An Outsider’s Guide to Classical Music: Teaching the Western Canon as “Other”

October 1, 2009

There is a need to teach the young people who will be doing the science themselves, but this will always be a small minority among us. There is a deeper need to teach science to those who will be needed for thinking about it, and this means pretty nearly everyone else. Lewis Thomas1

Music is too important to be left to the musicians. Christopher Small2

I know I’ve got a lot of music in me . . . because none of it has ever come out. Anonymous3



Claims for the preeminence of Western classical music, which are implicit in traditional music appreciation texts and courses, have become untenable in the diverse culture and curriculum of the contemporary university. Most liberal arts students feel estranged from classical music and alienated by the pervasive, if contradictory, presumptions of its elitism and universality. Happily, much is to be gained by recognizing the “otherness” that this tradition holds for our students, and indeed, for those of us with academic degrees in musical disciplines. It is reasonable and advantageous to teach classical music as a collection of distinctive—even exotic!—practices, and to open it up to “un-disciplined” modes of engagement. This approach is supported by lively discussions within and among fields such as cultural studies, ethnomusicology, gender studies, semiotics, and cognition, all with profound implications for musicology. The advantages of stepping outside the canonical view of classical music in this way are not just ideological and contextual, but aesthetic, as well.

This paper proposes an alternative approach to teaching Western classical music in the context of music appreciation. I will first describe what I intend by an “outsider’s” perspective and why I value it. Then I will sketch the view of classical music from “outside,” and use that view to critique some familiar approaches to music appreciation. I will end with a more specific description of an alternative.


I. This, That, and the “Other”

In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding—in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot even really see one’s own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space and because they are others. Mikhail Bakhtin4

The place of classical music in America is complex, unsettled. It is iconic yet unfamiliar, elevated but marginalized, a cultural epitome and an anachronism. Embraced as a means of gathering and celebrating community (when featured at a wedding, graduation ceremonies, a memorial observance at Ground Zero), it is enough reviled to be equally effective in discouraging gatherings (when piped into urban public spaces where loitering, drug sales, and prostitution have been problematic). Widely integrated into our public education system, it is also marked as esoteric and elitist. This is a tradition which is just as likely to be labeled “dead” as “immortal.” This situation is not an especially helpful context in which to offer music appreciation.

Brian Mann of Vassar College has observed that “the uses to which classical music is generally put in popular culture—however benignly one might construe them—make it more, not less, difficult for students to hear or care about the more elusive qualities that great works generate.”5 Meanwhile, inside the academy, the well-worn grand narratives that have established the canon of “great works” and assume their preeminence are equally problematic. These stories are used to justify dedicated analytical methods that sequester the Western tradition in esoteric disciplines. This critical isolation in turn supports a widespread belief that only trained initiates can truly enjoy Western art music, fosters a prejudice that it is a uniformly intellectual repertoire, and removes the occasion for illuminating comparisons with other musical traditions. To teach this tradition effectively, and to experience the music more directly, we can neither relegate it to the dustbin nor to the pedestal.

How, then, can we best teach Western art music to non-majors? Can the practice even be justified? I think it can, because the study of this multifaceted and composite tradition is relevant in the way that all musical study is relevant: as an exploration of what Bonnie Wade has described as the ways “people make music useful and meaningful in their lives.”6 It is also worthy of study in that it has been a remarkably adventurous, ambitious, eclectic, influential, and well-documented phenomenon. But a “reversal of the gaze” is called for, a perspective that begins outside the precincts of the received tradition of the canon and goes beyond the prejudices of popular culture. The perspective suggested closely resembles that of the ethnomusicologist, the outsider seeking understanding. From this displaced perspective the canon comes to life, not as a body of revered masterworks, but as an intriguing “other.”

If we understand the topic at hand to be “How do people make classical music meaningful and useful in their lives?” then our vantage point can make all the difference. Music appreciation is commonly presented as an initiation for new-comers into the musical insider’s world and experience. The instructor brings the status and authority of the professional, and presides over a sort of crash-course in connoisseurship. Her experience and the textbook’s information represent a mastery of knowledge and techniques. Students are encouraged to acquire the rudiments of this specialized training since it is presumed to unlock more satisfying encounters with classical music. This pedagogical model is based on the assumption that the greatest obstacle to understanding is ignorance, and consequently it focuses on the transfer of information.

