Ethnomusicology, Music Curricula, and the Centrality of Classical Music

October 1, 2004

Recently many music departments, previously addressing only European and American art music, have felt a need to include ethnomusicology in their offerings. But some common ways of thinking about this expansion are problematic. A department may seek to hire one new faculty member, an ethnomusicologist with specialized training in a particular musical culture, with the goal of acquiring a teacher of "world music." Or a faculty member with a specialization in historical musicology may be asked to teach "world music" as part of her load, perhaps on the basis of graduate coursework in ethnomusicology. A department that addresses ethnomusicology in one of these ways may, at the same time, employ several different specialists for separate areas of historical musicology such as medieval music, early modern music, eighteenth-century music, and so on. In such cases, there is an obvious disproportion between the kind and amount of attention given to particular eras of European music history and to everything else.1

Arguably the whole concept of a "world music" course—to put it crudely, a compact survey of the musics left out of the multi-semester survey of European music history—is incompatible with serious attention to the musical life of any group of people. An approach more consistent with traditional teaching of European music would treat music outside the Eurocentric canon through specialist teaching in the music and culture of a particular time and place, preferably supported by performance and ensemble opportunities. But in that case, one cannot hope to address "world music" through one or two hires.

In this paper I describe and assess an approach to ethnomusicology taken by my own department in the late 1990s—our attempt to change the education we offer by including ethnomusicology as an important part of our programs. Working with limited resources, we nonetheless hoped to achieve a significant broadening beyond the canons of "classical" music, through curricular changes as well as hiring.

While I have been at the University of Virginia, its Department of Music has changed dramatically. When I joined the department in 1990, its full-time faculty on continuing contracts included musicologists and composers; one of the musicologists also directed the choirs. Most faculty specialized in Western European art music and its North American continuations, though one musicologist, Milos Velomirovic, studied Byzantine chant and Slavic concert music; he retired a few years after I arrived, and his areas of teaching dropped from our offerings. Scott DeVeaux, a jazz historian, occasionally taught an undergraduate course in ethnomusicology, conceived in the traditional way as a survey of world music.

Apart from the offerings of Velimirovic and DeVeaux, department courses concerned Western European classical music and its American continuation. As such, our program embodied a coherent vision, in which the college or university music department is a site for the understanding, admiration, and continuation of that musical tradition. Performance training allowed students to create the sounds of canonized compositions. Music history courses taught about the origin of the music that was central to the music department. Often, as survey courses, they focused especially on acquaintance with the music in the active performing repertory. Music theory courses taught skills for thinking about those same compositions in a present-oriented way—that is, addressing the attributes of compositions that can be heard or otherwise observed by present-day students and teachers. For a few talented students, the study of composition in classical styles could continue beyond the initial compositional exercises in the theory sequence. Despite the possibility for disagreement and tension among different emphases on performance, history and repertory, "presentist" analysis, and composition, these areas of instruction offered complementary responses to a shared repertory.

In general, conventional history and theory courses, whatever else they do, tend to imply strong claims for the overarching unity of the music they discuss and, by implication, the remoteness of whatever falls outside the course design. A chronological history survey seems to make a single long story out of the music it addresses, implying that the music all belongs together (just as its story belongs between the covers of a single textbook). Theory sequences seem to affirm that most music in the concert repertory works in a single way, as displayed in a single "tonal theory." The theory curriculum may also add a prehistory, consisting of a unified sixteenth-century technique, along with a modernist continuation of alternative non-tonal coherences derived from extremes of chromatic harmony.

