Class conscious - Andrew Martin envies his son's refined taste

My son impresses me: it took me 15 years to develop his degree of musical snobbery

Walking through Woolworths with my son Frank, I noticed that he looked a little peaky and was uncharacteristically silent. "Are you all right, Frank?" I asked him. "No," he said. "It's horrible in here. The music's awful, the lights are too bright, and everything's so cheap and horrible." I was impressed. Frank is eight, whereas it took me 15 years to develop that degree of snobbery and intolerance.

As soon as we stepped out of Woolworths, Frank was his old self. We walked over the road to a plushly carpeted music shop, where he started looking through some Charlie Parker CDs, saying: "Now I like it in here."

Obviously Frank can't really appreciate Parker's fraught, scrambled music: he simply pretends to, like most of the white middle-class males who buy the man's music. But Frank is genuinely keen on learning to play the saxophone that we hire for him, as well as his recorders. Frank has about as many recorders as Nigel Tufnel has guitars in Spinal Tap. One of them is plastic and transparent so you can see your saliva in it - although I don't think that is the express purpose of the design.

Frank's brother, Nat, plays guitar and he, too, seems very keen. They've been at it most mornings this week. Frank plays "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" on the sax while Nat - in the same room at the same time, and with the television on in the background - plays the James Bond theme. They both seem to have a real flair for playing while there are other noises going on, including the sound of me shrieking: "Shut up, will yer?"

But I don't do that very often. Here in middle-class north London, where one often sees the amusing spectacle of a piano being winched through some suitably large upstairs window, children's music is sacrosanct. In any public place, you can see notices advertising children's choirs ("Come and sing!") or general musical get-togethers: "Relaxed, guided sessions for children (0-3) with small percussive instruments". No experience is required - of music or, indeed, anything.

Every term I, like most parents around here, fork out about £50 per instrument for my children's tuition. This is subsidised by the local authority, but I still have a frantic bout of ratiocination every time I come to sign the cheques. "Do the little buggers have any natural ability," I fret, "or is this just an exercise in cultural elitism?" - and I recall that I myself became a reasonably OK guitarist with the aid of one tattered copy of Bert Weedon's Play in A Day. (It took me ten years, mind you.)

The boys tell me that well over half the children in their classes play instruments. But the figure for the country as a whole was just 8 per cent when research was last conducted, in 2002, and the chief inspector of schools has expressed anxiety that too few children from poorer backgrounds are taking music lessons.

At my own northern primary, the school recorder club would have been synonymous with the posh club, had such a thing been allowed to exist. The two boys from my own class who went along to it were twin brothers, the sons of a Scoutmaster. I mean . . . need I say more? All the boys in the recorder group wore shorts long after everyone else, and even now, when I see an 11-year-old's slightly lumpy knees, I think of "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" being played, badly, on half a dozen recorders.

Most parents who pay for music tuition are doing so in the hope that they might be able to secure for their children entry into the cosy world of classical music, where the pay may not be all that good, but at least you get to put on formal wear most evenings. The danger is that your child might go down the rock route. One minute, your kid's picking out "O Little Town of Bethlehem" for adoring aunts and uncles; the next thing you know, he's hit a spot of bother at 4am at the Chateau Marmont.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Bleak morning in America