Thoughts on a Musical Education

Future Symphony Institute

I grew up in post-war Britain, at a time when people were beginning to treat the radio as a daily companion, when long-playing records were edging their way on to the market, and when the American songbook and ballroom dancing were rapidly giving way to blues and rock and roll. But the old forms of musical education had not yet been driven out of our schools or our homes. The piano was a common sight in the ordinary living rooms in our street, and I learned to play as a matter of course. We sang in the church choir, and also in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas that were staged in our school. At Christmas we were all invited to the town hall to participate in a spontaneous performance of the Messiah, in Mozart’s version; and later, when Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters made their stunning debut on the air-waves, I joined with my friends in an attempt to simulate their sound on drums and strummed guitars. I valued no lessons at my school so much as the optional course on harmony and counterpoint from our music master, and the O-level examination in music required us not merely to answer learned questions on the set pieces for study (a Bach cantata, a Berlioz overture and the Sibelius violin sonatina), but also to compose a three part fugue on a given theme and to continue a few bars of music “in the same way.”

It was still true in the 1950s and early 1960s, when I was a teenager, that radio and gramophone were vastly inferior to live concerts from the acoustical point of view. It was still true that, if you wanted to explore the classical repertoire in its entirety, you really needed to do so at the piano in your home. It was still true that, if you wanted to sing or dance, you had to make the music for yourself, or else to hire a band to do it for you. When I discovered classical music I was immediately drawn into friendship with other young people who had been granted the same experience, and sometimes we would hitchhike the 30 miles to London, to squeeze our way into the Albert Hall for the Promenade Concerts or to buy tickets for the Gods at the opera. Music was, for us, primarily live music, and the radio and the gramophone were not only cumbersome contraptions, but inadequate substitutes for the real thing. And the greatest joy was not listening but playing together, if you could find the person who could make up for your own lack of skill.

I value the musical education that I received, since it did not merely implant in me a love of serious music, but also opened my mind to the way music is composed. It gave me an inside view of the workings of this art, and of the extraordinary part it has had to play in the history of the West. For there is no doubt in my mind that harmony and counterpoint have shaped our civilisation, made it open to the many voices that compete in a free society, and brought them together in spontaneous polyphony. It is not only our music that is contrapuntal; the same is true of our institutions, our customs and our law. We accord to each voice its space and its freedom, knowing that they can be brought together in harmony, when the principles of order are properly chosen and properly taught. That is part of what we learn from our polyphonic tradition.

That tradition is not dead. But it has entered a new phase, in which listening and playing take second place to hearing. We hear music everywhere; we carry it about in our ears; we are locked into it as into a cage. But the experience of active listening, as part of an audience rendered silent by their joint attention, is increasingly rare. So too is the experience of making music together, united by a movement that arises between us and carries each player along on a collective wave of energy. Increasingly – and this is especially so for young people – music is a background to other things, and seldom enters the foreground of experience, to become the sole object of attention. I regret this for many reasons. Not only does it cut young people off from the real meaning of music in our civilisation – its meaning as a form of serious and inspiring thought. It also locks them into their own world of musical experience, encouraging them to stay with the background that pleases them, and not to explore those parts of the musical landscape that can be approached only with difficulty, but which may offer a far more interesting reward.

The most striking difference between my musical experience as a teenager and that of the teenager today, however, is not the transition from listening to hearing – significant though that has been. It is the loss of musical judgment. I was brought up to believe that music is a thing of value, and that there is and always will be a difference between good and bad, sublime and mediocre, meaningful and meaningless. Say that to a young person today and as like as not you will be dismissed as “judgmental.” “Who are you to criticise my taste?” is the usual response. And it is hard to reply that you are entitled to criticise because your taste is better. When my school friends and I explored blues and pop in bands of our own we never imagined that we were doing something that remotely compared with the experience of the concert hall. We saw pop as a pleasurable diversion, from which we would return to that sublime, beautiful and by no means simply pleasurable world where every note, every intonation, and every dynamic mattered.

It would be easy to say, as so many do today, that it is all a matter of taste, and that we should let the young get on with it, so as to discover things for themselves. But young people are very bad at discovering things for themselves. That is why teachers are necessary. If we thought that there were no intrinsic difference between a Beethoven symphony and a song by the Kooks, and that a music-loving person could go through life without hearing Beethoven and be none the poorer for it, then of course we would happily give up the attempt to educate the taste of the young. But it is only someone who does not know Beethoven who could think like that. If you have had the Beethoven experience then your first desire is to pass it on, to open the ears of young people to what you have heard and wondered at, and to introduce them to something that offers not just pleasure and fascination, but also joy and knowledge.

That is why live music, and live classical music especially, remains so important for us. Young people need to come into the presence of music. The iPod sounds inside them with a kind of familiar body noise. But it does not produce the experience which was so important for my generation, and which remains important today, of music as occurring in a space of its own – a space for which we make room collectively, by laying a carpet of silence on which the music is displayed. Without live orchestras and available concerts the real heart of music will cease to beat, and young people will be deprived of one of the most enriching experiences that I know.

About the Author

Roger Scruton is the world's preeminent philosopher in the field of aesthetics. Having graduated with honors from Cambridge, he has subsequently held positions at some of the world's most prestigious institutions including the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, St Andrews, Princeton, and Boston. Roger was called to the Bar after his studies at the Inns of Court in London. He is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the British Academy. Moreover, Roger has been awarded the Czech Republic's Medal for Merit in recognition of his efforts to establish an underground university in Czechoslovakia during its last decade of communism. Today he serves as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. But his principal activity remains what it has been for the last 30 years, which is writing. Roger is an astonishingly prolific writer on a broad range of topics in several genres. His serious academic research has been in the area of aesthetics, with two books – The Aesthetics of Architecture and The Aesthetics of Music – that have made important contributions to their respective fields. In addition Roger has written essays, criticism, autobiography, invocations of country life, novels, and poems. He is deeply devoted to classical music and an accomplished amateur composer. For in case you missed it, somewhere in there he also found time to write two operas and the libretto for a third.
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  • I read a recent interview with the composer Samuel Adler in which he said that during his high school days, he was a member of a school orchestra that performed all the standard repertoire–including all the Brahms and the first eight Beethoven symphonies. I’m fairly sure programs like this no longer exist in the States–certainly they don’t exist in Canada.

    It’s a shame. In my experience the very best way to develop a sophisticated ear for music is to play it–and especially to play in an orchestra. There’s a kind of refinement, precision, and attention that orchestra playing alone demands. The ubiquitous wind bands–though I love them–are a poor substitute, and even they are frequently underfunded, put upon, and beholden to athletic programs.

    I am 21, and the most common complaint among my friends regarding classical music is that they don’t understand it (imagine that: someone who doesn’t understand a Beethoven symphony!). We were taught to read music and some very basic music theory in my elementary school, but a lot of the students didn’t pay attention and the instruction passed right through them, just like their math and English instruction. I know a disturbing number of music students who first encountered the mysteries of the Tristan chord in a second-year university classroom.

    So while it’s fun to blame teenage turpitude and iPod addiction for our musical predicament today, much of the blame has to be laid at the feet of preceding generations for gutting and adulterating primary- and secondary-level musical education.

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