Our coherent curriculum marginalized DeVeaux's courses in jazz and ethnomusicology. It could also be seen as marginalizing composition. This may be more puzzling, since contemporary art-music composition often understands itself as a direct continuation of the main classical traditions, which, in turn, are often understood in terms of the centrality of composers and compositions rather than other aspects of musical life. But, like jazz and ethnomusicology, most composition courses could enter the major only as electives. Unlike most other courses, study of notated composition for acoustic media had extensive prerequisites in music theory. Perhaps this apparently marginal position for composition could be understood as reserving an elite role for composition, conforming to the assumptions of modernist composition generally. Notated composition was for select, advanced students who already understood the music of the central repertory well enough that they might try to emulate it, in a distinctive, present- and future-oriented way. Our developing program in computer music, drawing on the Virginia Center for Computer Music (established in 1989) was an exception to this pattern: students could begin producing electro-acoustic music without taking prerequisite courses. But limitations of staffing and facilities restricted this aspect of the program to a small number of students, and music majors competed with many non-majors for space in computer music courses.

If the unity of a traditional music department derives from its esteem for Western European classical music, the rationale often comes from a shared sense that European art music is special. Art music is imagined as, at once, artistically distinguished and commercially unviable; other musics are imagined in various proportions as artistically undistinguished, merely functional, and/or abjectly commercial in motivation. So, this way of thinking concludes, European art music both needs and deserves the unique attention it gets in academic settings.

In 1990, the course requirements for the music major at the University of Virginia were straightforward. There was a gateway course, intended as an introduction to college-level academic study of music. When I joined the department it was called "Masterworks," a bluntly patriarchal name that gave way later to a more descriptive title, "Approaches to European Art Music." There was a one-credit introduction to research materials. All music majors took a three-semester survey of European music history (with some recent North American classical composers near the end); they also took a three-semester music theory sequence progressing from simple tonal harmony to chromatic harmony and modernist innovations. Two electives completed the major. If a student wished to take a jazz or ethnomusicology course from Scott DeVeaux, it would count as an elective; however, he taught these courses infrequently, spending much of his time on non-major courses and music theory. See Figure 1 for a summary of these requirements.


Figure 1: Old music major (1990)

Introductory course: "Masterworks"
Introduction to research
Core courses:
3 course sequence in music history (mostly European)
3 course sequence in music theory/musicianship (tonal theory, some modernism)
2 electives


Between 1990 and 1996, new hires weakened aspects of the conventional classical-music ideology. In various ways, members of the department questioned the entrenched discourses that validate classical music and, implicitly or not, exclude other musics. Shortly after I was hired, I worked with DeVeaux to redesign the first-semester music theory course, adding some material on African drumming and popular music. Rather than just initiating students into 18th- and 19th-century art music, we wanted to use technical description to help them notice similarities and differences among observable aspects of different musics in their lives.2 Two recently-hired musicologists, Elizabeth Hudson and Suzanne Cusick, taught history courses that resisted and historicized canonization, emphasizing the differences between historical musical practices and our current relations to the same compositions. At that time, Cusick was producing a series of essays that offered startling redescriptions of present-day classical-music practices, for instance emphasizing continuities between musicality and sexuality, or pointing out the importance of the embodiment of performers, and the discursive suppression of performers in much musicology and theory.3 I was also involved in feminist musicology, writing about mainstream music theory and musical aesthetics as problematically masculine discourses.4 But it was still a department of classical music: we were still thinking, if restlessly, about the same European traditions as our most conservative colleagues.

In 1996, the department hired two ethnomusicologists, Kyra Gaunt and Michelle Kisliuk. We began the search knowing only that we would hire in ethnomusicology. We learned a lot about ethnomusicology during the search! Our final choices were shaped partly by the music the candidates studied: we were excited by the idea that DeVeaux, Gaunt, and Kisliuk would constitute a strong concentration in African and African-American musics. Members of the department shared politically liberal, anti-racist attitudes, and while these attitudes were typically invisible in our professional work, they shaped our hiring decisions. By bringing these three faculty together, and asking them to teach primarily within their research specializations, we could add a coherent and politically important new area of instruction to our department. And we could offer some good support in performance instruction: we already had excellent jazz instructors on the performance faculty, and Kisliuk created an excellent African Drum and Dance Ensemble.

