This romanticisation of musical illiteracy is risky

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In the UK, Charlotte Gill had an article published on March 27 warning against teaching music theory and notation in school as too academic. Ten days later, 650 people, including many famous names, had signed a letter explaining their view of Gill’s article and their argument against it.

Charlotte C Gill (Music education is now only for the white and wealthy, theguardian.com, 27 March) argues: “To enable more children to learn [music], we must stop teaching in such an academic way.” 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.

Gill dismisses the study of music “theory” and argues that musical notation is “a cryptic, tricky language … that can only be read by a small number of people”. This claim flies in the face of countless initiatives over two centuries, making musical literacy available to those of many backgrounds. As with written language, musical notation enables effective and accurate communication, as well as critical access to huge amounts of knowledge. In many musical fields, those without it will be at a deep disadvantage and dependent upon others.

Gill’s comments about “limited repertoires of old, mostly classical music” are unfounded and presented without evidence: composing, listening, singing and playing are embedded in much musical education, which also widely encompasses jazz, popular and non-western traditions. Claiming that classical music comprises a limited repertory is inaccurate: composers have been adding to its repertory for centuries and continue to do so. We agree with Gill that aural and other skills are just as 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 yet further in state schools.
Ian Pace Pianist, lecturer, head of performance, City, University of London
Joan Arnau Pàmies Composer, aural skills instructor, Northwestern University
Barbara Eichner Senior lecturer in music, Oxford Brookes University
Jim Aitchison Composer and graphic score artist
Sir Simon Rattle Conductor, principal conductor, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor-elect, London Symphony Orchestra
Gillian Moore Director of music, South Bank Centre
Sir James MacMillan Composer and conductor
Howard Goodall Composer, broadcaster and music historian
Norman Lebrecht Writer and broadcaster
Marshall Marcus CEO, European Union Youth Orchestra, president, Sistema Europe
Michael Nyman Composer
Professor Brian Ferneyhough Stanford University
Helen Grime Composer and senior lecturer in composition, Royal Holloway University of London
David Warburton MP Chair, all-party parliamentary select committee on music education
Fiona Cunningham CEO, Sistema England
Gordon Munro Director of music, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Mark Everist Professor of music and president, Royal Musical Association (signing in a personal capacity)
Professor Sir David Eastwood Vice-chancellor, University of Birmingham
Camden Reeves Professor and head of music, University of Manchester
Chi-chi Nwanoku Founder and artistic director, Chineke and double bassist
Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway Flute players
Imogen Cooper Pianist
Stephen Hough Pianist
Steven Isserlis Cellist
and more than 600 others
(full list of signatories at https://ianpace.wordpress.com/2017/03/30/response-to-charlotte-c-gill-article-on-music-and-notation-full-list-of-signatories

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