Towards the Acceptance of a Bachelor of Music Degree in Popular Music Studies

October 1, 2007

Despite the enormous impact popular music has had on our culture since the 1950s, there is not one NASM1 accredited institution of higher learning in the United States that has a bachelors degree program in popular music studies2. In this paper, I will examine this phenomenon of curricular conservatism by looking at the difficulties jazz studies programs encountered trying to gain acceptance into academia and comparing it to the resistance that is presently facing popular music. In addition, I will discuss the problems faced by jazz studies programs now that they have gained some acceptance into academia and examine how these issues might affect programs in popular music studies in the future. Interviews with faculty and students at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette will help bring these issues into a sharper focus. As a result of this discussion and an interview with a Berklee College of Music3 dean I will offer suggestions for the development of a degree program in popular music studies.

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Higher education was extremely slow in recognizing jazz studies as a worthy field of scholarship. Jazz began its tenure as a popular art form in the 1920s. Yet despite the high level of artistic achievement reached by the practitioners of the art and extraordinary impact this music has had on American culture, the first accredited college jazz studies programs did not appear in American universities until the early 1960s.4

When jazz studies degree programs began, they were grafted onto a curricular model that was designed to teach Western classical music. Many jazz studies programs still use this framework, a framework that creates poorly conceptualized jazz curricula. While offering some jazz instruction, most of these universities require jazz studies students to take three or four semesters of Western harmony, two or three semesters of music history, etc. The in-depth study of figured bass makes sense for a student studying classical music, but a jazz studies student would be best served by classes that delve more deeply into aural learning, rhythmic feels, jazz transcription, jazz theory, and jazz history. Limited time and classes in universities do not allow for the in-depth study of both genres for all students.

Even in dedicated jazz classes, instruction in jazz performance often does not take into account how jazz has traditionally been learned. This has helped to squelch the creativity of college students in jazz studies programs. Recent scholarship by Kenneth Prouty discusses this problem:

In demonstrating that the language of jazz is a complex structural entity, [jazz educators] have . . . shown jazz musicians historically as possessing a great deal of sophistication and skill with regards to the techniques of performance and musical creation, rather than being regarded as musical "noble savages," possessing raw talent, but little in the way of musical intellect. Yet in debunking such stereotypes of jazz improvisers, educators may inadvertently send a message that playing jazz is mostly about technique, and that individual ability or creativity does not factor into the equation. I do not believe that this is intentional, nor even that it is desired by those who do it. Institutional pressures, however, often force educators to make instructional choices that favor such concepts over what are, in curricular terms at least, less definable concepts.5

Prouty also quotes jazz historian, James Lincoln Collier:

With students all over the United States being taught more or less the same harmonic principles, it is hardly surprising that their solos tend to sound much the same. It is important for us to understand that many of the most influential jazz players developed their own personal harmonic schemes, very frequently because they had little training in theory and were forced to find it their own way.6

Nick Stephan, an undergraduate jazz saxophone student at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, who gigs professionally, lends credence to both Prouty and Collier's stances through his own college experiences: "It's all about the performance—how into it the players are. Is everyone playing as one or is everybody just reading a sheet of music? [The latter is] what seems to happen in college groups. There's no real class that will teach the creative side, playing together, building your voice, and making sense of what you're playing."

Another commonly seen problem in jazz studies programs is the over-emphasis of big band performance at the expense of teaching the artistry of improvisation and combo intra-action. By no means do I mean to imply that the big band experience is not artistically valid. Indeed, some of the most important jazz artistry has occurred, and still does occur in this medium. It is my contention, however, that too many universities neglect other equally important components of jazz to teach big band music—big band music that does not often reflect the highest artistic accomplishments of the genre. Many early and late styles of jazz, including Dixieland, free jazz, and deconstructive jazz performance concepts, are excluded from curricula.