But, beyond issues of subject matter, we were also excited by various continuities of method and orientation between the continuing faculty and our new colleagues. Several members of the department were already thinking hard about musical performance, and about its exclusion from conventional scholarly discourse. We knew that Kisliuk and Gaunt, both actively engaged in ethnography of performance, would contribute wonderfully to this ongoing conversation. Several people already on the faculty were involved in first-person writing as an alternative to the impersonality of conventional musicological and theoretical writing. I had just written a paper, "Love Stories," that attempted to convey generalizations about music and sexuality through autobiographical narrative; it grew out of recent work by Philip Brett and my colleague Cusick.5 We were intensely interested in Kisliuk's work on experiential ethnographic writing.6 Several of us were thinking, teaching, and writing about gender and sexuality, and Gaunt and Kisliuk were welcome additions to this aspect of the department.

We knew that our new hires would change the department. To our credit, we made the hires with the intention of fully integrating ethnomusicology into our programs. But we did not know exactly what that would mean, and we knew that it would take long discussion with Gaunt and Kisliuk to articulate our new goals. Some of the important changes that we made concerned degree requirements—the music major and our planning for a new Ph.D. program.

Obviously the existing degree requirements for music majors made no sense in a small department that included DeVeaux, Gaunt, and Kisliuk as faculty. It would have been intolerable, to all of us, to marginalize three faculty, a quarter of the department, as DeVeaux had been marginalized. We needed to design new degree requirements. We designed a program that I find elegant and flexible, but it took a lot of discussion, some of it very tense.

The new major, still in place today essentially as we created it, retains the idea of two introductory courses, a group of core courses, and electives.7 But it doubles the number of electives—in our discussions of various options we referred to this one as the "elective-based" major—and it re-orients the core courses toward diversity, eliminating the three-course sequences that used to dominate the major. We replaced the introductory course on European art music with a new course on twentieth-century music, dealing with a range of musics and approaches. Summarizing the new major, one can say that the core courses present different aspects of our department, and then the electives allow students to focus in a particular area or, if they wish, to continue to pursue a diverse program. Figure 2 summarizes the requirements we adopted in 1997.


Figure 2: New Music Major (from 1997)

Introductory course: "Music in the Twentieth Century"
Introduction to research
Core courses:
1 course in music theory/musicianship (classical and popular music)
1 period course in music history (mostly European)
1 course in ethnomusicology or American popular and vernacular music
1 course in which the student composes a piece
4 electives (advanced 3-credit courses)


As I indicated, it was not easy to agree on these new requirements. Active discussion took place throughout one school year. We finally agreed on the new requirements during a one-day retreat in May, after classes had ended—in other words, at the last moment for beginning the new program in the following school year. Though time pressure forced us to reach closure, we ended the retreat with a feeling that everyone strongly supported the new major. One of our assumptions throughout the year had been that we needed a strong consensus, not just a majority vote, in favor of any new program. We did not want a set of major requirements that some faculty did not fully support.

It is interesting to remember those discussions, now that the new major has been in place for several years. The proposal that we finally adopted emerged fairly quickly in our discussions, as a controversial, minimalist extreme. Two other proposals constituted its main competition. One proposal would have defined a set of different tracks, for students who wished to concentrate in musicology, composition, or ethnomusicology. Another proposal resembled the present major but with twice the number of core courses: two courses in music theory, two in music history, and so on. To this extensive group of core courses we could have added, at most, one elective.8 In both cases, faculty argued for the more determinate requirements by citing our responsibility to students. Faculty expressed a fear that, in the elective-based major, students would create programs that made no sense—incoherent and, potentially, frustrating in relation to the students' own goals.

Most of the continuing faculty had a lot of experience as students, teachers, and scholars of classical music, and we had a vivid sense of how to train people to resemble ourselves. It was easy to imagine, if vaguely, adding some new areas of knowledge to our existing educational program; harder to imagine intentionally creating a different kind of student who might, in some cases, lack many of the skills of a good classically-oriented major.

