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Making Music: teaching, learning and playing in the UK

5 years ago


This year we collaborated with a wide range of partner organisations to deliver a unique research project. Here we summarise the main findings.


Between 1993 and 1999 ABRSM carried out three programmes of research into the teaching, learning and playing of musical instruments in the UK.

The key finding from this research – that music learning was on the decline – contributed to securing wider provision and funding for music education at state level and had a significant impact on the music education environment.

Bringing the research up to date

Since 1999 there has been a plethora of positive political and sector-led initiatives and research activity – from Musical Futures and Wider Opportunities to the Henley review of music education, the first National Plan for Music Education, the creation of Music Education Hubs and the recent Paul Hamlyn Foundation review of music in schools. Add to these the deepest recession in the UK for many years and now seems an appropriate time to look again at what is happening to musical instrument teaching and learning.

Making Music

A collaborative project

This latest Making Music research represents a major collaboration with partners from across the music education sector. It has brought together many of the leading people and organisations working in music education in the UK.

The report – the largest cross-sector venture of its kind – offers fascinating insights into the teaching, learning and playing of instruments in the UK today. The research was conducted in two stages, one involving online interviews with adults and children, and the other with teachers.

Our online teacher survey was emailed to ABRSM and Trinity College London teachers and the following partners also distributed the survey link to their teacher networks: CAGAC; Heads of Instrumental Teaching Scotland; Heads of Music Services Northern Ireland; Incorporated Society of Musicians; Music Education Council; Music Mark;; Musicians’ Union; and the National Foundation for Youth Music.

A changed landscape

The UK’s musical landscape has been transformed over the last two decades. Successive governments’ policies have helped bring about real improvement and there is much to celebrate. The Making Music findings confirm that increasing numbers of people are playing a wider variety of instruments. As many now play the electric guitar as play the violin and more young people play two instruments or more.

Young learners are also increasingly influenced by role models when choosing an instrument to learn and, as they grow older, they make music in increasingly diverse ways. Technology, too, is creating new opportunities for anyone to engage with and create their own music.

Professional satisfaction

Simultaneously, the nation’s music teachers are expressing high levels of professional satisfaction. Instrumental and singing teachers are remarkably fulfilled, reflecting the rewarding nature of their work and their enjoyment of teaching.

Areas of concern

However, although the trajectory over the last 15 years is generally positive, there are areas of concern. Many children and young people have not had access to instrumental lessons and many have no engagement with formal music tuition after primary school. Children from lower socio-economic groups continue to be significantly disadvantaged compared with peers from more affluent backgrounds – sustained, progressive music education tends to be the preserve of children born to wealthier parents.

Barriers to progression

The report shows that adults who had private lessons as children and sat a music exam were much more likely to still play an instrument – and the higher the grade achieved the more likely they were to continue learning. However, the cost of learning to play and of taking lessons is a major barrier, and children without access to tuition are significantly less likely to carry on playing. Regional provision is also variable and the diverse ways in which learners progress are not necessarily well supported by the sector.

The experience of teachers

Teachers’ experiences also vary widely depending on whether they work in the private or public sector. In the latter, particularly, there are examples where pay rates have dropped and job security is low. The music teaching community is increasingly diverse but outside the classroom largely unregulated. Almost 50% of teachers cite a lack of support from schools and parents plus poor motivation from students as common negative aspects of their work.

Complex factors

There are, of course, complex factors at play. Funding realities, geographical inequities, unclear and sometimes poorly supported progression routes, the perception of music education’s value in a culture that promotes academic achievement, the role of school leaders, the lack of exposure to a range of musical styles from a young age – all these need attention if the positive gains of the last two decades are to be continued.

Making Music

Much to celebrate

Making Music shows us that there is plenty to celebrate: an increasing number of people are making music; more people are learning an instrument; new technologies are encouraging greater engagement; and government interventions have had a positive effect.

Looking forward

The challenge is now to ensure that the findings of this report will galvanise and inspire those within our sector – and those who have the power – to influence, change and further improve the circumstances in which children and adults engage with music.

Next steps

The Making Music report is the result of a major collaboration between individuals and organisations who are deeply involved in music education across the UK. The conclusions drawn from this research have led us to offer a number of recommendations, some of which are listed here. These have been informed not only by the survey’s statistical data but also by a roundtable discussion and a series of one-to-one interviews.

Next steps for the music education sector

  • Implement more rigorous monitoring processes so that learners’ development and progress can be more effectively mapped, helping identify the most effective strategic support and practical interventions.
  • Champion the role of music and music specialists so head teachers and governors truly understand the positive impact they can make.


Next steps for policy makers and funding bodies

  • Champion the role of creative learning in schools as part of the inspection framework. This would strengthen headteachers’ perceptions of music as an important contributor to school culture, outcomes and achievements for young people and attainment results.
  • More effectively target and align funding, to support disadvantaged learners from social grades C1, D and E, address regional imbalances, and ensure a more equitable supply of diverse instruments UK-wide.


Next steps for schools and teachers

  • Monitor learners’ progress more effectively to better identify both their individual needs and the resources and support required to meet them.
  • Encourage greater collaboration between teachers working across the private and public sectors – this would encourage better sharing of good practice and go towards ending the isolation teachers can feel.


To read the Making Music report, go to

This article was originally featured in the October 2014 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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