Instrumental music: should music be a tool of social policy?

Saturday 30 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Henry Moore Gallery

Music is an essential part of many if not most people’s lives, a source of joy, solace, entertainment and self-expression. But as well as the particular meanings it has for individuals, music also plays several important social roles. Pop music in particular is big business, one of the ‘creative industries’, regarded by many as a key sector of the UK economy. Classical music and its various institutions, from colleges and conservatoires to symphony orchestras and the Royal Opera, forms part of the fabric of the ‘high arts’ and elite culture. And while religion is no longer as central to public life as it was, religious music remains an integral part of worship for thousands of Christians and other believers.

Given the power of music to move people, to bring us together and infuse our lives with meaning in various ways, many argue it can also be a valuable tool for social policy. Whether this means using young people’s interest in music to communicate messages about anything from drugs to the environment, or forming community choirs to help build social cohesion, should the government be using music to achieve social goals? Or does this kind of ‘instrumentalism’ undermine the true value of music as an aesthetic experience?

The most celebrated example of a project using music in this way is Venezuela’s El Sistema, an initiative that over the years has helped thousands of socially deprived young people play in orchestras. Champions of the scheme say it has helped many of its beneficiaries escape a dangerous life of gang culture, as well as producing excellent young musicians - as can be testified by the worldwide acclaim and huge following for the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. There have been several attempts to replicate El Sistema in the UK, such as the Big Noise initiative in the Raploch in Stirling. But can it work here, or is the redemptive power of music less simple than it seems? Sceptics point out that in Venezuela the young musicians are pushed hard to excel, in a way that jars with the more laid-back, participation-focused approach often taken to music education in Britain.

Is the point of such schemes to introduce young people to unfamiliar music and challenge them to broaden their horizons, or simply to get them involved in something wholesome, even if it just means banging a tambourine? Should children be taught to appreciate music in its own terms, even if this has no measurable outcomes? Or at a time when arts budgets are facing cutbacks, should we expect musicians to do more than sing for their supper, and demand that music projects benefit society directly? If music is an instrument of social policy, how much does the music itself matter? Can a more instrumental approach change the way we think about music?


Tom Hutchinson
clarinettist; teacher; arts project manager, Royal Philharmonic Society

Nicola Killean
director and CEO, Sistema Scotland

Dr Alexandra Lamont
senior lecturer, psychology of music, Keele University

Alan Miller
chairman, Night Time Industries Association (NTIA)

Tom Service
presenter, Radio 3's flagship classical music magazine programme Music Matters; chief classical music critic, Guardian

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Produced by
Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
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