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Playing the white man’s tune: inclusion in elite classical music education

The Music Teachers Association's second collective blogging project continues with responses from teachers reflecting on the article by Austin Griffiths – ‘Playing the white man’s tune: inclusion in elite classical music education’ (2019)

About this series

Dr Steven Berryman, Curriculum Lead for the Music Teachers Association (MTA), has launched a collective blogging project working with the editors of the British Journal of Music Education (BJME), Martin Fautley and Ally Daubney.

Martin, Ally and Steven have curated a selection of articles from the Journal highlighting some of the key debates in Music Education in the classroom.

Teachers have an article to read each week, and can submit a response by the end of the week. Responses are gathered together to form one blog post shared on MUSIC:ED.

Playing the white man’s tune: inclusion in elite classical music education

The Music Teachers Association’s second collective blogging project continues with responses from teachers reflecting on the article by Austin Griffiths – ‘Playing the white man’s tune: inclusion in elite classical music education’ (2019).


This study examined the nature of inclusion for female and black and minority ethnic (BME) young people in elite-level classical music in England.

By contrasting the numbers of female and BME students taking part in elite youth orchestras and music schools with the representation of female and BME compositions in the professional classical music repertoire, the study asked whether female and BME inclusion was limited to participation as performers or whether it included adequate representation in terms of the music performed.

The survey analysed 4897 pieces from 681 composers drawn from the 2017/18 concert seasons of 10 major English orchestras, 1 week’s play lists from two classical music radio broadcasters and the programmes from the last four London Promenade seasons.

The study found that female and BME students were well represented in elite music education, but they were very poorly represented in the professional repertoire, where 99% of performed pieces were by white composers and 98% by male composers.

Applying Bourdieu’s concepts of doxa and illusio, the study concluded that inclusion in classical music in England allowed female and BME musicians to play, but structures in the field maintained a repertoire that continues to be white and male and does not recognise the contributions of female and BME composers. This suggests that inclusion for female and BME musicians is limited, and the field continues to promote white and male dominance in its cultural values.


David Ashworth

This is an issue we are talking about in our Cafe. To address shortfalls in inclusion of contemporary women BME composers, more needs to be done to raise the profile of those whose work deserves to be heard. Those involved in music education and concert promotion need to dig around a little and discover for themselves what a wealth of talent is out there waiting to be tapped.

I suggest starting here (at what is the tip of an iceberg).

David House

Becoming an increasingly important area and chiming with the move to decolonise the curriculum, with much recent work by Nate Holder, also superb insight from Dan Elphick in his Cult of Musicology series on You Tube and Twitter, this is a fascinating read.

I have certainly questioned the accepted music history narrative over the past twelve months and discovered brilliant music by Florence Price, Chevalier St Georges, Esperanza Spalding, Grazyna Bacewicz and Errolyn Wallen amongst many others. In discussion with my current A-level group (75% female) it was interesting to note that they wanted to listen first, decide about musical quality second and then discover the background. However, all were mindful of historical narratives both within music and other disciplines (English, Psychology, Biology, Chemistry and Maths as their other subjects).

I am very happy and keen to learn more and keep reviewing, revising, and refining my choice of repertoire at all key stages and for concert programmes.

Nick Hughes

‘Tokenism’ is the word that sprang to my mind after reading Griffith’s powerful and important article. The ‘Classical music’ world must have breathed a sigh of relief when Sheku Kanneh-Mason won the ‘Young musician of the year’ competition in 2016. The British Classical music establishment had their ‘token’ and did not feel the need to press on with change as earnestly as they perhaps should have. Although representation of BME groups as performers at the elite level is no doubt improving, the question of whether they themselves feel represented and belong there remains from this analysis of elite level repertoire. This is a big problem.

The article also provided echoes of my own experience over the last five years of making a conscious effort to provide more of a platform to non-male/white producers in my music technology classes. In every lesson, we listen to and discuss music in a ‘low-stakes’ environment.

However, it was labelling my own Spotify playlist as ‘non-male producers’ that got me thinking; I had to normalise the narrative for this to have any effect, and merely having that label was not helping. I do not discuss the producers as being, female/non-binary/trans, I simply say their name and we listen to the track, as I would do for any other producer. The focus should be on the work, not on them.

I must educate myself too, which takes time and effort. I must seek out tracks and producers that I can play for us to discuss, I must be aware of, and challenge, my own subconscious bias, but never in the classroom. I keep dialogue about what I am trying to do internal.

To ‘sow the seeds’ of intrinsic thinking in my students I masquerade my conscious thinking as subconscious, or tacit; a type of modelling, if you will. That is my aim and goal in ‘normalising the narrative’. One of the most powerful things I can do is play non-male/non-white producers to my class of male/white students. The same can be said of playing BME musicians/composers to music classes that are all white. We are still normalising the narrative for them because their attitudes will go forth into the future and we have a responsibility to ensure that that happens.