Too many students who study jazz at universities do not get enough exposure to what the music sounds like. Too often, they are not required to write their own transcriptions and are not required to do enough critical listening to important artists. These tasks are essential in gaining a feel rooted in the idiom. For the most part, even the most creative and forward-looking jazz artists devoted a considerable portion of their practice time to these tasks.

University jazz studies programs have achieved some successes as well—successes that may translate to degree programs in popular music. For example, the inclusion of jazz studies programs into university curricula gives aspiring jazz musicians a sheltered environment in which to learn their craft. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the prevalence of jazz jam sessions where players would gather for the sake of learning tunes seems to have greatly diminished since the 1950s. Offering jazz combos and private lessons gives students a place in which to learn the crafts of improvisation and small group intra-action. Classes in jazz history, jazz theory, and jazz arranging offer specialized instruction in important topics and skills. To be fair, jazz studies programs in the country do sometimes turn out students who are of a high professional caliber and make important contributions to the art form. Moreover, students with less than professional potential have the opportunity to perform jazz and are afforded a chance to learn improvisation and other complex musical tasks. Despite the fact that these students may lack the skills and/or artistic vision to achieve a high level of professional success, they can gain abilities that are often enriching and transferable to other life experiences. The problems and successes discussed above occur in varying degrees at all seventy-nine universities that have accredited jazz studies programs. Some professors who teach private lessons, direct combos, and teach in other areas of jazz studies programs have found ways of working within these institutional constraints to offer instruction that addresses the problems mentioned.

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Jazz began to seep into university curricula well before the establishment of the first jazz studies degree programs. "During the 1930s and '40s . . . and after WWII, jazz studies established a foothold in higher education. [Numerous universities] began to offer college credit for . . . ensembles, and specialized courses such as improvisation and arranging became more prevalent."7 In a manner reminiscent of these precursors to jazz degree programs, the study of popular music has begun to work its way into academia. For example:

  • Some university music and communications departments offer degree programs in the music business, the music industry, and music media.
  • A large number of music departments offer lecture classes (sometimes to non-majors) on rock, rap, and other forms of popular music.
  • Numerous humanities departments in universities throughout the country teach classes on the social and cultural aspects of popular music.
  • The Berklee College of Music has well-conceptualized and well-attended bachelor concentrations in contemporary music. A few other, smaller institutions around the country have tried emulating this model with mixed success. Beyond these notable exceptions, however, schools of music in colleges and universities seem unwilling to open their doors to popular music.

Perhaps these courses and programs will act as a precursor to popular music studies degrees similar to the way in which early jazz courses helped pave the way for jazz degree programs. These popular music classes, and music business, industry, media programs have proven to be enormously popular. It is possible that this popularity may act as a catalyst for the creation of the first popular music studies degrees. Kari Juusela, Dean of the Professional Writing Division at Berklee notes, "This year, we were only able to accept 27% of all freshman applicants. People are going to vote with their feet." While these factors would seem to be moving universities toward the creation of popular music programs, resistance remains. In his article, "Better Late Than Never: Thoughts on the Music Curriculum in the Late 20th Century," Roger Johnson writes,

Few people outside the field realize just how narrow and myopic the majority of most faculties and curricula still are. They have been remarkably resistant to change, despite the fact that it would give their graduates—even the classical musicians—a much better chance of success. Philosophically and aesthetically, or perhaps just out of ignorance and fear, these faculties cling to the idea of one music—classical music—against all the rest, refusing to give up their sense of a privileged position even at the risk of damaging the very thing they imagine they are defending.8

My dealings in academia have led me to generally support Johnson's view, and when looked at through a broader lens, this type of resistance is not a new phenomenon. The teaching of music that challenges the conventions of the day will always struggle for acceptance in higher education, even though it is the music having the most impact on the lives of the students who wish to study it. In fact, there is a fairly consistent record of resistance to music innovation throughout the history of music. So it is not surprising that there is currently such strong resistance to contemporary music from the academy when we consider the radical changes seen in music during the last fifty years. But just because there is resistance to the teaching of popular music does not mean that the resistance should be tolerated. Instead, it is the responsibility of faculty to find ways of reforming university curricula so that all worthy forms of art are taught.

