Barenboim: ‘Music education has all but disappeared from the school curriculum’

Barenboim: ‘Music education has all but disappeared from the school curriculum’


norman lebrecht

July 03, 2018

In an address to the European Parliament on  the dangers of populism, Daniel Barenboim calls for a return to ‘a fact-based culture’.

He adds: ‘I must take this opportunity to express my sadness at the fact that music education has all but disappeared from the regular curriculum in schools – all over. All over.’


  • Will Duffay says:

    It’s going to be particularly bad in the UK with the new EBacc. Music will disappear, except in fee-paying schools or a small number of grammars.

    • Una says:

      It disappeared years ago in British schools except for pop music – and that goes to some extent in the private schools.

    • Una says:

      It disappeared years ago in British schools except for pop music – and that goes to some extent in the private schools. Never on a par with Chemistry or French in a school.

  • Steven says:

    I don’t know how a return to a ‘fact-based culture’ (whatever that is — it sounds like a purge to me) is supposed to help the cause of music education. Such a dreary rationalist culture only hurts the cause (what is the utility of music, after all; the ‘studies’ that try to prove such a utility are all rot.)

    • Symphony musician says:

      I substantially disagree with you but rather than engaging in a demoralising disagreement I would prefer to ask you this: what are your positive ideas for supporting the cause of music education?

      • Steven says:

        Well, I don’t know about ‘positive ideas’, but we need broadly a cultural shift away from the ephemera that surrounds us, and away from the elevation of ‘low culture’ (not fond of the term, but it’ll have to do). I don’t think there’s any hope for a flourishing musical education so long as we have a proudly illiterate and ignorant and dominant popular culture.

        The music lessons I had in school were nearly all a concession to pop music and, to a lesser extent, music from other cultures. But even these watered-down lessons are disappearing as we focus on ‘skills’ and careers. Subjects like music get justified only in the dull language of transferable skills (Barenboim almost falls into this trap by talking about ‘mental and emotional development’, or something similar). This would seem to me to be the result of a culture that justifies itself in terms of ‘facts’ and ‘relevance’ and ‘utility’.

        • Ms.Melody says:

          I agree, but the problem is bigger and deeper than decrease or disappearance pf music education. It is a general erosion of education. General education is no longer valid at least not in North America. Straight A students graduate from high school and enter universities without being able to name European capitals, let alone European or American composers. History is not taught, therefore music cannot be put in a historical or aesthetic context and becomes meaningless. If they know nothing about the period in history it is difficult to appreciate the style and relevance of a certain piece of music.”Arts” ( and this includes history, literature, art and music history, languages ,etc) are deemed by students and government alike as useless dead end subjects not leading to a job and therefore not valuable. Hence the absence of taste, class, standards,style etc. Current education system is building the house without a solid foundation. You can predict the results .

    • Sue says:

      It means we’re all fed up with fake news disseminated by a desperate mainstream media which sees itself (correctly) under threat from the immediacy of the internet. Not only that, the long form interview which cannot be EDITED by any third party. The death knell of mainstream news has been sounded and I’m cheering loudly.

      Don’t live in the 20th century; this new technology reaches everybody and they can decide for themselves – unless you disagree with this (cough). U-tube is carrying the most fabulous discussions and cat videos are largely a thing of the past.

      Not so, the ideological cant of most modern networks and newspapers. Soon will be, though.

      • Steven says:

        Somehow I doubt this is what Barenboim meant by the phrase

        • Sue says:

          Maybe not, but it seemed a good opportunity to state the bleeding obvious.

          • jaypee says:

            Sue, do you start your day with a prayer for cretin donald?
            You sure sound like a complete brain-dead trumpanzee with your sound bites taken straight out of fox “news”.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Yes, music education has pretty much disappeared esp. sharp in the USA. What has also disappeared is taste and class.

    • Caravaggio says:

      Mind you, taste and class gone from the general public all the way to performers. Everything crude, crass, coarse. Bottom up, top to bottom. Vertical, horizontal, diagonal. No matter.

      • Sue says:

        I agree. Many years ago I heard an interview with an American pioneer in TV comedy: might have been Reiner. He said when TV first hit America only affluent people could afford it. In those days TV comedy could be sophisticated and risk-taking; thinking of Sid Caesar. He said that when everybody could afford a TV the standards dropped concomitantly. I think this is the same ingredient you’re talking about. Look at the land fill on TV now and the internet. But there are some super intelligent risk takers and specialists on U-Tube now, doing what those early TV comedy specialists were doing from their era. My particular thrill is the public intellectuals on the Internet Dark Web. With everyone having access to computers now I have no reason to suspect, like TV, it will all turn to cactus.