I discovered the progressive metal band ‘Animals as Leaders’ and their incredibly innovative guitarist, Tosin Abasi, over the last couple of years. Whenever we talk about anything to do with electric guitars/techniques in KS5 music technology or must discuss rock/metal at KS3/4, I always try to play Tosin Abasi. I play him because he is incredibly innovative, technically/musically minded, is eloquent and clear in his explanations, and he is taking the instrument to new levels. As an aside, he is also black, and that is as equally powerful as the former qualities listed.

Rap music is great to teach complex rhythms, syncopation, and polyrhythms – asking students to clap out rhythms by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, MF Doom, Rakim, and Andre 3000, and asking them to notate them (other notation types are available) unlocks a whole new world of rhythm that they did not know existed. The recent discourse surrounding ‘Stormzy vs Mozart’ has blighted and marginalised non-male/white people further and has exacerbated the role of the class-system in the music education sector by people in positions of influence and therefore power. The government’s obsession with Arnold’s phrase ‘the best that has been thought and said’ further expands the gap between classes rather than closing it. As Phil Beadle so eloquently describes is in his book ‘The Fascist Painting’, the mere inclusion of the word ‘best’ implies a dominant, hierarchical narrative (Beadle, 2020: 42).

Anybody in a position to create repertoire to be practised or studied by young people should be thinking long and hard about how they create their repertoire lists. That includes music service orchestra coordinators (at all levels), ABRSM, Trinity and RSL syllabus creators, and of course, GCSE and A-level exam boards and their syllabus creators. As we know, one leading exam board has already been brought to task recently for its A-level syllabus; however, the others also have a duty of care on this subject. As classroom music teachers will know, the influence assessment has on what is learnt during a cycle of learning is very high indeed, and we cannot escape it. They need to be ahead of the curve and not reacting to it to sow the seeds of change.

  • Reference: BEADLE, P. (2020). ‘The Fascist Painting: What is Cultural Capital?’. John Catt Edu. Woodbridge, UK

Hawys Elis-Williams

  • Head of Music, Pimlico Academy – @HawysEW

I was aware that the Western Canon was largely composed by white males, but it was a harrowing experience to be confronted with the stark figures of the article.

I was surprised that representation in elite youth orchestras and music schools was so high for BME students and girls. This is positive news. I wonder if the same can be said for elite British Orchestras. When taking a group of students to a concert, probably around 7 years ago, a black student commented that there were not any black players in the orchestra. I am myself a white music teacher; when I was growing up, most (if not all) of the students in my local and county orchestras were white. When I went to university, many of the students on my music course were white. In the concert, I did not consider that there was not a black member in the orchestra, as I had had the privilege of seeing other people who looked like me in all orchestras that I had seen and been a part of. Thanks to that student for helping me realise this. (He is now studying at a London conservatoire and will hopefully give future generations a face to recognise.) Representation matters.

There is a lot of interest in this area now following the Black Lives Matters movement. Several cultural organisations from the National Trust to KEW gardens have recently announced that they want to have a more honest discussion about their colonial/imperial links in response to the movement. There was a discussion about whether Rule Britannia should be performed in the last night of the Proms. Commentators and politicians have stepped in to give their opinion on these matters.

The DfE has advocated for ‘cultural capital’ and ‘cultural literacy’ and has said we should be ‘introducing them to the best that has been thought and said’. Who is responsible for deciding what is the ‘best’ of what has been thought and said? ‘Value’ and ‘greatness’ are such complex concepts in music. Why are some pieces and composers more ‘valuable’ than others and who are the group of people who have established this culture?

Some composers have enjoyed a change of status throughout the years. However, overall, classical music is such an established tradition that the decisions about what is valuable have long been established. Griffiths states this as a reason for his research:

‘…present-day systemic inequalities in English schools, based on economic and cultural capital, have been structurally sustained in the doxa since before 1870… the field of classical music is mature. Its lineally connected to structures go back to 1750 and further. We would, then, expect a doxa that is robust, difficult to dislodge, powerful enough to sustain its legitimacy, and able to maintain advantage in its traditional locations, even in a changing world.’ Griffiths (2020: 60)

Exam boards and teaching resources will include the same white male composers which means that the canon is upheld in the classroom. Where does that leave us music teachers? Can we alone give a more equal representation of Western music? I hope so. Let us not assume that teaching African American styles of music is enough to give a fair representation of BME classical composers (although still important in a music curriculum). I am committing to doing the extra research on BME and female composers, Coleridge-Tayler, and Lilli Boulanger to begin with, to create classroom resources. Representation matters. We should also discuss with students why the Western canon consists of white males and why BME and female composers have been omitted. These discussions are vitally important as the next generation will shape what we value in the future.