Lost in Music

Does the SMT think itself omniscient? In Plan20-things-to-do-before-you’re-sacked, our mismanagement opines on the music provision at Kingston, although none of its members are music specialists. According to them, KU has been duplicating the work of the conservatoires. Really? The purpose of the conservatoires is to produce concert performers and future leading composers in classical music. True, some have an interest in jazz too, but with the best of wills, Kingston was never in this game. There has always been an emphasis on music tech at Coombehurst with a broader outlook than the classical colleges of music.

So last summer the Dean decided it was time to turn Kingston’s music school into a factory of pop. Needless to say, this is motivated by Music’s league table position and will be executed with cuts to staff. Music is low in the tables, but so are other departments in FASS (Psychology, Sociology and Criminology). Furthermore, there are 60 postgrads in Music bringing in substantial income. So why was Music, at very short notice, told to turn pop, on pain of closure, threatening the jobs of staff who have classical backgrounds? This blog understands that applications for the new popster courses are low, thanks in part to the usual lack of advertising by the hopeless senior management. Cheaper and easier just to shed the long-serving teaching staff, the agenda that underlies the ‘business-minded’ outlook of the SMT and governors.

But all this raises the question of what universities are for and the standards of academic activity. Is pop music really a legitimate subject for a university to offer? There are university courses that include the musicology of popular music, but that is something different. It has been suggested that Kingston needs classically trained staff with experience of pop. They are fairly rare animals:  not too many potential academics spend years studying classical only to hit the rock stage. Anyway, are classically-trained musicians incapable of teaching pop music, given its musical limitations, a few exceptions aside? Certainly it takes little time or expertise to teach three chords, the basis of many simpler pop songs (and four chords cover many more). The basics of rhythm and chord progessions is standard stuff, though perhaps our classical musician does not have the insight into what makes a hit record, nor probably the interest.

From the other point of view, how many successful pop musicians had a university-level education in music? Very few indeed. One famous exception who went to conservatoire is Rick Wakeman, though he never finished his course, preferring to work as a session musician and going on to become an icon of prog rock. A more recent singer, KT Tunstall, studied music at university, but few if any of the most innovative rock and pop stars of the past such as Lennon & McCartney, Brian Wilson, or even the avant-garde Don van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) received a higher education in music. Ed Sheeran, master of the bland, who went to a minor music college, is not much of an ad for a higher music education, at least not for music originality. Is Kingston to be another training ground for all the Sheerans and Taylor Swifts of the future? Not very appealing to serious musicians.

Sniffiness about pop music aside, there is certainly a case for music tech and production techniques, a highly skilled area which Kingston can and does offer a great deal. And skilled session musicians are always in demand to compensate for the inadequacy of the “stars”, but it is unreasonable to discard academics who happen to lack experience in, musically speaking, an unsophisticated genre. If Kingston really wants to go down the lightweight road that’s given us X-factor and that Canadian kid, one might speculate that we will soon be offering BAs in Popular Fiction with modules on the work of Dan Brown. Dumbing down in this way might just draw in a few more students, but will only hasten the decline of Kingston as a serious university.

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11 Responses to Lost in Music

  1. Anon says:

    I have an Mmus from Kingston, and I am a rare animal. Classically trained with interest in modern music. Pop music goes way deeper than the four chords. Music is not about how complicated it is. Pop music is the one that reflects the society we live in. I find it extremely arrogant to be looked down like that from armchair musicians. Let’s not forget that classical music once was the pop music of its time. During my studies was in awe with the lack of support towards the students, and also the lack of decent modules, assignments and challenges. There you go, you classically trained academics did not inspire or offered any new knowledge. I am glad to see Kingston music department moving on with the times and hope that the students to come will be able to join a lively environment, instead of derelict Jurassic park.

    • Dissenter says:

      You have an interesting view of music. I would say folk music was more the “pop” music prior to the 20th century, but for city dwellers perhaps popular and classical were the same (no records then). Not so much these days, though boundaries are very blurred with some musicians. Some does go beyond four chords, but much doesn’t. However lacking you felt music teaching at Kingston, going pop won’t automatically improve it.

  2. Ludwig says:

    The present music department must be doing something right if it can recruit 60+ postgraduate students (much higher than most other music departments) – most of these are Classically trained. It remains to be seen if the department of music can survive when our ignorant management cut 50% of its experienced staff. How can that be good for the student experience?

  3. NotTheRealChuckBerry says:

    I think Dissenter is making two points
    (1) that a course put on by people who are ordered to do it, rather than because it capitalises on their skills and interests, is unlikely to raise anyone’s satisfaction level, least of all that of the students
    (2) that a course in *creating* popular music is in any case likely to be unproductive, given that formal musical education does not appear to be a requirement for producing successful, let alone creative pop music.
    The insinuations of snobbery seem misplaced; Dissenter specifically says “few if any of the most innovative rock and pop stars of the past such as Lennon & McCartney, Brian Wilson, or even the avant-garde Don van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) received a higher education in music”.

  4. Rose Tinted-Spectacles says:

    It seems your concerns about this move to Pop Music is that it will lower the standards in the Music Department.
    But what are the current standards of research, teaching and attainment in the Music Department?

    • Dissenter says:

      Thank you for your comment RTS
      I think the question is whether a course in pop music will raise standards, the concern you express. In fact your question can be levelled at many areas in Kingston, especially management.

  5. Anon says:

    @ anon: your comments reflect all that is wrong with an element of Kingston academics: rejection of considered opinions but a fawning mentality towards everything else. You have bought the line peddled by the media and SMT and clearly are towing it. But it is to the detriment of academic standards and the student experience. I refer you to the NSS scores.

    Also, please refrain from plagiarising another commenter’s moniker. Not a good habit to get in to, given your occupation.

    • Trish Reid says:

      Hilarious. Anon is now a specific ‘moniker’? Blimey whatever next. My comment was intended only to trouble the value judgements implicit in the privileging of ‘high’ over ‘low’ culture that characterizes the original post. A number of colleagues in Music already specialise in popular forms. Are you suggesting their work is of lesser value? Just for the record, my point isn’t remotely original. Lots of theorists have challenged the kind of thinking that attributes particular value to ‘high’ culture as a matter of course.

    • Dissenter says:

      There may be no copyright on “Anon”, but it would help distinguish commenters from each other to choose individual monikers.

      The argument is not about low versus high culture. It is about whether all classical should be banished from Kingston along with the staff who teach it. There is a place for some popular music, although the original article argued that this may be limited; and that the majority of classical musicians have limited interest in the form.

  6. anon says:

    This post would be a good deal more convincing if it didn’t reek of snobbery. I suppose popular literature, like Shakespeare and Dickens, who were both massively popular and populist in their day, isn’t worth studying at university either?

    • Dissenter says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      Yes those writers were popular in their day; they were also very good and wrote outstanding literature. Popular does not automatically mean good, however. Maintenance of high standards is supposed to be the object of university scholarship, not providing “popular” courses for economic reasons. To resist low standards in music or any other discipline is not snobbery. There is some outstanding popular music, but there is an awful lot more rubbish. The question is should Kingston offer a course because it is popular, while discarding its scholars because they only know about the highbrow.

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