What role for exams in a
post-Gutenberg Age?

This article appeared in two successive issues of Classical Music in 1996


"When I got Grade VIII the teacher called me with the result and said the examiner had told her I was technically excellent and musically nowhere. And I never touched the flute again, from that day to this. I’ve been thinking of taking it up again recently, but I don’t know … I just can’t get over the whole business." That remark, made casually by an osteopath while treating me, typifies remarks I’ve heard so often from adults.

Dr John Diamond, a consultant on the psycho-physiology of musicians, writes in his book The Life Energy in Music: ‘Every child starts with an exuberant open-hearted love of music. Gradually and tragically this is destroyed by the horrors of most musical training systems.’

How has this come about? Is anyone to blame? What could correct it?

I am compelled to the conclusion that one of the chief culprits in destroying ‘an exuberant open-hearted love of music’ is the exam-mania which dominates every aspect of academic musicianship.

The post-Gutenberg (pG) age is a shorthand phrase for the idea that text is no longer the exclusive medium for transmitting knowledge. (Gutenberg being the inventor of printing.) It implies that there are many sensory stimuli which enter our consciousness as percepts, ie ideas which bypass the linguistic or conceptual route, the route which in the age of conventional literacy was regarded as the only valid arena of knowledge. Post-Gutenberg literacy implies a coherent topography of feeling and semiotics, the language of symbolism, where what is not uttered is as significant as what is, where the space between the sounds is as significant as the sounds themselves.

It is a world of processes with which one interacts, rather than a world of finished products. Gutenberg is the literature of European Art music, of the printed word, of art that is intended as permanent statement. Gutenberg announces itself as ‘serious’, and constitutes the mental vocabulary of the managerial classes. Post-Gutenberg is Jazz & Mass Market music, broadcasting, computers, anything interactive/impermanent. Post-Gutenberg announces itself as ‘fun’, and constitutes the mental vocabulary of hoi polloi. The two worlds regard each other with incomprehension bordering on hostility. Old guard Gutenbergers regard the pG world as trash: which the other reciprocates by dismissing the Gs as out-dated or irrelevant.

Being both a music teacher (G), a composer (sometimes G, sometimes pG) and a broadcaster (pG) I have walked in both worlds and pondered for years how students of each would be enriched if either could enter the other’s world. But there is a formidable conceptual barrier to be broken down first.

Cui bono?

The study and practice of European music is firmly G – a ‘serious’ business. As such it has inherited a puritan mind-set which seems to regard taking pleasure in music as ‘unprofessional’ and which shrouds the very concept of musicianship in a web of exams extending from the cradle if not to the grave, then certainly well into mature life.

At the end of exam-taking one is ‘qualified’ – but for what? and by whom? Who ‘qualified’ Lennon & McCartney to write what Times critic William Mann hailed as the greatest melodies since Schubert? Who indeed would have been ‘qualified’ to teach them such a skill?

Looked at coolly, you have to ask who benefits from the status quo? Certainly it isn’t the Art of Music. Music got along very well without exams from the dawn of time until the rise of ‘scientific’ education about a hundred years ago. Pass-fail definitions may have a validity in science but their validity in the creative arts is solely for bureaucrats. The reality is that ‘qualifications’ are only of value for those who don’t intend to be musicians, for would-be educators who will jump through a series of paper hoops which lead them ever further from the core of music, namely the heart-beat interaction between musician and listener. In both music colleges and universities the number of practising professional musicians has been steadily eroded over the last two decades, creating an increasing gulf between doers and teachers. The record of ‘failed’ music students who went on to become world famous in Mass Market music is itself proof of the conceptual limitations of the system.

Since the principal financial beneficiaries of this system are in fact the very people who perpetuate it one is also entitled to question what the whole system rests on, whether it is not a collusion of vested interests – a way of maintaining an academic closed shop wherein the focus and language of a particular musical mind-set can be controlled and manipulated as a ‘knowledge’ acquired only within an approved (Gutenberg) methodology?

