Music and Liberal Arts Education: A Reply to Mark Hijleh, "Reforming Music Theory"

October 1, 2008

Mark Hijleh argues that a reformed undergraduate music theory curriculum could stand once again in its proper place at the center of a revised music curriculum. He argues that to do this one must make it more relevant to today's students who have limited time to learn diverse skills and acquire tools to deal with today's globalized musical world. His proposal to reform the music theory curriculum is certainly intriguing, and it is disappointing that he does not offer a description of how such a reformed curriculum might actually work in practice. I will not address some of Hijleh's particular points, because I believe that the original essay, "Defending Music Theory in a Multicultural Curriculum" (this journal, vol. 46) speaks for itself regarding topics such as universality and the disadvantages of a potpourri approach to theory pedagogy. I deal mainly with larger philosophical issues here.

The foundation for Hijleh's arguments is the notion that the most important aspects of music in the twenty-first century are synthesis and connection. These concepts are certainly important, and ethnomusicologists have long discussed syncretic musics and closely addressed issues of hybridity in musical communities around the world. Musicologists and even theorists, especially historians of theory, have been quite keen to point out the intersections and continuities between musical cultures. I, too, celebrate musical connections, and I find that many musical syntheses result in works and performances that sound fresh and engaging to my ears. Neither I nor most ethnomusicologists would want to force museum-like preservation of a musical culture or argue that musical cultures are discrete in today's world. Quite the contrary, I would argue that musical cultures around the world have never been discrete; there has always been exchange and synthesis. The problem with Hijleh's argument is that he does away too facilely with difference in his rush to synthesize all musical cultures into one global culture. This global culture that Hijleh holds up as a paradigm consists of different, albeit, intersecting musical worlds with real differences in values, aesthetics, performance practices, belief systems, etc. Of course, such differences are often erased or smoothed out in the consumption of culture by the wealthier and more powerful communities around the globe.

Hijleh seems to make the assumption that "traditional" musics are of the past and that current musical culture is mainly synthetic. His arguments suggest the belief that syntheses, i.e. newly created/composed works, define the current state of our musical culture. My observations of music in the United States indicate otherwise. The current musical culture in the US, if one could identify one such thing, may be about performance; it may be about sampling or re-contextualization; it may be about appropriation and re-appropriation; however, it is certainly not defined by "new" creations. If one frees oneself from the notion that "living music" must be newly created (as in a composition), one sees the vast diversity of musical practices in the globe in a much more interesting and open way. All the "traditional" musics that are performed daily around the world, including the Western art music of the pre-1910 period, are "living cultures." They are most definitely alive in the sense that the music is performed, listened to, and supported by institutions. They structure entire communities of people and help create social, national, and musical identities that can be described, explained, and analyzed. They are also alive in the sense that their practices and meanings continue to evolve gradually. A musical synthesis derives much of its meaning and aesthetic value from the musics that it synthesizes as well as their particular combination. In today's globalized world, one's reception of a particular music is informed by experiences with many others; however, this is not to say that they all blend together to become one global musical culture.

Teaching music theory should not be solely, or even mainly about instructing students in how to make music. Innovative synthesis, by its very nature, is something that cannot be taught in a classroom. I hope that students will develop their own ways to make music using the tools that they have gained through in-depth study of music theory, history, and ethnomusicology, and also through their serious engagement with music as listeners and performers. A theory class should delve into technical and philosophical matters that give students particular types of intellectual understanding. Actually, my students do get excited about many of the theoretical topics that Hijleh might find irrelevant for the twenty-first century. They do not usually start out excited, but they become excited as they acquire more knowledge and learn a new mode of thinking that was unavailable to them before taking the theory class.

There is a fundamental difference between Hijleh's philosophy of music education and my own. Although he teaches at a school of music within a liberal arts college, his outlook is that of a conservatory teacher preparing his students to find jobs in the musical marketplace, although perhaps not as specialists in Western "classical" music. Hijleh contends that "we should be concerned with helping students become music makers first and music studiers second, to be able to breathe in the musical atmosphere of their world first and to understand its origins second." Students already do live and breathe the musical atmosphere of their world. A liberal arts teacher could partly help students accomplish that goal, but ultimately the intelligent and motivated liberal arts students that we have at our schools could do that for themselves. Indeed, every semester I learn quite a lot about the musical world out there from my students. Understanding how that world has come about and learning to recognize all the assumptions that undergird that world, however, often requires guidance from a professor. The liberal arts college should be a place where students can devote themselves to the "life of the mind." I thank Hijleh for pointing out that teaching "modes of thought" in music theory is akin to requiring foreign languages or mathematics at a liberal arts college. My experience is that this "thought-oriented" approach to teaching and learning leads to amazing and revelatory outcomes.

Hijleh, like all of us who teach music at colleges, is concerned to equip students "to deal practically and effectively with the eclectic musical world in which we increasingly find ourselves." The question is, how best can we do this? Consider the world of business and economics. Is it better for a student to be trained in all the latest technological tools and trends at a business technical school or to attend a liberal arts college, where one may not learn all the latest tools but learns to analyze and gain a deeper understanding of economic forces and becomes empowered to figure out tools on one's own? Returning to music pedagogy, has music theory education in the United States ever reflected the current state of the musical world? A study of music-making in the US during the twentieth century would show that the state of the musical world never resembled what was taught in the academy. The study of music theory at its best had intrinsic value, whether or not one were to apply the knowledge directly to the outside world.

I conclude by discussing how we as a scholarly community discuss music. For many years, many ethnomusicologists have contended that to discuss music in the singular does not do justice to the multiplicity of musical practices and musical value systems that exist in the world. The rest of the musicological community has slowly come to accept the notion that we live in a world of inter-connected "musics" rather than in one universal music. However, the increasing connectedness of the world has made it abundantly clear, more now than ever before, that it is important to study cultures in an in-depth way and understand them in a meaningful way (i.e. in a way that recognizes difference), if one is going to deal effectively and ethically with them. One might pause to consider that a musical work or performance could represent vastly different things to two different communities. To one community it could represent "fresh musical exploration and engagement"; to the other, yet another instance of musical appropriation and nothing new. I disagree with blithely celebrating our particular world of musical eclecticism without stopping to reflect on the specific commercial, political, and military forces that have brought about that globalized musical world. Thus I am disturbed when a colleague seems to be proposing a theory curriculum based on what could only be a superficial synthesis of diversity, the musical equivalent of superficial multi-culturalism, if you will, with all its accompanying perils. A liberal arts education should offer better than that. I hope that my students will enter the wide worldnot only to participate in the complex musical machinery already out there, but also to question it, challenge it, and re-create it.

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