Music departments should resist the siren song of pop schools

There is an important place for such training, but it is markedly at odds with many of the established values of the university, says Ian Pace

August 11, 2023
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The foundation of the Paris Conservatoire in 1795 is often viewed by historians of music education as a watershed. The institution’s shift away from a broad and rounded musical education to more focused professional instrumental and vocal training for professionals informed the growth of the modern conservatoire in the 19th century, including in the UK.

Music as a UK undergraduate academic degree, however, is primarily a post-1945 development. Practical music-making was part of it from the outset, via keyboard harmony, aural and singing skills, composition and some history and theory. But the aim was often to train the likes of music teachers and choral directors rather than aspiring professional musicians, who preferred conservatoires.

From the 1970s, new university departments were created with different focuses, including the scholarly study of contemporary Western, popular, electronic and non-Western musics, or with new emphases on theory, history and context. At the same time, reflecting developments abroad and, no doubt, the introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), music scholars moved from earlier production of new editions or monographs for a general audience towards more rigorous writing and research grounded in the values of the humanities. With hindsight, this looks like a golden age.

Since the 1990s, with the advent of the “new musicology” and the growth of other fields, such as popular music, cultural studies and new variants of ethnomusicology, music study has tended to move further away from the consideration of music as an aural phenomenon, whose meanings can be elusive and can adapt to changing contexts.

As in other artistic fields, the modest but realisable aim of producing rigorous studies of musical, literary, cinematic or other texts – or their relationship to historical context – is often viewed as trivial compared with making major pronouncements on society, culture, globalisation, colonialism and more. Those claiming to be doing the latter often offer harsh verdicts on those doing the former.

But the chances of academic writings of this type from the arts having any significant social impact are extremely low, and this has contributed to the increasing bifurcation of scholarly and practical study. So, too, have the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, the introduction of tuition fees and other moves towards greater marketisation. In such an environment, a range of post-1992 institutions introduced vocationally oriented degrees in music technology and commercial music performance, which would not always have previously been classified as degrees.

Furthermore, the progressive marginalisation of the study of music theory and analysis, relentlessly dismissed as “formalism”, deprives music departments of the one thing, other than practical work, that is not undertaken (often more rigorously) by other disciplines.

Meanwhile, conservatoires moved from non-graduate performance courses and graduate diplomas towards full degrees, though usually still with a practical focus. Revised guidelines to the RAE/REF allowed for practice-based submissions, facilitating the integration of certain types of practitioners into full academic jobs without necessarily requiring much investment in wider academic values.

In other words, the boundaries between practice and scholarship have become blurred. Some university degrees are now akin to those at conservatoires but with much less exacting audition requirements, while some writings by practitioners are focused more on promotion of their work and a singular narrative around their intentions than on more wide-ranging critical and cultural investigation.  

This primarily British development brings advantages, but the position of scholarly study of music at tertiary level has become critical. For instance, institutions, including some in the Russell Group, are continually modifying skills prerequisites and curricular content to recruit students who often have little or no knowledge of notation or theory (reflecting declining provision of music at state schools). Outside the Russell Group, numbers on plain “music” degrees (as opposed to “music technology”, “commercial music” or the like) have declined sharply in the past decade, and now account for less than 20 per cent of students. Job opportunities for musicologists – and thus research – have also declined, and some institutions’ teaching relies heavily on casualised or hourly paid staff rather than research-active academics.

It is certainly possible to teach vocational music degrees in a critical and scholarly manner, considering the history and social meanings of technology, philosophies of performance and the like. Excellent scholarship of this type is done in other types of departments, but in music more common are modules such as “getting ahead in the industry”, offering little wider holistic study or transferable skills. This is all the more unfortunate given the inadequate amount of regular and properly paid work in very competitive vocational fields. The many who graduate without grounding in notation, theory or history will struggle to teach the national school curriculum, too.

School cuts also mean many would-be students have had minimal exposure to non-commercial music. A more idealist concept of university music education would attempt to remedy that lack, but the millennium-long Western classical tradition, preserved through notation, is not always a primary concern even on some pure “music” courses. It is constantly attacked for being elitist, insufficiently contemporary and commercial, and too “white” or “colonial”. As such, it has been jettisoned at some once highly respected departments, such as Keele, most of whose distinguished scholars have left.

A further challenge is brought by the growth of a small number of for-profit providers, such as the British and Irish Modern Music (BIMM) Institute or the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM). A 2018 report by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) found that BIMM had few scholars with higher degrees and little research culture (though the QAA added that the institution was “taking steps to address the position” and awarded it taught-degree-awarding powers). It also found that BIMM had “quite a high proportion” of fractional or hourly paid staff.

