UP CLOSE | How a reshaped music major is influencing accessibility, depth and perspective

UP CLOSE | How a reshaped music major is influencing accessibility, depth and perspective

Since changes to Yale College’s music major were unveiled in 2018, students and faculty evaluate how the changes have shaped music at Yale and whether they are here to stay.

Published on April 7, 2021

Music is one of humans’ greatest tools of communication and methods of interaction. But the classical music taught and performed at established programs including the Yale Department of Music has long maintained a Western European focus — failing to capitalize on the cultural connections that can be mediated through studying music outside of this canon, according to professor of music Brian Kane.

But in recent years, nationwide movements like Black Lives Matter have led to increased calls on musical institutions to improve diversity and equity within their curriculums and performance repertoire by raising questions of why academia and, specifically the arts, lack representation and diversity.

Spurred by these questions, the Department of Music developed new requirements for the music major that were implemented in 2017 and 2018. These amended requirements — aimed to increase accessibility to the major and the field, as well as diversify the program beyond its focus on Western art music — would first apply to the class of 2020.

“I think the whole classical art community has gone through a reckoning,” music major Lisl Wangermann ’21 said. “[After the killing of] George Floyd, every art organization has looked at their repertoire and their seasons and their boards and the people in charge.”

The previous music major requirements included four mandatory music theory courses — MUSI 210, 211, 218 and 219 — as well as four specific music history courses, alongside other requirements. Now, instead of specific courses, the major requires students to take classes within four broader categories in the department: popular music, vernacular music or music of non-Western traditions; composition and performance; music theory; or the Western art music tradition.

The music department also now offers more specialized courses that allow students to fulfill their requirements, including MUSI 232, “Central Javanese Gamelan Ensemble,” and MUSI 207, “Commercial and Popular Music Theory.”

Ian Quinn, former director of undergraduate studies and current chair of the Department of Music, said that though these changes had been “a long time coming,” the sociopolitical climate on campus in 2017 marked a “decisive moment” for these amendments. At this time, the university was considering renaming Calhoun College, because the college’s namesake, former vice president John C. Calhoun, defended slavery. The college is now Grace Hopper College.

Since their introduction in 2018, department leadership hope these curricular changes have impacted the study of music for Yale college students in four main ways: accessibility, perspective, specialization and increasing diversity and representation.

Still, the room for the department to grow in terms of its non-Western offerings has not gone unnoticed by students. Alex Whittington ’22 said that the music major remains largely centered around the Western art music tradition — especially since all courses that do not belong to the Western canon are relegated to ‘Group IV’ of the major.

Whittington noted that though the course offerings are expanding and some core classes like the music history sequence ask students to evaluate the contents of the courses themselves, “the path to a degree is still very much paved by Western art music.”

Music Department Director of Undergraduate Studies Anna Zayaruznaya said that the department has been looking to bring in more faculty specializing in ethnomusicology and music of the world, but hiring freezes instated due to the pandemic have delayed these plans.

I found myself wondering, why am I trying to force this specific sound world on them? Why do I need to go so far out of my way to get them to write a string quartet minuet that sounds like Mozart instead of Beethoven, when there are much broader, more compelling musical questions to be addressed?

—Ian Quinn, Chair of the Department of Music

Improving accessibility

In their first year of college, bassoonist and music major Marty Tung ’21 enrolled in the music theory course MUSI 210, “Elementary Studies in Analysis & Composition I.” Yet with a limited background in musical theory, Tung found the course more challenging than expected.

“They started talking about a ‘cantus firmus,’ and I had no idea what that was,” Tung said, laughing. “I think most instrumentalists are expected to have a grasp on theoretical concerns — but that’s not always the case.”

Zayaruznaya did not think it necessary for the major to require difficult entry level requirements, specifically MUSI 210 and MUSI 211. As part of the new changes, these courses are available to students in certain semesters but no longer required for majors.

“Often you’ll get an advanced seminar that actually doesn’t really need the skills from 210 and  211,” Zayaruznaya said. “So what’s the point of requiring that? Advanced classes aren’t necessarily just advanced because they require prior knowledge.”

