May 27, 2018

Us and Them: The Disconnect Between Musical Education and the Modern World


by Bridget Stiebris

There’s nothing like the pungent smell of litter and increased crime reports to mark the beginning of another Chicago summer. With the stress of exams behind them, high school and college students alike can finally take a breath of relief as their obligations drift away for a fleeting three months. For the collegiate musician, a formal education brings the expectations of coursework immersed in relevant and rigorous training that will lead to a smarter, more capable musician, ready to meet the demands of today’s complex world of music. But is that the reality? University art curricula are often criticized for graduating students who have no preparation for the business of art. Do musicians fare any better?

Perhaps so, for those who seek a career as a classical musician, as conservatories and colleges build their music programs around this genre. But what of the electric guitar virtuoso, the wicked fast rapper, of the visionary contemporary composer? Does the classical curriculum educate and prepare them for a career in modern music?

Now, I am not suggesting that students analyze a Beyonce album, but hasn’t something musically important happened within the past 56 years? Why is almost every genre besides classical seemingly ignored by this curriculum? Sure, schools have a jazz studies department. However, as said by a jazz professor at DePaul, “Music school is a place for classical education. Jazz is merely tolerated.”

So what is the reasoning behind this stark discipline of classical music in formal education? While there is no question of the importance of Mahler or Mozart on the complexities of harmonic dissonance and chordal structure, surely someone in the non-classical world has made a difference in the culture and understanding of music. Gospel music unites those of the same faith and creates a passionate, rewarding experience and safer communities. Modern folk music, along with musical theater, rock, and jazz, each have rich histories filled with innovations that influenced not only the music of today, but each other. So why do we keep all of these innovators swept under the rug?


Mark Maxwell:

Classical Guitar professor at DePaul

“There have been settings of Beatles tunes by classical composers such as Luciano Berio, Toru Takemitsu and Peter Serkin among others. This in no way goes towards creating a pop music curriculum. The idea of traditional classical training, which honestly has been watered down since I was in school and sort of pathetic compared to European conservatory training, is to give serious musicians the rigorous training they need to function in the demanding venues of classical music. ‘Contemporary’ music is pervasive in the culture. But even then some schools like Berklee in Boston have their main curriculum in popular music.”


Joe Clark:

Adjunct professor of Aural Training, Jazz Trumpet at DePaul

“Yes, schools should have opportunities to explore all kinds of music. There are certain elements of sound and performance that are essential for professional musicians. Studying “classical music” or “jazz music” can be a very effective way of teaching those concepts. However, the application of those concepts is nearly universal!

Classical music and jazz music are both genres that deal with a high degree of complexity and nuance in their sounds and require a critical rooting in aesthetics, history, and the study of art.  Although I can think of exceptions in nearly every genre, the success of “pop” genres can be predicated on cultural influence, lyrical poetics, the machinations of music business, and a whole bunch of other concepts that don’t necessarily have to do with the sound itself. I always encourage students to expand their musical horizons and check out as much music as they can, but my ear training classes have a fundamental rooting in classical music because it is such a fertile source of examples of a variety of harmonic and melodic sounds.”


Comparing these two perspectives, it is interesting to see how opinions vary based on areas of study. I feel like some professors give modernity consideration, but never seriously think about adding it to a curriculum. Others may have such a concentration on the classical areas that they have no need to consider a more modern approach. It seems to me that if any sort of change were to come for this topic, we would need a push from contemporary-based performers and teachers who believe in the value of modernity in the classroom. While Professor Clark  makes an excellent point in the richness of classical music’s harmonies, he also acknowledges that these concepts can be applied to almost any genre — which is exactly what we can do.

An opposing argument to this might be: why is there a need to teach modern music in the first place? These students will have no use for this. Why is there a need to bring the Rolling Stones in the same room as Haydn?

Read on.