Decolonising the music curriculum should be an adagio movement

Careful thought is required before Western art music is condemned and cast out, says James Olsen

September 23, 2022
The conductor of an orchestra
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The idea that a music degree should involve more than studying “dead white guys” is hardly new. From the 1970s onwards, popular and non-Western music has increasingly been seen as equally worthy of academic study. What is new, however, is the suggestion that Western art music – a term encompassing everything from medieval plainchant to modernist composers such as Pierre Boulez – should be actively excluded from the tertiary curriculum.

In 2016, an article by Gary Ingle called for the “decolonisation” of music, suggesting that the state-funded promotion of Western art music is colonial in nature. In 2019, American musicologist Philip Ewell argued that the hierarchical nature of some Western music theory could be connected to hierarchical beliefs on race. And, after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, numerous university music departments are reportedly considering substantial changes to their degree programmes in order to “decolonise” them.

It is difficult to have a calm debate about such a sensitive subject, however, when tempers run high and arguments are simplified by social media and digital publications eager for clicks. Last year, for instance, a professor at the University of Oxford was reported to have said that the music degree focuses too much on “white European music from the slave period”, and that even music notation was a “colonialist representational system”. But his comments were distorted online to such an extent that the fact-checking website Snopes felt the need to publish an article entitled “No, England’s University of Oxford Isn’t Banning Sheet Music”.

Debate may also be stifled by those afraid of saying the wrong thing and getting into trouble with their employer. Last year, J. P. E. Harper-Scott, a music professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, left academia and published a damning resignation statement in which he complained that universities had become “dogmatic” rather than “critical” institutions, and that “too many humanities scholars move in lock step with the general ideology of our time” out of fear of “public humiliation”.

These issues formed the backdrop to Music and the University, a conference held at City, University of London in July. In contrast to some academic conferences, where the discussions can rival Oscar Wilde’s (possibly apocryphal) joke about spending all morning taking a comma out, only to restore it on “mature reflection”, there was a sense of urgency to many of the exchanges.

One speaker argued that if substantial changes are to be made to university curricula in the name of decolonisation, the connection between a particular composer and colonialism should be scrutinised in detail rather than simply being subject to a blanket condemnation as from “the slave period”. For example, much Western art music heralds from German-speaking states, which, prior to German unification in 1871, had little imperial ambition. So although Elgar’s music may have connections with colonialism, the music of J. S. Bach and Schumann might not.

Our current anxieties about Western art music were brought into sharp relief by a keynote address on music education in Soviet Yugoslavia. For all the communist dismissal of supposed Western decadence, this culture aspired to understand Western art music and expended considerable resources in doing so. This was a timely reminder that the embarrassment some may feel about Western culture is not universally shared: many non-Western societies today, such as South Korea, still consider gaining some familiarity with Western art music as aspirational.

Nor is music theory losing favour with students in the West. One experienced academic from popular music studies pointed out that his music technology students demand rigorous study of Western music theory. Music technology does not usher in a brave new world where such knowledge is irrelevant: on the contrary, he claimed, students on vocational courses, busy with the “nuts and bolts” of putting notes together, want music theory more than ever.

At the very least, before we drop Western art music from the curriculum, we need to have a wide, thorough, open debate about it. One conference is far from enough. Three questions in particular need to be addressed.

First, how far should decolonisation go? Some advocates argue that it means supplementing rather than replacing traditional content, but it is equally clear that others want to go further. Is it enough to teach Western art music alongside music from other traditions?

Second, if subjects are not to be excluded in an arbitrary fashion, we need to establish consistent criteria. Decisions should be made on the basis of rigorous historical research, rather than relying on outdated literature and received wisdoms, and within an ethical framework.

Finally, to what extent should decisions about curricula be driven by students? Some of the calls for decolonisation have been student-led, but universities preoccupied with student satisfaction could be at risk of making hasty decisions in their desire to please their “customers”.

A colleague of mine told me in 2020 that he had signed a petition to decolonise the music curriculum at his institution because he was concerned about what would happen if he did not. This cannot be right. Decisions of this magnitude cannot be made in a climate of fear, where academics are afraid of the consequences if they are not seen to be committed to a particular agenda, no matter how worthy that agenda may be. Whatever steps we take, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to consider them carefully.

James Olsen is a teaching associate at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

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Reader's comments (1)

'Decolonising' should not be about throwing things out of your curriculum but about bringing in aspects that have been historically neglected. You do nobody a service by neglecting 'classic' Western music however much music from other sources you choose to replace it.... unless you want to turn out narrowly-educated students who cannot appreciate the diversity of musical traditions the world has to offer. Doing so is what 'decolonisation' is supposed to be trying to avoid, not exacerbate.