Wednesday, June 13, 2012

French Music - Why isn't it better?

Music is so much a part of youth culture both in the UK and France,  but why is it that the French charts are filled with British and American music whereas in the British charts there is no French music?  My eldest son, Matthew is studying for his Masters at Bristol University in the UK.  He chose to spend his 3rd year studying in a University in Montpellier.  He has had a fantastic year and loves the lifestyle in France, however one of his pet hates is French music. It was a mission of his during his year studying in France to find some decent French bands.  He really wanted to and was constantly pleading with his French friends to introduce him to some. Unfortunately they failed miserably and had to admit defeat.  Most French bands are either europop or rappers and there are no really talented bands to match some of those on the other side of the water..    

I'm fascinated by the differences Matthew has found between his experiences of education and student life in the UK and France.  I've been waiting anxiously for him to finish the year so that I can complete the chapter on Education in the book I'm writing about our experiences as a family in France.  During one of our recent discussions, Matthew told me the following story which highlights one of the differences:

It was Saturday night and his girlfriend from Bristol was staying with him that weekend.  There was a big buzz amongst the student population.  He had received several calls and messages from his French friends telling him it was going to be a ‘Big Night’ in the city centre.  Thousands of people on the streets, live music and a Fun fair.  “Excellent” they thought, expecting something like a Big Night out in the UK- night clubs with live bands playing and a party atmosphere.  In cool, cosmopolitan Montpellier, however, they imagined it would be so much better.  Brilliant!  They were really up for a 'Big Night' out French style.  They headed off towards the city centre where it was all “happening”, full of anticipation and keen to get into the vibe.  The streets were heaving with people and up ahead they could see flashing lights and a big crowd gathered around the main event. .“Wow this is going to be awesome” they thought.
What they discovered when they got there was not exactly what they had been expecting.  The big “fun fair” was actually a “Fanfare” which they now realise is a type of brass band.  And that was it.  That was what all the fuss was about.  A big brass band playing Black Eyed Peas "My Humps" and other such bizarre adaptations.  Not at all the type of “Big Night” they had envisaged.  No fair rides, no live groups, just a big brass band!  So, with a mixture of amusement, bewilderment, and disappointment they headed back to his digs to listen to some decent music.  It should be added that they have enjoyed many student nights out in Montpellier and have had a fantastic year here, just this particular night didn't quite meet their expectations.

Why is there a lack of good modern French music?

They can't keep bringing up Edith Piaf - that was donkeys years ago.  Why is there so little good modern French music?  How many French bands do we hear on the radio in the UK - none!  You can't put it down to the them having a totally different taste in music as the French youth love British and American music and mainly listen to them over French.  There is even a law that insists that French radio stations must play a proportion of French music.  I think the fear is that if they don't enforce it, French music will disappear altogether.  Many stations get round this by playing most of their quota of French music late at night when no ones listening.  I don’t think forcing them to listen to French music is the answer. Perhaps they should start from the opposite end and look at improving and encouraging Music Education in schools, surely this would make a difference.

Musical Education in France

If you want to play an instrument or sing in France you have to seek out a music school or private tutor (which are few and far between) and take lessons out of school during evenings or weekends.  My children’s experience of music at primary school has been very poor.  No school bands and no choirs.  The closest thing they have to a choir is the obligatory School Spectacle at the end of the year where each class stands up on the stage and sing songs they don’t know to an audience that’s bored by the spectacularly unimaganative use of the childrens (and parents) time.  You can read more about this in my blog post The School Spectacle in rural France (Yawn).  

Lessons in music at secondary school level too are sadly lacking.  My second eldest son Ryan, when he was about 12/13, was taught parrot fashion to play a tune on the recorder.  The class then had to stand in a line and play one at a time and were given a mark out of 20.  They also all had to sing a song in a similar fashion and the mark contributed to their overall mark for the year.  Very unfair for the tone deaf, of which there seemed to be several.  Ryan was surprised at how many of his classmates couldn’t hold a tune.  (Maybe its from listening to too many brass bands!) He was taught to read music using “Doh, Ray, Me...” and wasn’t actually taught the notes that the rest of the world use (a, b, c etc).  How can that work?  This may be meaningless to those of you that don’t read music, but it’s an odd way to teach music.  

Musical Education in the UK

I think they could learn a lot from the system in the UK where every school has music as part of the curriculum up to age 14 (and beyond if chosen) and every child has the opportunity to learn a musical instrument of their choice during school hours.  At the start of secondary school (and sometimes earlier) individual and small group lessons are offered in a wide range of musical instruments.  Instruments are hired out cheaply and lessons are carried out during school hours.  The child just has to remember to bring his/her instrument on that day and practice inbetween.  Students work their way through a set of structured Grades increasing in difficulty as their profeciency in the instrument improves.  After school there are weekly practices of brass bands, wind bands, Orchestras and choirs organised by the school music department, giving children the opportunity to practice their newly acquired skills and concerts are given at least once a year.  There are also lots of opportunities for music camps where children can meet for a week with other schools and work on a musical producation to further improve their skills. 

