What the Government describes as a “new” and “more rigorous and demanding GCSE in music” has just been published by the AQA examination board. Part of what is supposed to be a more intellectually challenging syllabus is a study of the Beatles album “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band”. It is an option that is “set to be widely studied”, according to the BBC.
In an effort to preserve some credibility, and to provide some reassurance, the board has promised that the pupils will still be studying recognisable aspects of the Beatles’ musical composition such as melody, harmony, structure, rhythm and meaning. It goes without saying, though, that if the Beatles are ‘in’ then something else will have to left ‘out’ – be it any ‘requirement’ to study Beethoven, Brahms or Britten.
If one of the intentions of Music GCSE is to introduce youngsters to the ‘best’ of what has been composed, by definition,the classics, the new exam is losing track. If, on the other hand anything goes in our culture of ‘value relativism’, then why not be honest and study The Sex Pistols? The band’s generation-defining “Anarchy in the UK” recording provides a much more potent and revealing message about much modern culture and, not least, education in modern Britain. It was also far more prophetic than “Sgt Peppers”:
“I am an antichrist
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want
But I know how to get it
I wanna destroy passerby…
“Anarchy for the UK
It’s coming sometime and …
I get pissed, destroy!”
An argument in favour of The Sex Pistols over The Beatles for GCSE Music is one which lends itself readily to the mindset of our exam boards, a central pillar of the educational establishment. However, arguments against the exclusion of either will not receive a hearing. This is 2015, after all, ‘modern Britain’ – the age of Nicky Morgan’s “British Values”! ‘Fuddy-duddy’ composers from the classical repertoire have had their day in terms of compulsory study.
Interestingly, when BBC Radio One Newsbeat asked me for my views on the new Music GCSE they made no mention of Sgt Peppers or The Beatles. Presumably, their inclusion is such a ‘good’ thing that it does not even merit discussion. Newsbeat was only interested in my views on the inclusion of “deejaying” in the “performance section” of the exam. This will be on offer as an alternative to playing a musical instrument or singing. According to AQA:
“A good DJ makes what they’re doing sound effortless, but there’s a huge amount of musical understanding behind this and DJing is hugely relevant to today’s students.”
The way forward would be to have a ‘traditional’ Music exam on offer alongside a new GCSE in “Deejaying and Pop Music”. We could then let employers and universities decide which one they value. But, I suppose, that would be decried as ‘elitist’ and discriminatory.