To offer any critique of this arrangement requires unpicking a number of interwoven thoughts and sensations. The fact that in music these perceptions interlock mean that emotions are often aroused by any criticism of the epistemology of tuition and it’s therefore extremely hard for dissidents to make alternatives comprehensible in Gutenberg terminology, since the traditional form is itself a part of the mental furniture of those who underwent it. Moreover the time and skill required for detailed analysis of the situation are generally only available within the higher education itself. Yet, as we know, access to this area is deliberately restricted to graduates who, as a precondition of ‘qualification’, have been obliged to acquire the language and thought-forms of academic musicianship. Thus is the circle sprung closed each time anyone tries to prise it open.

Associated Bored

From this closed circle there flows a logical educational consequence wherein fledgling musicians progress via Associated Board grade exams to Music College or University in order to acquire qualifications – which, they have been led to believe, hold the key to the world of jobs and money.

After qualifying, three principal paths are open other than performing. The most common is that of a music teacher who perpetuates the cycle by inducting the next generation into the system; alternatively the graduate remains within higher education and operates the music-education conveyor belt which processes undergraduates through the exam system. (If anyone disputes this I invite them to consider what is left if you take exams away from higher education? – Nothing. Because government funding goes with the exams.)

Given that the third option is unemployment nobody can be blamed for following the first two. I have known senior academics privately to bemoan these ‘facts of life’ but none of them dare question the system in public … because ‘that’s The System’ and it pays their wages.

If I’m dubious that exams reveal anything significant about graduate musicians, I’m absolutely certain they reveal next to nothing in the early stages of musicianship. Of what value is it to judge a wine by measuring how much has been poured into the bottle?

Further, Associated Board exams themselves fail in two significant areas of contemporary musical culture. By creating a structure of medieval catholicity encompassing the historical components of European Art Music, they send the subliminal message to other ethnic groups that their musics don’t count in the UK establishment’s value-system; and secondly, being based on a materialistic measurement of a limited range of literate musical archetypes they hardly even begin to represent the broad cultural experience of young people today.

Peak Experience

But there’s yet another flaw in the system, and in my view far the most serious. To understand it we have to look at what an exam means in the experience of the child.

For a very high proportion of young learners their musical progress is charted by 6-9 monthly Associated Board exams. I know from my own experience that a substantial proportion of these fledgling musicians, particularly pianists, almost never perform as featured players in any other setting. Therefore it’s true to say that what an EEG (electro-encephalogram) measurement would record as the young performer’s ‘nervous peak’ experiences are likely to occur when playing to a total stranger – who is there only for the purpose of passing judgment in a near-clinical setting. When the examinee performs s/he receives no applause and only what human warmth the examiner is inclined to give (which from personal memory was within a non-measurable fraction of zero).

These attitudes are as near a negation of what I take to be the principal meaning/value of music as it would be possible to get. If you wanted one cause as to why contemporary Art music has lost its way then the psychology created by this induction method would supply a very credible answer. By draining the pleasure out of music-making it commences the distortion of a young musician’s system of emotional rewards which the structure of undergraduate music education completes.

Grade exams are ideal for implanting in young people the message that music-making offers all the pleasure of a gynæcological examination, programming them with the message that their most intense experience of making music will occur in judgmental circumstances, and that the most important aspect of musical performance is adherence to a text – not the uncovering of a world of emotional meaning, which few examiners are equipped to observe let alone mark.

Defenders of the status quo will ask how the value of a curriculum can assessed without an exam? I offer some alternatives in the second part of this article, but first I want to suggest two things. One is that the assessment they offer is illusory since it’s based on wholly external criteria and therefore tests nothing that excavates any very profound perceptual meaning; secondly that it stimulates the left-brain faculties of literalism, analysis and intellectuality at the expense of the core value of music which is, in Lorca’s words, duende, the mystery of the space between the notes, the magic through which Music transcends the mundane.

