Why music execs don’t think kids should read music

Why music execs don’t think kids should read music


norman lebrecht

February 21, 2020

From Richard Morrison’s column in the Times:

…I expressed my fervent belief that teaching children to read music is the key that opens up everything.

First jolt: the music director of Arts Council England (ACE), no less, vehemently disagreed with me. Musical literacy doesn’t matter much, she declared. Second jolt: in the ensuing discussion not a single person spoke in my favour. More than 100 people were in the room, all engaged in running orchestras that depend on instrumentalists who can sight-read to an incredible level, and not one agreed that teaching children to read music was a good idea.

After the event I had coffee with someone in the audience. “Of course nobody sided with you,” she claimed. “Everyone here depends on ACE subsidy. Nobody will contradict publicly what the ACE music director says.”

Read on here.

So true. So damnably true.



  • George says:

    I wish newspapers would introduce a “click-buy-article” button next zo the subscription button. Instead one always has to sign up for a full subscription.

    I am not a regular Times reader. But there are articles like this that interest me and I’d be happy to pay for just this one. I’ve thought this many times before with other papers, too.

  • Allen says:

    If the UK’s PISA ranking is anything to go by, regular literacy is not very high up the list of priorities either.

    • Anon says:

      Typical of ACE, which is run as a corporate organisation, without any semblance of either understanding nor wanting to understand the factors which make an artist, be it a musician, actor whatever. The Men/Women in Grey Suits are essentially number crunchers, who have never earned their living by practising what they preach – well done to Richard Morrison for stating the obvious. It’s getting very frightening out there.

    • His Master's Voice says:

      Learning to read music is not the key…at least not at first. The important thing for a child is to learn the “language of music” before learning to read music. Learning music is actually no different than learning a spoken language. We all were able to speak, BEFORE we were able to read and write. So, imerse children in the language of music and then teach them the reading and possibly writing, but PLEASE not the other way around!

  • JC says:

    I explain this in a very simple way to students.

    As any decent human being might, we want to develop to understand more interesting and complex ideas. When children begin to read, they start with ‘Biff and Chip’ type books (for those that remember those). The ideas are simple to the point where most could remember the text by hearing it (this is where the confusion begins). To develop beyond this, we must read more diverse and complex literature, where thoughts and ideas are (generally) more thought through. It is the same, or at the very least similar, for music. The people that run these organisations are, again generally, ignorant, illiterate, far left bigots (though are often not aware of it) who in a very noble cause, want to make music ‘accessible’ but are only degrading it further, through consistent watering down. It’s infuriating. We should be aspiring to the highest levels, not descending until they no longer exist.

  • nijinsky says:

    Excuse me, but if you simply look up the definition of literacy, it’s the following: “the ability to read and write”

    I don’t see any reference to writing music at all as part of being literate about it.

    • Fritz Curzon says:

      You don’t have to be a published author to be considered literate.

    • Excuse me, but if you look up the definition of literacy there is a second, more general definition: knowledge of a particular subject, or a particular type of knowledge.
      musical literacy, cultural literacy, computer literacy, financial literacy, etc. Language is a fluid thing.
      But if you want to limit it to the ability to read and write, Arnold Schoenberg has something to say about it:
      “… when I reflect that the discovery of book-printing has resulted in virtual extinction of illiteracy, my optimism returns. On the other hand, when I reflect on the power and influence of many who have just about managed, painfully, to master the alphabet, then indeed my pessimism starts coming back again.”

  • Tamino says:

    It’s true though, that reading music is not the main objective in music education.
    What matters first is that you teach children to make music immediately, e.g. sing. And to do so by imitating known music through LISTENING.
    Only then, once that mental technique is established, comes reading music as a secondary skill to produce music.
    Good sight readers hear the music they read first btw…
    It works exactly like verbal communication/language acquisition.

    Reading music skills are important later in the journey that education is. It’s not a priority. If you focus on music reading too soon, you can produce musical robots, who know how to produce tones, but who do not hear and feel music.
    Always teach the ear first.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      My own violin instruction — not Suzuki — started with notes on the page at the same time as fingers on the string. I would agree that this method probably creates a huge number of dropouts because of how long it takes to produce the first “tune” that you can recognize. The stick holding that carrot is awful long.

      But if you can stand it, I happen to think learning to read music at the earliest possible stage is important. I think some teachers these days put it off too late.

      I have to differ with Tamino on this: “Good sight readers hear the music they read first btw…” If he means that good sight readers have to seek out a recording first, that is not correct. Good sight readers, and I have known some amazing examples, need so such crutch. Nor is it a matter of reading the score and hearing it in your head first. My late teacher was an astounding sight reader. I remember bringing in the Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 5 to my lessons because I needed help with the Scherzo (actually I needed help with every measure but the Scherzo was the most urgent). He had never heard it or heard of it. Of course he knew who Vaughn Williams was. Without study or review he instantly sight read the Scherzo at tempo (indeed faster than my conductor was taking it) and just as quickly wrote down fingerings, with ossias, on my part. He did the same thing when I happened upon a solo violin sonata by Otto Luening. Sight read, at tempo. Never had heard it. Took no time to study it (so no “hearing in his head” first either).

      David Nadien was said to be the ultimate master of sight reading. Radio jingles, pop recording backgrounds, TV or film scores. The music was popped onto the stands, often with the ink still wet, and the taping began. That was his world as New York’s top freelance violinist.

