May 2017 Discussion of the Month

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 This month’s article from the above collection is by Professor Susan Fast and is the 14th 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.

The Future of Graduate Study in Music at Canadian Universities

Susan Fast, McMaster University

At the time of this writing (July 2006), the future of graduate study in music at my institution, McMaster, is in flux, which is one reason I wanted to write about this subject. McMaster University’s M.A. Program in Music Criticism, in which I have taught for thirteen years, has been closed; the last three students will graduate in May 2007. The decision to close the program is the result of a key faculty member leaving for another institution and the University’s choice not to replace him, which is in large part because of a new interest in music cognition, an initiative housed in the Psychology Department. No current music faculty members have expertise in this area, although they have been asked to tie their fortunes to it. It is not surprising that at a University such as McMaster, where sciences, medicine and engineering are given priority, administrators would choose to support an initiative that studies music in what is perceived to be empirical, rather than socio-cultural terms, or, more importantly these days, where external funding for science based studies is considerably larger than that for the Humanities. Still, it is alarming to think that this is the likely future of music at McMaster, that its place within the Humanities will be diminished if not eventually eliminated (this is true at the undergraduate as well as the graduate level; discussions are currently underway for the development of an undergraduate program in music cognition).

Or is this really cause for alarm? It is probable that Humanities-based graduate studies in music at McMaster will develop, given the expertise of current faculty, within the context of Cultural Studies. This is a likely scenario at Queen’s as well, where plans for a graduate program in Cultural Studies are well underway, with no plans in the foreseeable future for a graduate program in music. Graduate study in music at Brock has not developed within the Music Department either; rather, within an interdisciplinary M.A. program in popular culture administered jointly by Social Sciences and Humanities. To be clear, in all these cases it is the study of popular music(s) that is finding a home within cultural studies or other interdisciplinary programs; whether the study of art music could find a place within such programs is another matter. But given these developments, we might well ask, is graduate study in music at institutions that do not already have established programs likely to occur outside of music programs, within the context of interdisciplinary studies, and is it likely to favor the study of popular musics (including the study of non-western popular musics under the rubrics of globalization or postcolonial studies)?

I want to emphasize that I ask these questions in relation to where musicologists are going to be housed and where musicology is going to be practiced, since those trained in sociology, communication studies, media studies and various other disciplines (or inter-disciplines) have long studied music, and especially popular music, outside of music programs and departments. I’m of two minds about musicology becoming part of a cultural studies, or other interdisciplinary program. On one hand, it makes sense. Music is a key means through which culture is produced and consumed throughout the world, so it seems logical for the musicological study of it to hold a prominent position—a more prominent position than it sometimes has—within these interdisciplinary programs. It is important that musicology take its rightful place in interdisciplinary studies, rather than remaining isolated within music programs, chained to technical expertise that none but a few initiates have “mastered.” Nonetheless, a cultural studies program is not a music program, and so the students we teach will likely not often have musical training when they come into the program, nor will they very often want to pursue music as their specialty. What we can teach these students will be restricted by their limited technical knowledge and by the fact that they don’t make music themselves. Or perhaps I am just setting up a straw person here: If musicologists with publication records that will attract students are teaching in cultural studies programs, why wouldn’t trained musicians come and study with them? Even more promising is a scenario in which these programs attract musicians who have not gone through an undergraduate music program, but who play in bands and have first hand experience with and understanding of contemporary popular music scenes and who are (in my experience) less burdened by ideas of composerly genius, canon, and music as transcendent of socio-cultural influences and influence. Graduate programs in music still have little room for this kind of musician unless they have also earned a B. Mus. degree along the way.

On the flip side, teaching non specialists can be viewed as a positive development: Students who do go through these cultural studies programs are likely to take a course from a musicologist who will underline the importance of musical sound as a site for the creation of socio-cultural meaning. Students will, hopefully, walk away from these programs with a better understanding of how music shapes culture, rather than thinking of it as mere entertainment or commodity. And perhaps in a generation or so, more and more students with training in music will opt to enter a graduate program in Cultural Studies rather than one in Music, especially if the progressive and interesting scholarly work is coming from faculty within the former.

