“Canon-Splaining”: Harvard’s Curriculum Change and the Formerly Sacred Cows of Academic Music


Harvard University’s music department recently caused some controversy in academic music circles with a plan to change their undergraduate curriculum in a way that eliminated certain core theory requirements and included some previously neglected topics such as world musics and pop.

Now, I love the canon as much as anyone, but I actually think this is kind of a cool idea. Harvard is by its very nature an elite institution that attracts lots of the sort of students who’ve had 10+ years of pre-college private music education, so to expand their offerings to students without that background is surely not driven by a need to recruit. Even though I teach at a university at the opposite end of the privilege spectrum, I can imagine that Harvard’s ideas might enrich any music curriculum.

You only need to scroll down to the comments section to hear about the outrage of many academics. (Summary: “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FOUR-PART CHORALES?????”) I agree with them that academic rigour and advanced understanding of music are important. I disagree with their view that Harvard is “dumbing down.” Nowhere in the explanations of the new curriculum does it say that they’re making it easier. Nowhere does it say that they won’t be studying any traditional Western music fundamentals. What it does say is that they’ll be taking  classes called “Thinking About Music” and “Critical Listening.”

Which are surely concepts we could all get behind. Aren’t critical thinking and listening what we’re trying to accomplish anyway?

I’ve thought for some time that certain aspects of traditional college curricula have been given more importance than they perhaps deserve. Being incurably nerdy, I relish the geeky pleasures of four-part writing, species counterpoint, and all the rest of it, but I don’t see why our theory and history textbooks focus so much on, say, serialism, an episode in Western art music that I consider rather overstated in the academy and much less important to the long view of twentieth-century Western music history than octatonicism. And I say this as an enthusiast of the Second Viennese School. Sure, let’s study Berg’s Lyric Suite and so forth, but I admit I have very little interest in the post-Webern serialists, and if we’re talking post-WW2, I’d rather listen to what the composers in the politically constrained Soviet Union were doing because I find that their music speaks more meaningfully to me.

And to audiences, who will typically only give a “modern” piece of music one chance. No wonder music lovers feel so alienated from the Western “art” music of the past fifty years when the academy insists on feeding it to them as if it’s some kind of yucky vegetable that you have to chew through virtuously before you can have ice cream (Tchaikovsky). And when the academy insists that pop and rock music aren’t as valid as “art” music, and confines anything non-Western to non-compulsory electives within the music degree.


I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that students oughtn’t to learn the fundamentals of what make Western music work. But I do wonder if music educators everywhere, myself included, couldn’t do a better job of explaining why we do these things. In addition to teaching cello, I get to teach a two-semester course in aural skills, and I’ve started presenting the material as a class both in professional-level musicianship (i.e. “you gotta count, people, it’s what gets you gigs”) and in the nuts and bolts of what makes great music great. That is, why we cite Mozart so much when we’re talking about phrase structure. Why we base the rules about parallel perfect consonances around what Bach was doing. Bach and Mozart didn’t know they were obeying the “rules”; those rules were written by nineteenth-century music theorists. Mozart and Bach just thought they were writing some good music.

This, as opposed to “Write a four-part chorale and don’t you dare have any parallel perfect consonances OR ELSE” without explanation or rationale. (Should we get in a time machine, travel to medieval France, and explain–canon-splain?–to the polyphonists of the Notre Dame School that they were “doing it wrong”?)

And you know what? I think we could all stand to know what makes great Indian music and Balinese music and Ghanaian music great too. What makes a well-written pop song work? What is it that differentiates the good from the mediocre in any genre? What does this music mean to the people who make it? Mightn’t studying a more diverse range of musics help us all learn something about what it is to be human?

But when you talk about dispensing with a sacred cow or two (Schubert seems to come up a lot in this discussion, for some reason), this drives some folks crazy.

And in a way this un-diverse mindset reminds me of some episodes in the history of, say, race relations, where certain sectors of white society were very reluctant to give up white privilege because they saw this as favouritism towards people of colour. To them, requests for them to give up their white privilege were an outrage, a prejudicial attack on white people, because it disrupted a hierarchy that they assumed to be innate, to be the natural order of things.

No one likes to give up their particular position in the academic musical firmament. (I should know: I’m a cellist who performs mostly canonical works and whose current major research interest is Bach.) I too have devoted my life to studying and performing Western “art” music, and I love it passionately. But this current controversy goes to show that we should think very, very hard about why academics are getting so mad about what Harvard is doing.

And by the way, Schubert isn’t going to go away. I just Googled him and in less than half a second I got 40.6 million results, so I will make the assumption that if he gets skimped on in the new Music History 101 class, people can, if they wish, learn something about Die schöne Müllerin.