Time to Make Music a Central Part of Malaysian Education

By Rahida Aini

March 2023 FEATURE
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ONE OF THE most important lessons my father taught me was appreciating music. He thought it important that my brother and I manage both music and academic education.

My father did not grow up in a musical family; in fact, he never had the opportunity to learn music. He was not a professional musician and only played the harmonica by ear. But seeing his lips move through the comb was something I was accustomed to during his music get-togethers on the weekends. He found joy in listening to the sound of air rushing through the harmonica reeds – in and out and in and out – and found it stimulating and relaxing.

My brother’s and my exposure to music education has benefitted us in many ways; for one thing, our sibling bond was strengthened through music and we occasionally performed in a duo. It also gave us another career option. I made teaching music my full-time job after becoming a mother. As my children grew older, I returned to a non-musical job, but I continued to teach music on weekends. My brother, who chose to study medicine in the UK, still enjoys playing the piano in his spare time. He claims that it is a great form of cognitive exercise; it reduces stress and blood pressure, and can even prevent dementia and depression.

Instilling Music in Education

From the outset, my father was determined that our music education would be one we would enjoy and value deeply. And because music lessons available in public schools were limited, my father enrolled us at Yamaha Music School at a young age and engaged several private music tutors in the years that followed.

When we lived in Johor, my father rented a piano from the Yamaha Music School to see if we were truly interested in learning. He bought the instrument two years later. When we relocated to Kulim, there were no music schools or private music tutors, so my father would ferry us between Kulim and Sungai Petani for our weekly lessons. Back then, the exam centre for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) was centralised in Penang.

Solo performances, Western music theory and rudiments, European music history, sight singing and ear training were all part of our music education. In Western music, transferable skills and knowledge occurred in both theory and practice.

Traditional Malay music, on the other hand, was more oral in nature, requiring listening, observing and playing; since I was never exposed to it, I valued my own musical heritage less.

In retrospect, I would have enjoyed learning traditional Malaysian music instruments like gendang (a double-headed drum), rebana (a frame drum used in Islamic devotional music), the harmonium (an Indian stringed instrument), rebab (an Arab-style fiddle) and the tawak gong; or playing Dondang Sayang on a violin.

Malaysia’s History of Music Education

Before 1983, there was no proper music curriculum for public schools in Malaysia, though music was offered as an optional examination paper in the Lower Certificate of Education (LCE) in 1972 in some schools.

Musical activities at school were done on a modest scale, often in the form of singing in a choir. If a student or staff member had a musical background, they might play at school events, such as Sports Day, Speech Day or during an official visit by a dignitary.

Realising the importance of music in a well-rounded education, the Ministry of Education established a music curriculum in 1983,[1] under which all Malaysian pupils learn some form of music, be it singing, playing the recorder or percussion, formally for one hour per week in the classroom.

Music Education Through the Lens of Teachers

Over the years, music education was lumped under arts education and allocated only 30 minutes out of one-hour slots in primary schools. Lucy Leong, a primary school music teacher from Petaling Jaya, said the 30-minutes-a-week is insufficient for students to be proficient in the subject.

Nuraida Abdul Jalil, a music teacher at a public primary school in Melaka, feels the same. “There is still not enough emphasis on music. I wish I have more time to make music education more appealing to my students – to make it a class that triggers joy and a platform for students to express their feelings. Who knows, they might even want to pursue it as a career.”

“People might not be aware but there are numerous job opportunities in the field of music apart from performing: from being a sound engineer and producer; to music historians who conduct research and write about musicians, music genres, and instruments; or a musicologist who studies music in a scientific and historical context,” Nuraida goes on.

Khairul Amri, a teacher from Alor Setar, also laments, “Our society still underestimates the value of music and a music education. If we look at other countries, South Korea, for example, places a high value on music in their education system.” It emphasises musical expression, such as listening to music, singing, playing musical instruments and creating music. K-pop, short for Korean popular music, is widely enjoyed for its choreography, catchy melodies and a wide variety of audio visual elements. Immensely successful globally, K-pop has spawned an entire industry of music production houses, event management companies and music distributors, providing many job opportunities both domestically and internationally.

The Future of Music Education in Malaysia

Having lived through and witnessed the trajectory of Malaysian music since P. Ramlee’s generation, I have not seen much improvement in music education in Malaysia. It is perhaps time to revise our music education curriculum once again, so that the young can appreciate all forms of music – from Western classical and Malaysian folk and traditional to more contemporary music – from which they can draw inspiration in their own musical expression and creation.

Perhaps then, we will see the rise of another P. Ramlee, who wrote 250 songs and once won best musical score for The Legend of Hang Tuah in 1956 at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival in Hong Kong, making significant contributions to the Malaysian entertainment industry. We, too, can benefit from music in our cultural economy, just as South Korea does.


[1] Mubin, M.N. (2011). Develop human capital through music education in Malaysia. Academic Research International, p. 220-227. Vol.1(2). ISSN 2223-95553.

Rahida Aini

works as a Publication Officer at Penang Institute. She enjoys writing and strolling along Straits Quay, appreciating the beauty of mother earth.