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Heresies of our time: that children should be taught to read music

As Trotsky never said about war, and only maybe said about the dialectic, “You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.”

Richard Morrison is the music critic of the Times and writes for BBC Music magazine. A man at the heart of the arts establishment, one might reasonably think. But he had an unsettling experience not long ago:

Do I talk rubbish? The thought crosses my mind frequently, but with particular force as I chaired a discussion at the annual conference of the people who run Britain’s orchestras. The talk turned to education and I expressed my fervent belief that teaching children to read music is the key that opens up everything.

First jolt: the music director of Arts Council England (ACE), no less, vehemently disagreed with me. Musical literacy doesn’t matter much, she declared. Second jolt: in the ensuing discussion not a single person spoke in my favour. More than 100 people were in the room, all engaged in running orchestras that depend on instrumentalists who can sight-read to an incredible level, and not one agreed that teaching children to read music was a good idea.

After the event I had coffee with someone in the audience. “Of course nobody sided with you,” she claimed. “Everyone here depends on ACE subsidy. Nobody will contradict publicly what the ACE music director says.”

This was not a singular event. As Mr Morrison writes in his Times article, “The arts world is tolerant, as long as you’re left wing and anti-Brexit”,

I wouldn’t recount this small personal trauma except that it suddenly seems so relevant. Today the excellent website ArtsProfessional published Freedom of Expression, a report based on a large survey it conducted last autumn into censorship and self-censorship in the cultural sector. By promising anonymity to participants, it has lifted the lid on a shocking state of affairs.

Here’s a sector that prides itself on tolerance and free speaking. In reality it seems that the opposite is true. Nearly 80 per cent of participants agreed that “workers in the arts who share controversial opinions risk being professionally ostracised”. You can speak freely within your arts organisation, it seems, only if you conform to a narrow set of political and social views.

Take Brexit. I knew that most arts people were fervently against it, but I didn’t realise how much pressure was put on pro-Brexiteers working in the arts to, basically, shut up. One participant claimed that “in our organisation those who voted to leave the EU have been ostracised”. Another noted that “17.4 million voted for Brexit”, but that “most of the opinions of these people, on many subjects, would lose them employment in the publicly funded arts sector”.

The “ArtsProfessional” survey he mentions was introduced here and the findings can be read here (subscription required).

I did wonder why teaching children to read music has come to be regarded as a bad thing. I suspect it is part of the same phenomenon that has caused the Oxford Classics faculty to propose dropping Homer and Virgil from the first part of an Oxford Classics degree.

The Oxford Student newspaper reports that it

…has been notified about a proposal by the Classics faculty to remove the study of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid from the Mods syllabus, a decision which has surprised many across the faculty.

This proposal forms part of a series of reforms aimed to modernise the first stage of the Classics degree, known as Moderations (Mods), which take place during Hilary term of second year for all students taking Classics courses across the university.

The Mods course, which is assessed by a set of ten exams at the end of Hilary, has been increasingly criticised in recent years, due to the attainment gaps found between male and female candidates, as well as between candidates who have studied Latin and/or Greek to A-Level (Course I) and those who have not (Course II).

The removal of Virgil and Homer papers, which take up two out of the ten Mods papers, have been marketed as a move that will reduce the attainment gaps and thus improve access to the subject.

Educational “attainment gaps” between the official oppressors and the officially oppressed are to be avoided at all costs, except that of providing teaching of a high and even standard to all. What are they afraid of? When the Victorians saw an attainment gap between the upper and the labouring classes they did things like build a University for working people, funded by contributions from the meagre paypackets of quarrymen and farmers. When the early feminists saw an attainment gap between men and women they attained to such effect that the gender gap in the universities is now the other way round. They closed educational gaps by pushing upwards. We don’t even have the honesty to openly push downwards.

28 comments to Heresies of our time: that children should be taught to read music

  • Skill in music and skill in mathematics have a lot in common. Music also has a lot in common with punctuality – one must keep time (and it is also desirable performers arrive on time for the start of the opera, symphony, whatever). So from one PoV, in a world where mathematics and punctuality have both been denounced as racist, one can hardly be surprised that music is getting the treatment.

