Early Music Matters: Revitalizing the Survey through a Contextual Approach1

September 20, 2020


The early music segment of the Western music history survey is an important opportunity to reach out to undergraduate music students before they become the music educators, performers, and advocates for music in our communities. In such courses we are providing them with the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why” of Western music. Addressing all of these questions in the typical music history sequence of two or three semesters is a daunting task, especially when, as a discipline, we are coming to terms with the biases that have restricted the scope of these courses to a limited series of canonic works composed by primarily white male European composers. This is particularly challenging and important in the early music segment of the sequence. Accordingly, we must rethink how we approach the music history survey in the face of the opportunities offered by the curricular diversity of new topics, materials, and methodologies available to us. The goal of this article is not only to propose practical principles that can help us respond to our sense of social responsibility but also give our students tools to critically rethink the systems that withheld and obscured so many musical creators. I suggest that by making cultural context, performance, and primary source knowledge integral to our students’ educational journey from the beginning, we will be able to provide them with an experience that is both critically engaged and socially relevant, regardless of the era, region, or topic.

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