Is Oxford banning music theory?

The culture wars turn to music theory, for some reason.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

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.

Further viewing

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.

7 responses to “Is Oxford banning music theory?

  1. Yes, exactly. The academics within a discipline are always the best placed to decide on course content.

    Another perspective is through the lens of the damned market. If Reactionary U launched a BA in Dead White Guy Musicology it simply wouldn’t recruit. It’s not what students want to study!

  2. Always good to see something blending HE theory and music, and this is spot on. HE, like music, isn’t (or shouldn’t be) preserved in aspic, but always evolving, mixing and blending ideas – in particular recognising the positive change that diverse people and influences bring I started my music degree in 1996 (at a less lofty institution than Oxford), and as it happens the first essay we were set was ‘classical music is an ivory tower: discuss’ (or something like that), and we were challenged to highlight areas of crossover influence between classical, jazz and pop. I wrote some mediocre 2:2 stuff about Stravinsky and Branford Marsalis, but the main point was to immediately challenge us that the Western art music canon was only a tiny piece of the jigsaw, and that some of the most interesting music was often that which defied or blurred genre, and could be unpicked in a different way than looking at a score. I’ve re-learned that fun recently by listening to the music of Jacob Collier, and the Telegraph (and maybe a few university music departments) would benefit from having a look his way too.

  3. This is a really complicated issue which you clearly have no idea about. It isn’t a racial or gendered issue, to reduce the topic of ‘what should constitute a music Canon’ to just race and gender indicates how uninformed you are. Oxford should know better.

    1. … And no amount of racial or gender “appeals” that society is desperately trying to make (and rightly so) at the moment is going to address the real elephant in the room which is the shameful monetisation of music today. This is really what it is coming to – appeasing a clientele. Try to teach about an Indian raga, properly, and you will realise that a whole connectedness to the world and spirituality should come with it. You cannot teach it tokenistically. Are we just developing more tokens with this argument? Well, we will be having this same conversation in (only) a decade or two from now if so. Classical music has wonderful science behind it that should not be rejected altogether. We should be going back to the pentatonic scale (loosely) and human traditional music in all institutional music learning, because this will allow us the basis to look at many music cultures, not just jazz and modern Western. We need this right now as Earthlings…..

    1. Hi George – a blue note can be any lowered note. The microtonal flattened third is more commonly cited as a significant departure from classical harmony than the flat five, but flattened fifths (and flattened sevenths) also crop up in blues all the time. If these are sung they are also likely to be microtonally different from the classical versions, but piano players/organists can often get away with the traditional variants.

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