    However, music is one of the areas where ability has been granted to blacks from long ago by many, including people who were very undisposed to flatter them. In the US civil war, the confederate army had just one exemption from the very start to its rule that only whites could enlist. Every regiment had its band who played to set time for marching, whose drums and trumpets were used to signal in battle, etc. Confederate law from the beginning of the rebellion said that blacks could enlist in the band on the same terms as whites and receive the same pay (a black slave needed his owner’s permission to enlist but otherwise was the same as a free black or white bandsman). This was merely a very extreme (and so demonstrative) indication of musical ability noticed long long before the days of modern sensibilities – indeed noticed despite prejudice.

    So I wonder why the arts council is attempting to downgrade teaching in an area that, along with its many many other virtues, has a very longstanding record of being an avenue of advancement and recognised comparable achievement for a minority group?

  • Mr Ed

    Music is a demanding, and unyielding master. Failure to meet its requirements is evident instantly, and it demands skill, practice and, if not perfection, rapid feedback and adaptation to avoid making a mess of things. Maths too is demanding, ultimately, it requires proof, and accepts no contradictions.

    Is it any wonder that Lefties hate music? Some people play it for fun, not for monetary reward, and they strive for hours each week for years, in a labour no Marxist can explain, or even face up, demolishing the Labour Theory of Value, and which therefore they cannot tolerate. Music also shows inherent differences in individuals, some have talent, others none or little.

    Watch this video of some young musicians, and see how it develops (caution: contains a banjo). Mind you, it is said that the best way to slow down a banjo player is to put some sheet music in front of him.

    Will the (East German-sounding) Secretary of State for Culture, Medial and Sport (or whatever) have the courage to stop Arts funding? Not until Nigel is PM.

  • APL

    ” due to the attainment gaps found between male and female candidates ”

    The attainment gaps would have been in favour of the male candidates, else it would have been lauded to the rafters as an exemplar of Girrrrrl power.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Skill in music and skill in mathematics have a lot in common.”

    They have a common history.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadrivium

    But Morrison isn’t the only one to have noticed how bad it is.

    I suspect the reasons are similar to people’s difficulties with maths. The notation appears impenetrable to outsiders, the ideas abstract and unfamiliar, and adults routinely assume that anything they don’t understand themselves is too hard for kids to learn. It used to annoy me – I regarded music lessons at school as a huge waste of time. You just sat around in unsupervised groups trying to come up with a tune by trial and error, no teaching of theory or technique, and most kids just messed around. I was aware even then that they weren’t really teaching anything – I think I assumed at the time that it was because it couldn’t be taught, and that you just had to have an inborn talent or artistic instinct for it. I think I got quite angry when I discovered how much interesting maths is involved in it, and how long I’d missed out.

    It’s what maths would be if maths was optional. People take a sort of inverted pride in not understanding maths – there’s this belief that it’s too hard for normal people to understand. They constantly talk about how much they hated the lessons. I think it’s that same fear of abstraction.

  • Marius

    Things which shouldn’t exist:

    the publicly funded arts sector

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    To add to Mr Ed’s point, the reason today’s Maoists want to destroy such things is because it is easier in their view to level down than level up.

  • Bloke on M4

    If you take the state’s money, you follow the state’s rules. Back in the 1960s, many American city orchestras didn’t allow black musicians because those were the state’s rules. The state’s rules now (on both sides of the Atlantic) are probably that they now have to have quotas of black and female composers, regardless of quality, so they follow them if they want the money. In an earlier time, they’d have written pieces of music about Jesus, because that’s what the state demanded.

    It’s the same with universities. They were once great organisations because they were private. The decline in university quality, on both sides of the Atlantic, has come from state funding.

    It’s not a war worth fighting, to be honest. We’ve got the alternatives in the independent sector that are better and at a lower price. What’s the last great composition from an orchestra (outside soundtracks)? What opera rivals Verdi in recent years? If Richard Morrison is concerned about the teaching of The Iliad, don’t complain about the state, point people at where they can learn about it online, or maybe crowdfund someone creating a quality course about the classics on YouTube. Universities are a pre-Gutenberg solution to the problem of knowledge distribution.

  • Steve Borodin

    How precisely do you improve access to a subject by removing part of it?

  • I notice the Ofsted report on music teaching in schools, linked to by Nullius above, is dated 2013, and states:

    One member of a hub’s governing board said:

    ‘We can meet all the Arts Council key performance indicators without doing anything about quality.’

    In discussions with Ofsted, Arts Council England shared this unease.