My interviews with faculty members offer hope (and yet more problems with which to cope) for the inclusion of popular music into university curricula. Susanna Garcia, coordinator of the keyboard division at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, states, "Popular music offers students different ways of learning about music. I think those things can be valuable and can be utilized by any college program." She also notes,

Elitism on the part of the conventionally schooled faculty is part of the problem as well. Jazz faced a lot of that prejudice. Jazz was a stepchild for a long time and I think popular music is having similar problems now. You hear a lot of people say that popular music is just three chords, but Mozart is often just three chords, too. But no one says that about Mozart. It's a way to demean popular music. There's a whole history of bias against certain types of genres and the same can be said of popular music.

Much of the bias against popular music found in higher education derives from the belief that popular music lacks complexity and intellectual content. Similar biases were the cause of some of the resistance that jazz faced—and at times, still does face—in its journey into academia. In fact, there is an enormous amount of complexity in popular music including: the rhythmic complexity of the beats heard in the music of rap artists such as The Roots; the harmonic and melodic complexity displayed by artists like Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder; and the timbral complexity of techno artists such as The Chemical Brothers. And while I have chosen just a few artists to exemplify this idea, there are, in fact, innumerable examples of artists with which to illustrate my point. However, many faculty in mainstream schools of music have training that is limited to Western classical music. And much of the complexity in popular music cannot be properly explained using the conventions with which they are familiar. For example, the rhythms and melodies heard in many popular music vocal styles cannot be sufficiently communicated through standard notation. Many blues-influenced vocals are intentionally sung behind, and around, the beat in ways that make the use of standard notation untenable. The rhythmic feel of James Brown's group and the timbral complexity of Aphex Twin's music or Jimi Hendrix's guitar are also impossible to notate. Groups such as the Sex Pistols who most likely had few fans in academia, were creating art through the combination of biting lyrics and innovatively harsh sonic landscapes. However, since many in academia are unaware of the aesthetic values on which various types of popular music are based, they lack the knowledge to make informed judgements about such works.

At first glance, there appear to be fundamental issues of incompatibility between the teaching of popular music and institutions of higher learning. Dr. Jonathan Kulp, a musicologist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette notes, "Many great popular music artists do unconventional things and it's probably because no one told them that they can't do those things. Formal teaching might get in the way of some artists' creativity." Garcia makes another point about incompatibility:

I'm not sure if popular music can be taught in a lesson. There's something anti-lesson, anti-higher education about most popular music and they almost don't belong together. It seems like an inherent contradiction. Part of the way popular music works is the self-taught aspect of it, and the communal aspect of the way a band operates. The hierarchical relationship of the private lesson seems to be at odds with the spirit of it.

Indeed, one of the goals of popular music is to create an individual group sound, instrumental sound or singing style. This would seem to be in opposition to the aim of most university music professors who try to get students to emulate established performance styles. Conventional teaching may very well get in the way of innovative artistry. I do believe, however, that if there were faculty dedicated to the teaching of popular music, new teaching strategies could be found to overcome these problems. There are jazz faculty who have found ways of dodging the constraints found in academia, and teachers of popular music could similarly find strategies that allow for the creativity of their students.

