The prospect of infusing non-Western musical works, practices, and concepts into music theory courses— especially those steeped in Western art music (WAM)—raises numerous questions that challenge common pedagogical practices while creating new avenues for student inquiry. For instance, how might instructors invite students to become curious about non-Western music (NWM) while helping them identify and deconstruct the aesthetic expectations and analytical assumptions inherited from prior training? Can NWM serve as a doorway to understanding the culture, religion, politics, and history of global communities, as well as indigenous musical terms and concepts, or must these significant contextual frames be imparted and understood prior to sharing musical works or performances? Is it possible for students to adapt Western-oriented musical concepts when discussing NWM without extending troubling histories of colonialism, western hegemony, and the "privilege of white perspectives" (Stimeling and Tokar 2020; see also Kajikawa 2020, Figueroa 2020)? How might both students and instructors develop a dialectical method that enables them to engage NWM using music analysis while critiquing prior concepts about music through their experience of NWM?
This article emerged from dialogues about these questions between the authors and members of their respective disciplines. The authors, representing the disciplines of music theory and ethnomusicology, wrote collaboratively in order to explore this topic from multiple perspectives. However, the characters in the dialogue below do not represent either one of the authors or any particular member of the field. In the dialogue, an ethnomusicologist ("Ema"), music theorist ("Matt"), and undergraduate students ("Hugo" and "Ugnė") converse about initiatives to decenter WAM and embrace an inclusive representation of musics, theories, and pedagogical approaches in core music theory classes. This essay highlights the importance of situating NWM in its socio-cultural contexts, overcoming the pervasive influence of Western concepts and terminology in music theory courses, and integrating NWM into pedagogical practices across the curriculum.
Hugo: Hi Professors! That performance was amazing! My friend Ugnė and I really enjoyed hearing the Bansuri and the performer's experience learning the instrument in India.
Ema: I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I'd like to hear more about your impressions! Ugnė, it is a pleasure to meet you. Are you also a music major?
Ugnė: No, I am majoring in psychology, but I was involved in music before my family immigrated to the U.S. from Lithuania eight years ago. I've always been interested in world music cultures, but I'm not drawn to the conservatory culture of many music programs in the U.S.
Matt: Ema and I were about to grab some coffee. Why don't you two come with us, and we can talk more about what you heard? I was about to share with Ema a new approach I used to introduce world music into my music theory course last spring.
Ema: Please, do come join us!
[Hugo and Ugnė agree to join their professors. Walking to the coffee shop, Ema shares stories of her first time experiencing an Indian classical music concert, and the ways in which this led her to expand her study of Indian music as a scholar and artist. The students are fascinated to hear about her learning process. By the time their coffee and desserts arrive, both students are intrigued and eager to learn more about NWM.]
Hugo: Matt, you mentioned that you recently introduced NWM into your theory class, but you were quiet on our walk. Can you share what you tried?
Matt: Sure, but honestly, I feel a bit nervous, as I don't have Ema's background in world music. And yet I wanted to help my students develop their musical concepts using music beyond the western canon, especially after reading essays about music theory's "hidden curriculum" and "white racial frame."
Ema: You know, Matt, even if you don't have an in-depth background in world music, as a music theorist, you have a sensitive and well-trained ear! What did you have in mind?
Matt: Well, I've been using PollEverywhere lately to foster a more student-centered learning environment. Using this tool, students post questions, ideas, and analytical insights while listening. I respond by providing necessary clarifications and helping them build on the collective insights they bring to the music. Last spring, I asked my Aural Skills II students to drop a pin, using the map tool in PollEverywhere, somewhere they had never experienced musically. I challenged groups of students to discover two or three pieces or performances that represent local composers, musicians, or musical traditions, and to report their analytical observations to the class.
Ugnė: Could we see this assignment?
Matt: Sure, here's the activity and a screenshot of the map tool (Example 1).
Ugnė: There is a pin in my country of Lithuania! I moved to the US when I was young, so I grew up listening to American pop music, but my parents and grandparents often listen to Lithuanian choral music here in the U.S.
Ema: Interesting! It's easy to drop a pin, but more difficult to pinpoint the musical culture of a site, given the mobility of musical styles and genres across regional boundaries.
Hugo: I wonder what geographical regions would be most popular? I'd be fascinated to see over time if students gravitate to particular locations.
Ema: I would be, too! Within ethnomusicology, despite younger scholars' efforts to broaden the field, certain areas and genres, such as Indian classical music, Indonesian gamelan, and West African drumming have received greater attention in the classroom, while others have yet to be explored. I suppose you could say that world music classes have their own diversity problem! Anyway, do you know why groups chose the locations that they did?
Matt: Not in every case. I do recall that one group member was going on a Baltic cruise that summer, so they decided to drop a pin in Lithuania. The students ended up choosing a collection of sutartinės to present.
