Broken Chords: Prof Dan Grimley makes the case for music in higher education

professor dan grimley by ian wallman 00196

Dan Grimley, Head of Humanities and a Professor of Music in the Music Faculty, has written a comment piece in the Times Higher Education to make the case for why music education at all levels, including HE, is so important. The condensed version of his article is here, and the full text is below:

Broken Chords: the Case for Music in Higher Education

It is a tired and familiar refrain. After a year of industrial discord and tightening budgets, a strong and vibrant academic music department once again fights to resist closure.[i] The implications for the staff and students involved are devastating. Yet the wider issue is a structural failure across the sector to share and articulate a narrative that supports the role of music education for society. There is an urgent need to frame a more integrated and compelling argument for music: the loss of music from the curriculum, at every level, would cause irreparable damage for the world we live in.

This narrative is not difficult to advance. The benefits of music education are exhaustively documented. It has long been recognised that studying music has a significant impact on our lives. A review of 26 studies in 2022 found that music may provide a clinically significant boost to mental health: the Journal of the American Medical Association Network found that ‘music interventions are linked to meaningful improvements in HRQOL [health-related quality of life]’.[ii] Likewise, a 2019 report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Music Education found that studying music improves ‘creative skills’, ‘children’s health, wellbeing and wider educational attainment’ – as well as helping ‘young children to develop the sheer love of expressing themselves through music, discovering their own inner self and being able to develop emotional intelligence and empathy through music’.[iii] And a 2023 study in the British Journal of Music Education noted that learning to play a musical instrument can have a positive impact on academic attainment in a range of academic subjects, including Maths and English for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.[iv]

The urban myth that studying music does not lead to positive economic and career outcomes is not sustained by the hard data. The importance of music to the national economy alone is powerful testimony to the renewed strength and resilience of the industry after lockdown: UK Music’s 2023 report showed that music exports generated £4bn for the UK, contributed £6.7bn in ‘gross value added’ to the economy (up from £5.8 billion in 2021), and employed 210,000 people.[v] Those statistics do not account fully for music’s contribution to cognate fields, including film, TV, gaming and design. A recent 20-year longitudinal survey report of over 9000 graduates published by Oxford University demonstrated that music students go on to a very broad range of career destinations including teachers, solicitors, barristers and consultants.[vi] Music graduates possess the skills most valued by employers, including creativity, adaptability, critical thinking and the ability to analyse large amounts of complex non-linguistic information. And academic music studies, like the rest of the humanities, are inherently interdisciplinary: the serious study of music requires linguistic, philosophical and historical training, the understanding of cultural and geographical difference, numeracy, and highly developed communication skills.

Government has long recognised the value of music education. The publication of Darren Henley’s report on music education in England in 2011[vii] concisely summarised the health, well-being, and social benefits of music-making and was a key platform for the development of a coherent approach to music education and participation. The first National Plan for Music Education, advanced under the coalition government, adopted many of the recommendations in the Henley report and outlined an ambitious programme for the subject across the curriculum.[viii]

The updated 2022 plan, The power of music to change lives, followed a nationwide call for evidence conducted between February and March 2020, and presented a series of recommendations for music, focusing on inclusivity, the use of technology, the creation of music hubs to help coordinate and pool resources and share best practice, and a bank of career education resources to create links with the commercial music industry and the wider cultural sector.[ix] The case studies gathered as part of the 2022 plan are rich testimony to music’s ability to transform creative opportunities and empower young people in a rapidly changing and unstable world.[x] Music’s place within the Creative Education Manifesto, published in October 2023, underlines its potential to support increased innovation, productivity and growth, economic and cultural renewal, and greater social cohesion and individual agency.[xi] Ofsted’s 2021 report on music documents the quality, range and depth of music-making across the country, and offers a detailed model curriculum from early years to key stage 5 based around three pillars of progression (technical, constructive and expressive), alongside recommendations for special educational needs and students with disabilities.[xii]

Yet despite this overwhelming weight of evidence, the struggles faced by academic music departments in universities indicates that the music education pipeline is broken. The reasons for this system error are numerous but the diagnosis is clear. The 2019 APPG report charted a serious decline in music education provision in schools: the Department for Education’s data shows a fall of over 20% in GCSE music entries between 2014 and 2019, while secondary school music teachers fell by over 1,000 in the same period.[xiii] Similarly, UK Music reported in 2018 that while 50% of children at independent schools received sustained music tuition, that figure was only 15% at state schools.[xiv] Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Music in Secondary Schools Trust likewise reports that 85% of private schools have an orchestra while only 12% of state schools offer the same resource.[xv] City and county music services, which have long been the mainstay of local provision and were so fundamental to my own experience as a state-school pupil in the south-east of England, have suffered budget cuts and chronic under-funding. Access to high quality music education is demonstrably narrowing at precisely the moment when the impact of a fully integrated and inclusive music curriculum could be most transformative.

