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Why study Music at university? 

Reflections on the government’s Creative Industries Sector Deal. 

Last year the government published a document on the Creative Industries Sector Deal (CISD) as part of the UK’s post-Brexit industrial strategy. In it, the creative arts are described as being ‘at the heart of our nation’s competitive [economic] advantage’, and the government pledges to focus on the strengths of the UK’s creative arts (of which music is one) in order to capitalise on the ‘growing global demand for British creative content – not just culture and entertainment, but services like design and advertising that power wider industry.’ (p. 2) What does this mean for the workforce of the future? ‘Future creative roles are likely to need a breadth of skills including advanced numeracy, coding, physical and digital design and drawing skills and creative storytelling and problem solving … A combination of STEM and arts-based subjects will provide this balance of capabilities’ (p. 55).


 Where does this leave the question of Music? The Music departments of elite universities have been struggling to recruit a diverse set of students. One of the main reasons is that underrepresented students – students of colour, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or those whose parents did not attend university – apply to university courses that will (quite understandably) set them up for a career, such as Law or Medicine. It’s easy to dismiss the wording in the CISD as overly vague; but it is still heartening to see this kind of renewed written support from the government for the professional importance of the humanities at a time when it seems like STEM, Law, Economics, and Management are being pushed harder than ever.

What other issues do we face before making this creative workforce a reality? The narrow Eurocentrism of most traditional music courses is perhaps the other biggest obstacle for universities looking to attract diverse students. The vast majority of Music students at elite universities will have played one or more Western classical instruments from an early age, and curricula are structured around the analysis of a European canon of instrumental and vocal music. Can a student learn design, drawing, creative storytelling and problem solving from this? Yes – students learn narrative for music analysis, design and drawing to make graphic scores, and understand problem solving when learning about cultural history. But less privileged students are likely to feel alienated by this curriculum. Where are the histories of the working classes, of people of colour?  

Piano and Sheet Music
Microphone and headphones

There has been some progress here. The last fifteen or twenty years has seen the explosion of courses in music technology courses, which focus less on Western classical score analysis and instrumental proficiency, and instead teach students listening and arranging skills related to popular music since 1900. These courses were originally offered at younger and less prestigious universities, but they have since impacted traditional music courses at elite universities, many of which have now expanded their recording facilities and changed their curricula to teach more forms of music in more creative ways. But while music technology courses have gone some way in attracting a less affluent demographic, they have attracted students of colour only marginally more than traditional music degrees; they have also attracted many more male than female students, and risk reinforcing a gender divide not so present in traditional music degrees.
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That music is one of the least frequently studied subjects is even stranger when you consider that of all the arts and humanities, music has possibly the widest direct appeal, ubiquity, and political power. Music is present in so many places: we listen to it when travelling, we hear it in public places, on television and on the radio, in films and programmes and adverts. Music can be mobilised to make political critiques (Beyoncé’s performances in 2016, or the number of artists declining to perform at Trump’s inauguration in the same year). According to one major study (Bennett et. al. 2009), people have more charged opinions about their tastes in music than about any other art form. Music can be used to suggest ideas, to make references, to alter our moods, to influence patterns of behaviour. We know this in everyday life. At a time when we are seeing the power of storytelling for political manipulation, understanding human behaviour through the humanities seems more important than ever. 

Is the problem higher education itself, then? For an underrepresented student, elite universities may seem like unwelcoming places. Going to university may involve a trade-off: security and emotional energy – in addition to money – for a degree. But it’s worth restating that traditional Music is one of the most undersubscribed courses in the UK: even at Oxford and Cambridge, an applicant has about a 40% success rate. More importantly, admissions tutors (I used to be one) genuinely want to attract students of all backgrounds despite whatever limitations the system may have: tutors undergo online training in implicit bias, they can positively discriminate in order to raise a disadvantaged student’s ability to shine, and the interview itself is rigorously structured to ensure impartiality.

Whether you want to increase your chance of acceptance at an elite university, or you simply want to study the subject, Music courses around the country are evolving to meet the needs of outstanding applicants from all backgrounds; and documents like the CISD show that a degree in Music could set you up in unexpected and creative ways for your future career. 

The Bridge of Sighs in oxford

Dr Alexi Vellianitis, former Lecturer in Music, St Catherine’s College, Oxford