A contrasting model can be built from the belief that the greatest obstacle to understanding is not ignorance but indifference, and emphasis must therefore be placed on creating an atmosphere of curiosity and urgency. In this model, mystery is valued over mastery. The instructor’s insider-status may now make her an ideal native guide or coach, but her goal is not to induct students, but to help orient them to new experiences, to help them cultivate thoughtful and creative responses.

The insider (the composer, performer, theorist, or musicologist) can easily become engrossed in the project of learning how to execute specialized instrumental or vocal techniques, how the materials of Western music can be conceptually considered and organized, or how these matters have been managed historically. The outsider potentially has more freedom to participate in the immediate presence of music, its sonic and human dynamics.

Thomas Clifton has described concentric layers of musical meaning, with the richest and most essential of these unmediated by documents or disciplines:

The physical dimensions of an original manuscript are not as interesting as the marks left by the composer; the notation is not as interesting as the sound, and the sound is not as interesting as the music.
Before becoming a cultural artifact, a style, or an object of study, music is a presence.7

It was, after all, in this immediate presence of music, in the act of participation, that the young and aspiring insider first encountered a reason to pursue her apprenticeship. The most compelling experiences afforded by listening to music are fundamentally the same for the insider and the outsider. Musicians of every stripe count on this to be the case! And artists and critics have been among the most vociferous voices insisting on the limitations of expert exegesis. Take, for example, the famous admonition of Arnold Schoenberg, drawn from his personal correspondence:

I can’t utter too many warnings against overrating these analyses, since after all they only lead to what I have always been dead against: seeing how it is done; whereas I have always helped people to see: what it is!8

Writer Wendell Berry offers essentially the same caveat:

To propose that the value of a work of art lies in its interpretation is to propose further that it is of interest only as an instance or specimen and that it can be not only explained but explained away . . . An explanation is a bucket, not a well.9

This is not to deny the discernment provided by a facile analysis, the enrichment offered by historical investigation, or the unique pleasures and insights of the musical practitioner (amateur or professional). But music theory, criticism, and technique serve appreciation only when they return us to the common ground of human experience, when they reflect (not replace) the wonder of the musical encounter.


II. Reversing the Gaze

“The surest way to get hold of what your present frame blinds you to is to reverse your model.” Peter Elbow10

Wonder can be refreshed by a step outside our ideological home. Leaving home helps us to see our cultural landscape in a new light. The outsider is more likely to notice, and can therefore investigate, some of the things often taken for granted within Western classical musicianship.

  • that music making is accomplished by three specialized activities, namely
  • composing, performing, and listening
  • that the composer is an inspired genius, the performer’s specialization is considered a craft, while the listener’s role is, at least superficially, a matter of etiquette
  • that these activities and their respective specialists are almost always segregated
  • that the essential musical products are called works, principally represented by the composers’ notational texts or scores
  • that the story of classical music is largely the story of composers and works, which are categorized according to broadly conceived stylistic periods and by genres

Peter Elbow’s argument that our vision is expanded when we deliberately adopt new perspectives on the familiar suggests that the reversal—the view from the outside, in— can be useful to “insiders” too!

In this light I would like to reconsider some of the assumptions underlying traditional music appreciation curricula. In doing so I readily admit that I myself have enthusiastically adopted or been blind to every one that I’m about to identify, and many more, I am sure, to which I remain attached, or of which I am oblivious. But over the past ten years or so I have found that I am increasingly comfortable letting go of some rather powerful organizing principles that I used to count on to give coherence and thoroughness to the enterprise.

