Front and Center: The Place for Classical Music in the Curriculum

Music in the academy is at risk. The decline in its status, presence, and reach can be traced to the cultural shifts beginning in the 1960s. Western classical music—with its unassailable history of accomplishment and undeniable pedagogical, cultural, and spiritual significance—has fallen prey to the assault on standards and hierarchies embodied by the era’s ethos of: “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Western Civ. has got to go.” The result has been disastrous for educative practice and norms. Indeed, we cannot even talk about music, but are forced in this time to speak about “musics.” The term is redolent with the patina of critical theory. I use it here only to differentiate between Western classical music and all of the rest, including folk music, popular music, electro-acoustic music, music of other cultures, and all hybrids. We must describe and confront the issue of both the hierarchical and the latitudinal in the musical arts. In other words, we must look at music as it is found around what Thomas Friedman calls the “flattened world” of postmodernism, where all music—from low to high, popular to classical, entertainment to art—is placed on the same aesthetic plane. We must articulate this very broad landscape of music and only then can we understand the academy’s response to the present situation.

A discussion of music in the academy must first start with a definition of “music” itself. But as we are now in a postmodern age, music as we knew it and defined it previously may no longer obtain. To those in the academy, or those recently trained within it, the old meanings and materials often no longer apply. This is similar to the problem with the term “art.” Only 150 years ago both terms had commonly understood meanings which required no discussion. The situation changed with the advent of modernism, then postmodernism, and with the parabolic rate of change in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It was not always this complicated. Before the 1960s, in various sectors—certainly in academia, but also in the press and among the elites—there was a certain unanimity about what was of cultural value. In the American academy, classical music, which meant music in the tradition of European extraction or provenance, was favored. At the same time, it lived amid American folk music and music found in churches and synagogues. The arrival of various immigrant groups brought their popular and artistic cultures to these shores. Nonetheless, there was an agreed upon center.

Until the advent and cultural dislocations of the 1960s and 70s, music education in universities meant a study and performance of Western music. There were courses in theory, history, and music appreciation. Students played in bands, orchestras, and chamber music. Musical experiences were either hands-on or ears-on and were of a straightforward sort. In the 1940s and 1950s, with the return of GIs from the wars and their entrance into higher education, virtually every music department in every state university transformed into a School of Music. Institutions that formerly only gave Ph.Ds in musicology, music history and theory, were suddenly awarding the new D.M.A. (Doctor of Musical Arts) in abundance. For example, the cadre of composers with whom I studied composition had a mixture of degrees, Ph.D., M.M., and the two most famous only had B.M. degrees. Many of the greatest composers had no degrees at all yet managed well in their chosen profession.

The reasons for this central place of classical music in the academy are numerous. Music had been identified by the Greeks as one the most important means of understanding ourselves and our relationship to the universe. Along with Astronomy, Arithmetic, and Geometry, Music formed the Quadrivium, that second level of intellectual inquiry that came after the Trivium (which included Logic, Rhetoric, and Grammar). In medieval times, when the West recaptured the art of learning, music was considered at the center of the educational enterprise, as it demonstrated the development of mankind’s deepest imaginative possibilities. As notation became ever clearer, and in association with the technological developments of instruments, music became both more individual and more sophisticated, developing from the monophonic to the crowning achievement of Western Music: polyphony and harmony. Music became more sophisticated as a language, able to engender increasingly richer and more personal statements, to inspire and reveal genius. It is no exaggeration to say that each composer, knowingly or not, stood on the shoulders of previous generations. The increasingly complex notation reflected the ethos of the West, the increasing importance placed on the individual and his personal autonomy, resulting in a continual change of the language. With this, and an increasing awareness of history, a canon comprised of the best composers and their best pieces developed. The “three Bs”—Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms—are sometimes referenced as such in a discussion of our greatest composers, not because it was an early form of the rock group the Bee Gees, but because they really are superlative composers whose highly individual music has stood the test of time.

This article was originally published with the National Association of Scholars in Academic Questions. To read the rest of this article, you can find it at their website here.