Enough of the “Great”

How ‘romanticised’ visions of the ‘composer’ can impact teaching, learning and assessment of composing in education.

Kirsty Devaney
Research Assistant

Bronze statue of a man with blue sky backround

The gate

wooden, cast iron, rusty, pearly?

There, but also not


The key -

hard work

they said


10,000 hours

the myth for greatness

Reflecting on the theme of this year’s CSPACE conference, the notion of education as ‘romanticized’ (Meyerhoff, 2019) struck a chord with me (excuse the pun…). As a composer, the romanticising of composers can be found everywhere from films about the genius of Mozart, stories of Beethoven losing his hearing, year-long celebrations to celebrate the birth (or death) of a composer 250 years ago, as well as in the rhetoric from politicians:

Richard Wagner is an artist of sublime genius and his work is incomparably more rewarding – intellectually, sensually and emotionally – than, say, the Arctic Monkeys (Gove, 2011).

And within music education policy documents:

…perform, listen to, review and evaluate music across a range of historical periods, genres, styles and traditions, including the works of the great composers and musicians
(National Curriculum for Music, 2013: 1)

…an aural knowledge of some of the great musical output of human civilisation
(Model Music Curriculum, 2021: 37)

This view of “greatness” is problematic for a number of reasons, which I will explore in this blog post. 

Natural Talent

For the students and music teachers I spoke to as part of my PhD research (Devaney, 2018) there was a strong sense that composing ability had some aspect of natural ability. In contrast, my research with conservatoire heads of composition often promoted the importance of hard work for those that become successful composers, and with this a belief in meritocracy.

Although recent creativity research promotes the idea of creativity as universal and something that can be taught, many still cling to the belief that composers have to have something extra:

The word composer can elicit certain stereotypes and assumptions about the creative process. The image of the composer as creative genius is still very much dominant within classical music discourse whereby stories about “great” composers are passed down like ‘legends and lore” (Thomson, 2008: 69).

If students believe composing ability is a natural talent, how might this affect their motivation? Will students give up before even trying to compose?


The second reason why the promotion of “great” composers troubles me is that it creates a hierarchy whereby some music is deemed to be better than others. This is often stated as a fact (see the quote from Michael Gove above who at the time, was Secretary of State for Education), which is then reinforced by the presence of a musical canon. But what do people deem ‘better’ music to be? I believe what they mean is music they believe to be more intellectual, and by that they mean it has more complexity, and by complexity I think they really mean harmonic and structural complexity. This is why you may hear people saying things like ‘pop music is rubbish because it only uses 4 chords’. Are we right to judge music by the number of complex chords it has? Does that really tell us what music is “good” and “bad”? 

As a music educator, I commonly hear my composition students saying things like “it hasn’t modulated yet, I need to modulate”, or  “the harmony is too simple. When I ask them why they think their music needs to modulate they realise they don’t really know and that they have just always believed that for a piece of music to be “good”, or for it to get high marks in their exams, it had to have a modulation. In my interviews with heads of composition at six UK conservatoires, the question of harmonic complexity was disputed and thus raised further questions as to what and how we assess composing ability in schools and within higher education.

Role Models

The final reason why putting composers on a pedestal and calling them “great” is problematic to me is that the majority of these composers are dead white men who wear wigs (Fuller, 1995). Therefore, the lack of diverse role models can often mean students don’t identify with the word ‘composer’.

These composers are often framed under the banner of the western musical canon, which Burnard (2012) argues is an ideology aimed to promote specific values that reinforce ‘class and status group distinction’ (p.23). Similarly, Legg (2012) declared that the canon acts as gatekeeper leading to excluding ‘certain groups of students from higher education’ (p.157). One way to address this has been to include women and people of colour into the western musical canon but is this enough? I worry that this does not really tackle the root of the cause of seeing the canon as an object of ‘pure art’ (Soderman, Burnard and Trulsson, 2015: 1) that is beyond the scope of criticism and is objectivity true. Instead, do we need to view the canon as socially constructed and a politicised version of musical history, rather than accepting it as fact?

Concluding Thoughts

Because [education] is romanticized in this way, the possibilities of alternative modes of study have become almost unthinkable. (Meyerhoff, 2019: 5)

The ‘legends and lore’ (Thomson, 2008: 69) about composers continue to gain public attention and interest, and although the discussion has been happening about how we diversify the cannon, many still view it as an objective artifact. Those involved in the music education of young people must reflect on how systems and practices may continue to reinforce myths about composers that potentially lead to excluding certain groups and to do I suggest we must first let go of the romanticized vision of the composer.

  • Burnard, P. (2012) 'The Practice of Diverse Compositional Creativities'.zIn Collins, D. (Ed), The act of musical composition: studies in the creative process, pp. 111-138. Farnham, Ashgate.
  • Devaney, K. (2018) 'How Composing Assessment in English Secondary Examinations Affect Teaching and Learning Practices '. School of Education Vol. Ph.D., Birmingham, UK, Birmingham City University.
  • Gove, M., Department for Education. (2013) Oral statement by Michael Gove on education reform. Online.
  • Legg, R. (2012) Bach, Beethoven, Bourdieu: 'cultural capital' and the scholastic canon in England's A-level examinations The Curriculum Journal 23, 2, 157-172.
  • Meyerhoff, Eli. Beyond Education : Radical Studying for Another World, University of Minnesota Press, 2019.  Fuller, S. (1995) 'Dead white men in wigs '. In Copper, S. (Ed), Girls Girls Girls – Essays on Women and Music pp. 22-36 London, Cassell.
  • Soderman, J., Burnard, P. & Trulsson, Y. (2015) 'Contextualising Bourdieu in the Field of Music and Music Education'. In Burnard, P. T., Ylva and Soderman, Johan (Ed), Bourdieu and the Sociology of Music Education, pp. 1-12. England, Ashgate Publishing Limited.
  • Thomson, P. (2008) 'Field'. In Grenfell, M. (Ed), Pierre Bourdieu Key Concepts, pp. 65-82. UK, Acumen.