    In the OP quote, Mr Morrison is describing the publicly-funded UK arts world of 2020. Perhaps the unease that the Arts Council claimed to share (when pressed by Ofsted) in 2013 later yielded to unease about other things (Mr Morrison specifically references Brexit, for example.) Elites can prize maintaining and signalling their eliteness over any function whose performance is the excuse justifying that status.

  • NickM

    Just because Einstein had a violin…

    I am a very good mathematician, utterly tone-deaf. The arts behemoth is just drivel. It’s Girl’s Aloud doing Marx. I simply can’t watch Jodie Whitaker’s Who because it is simply PC in search of a plot.

  • I interact with a lot of people in classical music and music education, and I can tell you that pretty much 100% of them are left-wing and fervent believers in teaching children music in schools. SO I suspect that “Everyone here depends on ACE subsidy. Nobody will contradict publicly what the ACE music director says” is your explanation of what happened at this event.

  • Dr Evil

    I didn’t realise that being able to differentiate and integrate made me a racist. Then I concluded that I had been taught to be a racist by my physics master at school in the sixth form. Thank God this was additional maths for those of us studying sciences but not taking Maths A level. Those going on to study physics at university must have been exceedingly racist doing one or two maths A levels whilst those of us going on to study medicine were only sort of casually racist as we had Biology, Chemistry and Physics A levels plus Ad maths.

  • Dr Evil

    FFS those damn verification pix are too small to tell what is on them in some cases!

  • Paul Marks

    Good post and good comments.

    The attitude of the leftist “cultural elite” is yet another example of the “treason of the intellectuals” – it is a cultural treason, to the very things they are supposed to safeguard.

    The film industry awarded an “Oscar” for “best film” to a rubbish film – BECAUSE it was rubbish.

    The music establishment do NOT believe that children should be taught music.

    And on and on.

    Western culture and the very concept of the leaning of and using of SKILL (as Mr Ed and others have pointed out) is what the establishment elite now hate and wish to destroy.

    It is hard to see how the West can survive – when both the education system and the cultural institutions are under the control of enemies (indeed fanatical enemies) of the West.

  • bob sykes

    Eisenhower famously warned about the inherent corruption in the Military-Industrial Complex. He should have added Congress. But, in the same speech he also warned that university faculty would be corrupted by federal research grants. He was right on both counts.

  • Caligari

    I wonder how mathematics und music are connected. Is there a neurological or psychological paper concerning that matter?

    Whatever, I expact that a music orchestra, specialized in Klassische Musik, do see a great value in notes. I mean, if I ask a tradesman (craftsman) “how importend is it to have skills with tools?”, I expact the a answer im continuum between “very important” to “nice to know at all” but never “you can ignor it”. Just because the tradesman work literally every single day with tools and build and repair things, so he get a great impression of the value of this kind of skills.
    What is wrong with a orchestra which dosn’t value his own instruments? I can’t even imagin.

    To avoid a conclusion: Perhaps I’m not smart enough to understand modern times anymore.

  • bobby b

    “I wonder how mathematics und music are connected.”

    Sadly, so do most American junior high and high school music teachers.

    (Music – or the mechanics, anyway – ARE math. Our teachers think it’s just feelz.)

  • Caligari

    (Music – or the mechanics, anyway – ARE math. Our teachers think it’s just feelz.)

    Language and even thoughts are presentable (abbildbar) as mathematic. 😉

    So, even the learning of Spanish helps with math?

  • mila s

    I did wonder why teaching children to read music has come to be regarded as a bad thing.

    Nice strawman. I don’t think anyone anywhere has said that teaching children to read music is ‘bad’.
    I would disagree with the director of music at ACE that “musical literacy doesn’t matter much”, being able to read music is a
    valuable skill, but at the same time it is not essential to being a good musician. (I speak as an amateur pianist who cannot sight read particularly well, but can play pretty complex pieces from memory).

    Is it any wonder that Lefties hate music?

    What does a bizarre statement like this even mean? that music festivals and concert halls are visited exclusively by right wingers?

  • Nullius in Verba

    “So, even the learning of Spanish helps with math?”

    Mathematical notation may be thought of as a language, so yes, a study of how grammar works, and in particular how it can go wrong, can help with mathematics.

    But the connections between music and mathematics are many and deep.