The department’s new major requirements aim to make music courses more accessible to students from all backgrounds, according to Quinn. With a diversification of Yale’s student population in the past decades, increasing numbers of students come to college interested in music but lacking prior training in Western music theory or history, he said. To adapt to students’ changing needs and differing levels of prior knowledge, the music department now offers more fundamental courses in music theory, some of which are grounded in non-Western musical traditions.

Quinn and Tung noted that in the past, some Yale music theory courses presupposed a familiarity with the Western musical canon, which created an imbalance in the classroom and drove away students with no prior experience in studying music.

“I found myself wondering, why am I trying to force this specific sound world on them?” Quinn asked. “Why do I need to go so far out of my way to get them to write a string quartet minuet that sounds like Mozart instead of Beethoven, when there are much broader, more compelling musical questions to be addressed?”

When she began her music theory courses, vocalist Maryanne Cosgrove ’21 initially felt she had to work harder than her classmates who came equipped with rigorous instrumental training.

“Even though I felt like I had a really good music exposure, I didn’t quite realize the population that I would be compared against at Yale and the kind of resources that they had,” Cosgrove said.

Now, students can choose from a variety of music theory courses besides Western music theory. The department also continues to introduce new courses — such as Quinn’s “MUSI 100, “Melody, Rhythm and Notation in Global Context”— in which students learn music by singing repetitively and study an alternative musical notation developed by Quinn.

They started talking about a ‘cantus firmus,’ and I had no idea what that was. I think most instrumentalists are expected to have a grasp on theoretical concerns — but that’s not always the case.

—Marty Tung '21

The material in new courses like MUSI 100 is generally unfamiliar to all students, which allows classmates to enter the course on the same base level of musical knowledge, Quinn previously told the News.

But according to composer and violist Jacob Miller ’22, these changes may have made music courses more appealing to students in other majors rather than increase accessibility for music majors. Miller noted that to an extent, classes within the major are inaccessible because they require a background in music theory, which is similar to higher level courses with prerequisites in other majors.

Zayaruznaya said that she has no concern over the major losing its rigor, since students will be more enthusiastic if they are able to choose a course they are passionate about from a wider set of options.

“For music majors, it’s nice to see the music we take seriously, independent of our music education, get represented more in the required curriculum,” Miller said, citing genres including EDM and early jazz.

Introducing different perspectives

The music major’s new course offerings and requirements also strive to expose music students to musical traditions from around the globe, although some say the department does not go far enough.

Quinn said that exposure to music from various places and periods offers a “rigorous challenge” for students studying music. Just as learning a new language can inform a person about another culture’s mentality, studying music from different regions can “expand the limits of musicians’ minds” and change the ways they think about music.

“The world is a big place and time is very long, and to reach out from the very small area that Western classical music covers is a challenge for anybody who does it — and a very rewarding one,” Quinn said.

For example, unlike Western music, Javanese Gamelan — a type of Indonesian traditional ensemble music made up primarily of percussive instruments — is not based on written musical notation. The department offers a class on this type of music: MUSI 232, “Central Javanese Gamelan Ensemble.”

“Music was mostly learned orally, and it’s only sort of recently that notation has become a widely accepted way of learning music,” Tung explained.

Wangermann, who studies opera, took a class called MUSI 491, “Musical Afrofuturisms” to fulfill one of her requirements. She said she had never heard the term “Afrofuturism” before taking class, which was first offered in fall 2020. After taking it, she explained that Afrofuturist artists “mix timelines in order to change or redefine stereotypical narratives surrounding the African continent and people of the African diaspora.”

“I don’t know if I will ever be a part of an Afrofuturist opera, but it definitely informs the way I look at art,” Wangermann said. “I think as musicians we tend to specify and focus on what we want to do early. If you want to compose, you focus on composing; if you want to sing opera, you focus on singing opera. A lot of times, the other opportunities in the world can pass you by because you’re so focused on what you’re trying to do. I think being forced to take the time to expose yourself to new things is really important, and it’s really great that it’s built into this major.”

Wangermann added that being required to study music of different origins is not only important for a musician’s study on the “micro level of classical music,” the focus of most traditional music programs, but also on a “macro level” of human experience.

