Beyond Music in Western Civilization: Issues in Undergraduate Music History Literacy

October 1, 1990

The two-semester course for music majors which concentrates almost exclusively on European music from the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century has been a standard on American campuses for several decades as the core music history requirement for music majors. It represents in most programs a "bottom line" of historical knowledge. During these same decades there has, happily, been an explosion in knowledge about ethnic music, American music, and music by women, as well as the acceptance of these subjects as essential components of our students' musical education. There has also been an increased acceptance of truly contemporary music as worthy of study.

What is the impact of this explosion on our undergraduate music history core? Are we incorporating the new areas into our core courses? Are we eliminating old material to make room for the new? Are we distinguishing among different programs (for example, performance on the one hand and music education on the other), and deciding that minimal knowledge of music history can be at a lower level for one group than the other?

In order to answer these questions I conducted a survey of music programs across the country1 The results, summarized in the tables at the end of this article, are quite striking. They show that significant change is taking place in the American undergraduate music history core. Much of the change is due to expansion of the field of musicology into these previously ignored areas, and to the resulting overload when these new areas are added to the already full music history core. The type of change that the survey shows is largely evolutionary: a gradual modification of the traditional curriculum to absorb new concepts and information.

The average undergraduate program requires 3.3 semesters of music history for all music majors. Almost all programs require a course like Music in Western Civilization (MWC). Half of the MWC courses are two semesters in length;2 most of the others are three or four semesters. The semester course usually carries three credits.

In the three tables below, the percentages represent positive responses based on the total number of responses to each question.

In addition to the standard subject matter of the MWC course—cultivated music (that is, "art music") from the middle ages through the middle of the twentieth century—over three-quarters of the programs also cover music written after 1970,3 more than half cover pre-Medieval music, and a significant minority cover jazz, ethnic or non-western music, and women composers. The development of listening skills4 is one of the goals of most of these courses.

Most of the courses use the Grout-Palisca text, but many respondents commented that they supplement it with others: often the Machlis Introduction to Contemporary Music or the Cope New Directions in Music, with one or more of the period studies in the Prentice Hall History of Music Series, or with a volume of source readings.

The addition of an introductory music history course in almost half of all programs is the most significant change in the overall profile of music history requirements in recent years. While MWC tends to cover the traditional European content, this pre-MWC course more often introduces both cultivated and vernacular musics to lower-division music students and puts an even stronger emphasis on developing listening skills than does MWC. It is much less likely than MWC to be chronological in approach.

In only about a quarter of the schools is at least one further music history course required in all the degree programs, but most schools do offer electives in music history to their undergraduates. In order of popularity, the most commonly offered electives are Jazz, Twentieth Century, Opera, Romantic, Baroque, Classical, American, Renaissance, Symphonic, Medieval, Post-World War II, and World Music. More than half of the programs require repertory courses of all their performance majors, but these are usually under a performance rather than history rubric.

Adding an introductory course, and possibly expanding the MWC course to three or more semesters in almost half of the programs—when a two-semester course has been the norm in the past—seems to be balanced by programs decreasing required upper division electives, moving away from the cafeteria-style approach of the late '60s and '70s to a more structured curriculum. On the other hand, the required course content now tends towards coverage of a wider spectrum of musics than before. About one-half of all programs require some coverage of jazz (ranging from two works to an entire course), and about a third, world or ethnic music. These figures are not high, particularly in light of NASM standards for all baccalaureate programs in music, which call for "opportunities to deal with music of various historical periods and cultural sources (emphasis mine)."5

Asked to note any additional features of core music history curricula, respondents to the survey often cited a strong listening, analysis, or writing emphasis in their required courses. A handful of schools designate at least one semester of the MWC course as one of the school's writing-intensive courses. Another handful of respondents indicated that their music education, music therapy, and/or commercial music majors took fewer semesters of the MWC course than did other music majors.