Such for-profits often go even further than many post-92s in the direction of pop schools, recruiting students sometimes with minimal academic qualifications (various performance courses at BIMM, for instance, only require two E grades at A level). There is an important place for such training, but it is markedly at odds with many of the established values of the university, and this model should be approached with caution.

Music courses, like those in other “creative arts” subjects, will no doubt continue to come under scrutiny in the “low value”-degrees debate given their relatively low average earnings potential. But there are certainly scholarly and humanities-based music courses whose graduates who have flourished in many high-skilled occupations. It is important that this fact is not lost through conflation of degrees of very different kinds, with very different outcomes.

Ian Pace is professor of music and strategic adviser (arts) at City, University of London. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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Reader's comments (8)

Seems to me that universities, in general not just music departments, need to be clear about their distinctive purposes
Dear Editor, I write in response to the recent article by Professor Ian Pace titled "Music Education: Boundaries and Challenges," published in THE. While I appreciate Professor Pace's perspective as a respected pianist, I believe it is crucial to address some of the arguments presented in his article that I find to be misleading and detrimental to the field of music education. Firstly, I must express my concern regarding Professor Pace's portrayal of diversity and inclusion initiatives in academia. While he is entitled to his opinions, it is important to note that his past controversies and animosities surrounding these issues may color his perspective. Given his history, it is valid to question the amplification of his ideas in a platform like THE. Additionally, Professor Pace's characterization of music technology as divorced from the Western classical tradition is misleading. Music technology is indeed a wide umbrella that encompasses various practices, including the application of technology in contemporary classical music. Many prominent composers have seamlessly integrated technology into their compositions, enriching the classical tradition rather than diverging from it. The fact that music technology is often taught with a focus on contemporary classical music in the UK demonstrates its relevance and importance within the broader musical landscape. Moreover, Professor Pace doesn't take into account movements like "The New York School" and experimentalism into the Western canon of musical creation, overlooking their significant contributions to expanding the horizons of musical creation and performance. These movements have demonstrated that musical expression extends beyond traditional notation and have encouraged innovative approaches to sound and composition. Furthermore, Professor Pace's ideal of education, which goes in line with the Kantian idea of the composer/musician as a genius is anachronistic as it disregards the shifting landscape of artistic creation. In today's interconnected world, where technology and interdisciplinary collaboration are prevalent, the role of musicians and composers has evolved. Universities should indeed prepare musicians to adapt to diverse circumstances and acquire a range of skills, enhancing the versatility of musicians to thrive in an ever-changing artistic environment. In conclusion, while Professor Pace's article offers insights into certain challenges facing music education, it is essential to critically evaluate his arguments and avoid dismissing important aspects of contemporary musical practice and pedagogy. Music education must remain open to a diversity of viewpoints and approaches in order to foster a vibrant and inclusive learning environment for future generations of musicians and scholars.
I am not sure I agree, or even follow, the criticisms levelled by "mvpemq100v86"; his piece surely neither claims to be an in-depth discussion of contemporary music practice nor does it proffer critique of university diversity and inclusion measures per se. I think, rather, his discussion points to a much broader issue which is that there is now no longer any real consensus about, or willingness to defend, what a university, and a university education, is really *for*; that is, what makes it essentially different from other forms of advanced education. I'm one of many in academia who thinks that the word 'university' itself now lacks a strong, distinguishable, nexus to a particular, robust, institutional mission; especially with regards to how (and why) knowledge is created, conveyed, and evaluated that distinguishes it from other kinds of 'educational providers'. It should be no surprise, then, to find curricula in subjects like music becoming increasingly indistinguishable from what is offered by traditionally non-academic-focused institutions and private providers I would note, btw, that this more than "a primarily British development", indeed one of the earliest examples of the combining of scholarly and practical study in a university degree was that instituted by G.W.L. Marshall-Hall in Melbourne in 1895. He made this innovation (described at the time as 'unique in the British Empire' because be believed university-educated musicians ideally should be not just performers, but also historians, analysers, critics, and explorers of the musical culture they inhabited. The decision by the Australian Federal Government to force-merge State conservatoria with their neighbouring universities from the late 1980s onwards has, however, has been accompanied by a slow-burn decline in a clear institutional mission underpinning either practical training in music, or the academic study of it. For that reason, not least, Professor Pace's observations and criticisms can be applied with little modification to Australia as well.
