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 expressed concern on 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.
Alejandro L. Madrid, “Diversity, Tokenism, Non-Canonical Musics, and the Crisis of the Humanities in U.S. Academia”
Melanie Lowe, “Rethinking the Undergraduate Music History Sequence in the Information Age”
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.