  • JC says:

    Based on your premise we may as well abandon reading all together. You ingrain reading music so it becomes second nature; look at how our language is being bastardised due to poor literacy. I completely agree that training the ear is essential (this seems a fairly obvious statement to me), but I think it is important to develop reading music, as it is with reading full stop (if you’ll pardon the pun). To differentiate between the two is not helpful, both should be an organic process – reading should not be elitist. Attitudes like yours will result in less and less people commenting on sites like this I’m afraid.

    • Tamino says:

      I think you see a contradiction where there is none. Reading is important.
      Hence why I mentioned the parallel to language acquisition.
      Nobody reads right after birth.
      But language acquisition is well under way then. First by ear. Reading comes later.
      Same with music.

      Today’s problem with music education is not the lack of sheet music reading skills.
      The problem is more fundamental. It is the lack of basic hearing and music/sound producing skills.

      Are mothers or fathers these days still singing a song for their kids when they want them to fall asleep?

      • Jonathan says:

        I agree with you on most of what you say. Where I disagree, is on the ‘it is not a priority’ to read music, in my opinion it absolutely is. The problem with music education is multifaceted and not limited to to a basic lack of hearing and sound producing skills. It is as you intimated a cultural and environment issue and that is not something one can debate properly on here – I am not really sure we can debate this properly on here to be honest.

        • Tamino says:

          Saying it is not a priority does not mean it is not important. I hope we both differentiate semantically at least that much?
          Of course being able to read and write music is important for any thorough education. But it is not the priority. (meaning not coming first.)

  • Ian Pace says:

    If young people are not taught to read music, there is no chance of developing a diverse range of orchestral musicians, as the ACE demands. Musical notation will become the preserve of a narrow group of the privately educated.

      • Jonathan says:

        I have a problem with said article despite it’s good intent and it is troubling me. I think my initial question is; where does this end? What do people want from all of this? What would it look like? Will we eventually dilute all music so that there is no cultural basis/foundation for it? I am having tremendous difficulty adjusting to this paradigm shift, I am sure people will make their judgements. For example, are their ‘diversity schemes’ to include all ethnicities in music of African origin i.e. will there be white South Africans in Ladysmith Black Mambazo etc. it is difficult for me to believe we are as ethnically corrupt as some elements of society suggest. Music will be naturally appropriate by different sections of societies depending on ones needs, regardless of whether you agree with it or not – I am thinking specifically about ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ for example, and I am sure there are other examples. If the music transcends to other cultures it will do so naturally, why are we forcing it?

  • C Porumbescu says:

    Simon Rattle’s words should be engraved in stone over the ACE’s front door:

    “I am stunned at how British orchestral musicians manage to survive. Shame on the Arts Council for knowing so little, for being such amateurs, for simply turning up a different group of people every few years with no expertise, no knowledge of history, to whom you have to explain everything, where it came from and why it is there, who don’t listen and who don’t care. Shame on them.”

  • Tomtom says:

    I’m sorry, reading and writing music is an essential process in music. The written music manuscript is an instruction from a composer to a performer. Without that what are composers and conductors supposed to do.. call out the notes individually to the performers, and then the performers remember them all??! The entire thrust of this article just makes me weep.

  • Willymh says:

    Sad. But sadly the case in many schools these days. Guess we are fortunate on the small Island (145,000 pop.) I live on that music is still very important in the school curriculum. The son of a friend, who plays hockey also plays tuba in the school band, and refers to his high-school music classes as “Bach for Jocks”.

    • Willymh says:

      But I should add none the less he can read music, plays in a small amateur brass ensemble and attends symphony concerts.

  • SVM says:

    It is alarming that almost nobody in the musical establishment feels able to debate openly with an ACE executive. So much for the ACE being arms-length and led by the needs of the profession… it souns more like one of those all-powerful trade unions from the communist era.

    For once, I find myself agreeing with Morrison, notwithstanding his past track-record of spouting nonsense hyperbole and ad hominem attacks on singers’ physical appearance.

  • Ellingtonia says:

    I am all for children embracing music at a very early age, reading music but more importantly playing it. I would suggest a quick trip to Barcelona to see the Saint Andreu jazz band which is run by Joan Chamorro who involves and develops the talents of children forma very early age. Have a listen to 7 year old Elsa Armengou playing the solo in Duke Ellingtons “Mood Indigo”……….there are numerous examples on YouTube of the band and its long list of soloists, many of whom are young women who have played with the band from a very early age. Joan Chamorro is a genius, perhaps we could import him into the UK to find out how he achieves such success with very young musicians.

  • Leonardo says:

    Here in Mexico, our federal ministry of education (SEP) has a great music education programme from elementary school up to grade 9 whereby children are supposed to finish the course being able to take rhythmic and melodic dictation; the only problem, of course, is that corruption has thwarted the actual implementation of said programme for decades to the point where no Mexican is able to sing our traditional happy birthday song or the national anthem in tune. Classical music has also suffered the terrible consequences of this most heinous of negligences.

  • Paul Brownsey says:

    Could it be that for them participating in music is taking part in a mere singalong of a selection from Wicked?

  • justsaying says:

    Reading is not, strictly speaking, the most essential musical skill, but it is the best practical way to inculcate and confirm all the others. The essential skill is simply getting a command musical pitch and time. The child who learns to recognize whether or not a sounded note corresponds to an imagined one, and whether an event has or has not happened at the intended time, is in a position to go as far as talent and interest permit. The child who fails to learn those things, or is given no chance to do so, is effectively handicapped as a future participant or listener. There is nothing more important to the future of classical music than the training of the very young. Nothing even close.

  • justsaying says:

    sry, a missing “of” in the previous…

  • Kyle A Wiedmeyer says:

    It’s a silly thing to say because reading music is not even that difficult. Like, it shouldn’t take a long and tough time to teach.