Cultural hegemony in music education

Music education in American colleges and universities focuses almost entirely on the traditions of Western European aristocrats during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, known conventionally as “common practice music.” This focus implies that upper-class European-descended musical tastes are a fundamental truth rather than a set of arbitrary and contingent preferences, and that white cultural dominance is normative. In this paper, I discuss theoretical notions of pedagogical authority as a form of power. I then examine a music textbook catalog from a prestigious academic press in order to gain insight into the hegemonic culture of classical music, as well as the emerging challenges to that culture.


American musical culture is a riotous blend of styles and genres. However, there is a unifying core to nearly all of our popular music, and much “art” music as well: the loop-centric, improvisational, dance-oriented traditions of the African diaspora. Mcclary (2000) argues that the “various trickles” of the past hundred years of American music collect into “a mighty river” following a channel cut by the blues (32). Yet it is possible to complete a music degree at most American universities without ever coming into contact with the blues, or anything related to it. The music academy’s near-exclusive focus on Western classical tradition places it strikingly at odds with the broader culture. We need to ask what might be the ideological motivation for perpetuating the divide.

Classical pedagogy appears to be the product of values: discipline, intellectualism, and dispassion. These values, in turn, arise from preferences for the sounds and styles of the common-practice era. However, Swidler (1986) argues that our actions are not centrally caused by values or preferences. Our culturally-shaped skills and habits are the main motivators for our actions, since “one does better to look for a line of action for which one already has the cultural equipment” (275). Music educators are steeped in the habitus of classical music, the embodiment of social capital accumulated from their education and social history. Habitus consists of norms and practices so familiar that we have forgotten about them. Music educators enact the dispositions making up their habitus automatically, whether or not there is strategic intention behind them. Per Bourdieu’s apt metaphor, their strategies are collectively orchestrated without a conductor (1977, 72).

Habitus not only defines our actions, but also our perceptions and conceptions (Bourdieu 1977, 86). What then, are the conceptions of music education? Kratus (2015) points out that Michigan State University’s Bachelor of Music program has remained nearly unchanged since 1959. In general, college-level music education hews closely to its origins in the European conservatories of the nineteenth century. Kratus quips that we have retained not only the roots of the conservatory, but also its “stems, branches, leaves, flowers, seeds, and pollen” (340). Classically trained educators “will come to value ends for which their cultural equipment is well suited” (Swidler 1986, 277). That cultural equipment takes the form of the Western classical canon, which co-evolved with the conservatory. The canon is

relatively constant and can be kept ‘as it is’ to be repeated year after year because it is historically severed from the social base of its genesis and growth, such severance protecting it from the need to change in response to any ongoing social, political or technological processes (Tagg and Clarida 2003, 31).

European conservatories aimed to make their students “all executants and officials of a traditional musical culture whose special value was defined by its universality and its transcendence of the popular, the ephemeral, the ethnic, the worldly” (Cook 2007, 115-116). American music education has carried those goals forward intact.

Music is an art form and a craft, but it is also a discipline, a set of techniques and procedures, a technology of cultural power. Music scholars use esoteric formalisms and  arcane terminology to judge what is normative (“real”) music and what is not. In so doing, they join “the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based” (Foucault 1977, 304). The academy’s self-proclaimed authority over musical expression and understanding is a component of its broader cultural hegemony, a subtle and diffuse form of power that is difficult to discern, much less resist. “Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms” (Foucault 1978, 86). We are apt to submit more willingly to covert cultural authority than to overt displays of force.

We can now turn to the 2016 Oxford University Press (OUP) music textbook catalog. OUP is the largest university press in the world, and has been in continuous operation since the late fifteenth century. It epitomizes academic prestige, and is therefore an ideal representative of the aspirational goals of higher music education.