        • Sue says:

          Sorry – Intellectual Dark Web. Some of them are speaking next week to a crowd of 20,000 at Wembley Stadium, extending the work they’ve already started on the internet; such is the hunger for something fulfilling and intelligent these days.

          All agree that through partisandship and activism the mainstream media is in its death throws.

  • Michael Endres says:

    More and more schools are now following the same neo-liberal ideology which universities have already adopted: out with those pesky arts in favour of wholesome subjects that are of direct use for the economy.
    This enchanting concept is equally supported by the left and right alike.

    The left measures all art against its very own Taliban style ideology, so fair enough nearly all classical music is consigned to the dustbin of ‘irrelevance’ due to its clearly oppressive, racist, misogynist etc nature.
    Beethoven ( who was German, which always makes matters worse ) even depicted rape in the 1st movement of his 9th symphony ( according to prominent feminist musicologist Susan McClary ), so if this level of debate continues, we might one day achieve ‘Freedom for vegetables’.

    The right’s main concern is of a more practical, less ideological nature:
    the focus is on generating revenue for shareholders at any rate, and this comes with cost effective conservative values such as ‘prayers’, ‘being in our thoughts’ if a tower burns down due to well meant, but all too cost effective operations.
    The existence of culture is defined solely by its profitability. More refreshing approach in a way, but doesn’t help our cause either.

    Tough times ahead for music other than the commercial varieties such as pop and hip-hop.
    ( The latter a particular darling of the left, who seems to be in awe of its dirty language and depiction of violence. )

    • william osborne says:

      It’s true that the loss of music education stems from deeply rooted ideological confusion, but when our responses are equally hyperbolic and polemical we only exacerbate the problems. This is one of the reasons our responses to the neoliberal/postmodern paradigm have not been effective.

      It would help to begin by really trying to understand their viewpoints, acknowledging which parts might be reasonable, and then focusing our efforts on the parts that are truly confused and harmful.

      The issue of aesthetic leveling lies at the root of almost all the harm these ideologies do, so that is where we need to focus our thoughts. How do we create clear and rational arguments against aesthetic leveling that will effectively counter that ideology? How do we demonstrate the weaknesses of neoliberal and postmodern philosophy in a way that will bring to an end the blindly ideological way they are now being followed especially in the Anglo-american world?

    • SteveDisque says:

      I would consider the right’s attitude — as you describe it, involving “generating revenue for shareholders” and “cost-effective operations” — to be equally as ideological as the left’s. (Remember, both sides regularly and gleefully attack “elitists” and “elitism” — they just don’t mean the same people and attitudes!)

    • msc says:

      It’s great to see you here. I count myself a fan: what I’ve heard of your Schubert is exceptional, and I was delighted to encounter your thoughts on Bax.

  • Stephen says:

    What music education? At grammar school in the 1950s we had a lesson a week for the first two years during which we sangs songs in unison, very useful at latter booze-ups but I never learnt how to sightread music. Yet we had to suffer things like rugby and gymnastics for seven years, four periods a week.

    • Robin Smith says:

      To be fair I would have thought that Physical Education was as important as a musical education for most people. Take a look round you.

      • Stephen says:

        You will note that I gave figures and 7 years of PE at 4 hours a week is considerably more than 2 years of music lessons at 1 hour per week.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Excellent speech by Barenboim. But if he so strongly believes in European culture, why did and does he perform Boulez, and claims that Schoenberg will be the most popular 20C composer in some future, claiming Beethoven and Schoenberg were two comparable ‘hero’s’ of music, describing the ‘absolute value’ of these 2 composers, as being different from all other composers? His advocacy of Boulez – which whom he appeared to have been ‘good friends’ – is, considering his professed cultural priorities, something like helping the hangman lay the rope around your neck.

    • John Kelly says:

      Most likely because he likes the music, and believes in it. Beecham did the same with Delius, hardly a composer jumping off concert programmes even in the UK

      • The View from America says:

        Delius and Boulez — now that’s an apples-to-apples comparison.

        “Pastoral beauty” vs. “pluck-and-scratch hate,” anyone?

        • John Kelly says:

          My point was that Boulez is a composer that Barenboim cares to champion, as Beecham did for Delius, there was no attempt nor intention to compare the merits of the two composers, nor their style, nor their sound worlds. Mr Borstlap wondered why Mr Barenboim plays music by Boulez, I was suggesting it’s because he values and likes to evangelize the composer. People who don’t like Boulez’s music have plenty of alternatives to entertain them if they so choose………..