First, it may be time to relinquish historical chronology as the fundamental story of classical music. This focus serves to render the evolution of style as a foreground issue, and it tends to privilege history as the critical context for musical meaning. It may also risk suggesting that this music no longer has any other significance. Leo Treitler has argued:

No other basis for the comparison of artworks has been considered so important as the chronological-genetic one. As a consequence, artworks derive their meanings primarily from their location in a sequence, and many of the primary categories of art criticism are series-bound . . . Such critical categories provide a special criterion of artistic significance—the criterion of historical significance—which substitutes for standards of artistic value and which, indeed, offers refuge from the challenge to derive meaning in any other sense from individual artworks of the past.11

Next, we can let go of the audience recruitment goal; it is unbecoming of scholarship to continually make this sales pitch, the students can see through it, and the goal is better accomplished when students develop intrinsic motivations to seek out more. It is reassuring to hear this view expressed by a musicologist and teacher as experienced and ardent as James Parakilas:

Those of us who teach introductory music courses can free ourselves of the audience-building goal, trusting that exciting performances of great music will exert their own power over students.

Parakilas suggests another divestment:

We can also free ourselves of the obligation to cover the whole span of Western music in one semester and of textbooks that reduce history to pretty pictures and simple contrasts.12

As we have all experienced, the “comprehensive survey” is an impossible dream, perhaps because it is an oxymoron. It was impossible even before we took medieval music seriously, and before music history and music appreciation texts incorporated token chapters on world music, jazz, Broadway, rock ‘n’ roll. What a relief to let go of this one, and to linger with individual works rather than asking them to make their points and step aside.


III. Musical Work, not Works

It is worth invoking and insisting on the inflection of the words ‘art’ and ‘work’ as processes and verbs rather than fixed entities and nouns. Michael Steinberg13

I fear I have spent most of my time saying “no.” It is so much easier to dismantle than to assemble. But I would like to finish by suggesting a clutch of positives, things to move towards, assignments that accomplish something a bit different, and my vision of the well-educated music-in-general-studies student. The transition begins with an appeal to thinking about music in verbs instead of nouns.

Knowing music as a verb begins with taking seriously the physical and social acts of participating in music, for which Christopher Small has coined the term “musicking.”14 In the age of iPods, we need to be more consistent and persistent advocates for the ways in which the call of music is a call to participate, to join communal pleasures and efforts, to affirm our place in the world, to take part rather than take control or take refuge. This is a distinctly different experience from the objectification and admiration of musical works. Ironically, both ear buds and the exclusivity of the canon contribute to the seclusion of listeners.

Ethnomusicologists are familiar with John Blacking’s idea that “we must recognize that no musical style has ‘its own terms’: its terms are the terms of its society and culture, and of the bodies of the human beings who listen to it, and create and perform it.”15 Unfortunately, the academic examination and contemplation of classical music is enveloped by a kind of squeamishness about the embodied nature of musical meaning, and about the validity of exploring human agency in general. Students get the impression that we are more comfortable discussing artifacts than artistry when we restrict our view to the work under consideration (noun) at the expense of considering the work being done (verb). This is essentially the choice that Richard Taruskin identifies in his well-known essay Text and Act.16

Music invites, or, we could say, requires and rewards our physical participation. Physical engagement offers an important liberation from the presumption that classical music is inevitably abstract and academic, serious and sophisticated, an idea that severely restricts the range of meanings that this music can afford. Attentiveness to our bodies also reminds us that the meaning is not “out there” somewhere, but rather in us. When classically trained musicians reflect on what first drew them to this music, they often describe the sorts of corporeal and spiritual experiences that are equally accessible to novices and buffs, alike. In the moment of embodied involvement, the insider/outsider binary has vanished.17

Of course, in pursuing an understanding of musical participation, we will not abandon all interest in musical artifacts and analysis. Ultimately, our attentiveness to musicking must include an appreciation for the fact that Western music is strongly influenced by its objects. Musical notation itself is available to distinctive styles of consideration that take place outside the temporal and local constraints of performances. But as intellectually compelling as these lines of inquiry can be, too rarely do they return us to our bodies. The philosopher David Abram observes that “in Western civilization, language seems to deny or deaden [the life of the senses], promoting massive distrust of sensorial experience while valorizing an abstract realm of ideas.”18

There are ways to use words to help us “return to our senses.” Our conversations and written musings about music will have a better chance of connecting to visceral experiences if our language embraces metaphor before hardening into terminology, and if our thinking remains critical and nimble instead of reaching for the templates. To step away from definitive claims is to create more room for an expansion of meanings.