From my own experience I know all too well how pupils themselves clamour for exams. However this can be shown to stem from a desire to respond to parental expectations since in many situations Grade exams create a de facto system of peer-group measurement. To parents and students alike the possession of a piece of paper appears a tangible ‘proof’ of progress. Furthermore amid the uncertainties of adolescence it seems to offer a validation, however illusory. And in today’s climate of economic instability responsible parents fear it a dereliction of duty not to encourage their offspring to acquire any token that could further their chances of achieving a stable adult life. Having 3 teenagers myself I too feel such pressures keenly.

Even with these factors AB exams might be supportable, but the screw is tightened by the commercial imperatives of music teachers and schools, especially private schools. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that for many what they’re selling is exam results. Just as schools are now forced to parade themselves in academic beauty contests (which are easily won by screening out those with learning difficulties) AB exams provide a slick route for the ambitious to acquire a successful reputation without any reference to the acquisition of well-rounded musicianship or the more complex question of ensuring that the musicality implanted is of value in the student’s later life. Schlepping students through exams also provides the perfect smoke screen for lazy or exhausted teachers to avoid having to interact with individual personalities and needs.

As will be seen this links suspiciously neatly with the Conservative government’s obsession with tying up the nation’s entire school system in a cat’s cradle of exams and bureaucracy. I’m not suggesting a direct link, merely demonstrating that both attitudes spring from the same mind-set.

Commenting on what I have written a Reader in Music at a respected British University familiar with the Far East notes that there ‘British grade exams, nearly always piano, are big business. Examining in SE Asia can be very lucrative. But evidently this major enterprise has little to do with music, it is merely a chase for grades, a context to demonstrate one-up-manship. If there had been a well-defined grade environment for measuring ‘standards’ and development in playing chess then that would have fulfilled the role just as well. If they value such forms of competitive activity then I suppose that is up to them, the question is does Music benefit or lose out?’

One could argue that exams appeal to WASP or aspirant-WASP musicians precisely because they express the obsession of the West’s education system with amassing bits of paper, with creating two-dimensional order from the chaos of life, with the corresponding marginalisation of those who do not conform to such preconceptions, with fear of the anarchic non-rational power encountered in any true artistic exploration. Accordingly these systems of measurement reveal more about the mind-set that devised them than they do about the richness and diversity of musical experience.

To see how exams create a dependency culture you have only to look at academe itself. The scrabble for validation by reference to the external authority is as sure a sign as anything could be of a culture that has lost its centre, that is divorced from its emotional roots.

Music as an art has lost neither its centre nor the power to validate, and never will so long as air vibrates. And herein lies the nub of the problem since in the academic arena it is the optical and literary values of music which predominate not the aural and sensory ones.

PART IIWhat’s ‘education’ for?

I’m sure that even those who disagreed profoundly with my anlysis in part one would accept the proposition that principal function of music education should be to introduce children to that profound level of emotional reality for which, and of which, Music is the supreme vehicle.

Philosophically I am quite clear that that core reality of Music can only be said to exist in the quicksilver moment between the intentional generation of sound and its reception by an ear. Music proper is not merely the notes as they are (or would be if notated on paper) it is also the experience, the organic nervous excitement created by a performance which, when successful, unites performers and listeners in a shared experience. This ties in with ethnographic observation, from which it’s clear that the function of music-making is invariably that of uniting people in a common focus, whether for entertainment, work, war or religion.

The challenge is to keep this perception central to whatever experiences we offer young musicians.

Those of a political bent fret about ‘standards’ and ‘norms’. I’m not sure that such questions aren’t complete red herrings. When you look who’s quickest to use such words you wonder if they have any real understanding of what such concepts might actually mean?

Are musical standards today higher or lower than in Purcell’s day? The question is meaningless. To be sure Music Departments possess more photocopiers, employ more secretaries and produce more bumf, but what yardstick may be applied to measure ‘the echoing air’? Can more basses actually sing the parts Purcell wrote for Gostling?

On the evidence of historic recordings it’s certainly true that the technical level of performance has risen during this century. But the musicianship? Hardly. Today we have a generation of textual perfectionists who have learnt to make CDs which are both flawless and lifeless.

