Friday, 3 August 2007

Sarah Boyes on The Music Manifesto

The Music Manifesto is one in a long line of educational policy documents aimed at revolutionising the school curriculum, and one of the first to focus on an arts subject. Developed by the DFES, DCMS and Ofsted, boasting a coterie of musicians, music teachers and the musically-minded on its steering committee (headed by ‘Champion’ Marc Jeffrey), its explicit two-fold proposal is for music-making to be central to 4-14 year-old provision, and for instrumental lesson cost to be buffered for all children. The Manifesto addresses a real need for music syllabus change, and has managed to attract a great deal of well-meaning enthusiasm and support from passionate music-o-philes and fed up teachers alike.

But the clue to its real agenda lies in the name, risibly, The Music Manifesto, which is actually bent at unifying and motivating a supposedly culturally disparate and politically apathetic nation. The Manifesto elucidates primarily a waffley political vision, one based wholesale on the power of music. It’s a bit sad really, both for politics and for music.

Early on the Manifesto puts forward what it labels an ‘argument’: everybody can sing, therefore singing is universal, and it bangs on about the importance about developing a universal music provision. It’s as if the only inalienable thing people have in common any more – both politically and culturally – is the fact they can open their mouths and make some pseudo-musical noises, and it’s the Government’s job to let them do it. The problem with this is two-tone: not just is the notion of the ‘universal’ easily shown to be a misnomer ('everybody can poo therefore pooing is universal' proves nothing about the importance of going to the loo); but the fact that music is good only as the last garrison of universalism means no proper discussion of the right way to teach it (free from Government interventionism) can get off the ground.

Because the Manifesto isn’t so much about music education (or ‘provision’), so much as about dictatorially outlining why music is valuable and how it should be engaged with by children and adults alike. The cultural sphere becomes the political. The Manifesto talks about classrooms alongside community centres; music teachers alongside professional musicians; and places the same value on the musical life of adults as it does of that of children. It advocates a no-holds-barred position when it comes to distinguishing cultural life from formal education, and distinguishing private life from public. Music, it seems to say, is important only as a shared phenomenon, where it delivers health and confidence benefits (actually not quite as daft as it sounds), whose highest function is to bring people together regardless of religious belief or cultural background.

To reflect this, it advocates getting kids singing by having a more diverse range of music genres in schools. It rightly says that Classical music is not the only important or interesting sort, but only because other genres – like hip hop, music theatre and jazz – are more relevant to today’s youth. Rather than saying different types of music can be understood and learned about regardless of cultural background or religious belief, it seems to say they are important only because people have different cultural backgrounds.

It misses the proper way to construct universalism when it comes to music, which is to highlight certain features that all music shares: rhythm, harmonic structure and patterns of tension and release. To get at these things, however, takes a principled and formal approach to music education, focusing on music theory and history. Presumably these things are too ‘dull’ for today’s yobs and fly in the face of the shallow concept of a ‘creative’ subject concerned with personal expression.

But the real drive of the Manifesto comes from its excessive insistence on ‘participation’: apparently, nobody has ever ‘participated’ in music lessons before. Marry this with the emphasis on ‘personalised learning’, which allows children to choose what they sing and the onus is on them ‘feeling’ they have an influence in setting the agenda, and music lessons become little more than mini exercises in some sort of bastardised democratic decision-making. Despite the idea that children should make some music in schools being a good one, it becomes lost in a macabre project of behaviour modification, which is not immediately apparent from an enthused reading of the enthusiastic and repetitively enthusing text.

A worrying long-term consequence of the Manifesto comes with its vision for the future of Britain’s music industry. Rather than music education showing children the complexity and diversity of music, giving them tools to explore, create and better it on their own and alerting them to its potential, it advocates arming them with the skills to improve their ‘economic well-being’ through getting music-related jobs. Music copyright should be taught because it’s a hot issue, since much mainstream music is about sampling and rehashing old tunes in order to comment on culture and assert identities; skills in dealing with music equipment are key. This cloying and static picture of what music is and where it can go refuses to acknowledge that music has developed over time and should continue to do so, and this sort of educational system will produce few inspiring and knowledgeable music teachers for future generations.

Worse, the Manifesto leaves little room for a personal and private appreciation of music. Whilst group singing is supposed to iron out inequalities in music opportunities by providing a music education for all, it does little to accommodate the tone-deaf, the potential academic scholars or the musically gifted. It seems to say anybody who isn’t moved by or interested in music – anybody who doesn’t feel the unconquerable need to sing every morning – is a lesser human being. The strange logical inference steps in again, where ‘I like singing’ seems to entail the truth of ‘everybody should sing’. Music becomes a necessarily shared activity, where learning to appreciate a symphony and growing with it over time, listening to the radio or attending a concert, are not sanctioned musical activity.

The Manifesto wants more people to make more noise, but it certainly doesn’t want more music.

The Music Manifesto has a dedicated website: