Classical music education and the sour taste of “greats”

George Frederic Handel, a staple of classical music education, decorates every billboard in Times Square.

An attitude of ‘duty’ to undertake classical music education from ‘expertise’ arguably demonstrates paternalism under the guise of community care.


by Georgia Dawson
Monday 4th April 2022


An attitude of ‘duty’ to undertake classical music education from ‘expertise’ arguably demonstrates paternalism under the guise of community care.
Christopher Gray, quoted as Head of the Youthworks Programme at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama

I love music education. It’s part of my career. I enjoy facilitating group music workshops, especially with young people who are full of creativity and opinions.

But like many music educators, I’ve had moments of questioning my work. I have taught musical outreach projects in which participants have had no choice over the music and were not even asked which instrument they’d like to play. We just expected them to appreciate the chance to access classical music education. I was seen as the specialist, there to be listened to, not questioned. I would sometimes simply showcase western classical pieces as if everyone would feel a sense of awe at the true musical “greats”, just as I had been taught to do.

Ideally, the educator and participants collaborate on what happens in the sessions, which might be anything from original composition to physically exploring the instrument. My career so far has left me with little doubt that taking an attitude of a “duty to share our expertise” results in participants’ preferences and contributions being precluded from the creative process. At best it’s insular and at worst it’s incredibly patronising. Don’t get me wrong: music education is great and I wish we had more of it. It’s won a hard-fought place on the curriculum and is still not accessible enough for most students. But let’s ask honestly why the western classical “greats” and their instruments still take up virtually all the bandwidth. While possibly well meant, an attitude of ‘duty’ to educate due to your ‘expertise’ in western classical music arguably demonstrates paternalism under the guise of community care.

It’s also essential to acknowledge that western classical music is an established, elite aesthetic form. Outreach programmes and educational music settings that position western classical music as the default “can reinforce an unexamined or unconscious sense of cultural superiority and entitlement”, as Margaret Walker recently put it.

As long as the message that the legacy of Europe and thus Western Art Music remains comparatively “great” and “distinctive” is not examined and unpacked from its colonial baggage, its barely concealed message that European people are probably superior to other peoples will continue.

In my experience in the UK, many participants don’t regard western classical music that highly. Colleagues have been clearly shocked when students aren’t immediately awestruck by an orchestra, or when workshop participants have never heard classical music before. Once in a group trumpet lesson I played to a student who told me that he didn’t like the French horn because it doesn’t usually play jazz. I played my best attempt at an impressive fanfare on horn and he rather brutally replied, “Nah, I still don’t like it.” Music educators should appreciate these opinions as valid, not brush them off as unenlightened.

Further, when outreach programmes try to deliberately search out people to help without asking what they would like, they become hierarchical rather than co-created. And when we prioritise western classical content, our programmes also look distinctly neo-colonial. Culturally imperialist attempts to “send forth” ideas and practices using western classical music education are still widespread, and they’re still as wrong-headed as they were 200 years ago.

Diagram based on Herbert Spencer's work, by Bennett Zon.

From Bennett Zon (2014), ‘The ‘non-Darwinian’ revolution and the Great Chain of Musical Being’, in Bernard V. Lightman and Bennett Zon (ed.s), Evolution and Victorian Culture, Cambridge University Press. Drawn by Zon based on The Origin and Function of Music.

To take one historical example, Herbert Spencer directly applied scientific racism to music. In ‘The Origin and Function of Music’ (1857), he argued that the music of “civilised races” demonstrated cultural superiority and higher intelligence than the “monotonously repeated” music of “savages”. Charles Darwin contradicted him with his own dubious thesis of sexual selection on music in The Descent of Man (1871). However, there was no shortage of similarly racist rejoinders to Spencer’s ideas from music critics, musicologists, and other influential writers. These included Henry Chorley, William Godwin, George Hogarth, W.S. Rockstro, C. Hubert H. Parry, and H.G. Bonavia Hunt, the latter going on to found part of London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire. And Spencer achieved widespread popularity in his own lifetime.

Parry was an even more influential musician. He wrote the wildly popular hymn tunes to Jerusalem and Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. He held two of the country’s most distinguished posts in classical music education, as director of the Royal College of Music from 1895 to his death in 1918 and Professor of Music at the University of Oxford from 1900 to 1908. Here is his analysis of “Folk-music” from The Art of Music (1893). It contains some pretty horrific racism, so feel free to skip ahead.

