Music: Nature needs Nurture

No one knows why some human beings have a musical gift and others do not, any more than we know why some are destined to solve Fermat’s last theorem and others can barely add up a column of figures. But one thing that seems to stand out among those who have become renowned in music: they started young. Whether it was Mozart penning his first compositions at six or Menuhin playing his violin at five, if you’re destined to be a musician, you probably know it from a young age. But wait a minute: is it as simple as that? Look more deeply at the famous names in the musical world, and mostly they didn’t come out of nowhere. Mozart’s father was a respected composer and violin teacher; Menuhin’s family were all intensely musical, Schubert’s less so but he was a chorister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and was leading the school orchestra by the time he was twelve.

Nurture is involved, I suggest, as much as nature. Music is a gift of nature, but it may well remain locked in a box until someone gives you the key to release it. Once it is released and you discover your gift, someone has to encourage you, train you, and watch over you until you have been given the time to develop it fully.


I go around the country leading singing days, open to all, and many of those who attend tell me it all started a long time ago with them singing at nursery school, where they discovered (as I did) that they loved it. Others tell me ‘I’ve never tried anything like this before, but I’ve had such a wonderful day’. Better to discover in your adult life that inside you there was a love of singing you never knew you had, than never to discover that love; but think how many more people there are (especially now that music in our state schools has been so savagely cut and sidelined) who have never been given the chance to discover something that has lit up their lives. And now that free instrumental teaching in state schools has gone, think how many children are not getting the chance to try playing an instrument that might become their lifelong joy – and perhaps their livelihood.

It shames us in the UK as a nation. Music education isn’t a frill to be left to the private sector and open only to those who can pay, it’s at the heart of what makes us human and civilised. Any politicians reading this?

18 Responses to “Music: Nature needs Nurture”

  1. marilyn parry

    I was singing to the radio at 2 years of age and my parents swear that I sang in tune. I went on to study violin at 10 and played for many years before my voice took over. I was lucky enough to live in a community that honored the arts and music and protected them from the budget cuts other communities have suffered. Without music my life would have been grey.

  2. Suzi

    Music makes us human. Everyone needs the opportunity to learn how to make it!

  3. Nicholas Cox

    Great Post John..what is worrying is how behind the curve politicians(and educationalists?) are. The most recent research into brain plasticity suggests music especially learning to play or sing at an early age is so important for the developing brain and has been shown to help improve skills in maths, literacy and social interaction and creativity in young people. We even know that musicians’ brains are generally bigger and they are often more capable problem solvers as a direct result of the integrating activity of musical activities. This presumably has informed govt funding decisions on projects like ‘in harmony’ the UK El Sistema initiatives which have been transformative. We also know how musical training and appreciation can protect against age related illness and music therapy is a key component in treatment. So why is it being made more difficult for most young people to learn music in schools and now with the EBacc to study music within the curriculum? Historically music has been part of education since the Middle Ages for anyone lucky enough to have benefited from it, so why when we have the evidence of its educational benefits is there a disconnect about policy and provision in the minds of politicians and educationalists. My guess is that in 50 years time it will be up there in the curriculum with Maths English and the Sciences. Encouraging creativity through music will be seen to be an essential part of encouraging a thriving economy.

  4. Lindsay

    Thanks to my father (1922-2005) I became “aware” of music before I started school and it has been a source of great joy throughout a somewhat turbulent life. From classroom singing inthe 50s, country dancing lessons in the playground, school choir, youth choir, playing piano, guitar, Morris (as a dancer and accordion-playing musician) but now living on the memories I can certainly say that if music had been absent from my life I would have felt very “unfulfilled”!

  5. Natalie Windsor

    By the age of 18, most students can read and write, including those with dyslexia. Some may go on to be famous writers, but we do not expect some children to ‘take to’ English and others to fail to grasp the subject. And, given the time, by the age of 18 most students will have written many entertaining, creative poetry and stories.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone realised the same can be true of music?

    Thank you so much for sharing this John. It means so much for this to come from someone with such experience.

