Exploring Alternative Repertoires: Film-Music Pedagogy

  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18177/sym.2011.51.fr.8943
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26513075

Limiting the repertoire of our music courses to compositions that date from 1750 to 1950 helps students become familiar with important works of the Western tradition. Yet,a closer look at this pedagogical strategy reveals fundamental problems that require our attention. These problems range from ethnic, social, and gender representation, to the perpetuation of misconceptions about the role of music in society. The forthcoming CMS Institute on Film-Music Pedagogy is a response to these problems.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. insisted, "to reform core curriculums, to account for the comparable eloquence of the African, the Asian, and the Middle Eastern traditions, is to begin to prepare our students for their roles as citizens of a world culture, educated through a truly human notion of 'the humanities,' rather than...as guardians at the last frontier outpost of white male Western culture, the keepers of the master's pieces."1 To adopt this view is not to imply that music curricula should be tailored to specific cultural groups, but rather to open up to variety and inclusion, and thus expand and deepen our sense of community. Students bring a variety of backgrounds to the class, and should be made participants in an ongoing dialogue, each contributing with a different perspective and yet open to those of other students.

Naturally, music schools should make students sensitive to the ethnic diversity that exists not only in American society but throughout the world. To develop respect for the achievements of other cultures, institutions need to integrate courses that incorporate multicultural music into the repertoire. Film music is extremely broad with respect to ethnic representation of composers. For instance, Toru Takemitsu (Japan), GustavoSantaolalla (Argentina), Lisa Gerrard (Australia), Ennio Morricone (Italy), Dimitri Tiomkin (Ukraine), John Williams (United States), Trevor Jones (South Africa), are iconic film composers that represent every continent of the world (excluding Antarctica!). But most importantly, film music provides a particularly broad repertoire in regards to ethnic styles. Certainly, there might be some objections to the ethnocentric and stereotyping'Hollywood perception' of ethnic styles such as identifying Asian characters strictly with pentatonic scales. Yet, comparing the music of Hollywood films to that of foreign films might prove fruitful for students to identify and be conscious about these stereotypes, forming a broad perspective based on understanding and respect, without cultural biases, without judging ethnic music in relation to their own, or assuming the superiority of their musical culture.

Issues of gender equity are very often present (and most apparent) in a curriculum based solely on Western classical music. For example, in considering Western classical music, woman composers are outnumbered by fellow male composers. To avoid such implications and to account for a student body that is increasingly diverse in terms of gender (and sexual orientation), the music curriculum should reflect the current pluralism in today's society. Introducing the film music repertoire promotes pluralism, realizing that society is made up of many different groups, and develops positive attitudes not only
towards all kinds of musics, but by extension to all gender and gender identities.

While emphasis on high art music clearly alienates certain classes and age groups, film music has a more homogenic audience, appealing to all social strata and to all age groups. Film music seems to close the gap between generations and between high and low musical cultures. It provides an infinite gamut of styles, from the exuberance of Neo-romanticism (Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman) to the simplicity of Minimalism (Philip Glass, Michel Nyman), from the haunting sound of Gregorian Chant (in The Da Vinci Code) to the evocative sound of New Age (in Lord of The Rings), and from Western classical music (such as Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C-Minor in The Godfather) to Rap (such as Eminem's music in 8 Mile).

In conclusion, although one of the aims of a music school is to transmit musical practices of the past, settling for a limited repertoire that draws solely on tradition seems to run counter to the musical experiences of our students. Naturally, the more students learn and understand music of the Western classical repertoire, the more they will enjoy it; but as early as 1897, John Dewey identified that the approach of traditional
education was overly concerned with delivering knowledge and too removed from the students' experiences.2 Nowadays, the curricular options in many music schools do not reflect the musical world in which students (and teachers) live. As a result, the overall emphasis on the Western canon is not conducive to the awakening of the young musician's potential, and tends to create hard boundaries among or between the music analyzed in class and music(s) heard outside of class. Students then often find themselves at a loss reconciling what they hear everyday (in their iPods, at the movies, etc.) and what they learn in music
courses. And, although there are important reasons to preserve long-standing traditions, we run the risk of music majors (and certainly music minors and non-majors) finding little relevance in the content of their music curriculum.


1 Henry Louis Gates Jr. Whose Canon Is It, Anyway? The New York Times (February 26, 1989).

2 Dewey, J. Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education. Free Press (February, 1997).

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Last modified on Wednesday, 06/03/2019

Juan Chattah

Juan Chattah is Associate Professor of Music Theory at University of Miami. His research concerns two widely different areas of knowledge: the application of models drawn from cognition, linguistics, and critical theory to the analysis of film music; and the exploration of innovative pedagogical paradigms informed by methodological advances in non-music-related disciplines. Recent publications in music theory pedagogy include Aural Skills in Context (Oxford University Press, 2013). Recent publications on film music include David Shire’s The Conversation: A Film Score Guide (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), and “Film Music as Embodiment” in Embodied Cognition and Cinema (Leuven University Press, 2015).

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