Education in the Twenty-First Century

As a musicologist, I frequently think about my role in both music and general education. What is the role of musicology and music history in college education? Is there a difference between musicology and music history? If so, which is more in tune with the goals of education in this new millennium? How has education been changing, and how does it need to continue to change? How can musicologists better serve our students and our culture? These are weighty questions, and as my own teaching and philosophies evolve, I keep coming back to one point: we need to teach more musicology and less music history to serve our students better.

The study of music history in secondary education throughout this century has traditionally centered on the history of European art music. It has been seen as not only a study of America's cultural heritage, but as a civilizing influence on the masses. Education has been guided by an implicit belief that high art is better than popular art and that people who like classical styles are better educated and more cultured than those who like popular culture. Our role as music historians has been to teach others to understand art music. While I believe strongly in the value of teaching European classical music in college, I also believe that this role of music history is far too limited to be of true service to today's and tomorrow's students. First, European art music comprises only a portion and not the entirety of our American musical heritage. Second, one goal of teaching about music at the college level should be to help our students better understand their musical landscape, and most students' musical landscapes include classical music tangentially, if at all.

Furthermore, in our increasingly global society, all educators have a responsibility to help students understand and respect diverse cultures. Music can be a powerful tool for these lessons, so world music should not be left out of general education and reserved only for ethnomusicologists or others willing to take specialized electives. Musicologyas a broad study of musiccan, and should, encompass these principles.

Music history is understood to be about our musical heritage. Most music departments have core music history classes that serve music majors and frequently non-majors as well. Such courses typically focus on art music. These history courses, however, usually include only part of our heritage: European and predominantly male. Courses that fill in some of the other parts of our heritage are offered in many music departments as electives under such titles as African music, African-American music, American music, and Women in Music. As electives they are not required and are therefore perceived as ancillary to, rather than as an integral part of, our history. Token snippets of these topics have been added to some core history courses, but tokens only serve to set aside these parts as something odd or unusual. The traditional music history course thus symbolizes that European music is more important than American, male composers are more important than females, and therefore the Canon can not be sacrificed to make room for the less important topics.

I would argue that, in the new millennium, one half of the population cannot be less important than the other half, despite the historical precedence. A richer and more complete music history class would include representative amounts of all of these topics: European and American, African and African-American, and male and female participants.

Since research in the last three decades has uncovered much information showing that both women and men participated in musical activities, and therefore in music history, we should endeavor to include both halves of society in our courses. I also suggest that since we are teaching in America, the American part of our heritage should take precedence over the European part. Considering the impact that African music and culture has made on American high and popular cultures, we should include that topic in representative amounts as well. If we reassess what is important by considering the constituents of our population and historical impact on our current culture, rather than what has been included in the traditional course of study, the icons of the Canon become less important and a representative diversity becomes more important. Core music history courses taught at colleges and universities in the United States in the new millennium should reflect the full heritage of American music.

Music appreciation courses often form the bulk of the service courses that musicologists teach. There has been much discussion in the last couple of years in the CMS Newsletter and Symposium about general music studies classes, with as many different takes on the style, organization, and topics to be covered as there are people teaching these courses. Frequently, however, the bulk of the appreciation curriculum has remained European classical music. What is the goal of a music appreciation course? Is it the same as a music history course?

Frequently the curriculum is similar, and certainly the bulk of the appreciation textbooks mirror history textbooks. I suggest that the goal is very different, however, and the content should be different as well.

As musicologists, we are in the ideal position to help students understand their own sound world. I do not mean that we teach them only about the music to which they already listen, but, rather, we introduce them to the many different kinds of sounds and styles that exist in the world around them today: classical and popular, American, European, and non-Western. By focusing these courses on either a thematic rather than historical approach or according to separate musical elements, any type of music can be brought to the course to good benefit. Students can learn not only about different repertoires and styles of music but also how to approach music they have never heard before. This is a skill that will serve them well long past their memory of the tested informational content.

As media has made every individual part of the "global village," it has brought global soundscapes to our students' ears. We can increase our students' understanding of their place within the global village as we teach them to appreciate the variety of musical sounds, styles, and languages that surround them. As we can open their ears to new sounds, we can open their minds to new ideas, which, of course, is a main goal of any higher education. If we go past our own graduate school training in order to include a new and wider variety of types of music in an introductory level survey or appreciation course, everyone will benefit.

The new millennium is the perfect time for curricular reassessments, and this should include a look at our textbooks. In recent decades, few truly new history and appreciation textbooks have shown up. Despite changes in curriculum and areas of research, old textbooks have been revised far more frequently than new textbooks have been published. The publishing industry has not kept up with the needs of our fields, because revisions rarely change much; rarely do they help instructors who would like to bring more diversity to their courses.

Revised textbooks do now include pieces outside the traditional fare, but usually tacked on at the end or in a physically separated sidebar, rather than integrated fully into the text. These additions serve to tokenize, rather than normalize the newer content, and no general music text book I have ever seen includes female or African-American composers in truly representative numbers.

Several music appreciation texts include some sections on different non-western and American musics, but they still privilege European music disproportionately. We need to write new textbooks to support curriculum revisions, and we need to demand that the textbook industry publish them.

The last decades of the old millennium saw the addition of new bits and pieces of the musical world added to the music historian's curriculum: bits of music by women, pieces of American music, some popular music, a little non-western music.

Our task for the new millennium is to carry out these trends and enrich our curriculum to the point where we are teaching about music in the broadest possible sense to serve our students in the best possible way. We should still teach European art music in music history but as a portion, rather than the totality, of our American heritage. We should still teach European art music in music appreciation but as one component within a rich diversity of styles and genres. When we have updated our curriculum to the point where it keeps pace with the face of America and the world today, we will then be serving our students and our music as only musicologists can.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01/05/2013

Robin Armstrong received her PhD in musicology from the University of Michigan in 1992 and has been teaching general music at McDaniel College since 1995. Courses she has created for this department include The Heritage of African-American Music, World Music, World Music Pedagogy, and Meaning and Diversity in American Popular Music.

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