Hitting the wrong notes: the decline of music in schools

Two of our writers offer their opinion on the decline of music education

Julia McGee-Russell
6th December 2018
Credit: wikimedia commons

Less people are choosing to study music, as new entrants to GSCE music courses decline by 40%. As the threat of funding cuts deepen, encouraging the younger generation to participate in humanitarian subjects seems futile unless education providers start listening to their academic concerns.

A logical starting point would be to improve the GCSE syllabus. The argument that to understand music as an art form, you must first learn to appreciate the tradition and history of Classical music does not seem to have the same application in the 21st century, as there is less enthusiasm to study the great composers of Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. Music is forever changing, developing and adapting to societal needs, and so should our study of music, starting with the GCSE syllabus.

The current GCSE syllabus is also too focused on academia, with students forced to prepare for written exams, spending hours on listening exercises and writing lengthy compositions when they may want to be full-time performers. Most arts students are devotedly creative but are being involuntarily backed into an academic corner.

In addition, the ‘catch-all’ classification of ‘Popular’ music is too wide and becoming outdated. There is an assumption that ‘Popular’ is everything but Classical, grouped in an umbrella term to include mainstream music produced after the 1960s. Many students signing up for the GSCE course are primarily interested in mainstream chart music and find the inclusion of the The Beatles as Popular music to not reflect their own experience. Most sixteen-year-old music students are not concerned with the study of Brit Pop revolution and The Beatles, as it is unrelatable and happened forty years prior to their generation.

- Abbie Rose Herring

As a music lover, the statistic that 40% less students are studying GCSE music is disheartening, but as a past GCSE music student, I’m not entirely surprised. If we travel back to my pre-GCSE life, I spent every single day in the music department. Afterwards, however, I went for months without deliberately listening to any music at all. It’s safe to say that for several years after my horrendously Garage band-y GCSE, playing music was effectively ruined for me.

Of course, there are many different exam boards for GCSEs, with each curriculum slightly different. Nevertheless, something universal among the many boards is the split between performance and composition coursework, and a theory exam. Although this sounds fair in principle, most modern musicians never have to excel in all of these areas. A first violinist in a concert hall will have to know musical theory to read the score and be able to perform, but they will never have to compose. Many famous vocalists never write their own music. An orchestral composer likely does not perform every instrument of the orchestra. A student strong in one area could likely still have a successful musical career, while the structure of GCSE music only allows them a mediocre grade.

Curriculum aside, the devastating cuts to funding has led to even less free music tuition provision in schools, with some schools even charging students to take GCSE music as an extracurricular. Less funding means fewer high-quality teachers, less young graduates considering music tuition as a career, and less students reaching GCSE music age with the musical ability to choose it. If a school has no funding for its music students, it’s no wonder that while students are constantly pressed to make themselves ‘competitive’ in the job market, music is falling to the bottom of the list.

So, what can be done? First of all, there needs to be more funding into music and arts in general, especially considering how large the British music industry is economically. The structure of GCSE music also needs an overhaul, to tailor it to individuals, and provide more support in learning theory. Every great musician started as a student, and we should be doing our utmost to make sure that every student who wants to become a musician, has the support to do so.

- Julia McGee-Russell

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AUTHOR: Julia McGee-Russell
Previous Deputy Editor of The Courier, previous Arts Sub-Editor and Head of News at Newcastle Student Radio. Lover of all things arts, culture, and self-care.

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