“Beethoven to Britney”: my response

Here is the letter published in this October’s Platform Papers (published by Currency Press, Sydney, Australia) in response to an earlier Paper discussing music education in Australia.

Robert Walker’s essay got it right in so many regards. Yes, there is a correlation between appropriate resources and appropriate opportunities in music education, and most students in Australia get neither. Yes, primary school students typically receive music education from musical illiterates. Yes, students gain benefits from learning to play musical instruments, not from learning about them. Yes, Britney and Beethoven are not commensurate musical, cultural or intellectual experiences.

But then there are the ways in which this essay got it so very wrong.

The claim that Western classical music is the most advanced (read ‘valuable’) musical culture on earth is made via some flimsy manipulation of anecdote and statistics (lots of people in China learn to play western classical music, therefore they are disdainful of Chinese music traditions, therefore western classical music trumps Chinese opera) as well as smoke and mirrors based on some old-fashioned notions of what makes classical music great (the use of numerical relationships based on the golden section in late 18th century composition).  Dr Walker compounds this by implying (well, more properly, he does state) that only western art music is capable of expressing individual emotion.

That Dr Walker fails to take into account the sociological factors for Western music’s ascendancy in Asia is not surprising, as he appears to discount the entire discipline of sociology.  That he appears to restrict western art music to musical examples based on the golden section is perhaps more astonishing, for this eliminates much of the canon and lays the foundation for many aspects of western art music to remain unstudied unless they can be shown to connect to this mathematical principle.  And that he believes that individual emotion cannot be expressed via any other musical tradition speaks maybe more about Dr Walker’s view of human psychology than it does of the musical traditions of the world.

The facts are that learning to play a musical instrument has been demonstrated to improve brain function by around 7 IQ points for as long as the person continues to play their instrument, and keyboard instruments get the best results (as compared to other kinds of instruments) in this IQ advantage.

There is a growing body of work demonstrating how musical performance experiences (both public and private) bolster self-esteem and facilitate self-expression, key elements in maintaining good mental health.  These findings are of particular interest in a culture where so many teenagers find self-harm the most effective means of communicating their anxieties, and where the economy relies on low-level self-loathing as a catalyst to consume.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics report into children’s participation in activities after school shows that children coming from English speaking homes are significantly more likely to be involved in activities like music and sport outside of the school environment. Not only are the music education resources in the education system reserved for the lucky and the well-resourced, but privately obtained music education is also the preserve of those with the greatest social capital.

Dr Walker identifies that changes in educational strategies in the past were intended to redress some of this imbalance, but instead students were left free of grammatical skills (for example) at the end of their education.   This has had a correlation in music education, where students can take hours of music classes at school and simply listen to pop music or watch Disney musical DVDs until the compulsory hours are up.  But Dr Walker is wrong to put the blame squarely on the shifts in educational fashion.

Because of the disparity in private musical education from one student to another, because of its one-on-one nature, and because students are able to progress entirely at their own pace (as compared to the pace of their age-based cohort), by the time classroom music teachers begin to address musical literacy (literally, being able to read music) the class is already hopelessly unevenly assembled.  Children immediately fall into two camps, one feeling stupid and overwhelmed by this incomprehensible new world the teacher is whisking them through, and the other, bored by this revision of basics they mastered years ago.

Australia’s education system has no means of dealing with skills best taught one-on-one, and no strategies for allowing students to progress at a different pace to their peers.  The review Dr Walker is critiquing does not address this systemic incompatibility in the provision of music education, and Dr Walker does not take the time to tease out this structural weakness.

Dr Walker does, however, conclude his essay by calling for a requirement that students study set musical works from the Western art music canon. He argues this on the basis that western art music is best, that it is our cultural heritage, and that a student’s education is impoverished by the exclusion of western art music. On the second two points I concur, but I would add another reason for works (from any musical tradition) to be set for study: by studying the same musical works across the nation, students can begin to have a conversation with each other, beyond the fences of their state or private schools, and across the geographical divides that the internet (but not the curriculum) has made meaningless.

Mandating that the study of music include a substantial western art music component needs to be balanced by a recognition that music is also a commodity.  Part of a student’s music education ought to involve an examination of the way music has acquired value of a monetary as well as a cultural kind.  It is naïve (let alone anachronistic) to believe that the primary musical engagement experienced by Australians is performative, not one of consumption.  When we teach students how music (all kinds of music) works, how it is made and how to make music themselves, we equip students to experience music as musicians, not simply as customers.

2 thoughts on ““Beethoven to Britney”: my response

  1. Last semester for one of my uni assignments, I wrote a paper on the Australian music education literature on teaching popular music and I came across his essay. I read it, then read your response and loved it. Yes, there are lots of things wrong with his essay, I also felt slightly dissapointed by the title, he doesn’t seem to even talk about a great divide in music education. His title seems to imply that some schools predominately teach popular music whilst other schools mostly teach art music, that there is perhaps no balance(?) However, in the article, this divide seems to exist between elite private schools and public schools (as well as Catholic and independent schools).

    I even cited your response and referenced it. I’ve done it again in one of my more recent uni assignments on teaching popular music. It’s great that you have posted it publicly on your blog, I just don’t think Walker’s essay is very readily available in cyber-land.

    • Oh wow – very cool, Rebecca! 🙂

      And yes, it’s a pity that the Platform Papers are not cyber-accessible (for now)…

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