Is this an advance for which modern education can claim credit? Or is it a ‘lie’ about the true nature of the music similar to that which Charles Ives castigated in his own day: ‘The music notes and words on [peak] occasions were as much like what they were [on paper] as the monogram on a man’s neck-tie can be like his face.’ (Memos)

The loss of that extraordinary poetic quality captured on record in the last of the great 19thC pianists seems to me to have everything to do with the prose of an exam-dominated world, and its potential recovery absolutely nothing. Sub specie æternitatis the ‘setting of standards’ is the activity of the termite on the dunghill.


The views I’m advancing owe their origin in part to 17 years’ teaching at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, for the latter 6 as Head of 20thC Studies. Despite much that was clearly excellent the rigidity with which the RCM as a whole steadfastly refused to consider the relevance of anything outside the European conservatoire tradition under its previous Director convinced me that the stranglehold of the academic mind-set made reform from within the system impossible. The conceptual dilemma is that so long as debate is governed by the two-dimensional vision of Gutenberg literacy (and behind it the political spectre of DFEE attitudes and funding) there is no hope of education catching up with the emotional realities of today’s post-Gutenberg techno-literate world. On the other hand the market-led pG world has yet to evolve a coherent vocabulary for discussion of the necessary interface.

Shortly after resigning from the RCM in 1991 a BBC commission took me to India to make two documentaries, where in a Sanskrit university I had the good fortune to encounter a quality of scholarship -an integration of knowledge and wisdom- I have never observed in the West. Within the millennia-old Vedic philosophy the dichotomy between the theoretical and sensory (G & pG) does not exist since the Vedanta is based on a multi-dimensional view of consciousness of such subtlety that even the modern theories of Relativity and Quantum Science appear crude.

Subsequently, in editing an issue of Contemporary Music Review on Music & Mysticism and in organising the Music & the Psyche conferences I have given deep consideration to the optimum relationship between musicians’ conscious intentions and their subconscious assumptions – an issue which rarely features in professional music training, but which when explored in depth holds the key to all musical understanding.

Perhaps on seeing the title some will have expected a radical manifesto. But my plea is for evolution not revolution – for relaxing the systems of mental control which bind Western musical culture to an almost legalistic literalism – for acknowledging the numinous power within music to inspire and liberate instead of using it to imprison, dissect and exclude.

If academic musicianship can become receptive to these ideas we might see the beginnings of a reconciliation between the cultural dichotomy of a Mass Market music which knows how to communicate in a post-Gutenberg age but doesn’t understand why, and an Art music which claims Knowledge but has in fact largely ceased to be able to communicate with the general public.

Begining again

Moving to a Wiltshire village two years ago, I started to teach piano again to fill a gap left by the retirement of two local teachers. I was really quite shocked by the attitudes some of my new students had already imbibed. Those of ‘years of discretion’ were anticipating a quick canter through AB exams. One, an intelligent GCSE level student, has in my view been directly harmed by the practice. This student had been in the habit of alternately taking exams on a melody instrument and on the piano in succeeding terms. While engaged on either, he would work obsessively, completely neglecting the other.

My cardinal principle is to respect the wishes of students and therefore, despite my views, I am perfectly willing to prepare students for exams if that is their preference, but here the student was manifesting such classic symptoms of addiction to the binge-bust mentality engendered by exams that I refused to comply with so unbalanced and inharmonious a regime. To me a prime consideration in motivating students is that everything should lead the student toward self-awareness and self-validation, and away from just that type of imbalance.

Part of the mental furniture necessary to generate self-awareness would seem best to be implanted in young musicians by maximising their emotional gratification. And to that end any alternative pedagogy should place pupils as soon a possible before the only audience for whom any of us ever performs – our parents and peers. As Alexander Pope declares in his exquisite Essay on Man:

All that we think of [fame] begins and ends
In the small circle of our foes and friends.

If that is true for adults it’s doubly so for children.