Critical thinking really ought to be among the primary objectives of any liberal arts course, but too often it takes a back seat to memorization of conceptual models and specialized vocabulary. As a consequence, general studies students frequently speculate that the instructor has confused them with his majors. But open ended questions—ones that call for critical thinking—abound in cultural studies, and in music, specifically. We need to take greater advantage of them in music appreciation. We ought to prize the uncertainties and gray areas that surround favorite topics such as “absolute vs. program music.” Beginners are as prepared as any of us to consider the meaningful tensions between tradition and innovation, freedom and discipline, recreation and challenge, grounding in the present and transcending time and place, the articulation of individual and collective identities. These topics create more traction for thought and discussion than the generalities that channel a breezy historical overview.19

Open-ended questions are valuable precisely because they resist definitive answers, because of what they leave unfilled. The openings resonate with wonder, and provide an opportunity for bewilderment, and these are prerequisites for learning. The word “opening” is also suggestive of dialectics, an exploratory discourse that welcomes differing ideas or approaches in search of a fuller spectrum of meanings. Openings present themselves and thrive on a basic generosity and humility of spirit. Potential openings are closed off—filled in—by rigid or complacent habits of mind, including the tendency to think that the identification and explanation of specimens constitute sufficient involvement with music.

An individual who is willing to entertain multiple attitudes is able to hear more, and has more to talk about. The same is true of a classroom of students in which this openness to diverse thought is encouraged. When it comes to music, diverse points of view can enrich our experience. Meaning is relative, not absolute, and multiple meanings reveal multiple relationships between music and our world, between music and the worlds of others. Ambiguity and wonder can be celebrated because they are indicative of imagination and empathy, rather than disdained for their lack of rigor. The suspension of our judgment gives us room to explore these meanings, many of which are lost to us when we are content to report the judgment of history implicit in the canon.

In pleading the case that the study of music ought to emphasize relationships constituted by musical activity, I can do no better than to cite Christopher Small:

The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. They are to be found not only between organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance; and they model, or stand as metaphor for, ideal relationships as the participants in the performance imagine them to be: relationships between person and person, between individual and society, between humanity and the natural world.20

It is not accurate to think of these relationships as “extra-musical,” any more than it is helpful to think of music as “other worldly.” Musical meaning resides in a web of relationships, of which we usually consider only a narrow range. One source of this limited scope is our over-reliance on conceptual models and terminologies that refer to features isolated or extracted from more complete musical contexts which include the relationships inherent in matters of biology, identity, and society.

The technical vocabulary that we urge upon our majors and non-majors alike has a way of displacing the resonant metaphorical language that we use when we talk and write about music as if we really cared for it. These metaphors are enormously informative when we step back from them, as they reveal a great deal about the relationships that inhere in music. Identifying and following the assumptions behind the systematic metaphors commonly used in musical discourse is a great assignment, and a rather entertaining hobby.21


work, composition, masterpiece
Top 40
Stücke, Urtext



soaring melody
running eighth notes
harmonic progression
falling thirds
adagio, andante, appoggiatura



departure, return
diversion, exploration
remote key

Students can brainstorm to generate such evocative metaphor sets, or they can go looking for them in music criticism, the too-often effete patter of classical radio hosts, promotional literature from artists and their presenters, advertising or movies that incorporate music, music pedagogy, and yes, textbooks.

This brings me to one last suggestion for engaging musical meaning: the experience of fieldwork. In fieldwork we orient ourselves to observe and learn from the actions and interactions of people. I certainly do not want to assign or read any more “concert reports,” but I am fascinated by the conversations that emerge from students’ shared experiences in other aspects of the classical “field,” including the following opportunities available in almost any community or at any school with a classical music presence:

the discourse of concert reviews
the discourse of analysis and musicology
the discourse of lessons and rehearsals
recordings, broadcasts, podcasts

Ethnomusicologist Michelle Kisliuk describes her ideal of fieldwork as a reciprocal encounter. In doing so she certainly speaks to my aspirations in music appreciation: to renew my engagement with classical music, and to serve as an effective native guide or coach for newcomers.