Norma Coates, Kip Pegley and I were recently invited to participate in a round table at IASPM (International Association for the Study of Popular Music) Canada about women teaching popular music in Canadian Universities and a few interesting issues around graduate study in music were raised there. Because we focused on the study of popular music in particular, it became apparent in our discussion that many prominent Canadian universities that currently offer graduate programs in music (among them the University of Toronto, UBC, the University of Victoria, and the University of Alberta) do not have tenure-track or tenured researchers on their faculty who are scholars of Western popular music. Universities that do have popular music scholars generally have only one (Carleton and McGill are the exceptions, and again, at least for the moment, Carleton’s musicologists teach in an interdisciplinary graduate program, not a Music program). In fact, popular music scholarship in music departments West of Ontario is almost non-existent (many institutions do not offer undergraduate courses either). This seemed fascinating to us: given that popular music studies is currently a “hot” area of graduate study, why the dearth of opportunities to study it in Western Canada? And given that enrolments in undergraduate survey courses in popular music are through the roof, it is interesting that many Western Canadian universities do not offer these. Is the demand not there? Or is there resistance to curricular change, especially to the introduction of popular music (I think many of us who work on popular music have experienced such resistance at various levels)?

A further issue is that there is a high number of productive popular music scholars in Canada who are women, most of whom do not teach in institutions that have graduate programs in music. Why does this make a difference? Because many of these women are producing groundbreaking work in the field, and are internationally known, yet do not currently have direct influence over the next generation of popular music scholars. The subject matter they choose to study and their methodological approaches are often quite different from those of their male counterparts, and their voices in graduate programs would perhaps open up new areas of study and new approaches. They could also mentor graduate students, especially women graduate students, and encourage more of them to enter the field. In our experience, students who want to pursue popular music in their graduate studies are often frustrated by the lack of faculty expertise at their institutions, or by the fact that they are unable to study with a prominent scholar of popular music because s/he is not attached to a graduate program.

Perhaps we don’t need a slew of new graduate programs. Canadian universities are generally financially strapped and it’s not clear that there is demand for new programs. Those universities that have the infrastructure for M.A. and Ph.D. programs in Music probably need to be rethinking their priorities (Western seems to be leading the way in this respect, at least with respect to popular music studies—see Norma Coates’ contribution to this discussion). Productive scholars who are working in new fields of inquiry could be attached to these programs, and perhaps we need to become more creative about how this happens. I am currently adjunct graduate faculty at York and have sat on several PhD. Committees, work that is not recognized by my home institution, but perhaps should be. Instead of working in isolation from one another and/or in competition, we could begin to view the (after all, small) group of Canadian music scholars as a single pool (I realize that this might sound quite naïve and idealistic, but I’m willing to put it out there anyway). There could be more sharing of faculty resources among institutions. Although institutional bureaucracy often puts obstacles in the way of such inter-institutional cooperation, we could try to develop it. We could consider such ideas as residencies for scholars at institutions where graduate programs exist; guest or team teaching between institutions; greater flexibility around the supervision of students; and drawing on each other’s expertise in ways now done infrequently.

Our professional societies might be one vehicle through which discussions about this could take place. Or perhaps we need to create a separate organization that advocates for such inter-institutional cooperation specifically within Canada and specifically around graduate education in music. At the very least, we might be thinking about gathering current data on the study of music at graduate levels in Canadian universities. In what programs or departments (music or otherwise) is interesting work being undertaken? What are the growth areas in terms of theses and dissertations? And do faculty hires or curricular offerings correspond to these areas? Are productive scholars teaching within graduate programs? If not, how can this be encouraged? It is time we begin to rethink graduate level music studies in Canada along such lines.

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