Making the Music Major Relevant at Liberal Arts Colleges

August 18, 2014

The CMS Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major, convened in 2013 by Patricia Shehan Campbell (University of Washington) and chaired by David Meyers (University of Minnesota), is engaged in a two-year examination of undergraduate music programs.1 Specifically, the Task Force is considering how to design undergraduate music programs that are relevant to the social, cultural, and musical realities of the twenty-first century, and that prepare students for sustainable careers in music. We recognize that relevance means different things in different institutional contexts. For example, at small, private liberal arts colleges, few music majors aspire to careers as professional performers, although they may possess both the technique and talent to gain admission to schools of music. These students do want to hone their musicianship skills and to acquire a solid background in theory, cultural and historical context, and critical thought. However, they choose to attend a liberal arts college, as opposed to a school of music, because of their high levels of academic achievement and widely varied intellectual interests. Some liberal arts music majors plan careers in music education or one of the musicologies, but others have no intention of pursuing music in any professional capacity whatsoever. Instead, they want to create sustainable musical lives joined with professional careers in medicine, business, technology, or other fields. To that end, most music majors at liberal arts colleges also major in a second discipline, such as biology, economics, or math. What does it mean, then, to make the music major relevant at liberal arts colleges?

To explore answers to this question, I exchanged emails and spoke with five faculty members in music departments at comparable liberal arts colleges: Jeffers Engelhardt (Associate Professor, Amherst College), Susan Taffe Reed (Postdoctoral Fellow, Bowdoin College), Melinda Russell (Professor and Chair, Carleton College), Margaret Sarkissian (Professor and Chair, Smith College), and Gordon Thompson (Professor and Chair, Skidmore College). Each of these faculty members is an ethnomusicologist by professional training, but also has extensive experience in the Western concert tradition and has been called upon to teach courses in music history, theory, or interdisciplinary topics outside of the music department, which is fairly common among liberal arts faculty. Each of them has held leadership positions within their departments, or can be expected to do so in the near future. Therefore, they cultivate a broad view of the ways in which all of the performance and academic components of the music major must fit together to meet the needs and interests of student musicians at liberal arts colleges.

Our conversations began with a discussion of the differences between teaching at a liberal arts college compared to a university, conservatory, or school of music. The most obvious difference is size. Most liberal arts colleges enroll about 2,000 students or less and employ fewer than 180 full-time faculty members, and the music department may have fewer than ten full-time faculty members. Adjunct faculty members rarely teach academic courses in the core curriculum, although most private instrumental or vocal lessons, as well as most ensembles, are taught by adjunct faculty. On average, fifteen music majors might graduate annually, with some forty students enrolled as music majors and minors in a given year. However, despite the small number of majors and minors, most music departments at liberal arts colleges serve roughly one-third to one-half of the student body every year through courses, private lessons, and ensembles. Classes are very small, usually fewer than twelve students in core courses for the major and up to thirty-five students in general courses, with about twelve students being the average class size. Small classes enable students to work directly with tenured or tenure-track faculty members in discussion-based seminars, and the level of daily interaction among faculty and students is intense. Most students maintain high expectations for themselves and for the faculty. Taffe Reed explained that students at Bowdoin “are very serious . . . they often conduct original research,” and “they like to be engaged interactively through hands-on creative projects” (Susan Taffe Reed, personal communication, 13 May 2014). This kind of teaching demands a strong level of commitment, energy, and pedagogical flexibility from the faculty, who are often called upon to teach outside their areas of professional training. Teaching, then, is the main focus at liberal arts colleges, although faculty must also conduct scholarly research and produce peer-reviewed publications.

Another obvious difference is educational mission. As Thompson explained, “schools of music and conservatories . . . place a strategic priority on performance, with an emphasis on becoming accomplished musicians. The missions of liberal arts colleges emphasize the development of critical thinking skills in a variety of disciplines, so students are encouraged to bring ideas from one major into the intellectual life of another” (Gordon Thompson, personal communication, 21 May 2014). Taffe Reed added that she uses Bowdoin’s mission statement to guide her course development; part of the college’s promise to students is that by graduation, they will feel at home among people of all lands and of all ages. Thus, her guiding question is, “how can I help the students learn to be at home with all of the music of the world and the people who make it?” (Susan Taffe Reed, personal communication, 13 May 2014). As a whole, these conversations suggest that liberal arts music programs must create environments that encourage students to explore diverse musical practices and to learn to think critically about music, culture, and society, in ways that support life-long involvement in music.

Creating this environment in liberal arts music departments requires a two-pronged approach. First, the core curriculum in music must be pliant and must accommodate student choice. Some music departments are redefining the core curriculum in an effort to accomplish this. They are adopting what might be called a compact core, which provides students with fundamental musicianship skills and competencies that become more fully developed through other courses of the student’s choice along with private lessons and ensemble participation. Compact core curricula are established in the music departments of Amherst, Grinnell, and Smith. At Smith, for example, the compact core includes one course in music history, one in music theory, and one in music and culture. Students also take a course in writing about music, as well as six additional courses distributed among at least three of the following disciplines: Western music history, American music, world music, music theory and analysis, and composition and digital music (Margaret Sarkissian, personal communication, 30 June 2014). The music faculty at Carleton is considering a similar curriculum—two theory courses, one history course, a junior research seminar, and a senior thesis—rounded out by studio instruction, ensemble participation, and other music courses according to individual interest and focus (Melinda Russell, personal communication, 13 May 2014). If the compact core is adopted at Carleton, both of the core theory courses will address popular and world music in addition to common practice diatonic harmony, and the core history course will emphasize research methods applicable to any region or era, as opposed to presenting a survey.