The music history core at the University of Idaho, which started evolving to its present form around 1980, can stand as a specific example since it appears to embody many of the characteristics revealed in the questionnaire. It begins, in the spring semester of the freshman year, with an appreciation course. The course goals are to develop listening skills, to put the music with which students are most familiar in some kind of context in relationship to the cultivated repertory, and to develop some larger world view of music and the way it functions in culture. The introductory course focuses on the development of listening skills and exposure to a variety of musics, both vernacular and cultivated, stressing social context, basic forms, procedures, and genres. It is less European in content and less historical in approach than MWC and uses a horizontal, cross-cultural approach rather than a strictly chronological one.6

The MWC course, begun in the sophomore year, has been expanded to three semesters: the first covers European music to about 1750, the second covers European and American music from 1750 to 1900, and the third, the twentieth century. Significant popular and folk music (mostly American) is touched upon in the last two semesters and jazz history is integrated throughout the last semester. The emphasis in the MWC course is on the development of literacy, in some depth, in Western music. My definition of "literacy" is broad, encompassing not only information such as terms, genres, composers, and works, but also skills in analysis, establishing of context, and understanding performance practices. MWC also introduces basic research methodology and graduated library assignments which begin in the freshman introductory course continue throughout the three semesters of the course.

Our music education majors are not required to take any further music history courses, while most other majors must elect one additional upper-division course. The upper-division history courses are not surveys, but focused studies within a particular period or genre.

We advise students planning to continue with graduate study to use computer programs and organized study groups to prepare for GRE's and graduate placement exams, since we do not try to cover the details of, say, the full edition of the Grout-Palisca History of Western Music in the MWC course.

Two important trends emerge from this survey. First, music programs in the U.S. are putting a greater emphasis, especially in MWC, on the development of skills that will allow students to continue to investigate and learn on their own. Second, there is an increasing recognition that MWC is not the appropriate first course in music history for most students; they need to be armed first with certain skills and with at least a beginning acquaintance with the cultivated repertory before they embark on an intense survey. In fact, music majors need something we have been offering to non-majors for decades: music appreciation as an initiation into the field of the history of music.

Finally, a question emerges from this survey: what is the music of Music in Western Civilization? The question is implicit in these figures: 85% of programs use Grout, yet 30% of the courses cover jazz, 43% cover women composers, and 78% cover post-1970 music—subjects which Grout treats minimally or not at all.7 If one is using the full 880-page Grout/Palisca, and teaching skills as well as information, getting through its content alone is a feat; adding these other subjects to the curriculum is obviously a product of teachers' strong commitment to their importance. That jazz and twentieth-century music are the most frequently offered music history electives across the country, as indicated in Table 3, below, also shows this commitment.8

While this survey indicates a trend toward a broadened content and approach in MWC, this greater breadth has been slow in coming and is still not firmly established throughout U.S. undergraduate music curricula. Perhaps one reason is simply that "Music in Western Civilization" or "History of Western Music" as a traditional course name defines for most of us a particular course content and approach, reinforced by the text books we tend to choose.9

This traditional course content seems to raise concerns which might be illustrated by specific (and admittedly polemic) questions such as these: Are the music of Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, and Stephen Foster an important part of America's musical civilization? Should the music of these composers, and the cultures they represent, be relegated to elective courses which are unlikely to be taken by most American music students? On the other hand, is a music student "literate" if s/he graduates from a music program having studied less, in the case of Beethoven, than his third, fifth and ninth symphonies, plus a few other works from representative genres?

Given the concern evident from this survey and the importance of the literacy issue in music history, it is not surprising that some serious and lively debate on these subjects is now taking place within The College Music Society and the Sonneck Society.10 More, however, needs to occur within the musicological community at large.