    Notes are frequencies, and the concept of frequency, the decomposition of a sound into a spectrum of frequencies, is related to Fourier analysis. A pure tone is a sine wave. It’s the solution of the diffential equation governing what physicists call “simple harmonic motion”. Note the connection of the term “harmonic” to music! When a string or drum or bell or a column of air in a whistle vibrates, the physical forces on all of them cause them to move (to a first approximation) like a sine wave. Different instruments have slightly different forces, though, so you get a series of ‘overtones’ that characterise the sound of an instrument, and these are again broken down using Fourier analysis. Some instruments have a ‘fundamental’ tone and all the multiples, some instruments have only the odd multiples, and some instruments have the overtones without the fundamental. Which you get depends on how the instrument works. (There’s even a bit of maths where you can work out what shape a drum is (almost) just from the sound it makes!) So optimising or improving the sound of an instrument draws on a knowledge of physics, oscillations, waves, vibrations, differential equations, and the mathematics of Fourier analysis.

    Then when you play two notes together, they sound harmonious or discordant depending on how the tones and overtones interact. Simple ratios between frequencies lead to more harmonious combinations. A 1:2 ratio is an octave. A 2:3 ratio is a ‘perfect fifth’, the next most harmonious sound. 5:3 is a major sixth, 4:3 a perfect fourth, 5:4 a major third, 6:5 a minor third, and so on. When you tune an instrument, you can tune each string or whatever to have perfect ratios with the next string, but unfortunately that means that the instrument only plays nicely in one key. Try to play it with an instrument tuned to a different key, and they sound off. There is no perfect tuning that can fit every instrument, but there is an approximate scheme called “even-tempered” tuning that is always very close, no matter which key you start in. Developing this took quite a bit of work, and is actually based on logarithms. We split an octave into 12 equal parts because 12 is divisible by lots of smaller numbers. To get 12 evenly-spaced notes (semitones) between octaves, you use frequencies at multiples of the twelth root of 2, which is calculated as 2^(log(2)/12). Then each key can be picked out as some subset of the 12 notes, depending on which harmonies you want. Major keys have the most harmonious combinations, minor keys have notes on the edge of discordant which gives a melancholy or sometimes sinister aspect to the music.

    And then there’s the composition – the tune. You generally start with a theme, a particular pattern of notes that is melodious, and then you often layer it with altered versions of the same sequence. These are sometimes shifted in time, shifted in frequency, reflected, inverted (high notes swapped with low notes), and sped up or slowed down. Blocks may be exchanged, or two or three different themes may play off against each other. Each of these transposed themes has to harmonise perfectly with all the others. Back in the day, composers like Bach produced pieces of music with up to six different versions of the same theme all playing at once, all perfectly harmonising with one another. The more hidden relationships and patterns there are, the better it sounds. Church bells do sequences called ‘ringing the changes’, that go through every possible order of bells, subject to the condition that you can only shift the timing of a bell by one position at a time (because they’re heavy, and have a lot of momentum when they get swinging), and these involve the mathematics of permutations. Doing this involves the mathematics of symmetry and ‘group theory’. Bell sequences use permutation groups.

    Similarly with rhythm. These are repetitive patterns that repeat, or are repetitively transformed in particular ways. If you set two simple rhythms going at once, you can produce a complex combined rhythm whose period is the least common multiple of the periods of the component rhythms. Again you can mix it with time-shifts and reversals and pitch changes to build up lots of symmetry.

    The human aesthetic sense is basically an evolutionary mechanism to encourage pattern-spotting. Something that initially appears complicated and chaotic, but which perceptual analysis reveals to contain hidden simplicity and symmetry triggers an emotional reward, a pleasant feeling. Things that initially look simple and are don’t trigger it – a plain square is boring. Things that look noisy and random and actually are don’t trigger it. But something that initially looks noisy and random, but which has a deep inner simplicity and structure that you can get out of it by clever processing, like a fractal, means your brain has done something good. From a mathematical point of view, this draws deeply on information theory, and the mathematics of data compression. Fractals are a good example or subtle/hidden order, and a lot of music has a fractal structure too.

    Music theory, when you get into it deeply, is really mathematical! Even just playing an instrument you often don’t see it. You play the notes as written by the composer in order and it sounds nice, but you don’t know why. But knowing how and why it works takes a huge amount of maths.

  • bobby b

    “So, even the learning of Spanish helps with math?”

    Well, any system that causes us to learn a new grammar and notation and language helps us to learn the next new grammar, etc., but I suspect that’s not what you mean.

