WESTERN MUSIC SURVEY(?)

I’m working on a syllabus for a western music survey course, the course that music historians are still overwhelmingly expected to teach in music and musicology departments across the nation. The problem I’m having is the same problem that any self-critical music scholar has when faced with the assignment: the conflict between university expectations (to cover the cannon) and, on the other hand, the discipline’s increasing acknowledgement of the problematic nature of said cannon.

Even places like Harvard are now at least paying lip-service to decolonizing their approaches to music education. There are serious and legitimate questions being raised about how to do so, whether they are doing so beyond overtures to the corporate university’s “diversity and inclusion” language, and whether or not it is even possible to decolonize a discipline that is housed within the university system. These are larger questions that the field is and has been grappling with, questions well studied by many of the articles in, for one example, this recent issue of Current Musicology. What is true in any case is, at this moment in time, the existence of a tension between the university’s expectations and our desires to be better educators.

Every teacher has to come at this problem in their own ways, hopefully with the help of a like-minded community. At the moment, the way that I’m synthesizing this problem for myself, given my areas of research, is through toying with the idea of blending a western art music survey with an American popular music survey. They would both be less comprehensive than either standing alone; but at the same time, by placing two different musical discourses/traditions next to each other, I wonder if places of resonance and dissonance would emerge in a more forceful and useful way. (Hi, comparative studies.) That idea, of course, depends on an understanding of music as a cultural/discursive product as much as a creative one.

I am genuinely unsure if this is a good idea. But one reason that I think the experiment is worth thinking about is this: I do believe that using popular music gives more students access to music studies by taking advantage of literacies that they already (might) possess. So at the very least, I’m going to finish the syllabus. This is my introduction so far:

As the editor of Current Musicology put it in his introduction to the spring 2018 issue, “The academic study of music and sound is facing an array of political and intellectual challenges, prompting a pointed moment of critical self-reflection, what Stuart Hall might call a break—a conjuncture in which ‘old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes.’” This course approaches said conjuncture by positioning American popular music as dialectically interlinked with European art music, both as a provocation and as an opportunity: not only does this course propose a relation between the two traditions, but it also argues that studying each at the same time will enhance our understanding of both. Through comparative analysis, this course brings into greater relief the cultural, formal, and historical elements that are critical to understanding both musical traditions and our own sense of identity. Fundamentally, it approaches music as not only a creative practice, but one that is always situated in specific socio-historical cultures.

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