The response above by ‘mvpemq100v86’ not only makes unsubstantiated insinuations from behind a pseudonym, but also does not appear to be based upon what is actually in the article. This extends as far as the title – the title of this online-only article (which does not therefore have an alternative print title), as provided by a sub-editor, is ‘Music departments should resist the siren song of pop schools’. Nowhere is it called ‘Music Education: Boundaries and Challenges’. In reality, this article builds upon some points made in earlier articles for the same publication about the interactions between scholarship and practice (see in particular , and ) and wider research into the sector (presented in most detail here: ). It focuses on the interactions between academic study of music as distinct from practical training, noting in a UK context (a) how practice was part of university education from when it first properly grew after 1945; (b) how a more humanities-based approach to study of and research into music came somewhat later, from the 1970s onwards; (c) how the emphasis changed from the 1990s onwards, in particular away from consideration of the aural content, music-focused study sometimes became an adjunct to other concerns deemed more important; (d) how in the post-1992 era there were a lot more vocationally-oriented degrees, moving the goalposts for all; (e) how theory and analysis (the major activities which distinguish musicology as a discipline) have been marginalised as part of an attack on ‘formalism’ (which I will add here has Zhdanovite overtones); (f) how conservatoires moved from performer’s courses and graduate diplomas to full degrees without obviously shifting the practical focus; (g) how changes to the RAE/REF led to a greater presence of practitioners in academia without necessarily any real investment in wider scholarly values; and thus (h) how the boundaries between practice and scholarship have become blurred and this can be and has been to the detriment of scholarly study of music, in conjunction with declining provision of music education in state schools, leading to a diminution of many core skills (which I have elsewhere described as ‘deskilling’), with less than 20% of music students now enrolled on courses which take a broader holistic approach rather than more narrowly focused practical training. The article then goes on to note that there is no intrinsic reason why technology or performance focused courses cannot be taught in a critical and scholarly manner, but this is not always the case (this conclusion comes from studying curricula across the sector), and also that those who graduate in music with little knowledge of history, theory, notation (as many will) are not really equipped to teach skills contained within the national curriculum. Then there are concerns expressed about how easily a thousand years of music history are dropped, on spurious grounds, and on the new challenge presented by for-profit providers. All in all, I am concerned that scholarly study of music remains, and the meaning of a ‘degree’ is not diluted to such an extent that it will no longer be seen, including by employers, as signifying very much. Recent debates on ‘low value’ degrees, with creative and performing arts at the forefront, demonstrate this is far from an idle concern. Proper scholarly degrees in all of the arts should be distinguished from these. mvpemq100v86’s primary concern appears to be about particular subsections of contemporary classical music, by some measure the most esoteric and least-known classical realm. I have myself long been associated with this realm as a performer and writer, but have never been under any illusions of its marginal position relative to a wider cultural and musical field. The musicologist Nicholas Cook, not someone with whom I usually find myself in much agreement, has argued that the representation of this field of music in academia hugely outweighs student interest, and this has certainly been my experience too. As discussed in the first of my THE articles listed above, across the sector such representation reflects the priority of the REF rather than teaching, crowding out other types of practitioners with expertise and interest closer to those of students. mvpemq100v86 seems concerned that I do not discuss ‘“The New York School” and experimentalism’. For others unfamiliar with these categories, the New York School is generally understood as a group of composers around John Cage, particularly Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, and also the pianist David Tudor. Cage is notorious primarily on the basis of 4’33”, but almost none of his work after 1951 (the time when he became preoccupied with chance and indeterminacy) is heard outside of small new music and artistic circles. A few works of Feldman have gained greater currency, but almost none of Brown and Wolff. ‘Experimentalism’ is a vague term which I believe to be over-used today to the point of near-meaninglessness, deriving from the split between Pierre Boulez and Cage in the 1950s, leading to various writings by Cage on the subject and then a key 1974 monograph by composer (and then critic) Michael Nyman, part of a series on the ‘experimental’ in various art forms, in which he essentially extrapolated from Cage’s definitions a divide between the ’avant-garde’ and the ‘experimental’ which mostly mirrored that between Anglo-American and continental European tendencies. For many reasons, I do not believe this opposition to be that meaningful beyond the 1950s, and think it has become more of a marketing label. There were earlier usages of the term, and a distinct movement involving studio and laboratory composition, initiated by French composer Pierre Schaeffer, using the same term, but beyond the scope of this reply to discuss in detail – more can be found here - . In this short article, I do not