At heart is a problem of perception and investment, both public and institutional. As long as academic music departments are seen as high-cost, niche, and unaffordable, music’s role will remain contingent at best. Music’s regrettable omission from the Russell Group’s list of ‘facilitating subjects’, now corrected, had a marked negative effect on recruitment, and was indicative of a failure to grasp the subject’s full depth and potential, and the extent to which it is intrinsically connected to other disciplines, within the humanities and beyond.[xvi] What is needed is a genuine commitment from all sides—government, schools, universities, research funding bodies, and industry—to pursue a properly integrated and coherent pathway that that offers a dynamic and innovative music curriculum for all students. That commitment requires resourcing—financial and human—and, crucially, infrastructure.

It also requires a degree of ambition, leadership, and imagination that recognises music’s role in a diverse and progressive economy. University music departments need to work in a more synchronised fashion in partnership with the national music hubs, and support is needed for closer engagement with the creative industries and other sector partners. There is scope here for internships, work placements, and training, and a renewed dedication to the academic endeavour.

We should not have to look to other countries to realise what they have long understood: that a future for higher education without the study of music is a long-term cost we cannot afford to incur. And we should not be defensive about making the intellectual case for music studies on their own terms, resisting the temptation to over-instrumentalise or resort to flatly utilitarian claims. An intervention as transformative as the Creative Industries Clusters Programme has been for screen and immersive technologies is needed to draw together all parts of the music sector: academic, industry, professionals, teachers, and students.[xvii]

Working together across the sector, we can ensure the UK remains a global music powerhouse. Academic music departments in universities have a pivotal role to play in that process: as site of creative innovation, excellence, access, and opportunity.

If we can collectively share that vision, and resituate music at the heart of the academy, we might finally begin to sing a different refrain.

[ii] J. Matt McCrary, Eckart Altenmüller, and Clara Kretschmer, ‘Association of Music Interventions with Health-Related Quality of Life: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis’, Journal of the American Medical Association Network 2022;5(3):e223236. [accessed 22 December 2023]

[iii] Music education: state of the nation, A Report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education, the Incorporated Society of Musicians, and the University of Sussex, January 2019, [accessed 22 December 2023], p. 3.

[iv] David Baker, Susan Hallam and Kevin Rogers, ‘Does learning to play an instrument have an impact on change in attainment from 11 to 16?’, British Journal of Music Education, 40: 3 (2023), 297-310.

[v] UK Music, ‘This is Music 2023’. [accessed 22 December 2023], p. 6.

[vi] James Robson et al. The Value of Humanities: Understanding the Career Destinations of Humanities Graduates, University of Oxford, 2023. [accessed 22 December 2023]

[vii] Darren Henley, Music education in England. Department of Education and Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 7 February 2011. [accessed 22 December 2023]

[viii] The importance of music: a national plan for music education. Department for Education and Department for Media, Culture and Sport, 25 November 2011. [accessed 22 December 2023]

[ix] The power of music to change lives: a national plan for music education. Department for Media, Culture and Sport, Department of Education, and Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, June 2022. [accessed 22 December 2023]

[x] The power of music to change lives: a national plan for music education. Case Studies. Department for Media, Culture and Sport, Department of Education, and Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, June 2022. [accessed 22 December 2023]

[xi] #ArtIsEssential: Creative Education Manifesto, Council for Higher Education in Art & Design, September 2023. [accessed 22 December 2023]

[xii] Research review series: music, Ofsted, July 2021. [accessed 22 December 2023]

[xiii] Music education: state of the nation, p. 17

[xiv] UK Music, Measuring Music: 2018 Report, quoted in Music education: state of the nation, p. 17.

[xvi] Music education: state of the nation, p. 18.