At times, concerns of personal prestige seemed to affect our discussions. The previous requirements had guaranteed many faculty a stable role in instructing majors. Three different musicologists typically taught the three semesters of the history sequence, year in and year out. Four other people routinely taught sections of the theory sequence. Each of these people had a role in the core courses that guaranteed contact with majors, and this initial contact often led to further study with the same teacher in advanced courses. At the time, we had no Ph.D. program and only a small M.A. program; instruction of majors loomed large in our sense of our roles in the department. The elective-based major seemed to carry a message"—we will no longer tell the majors that they must study with you," and with it a further message—"what you teach is not crucial for our majors." This could feel like disrespect to faculty who had previously taught required courses. Of course, ethnomusicology and American music, represented by DeVeaux, had long held exactly this optional role in the major. It took time for the classical-music faculty to recognize and move away from certain habits of privilege. We politically-liberal classical-music scholars found it easy to accept, in abstract generality, a pluralist ideal for the department; harder to accept the detailed and personalized consequences of pluralism.

In the end, the department addressed its concern about responsibility to students by radically upgrading and decentralizing our advising system. Previously, one faculty member handled all advising of majors, which meant monitoring all majors' progress through the degree requirements—not a difficult task, because the requirements were nearly uniform for every student. With the new major, we distribute major advisees among all academic faculty, matching student and faculty interests. The idea is that each student can design an individualized program of courses, working with the advisor to be sure that the courses match the student's own goals. Students who wish to prepare for further study, even at conservative graduate programs that expect a conventional undergraduate preparation, can get expert advice about how to design an appropriate program. Students pursuing music as a second major, who wish to sample a range of relatively unrelated courses, can do so when they and the advisor agree on the goal of non-focused exploration. We gave up the idea of a uniform curriculum in favor of individualized counseling, a change that felt bold to us.

In our year of discussion, we sometimes said that we wanted the new major to "de-center classical music." This is an interesting formulation. It was exciting at the time, and helped us to think of the new major as brave; now I can see conservative aspects of our new program more clearly. The "de-centering" locution defines the proposed changes squarely in terms of classical music, rather than offering any positive account of what will be added to the program. And the wording seems to promise that our classical-music programs will not be harmed, just moved over a bit. Nonetheless, the formulation gently but firmly asserts that classical music will somehow move away from the center of our programs. (I notice that we never talked about "marginalizing" classical music.)

How successfully did our major requirements de-center classical music? European classical music still has a special role in the major, not matched by any other music. Two out of the four core courses—history and composition—focus on European art music and its modernist descendents. A third, the theory course, offers topics such as African drumming, additive meter, and especially popular music, throughout the semester, but this material adds up to a few weeks of work, leaving tonal theory and counterpoint as the primary focus; and the course treats all its different musics through notation and the conceptualizations of European music theory. However, apart from those three courses, a student who does not wish to concentrate on classical music can work in other areas, for instance by taking elective courses in ethnomusicology, jazz, and film music.

The introductory courses introduce students to a wide range of musics. As I teach it, the introductory course on twentieth century music spends about a third of the semester on modernist concert music; that is a large proportion, but many twentieth-century surveys come closer to 100%. The opening weeks of my course use the Keil, Crafts, and Cavicchi collection My Music, along with essays by ethnomusicologists, to start students thinking about observation and interpretation of everyday musical life. After six weeks on modernism, addressing concert music (four weeks), performance (one week), and gender (one week), the course moves to topics in popular music. The goal of the course is to start students discussing and writing about music of the present and recent past, and to introduce a range of discursive approaches. (When we named the course, we were still living in the twentieth century; no doubt we will soon find a new name to reflect the role of the present in the course.) Figure 3 gives the opening reading assignments for my current version of this course.9


Figure 3: First assignments for "Music in the 20th Century," fall 2002


F 8/30 My Music, pp. 1-3, 61-65, 80-84, 103-106, 109-112, 125-133, 211-213.
M 9/2 My Music, pp. 90-93, 99-102, 113-117, 148-152, 155-158, 163-166, 174-180.
W 9/4 My Music, pp. 54-60, 94-98, 134-136; Bruno Nettl, "Mozart and the Ethnomusicological Study of Western Culture."
F 9/6 My Music, pp. 74-79, 85-89, 118-124, 198-203; Ellen Koskoff, "Miriam Sings her Song."
M 9/9 Michelle Kisliuk, "(Un)doing Fieldwork: Sharing Songs, Sharing Lives."


