribution, constitutes a considerable proportion of untrained, ‘illiterate’ musicians, perhaps it could be argued that some music teachers are actually aiming to open up a wider range of possibilities for their pupils by not insisting on notation from the start. Concerning the music curriculum overall, of course introducing notation at an appropriate point is highly desirable but never at the expense of the quality of musical experience afforded the students. The necessity for different kinds of notation can arise out of their efforts in composition, and traditional notation can be taught in such a way as to engage a whole class while raising awareness of musical texture, developing instrumental skills and providing rhythmic interest (i.e. not starting with semibreves and minims) simultaneously.  In the context of specialist instrumental teaching, there is a strong case to be made for delaying the introduction of notation until a degree of fluency has been attained by learning known material by ear, imitation of phrases modelled by the teacher, and simple improvisation. Further discussion can be found here and here.  

So is there a middle way to be taken between the apparently polarised positions of Charlotte Gill and her detractors? As for access to music education, of course, all should have it, but not to become musicians. The reasons for retaining, maintaining and even enhancing the provision of Music in the curriculum are not to do with how many instrumentalists and composers we can create (as seems to be implied by several of the responses referred to above including Ms Gill’s, “while we do not find lateral, inclusive ways to engage people … we are losing masses of would-be performers”), but with how many children get a chance to benefit from the now indisputable educational and developmental benefits that musical activity can bring. Year on year, research in the field of neuroscience confirms, with increasing frequency, that musical activity has a profound effect on brain development and on learning as a whole; it can enrich and enhance educational achievement and personal growth. This should be the Music curriculum’s main raison d’etre.  In reply to possible objections regarding how we might miss ‘the next Mozart’, a comparison with Physical Education and Sport might clarify matters. These subjects are not taught in schools to produce gymnasts and sportspeople. True, there are school teams, and we enjoy encouraging them and celebrating their success, but not everyone can be a member of such a team. All students should take P.E. and Sport throughout their school careers because they promote fitness, heath, coordination, spatial skills, teamwork, coping with success and failure, etc., etc. If in Sport, or in Music, or in any other skills-based subject, certain individuals demonstrate the potential to proceed to higher – even professional – levels of involvement, then, of course, there is a duty to nurture and develop it. Nevertheless, the reasons for subjects such as these along with Music, Dance, Art and Drama being taught in the first instance are much more far-reaching and much more profound in educational terms.

One item that all are agreed on is that the constant cutting of music in schools is short-sighted. In the long run, it is potentially detrimental to educational attainment overall (beyond the mere memorization of facts for purposes of passing exams that is) and to the quality of life for countless members of society. The solution is far from easy. Let it not be forgotten that until they have witnessed the positive effects on their children in terms of confidence, self-esteem and pure enjoyment, a considerable number of parents see little point in studying something that is widely regarded as existing solely for purposes of relaxation and entertainment.  Many school teachers and leaders understand their role as being to oversee the production of prospective employees or potential undergraduates who will, hopefully, be employable after graduation. Since the probability of achieving the requisite results at GCSE and A Level is regarded as being directly proportional to the time spent in direct subject-specific instruction, there is no room for subjects such as Music.  Furthermore, in too many cases, possibly due to the pressure on schools to produce ‘results’, scant attention is paid to the burgeoning evidence that as well as promoting intellectual growth and emotional intelligence, music can play a pivotal role in developing the ’four Cs’ of 21st-century education; Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical Thinking. Ironically, these are precisely the characteristics that increasing numbers of employers are said to be seeking in their prospective employees! As for the politicians who determine educational policy overall, then, of course, they will do whatever they think will get them reelected. Until there is a groundswell of opinion capable of convincing all concerned, the current situation looks set to continue. How a meaningful, lasting improvement could come about given the vicious cycle we are faced with i.e., that music provision is cut so fewer people appreciate its value, so it is cut some more etc., etc., is difficult to discern. Perhaps we all, in our own ways, with all our differences and disagreements, need to follow the example of the sculptor who, starting with something crude and inflexible, produces a masterpiece by ‘chipping away’ day after day.


[1] Margaret Thatcher,  British Prime Minister 1979 – 1990 (1927 – 2013)

[2] Keith Joseph, UK Secretary of State for Education and Science, 1981 – 1986 (1918 – 1984)

[3] George Odham’s The Sounding Symbol and Phillip Priest’s Pedagogical Model of Instrumental Learning present compelling arguments against teaching notation and theory from the very beginning.

[4] The exact details of this are hazy after around 50 years, but it is still worth relating that at the age of about 13, I took part in my school’s inter-house music competition – playing from sheet music I might add. Before announcing the results, the adjudicator, a high school music teacher, gave some remarks during which he mentioned that musical talent isn’t always easy to spot. He related how, because of their apparent lack of interest in formal musical instruction (which in all likelihood included reading notation), he had more or less written off two of his pupils. Their names, he told us, were George Harrison and Paul McCartney.

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