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A uniquely human and humanising activity: a reflection on why music education matters

After an insightful Music Education Conference at Bryanston yesterday, our former Director of Music, Stephen Williams, reflects on why music education matters...

Even during the high-octane political turmoil of recent weeks, news about the decline of music education made it onto the BBC News at Ten. The BBC’s theme – that the serious underfunding of music provision will have an impact for generations – is supported by an increasing amount of evidence. No one is immune; the effects are being felt in independent and free schools, in academies, in the maintained sector and in the county music hubs. Two of our leading institutions, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, have issued a joint statement: This is a matter of significant importance not only for the higher music education sector but also for the pipeline of musicians of all types for this country and beyond. 

The UK’s recorded music industry has contributed over £5 billion, in music exports, to the UK economy since 2000. We have some of the finest orchestras, soloists and choirs in the world; we are an undoubted international leader in all forms of music-making. 

Music has a positive impact on the well-being and mental health of the nation and stimulates the developing brain in the way that no other activity can. Not just that, it represents a refuge for those who live with dementia and Alzheimer’s; singing and playing should clearly be prescribed. 

We have just hosted a national Music Education Conference. Delegates came from around the UK to hear specialists talk about the ways that we can stem that decline. Jimmy Rotherham is the remarkable music teacher at Feversham Primary School. Set in an impoverished area of Bradford, and after many years in special measures, the school took the bold decision to saturate the day with music; singing in assembly, sums to a tune, a staff choir, literacy through singing, percussion work for co-ordination and composure. The results were remarkable and led the school to achieve ‘outstanding’ status. Behaviour, attainment and attendance were all transformed. 

Three of the speakers talked about that popular myth of being either intrinsically (genetically?) ‘musical’ or ‘unmusical’. It is in fact the case that every one of us absolutely can make music. Indeed, research into the origins of our species shows that our larynxes were designed initially for song rather than speech. We, musicians, need to hold up our hands and recognise that we have a crucial role in discouraging the negative feedback that leads young children to believe that they are either unmusical or unable to sing. 

We believe that ours is a uniquely human and humanising activity. With that in mind, the whole D year group (Year 9) are learning songs from Les Misérables to sing in the London Concert on 25 October. Their focus and singing have been remarkable and their conversations about the themes of those songs – love, loss, alienation, rejection, injustice and compassion – have been powerful. Words and music are such a potent mix; meaning and emotion coalesced. At this week’s Musicians’ Showcase we witnessed Honey H creating a uniquely compelling silence as she communicated the text of her song. Every week we are fortunate, as music teachers, to witness these special moments. 

Simon Toyne spoke at the conference about his work as Executive Director of Music in 34 academy schools. Echoing earlier speakers, he talked about the impact on behaviour and achievement across all of those schools and the civilising influence of music even on the pupils who hear it as they walk past morning rehearsals. 

A 25% drop in the number of pupils taking GCSE Music nationally over the past ten years and a consequent reduction of A level numbers by 40% is sobering and that is mirrored in a reduction in those who take part in music ensembles. At the same time our understanding of the deep, positive and lasting neurological impact of music on our sons and daughters increases every day. Every teenager in the UK undertakes several subjects and activities that they wouldn’t otherwise choose to study. As the research into the developmental importance of music gathers pace, perhaps we will soon make it our universal practice to include ensemble singing and playing in that compulsory portfolio of subjects.