  6. Caroline Watson

    Agree wholeheartedly, John. I am an interesting case in that my father, a journalist, and my mother hadn’t a musical bone in their bodies, but I grew up with a stepfather who was a singer. My inherent talent is words, but I have always loved singing. I was lucky enough to grow up in the era when every primary school day started with hymn singing and joining the church choir was our teenage social life. I went to a grammar school that really valued music and received free singing tuition through the county music school. I then went, on a grant, to Durham University, where I was able to study singing, and sing in the College Chapel Choir and, occasionally, the cathedral. I am still studying singing now and, although it hasn’t been my main career, I intend to teach it when I retire. I have always had to work at music – it doesn’t come easy – but I do it because I love it. I think the hard work makes it more valuable.

  7. Jane Humberstone

    I too was inspired to sing and play early in my life. Despite my challenged background, my music teachers enabled me to become successful and my adult life has been focussed on enabling the less advantaged to access music education.

    It saddens me that my current drive is the campaign to save 70 instrumental teachers’ jobs due to government cuts to public funding. Why, when so many influential people (yourself, Lord Lloyd-Webber, Simon Rattle and the many BBC Young Musicians of the Year behind #everychildamusician) are committed to ensuring music education is accessible do local government feel the need to cut non-statutory services in the face of such overwhelming support for the power of music.

    If you can, please sign our petition: and if you would like to add to the public consultation to support our cause to keep all services together and not farm out instrumental tuition to the private (and therefore elite) market, please do: or if this does not fit your personal position, please write to ESCC Councillor Bob Standley, County Hall, Lewes

  8. Peter Lucas

    Kay, my wife, and I were very fortunate to have parents who encouraged us to learn to play music. My instrument was a ‘piano and Kay the cello and trombone. When we moved to Gislingham in 1999 Kay joined Gislingham Silver Band and was encouraged to play the euphonium and eventually I joined and learnt to play baritone. We have since set up a training band and now have 20 children that we are teaching to play a brass instrument. Adults from the main band attend and tutor the younger players. We have purchased instruments that we can loan the youngsters. We make no charge whatsoever ensuring that entry is accessible to all. One of the younger players joined us about 4 years ago as a very nervous musician. She has grown in confidence and now, at the age of 15, is the Training Band’s conductor. Several of the younger players have now graduated up to the main band. We truly believe that all children should be given the opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of playing music for the many benefits that it provides.

  9. Juliet Oppenheimer

    There is so much known about the benefits of music for the young and throughout education and continuing in later life. For the sake of the future of humanity, Music should continue to be a part of the curriculum, and not just for those who can afford it.

  10. Jan Kennedy

    How lucky were those of us who were at school in the 50’s and 60’s.
    Assembly with hymns every morning and at least two music lessons a week singing, playing musical instruments or just listening to music. Also we had a dancing lesson when a local lady would come in and play classical piano favourites while we pretended to be falling leaves or snow flakes or animals moving about. How de-stressing was that!! Not to mention country dancing. I have many happy memories of school music. I feel sad for my grandchildren.

  11. Rob Lucas

    Great stuff! However…the government is well aware of what it is setting out to achieve: the annihilation of music, art and drama in academy schools, and the gentrification of what was historically largely done by the ‘lower orders’…..and they are doing an excellent job of it. The profession of teacher been systematically degraded in the state sector, with underpaid supply teachers losing career and salary prospects to line the pockets of agencies who enable academy managers to bypass employment law and dance to the government’s tune. The music hubs were the icing on the wrecking ball. New Labour and the Conservatives have both been at it for ages: the electorate seem happy with it. The battle would appear to be lost!

  12. Kate Knight

    As somebody living with numerous chronic illnesses, I would be lost without the music I am able to play on the saxophone in a local band, and the music I sing as a member of a church choir. I was lucky enough to learn to play the clarinet as a child in the 70’s and 80’s, playing in county bands, and I also sang in school choirs as well. It is with deep sadness that I see what is happening to music education now. Every child should be able to play and sing music. It can be a life saver in later years.

  13. Susan H ster

    Have been to my sons Talent Show today, he attends aSpecial school for secondary school age kids. It was a brilliant morning, with children singing solos to backing tracks and some choir pieces. Most of these kids couldn’t sing in tune, they certainly couldn’t read music,but they loved singing and their joy at taking part shone from their faces. All they needed was encouragement and the opportunity, and the courage to do it. It was music from the soul.