Those of us who are responsible for the definition and the teaching of the core undergraduate music history curriculum are clearly facing, or need to face, some rather difficult choices. One is very practical: it is a lot of extra work to create one's own text/score anthology/recording anthology package when there is one readily available that is in so many ways exemplary, even if it does not address certain musics that many of us think are critical. Another choice may appear more difficult than it is: the broader content which is mandated by advances in our field can only be achieved at the expense of some traditional course content (as in the Beethoven example). This broader content can be achieved without a more superficial approach, though. For example, teaching only two jazz works, which according to the questionnaire would qualify as "covering" jazz in a syllabus, is not necessarily tokenism. In two works we can offer considerable insight into how to approach jazz, its procedures, and its social and historical context compared with, say, a Beethoven symphony.

Offering our students a model of how to "do" music history, and covering less detail and fewer works (but those in greater depth) can address both our need for a broader definition of Music in Western Civilization and the ideal of equipping our students with better skills to continue the process of learning.

Music in Western Civilization

Two semester sequence 52%
Three semester sequence 27%
Four or more semesters 19%
Three credits per semester 74%
Listening skills a major goal 89%
Syllabus covers jazz 30%
Syllabus covers non-Western music 23%
Syllabus covers women composers 43%
Syllabus covers post-1970 music 78%
Syllabus covers pre-Medieval music 68%
Text is Grout, or Grout with supplements 85%

Music Appreciation or Introduction to Music for Majors

Schools requiring of all music majors 48%
Schools requiring as prerequisite to MWC 88%
Listening skills a major goal 96%
Syllabus covers jazz 57%
Syllabus covers popular music 26%
Syllabus covers non-Western music 36%
Syllabus covers women composers 31%
Approach is chronological 60%

Elective Music History Courses

Schools offering electives in music history 81%
Medieval 32%
Renaissance 40%
Baroque 47%
Classical 46%
Romantic 48%
Twentieth Century 58%
Post-World-War II 15%
American 42%
Opera 55%
Jazz 68%
World 29%
Symphonic 38%

Others listed by more than 5%: Choral, Special Topics, Vocal Literature (Song), Chamber, Popular, Piano Literature

1The questionnaire was sent to 500 NASM-accredited colleges and universities in the U.S. There were 266 responses and there was no follow-up. Fifty-six percent of the responding schools have graduate programs.

2Seventy-seven percent of schools on the quarter system have three quarters of MWC.

3The questionnaire specified that a topic being "covered" meant "lecture and/or reading in some depth, and at least two works on the syllabus." Regarding the high percentage of respondents who include post-1970 music in their courses, it seems quite possible that those most interested in keeping up-to-date in their courses would also be the most likely to answer this survey.

4That is, the ability to analyze style elements and formal events through listening alone.

5National Association of Schools of Music 1991-1992 Handbook, 55.

6Unfortunately, there are very few texts which offer this approach and content. Donald Ivey's Sound Pleasure (Schirmer) does, and Tom Manoff's Music: a Living Language (Norton) also offers a cross-cultural approach, but within a chronological format.

7Grout/Palisca devotes 8% of its pages to twentieth-century music, less than 2% to the past fifty years, and 2% to all American music. It does not cover jazz, popular music, or any music by women composers.

8Of course, these trends put music history squarely in line with the other humanities' involvement in the cultural literacy debate of the past ten or so years. The debate, often fueled by the current interest in reforming or establishing college- or university-wide general education requirements, has focused on "what to know" versus "how to know" and "what is western civilization?" in literature, history, and philosophy as well as music.

9Three general music history texts—the Schirmer History of Music, K. Marie Stolba's The Development of Western Music (Wm. C. Brown), and Edith Borroff's Music in Europe and the United States (2d edition, Ardsley House)—do treat American music, including jazz, in some depth, and also include women composers. They are used in few programs, however.

10The College Music Society and the Sonneck Society are currently discussing issues closely related to the ones addressed here. Results of a survey by Susan L. Porter on the coverage of American music in music history survey courses appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of the Sonneck Society Bulletin. The Sonneck Society has just published a booklet—Bringing Music History Home: A Guide for American Teachers of Music History—which presents practical information on integrating American music into the music history curriculum.

3536 Last modified on October 23, 2018