A Response to the Critics of a Music Degree

So I said it wouldn’t be too serious…however want to post some things and I wrote this a while ago so I thought it would do! Some of my thoughts on doing a music degree, not all of them, of course, but for anyone who opened this blog and laughed at the prospect of being a music student!

The cost to students going to university has reached a new height this year with fees of up to £9000. The cost to universities has also been tangible with students seeming more critical of courses, wanting to get their money’s worth and fewer applicants. The whole system has entered a new position in the media spotlight and although important truths have been revealed, it’s certainly not all illuminating, and in some cases, particularly damaging. Recently I’ve read quite a few articles and comments slamming music degrees. This led me to question exactly why so many people seem quite ready to dismiss degrees in music as useless, easy and unproductive. I have been asked many times what my degree ‘leads to’ and in all honesty I know my parents would be much more comfortable were I doing a degree in engineering.

Well, to start with, I have never heard anyone say that they do not enjoy music, that it is not part of their life or even that they are simply ambivalent towards it.  In essence, the music that people enjoy so much has to be written by someone and performed by someone. It requires people to record it, produce it, publish it, publicise it, organise its performance, facilitate that performance and educate future generations in all of these areas. And that’s without taking into account the people who make and sell instruments and software and those who use music in less obvious ways, such as music therapists. So, there are a certainly a few career possibilities there.

However, even once I’ve dealt with my parents’ concerns that I’m going to end up unemployed, (hopefully unlikely since I have a job in the area of the UK with the highest rate of unemployment), some remain concerned on a deeper level that the pursuit of studying music is self-indulgent, an act of hedonism even. Firstly, I can assure anyone of this opinion that I wouldn’t be paying £27,000 just in tuition fees to indulge myself, and secondly if I only intended to enjoy myself I wouldn’t have undertaken such a demanding and strenuous course. Obviously the amount of time one spends working varies between individuals, but this is the case in any course of study, lifestyle or career. It is perhaps worth noticing, however, that when practicing a piece, composing, or researching you are never really finished (perhaps unlike completing a sheet of equations, not that I am diminishing the conscientiousness that this may require).

If you’re still concerned that even if a music degree is more than a pleasurable pursuit, that it’s still not particularly serious or useful, perhaps a sample of the subject matter I’ve covered in two terms of my course might sway you otherwise.  We’ve looked at everything from developing an understanding of music 800 years ago from surviving 13th documents, or at least trying to, right up to studying hip-hop. It’s a phenomenon occurring at this very minute in at home and across the world which is so relevant to us right now: socially, culturally and politically. How on earth do you approach a track called ‘Order Your Wife to Wear a Veil for a Pure Palestine’?! (a song by the group Shehadin, quite an unusual example, but real nonetheless). Personally, I’ve looked at how ideas about mental illness are still not being challenged enough in popular culture and in top academic writing. One of my tutors questioned my use of a quote from Robert Schumann because, hey, ‘Schumann went mad’! As I pointed out, not only is this term highly anachronistic but also exceptionally vague and of doubtful accuracy. This turned out to be an ideal starting point for an extended essay on how assumptions from the past affect our study of music today. I’m not a performer myself, but those among my peers spend dedicated hours practising, working on self-control and awareness of every part of their bodies as far as possible, concentrating on a scientifically precise method and injecting it with power and expression. The communicative subtleties added to this which are required in ensemble work multiplies such complexities!

That’s a snapshot in under 200 words of the kinds of things a music degree involves. Can music really be legitimately challenged as a subject which is not tough or serious? And supposing the world suddenly decides it doesn’t like music and there are no jobs in the industry, I certainly don’t feel like I will have wasted three years developing such a diverse range of skills and knowledge.

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