Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
‘What exactly is it about having a music degree that makes you feel qualified to write about politics/stand for election?’ – I’ve been asked several times. In truth, my own variations on this theme bothered me most of the time I was at university. What’s the point of studying Western classical art music? Isn’t it what some insipid Victorian protagonist might’ve done in the sequel to a novel about her time at finishing school? It bothered me so much that I very nearly changed to history.
A few days ago, I read this article about the general assumption (and often, reality) that studying music simply equates to learning how to play an instrument. This – and an awareness that the academic year had just begun at my old college – caused me to reflect. However, the music degree I read (unlike most) was hardly performance based at all: performing accounted for 1/18 of my overall result (a third of an optional module, which was weighted towards an essay component). So that clearly wasn’t what bothered me.
The degree focused on the rigorous academic study of music – its history, historical context, analysis, social and cultural effects, etc. The purpose of multi-cleffed score reading, endless highly-mathematical harmony and counterpoint exercises, and compulsory ‘composition’ including fugue, was not to enhance personal expression, but to augment analytical ability through practical application. Then, in my final year, I did very little ‘music’, as such, having chosen modules that sounded as if they belonged in the faculty handbooks of theology, history of art, philosophy, and English literature. This music degree was (and still is) atypical. But, even though it was very academic, I struggled with what the point of it was, and – somewhat indulgently – whether it might preclude me from being taken seriously. (I should clarify that I certainly don’t think going to university is the only worthwhile course for an eighteen-year-old; it is, however, the subject of this piece.)
At this point, we could consider the intrinsic value of study – but I’ve done that quite recently. Or, I could write some (no doubt true) trash about transferable skills, and how we musicians are great communicators, great people-people, great leaders, and just generally great. Or, how it’s wrong (rather than judgmental) to box A-level music with non-conventionally academic subjects, such as design technology and theatre studies. How, historically, its study was seen to be of the utmost academic worth. Or, we could look at the significance of culture, and how education is the best way to enable people – as individuals, and a society – to benefit from it, and to counter the exploitation and poor standards that come from dangerously weak reasoning.
We should also discuss how to raise awareness of the easily accessible bounty of music-making in this country. The glorious choral tradition on display at any number of London churches, or university colleges. The wonders of Radio 3 (well, most of the time). The literally incomparable Proms and Edinburgh festival. And that you don’t need to take a music degree to appreciate these things. That, indeed, if you do, you might find yourself unable to appreciate them in the same way you could beforehand. For years after graduating, I didn’t really enjoy listening to music (thankfully, I do again now). Not only because I was tired of thinking about it, but probably also because, on reflection, I rarely actually listened to many of the pieces I studied. Why would I have done that? It’s all about the score… A music degree doesn’t teach you to love music – hopefully that’s already a given. Rather, it should help you to understand it better. And that can lead to greater enjoyment, for sure. Maybe in a more technical, less purely joyful sense, however: it’s a different kind of pleasure. (A little like the difference between Bach and Mozart, perhaps…)
So, what, ultimately, is the point of studying music? (Exhausted from being questioned about this when I briefly taught music in a school, I think I finally said, ‘Because it might just turn you into interesting people.’) But, really – as well as its intrinsic value – I think it comes down to its value as a conduit. As one of many appropriate conduits. A university education should teach you to think, to study – it should teach rigour. The subject doesn’t necessarily matter so much.
I was talking to a German friend about this, and she asked if it was usual for people to change track in England – explaining that, in Germany, a first degree traditionally settles one’s vocational trajectory. I said that I thought, and hoped, that it was. Our universities may not offer, as standard, anything as admirably broad as the American liberal arts degree, but the best exemplars (setting standards for which others should aim) leave students with boundless varied possibilities.
Of course, to do certain things, there are certain technical matters that you do need to have learnt. It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, if only I’d studied x at university, I’d know about that, or how to do that.’ But it’s ok. Education equips you to be able to learn – so that you can do so for yourself. The previously unthinkable technology-based spread of knowledge is occurring alongside increased bureaucracy and hierarchy within Higher Education; it can sometimes be preferable to learn outside of a formal setting. Yes, reliable guidance and a level of experience are often necessary – but little is inherently beyond grasp.
So, to return to my original question (without feeling a need, specifically, to justify my own efforts) – why would we limit the option of becoming a politician or political writer to those who have studied politics as a first degree? Indeed, Boris read classics, Carly Fiorina – medieval history, and Andy Burnham – English literature. Whenever we read or hear something, we assess it – and its writer or enunciator, too. But we consider content, intrigue, and accuracy, as well as authors’ credentials. It’s convenient and sensible to read or listen to experts: ‘Hmm, I want to read something on x – how about this book? Let’s look on the back and see where its writer teaches… Cambridge? Harvard? Or, let’s see where else they’ve written for… New York Times? Economist? Or, maybe, what they’ve done, previously… BBC correspondent? Former shadow defence minister? Great! I’ll take that one, please.’ But we don’t do this solely on their undergraduate qualifications. And neither do the institutions that give them their credibility.
As well as offering vocational opportunities, education frees you to seek out how you want to spend your life, gives you choice, gives you flexibility, allows you to keep learning. Yes, studying music – or whatever – can help you to understand music – or whatever – better. When it’s done well, however, it can also enable you to try to understand much more.
PS If you’d like to pay me to go to the opera and write about it, please feel free to ignore all the politics stuff, and get in touch…