Ugnė: How exciting! My mother used to sing these folk songs with her friends at the social hall. I was a young child at the time, but I'll never forget the sound of the women's voices.
Matt: I wish you had been in that class! I was learning about this vocal tradition alongside the students.
Ugnė: That's kind of you to say. It would have been fun to learn music theory using those songs.
Hugo: Here's an example sutartinė that I found on YouTube. Could we listen to it?
Matt: Yes, please! [Hugo holds up his phone and the others pause to listen.] The sutartinė that we heard in class was similar to this one, except that the second voice entered a step lower rather than higher. Unfortunately, the students tried to explain this interval, and all the other 2nds in the song, as a dissonance, based on the concepts they had learned from Peter Schubert's YouTube videos on singing counterpoint. They didn't realize that the entrance at a major 2nd is a significant part of the sonic fabric of these songs.
Ema: That's right! The name of this genre, sutartinė indicates "concordance" which implies a harmonious sound. Thus, in Lithuanian culture, the intervallic 2nd would not be perceived as a dissonance but rather as an essential ingredient of the overall aesthetic. In this way, the concept of what is harmonious is understood differently. This sonic feature is common throughout the Baltic region as well as a majority of Eastern European cultures.
Ugnė: My grandmother used to say that sutartinės can be understood through a legend dating back to the pre-Christian era. These legends describe the "female shamans" who performed sutartinės in a sacred context. Also they were sung only by women, and often were accompanied by social dancing.
Ema: This background helps explain the repetitive sonic texture and the interval of the 2nd, whose bell-like resonance invokes the atmosphere of the shaman ritual. In general, the sonic elements and organization of world musics are difficult to fully explain and understand apart from their societal and cultural contexts. Learning world music involves an immersive process of cross-cultural experiences, not simply a cataloging of site information, instruments, and styles.
Matt: That's my problem! One of my biggest challenges in the Pin-Drop Activity was figuring out how to bridge the cultural background and the musical analysis. I found that the students spoke about the music just as they might speak about a classical sonata. Sometimes, I feel like theory classes are like big meat grinders. No matter what music you feed in, you get the same sausage!
Hugo: I think I may understand part of the problem. In my anthropology seminar last week, my professor shared this book by Michael Dietler. [Hugo pulls the book from his backpack and finds a highlighted page.] Dietler speaks of colonialism in terms of consumption, noting how "foreign objects are of interest not for what they represent in the society of origin but for their perceived use and meaning in the context of consumption" (Dietler 2010, 55).
Matt: That's a good point. In my class, I was uncomfortable with how students were borrowing terms from their textbooks that didn't apply well to the music being described. The students' analyses contained some valuable insights, but were often expressed using language and concepts alien to the musics' cultural contexts. Instead of expanding their conceptual frame through their experience of world music, students seemed to squeeze world music through the narrow filter of Western music theory. And yet, while I've been tempted to throw out the entire activity and only present examples of NWM that I've studied, I'm worried that I would do more harm than good. Not only am I liable to evaluate non-Western music and culture within my own "context of consumption," but students might perceive NWM as inaccessible without an expert to properly contextualize everything they hear.
Hugo: Matt, I hear your concern. I can't speak for all students, but I know that many of us are thinking about these issues in other courses, both in music history and in our GenEd classes like my seminar. We may be better prepared to critically evaluate the frames within which we encounter both Western and NWM than you realize. In his book, Dietler also warns against "reductively [explaining indigenous life] simply by their supposed hegemonic or counterhegemonic functions within an overarching colonial system." Instead, he proposes focusing on "situated agency" by considering how "choices, desires, and actions"—including musical activities—"arise from particular cultural systems of categories and dispositions, particular positions within social fields, and particular sets of practices" (Dietler 2010, 56). You know, Matt, one solution may be to broaden the scope of music theory, such that the objects of analysis are not only the pieces of music but the ways in which these pieces operate within these overlapping social, cultural, and political fields. Wouldn't you think that the meaning of the musical structures we study relates closely to the music and social practices in which the music was created?
Matt: Yes, I do. Ironically, music theorists seem more inclined to make these connections in their research than in their textbooks, although we still have far to go as a discipline. Ema, how do ethnomusicologists present the socio-cultural networks within which performances occur? How might a music theorist determine what level of contextual detail is necessary when introducing NWM?
Ema: That's tricky, considering that the breadth and depth of the background of musical works involves a variety of contexts. For example, the timbral aspects of the Japanese shakuhachi may be contextualized in reference to Zen Buddhist monks, who play the instrument as part of their training, but one could also consider the ecological aspects of bamboo. Whichever contexts the instructor chooses, any connection made between the musical elements and the related cultural aspects would increase students' understanding.