Alternatives to the basic theory course would be possible, in order to provide alternatives to its focus on tonality and concert music—for instance, we could design courses that center on popular music or jazz, and perhaps something less notation-based than the current course.

The third core requirement, which I summarized above as "ethnomusicology or American popular and vernacular music," remains problematic. As it stands, the category is a catch-all. In our present practice it seems to be defined negatively, as a category of courses on topics outside classical music. Originally, some of us thought that this category would require study with an ethnomusicologist, and some faculty hoped that it would be a requirement for a semester-long ethnography course. But the conception of this category has changed, drifting toward the classical-music-centric category of "other"; many of us find this conceptualization to be problematic, but we have never reached consensus on an alternative.

The composition requirement, presently satisfied by work in the tradition of European concert music, might have been different, and this is one part of our discussion that was left incomplete by the pressure to reach agreement. During the year we sometimes thought of this requirement as a course on "creating music," a requirement that might be satisfied, for instance, by courses on improvisation or composition in a wide range of idioms, or perhaps on continuity and change in orally-transmitted musics. Interpreting the requirement in that way would have implemented our overall goal of incorporating alternatives to Western classical traditions. There was tension among us faculty over just how broad the requirement could be and, relatedly, over the precise point of the requirement. The discussion ended as it did partly because no one came up with a concrete plan for an alternative requirement (and the new courses that might satisfy it).

However, as it turned out, the role of composition in our requirements, along with the large number of electives and an expansion in our computer music program, has had an unanticipated effect. Since we require only one semester of theory, we needed to offer composition courses that do not have extensive theory prerequisites. We abandoned the assumption that composition of acoustic music was only for students with advanced technical knowledge of European concert music. At the same time, a rapid increase in computer music offerings and equipment allowed more students to work in that area which, as before, bypassed the theory prerequisites. (The accessibility of these courses to students with little theory training reflects, I think, an increasing separation between current computer-oriented composition and traditions of acoustic concert music, a separation that has been visible in our recent composition searches. Relatedly, we have stopped assuming that composers oriented to electro-acoustic music will also play a prominent role in teaching tonal theory.) Now, all our majors can take a composition course fairly early in their major if they wish, possibly discovering a new and intense musical interest, and they can follow up immediately with further elective courses. Consequently we have, within the confines of a 29- or 31-credit major, many serious composition students, some of them doing advanced work. No one anticipated that our attempt to de-center the major, motivated particularly by an interest in ethnomusicology, would yield a stunning increase in our production of young composers.

Our new major still bears the marks of its origin as a revision of a classical-music curriculum. The idea of de-centering classical music was always optimistic in relation to our staffing. Our present norm for faculty lines includes three positions squarely outside classical music; the other lines, as we conceived them through the late 90s—three composers, three musicologists, two conductors and a music theorist—have been occupied by faculty with primarily classical training. However, given this staffing and our departmental history (and the broader cultural history that created departments like mine), the major offers students more flexibility than one might expect: a significant, if finite, achievement.

In our conversations over several years as we designed our new Ph.D. program, which has just concluded its third year, the continuities and contrasts of our scholarly styles were more important than the musics that we study. We agreed easily that we did not want separate programs in musicology and ethnomusicology. Instead, we concocted a new name for our scholarly program, "Critical and Comparative Studies." I am not sure how much scrutiny this name will bear, but it was our best effort to evade the existing disciplinary boundaries. We do not want our graduate students to work exclusively in musicology or ethnomusicology; we expect students to work consistently with all the scholars in the department. Students with an initial orientation to Mozart will probably take Kisliuk's ethnography seminar; students who want to write dissertations on African music will probably take Hudson's opera seminar. We want to equip our students with a range of scholarly approaches and musical experiences; then, when they choose a topic for a dissertation, we hope that they will draw on what they have learned in imaginative ways. Ideally, students will draw on diverse departmental resources to put together something that their teachers could not have accomplished or even foreseen. (Our planning for the Ph.D. program was simplified by an initial decision to separate the Critical and Comparative Studies program from a program in Composition. Clarification of the possible interactions between composition and scholarship, at the Ph.D. level, remains, for us, an issue that we have not fully discussed or understood; in particular, we have yet to agree on expectations for participation of graduate students in the "other" side of the department.)

