Names carry meanings. Those meanings often include implications. For example, if you were to see a classified listing that advertised a ‘Red 1999 Honda Civic,’ and you made an appointment with the seller to view this item, you would likely go with expectations of seeing a red-painted automobile, made by a Japanese company just before the turn of the century. Imagine your surprise if you showed up to the appointment only to find that the seller was actually selling a blue BMW. Or worse, a pink horse! Chances are, your expectations would be violated, and it is likely that you would feel like you had been lied to. Names, naming, and semiotics in general, are currently at the center of our cultural zeitgeist, as identity politics has come to figure prominently in virtually all fields across Western Civilization.
One of the funny things about names though, is that their meanings are not always constant. A lot of money to one person might be very little to another. A shirt may look burgundy to one shopper, and maroon to another. And so, subjectivity plays an important role in how we perceive things in our world, and how we choose to name those things. Subjectivity itself is a complex concept, one which involves a combination of judgement, perception, and cultural assessment. Perspectives can be influenced by physical limitations, as can be the case when two people disagree over something like color; in this case there is a possibility that one (or both) of the individuals suffers from some degree of colorblindness. These types of examples represent tricky situations, since both individuals are completely convinced, due to their physical capabilities, of the absolute value of the shirt’s color. This argument between two individuals, however, is predicated on the assumption that both people agree on some sort of foundational concept of color and shade. But what if they don’t? Then our problem becomes more complex. Consider this: although both people may agree that maroon and burgundy both occupy some shared territory between purple and red, one individual might believe that maroon is closer to purple and that burgundy is closer to red, while the other might believe the complete opposite. It is likely in this case that each individual experienced each of these colors for the first time in different contexts, and therefore each person possesses their own unique conceptual urtext for each color.
A third layer of complexity emerges with the opportunity for judgmental cultural assessment. Generational differences sometimes inform these assessments, as is often the case with disagreements over what does or does not constitute ‘music.’ The classic disagreement between parent and child, whereby the parent says something along the lines of “How can you listen to that [rock ‘n’ roll, metal, rap, etc.]? It’s not even music!,” calls into question both the categorization of what the child enjoys listening to, as well as the very nature of music itself. First of all, if the offending medium is not music, then what type of art is it? Or is it not even art? Then what type of cultural artifact is it? Then there is the issue of ‘what is music?’ and furthermore, is the parent equipped with the expertise to make such an assessment? The parent’s indictment represents a reductive and melodramatic approach to discussion, and in most cases it is probably safe to assume that the parent doesn’t actually think that what their child is listening to is some new and incomprehensible cultural artifact. Rather, what appears to be happening in these cases is that the parent is using some hypothetical objectivity to leverage an emotional or pseudo-intellectual advantage. Regardless of the futility of this type of argument that occurs amongst members of different generations, or more broadly, people with different cultural preferences, this example helps to illustrate another way in which names are important. The act of saying that something is not actually what it is said to be, carries an accusation of impersonation and false advertising on the part of the thing in question, while also calling into question the analytical and curatorial capabilities of others. Conversely, saying that something is something that it perhaps is not, can be just as problematic.
Why am I making this point? As a professional musician who has spent over a decade studying within the academy and the better part of a decade teaching at the college level, I spend a significant amount of time thinking about music pedagogy. Recently, college and university music programs across the United States have been struggling with enrollment, and in response to this issue many departments have made efforts to update their curricula. For some this has meant adding more electives that deal with popular styles of music, for others it has meant increasing resources for studying ethnomusicology, while for others still it has involved the formation of more non-classical ensembles. These are merely a few examples, but the common thread tends to be the incorporation of ‘vernacular,’ ‘non-Western,’ or ‘non-Western Classical’ styles of music.
Essentially what is happening here is that the demand is not categorically in line with the supply. Faculty are expecting to teach one thing, while the students are expecting to learn something else. But why is this happening? Why do instructors expect to teach classes on counterpoint, while students expect to learn how to make catchy beats? Surely a student wouldn’t apply to major in physics with the expectation of focusing on organic chemistry, so why are we experiencing this kind of issue in music? I believe the answer lies within the name, and more specifically, within a difference in cultural assumptions with regards to that name. Let’s take our example of the physics major and reframe it: imagine that the program of study was instead titled ‘science.’ In this case it would be reasonable to assume that those majoring in science could focus on a number of specialties such as physics, chemistry, and biology. Given the way things go, some students would likely show up with expectations of studying social sciences as well.
In the United States, university and conservatory music programs tend to focus on the Western Classical Music tradition. Other traditions are sometimes discussed, particularly within the context of history and appreciation courses, but theory and harmony courses are usually rooted firmly in the Western Classical Music tradition, as are lessons and courses that deal with repertoire and performance practice. As a result, being a student of music in the academy really means being a student of the Western Classical Music tradition.
