Some Observations and Suggestions for Rethinking Music Humanities


In the current climate of xenophobia and the desire to cut national funding for the arts, it is an ethical responsibility of teachers—especially at the university level—to reevaluate the way we teach and think about music. This responsibility is particularly relevant in the case of Music Humanities, a Core Curriculum course that all Columbia College undergraduates are required to take. How can we, as Music Humanities instructors, teach music in a way that corresponds with the diverse nature of Columbia’s undergraduate population? How can we respond to the fact that the current administration’s actions have very real consequences for some—if not all—our students? I argue that we should teach the Western art music tradition in tandem with case studies, explicitly drawing attention to the values and ideologies that underlie this tradition. My hope is that this discussion will also be helpful for instructors of similar courses at other academic institutions.

First, I will briefly describe what Music Humanities is and the way that it is currently taught, even though there is some flexibility in the content and approach of the course. Masterpieces of Western Music (“Music Humanities”) is a small, discussion-based class—a maximum of twenty-five students—that provides a basic introduction to the history of Western art music from the Middle Ages up to the present. Students are primarily, though not entirely, non-music majors. The class focuses on particular musical works (“masterpieces”) as a way of developing critical listening skills—that is, in terms of being able to identify genre (i.e. type of composition), place and date of composition, and basic style and formal features (melody, harmony, rhythm, meter, texture, timbre, form). Each instructor has some freedom to decide which musical works are taught and how these works are taught. There is, however, a basic list of works that must be taught by all instructors, and this list is mainly of white men (see list here). Currently, it is up to the individual instructor to expand this canon and/or present it in a critical light. In many cases, this is done in a superficial way or not at all.

In order to combat a highly exclusionary canon and tokenism, it is necessary to refine the aims of Music Humanities, both on the syllabus and the Core Curriculum website. It should be an explicit objective of the course to critically examine the values and ideologies underlying the Western art music tradition. This means investigating how this tradition is bound up with values that exclude and marginalize people in terms of gender, sexuality, class, religion, ethnicity, race, and disability.

One way that I propose to realize this critical aim is to adopt a case-study approach in tandem with a chronological presentation of the Western art music tradition. Each semester, the instructor would be responsible for teaching four or five case studies—these case studies corresponding with the instructor’s expertise. The case studies may examine examples of the interplay of vernacular and Western art music traditions, voices from the margins of the Western art music tradition, and/or traditions from outside Western art music that critically reflect on the latter. These case studies could be discussed during the weekly staff meetings.

I will now provide a sample case study—one that is still an ongoing project for me. This semester, I taught a session on Will Marion Cook, William Grant Still, and Duke Ellington. My objective for this session was to highlight how African-American composers were barred from participating in the Western art music tradition. In some cases, early 20th-century African-American composers were able to overcome racial boundaries through the interplay of vernacular and Western art music traditions. For instance, in William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, he incorporates blues into sonata form in a way that does not negate the difference of the two traditions.

I offer these observations and suggestions as one possibility of how Music Humanities can respond to the current political climate. By arguing for a critical approach to the Western art music tradition, I’m not saying that this tradition should be removed from the syllabus. On the contrary, my point is that the Western art music tradition should remain the focus of Music Humanities, but in a way that explicitly articulates the need to present this tradition in a critical light.