The basis of all music and the very first steps in the long story of musical development are to be found in the musical utterances of the most undeveloped and unconscious types of humanity, such as unadulterated savages and inhabitants of lonely isolated districts well removed from any of the influences of education and culture. Such savages are in the same position in relation to music as the remote ancestors of the race before the story of the artistic development of music began; and through study of the ways in which they contrive their primitive fragments of tune and rhythm, and of the way they string these together, the first steps of musical development may be traced. True folk-music begins a step higher when these fragments of tune are strung together upon any principles which give the whole an appearance of orderliness and completeness; and power to organise materials in such a manner does not come to human creatures till a long way above the savage stage. In such things a savage lacks the power to think consecutively, or hold the relations of different factors in his mind at once. His phrases are necessarily very short, and the order in which they are given is unsystematic. It would be quite a feat for the aboriginal brain to keep enough factors under control at once to get even two phrases to balance in an orderly manner. The standard of completeness in design depends upon the standard of intelligence of the makers of the product; and it cannot therefore be expected to be definite or systematic when it represents the intellectual standard of savages.
From C. Hubert H. Parry (2009, originally 1893), ‘Folk-music’, in The Art of Music, Cambridge University Press.

There are still three rooms named after Parry at the Royal College of Music, and the conservatoire marked his centenary in 2018 with several weeks of concerts and exhibitions celebrating his legacy. Cambridge University Press still publishes The Art of Music, describing him as “a distinguished composer, conductor and musicologist”. That Parry received a knighthood five years after his book’s publication, and still directed the Royal College of Music twenty years after that, demonstrates how uncontroversial these views seemed at the time. When prominent institutions celebrate people like Parry without grappling with their history, it sets a standard in which racism can be excused if you’re accomplished enough. The consequences of overlooking this can be insidious and traumatic.

Even–or perhaps especially–in its intersection with international development, western classical music education too often takes centre stage by default. For example, the Venezuelan music school El Sistema, founded in 1975 by José Abreu, explicitly prioritises orchestral instruments and western classical repertoire. It has “antecedents in 19th-century Europe, where music education was promoted among the masses as part of a drive for moral improvement”. The idea that poverty is a matter of attitude rather than structural barriers is irresponsible and deeply insulting. Abreu told news agency AFP that “Just sitting a boy in a rehearsal to play, when he could be on the corner smoking marijuana, is already a very important achievement”, and claimed that:

El Sistema breaks the vicious circle [of poverty] because a child with a violin starts to become spiritually rich: the CD he listens to, the book he reads, he sees words in German, the music opens doors to intellectual knowledge and then everything begins. […] When he has three years of musical education behind him, he is playing Mozart, Haydn, he watches an opera: this child no longer accepts his poverty, he aspires to leave it behind and ends up defeating it.

To begin untangling the western classical model of community music-making from its arrogance means involving a much wider range of people in deciding what they are interested in learning, rather than choosing classical music education purely because its practitioners happen to be available at conservatoires. Free public guidance on inclusive music education has been available for years, including Towards Cultural Democracy: Promoting Cultural Capabilities for Everyone, the Warwick Commission, and the AHRC Cultural Value Project.

In my music degree I was thrown, in my first year, into community settings to facilitate music-making. My experience at that point consisted of performing 99.9% western classical music by dead white men. In my third year I was taught—in an optional module—how to work in a community-led and ethical way. Inclusive music-making is essential knowledge, not an optional extra. We need to redesign what music gets given space and priority–especially in the community context of ‘outreach’—so that those who don’t desire classical music education are not just heard, but listened to, and so that the classical music that we do teach is seen in full view of its origins.

Decolonising music education will require uncomfortable conversations. Assigning a few optional ‘world music’ classes won’t cut it. There is no excuse for assuming that people want and need something just because you’re keen to offer it, and we should listen to those who critique and do so loudly and angrily. The modern charity sector already has solid expertise on inclusive education: rebalance leadership to people with lived experience, research the need before the intervention, and prove that your intervention solves the problem better than any other. Unless we as educators actively resist structural racism, we are complicit.


Further reading

Baker, Geoff (2022), ‘Music and Social Ordering in Colonial Latin America : Stasis and Mobility, Sameness and Difference’, in Kate van Orden (ed.), Seachanges: Music in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Worlds, 1550–1800. Harvard University Press.

Beckles Willson, Rachel (2013), Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West. Cambridge University Press.

Brown, Danielle (2016), East of Flatbush, North of Love: An Ethnography of Home. My People Tell Stories.

Bull, Anna (2019), Class, Control and Classical Music. Oxford University Press.

Hess, Juliet (2019), Music Education for Social Change: Constructing an Activist Music Education. Routledge.

Montemayor, Mark; Coppola, William J.; Mena, Christopher (2018), World Music Pedagogy, Volume IV: Instrumental Music Education. Routledge.


Georgia Dawson (she/her) is a French Horn player, educator and writer based in London. She studied at the Royal College of Music and at King’s College London.


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