Oxford University Press - Music for Courses

The first and most prominent book in the catalog is a music appreciation text, Discovering Music by R. Larry Todd (2016). It is an evident flagship title for OUP, occupying four two-page spreads, as well as the catalog’s inside and outside back cover. Todd gives a traditional European musical history from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century. He devotes a chapter each to Mozart and Beethoven. Interspersed among the chapters are “Musical Journeys,” brief descriptions of Mandinka griots, Indian raga, Persian classical music, the Beijing Opera, Balinese gamelan, and African-American lined hymn. (Note that African-American music is presented in the context of foreign, “non-Western” traditions.) The Musical Journeys are peripheral to the text’s core message, stated in the book’s accompanying web site:

Music that has established a foothold in time remains relevant to our post-modern world in powerful ways. There is something universal about Monteverdi’s treatment of the Orpheus myth in Orfeo, Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony, or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Even though these works come down to us from utterly different historical times, we can still connect with them meaningfully” (Oxford Presents, 2016).

The “universality and timelessness” theme recurs both in the OUP catalog and in classical music culture generally.

The catalog’s music history section prominently features Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical Tradition by Douglass Seaton (2016). While it is an essentially traditional text, it does advertise one progressive feature: “Increased and balanced coverage of women’s roles in music history, ranging from discussions of key composers and performers like Isabella d’Este and Fanny Hensel to women’s important role as patrons” (OUP 2016, 12). The facing page shows The Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin and Christopher H. Gibbs (2012). This book, too, covers the usual canon, though with the addition of a chapter on Slavonic harmony. There are no chapters on jazz, pop, or any other music outside of European classical tradition. The closest that Taruskin and Gibbs come to African-American music is a chapter entitled “In Search of the ‘Real’ America,” with sections on European “Jazz,” Gershwin, Copland, and the American “Symphonists” (OUP 2016, 13). While Seaton, Taruskin and Gibbs do make an effort to expand beyond the traditional canon, they do not challenge the canon’s essential legitimacy or makeup.

The popular music section begins sixteen pages into the OUP catalog. In addition to titles on pop, rock, soul, and country, the catalog features one book dedicated entirely to hip-hop: Rap and Hip-Hop Culture by Fernando Orejuela (2014). This is a noteworthy inclusion—hip-hop’s emphasis on rhythm and timbre over harmony and melody poses a particularly strong challenge to European musical hegemony. However, Orejuela is more concerned with hip-hop as a social phenomenon than as music. His is the first book in the catalog whose marketing copy makes reference to students “with little or no background in music” (OUP 2016, 19). The implicit message is unmistakeable: hip-hop’s significance is social, not musical.

Nearly half the OUP catalog is devoted to music theory texts, and to understand their ideological content, we must take a detour into the subject’s history. Common-practice theory as taught at most universities relies on a framework developed by Heinrich Schenker, “the most influential and original music theorist of the twentieth century” (Botstein 2002, 239). Schenkerian analysis looks past the surface of the music to identify its most basic elements. The most important element is the cadence, a chord progression that resolves tension and establishes a tonal center. Arnold Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony describes the tonal center as “the patriarchal ruler over the domain defined by its might and its will” (Mcclary 2002, 15). As we will see, this choice of metaphor is not accidental.

Bourdieu (1977) argues that our agency, our capacity to act independently and make free choices, operates within a menu of choices that he calls “structure.” Our behavior simultaneously reflects and reproduces social structure. A behavior or belief becomes a structure when no one can remember its original purpose, when it becomes automatic and implicit. Schenker’s theoretical approach is just such a structure within music education. The term “Schenkerian analysis” never appears in the OUP catalog, and it would be redundant if it did. Classical theorists differ in the details of their analytical methods, but they all share Schenker’s central concerns: properly identifying and naming cadences, articulating the rules of correct voice-leading, and detecting the underlying melodies giving rise to the outward details of the music.