At one point, this probably made a lot of sense, and in some countries it might still make sense. The United States, however, has long been a place whose culture is the result of generations of multiculturalism. The majority of the country’s population is descended, at least partially, from immigrants who arrived here at some point within the last three centuries. Most of us are not purely ‘ethnically American,’ but rather represent some combination of ethnic groups from Europe, Africa, and Asia, as well as the Americas. Despite our diverse ethnic inheritance, our cultural inheritance remains largely informed by European colonialism.
A place where this is especially the case is the academy, where the canons of music, art, and literature primarily contain European works. The problem with this is that by simply calling a subject ‘Literature,’ or ‘Art,’ or ‘Music,’ and then favoring one lineage, the academy is implying the superiority of the favored lineage. At one point in time, perhaps this canonical favoritism was less about implying superiority, and more about simply playing to the audience. If in the United States, the academy was originally constructed on the European model, and comprised of ethnically European students and professors, then from a certain colonial perspective, it would make sense for literature courses to include works that primarily represented the ethnic and cultural lineage of the students and the professors. The problem now is that the student demographic within the academy has long since diversified, and yet the core curricula of many fields has remained the same.
Do these canons need to be updated to reflect every element of our complex network of ethnic lineages? Not necessarily. I think a more honest and efficient approach would be to take better care of how we name various fields of study. Given that most of the music programs in the United States focus primarily (and sometimes exclusively) on the Western Classical Music tradition, it would make more sense to rename the programs of study so that the name more specifically indicates what tradition is actually being taught. This would be a step towards erasing the implication that Western Classical Music is capital M ‘Music,’ while everything else is, well, something else. It would also help with establishing clear expectations on the part of both the faculty and the students, so that by the time everybody shows up for the first day of instruction, everyone is on the same page in terms of which lineage of music will be taught.
I think that this could eventually lead to the establishment of music departments that are based around entirely different musical lineages. It is ridiculous to expect the same faculty members who were trained in the Western Classical Music tradition to be able to teach courses on styles that they have nothing to do with, so why not just establish a convention in which it is common for there to be multiple music departments. Or, at least a convention in which one university might have a department for Western Classical Music, while another might have a department for Korean Classical Music, for example. This could actually raise the level of scholarship and musicianship within the academy, as everyone would be able to receive the training in theory, history, and performance practice specific to the musical tradition that they are studying. It seems silly to require a budding Gamelan music expert to take two years of Western music theory courses, and no East Asian music theory courses, yet this is the current state of things at universities in the United States.
Using more specific names for music departments could also help avoid the confusion and violated expectations that emerge with regards to coursework and assignments. Some of the issues that surround teaching historical styles as part of theory courses come to mind as an example of this. More specifically, in my experience, many students, particularly those who do not have backgrounds in Western Classical Music, sometimes struggle with composition assignments that require them to follow the rules of 18th century counterpoint. It is not the technique that they tend to have difficulty with, but rather the reasoning behind the assignment. Too many students fall under the impression that these rules represent the only proper way to write music, and that anything else is breaking the rules of some sort of all-encompassing urtext of music composition. This leads to a bouquet of misunderstandings between student and instructor, as the student comes to believe that the instructor only thinks of music from the perspective of 18th century European compositional practice, while the instructor arrives at the conclusion that the student is closed-minded and uninterested in studying their craft, when in reality neither of these is the case! What is not being made clear to the students is that these assignments are merely exercises in stylistic imitation, a practice that is found in many creative fields, and that can be useful not only in developing one’s own craft, but in understanding from a more holistic perspective, how and why composers of centuries past wrote music in the ways that they did. While some of the more conscientious instructors do make this point clear, it seems like they tend to be the exception to the rule.
Names carry both assumptions and implications, and these two things often lead to misunderstandings. As Western Civilization continues to grapple with the cultural challenges of the 21st century, I believe that the academy can take the lead in setting an example of how to navigate through these challenges. Shedding the legacy of imperialism and moving away from colonial practices does not always require massive strokes of cultural overhaul. Leverage requires intelligent placement, rather than brute force, and so with deft manipulation we can make meaningful progress. We know that within our post-post-modern cultural landscape, context is everything, so let’s reframe our old conventions in more appropriate contexts. Let’s reassess the names we use, and consider that their meanings may have changed since we started using them centuries ago. As we update our libraries and museums, we do not throw away the old works when new pieces arrive. We simply recatalog and relabel the old works to more accurately identify their place in history, so that they can easily be discovered, and so that we can understand how they relate to works that come before and after them. We don’t need to strip the academy of its current canons, but as these canons continue to grow, and as new ones are added, we should consider that it is time to update our own practices of naming and categorization. These small steps could increase the fluidity with which culture is exchanged, and in turn might incline us towards a cultural landscape that more strongly favors inclusivity, variety, and progress.