Friday, November 17, 2017

Building a Better Band-Aid

By Gwynne Brown

To teach any survey course is to resign oneself to a series of regrettable omissions, generalizations, and compromises. I was keenly aware of this fact a few years ago when I prepared to teach a new course that had been added to my institution’s music history sequence for majors. The two-semester sequence had been dedicated almost exclusively to the Western classical tradition, with a couple of weeks for jazz. The new third semester (“Western and World Music Since 1914”) was to include popular music and some non-Western music—topics whose prior absence was rightly understood as unacceptable in a 21st-century college music curriculum.

The university catalog’s description of the new course demonstrated our ongoing preoccupation with the Western classical tradition, however. It promised that the new course would offer the following smorgasbord of topics: “the legacy of modernism, neoclassicism, the post World War II avant-garde, postmodernism, jazz and popular music, and representative non-Western traditions.”[1] The third semester didn’t just broaden the survey’s scope: it also made more room for Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

I was daunted by the logistical challenge, but also excited to teach a class that combined virtually all of my favorite things. I divided the semester into thirds. The first, on art music after The Rite of Spring, concluded the prior two semesters’ overview of classical music history. The second unit attempted a concise overview of the “official version of jazz history” so ably identified and fileted by Scott DeVeaux in “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography” (which I assigned).[2] The third provided a swift introduction to the field of ethnomusicology, followed by a taste of Shona mbira music and South Indian vocal music, chosen largely because these were of particular interest to me.

Since the catalog had promised that the course would include popular music, I shoehorned it in. There was obviously no point trying to survey every major pop style in three class meetings, so instead I explained that our goal was to sample some of the different methodological approaches in pop music scholarship. I assigned three readings that ranged widely both in their authors’ scholarly perspectives and in the music under consideration. We had particularly lively and worthwhile discussions of Jeffrey Magee’s revelatory song biography of “Blue Skies” and Peter Mercer-Taylor’s dazzling and eccentric analysis of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People.[3]

On the whole, that first semester went smoothly, but by the end it was clear to us all that we had plowed through jazz history, pop music scholarship, and two non-Western musical traditions at an almost comically accelerated pace. The students were openly critical of the disproportionately lavish amount of time the music history sequence had bestowed on Western classical music. My new third course, designed to improve the inclusiveness and diversity of our music history curriculum, had rendered unmistakable that curriculum’s ongoing imbalance—not to mention its overwhelming whiteness.

Ultimately, and perhaps obviously, the roots, structure, and priorities of my institution’s music history sequence need to be reconsidered, and we are not alone. Many of my AMS colleagues (including my AMS 2016 co-panelists Vilde Aaslid, Ryan Raul Bañagale, and John Spilker) have been thinking deeply about these issues for years now, and radically revised music history curricula are emerging around the country. As my own department peers warily into the future, I wish to share what I have discovered to be a reasonably satisfying approach to my interim “Band-Aid” of a course—one that could certainly be applied to other music history courses as well.

The seeds of this approach lay in my pragmatic solution to the challenge of dealing with popular music in three measly class sessions. When I abandoned comprehensive stylistic survey as a realistic goal, I discovered the advantages of calling my students’ attention to the diverse values, goals, and tools that musicologists bring to their work on the music they care about. I have made this “meta” perspective a unifying theme for the semester. Major styles, canonic repertoire and recordings, and important individuals and groups remain important, as one would expect in a typical music history survey. However, when students consider questions like “What kind of evidence does the author use?” and “What relevant topics does this scholar leave out?” they gain additional knowledge: that music history is constructed, brick by brick, by individuals with particular priorities, strengths, and limitations.

The jazz history unit offers a good example of this perspective in action. (Incidentally, I have taken to starting the semester with jazz history, having discovered that beginning with the classical music unit only served to underline the curriculum’s implicit devaluation of other musics.) Early in the term, the students read Brian Harker’s “‘Telling a Story’: Louis Armstrong and Coherence in Early Jazz.”[4] The article offers an impressively detailed and insightful musical analysis of several of Armstrong’s solos, but equally noteworthy is Harker’s framing of his analysis. He acknowledges that Armstrong would have had no use for the article’s meticulous, microscopic account of motivic connections. Nonetheless, Harker argues that by applying these analytical tools, he is able to describe and understand the processes that Armstrong’s contemporaries said they heard unfolding in his miraculous solos of the 1920s. In other words, Harker claims that although his methods may be alien to the musicians about whom he writes, he is nonetheless paying due respect to those musicians’ values.

