Cultural Diversity and Institutional Barriers

Enrollment surveys show that the cultural distribution found among students enrolled in college music programs is somewhat different from that of the general college student population. Representation of African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American students is consistently lower in music programs than one might expect, considering their representation campus-wide. 1 This is particularly surprising in light of other studies showing minority participation, particularly that of African-Americans, in high-school musical activities often equal to or even greater than that of their white counterpart.2

It would be incorrect to immediately identify the under- representation of minority students in college music programs as problematic in and of itself. It appears that, at this time, a disproportionately large number of these students is choosing to specialize in academic areas other than music. The reasons underlying this pattern may be as numerous as the students making these decisions and, in many cases, may not be due to any shortcoming of a school's music curriculum. On the other hand, if some of these students believe that the opportunity for advanced study of music is closed to them because their cultural background is incompatible with such study, we must acknowledge the presence of serious barriers. A student's cultural or ethnic background and perceived differences between that background and the focus of a given college music program may most likely become apparent or problematic in any of three critical areas: the student's overall impression of what music in higher education comprises, the entrance requirements the student must meet, and the core curriculum that student must master.

Research indicates that ethnicity is a factor in the way students at various levels respond to music. Hispanic and African-American students have been found to respond much more positively to musical styles and performers associated with and reflective of their particular cultural backgrounds. This might suggest that the diverse cultural environments in which young people develop may give rise to disparate, culturally specific aesthetic value systems.

Students may more readily or enthusiastically "connect" with a particular configuration of musical parameters valued by or characteristic of their own particular culture. Conversely, it is possible that these students are responding more strongly to the cultural information surrounding the music than to the music itself. A musical style or performer associated with a student's own ethnic group may be greeted more enthusiastically than a style, performer, or performance that is not.

Studies examining these two possibilities have found that culturally relevant external information and associations may be more influential in determining a listener's response than the musical sounds themselves. Furthermore, when information connecting the music to a particular ethnic group was removed, students responded similarly, regardless of their ethnicity. Young people from minority groups are generally more enthusiastic about music that "looks like them," when it is possible for such distinctions to be made. Findings such as these do not discount the role culture may play in shaping an individual's internal aesthetic processes. However, they do appear to suggest several steps that could be taken to minimize real or perceived barriers encountered as a result of cultural difference, particularly in the critical areas of initial impression, entrance requirements, and core curriculum.

To many outside our field, college music study may conjure up exclusive images of symphonic performance instruction and compositional activity in the tradition of the well-known European masters. Though these are significant elements of many music programs, great changes have already taken place within the curriculum. Courses have been added, ensembles established, and some entire degree programs have been developed in such areas as jazz, popular music, and world music. If young people respond more positively to music that overtly reflects their cultural heritage, it is crucial that these facets of music programs are readily visible to a prospective student.

Before gaining access to this broader array of opportunities, incoming students still must face a set of entrance requirements firmly rooted in canon-specific academic knowledge and performance expertise. Many minority students may find these requirements culturally quite distant and may even perceive them as reflecting some degree of hostility. Fortunately, efforts are being made to isolate specific academic capabilities and courses beyond an exclusive examination of the ways in which western art music manipulates the various compositional parameters, the chronological development of these manipulations, and the most artistically sound manner in which to perform this music. These teachers are adding a broader, comparative element to their classroom investigations in an effort to highlight the common threads that pervade all musical expression.

Finally, the core curriculum must be considered. Many items explored within this crucial body -- rhythm, ear training, counterpoint, form, history and social context, performance practice -- are germane to many, if not all, musical traditions. A number of imaginative teachers are expanding their core courses beyond an exclusive examination of the ways in which western art music manipulates the various compositional parameters, the chronological development of these manipulations, and the most artistically sound manner in which to perform this music. These teachers are adding a broader, comparative element to their classroom investigations in an effort to highlight the common threads that pervade all musical expression.

That students from various ethnic cultural backgrounds appear to prefer music associated with their own group sheds light not only on the way students may behave, it also tells a great deal about what they value. The presence of elective courses and ensembles reflecting the nation's or the world's musical diversity indicates that music curricula are beginning to "look like" the world we serve. By seeking ways in which the disparate skills of an increasingly diverse body of young people can be fit into upper level music study, and by bringing the broad spectrum of musical expression into the central curricular realm of the college music program, we demonstrate that this music is valued. Such values may allow us to progress from helping students over existing barriers to eliminating those barriers altogether.

1 Music data summaries 1993-94 (Reston, VA: Higher Education Arts Data Services, 1944).

2 "National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, First Follow-up Student Survey," National Center for Education Statistics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, machine readable data file).

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/05/2013

Steven J. Morrison

Steven J. Morrison is Professor of Music and Chair of Music Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, and is Director of the Laboratory for Music Cognition, Culture and Learning. His research includes neurological responses to music listening, interactions of visual and auditory perception, and responses to music across diverse cultural contexts. Dr. Morrison recently served as Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge. His articles have appeared in journals including the Journal of Research in Music Education, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, Music Perception, Neuroimage, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, and Progress in Brain Research and he is currently the Associate Editor and Editor-elect of the Journal of Research in Music Education.

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