Music

Music's good brain food agree Plato and Bono, so why's GCSE music in decline?

Plato’s assertion that music is a crucial learning tool is supported by research. But the younger generation are looking beyond school to find their rhythym...

I’m partial to what I term ‘kitsch desk paraphernalia’ – others have (not unkindly) described my careful curation as ‘junk’. The collection comprises much musical tat: tape designed to look like a keyboard, a pencil covered with Warhol-like images of Mozart and post-it notes inscribed with ‘Gone Chopin, Bach Soon’ (geddit?!). (I have, at various points, been given a Chopin Liszt notepad and a Chopin board – one senses that Liszt would find the immortalisation amusing; Chopin not so much.) I recently acquired a new title for my ‘deadline procrastination desk reading’: Inspiration for Musicians by Emily Darcy.

The small turquoise hardback is a gift shop staple, in which the reader doubts the authenticity of the content but continues to devour it anyway. The book contains quotes from a bizarre motley crew, from Shakespeare (“If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it”), to the critic and composer Virgil Thomson (“I’ve never known a musician who regretted being one”) – I could introduce you to a few – and, er, Bono (“Music can change the world because it can change people”).

It also includes the famous assertion from Plato that “I would teach children music, physics and philosophy; but most importantly, music, for in the patterns of music and all the arts are the keys of learning.” Old Plato would be horrified to discover that music teaching in many schools is not appropriately supported. The decline is partly attributed to the government’s drive to push the EBacc performance measure, which excludes creative subjects.

Old Plato would be horrified to discover that music teaching in many schools is not appropriately supported

As many students select their GCSE options this month, the music sector is hoping for an improvement on the number of pupils that took the subject last year. The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) revealed that in 2017 there was a 7.7 per cent decline in the uptake of GCSE music. This is despite overwhelming research to suggest that music – and creative subjects generally – enhance emotional intelligence, improve collaborative skills and aid overall development, as well as being rigorous academic pursuits in their own right.

In contrast, despite ongoing challenges to resources, the education and outreach activities on offer from UK ensembles have never been stronger. Practically every orchestra now offers events aimed at families and young people. This isn’t entirely altruistic, of course: these groups are the audiences of the future.

The best classical music classes for kids and young families

It’s never too late – or too early – to discover classical music. There are even classical concerts for babies and toddlers, such as Guildford’s Mozart and Muffins series, which sees Southern Pro Musica share one-hour sessions with parents and carers of pre-schoolers (January 23 and February 27, both 10am). Revered recital venue Wigmore Hall also offers a range of family events, including the popular Chamber Tots, with sessions for children aged one to two and three to five (February 2, March 1, from 10.15am) and For Crying Out Loud!, for babies up to one year old (January 19, February 21, from 11am). St Martin-in-the-Fields hosts a Mini Maestro series, delivered by John Landor and the London Musical Arts Ensemble, who bring music alive for four to 12 year olds (January 27; February 10; March 17, all 4.30pm).

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