Soon after, we spend a day on the two chapters on Billie Holiday in Angela Y. Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.[5] Davis writes forcefully and persuasively about many aspects of Holiday’s career, artistry, public persona, and cultural significance. She brilliantly unpacks the politics of Holiday’s incendiary performances of “Strange Fruit,” and also of seemingly innocuous love songs like “You Let Me Down.” Davis does not, however, write in any detail about the music, making her a perfect foil for Harker. Students typically express a visceral preference for one approach or the other; with guidance the discussion goes deeper, into fundamental questions of authorial voice, objectivity, evidence, and values. The humanness and individuality of the writers comes into the picture: their personal and professional backgrounds, their stated goals, and their careers. For some students, the discussion sheds a disquieting light on the invisibility of race and gender in their previous thinking about music history and those who write it.

By paying attention not only to the “what” of music history but to the “who” and “how” of musicology, I believe that my students gain more than knowledge about some major styles, figures, and repertoire. First, they learn to approach assigned readings more critically and more compassionately, understanding that published scholarship is biased and limited, yes, but also that it strives doggedly—and sometimes courageously—toward knowledge and understanding. Scholars are human, and music history, much like Soylent Green, is (spoiler alert) people.

The second gain follows from the first: students discover that music history, like music history pedagogy and curriculum-building, is an ongoing endeavor. There are new topics waiting to be explored, and venerable ones still capable of surprising us when approached from a new angle. If this Band-Aid course disillusions students about the completeness and trustworthiness of the historical narrative they’ve learned over three semesters, at least now they know that it’s up to people, perhaps even themselves, to continue working on it.


[2] Scott DeVeaux, "Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography," Black American Literature Forum 25/3 (1991), 525-60.
[3] Jeffrey Magee, "Irving Berlin's 'Blue Skies': Ethnic Affiliations and Musical Transformations," Musical Quarterly 84/4 (2000), 537-80; Peter Mercer-Taylor, "‘Stupid, stupid signs’: Incomprehensibility, Memory, and the Meaning (Maybe) of R.E.M.’s ‘Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,’" The Musical Quarterly 88/3 (2005), 456-86.
[4] Brian Harker, “‘Telling a Story”: Louis Armstrong and Coherence in Early Jazz," Current Musicology 63 (1997), 46-83.
[5] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 161-97.


Gwynne Kuhner Brown, Associate Professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, teaches classes in music history, music theory, and world music. She received her university’s President’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2013. Her writing has been published in the Journal of the Society for American Music and in Blackness in Opera, a collection edited by Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor. She has conducted archival research on 20th-century arrangers of African American religious folk music, including Eva Jessye, Hall Johnson, Jester Hairston, and especially William Levi Dawson, about whom she is writing a volume for the University of Illinois Press’s American Composers Series. She is a classical pianist and player of the Shona mbira.


  1. Thanks for letting us in on your thinking, and giving all of us something to think about! I'm very intrigued by this kind of class, and I appreciate seeing how you have structured, then restructured, it. My own starting point, if I had the opportunity, would be to try to mix things up more rather than separate jazz, art, and popular as you do. When I taught the second half of our one-year survey (which I haven't done for some years), I found an integrated chronological approach felt more appropriate than the geographic one used by my textbook--in particular, I feel the world wars made strong pillars that helped make sense of what people in different areas were doing. It might not be the right approach, and you may already have rejected it for good reasons, but I think I'd start with a similar structure even for this more diverse repertory. I'd love to hear about what others have done.

    1. Thanks very much, Alice. I have experimented in the past with "an integrated chronological approach" as you eloquently put it, not in this course but in others. Philosophically I would prefer not to cordon off different types of music from one another, but pedagogically I have found that many students get disoriented by the more integrated approach. (The fault surely lies with me!) I do encourage them to make connections across categories.

      Like you, I'd love to hear what others do.