Matt: Since last spring, I've been thinking about how to properly contextualize the NWM that students bring to class. As you know, the more time spent on background information, the fewer examples we can study. On the flip side, using too few examples smacks of tokenism and imbalance (Stroud 2018). And let us not forget that this is a music theory class: I can hardly find the time to properly contextualize even the WAM and popular songs that we study!
Ema: Time is the constant enemy in my world music classes, too. Not only are there numerous musical pieces, genres, instruments, and scenes from around the world to cover in our limited time, but even the meaning, performance, and reception of a single work can shift from one region to the next. In world music classes and textbooks, you'll find carefully selected examples of world cultures and musical genres. But instructors still have to balance time spent on the larger social and cultural contexts with opportunities for exploring musical elements, genres, and repertoires. One solution to both our problems could be to revise the curriculum by starting both theory and history core sequences with a single course on the history and analysis of world music. This course could immerse majors in the sonic and social aspects of listening and performance across different cultures. Ideally, students could build on this inclusive musical foundation throughout the following courses in both sequences (Walker 2020, Grenade 2014, Moore 2017).
Matt: That's a great idea. Even if we couldn't change the curriculum, theory instructors could include units on NWM within the first semester aural and written courses. But let me ask you this: given that many students arrive at college already steeped in WAM, concepts, and culture, how can we approach NWM when we don't have sufficient tools and language to analyze it? Lacking the cultural background and appropriate terminology, how might we approach NWM without being rendered mute?
Ugnė: I'm surprised to hear you say that, Matt. My friends and I are not music majors, but we have found creative ways to talk about music we enjoy and to communicate our ideas with mutual understanding.
Ema: I know what you mean, Ugnė. I have found that a similar process happens in explaining the NWM elements in my classroom. The world music class is often a mixture of music majors and non-music majors, and I have noticed that they find their own terms with which to communicate. This process can be challenging and enriching at the same time. I encourage students to find new ideas, concepts, and descriptors for discussing world music, but also new ways of hearing and notating. As a first step, I ask students to transcribe what they hear, using whatever notational system or visual presentation they wish. This practice is a common training ethnomusicologists undergo, both in graduate school and in the field (England et al 1964, Nettl 2005). Often, the "listening" process can be even more valuable than the transcription itself (List 1974, Jairazbhoy 1977). Some instructors also diversify the subjects of transcription to encourage their students to explore and develop more flexible notational possibilities. For example, one of my graduate professors asked us to transcribe the sound of a subway door closing. The transcription process made me think about representing texture, timbre, attack, and time in new ways, and I became much more sensitive to music's acoustic properties.
Matt: What a fascinating challenge! That transcription assignment relates more closely to music theory than you might think. Students in music theory courses develop underlying cognitive skills such as problem decomposition, abstraction, and data representation, all skills involved in transcription. Nevertheless, incorporating such activities would require that I adjust some aspects of the way I teach music theory. For instance, I could decouple these cognitive skills and their application from the narrow set of music- and style-specific tools (such as Roman numerals or cadence types) and notational systems that I normally teach. The analytical approaches demonstrated by Judy Lochhead or Daniel Stevens could be adapted for use in undergraduate classrooms, as could Asaf Peres's approach to sonic functions in popular music. Encouraging my students to speak about music using more general terminology could allow them more flexibility in how they think about and respond to unfamiliar sounds.
Hugo: I don't know if you've heard this before, but many students find the classical music they play to be almost nothing like the examples studied in the textbook. We joke about how little music theory seems to apply when we encounter music "in the wild."
Ugnė: It seems to me that ethnomusicology emphasizes a holistic understanding of music and its context, whereas music theory tends to focus on more atomistic details and relationships.
Ema: But the real prize would be to find a synthesis between the two disciplines, a kind of productive cross-pollination of ideas and approaches. With that in mind, I've been adding some ideas to the Pin-Drop Activity that you shared earlier, along with some questions that invite students to listen carefully without biases or expectations. Do you think an assignment like this would be useful?
Matt: Wow, that's quite an improvement. I like the holistic approach, blending contextualization, transcription, and description, and the ways in which students can transcribe their listening go far beyond the symbols we normally use. This activity encourages students to develop their understanding of the music and performers they encounter, and themselves as listeners and situated agents within specific socio-cultural networks.
Hugo: You know, Matt, the intensive listening practice that Ema recommended is something we could also do in Aural Skills. Isn't the transcription process you describe in the revised assignment a form of ear training, but with NWM, minus traditional notation?
Ema: Yes and no, Hugo. When studying any music, and especially world music, developing a heightened aural awareness and sensitivity are the first steps in the process. We then verbalize the sonic structure in order to share our cognitive process regarding something new and unknown. So long as the transcriptions take place within a Western frame of reference, you've got a good beginning, although it could still be difficult to achieve a sufficient understanding of NWM.
Ugnė: What would you recommend to go deeper?
