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Learning to listen

If your experience of school music was anything like mine, you’ll recall those dreaded aural lessons when the teacher put on a recording and instructed you to identify the instruments, to describe the main melody, to spot a key change, perhaps even to name the composer. In my case, this tortuous experience continued into my late teens when, as a music undergraduate at Cambridge, I was compelled to take a paper in aural skills. The ultimate challenge of the final examination was aural dictation, during which we were played an atonal melody that we had to notate. It was an exercise dreaded by almost all by peers, and one that seemed manifestly unfair on those of us who lacked perfect pitch. So why was I taught to listen in this way? What is more, throughout the rigorous training, I was rarely, if ever, asked to exercise the same attentiveness to recordings of popular music. Why not?

This pedagogic practice has its roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the question of how people listened to music – especially art music – became a hot topic among British intellectuals. As a more centralized mode of governance and changes to the voting system put democracy high on the political agenda, culture was increasingly thought about in relation to the rights and duties of Britain’s newly enfranchised public. Indeed the study of music came to be seen not just as something to which people were entitled, but also “as part of their preparation for ‘the responsibilities of citizenship’.”

At the same time, this was an era when technological advances were creating novel ways of accessing music. First the advent of gramophone, then radio meant that musical performance no longer required the presence of a musician. Even large-scale forms, such as symphonies and operas, could for the first time be listened to from the comfort of the home. These developments held huge promise for those seeking to broaden access to art music, but they also threatened to loosen intellectuals’ hold on high culture. In particular, intellectuals feared that disseminating art music via emerging mass media might tarnish it with the negative connotations of popular music, which they frequently dismissed as too commercial and aesthetically inferior.

Some – perhaps most famously Schoenberg – responded to this situation by disavowing mass media and priding themselves on the niche appeal of their art. Others were more optimistic and sought to instil in the public a love of great music. Soon the disjointed efforts of the more inclusively minded music educators began to gather momentum, to the point where they coalesced under the banner of “the music appreciation movement.”

Motivating these cultural pioneers was a belief that the public’s tendency to listen in a “passive,” inattentive way could be combated if they were given tools that facilitated a more “active,” “intelligent” appreciation. There was a fine balance to be struck here. Overly intellectual approaches were considered as superficial as overly emotional ones, but since acquiring factual knowledge about music was an easy way of measuring progress, music educators often ended up focusing on the rudiments of music theory and practice: the names of the instruments, harmony, rhythm, tonality, and form.

Such concerns were not uniquely British. In an age of increasing mobility, the drive to create larger audiences for art music played out in a transatlantic arena. The perceived need to teach the public to listen “properly” took on a nationalist dimension. British and American music educators watched one another closely. Sometimes they exchanged ideas, as for example at the Anglo-American music educators conferences inaugurated in the late 1920s. Other times they used one another as a benchmark of success, comparing not only whose concert halls were fuller (a competition in which America usually came out on top), but also how audiences responded to the musical fare.

Initially reliant on printed media, lectures, records, and educational concerts, the music appreciation movement burgeoned with the growth of radio. However, it arguably reached its pinnacle in the 1940s, when two music education films were produced whose impact is still felt today: in the United States, Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), and in Britain, the Ministry of Education’s Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), for which Benjamin Britten wrote the music, now better known as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

In many ways, these two films capture the differences in how music appreciation had evolved in the two countries. Walt Disney’s lesson is an imaginative feature-length adventure in Technicolor, in which human beings interact with cartoon characters.

In contrast, the Ministry’s is an austere, black-and-white short, the only playfulness here coming from the effervescent moments in Britten’s score.

Instruments of the Orchestra, 1946
Still from the filming of Instruments of the Orchestra, 1946. Reproduced with permission of the British Film Institute.

If Disney’s creation holds more obvious appeal for children, such a whimsical mix of art music and animation would perhaps have been a step too far for even the most open-minded of Britain’s intellectuals.

The postwar era marked the passing of the first generation pioneers of music appreciation but their legacy remains strong to this day. It continues to shape musical instruction both in school and universities. At a time when the place of the arts in British education is under constant scrutiny, reflecting on the history of our education system might provide a useful perspective. It might help us to discover where we’ve come from; to understand why we teach art and popular music the way that we do, and perhaps even to imagine alternative ways of teaching that are less bound by cultural ideologies inherited from the past.

Featured image: Guitar, Strings by MonkeyMoo. CC0 via Pixabay

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