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Philip Pullman speaks up in favour of music education

2nd September 2015

Author Philip Pullman has stated that he considers music to be the most important school subject.

A feature in the September/October issue of Intelligent Life magazine asked a number of high-profile writers (including Alain de Botton, Rose Tremain, and Herman Koch) what they considered to be the most important school subject. Pullman – a former English teacher – nominated music:

‘Too much of what passes for education splits children in two, and throws away half. Children are turned into little exam-takers far too early; to think of infants being sent home with homework to do is to contemplate a sort of wilful maiming.

The half that’s thrown away is the body, and all the ways it can move and feel and be intelligent and cause delight. And of all the things the body can do, the richest, the most interesting, the most emotionally and intellectually fulfilling thing is music. Every child needs to encounter music as early as possible, and I don’t mean just listen and then answer questions: I mean make, with voice, with clapping hands and stamping feet, with instruments of every kind.

First of all I’d make sure that every school had a talented and qualified teacher of singing. Children will sing very willingly if they can see and hear that it’s fun. I vividly remember the first time I sang a round in class; I can’t remember whether it was “Frère Jacques”, or “London’s Burning”, but I do remember the delight of waiting till it was my turn to come in, and finding the right note, and hearing my voice winding in and out of the lines and making a pattern with others.

Then I’d require every school to provide instrumental teaching for every child. The recorder used to be the first instrument children were given, but I’m glad to see the ukulele being used a lot nowadays. You can play it and sing at the same time, and it’s a great gateway to other instruments.

And finally, once I’d got all the schools making music, I’d do something about the wretched conditions many fine professional musicians have to work in: exiguous rehearsal time, poverty-level pay, a culture that regards music as a free good and sees no need to pay composers or performers properly for their skill and their work. Children need to see that the music they begin to learn in school has a real cultural and social purpose, and is properly valued by the nation.’

Pullman has acknowledged the importance of music on his work on previous occasions. On his website, he writes: ‘Music is so important to me that I don’t listen to it when I’m writing, because I can’t concentrate on my work. I can only listen to it when I’m doing something that doesn’t involve words. And I love all kinds of music – jazz, classical, pop, everything.’

The author has previously spoken out against illegal downloads. In an article for the Index on Censorship, he writes: ‘In order to steal someone else’s literary or musical work, all the thief has to do is press a few keys, and they can make our work available to anyone in the world, and take all the money for themselves […] The ease and swiftness with which music can be acquired in the form of MP3 downloads is still astonishing even to those of us who have been building up our iTunes list for some time.’

Read more on the Classical Music Magazine website