A Vote for Applied Music in the Undergraduate Liberal Arts Music Program

October 1, 1964


Performance as Humanistic Study

The discussion of this controversial subject was sparked by regulations found in the Constitution and By-Laws of Phi Beta Kappa:

  1. Grades earned in applied or professional work shall not be counted in computing the cumulative average for purposes of eligibility. Applied and professional work shall be understood to include all training intended to develop skill or vocational techniques in such fields as business administration, education, engineering, home economics, journalism, library science, military and air science, physical education, radio, secretarial science, and applied art, dramatic art, and music.
  2. Weight shall be given to the breadth of the course programs of all students under consideration. The department major should normally consist of not more than 30 credit hours beyond the introductory course. In no case should the student's required work within a single department, or in closely related departments exceed 42 credit hours.

In this article by William Newman, along with the one by Putnam Aldrich, both scholars and performers enter a plea for credit for "applied music." Also in this discussion, John Kirkpatrick provides a philosophic basis for performance in humanistic study, and Luise Vosgerchian describes the Basic Piano Program at Harvard where performance is required without credit toward the degree. All four articles appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 4. Letters arguing the matter pro or con will be welcomed for future issues of SYMPOSIUM.


The undergraduate regulations for admission to Phi Beta Kappa touch on a tender issue when they reject applied music among other "applied or professional" subjects in the computing of the quality point ratio. The implication, of course, is that the study of applied music contributes nothing essential to the liberal arts program with concentration in music. Since this view has largely disappeared outside the Ivy League, one wonders whether the issue it raises still matters enough to warrant further discussion. However, related as it is to questions of classical tradition, and coupled with that Phi Beta Kappa problem, the applied music issue continues to demand and deserve the attention of serious music educators.

For my own part, I should like to cast one more vote for the recognition of applied music as an essential element not only in all other undergraduate music curricula but in any liberal arts program that concentrates on music's place in the humanities.

The specific objection to applied music credit in the Phi Beta Kappa regulations probably reflects less concern with any positive values that applied music may or may not bring to studies in the humanities than with the negative, connotative taint that the word "professional" may inject. But professional considerations, however interesting they may be in their own right, only confuse the liberal arts issue and are not needed in the present defense. The question of applied music's place in the liberal arts presents itself most centrally (and is discussed here) in relation to music in the traditional bachelor of arts curriculum for "music majors." No reader of SYMPOSIUM needs to be reminded that of the three main college curricula for music majors, the bachelor of arts curriculum has come, unfortunately, to attract by far the fewest students for the very reason that today's college students are much more professionally minded. The great majority of them flock to the bachelor of music education program, with its high promise of satisfactory career opportunities. If fewer turn to the bachelor of music program (in performance, theory, or composition) it is only because it holds less promise of a sure career and poses keener competition along the way.

The chief sense in which the bachelor of arts program in music relates to professional training is that of its generally superior foundation for the kind of graduate research work that is now expected of prospective university teachers in musicology, music history, and music theory. To explore this sense, however, would be taking us unnecessarily beyond the present discussion. It should be sufficient to argue that applied music qualifies quite as legitimately and figures quite as essentially in the pursuit of music among the humanities as the applicative aspect of any other field in the humanities. In other words, a course in applied music is as necessary in its way to a fuller understanding of music as a course in the techniques of rhetoric and composition is to a student majoring in English, or a course in the principles of logic to a philosophy major.

One might question these analogies on the grounds that applied music emphasizes physical as well as mental techniques and that it is really theory in the field of music that properly parallels rhetoric in English or logic in philosophy. However, certain inconsistencies become evident in the latter analogies, too. Exact parallels between such disparate fields of the humanities are not possible. One can observe only that the physical aspect of applied music study has its own place among all those factors contributing to the broadest possible musical understanding. Above all, it lets the student feel and experience a vocal or instrumental idiom as well as see and hear it. How can anyone fully sense the idiomatic nature as well as the aesthetic import of a Puccini aria, a Chopin etude, or a Bach solo violin partita without at least some closely related performing experience, provided the performing can be done intelligently and at least competently from the standpoint of technical mastery?

More specifically, applied music contributes to a broader musical understanding 1) by adding active participation to passive appreciation; 2) by admitting a factor basic to, but otherwise wanting in, a full understanding of the "time" or "performing" arts, which is the factor of creative, expressive interpretation; 3) by introducing that element of physical involvement that we have noted to be a part of the complete musical experience; 4) by enabling the student to explore music literature on his own; 5) by providing a working acquaintance with the various principles and styles that can only be surveyed more academically in music history, literature, and theory courses; and 6) by preventing the balance, too often lost to overemphasis on the performance side, from being lost to the other extreme of abstract intellectuality.

To illustrate or expand the foregoing contributions of applied music but briefly, the value of "active participation" to a fuller musical understanding shows up even at the layman's level, in the music appreciation class. For example, in my experience, getting the students to join in by conducting the meter while the tempo varies, or clapping a prevailing metric pattern, or humming each entry of a fugue subject does much to promote sharper and more intelligent listening. The insight gained from the challenge of creative interpretation—for instance, the husbanding of dynamic and other expressive effects so as to leave the way clear for an overall emotional peak—can hardly be derived from listening and verbal analysis alone. The nature of the "physical involvement" might best be illustrated at a tangent, by recalling the curious loss of pianistic struggle that Weingartner cannot avoid in his orchestration of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata in B-flat, Op. 106 (although this particular work is scarcely likely to be encountered in applied music at the college level). The broad values of being able to "explore music literature on one's own" are so evident that some instructors systematize and make a primary goal out of this aspect of applied music study. The practical exposure to the "various principles and styles" of music history, such as the specifics of ornamentation, articulation, and expressive rhythm, has no adequate substitute in aural observation alone. Finally, what should be a manifest need to balance "abstract intellectuality" with immediate performing experience needs no special comment here, since its defense is the main object of the present paper.

If any one thing most justifies the Phi Beta Kappa reservations with regard to applied music, and if any one thing explains the perpetuation of the controversy in general, it is the abuse of the credit system for applied music. In the four years of the liberal arts curriculum a total of thirty or forty credits for voice, piano, or other instrument is obviously excessive, yet not uncommon. So is the frequent proliferation of ensemble credits, whether in band, orchestra, chorus, glee club, opera workshop, chamber group, or other unit. On the other hand, for those who object to giving credit for physical dexterity per se, a total of twelve to sixteen credits, including one per semester for private applied music study at an accepted college level, can be more than justified solely on the grounds of the vital exposure to music literature that is afforded.

2384 Last modified on November 14, 2018