18 August 2006

Musicologists: You Have a Choice to Make

It was long before my time but nonetheless not too terribly long ago that a college course on the history of European classical music would simply have been called "Music History." Somewhere in the intervening time period, Europeans (and Americans) have become more aware, respectful (and in some cases enamored) of musical traditions from other parts of the world, some of which rival the European tradition in age, refinement, or both. In an effort to acknowledge these traditions and the place they occupy in their respective cultures, the textbook used by most university music departments in their history classes now bears the title "A History of Western Music." But by the time it finally caught on, this minor qualification was wholly insufficient, for the United States had become the scene of a musical cross-polinization that would pose even stickier problems. Since that time, jazz, blues, rock, pop, and rap musicians (man, am I going to take some heat for those last two) have all made significant contributions to Westerm music per se, but none are represented adequately in most universities' music degree program curricula. Musicologists have seemingly chosen to lump this vast body of work together, equating jazz with rock with rap, and make no effort to consider works individually, thus precluding the drawing of any distinction between meritorious and superficial works from each area. This is not "Music History" or even "Western Music History"; it is "Western Classical Music History." How uncomfortable it would make these musicologists to sample the far-reaching and vital European contributions to jazz. How enlightening it could be for them to experience a profound musical statement made by an electric guitarist. And how embarrassing it would be to have a genre in the title of their course or textbook (everyone knows genres are, like, so last century). Alas, it seems that they have avoided it as long as they can. Thelonious Monk is very Western and so very musical; to omit his work from any history of Western music is becoming more egregious with each passing day. Multiply this single case by several hundred others, and thus a technicality balloons into a crisis. Hence, to the musicologists out there, I propose two options regarding next year's courses: add an adjective or add a semester.

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