Schenkerian analysis breaks down the complexities of harmony and counterpoint into a kind of spreadsheet, a set of orderly tables. Foucault (1977) describes the table as “both a technique of power and a procedure of knowledge,” a tool for “organizing the multiple, of providing oneself with an instrument to cover it and to master it” (148). Music theorists have succeeded so completely in covering and mastery that you can now use software to automatically check students’ assignments for correct voice-leading. However, the spreadsheet can not accommodate all forms of music. The strict focus on classical harmony and counterpoint makes Schenker’s methods an awkward fit at best for blues-based music. The fit is even worse for hip-hop and dance music, where cadences are vanishingly rare, and where harmony and melody may be entirely absent. It is no wonder that the classical music world barely considers these forms to be music at all. By systematically ignoring anything incompatible with Schenkerian analysis, the academy enacts symbolic violence against non-European musical cultures and practices.

Heinrich Schenker himself was a problematic figure, to put it mildly. His hierarchical model of musical structure mirrored his similarly hierarchical view of societies. Schenker was outspoken in his belief that, within each society, there is a distinction between average people, the gifted elite, and the rare geniuses. He favored aristocracy over democracy because it most naturally promotes the flourishing of musical genius, specifically the kind shown by his preferred German composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Schachter 2001). Schenker used his system of musical analysis to demonstrate the superiority of German culture to all other European cultures, the superiority of European culture to American culture, and the superiority of Western culture generally to Asian and African cultures. He dismissed the idea of looking to “musically inferior” races and nations for alternative ideas or systems, because there are no systems to be found among them. While he admitted to finding charm in Arabic, Japanese and Turkish music, he compared it to the charm of a young child’s babbling (Cook 2007, 82).

Most contemporary theorists are understandably eager to distance themselves from Schenker’s political worldview. One notable exception is Schachter (2001), an author of widely used classical theory texts in his own right: “Whether a populist, anti-elitist society and government like ours can foster valuable artistic production is doubtful” (8). The classical music community in general laments our civilization’s perpetual backward slide. Schenker similarly saw his own culture, late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany, as being in a state of decline, which he attributed to the increasing democratization of access to learning. Along with Arnold Schoenberg, he “took on the role of lonely prophet preaching hard, uncomfortable truths to modernity and defending beauty as an aspect of ethics to an undisciplined majority” (Botstein 2002, 246). The American music academy continues to carry out his mission.

There is no stronger testament to Schenker’s ongoing influence than The Complete Musician by Steven G. Laitz (2015). It occupies four pages of the OUP catalog, the most of any in the theory section. While Laitz’s title asserts an all-encompassing scope, the text is narrowly concerned with Western classical harmony and counterpoint. Other elements of music, like rhythm or timbre, receive cursory treatment at most. African diasporic and non-Western musics are not mentioned. Presenting this book as “complete” is the catalog’s most flagrant display of Eurocentrism. While I was attending a conference of the College Music Society, I passed a display table showing Laitz’s book. I took a photo of the cover and impulsively posted it on my blog with the caption, “The title of this book is everything wrong with music education” (Hein, 2016). Within a few days, the post began attracting responses. One commenter, Bobby M, came passionately to Laitz’s defense, and in so doing, gave a neat encapsulation of Western classical habitus. Each of his arguments echoes sentiments widely held by classical educators.

Bobby M begins by asserting that classical music is the center of the curriculum because it is predominant, and that it is predominant because it is the center of the curriculum. Laitz’s book might not be “complete” in a global sense, but it is complete within its context: “Most formal music study is the study of European Classical music… For a college music student to do well in their classes, Laitz’s book is pretty complete” (Bobby M 2016, November 1). Bourdieu (1977) describes this reasoning as “necessity made into a virtue” (77). Next, Bobby M argues that classical music is superior to other forms, and therefore more worthy of study.

I guess that my best arguments for keeping classical music as the primary style studied in colleges is that it is incredibly sophisticated and refined. The complex harmonic progressions, forms, and melodies, as well as hundreds of years of scholarship make it a natural fit for academic settings… Something newer, like rap, is less suitable for academic study… It breaks a lot of musical rules, which means it is not a good way to teach the rules of music. Bach, for example, follows the rules of music nearly perfectly, which makes his music an ideal tool to teach students about counterpoint and chorale-writing (2016, November 1).