Just as educators need to continue reforming jazz education to deal with the incompatibilities found between the institution and the teaching of jazz, we must also facilitate the incorporation of popular music into universities and deal with the arguable set of incompatibility issues that Kulp and Garcia discuss. Danny Devillier, a graduate of the Master of Music Jazz Composition and the Bachelor of Music, Music Media programs at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, now teaches drum set lessons. He offers a strategy for teaching private lessons that addresses some of these problems:

The only way to learn the feel of jazz and popular music is to listen and to maybe observe. You have to get it at its source, and the history of its source. You have to go back and dig. To teach a particular style, you explain the important elements of each groove—the balance of each part, the touch. Books can come in handy here. It's good for students to practice [exercises from a book] but it doesn't do any good for me to listen to them do sixty exercises in a row. But some of my students who have studied at [the University of] North Texas and other large colleges would have to play sixty of these exercises in a lesson, and all I could say is, 'why?' I think a student's time could be so much better spent if we just talk in a lesson—a story about real life; or 'try this on a samba.' Students love it and they'll ask me questions and get feedback. I'll go to their gigs and they'll come to my gigs.

Devillier's comments echo those made by Ed Thigpen, a veteran, master jazz drummer:

Jo [Jones] was my mentor. I didn't take formal lessons from him. The way you learned from Jo Jones was by listening to him. And I learned from him about life and how to take care of yourself as a man. We didn't talk that much about drums per se; we talked about music and life. But after I'd talk with him I'd play better that night, because you play life . . . 9

Nick Stephan makes some equally important points apropos to the teaching of jazz and popular music:

Teachers need to get students into the meaning of a piece, get students to listen to some original performances of the piece and get students into what the performers meant when they recorded them. Sometimes they didn't mean anything at all but you can't judge that if you're just handed the lead sheet without having heard it. You have to stay aware of the feelings and the implications of the music and not just get caught up in making the changes. It goes way beyond that most of the time. Sometimes you don't even have to figure something out to have it influence your playing. Just by listening to certain types of music will steer your playing in a certain direction.

While I have leveled criticism at universities for their conservatism in the area of popular music, there are institutions that have made important contributions in popular music education. One such establishment, the Berklee College of Music, offers majors in contemporary music such as the Professional Music degree, which has a strong emphasis on contemporary popular music.

Just as the better jazz schools have curricula that largely focus on jazz, Berklee's concentrations that center on popular music have numerous classes devoted to popular music. (Berklee is also one of the schools whose jazz curriculum has an abundance of dedicated jazz classes.) Kari Juusela, Dean of the Professional Writing Division at Berklee describes the four-semester contemporary harmony sequence:

Berklee has developed its own method of analysis, which is based on the Roman numeral system but is geared towards contemporary music starting with Tin Pan Alley and moves through jazz and modern music. The concepts of traditional voice leading, parallel fifths, [etc.] are not necessarily part of that. The students learn chord scales and modes that go along with different chords so they're able to arrange, improvise, or understand what is being played over chord progressions that are not part of the traditional harmonic canon. The main focus of these classes is contemporary music that is harmonic in nature, which might include jazz standards, John Mayer tunes, or whatever might be the newest stuff out on the radio, although we do delve into hip hop and other beat oriented music.

[The students] also get the two semesters of the traditional harmony through the Kostka/Payne book as well as two semesters of traditional Western music history and counterpoint...Since we are a college and not a trade school, that historical component is important. The part to argue about is how much of the historical component to teach. With all the music that's currently being produced including world music, we try to make the best decision possible.

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As a result of these interviews, my examination of the problems found in jazz education, and discussion of programs such as Berklee's, I am offering the following suggestions for the construction and implementation of a popular music10 studies degree:

Administrators should be made aware of the need for degrees in popular music studies. A case needs to be made for incorporating important new art forms into the curricula that are greatly impacting our society and our students. An explanation of the complexity found in popular music may have to be made. Many administrators outside of music are often unaware of the resistance faced by new forms of art within their own institutions. The comparison to the resistance faced by jazz studies could be made and the popularity of music industry, business, and media degrees could be brought into the discussion. The success of the Berklee College of Music's programs could make for a strong argument. For traditional schools of music, the addition of a popular music studies degree may work for some and not others. If a school is well funded, and is looking to expand its offerings, perhaps the introduction of such a degree might be considered. In another scenario, a music school with a concentration that is not graduating enough students to retain its accreditation might want to replace that concentration with one in popular music.

