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The decline in music education in Australian public schools

A rather alarming report by ABC’s Stephen Crittenden entitled Who stopped the music? on Radio National’s Background Briefing programme.

People interviewed include Dick Letts (Chair of the Music Council of Australia, former Director of the Australian Music Centre and Music Board, Australia Council) and music education personality Richard Gill. I worked with Letts on the formation of the MCA and have known Gill since I played violin in Terry Hunt’s Combined Schools Concert Orchestra in my secondary school days in Sydney in the early ’70s. Both are considered human beings and the portrait they paint of the state of music education in public schools in morose.

Gill makes an interesting point about the universal importance of music to all humans and the known capacity for the human brain to absorb music. This suggests that to deprive children of good music education is a form of child deprivation.

As Letts says, there have been so many reports on the importance of music in the development of learning in children that the conclusions are irrefutable. We don’t need any more investigations and reports, we need action from our politicians. You’d think, even on the basis of the known positive effects of MAKING music (not just passively listening to it) on learning on other subject areas, they’d make sure all children have a decent access to such training.

But no, for whatever reasons (and one could tender a few–to do with the state of emotional atrophy many seem to exist in) they prefer to blame teachers for the system in which they work and produce numerical assessments without context.

Currently, an infant/primary school teacher is responsible for teaching music to children in six years of their development and they receive, on average as little as 23 hours of instruction on how to do so. How can anyone be expected to perform adequately in such circumstances? The obvious truth is, they can’t. So they avoid it as much as possible. And who suffers? – the children, of course. More (disembodied-long live Descarte!) ‘instruction’ type learning, and less creative exploration and, yes, you guessed it, less (l)earning!

Education puts the ‘ell’ in ‘earning’

Politicians can support body activity in the form of sport; is easily assessed (faster, longer, higher) but more importantly, it is competitive. But music forgoes that (except in the media driven Song ‘contests’ drivel) in favour of co-operation. This is the real threat posed by music making: it promotes and demonstrates the power of co-operative activity in the public education system and that is simply not acceptible – afterall, it’s the first step on the slippery slope towards communalism. Power to the working class? – never! Better to keep the knowledge and experience of the importance of co-operative enterprise to the clubs and societies of the privileged, most of whose members have had the positive experience of a decent music education.

I would go even further than this report and suggest that equally important to development of co-operative skills that music performance develops in children, is the need to include improvisation and composition – where the rules can be more or less agreed to and then acted upon in creative ways. Creative co-operation: one that our leaders mindless mouth the need for in our modern ‘economies’. What other area of the curriculum can teach this skill as well?

Listen to the programme and read background materials

Suggested further reading on music and politics:

Attali, J. 1985. Noise. The political economy of music. B. Massumi (trans.). Minneapolis, NM: University of Minnesota Press.

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