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ABRSM and its partners publish Making Music

9 years ago
Most comprehensive survey of musical instrument learning in the UK finds that while more children than ever are playing, many still have no access and children from lower social groups remain disadvantaged

Today, ABRSM and its partners publish Making Music, the most comprehensive survey of the learning, progression and teaching of musical instruments ever undertaken in the UK. The report, which builds on three similar programmes of research that ABRSM conducted between 1993 and 1999, involved many of the foremost organisations in UK music education, from Ofsted and Arts Council England to Youth Music and Trinity College London. Published at, Making Music concludes with a series of recommendations from the sector that are intended to provoke debate, decision and action towards giving people of all ages and backgrounds even more of an opportunity to learn, participate and make progress in and through music. The report shows that there is much to celebrate:

  • Numerous political and sector-lead initiatives have taken place resulting in the fact that more children than ever are playing musical instruments: 76% of UK children aged 5-14 say they ‘know how to play’ compared with 41% in 1999. 36% of those (3.5 million) currently have lessons
  • Instrumental trends are shifting with as many people now playing the electric guitar as playing the violin
  • Technology is having a significant impact on the way people learn and progress in their music making


  • 15% (1.4 million) of all 5-17 years olds have never played a musical instrument
  • Sustained, progressive music education tends to be the preserve of children born to wealthier parents, so funding needs to be focussed to better support disadvantaged learners, address regional imbalances and ensure a more equitable supply of diverse instruments

Lincoln Abbotts, Director of Strategic Development at ABRSM, says: ‘It is hoped the report will be used to influence, change and further improve the circumstances in which children and adults engage with music. The political environment has shifted considerably in recent times with significant government investment, sector lead initiatives and increased enthusiasm among our young people for all the extraordinary joys and benefits of making music. The last ABRSM research of the 1990s, when music learning was on the decline, helped to transform music education in the UK and we hope that the fascinating insights revealed here will again inform the sector. This Making Music report is the result of a major collaboration between individuals and organisations deeply committed to music education across the UK. ABRSM is particularly proud that the two leading music exam boards – ourselves and Trinity College London – have been able to work together on this project with so many others. We must continue to collaborate to improve progression routes in musical learning and coordination among schools, private teachers, music services, community music and national organisations. Together we should explore the implications of the report’s findings and continue to champion the role of music and music specialists in schools, so that leaders can truly understand the positive impact they make. We must help policy makers target and align funding to support disadvantaged learners and address regional imbalances.’

Much to celebrate

Making Music reveals that there is much to celebrate in a British musical landscape, transformed since smaller, similar surveys were undertaken by ABRSM in 1993, 1996 and 1999, when music instrument learning was shown to be in decline. More children than ever are now playing a wider variety of musical instruments with the proportion playing leaping from 41% in 1999 to 76% in 2014, while technology is providing new opportunities for anyone to engage with and create their own music. Simultaneously, the nation’s music teachers are expressing high levels of professional satisfaction, reflecting the rewarding nature of their work and their enjoyment of teaching. The generally positive trajectory has happened in the context of a plethora of positive political and sector-lead 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. Successive governments’ policies have helped bring about real improvement, particularly in terms of first access for primary school children.

Much to improve

However, the findings also point to the fact that 15% of all children under the age of 17 have never had an instrumental lesson in the classroom or individually. The report also shows an uneven social and geographical picture in terms of access, provision and progression. Despite concentrated investment in providing primary school children the opportunity to try instruments through whole class ensembles, only a small minority of young people go on to learn through formal music education progression routes. Those who do are significantly more likely to be from more affluent social backgrounds, with children from lower socio-economic groups significantly disadvantaged. Yet the sheer number of young people making music in alternative settings suggests a huge enthusiasm to play instruments – and that the formal routes and experiences they are offered through formal music teaching provision sometimes fall short.

Key statistical findings from the Making Music report:
  • 76% of UK children aged 5-14 say they ‘know how to play an instrument’ compared with 41% in 1999.
  • Electric guitar overtakes violin for the first time in the list of top six most popular instruments learned. Drum kit, bass guitar, keyboard all surge in popularity while woodwind and percussion do not.
  • Piano sees a 15% growth securing its place as the most popular instrument played by 5-14 year olds.
  • 21% of 5-17 year olds who play are ‘self-taught’
  • 15% of 5-17 year olds have never played an instrument
  • 40% of children from the lower social grades who have never played an instrument said they had no opportunity to learn at school
  • 74% of children from affluent backgrounds have had instrumental lessons – individually or in class groups – compared to 55% from disadvantaged social groups
  • Almost 10% fewer children play instruments in Wales and Scotland than in England and Northern Ireland
  • Teachers rate job fulfilment as 8 out of 10 on average, and are more fulfilled the longer they remain in the profession
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