Whilst it’s true that parents will hear children performing at home, the experience for both parties is qualitatively different in a public setting. Even the ethnographic argument supports the idea that public music-making by the young in the presence of their seniors provides the ideal focus for positive self-discovery. Sympathy and interest are rain and sun to the young plant.

It’s well established that children learn most from those nearest above them in age. In concerts of my own pupils I notice that each stage is riveted by the achievements of those a year or so ahead, to the degree that I would say that a single exposure of this character is worth half a term’s lessons.

Getting it taped

Now, sophisticates will smirk that this is a retreat to the dark ages of ‘Miss Golightly’s Piano School’. However the mordaunt in the situation is the use I make of recording.

It is wrong to imagine that a post-Gutenberg awareness is wholly concerned with technology. Certainly, a fluent integration of information technology within an individual’s awareness is a precondition of techno-literacy just as fluency with language is for literacy itself – but a slavish adherence to hi-tech solutions in every situation is exemplary of a mind unliberated from the two-dimensional logic of Gutenberg literalism.

Countering the argument that exams gives students ‘something to work for’ I’d cite recording as an infinitely more useful tool in developing self-criticism. Unlike an exam where they’re at the mercy of someonelse’s prejudices, by using high quality recording students quickly learn to be much more objective about the overall impression their music actually creates, rather than just thinking of music as being about ‘playing the dots’.

As true musicians know the duende, the magic, lives not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Drawing students’ attention to the affect or ‘feel’ of a musical performance allows consideration of the volitional issues connected with the creation of sound -alluded to above- and offers them a route, should they wish, by which to explore those subconscious attitudes which condition their intentional conscious – an idea many graduates leave college without ever having been introduced to.

A high quality of recording is important as it focuses attention unequivocally on the performance and not on any inadequacies in the medium. The higher the quality the more students feel valued by it, and become aware of the need for the comparable standards in performance. All of which induces a constructive self-consciousness, knowing that they themselves control the power of ‘take two’ – so different from the judgmental self-consciousness of the pass-fail world of exams.

Similarly recording reduces the problem, known to all teachers, of pupils not finishing pieces properly. I make students’ own satisfaction with their recordings the concluding act. Each student acquires a permanent portfolio – of far more value and lasting pleasure to their families as a chart of musical progress than a few curling certificates. Concerts I record on video, which is a potent memory for parents.

To me conclusive proof of the ineffectuality of AB exams comes from the fact that those of my students in the Grade VI-VIII range those who do not take them are making far faster progress than those who do, for the non-examinees are free to get their teeth into the mainstream piano repertoire while examinees are obliged to fiddle around learning inconsequential pieces by minor composers that are of little relevance in the formation of taste, judgment and maturity.

Over a single generation we’re experiencing a change in human consciousness more fundamental than from that oral to literate culture. Technology now allows us to internalise goals (and to record their achievement) which previously required validation by/from external structures.

When university lecturers complain about the apathy of students, as they do, I wonder whether this isn’t directly caused by the circumscribed horizons of an exam-defined agenda, and the whole dreary bureaucracy that supports it. Anyone who truly understands the meaning of post-Gutenberg era knows they’ve left forever the world of two-dimensional logic where exams have any relevance other than as a system of intellectual crowd control.


I speak here for many other musicians who are dissatisfied with the status quo, some have evolved similar ideas, others are in sympathy but are psychologically disabled from serious questioning of the system that writes their salary cheque. To those who may accuse me of representing only minority ideas I reply in Robert Pirsig’s words:

A tribe can change its values only person by person and someone has to be first. Whoever is first obviously is going to be in conflict with everybody else ... the insane and the contrarians are the most valuable people society has. They’ve taken the burdens of the culture onto themselves, and in their struggle to solve their own problems they’re solving problems for their culture as well.’ (Lila)

Quantum Science shows matter, like music, to be a micro-world of infinite possibilities, yet we’re still subjecting music to the sledge-hammer logic of Newtonian science. Why?

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