There’s more to music education than classical music

Before coming to Swarthmore, I didn’t care much for Western Classical music. I might’ve played it in the background while doing my homework, but beyond that my only exposure to it had been through my high school choir. To me, it lacked both the catchiness and relevance of Top 40 music and the energetic storytelling of musical theater. I did not consider myself a total amateur to music either, as music (specifically related to the voice) had been a hobby of mine for a few years at that point. One could imagine my disappointment upon coming to Swarthmore and finding the Music department leaned heavily toward classical music (with some jazz and 20th century music peppered in). I hesitated to take voice lessons at first as I was simply uninterested in the classical style of singing, and believed it would even be detrimental to my own development as a vocalist.

My perception has changed since then, as I am far more open to Western classical music now. I am happy with the direction of my vocal training under the guidance of the music department. Talking with students involved with the music department, I have generally found that these students believe the department is flexible in allowing them to broaden their horizons and explore diverse musical styles. Nevertheless, they all agree that the department has a bias toward the classical genre, which one can observe with the majority of courses covering classical and the specializations of faculty focusing primarily on that style. Further research demonstrates that this trend is generally reflective of music departments across the nation. For this reason, I became curious. What are the merits of instruction in classical music as opposed to popular music styles? What are the ramifications of an overwhelmingly classical bias in the academic study of music? Lastly, how does this bias affect student interest and retention?

Classical music offers a fantastic entry point into the world of music theory, as it tends to be musically intricate while at the same time retaining a simplistic beauty to its sound. This makes it an appealing genre with which to teach, as students can come to easily understand complex musical terms without the extraneous noise omnipresent in contemporary music. Additionally, one can recreate these sounds themselves with the aid of an instrument. The same cannot be said for pop music, which relies more on technology to synthesize its sound. Pop, unfortunately, does not offer much in the way of innovation: the same four chord progressions are reused religiously, leaving many songs sounding trite or familiar. In regard to vocal music, this disparity remains. Pop music is often sung within the range of C4-B4, which allows most to easily sing along. This limited range is not exactly conducive to developing one’s vocal abilities, and with the addition of amplified singing, the incentive to improve dwindles. Classical singing, on the other hand, demands a refined vocal technique and special attention to one’s instrument in order to be sung well. Thus, the classical style provides musicians with a plethora of accessible content to digest and with which to improve upon their craft that appears absent in contemporary music.

I have been liberal in my use of the terms “Western classical” and “pop”. To elucidate, “Western classical” music refers to the music as popularized by Europeans during the “common practice period”, spanning most of the baroque, classical, and romantic eras, which lasted roughly from 1550-1900. I use “pop” and “contemporary” music interchangeably, although these are not necessarily one and the same. In this case, “contemporary music” refers to music on the singles charts (pop, hip-hop, R&B, alternative rock, etc.)

In contrast to classical, pop music has relevance on its side. It reaches a wide audience of people not only in the U.S., but globally as well. Pop songs are often catchy and memorable, which is a result of the simplicity in the structure of the music itself. Artists become well-known as a result of these songs’ popularity and wield significant sway over public discourse (especially among youth). The impact of popular music on the national ethos cannot be understated: people care not only about pop music, but also the artists behind it. The financial clout generated by the success of popular music artists also allows them ample funds or philanthropic activities, and their charities are widespread and efficacious. Often, academics lament that pop is contributing to the decay of music across the nation and see academia as a bastion of sophisticated music, free from the demands of the bottom-line obsessed music industry. However, in a nation where the arts in education are constantly challenged for their practicality, academics cannot afford the luxury to complain. Artists and music conglomerates have their costumers in mind when crafting their product, and while there is certainly much to criticize about the final outcome, the attention to their fans and the positive impact such music can leave on the world is exemplary. The same cannot be said for the research conducted by scholars of music, which often seems self-indulgent. As an institution that prides itself on engagement with society and a desire for social change, Swarthmore ought to consider pop music as an especially effective means by which one may incite societal change. By focusing overwhelmingly on the study of classical music, students miss the opportunity to explore the potential for change that an understanding of both pop music and the industry can foster.

The disposition toward classical music may also have the effect of alienating students. Arts and music programs are often the first to go in schools, and this problem is exacerbated among underfunded schools. Without any previous exposure to musical instruction in K-12 education, it is highly unlikely that low income students will have had significant exposure to musical instruments, nevertheless classical music. How does this translate into student interest and retention in Swarthmore’s music program? If it is true that high-income students comprise the majority of Swarthmore’s music program,  how does that affect the overall direction of projects and courses undertaken by the department as well as the design of the music program overall? Furthermore, beyond class dynamics, how does the makeup of the music program affect the general student interest? Would students be more interested in the academic study of music as well as musical instruction if a wider variety of electives and styles were offered that catered to their musical preferences, thus generating the need for further funding of the department?

I cannot answer many of these questions because I lack any conclusive evidence to assert a position. Moreover, I have not considered musical theater, which is also nearly absent from the music curriculum. I should also note the Western-centrism of this piece, as I have not considered the vast array of music outside of that which is popular in the Western sphere. Regardless, my hope is that I have at least provided an impetus for those involved with music at Swarthmore to become more reflective of our craft and its relevance to society. By no means do I make the claim that we ought to do away with classical music, as I believe there is much we can learn from it. I am aware that the music department is small and will find it difficult to diversify its offerings as a result. However, there is more to this world than Western classical music, and I believe knowledge of classical alone is insufficient, not only to crafting one’s musicianship, but also to engaging with the fusion of people in academia and the world around us. At the very least, we ought to consider a change.

1 Comment

  1. You’ve forgotten a very important difference between classical music and popular music – the difference in numbers. The typical popular group ranges from four to eight people: bass, guitar, drums, vocalist, and additional instruments depending on the genre. The typical classical group ranges from between thirty to a hundred people, depending on the genre and doubling of parts. My point is that someone who is interested in playing popular music can seek out three or four other like-minded individuals, whereas someone who is interested in playing classical music must seek out a much larger group of people.
    I think that colleges focus on classical music rather than popular music because it is one of the only institutions where it is feasible to gather so many people at the same time to rehearse for an hour or two on a regular basis. Not only that, but popular music puts a limit on how many people can be in one group – imagine a band with 12 guitar players, 6 bass players, 4 drummers, 14 singers, etc… Thanks for the post, and keep searching for answers! 🙂
    – Lukamu

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