University curricular reform doesn’t typically ignite fiery internet controversy. But last month, when The Harvard Crimson reported on the adoption of a new undergraduate curriculum at Harvard, the classical music corner of the internet—composers, performers, theorists, musicologists – briefly erupted in intense discussion. The college’s elimination of typical core requirements for concentrators (Harvard’s word for “majors”), including its introductory theory courses, caused some commentators to voice concern about the decline of traditional analytical skills; others instead pointed out that older curricular models often exclude non-Western musics and limit diversity. And given the prestige of Harvard, it’s perhaps unsurprising that illustrious alumna – including none other than composer John Adams – weighed in.
To clear the air, I sat down last week with three members of the music faculty: music theorist and department chair Suzannah Clark; musicologist and director of undergraduate studies Anne Shreffler, and theorist Alexander Rehding, who planned the curriculum with musicologist Carol Oja (Rehding joined us via Skype). As a musicologist and professor myself, I wanted to learn about the background behind these changes, what they mean for students, and the implications of the controversy for our field. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
WILLIAM ROBIN: What is the history of these curricular changes?
ALEXANDER REHDING: The two pillars of the old curriculum were a history sequence and a theory sequence, which took up a fair amount of the required courses, leaving very little courses for electives where the students could follow their specific interests. That curriculum worked really well for some students and not so well for other students, and that was one of the points we’re trying to address. We wanted to create more flexibility to allow for a wider range of interests.
Why are these changes taking place now, and how did they emerge?
SUZANNAH CLARK: It’s a response to two things: one is the intellectual and academic climate of the study of music generally, but also the directions that our department has taken. This is a reflection of our faculty, and a reflection of our current students. It’s an organic move for the times, from both where the field is going generally, but also where we are as faculty. It was really about brainstorming ways to reflect ourselves in the curriculum.
REHDING: We’d been tinkering with the structures for quite a while, and we’d made little changes, and at one point we realized that rather than tinkering with the edges it makes more sense to think through what we’re doing as a whole. The other goal is to increase diversity. We know that there are many students at Harvard who don’t have a traditional musical background but who are very musical, and it’s those people that felt the music curriculum wasn’t for them. And that was something that we wanted to address.
We decided to give students the freedom to choose various paths through the curriculum. And so rather than giving them predetermined structure with a history sequence and a theory sequence, we put in place a very robust advising scheme. If you have more flexibility for the individual student, it’s important to balance that freedom with really good advising to make sure the students know what the options are and that they’re choosing combinations that work for them. Each student now has to put together a study plan where they outline how they are going to pave a path through the concentration and why they’re taking the courses they’re planning to do.
You’ve replaced the traditional music history sequence with two courses, “Thinking About Music” and “Critical Listening.” One question that’s often asked when history sequences are changed is what happens if students never learn about Schubert? Or if they never learn about Beethoven? How do you account for that?
ANNE SHREFFLER: I had an excellent but conventional musical education at the undergraduate and at the graduate levels, and I never learned anything about Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk, not to mention popular music. We’ve always had gaps in our education, and I think it’s a little disingenuous to say, “Well, what about Schubert?” What about Tony Conrad? I teach the survey now, and I have never pretended to “cover” things. You don’t cover things when you do a survey, and I tell the students that: we’re going to talk about things that interest me – that’s one thing we’re going to do – and the other thing we’re going to do is learn some music that you might find interesting or appealing – or not. But coverage cannot be the goal, and was never the goal.
CLARK: I always think that pedagogy is teaching people about how it is they’ve learned about something, so that they can go on and teach themselves whatever else they want to learn. Coverage is for life. Sometimes even when I give out a reading list, I include a section called “For later in life.” What we want to do is train people to think about music that they can carry with them for life. We don’t even know what music is coming next, so we want them to be able to engage with that too.
Do these changes make the concentration more accessible for someone who wanted to pursue music at Harvard from a non-Western classical standpoint? Will it be possible to be a Harvard music major who is a singer-songwriter or a hip-hop beat maker?