Because music is encouraged and many children play instruments, there are often several groups of secondary aged children that form their own bands to play more popular music.  The opportunities are there and encouraged for children to experiment beyond the bounds of their formal musical education. There were several bands being formed when I was at school 25 years ago and my eldest son had the same experience 20 years later.  However there have been no groups like that formed in the schools my children have attended in France and hardly any of their friends play an instrument.

The Solution - Improve Music Education

The poor availability of musical education and encouragement in musical persuits is perhaps indicative of the State's lack of value placed in developing these skills.  I expect the French Government has a little more on its mind at the moment than improving Frances musical talent!  However, they are obviously concerned enough about it to pass laws to force people to listen to French music, so why not improve the Music Education standards and increase the chances of nurturing more talented musicians.  Of course there are good French musicians out there, but that’s more despite the system rather than because of it. We were very pleasantly surprised by the French Rock Band that turned up at our local Village Fete last year (see The Meal section of my blog post on The French Rural Village “En Fete”)   Maybe the British are just more musically inclined as a nation, as the French are with their cuisine.  The catering schools in France are excellent and far superior to anything on offer in the UK.  They obviously value food over music and who am I to critisize that?  There are plenty of things the French can feel justifiably proud of, but music isn't one of them.  Perhaps, if they improved and made Musical Instruction more accessable to children they could be proud of their music too! In the meantime, we just have to take care of our children's education in music ourselves.


  1. Hello there - what an interesting post! We spend a lot of time in France, and listen to RFM as we motor about - it is awful and makes us laugh. Why does every French pop song sound like a failed Eurovision entry from 20 years ago? But its not just in France - Europop in general is a bit dismal.

    You might be right about musical education, except that there is no shortage of talented classical players. French pianists, in particular, are wonderful, and France has a fabulous history of great composers. This question will continue to puzzle us!

    1. Good point Mrs Exeter. There are music schools around, but just not that many and they are quite costly. When I looked into lessons for one of my sons we would have to buy the instrument before he started which is quite costly and a waste of money if he didn't enjoy it. I suppose my point is it's just not as accessible to everyone as it is in the UK. However there are avenues to develop musical talents if you hunt them out and have the money to do so.

  2. I agree that is an interesting post, I didn't realise that was the case in France, I guess I just assumed music was cool in France. As an aside my oldest is hoping to go to Bristol, he has an offer but needs to get the grades yet. It looks like a great Uni.

    1. No music is very uncool in France. I hope your son gets the grades for Bristol. Its a really great Uni and the year in France (whilst a great experience) has made Matthew realise just how lucky he is to go there. What subject is he planning on studying? Matthew is studying Chemistry and the facilities at Bristol are excellent.

  3. Having just been to our local music concert in the village last night, I feel well versed to comment. The whole music scene in our village is outside of school (much like sports such as handball and football).

    Our local radion satsion plays one Catalan/Spanish song to every 6/7 British/US ones. My boy, aged 5, does learn music in school but he also has private music lessons in the village.

    All Spanish villages have a band, this mainly consists of a few blokes on a trumpet and some dude on a drum, but underneath all this there is a village musical community.

    Sadly, it seems that the instruments that they teach the children to play are very limited ie clarinet, flute, oboe, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, and they appear to have a dislike of anything stringed.

    We pay €35 a month for our son to go to a one hour session per week. I think it's expensive, particularly given that all they seem to do is colour in musical notes and learn the odd song here and there. I'm not sure when they get to pick a woodwind/brass instrument to learn but I hope it's soon.

    1. Thanks for that Wendy. Wow 35 euros does seem very expensive. I keep asking my little ones if they want music lessons, but no ones jumped at the chance yet. My 10 year old is content having his older brother teach him the drums (he had lessons in the UK) and my 7 year old is being taught the guitar by the same older brother who taught himself the guitar. At least it doesn't cost us anything!

      Shame you don't have more choice of instruments - I suspect it's the same here. Strangely enough I've never seen any evidence of anyone playing stringed instruments either. Brass instruments definately rule here and perhaps it's the Spanish influence as we are only an hour from the border with Spain.

  4. I can't stand French music. Try as I might it just won't happen. I do enjoy la fete de la musique and various jazz festivals though. Cannot stand French rap although sometimes the words can be quite meaningful.

  5. When we moved to France 8 years ago our 3 children were all great musicians and had done well in the UK system. Firstly we had to find a cello teacher for our youngest son. The Russian emigre we ended up with was a dismal failure and within a year my son had decided he no longer wanted to play his beloved instrument. So, he took up the trumpet and had a fab teacher for a couple of years, until the teacher moved on. My daughter played piano and violin to grade 4/5. No decent piano teacher to be had so that fell by the way and the violin teaching was lacklustre. Not only did we have to contend with poor instrumental lessons but the additional hour spent in souflage (music theory) was the straw which broke the camels back for all of them. I dont know whether my children would have carried on playing instruments if we had stayed in the UK. Actually, that not true.....both my sons ended up back in the UK and took up the bagpipes. Their early musical training certainly helped and they play constantly. My daughter stayed in France all the way through her education. Never picked up an instrument after the age of 13. But she is now studying at Bristol Uni!!
    Fab blog Nikki. Cant wait for the book.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Glad to hear you're enjoying the blog. It's a shame your children's enthusiasm for music was squashed in France, but I'm not really suprised. It's difficult to keep it going when you can't find a decent teacher.

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