Who made music a question of privilege?
Illustration: Nicky March

If there was a question to summarise the classical music profession during the 21st century so far, it would likely be ‘is it relevant?’

Here we face something of a divide. Those that are passionate about change, and those that contribute to the sense of elitism and intimacy that privilege creates. ‘We don’t need to be relevant’, some people might say, ‘it’s not the point of this great music to appeal to the masses.’ 

Current undervalue

The latter group need not worry at present. Government guidelines, published 2nd July, outline the steps schools should take to assist students in catching up, as well as measures to facilitate the safe return of schools in September following the COVID-19 school hiatus. Although promising a ‘broad and ambitious’ curriculum, the guidelines make clear the prioritisation of ‘essential’ subjects. While this seems understandable on the surface, the guidance allows for students to drop GCSE subjects in favour of their performance in maths and English. The already dwindling GCSE Music entries are destined to decrease further, likely having a detrimental effect on the future of music in state schools.

This comes as no surprise. The English Baccalaureate (EBacc), introduced by the then-Education Secretary Michael Gove, continues to devalue arts education in state schools. The EBacc measures the achievement of pupils gaining GCSE qualifications in maths, English, the humanities, the sciences, and a language. The silencing of creative subjects such as music is deafening.

The effects of this have been huge, with an 18.6% decrease in the uptake of GCSE Music over the past 5 years. John Dunford, chair of Whole Education, explains how “the English Baccalaureate has reinforced a hierarchy of subjects in secondary schools, with English and maths at the top and the arts at the bottom.”

It also spills over into the wider culture around learning music. The Associated Boards of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) exam board submissions are looking equally as impaired, with private music exam entries falling over the past few years, seeing a decrease of 4.3% during 2017-18. These figures not only demonstrate the effect of the EBacc seeking to keep students in a creative straight jacket, but also reinforces the wider opinion of music as something ‘non-essential.’ The rejection of music in favour of core subjects begs the question of what purpose a broader education holds whilst recovering from a COVID world? The benefits of music on mental and emotional wellbeing are widely documented, and yet this is overlooked at a time young people may need it most. 

Music unites everything and everyone

Music’s wider relevance is chronically underrepresented. It should not be reserved only for those who understand complex music theory, nor can it only be appreciated in concert halls. It has the capacity to encompass a whole range of subjects and provide vital context and depth of understanding. In terms of historical context, music has been one of the greatest social and political responses to the injustices of the world. Blues music, for example, was born in the American South, as an African America-derived music form. It recognized the pains of slavery; gave expression to the victory of love and community and yearned for the facing down of adversity. From this movement grew the Jazz music of the 20th century, later rock and roll, and ultimately much of the music we know today. To expose this context is to relate the music we all enjoy to the people and the times that created it. Seeing music as the universal language is a powerful message when teaching the human history of issues such as historical injustices and segregation. 

“Considering the sciences, maths and languages all form part of the cherished EBacc, it’s surprising that the strongest link between all of them is so ruthlessly undervalued”

Music not only links directly to our shared pasts, but it’s simultaneously a language and a science as well. There are many studies that suggest studying music or playing an instrument is key to improving and developing language and communication skills, particularly in early years. Studying the mathematics of the harmonic series is fundamental to music—as well as quantum mechanics. If the engineers who built the Millennium Bridge in London had considered resonance and fundamental harmony during its construction, perhaps it wouldn’t have had to close for modification just after opening. Considering the sciences, maths and languages all form part of the cherished EBacc, it’s surprising that the strongest link between all of them is so ruthlessly undervalued. Music is not linear.

Although classed as an art, music is far from one-dimensional. The 90% of people who listen to music regularly might have felt their education uplifted if it were to celebrate music, rather than diminish its importance and restrict its structure. Access to music education and instrumental tuition might be the most powerful way to help young people express their anxieties living through a pandemic and bring about change. The reality at the moment is that the privileged will be able to seek private tuition, but for the rest at school, it’s a case of never discovering the potential you may have.

A class divide

There are some powerful provisions available outside of schools. It’s important to note that Music Education Hubs, established in 2012, ensure that access to music education is not impacted by either a postcode lottery or financial disadvantages.  They, along with music services, seek to provide ensemble opportunities for those looking to take music further. These infrastructures support music education on one level, but there are still gaps in the nurture of students that look to pursue classical music as a career. 

The world of classical music education is an inhospitable environment for those from a low-income background. Although funding from charities like Awards for Young Musicians (AYM) exists, there is no doubt that the privileged have a significant advantage, both financially and culturally. Often baulked at within the profession are the ‘insensitive concertgoers’ that only recognise Beethoven’s Fifth and naively clap between movements. Similar to a church service, the classical concert is often avoided by those who fear they might ‘get it wrong’. Having a more diverse range of backgrounds within the profession may help to make the world of classical music more accessible.

It’s this privilege divide that seeps into higher levels of music education. Music students witness this divide early on and it becomes clear from the start – there are those who have and those who have not. A student learning an instrument with intentions to pursue it to a professional level will incur costs that are often beyond the means of anyone whose parents receive the average UK salary or lower.  There is a stress-level involved here also. Parents might apply to various charitable organisations, making sacrifices for their child’s education, only to see them enter into an insecure profession. A great deal of investment without any sure guarantee of financial return can be monumentally off-putting. 

Even if it’s not impossible to find support to help music tuition fees and grants for buying instruments, the expenses go yet further. For a string player, bow re-hairs and strings (to be changed every six months to a year) can be up to £500 a year for these two services alone. It is an expense you are simply expected to cover upfront. Similarly, reed costs and instrument maintenance for wind and brass players can be extortionate. Many musicians are expected to attend summer music courses, which can cost over £1000 for less than 10 days. There are expectations to make contacts and connections this way, but musicians can find it almost impossible to meet the costs. 

Uncertain futures

Practical expenses often go hand-in-hand with the expectations to undertake undergraduate and masters degrees. Those from low-income backgrounds will also find far less time to practice during their degree, holding down a job simultaneously in order to meet the fees. 

Throughout this, the privilege divide maintains this level of subtle discrimination. An education system that belittles the arts seeks to promote classical music only to those who understand it and can tolerate the inequality, often because of private education and financial advantage. It goes without saying that encouraging diversity within a traditionally white, male and middle-class profession is struggling, although this is improving. We are left with increasing stagnation within the music scene, with the privileged looking out and the underprivileged looking in. 

A study from Help Musicians UK suggests that musicians are up to three times as likely to suffer from a mental health condition compared to the general public. This is perhaps not surprising in a competitive and pressured industry with insecure work prospects and reveals how traditions of great music can mirror the traditions of mental health stigma. 

The study explains the fear of speaking out about the injustices at play. Music students face money pressures and the knowledge that insecure work prospects often await upon graduating. There is no doubt that the privileged hold an advantage here. They’re able to spend up to eight years studying if they can afford it, avoiding the harsh realities of little work and little pay. The leaders of the profession can appear unaware of the real damage that their inaction is causing. It isn’t good enough to state that we have a huge lack of diversity without enacting change. This begins at the valuing of music in our education system.

It occurs to many that the issues are easy to sweep under the carpet. For those that don’t fight the privilege gap every day of their musical life, it may appear like nothing is wrong. In a post-COVID world, it is the underprivileged who are going to feel it most. Classical music isn’t a realistic profession of the future unless it is willing to admit it needs to change. Throughout the pandemic, most of us have valued exposure and connection to the Arts and music perhaps more so than ever. They’ve been our comfort, our escape, and a reconnection to better times. If we all feel the benefits of the Arts, we all need the opportunities to discover them.