        • Sue says:

          Love your work!!!

    • Anson says:

      Yes, of course, when I think of the root causes of the decline of European culture, that marginal modernist, who most French people couldn’t even name, is surely at the top of the list!

  • La Verita says:

    And in the meantime conservatories everywhere are hemorrhaging graduates who have no possibility of employment.

  • Kelvin Grout says:

    Music education has well and truly left most of the Dutch Conservatory system, a national disgrace, bleeding ‘qualified’ (at least on paper) musicians into a work environment that no longer exists, thanks to the devastation of massive cuts to the Arts.

    • John Borstlap says:

      My fly on the wall informs me that Dutch conservatories now offer DJ and pop courses for better work prospects. No doubt, soon students can obtain degrees in hophip and rap.

      • Sue says:

        Oh yes, there are plenty of these things going on in music institutions. But who wants to be in an institution??!! 🙂

      • Kelvin Grout says:

        In at least one Conservatory, pop is seen as the only future and demands most of the funding. The Classical department is considered irrelevant to today’s society.

  • Adrienne says:

    It seems to me that, in the UK at least, education problems are not confined to music:

    PISA tests (2016):

    -In Maths, the UK is ranked 27th, slipping down a place from three years ago, the lowest since it began participating in the Pisa tests in 2000
    -In Reading, the UK is ranked 22nd, up from 23rd, having fallen out of the top 20 in 2006
    -The UK’s most successful subject is Science, up from 21st to 15th place – the highest placing since 2006, although the test score has declined.


  • John Borstlap says:

    The erosion of music education, and the status of serious / art music in general, in the West, is merely one of the many signals of decline. The replacement of the study of great literature in the humanities at the universities by social justice subjects is another, as is the cultivation of cultural relativity which makes it possible to enroll many more students because entrance requirements can be lowered.

    • Sue says:

      Bravo x 1000!! Lefties hate Dr. Jordan Peterson (mmmm – puts finger to temple – I wonder why?) but he says the very best thing you can do as a LIFE-LONG student is to read EVERYTHING written by great authors and writers. Just work your way through the library!!! He says they have the greatest things to say about the human condition. Sheesh; no wonder he’s hated!! With ideas like that.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      To JB & Sue,

      High culture is intellectual leisure as concerns the humanities. I feel pleasure in reading Aristoteles, Erasmus, Shakespeare and others, but most people who are studying these classics do not appreciate their value – everything is relative by now and Shakespeare’s portrait has been removed from the ‘Pantheon’ of a top-class American university to make place for some nullity.

      In the natural sciences and technology people cannot deceive themselves that they are teaching/learning science when they are not, there are operational criteria for competence, and at the top of it come the practical applications that made the West the West. There are no such criteria for the humanities and social sciences. Grade inflation, as well as social, genre and ethnic quotas, etc, in the humanities and social sciences devalue their relevance – what can someone do with a PhD in intersectional queer deconstructive historiographic sociology or some other freak word combination of that kind? – it is insane, yes one can even say obscene, to promote this kind of ‘higher education’.

      Unfortunately, music education (where there are objective quality criteria) and the arts in general (not so sure about objectivity) are in the shadow of the humanities.

      • Sue says:

        I gain no pleasure at all reading any of this, which I’m sure you’ve got right and which Dr. Peterson is literally howling about – like a lone and lost wolf. You are, in effect, suggesting that we chose NOT to stand on the shoulders of giants. Thank god I won’t be around too much longer to feel even more gloomy about my magnificent western culture.

        I think we can ‘thank’ the ‘woke progressives’ in the institutions for this. The liberals need to detach themselves from these people as fast as humanly possible.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Often the educational institutions exploit the students for their own interests – as if the students are there for the institution instead of the other way around:

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          To Sue & JB,

          Thank you for your comments (and by the link – a great short essay that reminded me that I should check JB’s blog more often).

          University departments in the humanities have chosen not to stand on the shoulders of the ‘giants’ whose work once was their foundation. The reason is an anti-elitist stand associated to the need to ‘produce’ as many degrees as possible. These people will soon apply for jobs at Starbucks and McDonald’s with a PhD in something in their CV.

          Mass-production of ‘composers’ vis-à-vis the ‘working market’ is another problem. But if I should be optimistic (and just a little bit sarcastic), maybe education of the few composers that are ‘necessary’ can be financed by mass production of degrees in hip-hop.

