Curricular Ideas for Music History and Literature

August 31, 2001

The most significant issue for teachers of undergraduate music history and literature courses is that there is far more music history and literature than there used to be. Thirty years ago, at most schools all music majors took the same music history sequence, with a focus on European music in the classical tradition and covering everything from chant to chance in a one-or two-year sequence. In some schools, this was preceded by an introduction to music course that might include some popular or non-Western music, and it could be followed by topic courses covering a period or genre. Since the 1970s, two patterns of change can be seen: new repertories have been added, while nothing has been deleted, and we have more information about each part of the repertoire. For example:

  • There is much more music in good recordings and editions for every period from ancient Greece and the Middle Ages through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Many musicians' biographies are better known. For example, I can now identify where Josquin was born, give his real last name (Labloitte), and relate his biography in more detail.
  • In all periods, we have more information about patronage, social functions of music, and the roles of music in particular cities and regions.
  • In all periods, music by women composers is now in print and recordings.
  • In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, there is much more music available from Spain, the Spanish New World, and eastern Europe.
  • In the Classic and Romantic periods, we now have a great deal of music from the United States, Latin America, Britain, and other regions that were rarely covered.
  • In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, popular music and jazz are often included alongside music in the classical tradition.
  • Some historical survey courses are also expected to encompass world music.

If we were already struggling to stuff 2500 years of European music into thirty weeks, adding the new repertories makes it impossible. Worse yet: we used to approach music history narrowly as the history of musical style, showing how one develops into another. Now we want to do a thick history, relating the music to its culture and context. How do we deal with the press of new material? Here are some strategies I have observed (in myself and in others):

  • Pretend all this new material they want me to add to classes that I have been teaching for twenty years does not exist and I will simply not include it.
  • Embrace some or all of this new material, and get rid of existing material to fit it in (the "I never did like Bruckner anyway and my students can find out about that stuff on their own" approach).
  • Cover everything more cursorily.
  • Delete entire repertories or periods, for instance by touching nothing before Monteverdi or after Schoenberg.

This tongue-in-cheek list brings me to an option I take more seriously: let students choose what they want to study. Perhaps it is time to admit that no one graduating from an undergraduate music program will have a comprehensive background in music history, unless they are a music history major. Music history is a much larger field than it was three decades ago; it is not the history of a narrow stream curated in a well-ordered museum but is the history of all currents, trends, repertories, and types. Even if you limit music history classes to Europe and the United States and cover world music elsewhere in the curriculum, there is more music than can be encompassed decently in twelve credits. Not to acknowledge this is to raise the bar for our students above the level we had to achieve ourselves. So what do we do?

The goal of giving our students a comprehensive background in music history translates roughly into this: that a graduate from our program can recognize and describe the most important musical styles and genres practiced in Europe and the Americas from antiquity to the present and place composers, pieces, styles, and genres in an historical time frame, including the social roles for music and the performance practices of the time. I think this is a good set of goals, because it teaches our students to deal with repertories historically and to exercise their historical imagination. But the amount to cover can be overwhelming. As a more modest alternative, I propose these goals for students:

  • To have an over-arching outline of music history into which repertories and pieces can be placed, recognizing that parts of the outline will be more fully fleshed out than others, and some types of music will be much more familiar and easy to assimilate into that narrative than others.
  • To know three or more broad periods or repertories well, at the level described in the preceding paragraph.
  • A listing of repertory studied in private lessons. For each piece, the student could be asked to provide brief program notes from standard reference sources and/or a brief analysis of the work
  • To have the skills necessary to educate oneself about other periods and repertories to the same level. This means having many of the skills a music historian uses and an awareness of historical problems. A graduate from our program should be able to take any piece of music from anywhere and find out its historical context, with a little digging.

One structure that might follow from these goals is this:

  • A one-semester overview of Music in Western Culture, a chronological series of lectures on music in relation to history and the other arts in Europe and the Americas from ancient times through the present, including popular music and jazz. This would not be a comprehensive survey, but a series of case studies on topics like the roles of music in ancient Greek culture; art, dance, music, and architecture in the service of absolute monarchy at the court of Louis IV; or women and the piano in the nineteenth century. Along the way, students would get a preliminary timeline and overview, and the concepts and methods of music history would be introduced and demonstrated.
  • Next, a series of period or repertoire courses, each offering a fairly broad survey, still nesting music in its social and historical context. Students would not have to take all of these, but might take two or three out of a list such as this, focusing on their main interests:
    - Music in Europe to 1600
    - Music in Europe and the Americas 1600 to 1830
    - Art Music in Europe and the Americas 1830 to 2000
    - Popular Music and Jazz in the United States and Europe 1830 to 2000
  • Finally, a capstone course like a senior seminar or topic course, focused on a narrower repertoire or problem and involving practice in research skills and historical inquiry.

Many other structures, including more radical ones, could follow from the goals listed above. Whatever structure works best for a particular program or school, I think we need to head toward a curricular structure in which we introduce the varieties of music in the world, teach the abilities we want students to have, and let students choose repertories on which to focus, while reinforcing the skills and tools that will allow them to understand any repertoire in historical terms.

5066 Last modified on May 1, 2013
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