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Decolonising the Music Curriculum

In this guest-blog, David Duncan, Publications Officer at London College of Music Examinations (LCM) explores how exam boards can play a role in shaping a more positive future by ensuring greater diversity in their syllabuses.

Published: 01 October 2019 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:30 PM
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Do exam boards have a part to play in shaping a more positive future? Photocredit: Shutterstock

Each year, over a million people worldwide take a graded music exam, with the vast majority of these exam entrants being children.

Those fortunate enough to reach Grade Eight, the pinnacle of the graded exam system, will have grown up playing the pieces which have been prescribed by ABRSM, Trinity and LCM. Exam boards like these play a key role in shaping millions of young learners’ experiences and expectations of music, both explicitly and within the implicit values of their hidden curriculums.

These three Victorian institutions, established within a few years of one another in the second half of the 18th century, still dominate the global market in music examinations.

For the most part, curriculums today would contain few surprises for children of the Victorian era. ABRSM’s current Grade Eight piano list contains 32 pieces, only one of which was not written by a white European or American, none by a woman. As the sociologist Anna Bull observed: “It's remarkably similar to the 1890 syllabus”(1).

Shaping a more positive future

Is the role of the graded examination system to preserve these established norms or do exam boards have a part to play in shaping a more positive future?

In the classroom, where the courses are more visible than the instrumental lessons people study for in the privacy of their own homes, curriculum content is finally being questioned.

Earlier this summer Edexcel added more texts to its GCSE English syllabus in response to public calls for it to be more representative of different cultures and ethnicities, and in 2015 Jessy McCabe led a campaign to include female composers on the A Level Music syllabus. Edexcel’s initial response to calls for greater diversity within the set works is a good summary of values which are still prevalent in music education.

“Given that female composers were not prominent in the western classical tradition (or others for that matter), there would be very few female composers that could be included.”

In both cases, a more inclusive curriculum wasn’t introduced proactively, it came about through pressure from the public.

Inclusion and diversity are ideas which are viewed positively by exam boards if they can be used within a diversity-focused marketing campaign, but not when they challenge the assumed authority of the canon of the ‘great’ composers. There is often a considerable apathy, even hostility, towards real curriculum change.

There is space for a wider-range of representation

Dismissing works which lie outside of the dominant culture not only robs us of the richness of multiple different perspectives, particularly in a subject like music which thrives on its astounding breadth, it can also disempower young musicians by presenting them with no role models who look like them.

In a powerful article, first published in LCM’s Forte magazine, the Rev. Professor June Boyce-Tillman described how the lack of female composers within exam syllabuses affected her own development:

“Although as a young child I had composed, I gradually lost any confidence in my ability in this area. The hidden curriculum had been extremely powerful.”(2)

Providing a more inclusive curriculum doesn’t reject the composers which have become the mainstays of exam repertoire, or diminish the value of their works. Like all exam boards, LCM today provides an extensive list of pieces for each subject, with 41 pieces currently available for performers to choose from in our Grade 8 piano list.

There is clearly space to represent a much wider range of composers from currently under-represented groups, while retaining a broad selection of the ‘core’ repertoire which teachers have grown comfortable with.

We’re a long way from that goal, but we’re excited to have started discussing ways in which we can collaborate with the Musicians’ Union and associated organisations to develop more inclusive syllabuses — from working together to recruit a more diverse body of examiners and building up a wider network of musicians to help put our qualifications together, to commissioning new works and publishing new graded collections of music which will be a resource both for LCM and for other exam boards to select from in the future.

A critical and commercial imperative for greater diversity

Examples of current titles which have considered these issues are rare. Elena Riu’s Salsa Neuva (Boosey & Hawkes, 2005), her “cross-tide of cultural exchange with composers from all over the world”, is an inspiring example of a collection of new works, linked by a common theme but incredibly varied in execution.

William H. Chapman Nyaho’s five-volume anthology of Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora (OUP, 2007) is an eye-opening collection of repertoire, spanning over a century of music, containing many short pieces which would be perfect for exam performance.

Together with the Musician’s Union, we hope to engage with music publishers to encourage them to consider the critical and commercial imperative to bring out more collections like these and to give a platform for a much more diverse range of voices, particularly in books aimed at young learners.

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