Second, faculty must adapt their music courses to the interdisciplinary orientation and diverse musical interests of liberal arts students. Engelhardt commented that liberal arts music faculty must be “aggressively interdisciplinary . . . from both a musical and a pedagogical perspective, meeting students where they are in their musical lives. I capitalize on digital media, software such as Garage Band and Audacity, since students already use them. I try to blur the boundaries between the classroom and students’ musical lives outside the classroom” (Jeffers Engelhardt, personal communication, 9 May 2014). Thompson added that “we are in a slow transition from an era when classical music was the only legitimate professional goal, to one in which orchestras are in decline and other kinds of music occupy the minds of our students. A music department that only emphasizes one kind of music culture is no more sustainable in the twenty-first century than a history department that thinks the world ends at the Bosporus Straits” (Gordon Thompson, personal communication, 21 May 2014).

I asked these five colleagues to describe one course that exemplifies best practices in the kind of experiential, interdisciplinary, and inclusive pedagogy liberal arts students expect. Russell offers a course titled “The U.S. Folk Music Revival,” which combines the academic study of folk music with hands-on learning through performance and original research using archival materials; the course concludes with a coffee house concert performed by the students. Similarly, in “American Indian Music,” Taffe Reed (who is Delaware and is a regular powwow participant) teaches students to lead a powwow song, which requires music students to learn a method of vocal production different from what they cultivate in other repertories. Sarkissian’s “Thinking about Music” explores various approaches to the study of music as a cultural phenomenon. The academic work of the course is enhanced through collaborative ethnographic fieldwork, which stimulates students to reflect on their musical environment and to venture off campus to observe rehearsals and interview musicians in the local community. Engelhardt described a similar course called “Pioneer Valley Soundscapes.” After studying the concept of music scenes, ethnographic methods, and fieldwork technologies, students document “the musical communities and acoustic terrain of the Pioneer Valley” (Jeffers Engelhardt, personal communication, 9 May 2014). Students create documentary films, which they contribute to a web-based archive.2 A public-access television station in Amherst will begin broadcasting a series of these documentary films in 2014. Thompson offers an independent study titled “Beatlemore Skidmania,” in which a group of up to five students plans, organizes, and produces a concert, the largest event on campus other than commencement. The students recruit performers, select the program, collaborate with art students to design t-shirts and posters, advertise the concert, market the merchandise, and manage the show.3 Thompson explained that “I try to give the concerts a theme, either in the form of an album or a year, which pushes students to learn about the material” (Gordon Thompson, personal communication, 21 May 2014). Net profits from the concert are donated to local charities and to student financial aid.

What these courses share is an emphasis on active and creative music making, the development of skills in musicianship as well as critical thinking, writing, and information fluency,4 engagement with diverse local communities, and project-based, collaborative learning. The projects at the center of these courses—whether they are performances, written or filmed ethnographies, or the production of a major campus event—allow students to develop and demonstrate competencies in diverse musical idioms and in extended, collaborative research. They also provide an opportunity to apply knowledge and skills to real-life situations. Students exercise considerable choice in designing the projects, and faculty serve as mentors as the process unfolds. Undergraduate music majors further expand the knowledge and skills acquired through these courses in independent study, internships, assistantships, and ultimately the senior thesis, recital, or composition. The products of these projects enable students to build portfolios that they can present to potential employers or graduate school admissions personnel in any field. Furthermore, the musical and social networks students develop through these experiences become the foundation for sustainable lives in music after graduation, regardless of whether or not the student remains in the field in a professional capacity. Creating this kind of learning environment provides one route to achieving relevance in the music major at liberal arts colleges, and some of these pedagogical strategies may also find applications in other institutional settings.


I wish to thank Jeffers Engelhardt, Susan Taffe Reed, Melinda Russell, Margaret Sarkissian, and Gordon Thompson for participating in these conversations. I am also grateful to the other members of the CMS Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major for helping to inform and shape my thinking on this topic: Patricia Campbell, Juan Chattah, Lee Higgins, David Myers (chair), Timothy Rice, David Rudge, and Ed Sarath. My own interest in this topic began in 1997, when I convened a session titled “Ethnomusicology at Liberal Arts Colleges” at the CMS annual meetings in Cleveland. The participants included Katherine Hagedorn (Pomona College), Melinda Russell, Margaret Sarkissian, Gordon Thompson, and Roger Vetter (Grinnell College). Five of us formed a peer-mentoring group that held two-day retreats at Pomona (2004) and Skidmore (2006), and we meet most years during the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology. In 2013, we lost our dear friend, Katherine Hagedorn; this article is dedicated to her memory.


1. A similar CMS Task Force assessed the undergraduate music curriculum nearly thirty years ago (Lundquist 1989). I thank Patricia Campbell for alerting me to this article.

2. The course website, which includes links to the documentary films produced by students, can be accessed online at

3. Further information on Beatlemore Skidmania, including concert programs, may be accessed online at

4. The terms information literacy and information fluency are used primarily by academic librarians; information literacy refers to a student’s ability to find, obtain, analyze, and apply information, whereas information fluency refers to a student’s ability to combine information literacy, computer literacy, and critical thinking. Of course, in the natural and social sciences, information fluency requires quantitative skills, but in music and other fine arts or humanities disciplines, information fluency requires qualitative skills.


Lundquist, Barbara Reeder. 1989. “Music in the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Reassessment.” (accessed 29 June 2014).

4237 Last modified on March 7, 2019
Login to post comments