The insidious class divide in music teaching

A passionate debate is raging regarding musical education which threatens to unbalance the already critically privileged world of classical music. And, ironically, some of those who believe that music education should be made more accessible are arguing for measures that will actually exacerbate that privilege.

In a recent article in The Guardian, writer Charlotte C Gill argued that musical education is now harder to access for many at state schools. Gill’s main contention was that music had “always been taught in a far too academic way”, singling out a focus on notation, sight-reading and theoretical understanding. Notation, she wrote, was “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”.

In response, more than 700 professional musicians, teachers and others – including many who were either educated or are now teaching in state schools – signed a letter opposing Gill’s ideas, which it said “amount to simple anti-intellectualism”. It added:

… through her romanticisation of illiteracy, Gill’s position could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised yet further in state schools.

Check your privilege

The news that a core requirement of music theory was to be dropped from the curriculum at Harvard University, prompted a vigorous defence by some other faculty members.

The response by professional musicians in the US, including American composer John Adams, was similarly impassioned, but the debate quickly became charged. One musicologist compared the defence of music theory to white supremacy, while another developed a “privilege walk for musicians” based upon a recent US tradition of such things for students. This required that those who, for example, had been taught music theory, cared about notated music, or could read more than one clef, should step forward in order to check their privilege.

You need to understand theory to be a performer.
Jirapong Manustrong via Shutterstock

Many of the respondents to Gill’s article challenged her claims about notation and theory being impossible other than to those from privileged backgrounds, but the Harvard decision reflects a different outlook. The general quality of state education in the US compared to many countries in Europe and East Asia was demonstrated by the country’s relatively mediocre scores in the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment survey. This indicates that many students educated in the US are facing serious educational disadvantages.

The response to such a situation in a social democratic country, at least until recently, might be to invest more heavily in state education – and specifically music provision therein – to make musical skills available to as many as possible (perhaps also raising taxes in order to…

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