Music in education: a living relic of Western Europe’s colonial mentality

by Nathan Holder

Since music entered the National Curriculum in 1988, the UK’s approach to musical education has been grounded in Western Classical traditions. From Palestrina to Schoenberg, Baroque to 20th Century Experimentalism, students are routinely taught the fundamentals of the art largely by studying ‘The Great Composers’, by learning the conventions of western classical notation, and by playing western classical instruments. While this system has been in effect for decades, there is a growing sense that changes need to be made to the status quo due to fears that music education is becoming increasingly elitist and inaccessible to many students.

‘The Great Composers’ include men such as Bach, Wagner, Beethoven and Mozart, all who have had an unquestioned influence on the history of music worldwide. They are often studied in detail by students who may not play an instrument, may not have a personal interest their music, and who may not come from cultures which regard these men as the foundations of their musical traditions. Aside from the fact that women are grossly underrepresented in conversations about The Great Composers, the cultural makeup of these composers is fairly homogenous, with the overwhelming majority of composers being white, and originating from France, Germany, Italy, Austria, the UK and the US. The marginalisation of other cultures by catergorising their music under the umbrella of ‘World Music’, can be considered a living relic of Western Europe’s colonial mentality, still prevalent in modern society. This persists even though many of the instruments played in schools and modern apparatus used to listen to and make music are manufactured outside of Western Europe, not to mention many of the rhythmic, harmonic and timbral influences found in many contemporary genres.

Of course this approach is somewhat understandable. Living in the UK, why would one choose to grant the musical cultures of those most different to self with the same status as one’s own? Western Europe has studied and learnt about itself and the musical traditions of others through its own lens. After all, in the UK policymakers often belong to similar demographics and musical cultures to The Great Composers. Meanwhile other regions seek to maintain traditional musics through their own struggles against imperialism, hegemony of US pop, and internal socio-political strife.

Yet in 2017 it seems that in the UK the approach taken in our music curriculum is segregating a growing population of people who connect with music other than the offerings of select few deceased white European men. The problem we now face is that GCSE A*-C grades are at their lowest since 2008, and A-Level enrolment is its lowest since 2001. With the use of the internet, a changing national demographic, and due to funding being diverted into STEM programs, music programs have suffered and many run the risk of closing or only catering for those who can afford it. It is common sense to suggest that these white and wealthy people are those supporting the orchestras and theatres, familiarising their children with the same values and ideologies of Classic FM. Could broadening the scope of music education help to save music programs in schools, and allow young people up and down the country to experience all the benefits of a holistic music education?

Having strong and relevant visual representations of different cultural musics can be key in engaging more young people. The impact of the visual image on learning cannot be underestimated, with 83% of what we retain being visual as opposed to only 11% through listening. It follows that the images and focus on The Great Composers must be alienating some students before they have a rounded picture of what music is.

Lord Kitchener

Am I suggesting that posters of these well-known men be confined to storage rooms and be replaced by Justin Bieber, Rhianna et al? No. What I am suggesting is that non-white and women composers and artists, must be given more equal weighting to provide positive representation to BAME and women students in music education.

Of course, not all music is taught through the classical tradition. There has been a steady increase in other methodologies in which children are encouraged to play pop and rock music, and sometimes by ear as opposed to following scores. While this shows an understanding of the current musical climate, building from the work of Lucy Green, perhaps the next step in this progression is to begin to teach from the inside out, and not from the outside in. Children are often taught by giving them information to learn, process and demonstrate understanding through testing, regardless of prior subject experience, and the will to learn, especially as teachers’ salaries are now dependent on their pupils’ attainment.

The opposite of the current approach would be first to understand the backgrounds of each student to help them understand themselves and their surroundings. KS3 is an important stage, not only because of GCSE choices, but 11-14 is a critical period of time where young people are starting to find their individual identities. By giving young people a platform to talk about their own cultural musics and personal preferences and introduce Show-and-Play sessions where student’s cultural musics are discussed and analysed, regardless if there is a score or not, perhaps students may begin to feel as though music education is indeed relevant and interesting to study at GCSE and beyond. Educators must not be fooled into thinking that students are not writing, producing or performing simply because students are failing to choose music as an option at GCSE. Young people are learning about music, producing, writing and succeeding in the music industry from outside of the music education system all the time.

As I was watching a BBC documentary about the Windrush a few years ago, it dawned on me that in school, we had never listened to any of the music of Lord Kitchener or any black British musicians from the 1950s or 60s. The iconic newsreel featuring Lord Kitchener improvising a song on the steps of the SS Windrush could have been turned into a great music lesson, along with much of his music including ‘If You’re Not White, You’re Black’ and ‘London Is The Place For Me’ helping us students to understand life for a West Indian immigrant at the time. The boy in Year 9 whose family moved from Pakistan in the 1970s may feel the relevance of music education when the music of Hadiqa Kiani or Imran Khan is played, discussed and analysed. His family may even be more willing to allow him to study music at A-Level, and perhaps at University.

Sheila Maurice-Grey

Sheila Maurice-Grey is an up-and-coming Jazz trumpeter based in South London. Her family is from Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau but didn’t learn about any of her musical heritage in school.

“I would have felt proud if I did! I would have felt as though we are finally being recognised for the amazing music and culture that we have”.

An additional benefit of this inclusive approach is that young people from different cultures will start to understand other cultures in different contexts and reveal music education to be exactly what it is; the most complete and comprehensive subject in UK Education. No other subject requires a knowledge of English, Maths, ICT, History and Modern Languages (many musical terms use Italian, German and French), not to mention learning musical notation and the motor skills necessary to produce sound on an instrument. By having this knowledge of cultures that students interact with on a daily basis, perhaps tolerance, acceptance and compassion will grow with these young people as they are constantly bombarded with negative images and prejudiced rhetoric about, refugees, Muslims, and people of colour.

I recently saw this video of two Syrian refugees playing a song which talks about the home they left behind.

You can’t help but feel for these men, victims of a war they personally have nothing to do with, but whose suffering isn’t spoken about in the media very often. Could an understanding of Syrian, Afghan, Palestinian or Ukrainian musics, their histories and musical expression of current realities encourage the next generation to have increased empathy for people of these same cultures who they encounter on a day to day basis?

The Great Composers and traditional methods will always have their place in music education, but perhaps it is time to make a concerted effort to further integrate other cultures into music education not just in sporadic discussions, but as fundamental to the understanding of music. Helping students understand the world around them through engaging with music is what I think music education should be all about.

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Nathan Holder recently graduated with a Distinction in a Music Performance Masters from Kingston University, collecting the MMus Music Prize in the process. He has performed across Europe with artists such as Ed Sheeran and Petite Meller, and was appointed musical director for two original musical theatre shows in Hamburg, Germany. He is the director of OmniMusic Education and is working on his first book entitled ‘I Wish I Didn’t Quit’.


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2 replies

  1. While this is an important article, it mixes up various points that could otherwise be teased out more effectively. There are important black classical composers like Chevaliers de Saint- Georges, George Bridgewater and Florence B Price to name but a few whose works the wonderful Chineke! Orchestra are bringing to a wider audience. Also field reports show that children from majority world countries/ backgrounds are more often auditory rather than visual learners. Whilst I agree that there is a lot of work to be done in broadening the musical curriculum – particularly against the current constraints it faces in our education system – the contributions of a diverse group across all genres should be remembered so that depth as well as breadth is attained.

    Liked by 2 people

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