Curricula must be created that meets the needs of students studying popular music. Classes need to be developed, which support the popular music curricula. Theory classes should be developed that cover the concepts of harmony and melody that are found in the many sub-genres of popular music. Classes need to examine rhythmic grooves, and the timbral palate made possible through electronic instruments and MIDI sequencing. History classes need to address the roots and many sub-genres of popular music. Ensembles could be offered in rock, R&B, rap, heavy metal, folk-rock, blues, and a number of other styles. Composition should be required of all ensemble members to develop the communal aspect of songwriting.

Faculty should be sought that has both "real world" popular music experience and university credentials. Three of twenty faculty members in the School of Music at UL Lafayette have, by happenstance, experience in popular music performance and also hold doctorates, evidence that faculty searches devoted to this type of instruction could be successful. When asked if there are difficulties finding qualified teachers in contemporary music that also have the necessary degrees to teach at the college level, Kari Juusela pointed out, "While we might get a hundred applicants for a position, only a few of them will be suitable and be able to combine all these skills. Many of them may have started out being more jazz or rock oriented and then go on to get a Masters degree in jazz or contemporary classical music. To me, those who have experience on both sides of the fence are the ideal people to hire."

Searches must actively seek applicants who are open to the development of unconventional performance practices on the part of the student. Different students will need varying amounts of conventional instruction on their instruments. As with most teaching, the students' learning style should be a factor in determining the teaching style. Since students will, as part of their lessons, be encouraged to explore their own innovative artistic visions, teachers must be found who can work within more flexible frameworks.

Classes are needed in lyric writing and setting lyrics to music. Perhaps the lyric writing component could be tied in with creative writing classes found in many English departments.

Classes in MIDI, Digital Audio, and recording techniques will be needed. In addition to covering technical knowledge, MIDI classes should also teach the compositional skills found in techno, rap, and other MIDI-intensive pop styles. A portion of MIDI classes in a popular music study degree should be devoted to the listening and analyses of important artists whose work utilizes MIDI sequencing.

All students should be required to have at least minimal skills on guitar, keyboards, and drums. Different instruments lend themselves to the composition of different pop styles. Basic skills classes are needed to give all students at least a beginning ability on instruments commonly used in popular music.

Musicians still active in their field are needed to give guest lectures, master classes, and act as artists-in-residence. Some jazz studies programs bring in guest artists to discuss issues in performance that are often difficult to address in classes. Popular music studies programs should borrow from this model.

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It is my hope that this article will spur on discussion and lead to a Bachelor of Music degree in popular studies. To help with acceptance of this degree, it would be helpful if NASM would consider adding a concentration in popular music to the Bachelor of Music degree. Just as some adjustments were required to create the jazz concentration in the BM, some flexibility in thinking will be needed by NASM in the creation of a popular music concentration. As a starting point in this discussion, I am suggesting the following music courses be included in such a concentration.

Course Name


Private Lessons (8 sem.)

Private lessons on electric guitar, electric bass, drums, keyboards, or popular vocal styles. Other instruments may be considered.

Ensemble (8 sem.)

Students would be required to perform in a number of groups representing a variety of popular music styles.

Theory of Popular Music (4 sem.)

Analysis of the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic and timbral concepts found in popular music of the last fifty years.

Aural Skills (4 sem.)

Emphasis on popular music styles. Includes transcriptions of popular songs

Keyboard Skills (1 sem.)

Basic keyboard skills for the popular musician

Guitar Skills (1 sem.)

Basic guitar skills for the popular musician

Drum Skills (1 sem.)

Basic drum skills for the popular musician

Arranging (1 sem.)

Arranging skills for the popular musician

Improvisation (1 sem.)

Improvisation skills for the popular musician

Theory of Western Classical Music (2 sem.)

Traditional music theory

Counterpoint (1 sem.)