  14. Robert Armin

    The ABCD Foundation Course answers it concisely: 2/3 of the apprentice conductors are school- teachers doing the course out of their own pockets, for the love of their students. The need for skills-based careers in a shrinking workforce (as the baby-boom generation moves into retirement) means that the priority goes to productivity. However, all work and no play makes the UK a dull community.
    A further problem may soon appear: a dearth of teachers, and worse, of capacity to create teachers. It’s all very well politicians start making noises about singing being an ideal way for older people to keep healthy, but choirs are overloaded, and I see choirs closing because they cannot find a conductor (the Southbank’s VoiceLab for one). What would happen if the NHS decided to act on what’s under discussion? Could we find the consuctors and accompanists? Print the music? And in 20 years time, when the baby boom is past?

  15. Derek Boyd

    I remember a certain New Labour Prime Minister promising every primary school in the UK would have a permanent Music Teacher. It never happened. I wonder why? Not necessary? A waste of money? Deary me, yet another false promise from politicians.

    I was a ‘cellist in King’s Park Secondary School Orchestra in Glasgow in the 1960’s We won the Glasgow Music Festival Competition regularly and had a fabulous Music Department. Our success in competition wasn’t really given much notice but hey ho, every single member of the Orchestra and Senior Choir did our Teachers proud – and it’s what we gave back in return for our education in Music.

    However, the main emphasis in school was always Sport, Sport, Sport. Our School Captain, Vice-Captain and Prefects were all chosen for their Sporting Achievements – bar one Prefect who who played Double Bass in our Orchestra. How that happened remains, to this day – a mystery.

    We cannot all have a love or ability for Sport. Children from an early age show what they may, or may not be good at, and what might be a future career. As you so rightly say John, nurturing this natural gift, ability – call it what you like, cannot be allowed to go undeveloped. Lost opportunities never to be fulfilled. We have to keep banging on in our School Councils, Parent /Teacher Councils etc Music has a very important part to play in the upbringing of our Children/ Grandchildren.

    As well as giving them a purpose in their young lives it is vital for their well-being – physically and mentally. It’s the same argument about being Sporty or Musical. Young ones, whatever path they follow in life have to be again, ‘nutrured’ Not all will be ‘good at’ Sport, Music, Art etc, but the opportunity has to be there from an early age to develop their interests.. Is this too much to ask??
    PS> just look at our young ones with earphones playing music from their MP3’s Smart phones. They are all around us.


  16. Emm H

    We took our son to choir practice from the age of three. He used to fall asleep while we were singing. The next day, at home, he would sing to us (accurately) what he’d heard. We enrolled him into the choir at the age of 7 and he hasn’t stopped singing since.

  17. Jan A

    Music enriches our lives in all manner of ways. It inspires, comforts & brings joy. What right has any politician got to cut funding to the level that far too many young people will never get a chance to experience what the majority of us growing up in the 60s & 70s took entirely for granted.
    As a child I sung in the school choir & church choir (as I still do now) received piano lessons & played the recorder, viola & guitar and in high school was a member of a superb school choir to which you were admitted soon after joining the school and remained indefinitely unless you could prove to the choir master why you shouldn’t do so!
    Not only did the latter instill in us a love of music & singing but also hard work, focus & commitment (often lacking in many of our young people) diction & posture as well as providing a safe haven for those of us (me included) who were not comfortable with the hurly burly of the school playground.
    Being a member of the choir also helped us create many great friendships.
    In addition I was a member of our school orchestra , a fine example of the talents we all had nurtured by our top class music teachers & inspirational conductor! Many successes at the Bath & Cheltenham festivals, a record and 3 week tour of the east coast of the USA (1976) followed….what an amazing & unforgettable experience and one, that in my opinion that should not be out of reach of today’s generation.
    Sadly though I fear that as things stand it will only be the children of those parents who value the importance of music (over other ‘must have’s) & who are able & willing to pay for tuition that are likely to benefit from the experiences that enriched my life immensely and continue to do so.
    Thank you John for bringing this to everyone’s attention, lets hope that anyone who really can make a difference does so before it is too late.

  18. Pauline

    My grandchildren in the Newcastle area are all learning music in a class or as individuals within the state system – guitar, piano and trumpet and violin, though maybe with some financial contribution from their parents. The portable instruments have been provided initially. Also, the teaching has been in some cases child led, so done with more enthusiasm! they may well not be great musicians in the future but have had a good introduction.