    So I’ll go further and say that music is essentially a quantifiable system. It’s numbers – specific quantifiable frequencies – and the relationship between numbers and between frequencies, and the proper notation of those numbers and frequencies . . .

    So, in that regard, having known Spanish and seeing no such clean systematic quantifiable structure behind it as I see in music and math, no, there’s not much comfort for the student of Spanish in music.

    (ETA: Or, to say it much better and more clearly – what NiV said.)

  • bobby b

    Oops. Change that second-to-last line to read “. . . there’s not much comfort for the student of math in Spanish.”

  • bobby b

    “I would disagree with the director of music at ACE that “musical literacy doesn’t matter much”, being able to read music is a valuable skill, but at the same time it is not essential to being a good musician.”

    But the problem is, too many new music teachers now regard musical literacy as, not merely unnecessary, but as an impediment – an unneeded structural vernacular that actually interferes with creativity and blocks access.

    It’s of a kind with the new educational philosophy that grammar and spelling and sentence structure and organization are similarly binding and blocking inhibitors of creativity in writing.

    (I think it’s mostly every field finally recognizing, just as “Art” did some decades ago, that rules and conventions and shared definitions of beauty act to keep the untalented out, and that’s (as we all know) sexist and racist and discriminatory, or something.)

  • Caligari

    @Nullius in Verba:
    I do belive that the human sens for aesthetic is a bit different. THe human aesthetic is based on to see something as coherently, which looks chaotic and even filled with contradications on the surfacly view.

    But you essay is relly impressed, I guess, you explain a great part of music in it.

    @bobby b

    I think it’s mostly every field finally recognizing, just as “Art” did some decades ago, that rules and conventions and shared definitions of beauty act to keep the untalented out, and that’s (as we all know) sexist and racist and discriminatory, or something.

    1. Music is, surely, a art.
    2. There is a great difference between modern arts (cubism or some “concept art”) and music (or even literatur). Music doesn’t forgive, no matter. If you don’t have any talent, you’ll never get a great public enoyed your music. It is possible that you will be seen as a great Painter, of cource.

  • John McCartan

    That’s a couple of rather brilliant characterisations!

  • bobby b

    “Music doesn’t forgive, no matter. If you don’t have any talent, you’ll never get a great public enoyed your music. It is possible that you will be seen as a great Painter, of cource.”

    Agree. Even though I believe that there is an attempt to bring that same undisciplined, unmeritorious approach to music as is found in painting and writing and theater, et al., it cannot succeed, because music has as its base an objective standard – math. You cannot fake an objective standard.

    Although, there is hip-hop . . .

  • too many new music teachers now regard musical literacy as, not merely unnecessary, but as an impediment – an unneeded structural vernacular that actually interferes with creativity and blocks access. (bobby b, February 25, 2020 at 2:39 am)

    That’s their overt excuse. One may wonder whether it is the true initial reason they were attracted to denigrating musical literacy.

    Many musical inventions – e.g. the even tuning / equal temperament discussed by Nullius – are owed to european/western culture. I commented above about how the union of African culture rhythms with western melody enabled western-hemisphere backs to evolve distinctive musical forms. Japan went wild for western music – anyone who has seen a Noh play will have been struck by the bizarrely limited percussive accompaniment of traditional far-eastern art. If music is an area in which western minorities have done well, it is thereby one – one very integral to their sense of self – that shows their debt to western culture.

    Music, as mila s (February 24, 2020 at 11:07 pm) remarked, is enjoyed by many a lefty voter at least as much as by righties. Perhaps the western origin of musical literacy is an unconscious or semi-conscious turn-off.

  • From a quite different PoV to my last post, be aware that the supply of professional work in music is greatly exceeded by the demand, a situation that the post-2008 decline rendered acute. Discussing the well-known racism of US unions, Milton Friedman remarked that, when insufficient jobs have to be rationed by an authority, whatever arguments distinguish the ‘ins’ from the ‘outs’ are likely to be irrational and political. The number of people who would like to receive taxpayer money from the public UK arts establishment greatly exceeds even the amount they (shouldn’t!) have to dole out.

    “17.4 million voted for Brexit … most of the opinions of these people, on many subjects, would lose them employment in the publicly funded arts sector.”

    There was nothing on the side of that bus about spending “our money on our own priorities – like the Arts Council.”

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