Beyond Ethnomusicology and Cultural Diversity: Normalizing World Musics in the Curriculum

September 30, 1999

The problem

In spite of long-standing debates over canons, the liberal arts, and Eurocentric curricula proceeding elsewhere in the academy, music departments have proved fairly resistant to the post-modernist inspired intellectual revolution. The term "cultural diversity" has, in most instances, epitomized the drive for a curriculum that embraces more than just the accomplishments of "dead, white, European males," including those of minorities, women, various sexual orientations, as well as the rest of the world. Most faculty members have been open to additions to the curriculum but resistant to replacing existing courses or segments thereof with culturally diverse material. Where electives are few or nonexistent, little could be added without replacing something, and that can lead to heated debates over values.

I wish to make a distinction between "world musics" and "ethnomusicology." Survey type courses are primarily descriptive of non-Western, non-classical traditions, rarely raising epistemological and methodological issues; this I call "world musics." Ethnomusicology, on the other hand, is a research discipline concerned with the philosophical, methodological, and technical issues of designing research projects, doing fieldwork, and communicating the results. Most cultural diversity courses are of the world musics type. As long as courses are restricted to descriptions of geography, general culture, organology, music theory, and genres, few problems ensue. Difficulties begin when the alternative value systems deriving from these musics raise cultural, political, and artistic questions whose answers conflict with those relative to Western classical music. When the vast majority of music faculty are saying, directly or by implication, that Western classical music is superior to all other kinds, the suggestion that all music systems are potentially equal in value or that the standards by which classical music is judged are incomplete can be seen as threatening by one's colleagues. Consequently, implementing cultural diversity into the music curriculum is more than just finding additional hours but possibly offering an alternative value system unwelcome to the self-designated protectors of the musical canon.

Most Western classical music students coming from Asia note that in their music curricula little or nothing is taught about their own traditions. A Japanese violinist, a Chinese pianist, and a Korean 'cellist cannot be expected to know anything of their own musics. Before shaking our heads in disbelief, we must acknowledge that in the United States things are not different. Few curricula include American musics as a matter of course except for certain twentieth-century composers such as Gershwin, Copland, Ives, and Crumb. The American music major cannot be expected to know anything about American fiddling, shape note singing, old country blues, ballad singing, or bluegrass. We lack, to paraphrase President Bill Clinton, a curriculum that "sounds like America."

The present curriculum of most programs offering a major in music is thoroughly integrated. In theory courses, students hear and analyze much of the music covered in history courses, by applied teachers, and in ensembles. World musics, jazz, and popular music courses-sometimes including their teachers-tend to find themselves outside this closed community. Indeed, the more ethnomusicological these courses are, the more external they become. At least one major university houses ethnomusicology outside the School of Music (in Anthropology and Folklore), and at least one has considered moving its program to Anthropology. Many question whether Ethnomusicology even belongs in a Department/School of Music. The reason this is so turns on the difference between World Musics and Ethnomusicology, for the first is more often politically neutral while the latter rarely is, openly valuing musics other than Western classical and often for traits considered unimportant by the advocates of classical music.

Finding Solutions

As we move from the late twentieth century to the dawning twenty-first, we must reinvent the training regimen of the American music major. Our society has changed dramatically during the past fifty years, with the coming of still-growing immigrant groups from non-European societies, especially Hispanic and Asian. As the civil rights movement gained momentum and changed American society, our perception of African-American culture has changed too, and many now realize that American culture has already been deeply "Africanized" through change driven by African-American innovations. This is especially true in music. The music academy faces its own Y2K problem in the form of a nation now oriented more towards Latin America, Africa, and the Pacific and less so towards Europe. As the U.S. population has become internationalized, the music curriculum continues to emphasize European musical traditions conceived and taught historically, with focus mostly on structure and style and little on cultural context and meaning. As Peter Sacks points out in his book Generation X Goes to College (Chicago: Open Court, 1996), although the United States is the first thoroughly post-modern society, the training of music majors remains thoroughly modern and positivist.

The music curriculum of the twenty-first century must be reconfigured to include the concepts, values, structures, and contexts of the music of both the United States and the rest of the world, including those of Europe. Tokenism and extra-curricularism will no longer do. Success, however, depends on a willingness of faculties to change their thinking, their courses, and their values. This will not come easily. Music faculties are notoriously conservative and resistant to change. The sea change I have described is doubtlessly revolutionary. Administrators who attempt to accomplish this too suddenly will surely be replaced. The process has to begin with elementary students and permeate music study right through the college and graduate years. But this cannot happen unless the teachers and professors make it happen first, and this remains a serious challenge.

Few of our current faculty are likely to have studied world musics. Although the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) requires at least one world music course for a bachelor's degree in music, many schools simply cannot or choose not to offer such a course, either pleading lack of qualified faculty or arguing that the NASM "requirement" is really only a recommendation. At least as inadequate a response is assigning a faculty member with no qualifications to teach a world music course. Consequently, both the human and material resources for teaching world musics are often lacking.

The argument for integrating world musics into the curriculum challenges the present model, a dichotomy of courses usually with distinct faculty. Music theory courses could conceivably include the concepts and structures of various world traditions, but only when the faculty know and value them. But in doing so one also runs the risk of providing no more than a potpourri and the consequent failure to teach a full, coherent system. Music history courses present even greater stumbling blocks since they are uniformly diachronic (chronological), conceiving of music as developing stylistically over time in a logical and linear fashion where one composer's innovations lead to those of the next composer. Ethnomusicology and world musics are essentially contemporary and synchronic, the latter term suggesting that what influences a music is its surroundings. With these in conflict, music history and world musics courses are unlikely to become integrated. With regard to applied music, there is little likelihood that students will play Indian sitar music on the violin or the band perform gamelan compositions, but the curriculum must allow world music ensembles to count as normal ensemble hours.

Whether one accepts the study of world musics as essential or not, a mono-cultural music education leaves student with little perspective on their own traditions, whatever they may be. It is difficult to understand oneself without having experienced another culture and, as Margaret Mead has suggested, "it doesn't really matter which one it is." The Western musician cannot know the uniqueness of European classical music without experiencing in some depth another musical tradition. Therefore, a major argument for fundamental change is that we learn the most about ourselves by studying others. Our faculty-member-of-the-future has to have both this perspective and a working knowledge of both the mechanics and meanings of non-Western classical musics. But the training of this generation of faculty has hardly begun.

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