While in the field, we are constantly in the process of defining ourselves, of modifying and deepening our identities in relation to others. Life itself is, of course, such a process as well, but when we remove ourselves from a home environment, pay special attention to culture and identity in our research, and grow to become participants in cultural performances, the process of identity making surges to the forefront of awareness.22

In Kisliuk’s description, the meanings that emerge from fieldwork are substantially personal and reflective. But involving undergraduates in this process need not consist in inviting them to take pot shots at a culture foreign to them.

Naive glowering is inconsistent with the principles of critical thinking and the methods of ethnomusicology that are the rules of engagement here. The goal is neither acquiescence nor mastery, but rather facility, creativity, and responsiveness in the face of musical experiences. And in this sense it is the fortunate teacher who joins his students on the outside.



Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. New York: Random House, 1996.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff.” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, translated by Vern W. McGee, edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, 1-7. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Berry, Wendell. Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000.

Blacking, John. How Musical Is Man? Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.

Clifton, Thomas. Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

Elbow, Peter. Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Kisliuk, Michelle. “(Un)Doing Fieldwork: Sharing Songs, Sharing Lives.” In Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, edited by Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley, 23-44. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Mann, Brian. “A Response to Kivy: Music and ‘Music Appreciation’ in the Under- graduate Liberal Arts Curriculum.” College Music Symposium 39 (1999): 87-106.

Parakilas, James. “Teaching Introductory Music Courses with a ‘More Comprehensive Perspective’.” College Music Symposium 30, no. 2 (1990): 112-116.

Small, Christopher. Music, Society, Education. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1977.

Small, Christopher. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

Stein, Erwin, ed. Arnold Schoenberg’s Letters. Translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.

Steinberg, Michael. Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Taruskin, Richard. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Thomas, Lewis. Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. New York: Viking Press, 1983.

Treitler, Leo. “On Responsibility and Relevance in Humanistic Disciplines.” Daedalus 98, no. 3 (1969): 844-52, 869.

Wade, Bonnie. Thinking Musically: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Wolcott, Susan. “Educator Resources: Steps for Better Thinking Materials.” Wolcott Lynch.



1Thomas, Late Night Thoughts, 151.

2Small, Music, Society, Education, 214.

3A claim made by the author’s barber, November 1986, State College, PA.

4Bakhtin, “Response to a Question,” 7.

5Mann, “A Response to Kivy,” 13.

6Wade, Thinking Musically, 1.

7Clifton, Music as Heard, 40, 80.

8Stein, 164.

9Berry, Life is a Miracle, 112-113.

10Elbow, Embracing Contraries, 241.

11Treitler, “On Responsibility,” 848.

12Parakilas, “Teaching Introductory Music,” 115.

13Steinberg, Listening to Reason, 10.

14Small, Musicking.

15Blacking, How Musical, 25.

16Taruskin, Text and Act.

17A playful Michael Beckerman tells a story from his days as a student at Columbia when he ribbed his classmates—literally!—by elbowing them in mid-concert to ask, “Quick, where are we in the form!” (from remarks presented at The College Music Society Institute for Music History Pedagogy at Butler University, Indianapolis, IN, June 10, 2006). Such a call to analytical detachment can disrupt a more immediate absorption.

18Abram, The Spell, 71-72.

19As a resource for bringing this level of conversation into the curriculum, Susan Wolcott has developed a model to describe various patterns of performance with respect to critical thinking and problem solving skills. She proposes ways of structuring assignments and discussion topics so that students are encouraged to shore up basic skills and build upon them using a “scaffold” of increasing complexity and precision. See Wolcott, “Educator Resources.”

20Small, Musicking, 13.

21The phenomenon of systematic metaphors is postulated and explored in Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors.

22Kisliuk, “(Un)Doing Fieldwork,” 25.

11898 Last modified on October 1, 2018