SHREFFLER: Absolutely, yes. A lot of the social media discussion unfortunately devolved around the concept of standards, which is a very amorphous and ideology-laden concept. I like to think of it in terms of access. In the past, we have essentially relied on an enormous amount – up to 10 years worth – of pre-education before they came to Harvard. We relied on students showing up on our doorstep having had piano lessons since the age of six, perhaps visiting one of the excellent precollege divisions in big cities around the country, and perhaps having theory courses there in addition to their instrumental training, orchestra training, chamber music training. And, in fact, we got such students. And we still have such students: Harvard has many such students. And they are welcome in our department, and they come and take our courses, and they can play in our orchestras, etc.
But there are many other students who did not have that kind of childhood. And our old curriculum was saying to those students, “You cannot major in music because your parents did not give you 12 years of this kind of education that we implicitly require.” Although it says nowhere on our website that that is required, that’s essentially what we’re requiring. We’ve gotten rid of this whole notion of this implicit – and it is, ultimately, a class-based implicit requirement. And students come with a variety of backgrounds and musical interests. For example, a highly skilled singer-songwriter can become a music concentrator.
It’s possible to start at a different place, and then gain fluency and gain proficiency. It’s not about eliminating the idea that you need notation, that’s nonsense. It’s the idea that you can come in with varying degrees of knowledge of technical aspects of music and improve those aspects, according to what your artistic aspirations are.
What has the response to these changes been like among students?
SHREFFLER: As soon as I mentioned it – particularly the notion that they would have this new flexibility that they otherwise would not have – then many students said to me, “Oh, I can become a concentrator now. Now I can do it; now I see a place for myself.” We’re not doing it to get more concentrators, because we already had a lot. We’re under no pressure at all to expand that by the administration, and we’re already happy with our number of concentrators, and we’re very, very happy with the enrollment in our courses. But the idea that students can feel welcome who previously did not really see a home for themselves in our curriculum: that’s very positive.
Why do you think the external response has been so heated, and why has the elimination of the theory requirement been a point of controversy?
CLARK: Whenever there’s a change, there’s always a response, and if there was no response, that would be the alarming thing. Music theory has been around a very long time, and it actually isn’t going away. The focus shouldn’t be on, “Oh my goodness, what’s happened to theory?” but “How has theory gained all of these other new contexts?” Theory is not something where you take the course and you’ve done the course and you’re finished, and you tick that off and then you have a rigorous education. Theory is but one component that enables you to then think about all these other areas.
When you learn principles of music theory, it both inflects and opens up ways you can hear, the ways you can think, the ways you can understand history, the ways you can understand world musics. I think music theory will be showcased in a very different way: by asking people to think about what it means, rather than the default option of saying, “Thou shalt take it.”
What do you say to someone like John Adams, who expressedconcernon Twitter about the changes, writing that “Music study is both cultural study AND a highly disciplined, hands-on technical craft: ear-training, harmony, counterpoint”?
SHREFFLER: John Adams is one of our leading composers. If we have a young version of John Adams, and he or she comes up to us and says “I want to be a composer,” then we say, “You go take Music 51. And then after that you take Music 150, and after that you take Counterpoint.” You want to be a composer? You do these things. Not all of our concentrators want to be composers; people have their various ways one can work in the world.
As theorists and musicologists, how do you see these changes fitting into the broader direction of our scholarly disciplines?
CLARK: Musicology and music theory went through an interesting phase, when you’d say, “Well, my reading of this piece is this.” And then it became, “Well, my hearing of this piece is this.” And so the field has been going through: “Well, what actually is the activity around music?” We’re saying that it’s all of these activities. And if you decide you’re going to pick just one of them, you’re denying yourself a really golden opportunity to relish what music can be, what it means. The field has done a lot of work in opening up how music opens up the mind, the ears, and the senses in really wonderful ways, and in some ways the curriculum is a reflection of that. We’re not just going to ask, “Well, what is your reading of this music, or your hearing of it?” but also, “Your performance, your composing of it”: there are a multitude of ways of coming at music.
William Robin is a musicologist and assistant professor at the University of Maryland, writes regularly for The New York Times and The New Yorker, and maintains a lively presence on Twitter (@seatedovation). He lives in Washington, D.C.