          Maybe a new dark age is coming (or is already here), but the real ‘humanities’ will be alive as far as there is people who really understand the value of that ‘old’ knowledge, and who enjoy acquiring it. What is good will always have a public. Beethoven had a loyal public of about 200 persons during his lifetime, that is people who bough his scores, played them at home, and subscribed to concert series of his music.

          • John Borstlap says:

            I subscribe to this rather hopefull prospect. After all, there have been quiet monks in the Dark Ages who collected and copied whatever they could find of the writings that survived the 4th and 5th century of the Roman Empire and the invasions of the barbarians, and which could be saved from the burning of the Alexandrian library by the muslem invaders.

            And do we not all remember the tragic death of Hypatia? (Nodding of many heads.)

          • Saxon Broken says:

            John Borslap

            The monks largely rubbed out the Roman texts so they could write on top of what was previously written there. They mostly wanted to make tedious discussions of the bible and had no interest in classical culture. Much of Greek and Roman culture was rediscovered in the West from the Moslem world (especially during the Renaissance).

  • Monsoon says:

    I’m much more worried about how poorly history and civics are taught in schools.

    Music classes are not going to save the world. But history and civics might.

    (And even if our schools did have robust music programs, classical music still wouldn’t be popular.)

    • Andrew Matthews says:

      Monsoon, I am not sure I agree. Music unites people and does not divide them. But returning to the original question I have long since considered that music was badly taught in schools. What is the object of musical education? It is to open emotional reception and through that aim encourage an inquisitive mind to embark on a lifelong spiritual journey. The problem with the music curriculum was that it spent too much time on the recorder and Peter and the Wolf and not enough engaging children with the music itself in a live environment.

      About 5 years ago when I was chairman of our local school PTA I suggested we use funds we had raised to hire a professional string quartet to come to the school and give a workshop and masterclass to the girls (it was an all girls school) we hired the Carducci quartet. They gave a workshop to the junior girls aged between 5-11 and a masterclass to the senior school quartet. The junior girls hear a live string quartet for the first time. It was amazing. The quartet were engaging and had marvellous communication skills. They enchanted the youngsters with Beethoven, Haydn, Webern and Philip Glass. When they gave a masterclass to the senior quartet the affect was staggering. The quartet spoke to the players just like equal musicians. It was the best money the PTA ever spent.

      My point is this, music education is vital. If it is taught properly it lifts the spirit and sets in motion a lifelong relationship with a unique medium. It teaches us to grasp and understand a vision that is impossible to explain in words.It cannot be allowed to die.

      • Jonathan Bennett says:

        That is a wonderful story. Having heard the Carduccis several times (I have even managed to persuade my daughter to accompany me to one of their concerts) I can believe how inspirational they were. Perhaps I should enquire of their fees.

        From my limited (UK) experience Barenboim is broadly correct. But there is great variation, and happily we can aspire to be on the right side of that. I became a parent governor of my daughter’s school to do my best to influence its aspirations and culture, and am pleased to say music there is valued and thriving. A normal albeit underfunded (“bog standard”) comprehensive can try hard. If next week’s Summer Concert follows the recent trend, close to 25% of the pupils will be performing.

        [Disclosure of interest: my daughter, now a sixthformer, will be one of the two soloists in a performance of a movement from the Bach Double].

        • Andrew Matthews says:

          I attach the agent’s details. Our workshop was 5 years ago so suspect fee may have changed. They are a great group and very approachable as is Kate Adams, their agent. The attached is in the public domain.

          Kate Adams
          CLB Management
          Suite 117, Southbank House
          Black Prince Road
          SE1 7SJ

          By Phone:
          +44 (0)20 3176 9295

          +44 (0)7545783108

          By Email:

          • Jonathan Bennett says:

            Thanks I have made a note of that.

            The Carduccis seem to have infectious enjoyment of the music on stage, so I can imagine them inspiring schoolchildren. The next string quartet to visit our small Yorkshire town are the Dorics who I haven’t heard previously but might look up from an outreach point of view.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I agree with pretty much everyone here. I’m glad we’re ALL taking the education issue seriously. It’s paramount to the future of the arts in general.

  • El Grillo says:

    I don’t even believe I would have to read this not to figure out that it’s basically a three part competition between students who have it too well, teacher’s who don’t care to get the students to a level that would show the teacher’s aren’t up to it, and then you have the performers who step in therewhere neither the teachers nor their students care to see isn’t going anywhere either.

  • James Cook says:

    How about Nike Wagner?