Representatives from Australia’s musical organisations are weighing in on a debate about the teaching of musical notation to children following a furore that started in the UK. An article in the Guardian titled Music is Now Only for the White and Wealthy sparked intense debate by suggesting that teaching children musical notation is “elitist”. The article by Charlotte Gill, in which she recounts her own experiences in the UK’s music education system, provoked an outcry from many in the music community, with a letter to the Guardian by pianist Ian Pace – that accused the article of “anti-intellectualism” and “romanticisation of illiteracy” – garnering over 650 signatures, including from high profile musicians like Sir Simon Rattle and Steven Isserlis.

The furore has encouraged debate on the issue of teaching music notation in Australia, with Richard Gill describing the notion that teaching children music notation is elitist as “a strange idea indeed.”

“We already have enough dumb people in the world, which is why we try to give children the very best where possible, including the teaching of musical notation,” he said.

Composer and Artistic Director of Musica Viva Carl Vine has come out in opposition to the article, calling for the learning of music notation to be made available for all children.

“The Guardian article by Ms Gill is illogical and deeply garbled, and I’m surprised that others are taking it so seriously,” he told Limelight. “Totally illiterate people can take part in improvised theatre, but they can’t read books, which is a dreadful loss. Untrained musicians can create and enjoy music without understanding anything about written music, and that’s terrific. But they remain locked off from the vast, beautiful universe of music in the written tradition, for the lack of a few months of simple learning. Governments of every stripe in every country should be falling over themselves to make this learning available to every citizen from an early age.”

“The widespread benefit of learning and practising music in all of its forms is now proven beyond doubt,” Vine continued. “Music exercises the brain in astounding ways, and assists the learning of all subjects, especially science, as well as the practice of other art forms. Read Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia. Nothing fires neural centres in concert throughout the entire brain mass like musical activity. And the positive effects from the sheer joy of playing and listening to music can never be overestimated.”

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Learning and Engagement Linda Lorenza also weighed in, acknowledging that music educators need to be mindful of how to remove the barriers to accessing music education.

“Charlotte Gill is considering music from her own context as are the other respondents who have specialised in the field,” she told Limelight. “Children and young people learning about music come from different levels of knowledge and experience. They come from different backgrounds and offer different perspectives of what music is, and what it means to them. Our aim is to make the art form accessible to them so they can delve more deeply into music, its languages and forms.”

“I can’t speak for the UK experience, however, in Australia we have spent five years developing a national curriculum in the Arts in which music is one of five arts subjects,” she said. “There was lengthy consultation, debate and eventually collaboration across the eight educational jurisdictions to decide how to create an inclusive, accessible and aspirational curriculum. There was and continues to be debate about curriculum language and labels and how this includes art form specific terminology. However, the overriding goals are unanimous: every Australian child is entitled to learning in, through and about music. They should be introduced to it through their own context and then be able to take their interest in music into deeper levels of knowledge, skills and understandings.”

The SSO, like Musica Viva, has its own education programmes that seek to music literacy to children. “The SSO supports the Australian curriculum and the current state syllabus in NSW through schools concerts and teaching resources,” Lorenza said. “These are designed to assist primary classroom teachers through to music specialist teachers in helping students develop to the use of ‘classical western notation’ – while also embracing student-devised notations along the way. We recognise that music learning starts in different ways for different students and we see reading and writing in music notation and exploring the breadth of this for the orchestra as an aspirational goal. Notation is to music what a script is to theatre – it preserves a record for future performance (for example, it is how the orchestra can play Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No 3). But anyone’s journey in to music begins with listening.”

“All music educators need to be mindful of how to remove barriers to access – the term ‘elitism’ is not helpful to the cause of music,” she said. “Everybody listens to music, but in order for music to continue we want people to make music. In Australia it is important we consider the diversity of situations in which our schools and students are situated. Studies have shown that young people tend to participate in activities in their locality. It is important to ensure that music is accessible to them where they are geographically, and in a way that sparks their curiosity. For us at the SSO we perform and present interactive opportunities across the state to excite young people’s interest in music. Music begins with listening. Musical notation is, as Charlotte Gill suggests, a language, and we strive to make that language accessible to all.”