The Telegraph has managed to hit the intersection of two things I feel like I know a little bit about – music and higher education policy.
Specifically, the usual breathless coverage of course planning meetings at Oxford is used to lament the idea that students of music may end up wanting to study something other than the canon of western art music (something written by someone who happened not to be white, perhaps), and that tools outside of the usual music theory box may be more use in doing so.
Notes on a stave
Unless you keep it locked on Classic FM all day, the chances are that most music you hear and experience is based in some way on the blues. Pretty much every form of popular music since the dawn of the jazz age has borrowed harmonic and rhythmic content from the various genres of music from Africa. Jazz mashed elements of Western church music into these ideas, borrowing instrumentation and melodies from brass bands and European folk music. Electric and electronic instruments added a new sound palette fifty or so years later. Just about everything else you might hear – from Megan Thee Stallion to Joni Mitchell, from David Bowie to Kanye, from the Spice Girls to Richard Rogers – fishes from within this pool of influences.
Western “classical music”, these days, is just another one of these influences for the majority of people working as musicians. But most of the tools musicians use to understand the way music works come from other traditions – and it is increasingly apparent that those tools are not up to the job. They typical example is the “blue” note – neither a major third nor a minor third, we approximate it with slurs on the piano, flatten notes on brass instruments, or bend guitar strings or synth patches to hit something that originally came from vocal music. There’s no way to write a blue note on a stave – neither are there easy ways to notate some of the rhythms and “feels” that are literally everywhere.
I’ll not get into the way that chords and harmonies move – ways that break every rule of western harmony while still sounding really, really great. Or that even a simple three chord pop song (something as basic as an early Beatles hit) can never be accurately notated with traditional music notation.
It’s all good
If we start from the perspective of all music being interesting and important (and really, why on earth would a serious study of music start elsewhere?) then we clearly need tools and concepts to analyse it. There’s no suggestion that the musical score is about to be “cancelled”, or that Mahler, Mussorgsky, and Byrd are to be ignored. But neither is there any reason to learn about those three and and miss out on Ella Fitzgerald, or Aphex Twin.
Nobody serious about music subscribes to the idea that some styles of music are inherently better than others – it’s all about how well executed the original idea is. And learning about how music is made, where it comes from, and what it means to people is surely the perfect starting point for three years of study. The Telegraph can wring hands about the idea of seriously studying “popular musics” (I did a module in this as far back as 1997), or that students no longer need to know how to conduct an orchestra (I can’t – I can arrange for one which is arguably more useful…). But the telling line is that:
One student demand of the reformed curriculum, which is yet to be decided, is that ‘No tutors should speak disparagingly to students about any element of the curriculum’.
If universities are really about pointing out which aspects of culture are good, and which are bad then we have a serious problem. Especially if the “good” stuff all happens to be written by white guys.
Good music is simply music you enjoy – and if you really enjoy it, you’ll love learning how to make it and how it works.
The musicians on my Twitter feed are all pointing to this video by Adam Neely on “Music theory and white supremacy” – it’s long but very much worth a watch if you want to go deeper into this argument.