Traditional counterpoint

MIDI Seqencing (1 sem.)

Sequencing on MIDI software that emphasizes the technology's use as a composition medium

Recording Skills (2 sem.)

Recording techniques on both analog and digital equipment

The Music Industry (1 sem.)

Knowledge of the contemporary music industry

History of Popular Music (1 sem.)

Study of the development of American popular music from the nineteenth century to the present

History of Western Classical Music (1 sem.)

Traditional music history

Composition (1 sem.)

A study of composition from various sub-genres of popular music including the interaction between lyrics and music. Students would compose music in different popular music styles

Lyric Writing (1 sem.)

A study of lyrics from various sub-genres of popular music including the interaction between lyrics and music. Students would compose lyrics in different popular music styles

Senior Recital

Additional study for senior recital preparation

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It would be easy to argue that universities are not the best places for the instruction of popular music studies. Institutions are, by nature, resistant to change. One of the goals of the artist—in this case, the popular musician—is to push the boundaries of the art form outward. Universities, on the other hand, seem to do best at making sense of historical trends in art retrospectively and teaching the performance of a particular genre once it has been codified.11 Yet, I believe that part of our job as professors of music is to continually push against these tendencies and reform the curricula to reflect important changes in how art is defined. In fact, over the last four decades, numerous articles in mainstream academic journals have discussed reasons and methods for teaching popular music in schools and universities.

My criticisms notwithstanding, the inclusion of jazz studies into curricula was an important step forward for universities. It demonstrated that universities are, albeit slowly, capable of incorporating newer genres of music into their curricula. And the belief that Western art music is superior to popular music has, thankfully, begun to erode in academia over the last four decades. Now is the time to deal with this fact and find effective ways to teach popular music studies in higher education.

List of References

Johnson, Robert. "Better Late Than Never: Thoughts on the Music Curriculum in the Late 20th Century." The Journal of Popular Music Studies, 9/10 (1997-98): 1-6.

Murphy, Dan. "Jazz Studies in American Schools and Colleges: A Brief History." Jazz Educators Journal, 26/3 (March 1994): 34-38.

Prouty, Kenneth E. "Canons in Harmony, or Canons in Conflict: A Cultural Perspective on the Curriculum and Pedagogy of Jazz Improvisation." Research and Issues in Music Education,, vol. 2/1 (September 2004).

Thigpen, Ed. "Opening Chorus: Before & After." Jazz Times, 35/9 (Nov. 2005): 44-46.


1The National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) is the accrediting agency for college and university music programs.

2None of the degrees currently offered in the music industry, music business, or music media are popular music studies degrees.

3Berklee is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

4Murphy, "Jazz Studies" 37. It is unclear as to which programs Murphy is referring. Indiana University, the University of Miami, and the Berklee School of Music were among the institutions that played prominent roles in the creation of jazz studies degrees in the 1960s. In 1947, North Texas State Teachers College (now the University of North Texas) began a degree program in dance band that was a strong influence on later jazz studies degrees. Morris Martin, a librarian at the University of North Texas Music Library told me that the dance band degree was so named because a degree with the word "jazz" in it would not have been approved in 1947.

5Prouty, "Canons in Harmony," 11.

6Ibid., 4.

7Murphy, "Jazz Studies," 35.

8Johnson, "Better Late Than Never," 3.

9Thigpen, "Opening Chorus," 44.

10Here, I am using the term "popular music" to mostly describe practices from the last fifty years. Lessons, theory classes, and ensembles would largely be dealing with popular music of this time period. However, a history class devoted to popular music should discuss the development of the genres from the nineteenth century as well as the European, African, and Latin American influences on the genre(s).

11Some of the way classical music is taught represents less than thorough codification and teaching. For example, the figured bass of the baroque period was often used as a framework on which to improvise. Yet very few classical pianists are taught this skill in college.

3018 Last modified on October 2, 2018