In defence of … a Musical education

The Muse demands I consider what is it that makes one look the most clever

I have had a relatively academic-leaning background, particularly at school. Having attended, each in their own right, “name schools” (or 名校 as the Chinese would call it), where my studies have taken in everything from the use of silk as alternative monetary policy in Middle Byzantium, to the human bitchiness which decided large matters of state in colonial American religion, to the surprising retrogradation in literacy in China during the 1990s, I feel well-placed to observe where learning happens. And surprisingly, when I look back on all the years I spent becoming over-qualified and under-educated, by far the most intellectually rigorous subject has been: Music.

To take a step back, I have been a semi-professional musician through most of life, and (time for a humblebrag) have been involved in top tier choral establishments, understudied at the Royal Opera, headlined at St Martin-in-the-Fields and much else besides. However it was at A-level that I last studied music academically – and yet, despite being at Oxford and Tsinghua and having collected reams of letters after my name, that Music A-level remains the most intense course of studies I have undertaken.

Let us consider what the constituent parts of this course were:

  1. Technical exams – as I recall, two 90 minute exams of listening to recordings, identifying musical language and testing one’s “ear” for marginally off-tune notes in a flurry of orchestral music
  2. Composition exams – I think back in amazement at being made to sit at a piano to compose a chorale in the style of JS Bach, on a given tune, in just 60 minutes
  3. Performance exams – by far the easiest, this comprised submission of my Grade 8 exams, but also involved recordings of group participation
  4. Academic exams – I believe my first ever three hour essay paper (these were to come thick and fast later at Oxford) tackling such pressing questions as – I kid you not – “Discuss the contribution of Handelian organ concertos to the development of concerto-sonata form” or “Do Florestan or Eusebius survive deeper into the Romantic era?

I would make three observations about this which build to my central case as to why academic Music is such a strong subject for any child to take.

The first point to make is the sheer range of demands that Music A-level placed on a student. I do not believe any other subject required such a diverse range of talent, and needed decent quality in each one – just being a great pianist was not enough to pass, let alone obtain a high grade, in this subject. It comprised a properly academic core, but also made you perform and be highly technical and abstract. It is perhaps the most multi-dimensional subject that can be studied, certainly at the age of 16. Being made to digest and memorise a complicated score such as Schumann’s piano concerto in A-minor – its structure, language, tradition and technique – is something I have never encountered since.

The second point is the obvious one that Music remains by far and away the most esoteric of subjects, given its requirement for dealing in the abstract and a mathematical mind. In the Medieval curriculum, Music formed part of the Quadrivium, the Greater Four science subjects and more or less represented the study of numbers in the context of time (the other subjects being Arithmetic, or pure numbers; Geometry, or numbers in the context of space; and Astronomy, or numbers in the context of both time and space). To look at it another way, Music as an art is far more intellectual than, for instance, visual arts and far less reliant only on emotional reaction as a measure of its efficacy – the work of Bach combines both the aesthetic of a Rembrandt with the technical skills of a master watchmaker. Is there a higher intellectual form of artist than Wagner, for instance? Is there even a Wagner equivalent within the other “arts”? I would wager, no.

Lastly, Music makes you a rounded, high-brow person in a way little else does. One of the great things it trains you for is performance – you are spending most of every day performing for someone or other. This constant need to “put on a performance”, and not be afraid of the limelight, but also to work in a form of harmony not found in many other parts of life outside of the sports field, is unparalleled; the ability, too, to “make do” and be pragmatic when things go wrong is equally important. Given the way we are headed on automation and the economy, it seems very likely that the ability to “perform” will be more important than ever as the only human jobs remaining will be those focused around selling and marketing – something Music is inherently suited to.

This is what musicianship is all about – and the long-haired kid displays this phlegm even better

Of course I do not attribute all my development to just one subject, and the above is written with a musician’s right to exaggeration; but it is also not completely tongue-in-cheek.  I rarely meet a group of people of a given industry who have a higher median amount of intelligence than musicians; neither are there many industries that would provide better dinner-party company. Yes, musicianship breeds in-jokes and a certain arrogance (humility and music have not, in my experience, been a natural coupling) but by God does it make fun, interesting people – people who can talk big, entertain spontaneously, pull together groups and networks, and who have a vocabulary which articulates and impresses. The fact that most of this is directed towards complaining about others is by the by; the important thing is that Music makes you look very, very clever.

So parents all! If your child is inclined towards Music, do not start hand-wringing. Your precocious offspring is probably just taking the first step towards become future employable, and annoying though they might become, take comfort in the fact that they will be a better sort of person.

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