Do we really need music?

By the time you get to read this it is possible that the Ulster Orchestra, who I have just been working with, may have been forced to close down due to a lack of funding.

This follows hard on the heels of the recent announcement that Rome Opera in Italy have sacked their entire company, two hundred jobs lost. Francesco Paolo Scola, the Principal Clarinet in the Ulster Orchestra left Rome Opera four years ago. Financial pressures may yet see more orchestras go to the wall in Italy in the near future, and more than likely further losses around the world.

So should we care?

One of the main reasons for this decline in our cultural jewels is the lack of political will to see these institutions survive. In Northern Ireland the sums of money involved are modest in the scale of their total budget, with more spent on policing the Unionist flag demonstrations than the Orchestra would need for a whole year! In addition, it has been revealed that far from a cost to the city council, the UO pays more in the rental for the hall it plays in than it receives from the council! Interestingly the Arts Minister for Northern Ireland announced that it “wasn’t her job to drum up cash support for the under-threat Ulster Orchestra”, raising the question, what then does she think her job is?

Let’s hope that the situation of having two of the finest concert halls in the United Kingdom, (the Ulster and the Waterfront Halls) but no orchestra to play in them, will not be allowed to come about.

In Westminster there is much the same view, there are few votes in the arts as far as ministers are concerned and with the Musicians’ Union seemingly powerless to do anything, there is little defence for money to be channelled away from vital services such as the NHS or Education.

It is hard to justify spending money on seemingly non-essentials such as the arts at the expense of health or education. My good friend, clarinettist Tom Ridenour, put this rather well when we were discussing this very issue some years ago – “What is the point of teaching people to read and write if there is nothing for them to read and write about?” His point is that the arts provide inspiration for minds to develop emotionally, spiritually and provide avenues for imagination to flourish, young and old.

We now live in a world where little is left to the imagination, music seems to require a video to put its message across to the listener in “popular” music, leaving little scope for the person to develop their own visualisation of what is being described in the song. I guess there is no going back from this situation now that Pandora’s box has been opened, but it is a sad reflection on society that it doesn’t recognise what is being lost.

So do we really need orchestras and “classical” music?

With so much possible with electronic instruments and computer-generated sounds maybe we don’t. But it is still the case that most film scores do not rely solely on electrically produced sounds to have their full impact in film.

Composers such as John Williams and many others know only too well that for any mood changing sequence, the richness and variety of sounds an orchestra can produce add a sensational and emotional rollercoaster that is difficult to create any other way.

If you think of any great moment in film, it is likely you will recall the music that accompanied the scene, from Elliot taking to the air in E.T. to Johnny Depp leaping aboard his ship in Pirates of the Caribbean, or the haunting score for Schindlers List hugely effective throughout, the music makes the film all the more effective and memorable.

Picture a simple static scene in a film, you may have the impression that nothing is happening, but the music can change the mood, perhaps with a sinister undertone or a by creating a feeling of wellbeing, with no action onscreen required! Good directors recognise this secret power of music and use it to great advantage.

Music has become a vital and thriving part of our lives, but we too often take it for granted as it surrounds us throughout the day and night.

Imagine now if you will, a world without music. If only there were a way to show the politicians how vital a role music plays in our lives? Perhaps they should be made to experience one whole day, including watching a film, without any music.

It might make them think twice before allowing the axe to fall on any more of the National icons that we should be treasuring in this country, our orchestras.

What else do orchestras add to our lives?

Well, education is always quite rightly a priority for any government, so how does music influence this?

There have been many studies undertaken across the world, which prove that music and learning to play a musical instrument to good standard boosts the brain function in a way nothing else does. Music stimulates and connects areas of our brain that don’t normally work together.

(See the TED lecture on this here

One study showed that learning to play an instrument, to a high level was worth 18 points on the IQ scale. There is a whole other article to be written about the value of music therapy, which can calm the most disturbed minds and bodies.

Some years ago, whilst undertaking a promotional tour for Leblanc clarinets, I was invited to comment on the release of new report, commissioned by the then government, on a local radio station. The report involved quite a large study of 10,000 pupils, which covered three groups of schoolchildren. One group had no extra curricular activities, a second worked on computers and the third learnt to play an instrument in school.


The outcome was mostly predictable, the group of children who did no extra curricular activities did the least well, and the children using computers did better, but the children learning an instrument did as well as those using a computer, except in maths, where they performed 50% better than other two groups!


The result of this study was that Tony Blair put computers in every school, very laudable, but sacked most of the peripatetic music teachers, very bad. There are areas of this country that have almost no music tuition in schools and the repercussions will not be seen for some years yet, but will need massive investment to reverse the damage done. A whole generation of children are being disadvantaged by this decision. Perhaps we should question the reason for the government’s choice, what incentive did the computer manufacturers offer?…….


The government claims that there has been no dumbing down within education, but the standard required for students to take GCSE and A level or to begin a degree course in music have been lowered. Could this be as a result of the difficulty in finding instrumental teachers to get the students to a higher level?


This reduction in instrumental teachers has also meant there has been a knock on effect in the number and standard of players who, in previous generations, had gone on to play in local and county youth orchestras. In some areas of the country these musical activities are being brought under an umbrella known as a Music Hub, a rebranded music services then.


Enlightened thinking in several professional symphony orchestras sees a move for them to steer the Music Hubs in the interests of providing vital information and players of a good standard to try to redress the diminishing number of instrumental players.


Increasingly the Education and Learning departments of some of the major orchestras bring in more and more funding for the organisations to facilitate the inclusion of younger people. In Liverpool the orchestra give a large number of schools concerts, which see a capacity audience sometimes twice a day. In one year over 30,000 local children will have visited the “Phil”, as the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall is affectionately known as locally, many of these concerts for young people are designed and organised by the incredibly dedicated and talented Alasdair Malloy, whose day job is as a percussionist in the BBC Concert Orchestra.


Alasdair works with many orchestras around the UK bringing his enthusiasm and energy to show young people that music is not the reserve of an “elite” but is for all to participate and enjoy. The noise from the enthusiastic applause at the end of these concerts is one of the loudest things I have ever heard in the building!


In addition to the schools concerts the diverse Learning department at the Liverpool Philharmonic oversee the most successful El sistema scheme in the UK, In Harmony Liverpool. This project, inspired by the work of the Venezuelan José Abreu, has shown the amazing effect of bringing music into one of England’s most disadvantaged communities, and has led to one particular school moving from special measures to outstanding in all areas in less than 4 years.


The successful work that Abreu developed in Venezuela, bringing about Social Action Through Music is a lesson more governments should try to emulate.


On a recent tour to China the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic opened two brand new concert halls before they re-opened their refurbished Liverpool home in November. Clearly the Chinese government is keen on developing western culture, whilst the politicians in Europe are happy to see its demise! Perhaps the Chinese are trying to acquire the ingenuity and design innovation in which the UK has previously been a world leader, realising that this can only come about through a stimulating creative environment?


It is still a mystery to me that we are encouraged to celebrate our elite athletes but rarely do we see elite artists given recognition. They are more likely to be accused of elitism in a negative sense implying exclusivity. Sadly, with the current lack of funding, the truth is that to learn an instrument in the current climate means it is inevitable that many will have to pay privately for their lessons. The government are making music more elitists with their policies!


So do we really need music?


Yes, if we want a better society with encouragement for us all to develop our creativity, our imagination or escape the reality of our world (without having to resort to drugs – prescription or recreational). Perhaps we need to make a loud noise in the direction of the politicians who have not discovered the secret of the power of music…..before it is too late!