These rules were developed specifically to analyze music like Bach’s, so naturally, Bach’s music will the best repertoire for learning the rules. Bobby M then presents the familiar trope of classical music’s universality and timelessness.

Shouldn’t music education be about studying the Great Works of history, instead of whichever pop song is currently enjoying 15 minutes of fame? Shouldn’t education strive for the profound, and not the ephemeral (2016, November 3)?

Finally, Bobby M repeats the oft-expressed concern that classical music is under threat, echoing Schenker’s consternation about a civilization in decline. “Learning about [classical music theory rules] becomes a way to preserve our musical culture and save it from near-extinction” (2016, November 3). This anxiety is curious, given classical music’s near-complete dominance of higher education. But it reaffirms the hierarchical relationship between the enlightened conservators of “real” music and the benighted general public.

The OUP catalog’s theory section gives the greatest prominence to three texts, of which Laitz’s is the most conservative. The immediately preceding two pages feature Contemporary Musicianship by Jennifer Snodgrass (2015), which makes explicit gestures toward inclusiveness. Each chapter features an “Artist in Residence,” and while many are classical performers like Renée Fleming and Lang Lang, there are also pop, jazz and country stars like Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Rascal Flatts. OUP seems keen to counterbalance their presence by reassuring us of the book’s essential traditionalism. Supplemental material available on the companion website lists additional Artists in Residence, including “The Original Rock Stars: Mozart, Chopin, and the Boys” (OUP 2016, 35). The “hip” phrasing is reminiscent of Steve Buscemi’s middle-aged undercover cop infiltrating a high school and greeting a group of bemused students with “How do you do, fellow kids?” (Fey & Scardino, 2009).

The book immediately following Laitz in the catalog is OUP’s most progressive theory text, Music Theory Remixed by Kevin Holm-Hudson (2016), occupying three pages. The title signals an emphatic welcome to fans of dance music and hip-hop. Holm-Hudson presents the usual common-practice tonal theory and part-writing, but he draws examples both from the canon and from “popular music, including rock, jazz, techno, film soundtracks, and world music” (OUP 2016, 40). A representative blurb boasts the text’s “wide and pertinent variety of musical styles and genres, showing that theory isn’t just for classical music” (OUP 2016, 40). We might take this book’s conspicuous placement as a sign that music pedagogy is becoming more inclusive. But Foucault (1978) would urge skepticism, because he saw criticism of and resistance to elites as inseparable from their dominance. Resistance exists only in “the strategic field of power relations” (95-96). There is no discourse of power opposed by a discourse of resistance; they are all vectors in a continually fluctuating field of force. Taking this view, Holm-Hudson’s book demonstrates only that the defining marker of elite cultural taste is shifting from snobbery to omnivorousness (Khan 2011, 190-192). We should not therefore conclude that elite dominance has diminished as a result.

Even the most traditionalist music educators of my acquaintance are aghast at the suggestion that they espouse white supremacist hegemony. Nevertheless, educators can advance an ideological agenda without intending to, or even being aware of doing so. Per Foucault (1978), there is no headquarters or select committee that sets the terms and tactics of power: “[T]he logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them, and few who can be said to have formulated them” (95). Meanwhile, by teaching a ruling ideology, classical music educators help reproduce the conditions that make that ideology possible.

State power does not just originate in its laws and institutions, but also in “ideological state apparatuses” (Althusser, 1977). These include religions, the family, the law, political parties, the media, the arts, and—especially—schools. Education is the most important vector for cultural indoctrination because it commands so much of our time during our key developmental years. The state and its laws are “only the terminal forms power takes,” the “institutional crystallization” of forces at play throughout all the hierarchies that make up a society (Foucault 1978, 92-93). Just as power is constantly re-legitimized through the interplay of agency and structure, cultural hegemony is re-legitimized through the interplay of agency and education. College music departments might seem far removed from overt manifestations of state power like economic policy or the criminal justice system. But when we apply the brutal force of Schenker’s white supremacist theories to the intimate emotional space that music occupies in the lives of students, we prepare the way for the more tangible systems of oppression.


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