Ema: One of the best ways to be immersed in the sonic structures and indigenous terminologies of NWM is through performing (Solis 2004, Widdess 1994). This experience can also provide an entry into historically established NWM theories such as Indian raga, Arabic maqam, and so on.
Matt: While my program doesn't have the resources to establish a world music ensemble, I could certainly engage my students in performance-based activities. The staggered, polyphonic singing of sutartinės would be a great way to begin, especially if I can convince Ugnė to visit my classes that week! This is one way that students could bridge theory and performance, and the activity could be enriched by inviting students and faculty with experience in that repertoire to participate.
Ema: Along these lines, ethnomusicologists have explored approaches to stylistic analysis (Nettl 2005, 92–112) and performance analysis (Schieffelin 2005) that you could draw on to explain the performative context (Tenzer 2006, Tenzer & Roeder 2011). There also exists some earlier literature on traditional, historically established NWM notations (Ellingson 1992 a & b, Kaufman 1967). Learning about these performative aspects would provide students another gateway into thinking about cross-cultural relations.
Matt: Ideally, I'd like my students to see musical texts and contexts as intertwined, like the continuous side of a mobius strip (Korsyn 2003, 124). In this way, the subject of analysis could shift from the music itself to the network of relationships between musical and social structures and practices. This approach could allow students to observe both the correspondence and contradictions that can occur within musical and social contexts (Koskoff 1993).
Ema: Other scholars (Seeger 2004, Feld 1984, Kisliuk 1998) have offered similar approaches that illustrate how musical texts are intermeshed within everyday life and social structures. As a simple example, the complex multilayered BaAka's sound structure and music-making in Central African Republic in Kisliuk's ethnographic work reflect their deep forest environment and the way in which they live communally.
Hugo: Ema, I see how learning indigenous terminologies would help us break our automatic use of Western language and concepts, but are there NWM notational traditions that could unseat the primacy of staff notation in our theory classes?
Ema: Absolutely. Some of the Chinese Qin notation, for example, would be a good example of how differently the performative idea of music has been conceptualized, represented and notated in another culture.
Ugnė: As I've been listening, I've found myself wondering what shared objectives or questions could tie your disciplines together.
Ema: That's a difficult question, Ugnė. The scope of NWM materials and its studies is as broad as the world's cultures, and our discursive field has grown in diverse directions, including recent studies of environmental and ecological materials, music and place/space, transcultural/intercultural music making, and so on.
Matt: Even though my music theory classes often do not explicitly reference these frames, theory instructors like me could certainly engage current ethnomusicological research as a starting point for designing learning activities. This approach could provide a way to fluidly move across disciplinary boundaries in both theory and ethnomusicology classes. For instance, as was reading Timothy Taylor's recent article on circulation, value, and exchange, I thought of an analysis assignment in which students identify musical features of two different song types – say a sutartinė and a song by Taylor Swift – that pertain to the spheres and means by which these songs circulate. This assignment would engage students in careful listening and analysis, but the analytical activity would be motivated by broader questions about cultural context, performance, and reception.
Ema: I like that idea, Matt. Comparative studies within a common framework would highlight significant aspects of musical structure and performance in unique ways. Another possible project might be to explore the Australian didgeridoo as an object of "colonial and postcolonial gaze," both in a traditional corroboree ceremony and in Kakadu (1988) by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. Students could look for specific didgeridoo sound features in these two different representations in order to extend their understanding of this musical phenomenon. Such activities require a mindful approach given the complicated intersections and divergences between music theoretical and ethnomusicological methodologies in the classroom. Not only is music theory pedagogy steeped in WAM, but it often takes a top-down approach, using musical examples to demonstrate abstract generalizations across a vast "common practice." By contrast, the pedagogical framework employed within world music classes is based on a variety of different musical sounds and structures from different cultures. How might we explore the intersection between theory and ethnomusicology without collapsing either pursuit into the other? How might we invite students to consider unfamiliar sounds and performances without overlooking the culturally and socially specific elements of the music?
Matt: However we answer those questions, I feel more confident having taken the first steps of this journey together.
[Seeing that the cafe was closing, Hugo and Ugnė thanked the professors for the conversation and coffee, and after bidding each other goodnight, each went their separate ways.]
The questions posed in the introduction and discussed by our friendly interlocutors do not admit answers that can be adequately addressed from a single disciplinary perspective (nor in a short essay such as this). Nearly every utterance spoken above was subject to lengthy conversations about terminology, methodology, and pedagogical values, not to mention our many enlightening discussions about music and culture. We hope that this dialogue has encouraged instructors who seek to broaden their students' musical horizons beyond Western shores to collaborate with other faculty and students. For a worthy endeavor such as this deserves to take root not only within one or two classes but across the curriculum.
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2/18/2022: Added Scott Strovas to list of peer reviewers.