An empty room may come to define Music classesFlickr/Max Klingensmith

Many students, the ones from my school at least, might vaguely recall music lessons as a carefree hour or two a week. Turn up, mess about in a practice room with your friends for 20 minutes, shake a tambourine in front of a class, go home and think nothing more of it.

Those who took it further, to GCSE and A-Level, will remember it differently. They might remember Handel’s Messiah and the indebted prisoners it helped to release, or Mozart’s stormy Symphony No. 40 in G Minor and the angsty Sturm und Drang literary movement out of which it swept. They might still be scratching their heads about the structure of John Cage’s Sonatas for Prepared Piano, and what exactly it has to do with mathematical fractals. They might bemoan the hours they spent composing, or be grateful for the hours they spent practising. They might have spent the summer trying to chat up French men with half-remembered strains of Fauré.

As successive Secretaries for Education continue to dismiss and disparage the Arts, Music finds itself having to justify itself.

But then the majority didn’t take it further. And so, for those who didn’t and won’t, it is probably logical that when a school is met with caustic cuts to funding, maybe we had better let Music take one for the team. After all: how much does a tambourine really cost, and what do you even do with a Music A-Level, anyway?

Now, let’s be clear: I know this is not a decision that schools undertake lightly. The 39% of schools and colleges that have had to cut back on lesson time, staff, or facilities for A-Level Music in the last two years will not have leapt at the prospect of doing so. Nor will the 32%, the 26%, or the 28% who have had to dilute French, German, or Drama A-levels in a similar way be feeling particularly smug about it. It alienates staff, disengages students and threatens exam results.

No one wants to sit having the bare bones of a specification frantically delivered to them by a disgruntled teacher, sharing one photocopy between three. God forbid you don’t quite get what a Neapolitan sixth chord is the first time round. Sorry, we’re on to Britpop now, try a little harder with this one…

But when funding for 16-18 year olds at college has fallen by 8% since 2010 and when sixth-forms have encountered a 20% real-terms slash to their budgets in the same time, institutions have to make up the shortfall somehow. And as successive Secretaries for Education continue to dismiss and disparage the Arts, Music A-Level finds itself once again having to justify its place in the world.

Cutting the subject is surely the quickest way to exacerbate existing cultural divisions

The creative industries represent a £92bn global economic sector to which, as of 2017, the UK music scene alone contributes £4.4bn. It comprises artists, musicians, songwriters, composers, record labels, music managers, music publishers, producers, music licensing organizations, sound technicians, the live music industry, and employs countless others besides, working in related industries. And for those who don’t go into music, the A-Level has the potential to develop the logical, linguistic, analytical and creative skills that are welcome in any field (good luck analysing a 20th-century German song without them).


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Music education will continue for those who can afford it. Letting it fall to the wayside in state schools because of a business model that encourages schools to treat kids like mere numbers (and fleeting ones at that) is surely the quickest way to exacerbate existing cultural divisions.

That is not to extol Music A-Level as a magic potion for all societal ills. It is not; many aspects of the course need to be more rigorous and more relevant. But, at its best, Music A-Level can provide a fantastic window to different times and cultures, enable students to develop relevant and transferable skills, and constitute as valid a part of a well-rounded education as any other subject. It’s about time somebody blew its trumpet.

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