Music education: A plea to schools

Written by: Brenda Watson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

People cannot learn to like what they never hear. Brenda Watson urges schools to give music education a higher profile in their schools and offers four ideas to get started

I write not as a musician nor with any vested interest in music, but as an educationalist.

We live in a society in which music tends to be seen as an extra – nice if there is time for it and if you have a knowledgeable teacher, but otherwise relatively unimportant.

Research on the great educational benefits offered by music education can be seen as inconclusive, and in any case, to pursue a subject in a crowded curriculum because it is good for other skills is a weak reason. After all, cognitive training can be taught through maths, team-work through sport, creativity through any of the arts, empathy for others through social studies, and so on. So why bother with music?

All depends on how we see the purpose of education. If it is to open doors for pupils, to inspire each and every one to explore for themselves the wonder of our world, to learn to appreciate that there are many perspectives possible, to help build a rounded personality, emphasising character and the values which can enable civilisation to flourish, then music can play a special part.

All societies have drawn on the power of music to inspire togetherness, and at the personal level of listening and singing or playing, music can be truly inspirational throughout life. A major biographer of Beethoven, John Suchet, was told more than once that Beethoven’s music has quite literally saved people’s lives. He has also described how it has supported him during difficult times.

Moreover, the diversity which is so strongly valued today needs supporting by shared activities. Narrow-minded and racist attitudes can simply disappear when people share music they love. Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has demonstrated how even deep political rifts can be overcome as Israeli and Palestinian musicians share a music stand. Paying more attention to music can therefore be a way in which schools foster a truly inclusive concern for all pupils whatever their backgrounds.

Music however can help no-one if they know little about it. This is where the dominant attitude towards music in our society needs correction in schools. There is music everywhere, available at the drop of a hat for anyone, anywhere, but what about the quality of listening and understanding?

Often music is no more than wallpaper, which deadens the capacity actually to listen to it. Moreover, where focused on, music still is so often regarded as class-consciousness – a political or social marker in which popular music is acceptable and classical music is elitist.

This charge of elitism levelled against some music is completely mis-focused. Anything becomes elitist if the opportunity to enjoy it is available only to those with money or social status. Education should be for all, and schools should especially take the education of those from non-elitist backgrounds seriously. All are capable of responding positively to music which ranges from simple folk music, as represented in almost all traditions, to the Western heritage of classical music. The latter is one of the finest achievements the West has developed for humanity.

We are not playing fair with pupils if we deny them the chance to get on its wavelength. It is especially those who come from culturally disadvantaged backgrounds who need such opportunities most, and their education is selling them short if it does not give them such chances.

People cannot learn to like what they never hear. My plea is that schools introduce many more opportunities for pupils to hear and take part in the music that is not dominant in the contemporary world. The resources of digital technology can make this realistic. The Covid-19 experience has demonstrated the huge possibilities for expanding education for all if schools are prepared to permit more freedom to think again about the curriculum. More music can touch people’s lives powerfully, as Gareth Malone has clearly shown. So, can your school:

  • Give as many opportunities as possible for quiet listening to music? This could be especially in assemblies, but also sometimes at the beginning or end of lessons whatever the subject. Pupils often appreciate time just to be quiet.
  • Set aside time for all pupils to learn about music? More pleasure and understanding can be derived from sharing what used to be called music appreciation – knowledge of how music works, how it is written, knowledge about different styles of music, different composers, and so forth. There is a huge amount of material available now for making such teaching engaging.
  • Encourage taking part in music-making – in singing and in playing instruments? Singing is a natural means of communication and can be enjoyed by almost everyone without the expense of huge apparatus. A school of any size should also enable pupils to learn an instrument to the level of which they are capable. All should be given a chance and those who have clear interest and aptitude enabled to study the instrument properly by appreciating the need for real practising – itself a very valuable educational activity.
  • Show pupils that music is valued through its part in bringing the school together on special occasions and through special concerts? These are often the times in their schooling which people remember long afterwards – inspirational moments to treasure for a lifetime.

Please give music a real chance in your school. Thank you so much if you already do so.

  • Brenda Watson is a retired educational consultant. Her teaching in schools covered history, music, philosophy and religious studies. She became director of the Farmington Institute in Oxford and has published both books and in academic journals. She is the author of Making Education Fit for Democracy, which is due to be published by Routledge in October. Visit

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