An article on music education, critical of traditional theory, has drawn the ire of the music community for “anti-intellectualism”.

An article by Charlotte C. Gill published in The Guardian last week titled Music education is now only for the white and wealthy has drawn the ire of music professionals for its “anti-intellectualism” and “romanticisation of illiteracy”.

A response by British pianist Ian Pace, critical of Gill’s article and intended for publication in The Guardian, has garnered more than 350 signatories to date, from musicians all around the world, including outgoing conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (and conductor-elect of the London Symphony Orchestra) Sir Simon Rattle.

In her article, Gill laments the deteriorating quality of music education in the UK, the deprioritisation of music education in schools and an increasing onus on parents to take up private music tuition for their children, which can lead to the exclusion of students from less privileged backgrounds. But it is not these points that have attracted the criticism of the wider music community.

“For a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement,” Gill writes, claiming that musical notation is “a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education. Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.” Gill cites her own struggles to learn to read musical notation as having a dampening effect on her music education.

In Pace’s response, which is continuing to gain traction on the internet, he takes Gill to task: “While rightly noting the increasing chasm between state and private education in terms of music provision, her conclusions about musical notation and theoretical skills amount to simple anti-intellectualism,” he writes. “We agree with Gill that aural and other skills are equally important as those in notation. However, through her romanticisation of illiteracy, Gill’s position could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised in state schools yet further.”

Pace’s response has gathered over 350 signatures, from artists including conductor Sir Simon Rattle, pianists Imogen Cooper and Marc-André Hamelin and composers Michael Nyman and Brian Ferneyhough. A number of Australian artists and academics have signed on, including Pedro Alvarez from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Nicholas Bannan, from the University of Western Australia, Judith Fromyhr from the Australian Catholic Univeristy and soprano Jessica Aszodi. Peter Tregear, former head of the Australian National School of Music and now Professor at Royal Holloway, University of London (who several years ago wrote a defense of music theory) has also added his name to the list.

While Pace’s letter has attracted a lot of attention, it is certainly not the only response to the article. Other artists and music educators who have come out against the points made in the article include Pamela Rose – a music educator and theory examiner with the ABRSM – and pianist and blogger Frances Wilson.

Michelle James, CEO of the non-profit organisatoin SingUp, wrote that while Gill was right to say there is a threat to music education, “her observations about the teaching of music being too ‘academic’ and too focussed on theoretical knowledge could not be much further from the truth. Music is actually being taught in a much more creative and hands-on way than it was in the past. In schools there’s a focus on performance and creative composition alongside an appreciation of a wide range of different genres of music from different periods of history — including jazz, pop and contemporary music.”

James acknowledges that there are many examples of successful musicians who don’t read music as well as many genres that rely on aural tradition and improvisation. “However,” she says, “to give our children a good, rounded music education, we should also be giving them an opportunity to learn the basics of reading and writing notated music so that they have that option available to them later in life should they need it.”

She concludes: “And if Ms Gill would like some help with her sight-reading I can point her in the direction of some excellent teachers and resources!”


Subscribe to Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine