January 2017 Discussion of the Month

Hello and welcome! For the next several months, this feature of the website will reprint the collection of short articles that first appeared 10 years ago in Ecclectica. The collection was edited by Wayne Bowman, and published online by Brandon University; this particular issue explored the topic, “The Future of Music Study in Canada.” Contributing authors to this collection represent a diverse range of music scholarship and interests. The MayDay Group obtained permission to reprint these articles from Ecclectica and the various authors for the purpose of discussing the ways music in higher ed has changed since these articles were written ten years ago. The original publication may be viewed at http://ecclectica.brandonu.ca/issues/2006/2/Read.ecc.asp This month’s article from the above collection is by Canadian music educator Paul Woodford, and is the tenth installment from Ecclectica to be featured on the MayDay Group website: Discussion of the Month.

Our hope is that as you read, you will think about what has changed in the past ten years, what may not have changed at all or very much, and where there are signs of shifts in both thinking and practice. While the Ecclectica issue dealt primarily with music in higher education in Canada, the issues, we believe are common to higher music studies in other parts of the world, and this reprint seems timely given the 2014 report from the College Music Society calling for sweeping changes in the approach to undergraduate education in music. Please take a moment after you read to share your thoughts, so that we may generate the kinds of discussions that will lead to the kinds of changes the original Ecclectica authors call for.

Toward Revisioning Music Studies in Canada’s Universities

Paul Woodford, The University of Western Ontario

As Wayne Bowman observed in his invitation to participate in this special edition of Ecclectica on the future of university music studies in Canada, “In an era of rupture variously characterized as postmodern, poststructural, postcolonial, and postclassical, what often appears most striking about university music schools is their uninterrupted continuity with their pasts.” Some important strides have been made of late in diversifying undergraduate programs and curricula, but for the most part our university schools of music look much the same today as they did when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s. Bands, orchestras and choirs continue to be a mainstay of undergraduate performance and music education programs, endlessly replicating the same or similar repertoire, while traditional music theory and history courses based on the western musical canon and related practices (such as ear training and harmonic analysis) remain privileged in undergraduate programs. Jazz, popular, and world music courses are now more available to students than was the case in my youth (if they were available at all). However, those courses are sometimes restricted to history majors or relegated to the status of elective for other majors. For most students there probably isn’t time or opportunity to take more than a smattering of those courses, which means that they eventually graduate knowing relatively little about the remarkable breadth and diversity of musical culture.

And as for music teacher education, those programs continue to emphasize performance-based methods over all else. There is little room in the typical music teacher education program, or indeed in most undergraduate music programs, for the study of philosophy, sociology, politics, popular culture, history, world religions, or the other arts, all of which can help undergraduates become informed and thoughtful musicians and teachers who can relate what they learn about music and education to the wider world. But then, the goal of the typical honours Bachelor of Music program is the training of skilled professionals and not the preparation of broadly educated citizen-musicians who can cope with real world problems and situations involving uncertainty, uniqueness, and value conflict. The emphasis in undergraduate programs continues to be on passive acceptance and reproduction of expert knowledge and not intellectual engagement with the social world of music.

This continued narrowness of purpose and vision is apparent not just in our curricula but also in the self-imposed physical and social isolation of university schools of music from other faculties and disciplines and in our teaching styles. There usually isn’t much social intercourse at Canadian universities between music faculty and representatives from other disciplines. In consequence, music faculty and students are often ill-informed about (or perhaps just uninterested in) current issues and wider academic debates within the university (such as, for example, corporate funding of research and programs that many fear will undermine the very idea of public education). Further, and while academics in other disciplines sometimes engage in wider artistic debates within the public sphere, music academics tend to have little to say to the public, this despite music’s “commercial primacy…among the arts” (Adorno, 1949/2006, p. xiv; see also Barber, 1996). Nor are music faculty generally known for their involvement in university governance, a fact that leaves them vulnerable in times of government fiscal retrenchment and educational reform. Music faculty prefer to keep their heads down, avoiding politics.

In all too many respects university schools of music operate like medieval monasteries or convents in which peace and tranquility reigned but dissent was seldom tolerated. Undergraduate music students are seldom expected to express informed opinions in their classes, to respectfully question the authority of their teachers and of tradition, or to publicly participate in and evaluate arguments. It is thus no wonder that graduates of our programs are often ill-equipped and disinclined to participate in public and professional debates about, for example, social and educational policy affecting them (Woodford, 2005). Faculty are similarly discouraged from questioning administrative decisions (although individual faculty are by no means always paragons of virtue either). In this respect, though, schools of music are perhaps not so different from their counterparts in other disciplines and fields. Western universities are often thought to be places in which reason and democracy prevail; but in reality, at least at the administrative level, they can be positively feudal in nature.

Although one might think that music undergraduates would resent their social isolation and perceived lack of freedom to question and challenge authority, many probably prefer the status quo because it affords them escape from the messiness and unpleasantness of reality. High school music teachers should shoulder some of the blame for this escapist attitude because their grades are often unrealistically high compared to teachers of other school subjects, thus contributing to the belief that music is something that doesn’t require much study and hard work to achieve success, and because they encourage students to view music performance classes as a pleasant diversion from the drudgery of academic courses (Colwell, 2005). Ask first-year students why they chose music studies in university and you’re bound to get the responses “because it’s fun” or “job preparation” rather than the suggestion that it is something that really matters to society or is intellectually challenging. This is a troubling observation because, if correct, it suggests that many undergraduates fail to see university schools of music as places in which they should seek intellectual engagement (for more on this point see my chapter in The New Handbook of Research on Music Teaching and Learning, Colwell & Richardson, 2002). Fortunately, there are always undergraduates who do possess the right kind of attitude while others rise to the challenge as they mature and gain experience. And of course music undergraduates are not the only ones who view their university experience as mere vocational training. As Emberley (1996) observes, many university students only want “the practical information to acquire jobs” (p. 22). Intellectual passivity and conservatism are commonplace in universities.

If university schools of music are to realize their mandate to educate and not merely train students then they will have to confront these ideologies of fun and vocational training from the beginning, and especially in introductory history and theory courses wherein the teaching approach has traditionally been to stuff students’ heads with facts. From their first course, university students should be challenged to think of music as an evolving and open concept that is influenced by politics, religion, science, and the other humanities, and not as an isolated collection of facts, figures, practices, or methods to be passively accepted, memorized, and then regurgitated. Students should also be reminded constantly that methods and technique are only means to certain ends (there should be a reciprocal relation between them); that those ends are not necessarily always or only musical; and, further, that those ends should themselves be objects of considerable reflection, discussion, and debate, not just about their validity but also about our effectiveness in accomplishing them (Bowman, 2002).

Unfortunately, and for some of the reasons outlined above, this kind of reflection, discussion, and debate over means and ends rarely occurs in higher music education except perhaps at the level of narrow professional, technical, and sometimes musical goals. I thus welcome this special edition of Ecclectica as a stimulus to much needed reflection and debate about the purposes and roles of schools of music in contemporary society. Readers interested in learning more about my own contributions to this larger debate should consult my book Democracy and Music Education: Liberalism, Ethics and the Politics of Practice (Indiana University Press, 2005). As already suggested in this brief paper, one way of reinvigorating undergraduate music education is by reconceptualizing it as part of an inclusive, liberal music education in which moral, ethical, cultural, and political concerns come to the fore and in which students are challenged to realize their potential to contribute to the betterment of society. This involves introducing them to the diversity of music that exists while helping them to develop their own critical voices so that they can participate intelligently in the shaping of humane musical and other values. Viewed thusly, music academics and graduates of our programs are public servants and democratic leaders, not elite guardians of the classics.

Those guardians of righteousness among us who believe unequivocally in the superiority of the classics and who regard the inclusion of popular and so-called world music as a dumbing down of the curriculum won’t like my book. Perhaps the single greatest impediment to the broadening and deepening of university music curricula during the past decade was a lack of faculty renewal that left many universities populated by an aging and worn out professoriate that was often resistant to change. Long tenured and secure in their employment, too many older scholars were content to concentrate their resources on an elite few while ignoring the masses. In the current political context in which government is often swayed by public opinion, however, that is an increasingly dangerous strategy to pursue. Happily, Canadian universities are now hiring new and younger faculty who are invested in the future and who are already beginning to reinvigorate higher music education with their ideas, and particularly in the areas of popular music and media studies. I relish the prospect of working with them as we attempt to reshape university music programs while breaking down some of the barriers between school and society.


Adorno, T. W. (2006). Philosophy of new music (R. Hullot-Kentor, Trans. & Ed.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1949)

Barber, B. R. (1996). Jihad vs. mcworld: How globalism and tribalism are reshaping the world. New York: Ballantine Books.

Bowman, W. (2002). Educating musically. In Colwell, R., & Richardson, C. P. (Eds), The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning. New York: Oxford University Press.

Colwell, R. (2005). Can we be friends? Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 166, 75-91.

Emberley, P. C. (1996). Zero tolerance: Hot button politics in Canada’s universities. Toronto: Penguin Books.

Woodford, P. (2002). The social construction of music teacher identity in undergraduate music education majors. In Colwell, R., & Richardson, C. P. (Eds), The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning. New York: Oxford University Press.

———(2005). Democracy and music education: Liberalism, ethics, and the politics of practice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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