discuss the New York School; nor do I discuss Franco-Flemish polyphony, Monteverdi and the seconda pratica, Mozart’s startling operatic conceptions, Liszt’s fracturing of tonal language to facilitate extra-musical connotations, or Debussy’s radical reconfiguration of tonal musical language in opposition above all to Germanic traditions. Any of these developments would be equally important, but there was no space for consideration of specific moments in music history. It is strange to read the New York School and ‘experimentalism’ as the only examples provided of how ‘musical expression extends beyond traditional notation’ - surely jazz, improvisation, popular traditions are equal contenders in this respect? Cage made use of a variety of notational practices, but for the other members of the school, these were short-lived, and they generally returned to more standard approaches. Other composers including Sylvano Bussotti, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Dieter Schnebel and others experimented with graphic and text-based scores, but almost none of their attempts gained much wider traction. As for ‘innovative approaches to sound and composition’, I cannot see why the historical examples I list above qualify any less in this respect. How an emphasis on critical scholarship necessarily ‘goes in line with the Kantian idea of the composer/musician as a genius’ is anyone’s guess, and I do not see how this non-sequitur needs any other response. Nor the apparent ‘characterization of music technology as divorced from the Western classical tradition’ (mvpemq100v86 should also read what I say about critical and scholarly study of technology). Any number of developments in instrumental technology, the advent of the metronome, recording, and more have long been understood to have had major impacts upon this tradition. What I was actually saying was that degrees in music technology rarely involve much engagement with this millennium’s worth of music history. A ‘diversity of viewpoints and approaches’ and ‘a range of skills’ are what I am advocating in opposition to increasing narrowing of curricula. Only one paragraph of the article relates directly to issues of ‘diversity and inclusion initatives in academia’. I have certainly argued in print against simplistic use of rhetoric of ‘decolonisation’ in a music educational context, and do believe that a blanket rejection of a vast range of Western culture on such grounds is a travesty. I cannot imagine any other part of the world rejecting its own cultural traditions to such an extent - even when this has happened, as in parts of Germany after 1918, Turkey at the same time, Japan after 1945, or China at the time of the Cultural Revolution, these have not lasted, or had to be enforced brutally, as in China. For myself, I have also pioneered a radical shift in teaching of Western music history to integrate popular and vernacular traditions as much as classical ones, with a special focus on African-American music. If they have more to say about my ‘history’, then they should say it with their real name. The composer Christopher Fox has written that ‘one of the not very well-kept secrets is that the universities and conservatoires have become de facto patrons of new music in the UK. Indeed university music departments now employ so many composers, sound artists and performers that they may well be new music’s principal sponsors’. There are questions about how sustainable this model is, and the prominent position of certain types of ‘university composers’ in the UK, very few of whom have gained wider recognition outside of small new music circles, I do not think they and their work have any prima facie case for preferential treatment compared to Josquin, Bach, Schumann, Verdi or Stravinsky (or Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Elvis, The Beatles, James Brown, and so on). Contemporary classical music is one field in which I have some investment, but many others reject it, sometimes quite violently. I believe that underlying the post by mvpemq100v86 is above all a concern about the position of such a faction within academia. They will have to argue better than above to oppose the inevitable critiques, already much further advanced in the US in particular.
I assume that this is the first time that mvpemq100v86 has come across an article written by Ian Pace. It's important to be aware that Pace is widely recognized for his strong and unwavering viewpoints against academic inclusion and diversity. His perspectives are largely discredited beyond his limited group of supporters, making any attempt at argumentation ultimately fruitless.
In the interests of debate, I suggest we all use our real names or at least easily identifiable usernames (e.g. initial + surname). "Pepitaperez" I don't think is such name.
The above comment (talk about contradiction!) was by myself, Eva Moreda Rodriguez.
I'm not sure I follow mvpemq100v86's critique. The misquotation of the title bodes ill; many of the points subsequently raised are bafflingly adrift of the article's content. First, the article makes no reference, positively or negatively, to EDI initiatives; the argument against it on these grounds seems to proceed ad hominem, rather than from an assessment of the points raised. Second, at no point is the relevance of music technology for classical music questioned. The point as I understand it concerns the number of technology-centred degrees targeting entry into the commercial music industry as a vocational outcome. Third, there's no defence in the article of a 'Kantian' model of the musician as 'genius'; and even if there were, we should then subject it to reasonable critique, rather than dismissing it ex hypothesi. I agree fervently that we need to be receptive to viewpoint diversity in arguments about music education. Such diversity presupposes that we address the actual content of a given viewpoint, rather than discrediting it by free association.