“Having a broader perspective and learning more about things that [we] don’t immediately understand is incredibly important in this very polarized society that we live in,” Wangermann said. “The more I understand about different types of people or people who have a different experience than I do, the better I am at empathizing with others and talking to people with different perspectives.”

Depth and breadth: Impacts on specialization

Within the music major, students are now offered a wider variety of topics to study, from a broader array of introductory courses to highly specialized upper-level seminars.

According to music professor Brian Kane, this expansion of courses gives students more opportunities to direct their personal musical paths, in contrast with the music major’s earlier requirements that heavily emphasized training in Western classical music.

“Now, we’re much more interested in breadth, and then people can specialize in the way they want to,” Kane said. “It allows people to come through and figure out what they need to study music in a way that’s going to be robust and interesting for them and help carry them on into whatever pursuits they do. We don’t push people into particular channels as much as in the past.”

As an option for students to study a form of music outside of the Western classical tradition, Kane and professor Michael Veal introduced two new historical survey courses on jazz music that majors can use to fulfill a music history requirement. Kane teaches MUSI 380, “Jazz in America, 1900-1960,” and Veal teaches MUSI 381, “Jazz in Transition, 1960-2000.”

“We have room for anybody who’s really interested in studying music with intensity, thought and depth,” Kane said.

But expanding the range and breadth of courses also has a downside. According to music major and peer tutor for the introductory music theory sequence Dani Zanuttini-Frank ’22, encouraging students to take a diverse range of courses can actually diminish students’ ability to specialize. Because the major offers introductory courses on a wider range of topics, students are more disposed to gain a basic knowledge of diverse topics rather than specialize in a single area.

Zanuttini-Frank said that in expanding its array of courses, he feels that the department is providing fewer opportunities for students who share one of his areas of interest — traditional Western music theory — to specialize in the field or gain in-depth knowledge.

Zayaruznaya said that despite some courses not being offered in certain semesters, no course in the department has been removed from the curriculum. She added that with the new major, students can choose to either go for breadth or to specialize.

Quinn echoed Zanuttini-Frank’s statement, saying that demanding breadth in students’ courses of study was a way the department intended to make the curriculum more equitable. Yet he added that in coming years, the department will offer new courses that will be open to qualified undergraduates alongside graduate students — some of which will be upper level music theory courses.

“Music is in every culture. Every culture has got its musical practices. And even within any national or regional context, there is a whole diversity of musical practices. Music can do work that other forms of discourse can’t do.”

—Brian Kane, professor of music

Diversity and representation beyond departmental offerings

Amid recent racial justice protests, music curriculums and performance groups have also begun to make stronger efforts to diversify their musical repertoires. 

Changes in music curriculums have effects that go beyond improving students’ musical skill, Quinn said. According to him, part of the department’s intention behind changing the major’s requirements was to make the major more representative of the “student body as a whole.”

“All of us — performers and audiences — benefit when the music we explore is as diverse as the world we live in,” Glee Club Director Jeffrey Douma, who works with many students in the Department of Music, said. “We have a lot of work to do in the world of choral music, but I think we are seeing a true recognition in our field that we must study and perform a broader and more diverse range of voices.”

Wangermann, who was part of the Opera Theatre of Yale College before graduating last fall semester, said that to ensure the lasting impact of curricula and repertoire changes, the effort must extend beyond departmental offerings.

“Smaller arts organizations need to be on the forefront of making this change,” Wangermann said. “We have the resources, we have the dedication, we have the motivation to make a positive change in the way that classical music works. It’s really important that art represents or reflects the audience. And that starts with what you produce and what you create.”

In exposing musicians to diverse curricula and musical traditions, Kane sees the means to create both better musicians and better humans. Kane explained that since music is an essential characteristic of human nature, exposure to a diverse array of music theory, history and performance is necessary to inculcate better informed attitudes in people.

“Music is in every culture,” Kane said. “Every culture has got its musical practices. And even within any national or regional context, there is a whole diversity of musical practices. Music can do work that other forms of discourse can’t do.”

Marisol Carty | marisol.carty@yale.edu


Correction, April 7: Due to  a copy editing error, a previous version of the story incorrectly stated Marty Tung’s first name. The story has been updated.


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