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Why the Undervaluation of Music Degrees is Keeping Them Elitist

Roar writer, Elena Veris Reynolds, discusses the inequalities in music education today.

It’s a sunny afternoon in the sixth-form study room, and a good friend tells me that he agrees tuition fees should be waived – but only for subjects like the sciences, and not for those that “don’t give back to society.” When pressed for what exactly those subjects those were, he tells me: “Things like art and music,” knowing full well that I am hoping to study the latter at King’s in September.

This wasn’t the first, nor the last time someone insinuated that my degree (and, hopefully, my future career) is worthless. That “friend” was a typical proponent of this attitude, although he studied A-level music with me and was also a performer. He even wanted to go into music production, but not before studying a “serious” maths degree. His attitudes reinforce the idea that music is a subject you study for a bit of a laugh, which not only actively keeps students who don’t have that luxury out of it, but ignores the importance that music and other arts have in almost everyone’s lives. However, the issue goes deeper than plain ignorance, and we can see this in the makeup of students who do go on to study music in higher education: they are overwhelmingly white, middle-to-upper class, and privately educated.

Students from wealthy backgrounds can study music at university, despite the prevalence of these attitudes, for two reasons. Firstly, being privileged means being able to afford a degree that isn’t always taken seriously by others. It means you don’t have to worry about getting a job at the end of the degree, because you have money, connections in other industries, or other skills and education to fall back on. Having money also helps guarantee musical success. You can buy better instruments and lessons with better teachers, pay tuition for elite private music schools, and you already know those well placed in the industry. Therefore, you can study while your parents and everyone around you know that you will get a job out of it; you will be successful.

What about those of us who fall through the gaps, who have not the reassurance, nor the time and the money, not to worry about success? What about those who love music more than anything, but weren’t raised by parents who played classical instruments? Who learnt to play piano on a second-hand upright acquired from Freecycle? I was raised on pop music my parents loved, yet the education they gave me has rarely been valued in my degree. I don’t want to paint a misleading picture here, I was privileged, too: my parents could pay for instrumental lessons and extra-curricular ensembles, they supported me in all my musical endeavours and I grew up in an area with good local music education facilities. Yet I find it appalling that this is only the bare minimum needed to get accepted onto and be successful in an academic music degree.

Why does all this matter, anyway? Because, for the majority of us, listening to and experiencing music is an important part of our lives, and I don’t think anyone would wish that away. It matters because the undervaluing of music education means no efforts are made to challenge the elitism so prevalent everywhere in the world of academic music. No efforts are made to provide comprehensive and equal music education to all schoolchildren, despite the scientific evidence that engaging in music is so beneficial to children’s development and mental health. It matters because, despite college-wide statistics showing that around 75% of King’s students went to state schools, this percentage is not reflected in my course, where I am one of a handful of state-educated students. It matters because these attitudes prevail in the government, leading to the cutting of arts funding at all levels; and, as always, these cuts hit those at the bottom the hardest.

Until we seriously address these attitudes, both inside and outside of universities, studying music in higher education will remain inherently elitist, classist, and racist. As it does, so will the wider musical world, and so will ideas about who can and cannot be a musician. I believe everyone should be able to be a musician if they want to – it shouldn’t be exclusive to those who can pay their way through a musical education.

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