Music Manifesto: Help or Hindrance?

Today’s article from the Battle of Ideas is by Piers Hellawell, a composer and, for many years, a professor at the Queen’s University of Belfast. While the essay is about the Music Manifesto, a British government initiative to push music lessons in schools, it makes some though-provoking points about the egalitarianism that is prevalent in Western culture.

‘I teach a class called “Everyone Can Draw”‘, an American artist once told me glumly. ‘It should be called “Not Everyone Can Draw Well”.’ His complaint was not that some people cannot draw well – something he already knew as an artist – nor was he railing at the temerity of the less able in having a go. His target was the crass egalitarianism that minimises the chasm between exploration and expertise, the prevailing fiction
that only the lack of a workshop holds every individual back from effortless creativity.

And this view is hard to challenge, since to do so is to be caricatured as advocating selective training only for the able few, leaving the majority without ‘participation’; it’s a whiff of the bad old days of selection that triggers every alarm in the missile system of modern social outrage. Jane Austen, who knew something about social exclusion, had no scruples in attributing to one of her most hapless satire-targets, the non-musician Lady Catherine de Burgh, the delusion that art is skill-free and is mainly a matter of participation:

There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of
music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have
been a great proficient. And so would [my daughter] Anne … I am confident that
she would have performed delightfully.

But they did not learn to play, being unlucky enough to live outside the era of the Music Manifesto (a [British] government policy document outlining a new scheme for music education), and with it the wider spirit of today that we are all musicians held back only by ‘exclusion’. The nostrum that musical, artistic or literary achievement is but a night-class away is one of today’s most seductive illusions. But it can be destructive too, a siren hope to adults of the sort that is rightly excoriated in magazines for teenagers that gasp ‘You can be Famous!’.

Serious artistic achievement is barely more attainable for most people than Celebrity, our most popular opiate. […] This is my first reservation, that a mania for generalised enabling leads to avoiding much sense of, well, learning.

The Manifesto offers a parodic view in which music is a free-for-all party; such a vision is genial but the reality is that music is very far from open-handed with its gifts, as every young pianist or apprentice sitar player knows. […]

This danger is perhaps obscured by the sort of glazed New Labour language so mercilessly ridiculed through the Blair years (‘the right “pathways for progression” must be in place – and clearly signposted. The pathways must be multiple and flexible, accessible to all…’) that it is amazing to find it emerging, wide-eyed, to graze on the unreal pastures of Planet DCMS.


To participate as an amateur is a rich experience, and if the Music Manifesto was concerned solely with encouraging amateur fun its positive, enthusiastic approach would suffice. However, since it sets its sights on the jobs ladder, gushing familiar DCMS-speak about music as career opportunity, more focus is needed on the demands embodied in such aspirations.


The Manifesto needs to proclaim music’s central truth: art changes your life, and the more you know about it, the more powerfully it does so. It is not primarily a means of making friends or of getting a job, though both those might result (more often the former); people like me do not devote our careers to writing, playing or recording music to create drop-in centres or youth employment, but to contribute to the collective imagination. The Music Manifesto needs to make clear not only that music has a positive social function, but that the goal of all this effort is the blazing power of the art form itself.

The whole essay is here.


  1. I have trouble with the phrase “Art (or anything) changes life”
    I have looked, read, written, listened, and now attempted to participate in “Art” yet as I look back on “Life” all I see is the usual, no discontinuities. Just the same creaking ride on the big conveyor belt to the edge.
    My volunteer work at the SSO’s “Soundbridge” convinced me that there was no way that “Mozart makes anyone smart”
    Ummm….Hitler came after Beethoven’ 9th.
    Hitler was, let’s face it, “business as usual” historically, old testament stuff.
    Ahhh… Your Lady Catherine be Burgh is the person (are the people) on the board of your local symphony who decide what us peons are supposed to worship as “Great art”

    Too nice a day to bother you with more of this crap. Love your site, your intelligent opinions, questions and insights. Keep up the good work.

  2. Miss Mussel

    Many thanks for your kind words, Doug.

    Regarding things life-changing…perhaps it all depends on how you define the experience. Does every choice/encounter/experience change the course of a life even if only minutely? Those with fatalist/Calvinist leanings would say that life is already mapped out, so it is impossible for any event to be life changing.

    Once again, Miss Mussel finds herself wandering the land between camps, sampling bits of both tables but coming away without any real answers.

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