Academic staffing is unstable. I have described solutions we reached in 1997, and which still serve us well. However, the departure of Cusick and Gaunt in 2001 (both for New York University, for a range of good personal, musical, and academic reasons) deprived us of two colleagues whose interests and skills were important in our conception of departmental goals; a subsequent hiring freeze, instituted for widely-shared economic reasons, left us with a stable but reduced department through 2003-04. New hires accomplished during this year and in the near future will undoubtedly stimulate further rethinking of our programs. However, all of our discussions of future hires presuppose that we will maintain or increase the presence of ethnomusicology in our faculty, and so the issues of de-centering or, more accurately, of the shifting role of classical music in our program, are bound to figure in our future decisions.10

1In this paper I discuss a particular kind of music program, the "liberal arts department" with a focus on "classical music" and limited resources for expansion—the kind of department in which I was trained (at Cornell and Princeton) and in which I now work. Schools of music raise very different issues, as do programs that have made a commitment to an ethnomusicology program as such.

2I describe this course in "A New Approach to First-semester Music Theory," Proceedings of the National Association of Schools of Music, 1998, and in "Two Courses for Music Majors at the University of Virginia," Journal of Popular Music Studies 12.

3See, among other essays, Suzanne G. Cusick, "Feminist Theory, Music Theory, and the Mind/Body Problem," Perspectives of New Music 32/1 (Winter 1994), pp. 8-27; "Gender and the Cultural Work of a Classical Music Performance," Repercussions 3/1 (Spring 1994), pp. 77-110; and most famously, "On a Lesbian Relation with Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight," in Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, eds., Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 67-83.

4See "Masculine Discourse in Music Theory," Perspectives of New Music 31/2 (Summer 1993), pp. 264-293.

5"Love Stories," Repercussions 4/2 (Fall 1995), pp. 86-96.

6See Michelle Kisliuk, Seize the Dance! BaAka Musical Life and the Ethnography of Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) and, for valuable commentary on method, "(Un)doing Fieldwork: Sharing Songs, Sharing Lives," in Gregory F. Barz and Timothy J Cooley, eds., Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 23-44.

7We have made only one substantive change in the requirements since we initially created them. In 2003, we added a 2-credit performance requirement, very flexibly construed. The requirement is not likely to affect the activities of any of our majors, most of them already very active performers. But inclusion of a performance requirement is cheering to our students and performance instructors and reflects our sense of the importance of practical music-making. To see the current formulation of major requirements, go to

8The college of Arts and Sciences limits the required coursework for a major to about 30 credits, i.e. 10 three-credit courses. This created, in our discussions, a clear trade-off between requirements and electives.

9Readings cited in this portion of the syllabus, in addition to Kisliuk (see note 5) are: Susan D. Crafts, Daniel R. Cavicchi, and Charles Keil, eds., My Music (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993); Bruno Nettl, "Mozart and the Ethnomusicological Study of Western Culture: An Essay in Four Movements," in Katherine Bergeron and Philip Bohlman, eds., Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 137-155; and Ellen Koskoff, "Miriam Sings her Song: The Self and the Other in Anthropological Discourse," in Ruth A. Solie, ed., Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 149-163. For further discussion of this course see my essay "Two Courses for Music Majors at the University of Virginia."

10As my narrative makes clear, the thinking that I recount in this paper was intensely collaborative, though, of course, this paper gives my version of it. I am grateful to Michelle Kisliuk, Judith Shatin, and Richard Will for careful reading and comments that helped me work toward this final version.

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