Opening Music

This is the seventh in our current series of short essays by participants in the Open Knowledge Fellowship coordinated by the Mina Rees Library, these from Fellows in the Spring 2022 cohort. Fellows share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY.

Stephen Gomez-Peck is a doctoral candidate in music theory at the Graduate Center CUNY. His research investigates how form operates as a stylistic marker in hip-hop music. Stephen teaches music theory and history classes at Hunter and Queens Colleges, CUNY, and loves long distance running and cycling.

The Open Knowledge Fellowship first interested me for both practical and theoretical reasons. I had used the CUNY Academic Commons to build course sites in previous semesters. The customizability of the Commons as well as its user-friendly interface—especially for encouraging discourse among students in the form of blog posts—made it an attractive pedagogical tool. I was less certain about whether I was following healthy licensing practices; additionally, I was curious to exchange ideas with scholars and teachers from a variety of disciplines and perhaps pick up new approaches to try in my own teaching. 

More abstractly speaking, the Open Knowledge Fellowship considered questions that have long been on my mind and relate to trends in the field of music theory, which is going through a long-overdue identity crisis thanks to Dr. Philip Ewell’s work critiquing the pedagogical and scholarly orientation of music theorists with reference to the white racial frame. These include questions like: What is knowledge? How is knowledge controlled and who controls it? What impact do barriers to access have on knowledge, teaching, and learning? 

I now leave the fellowship with a better understanding of Creative Commons licensing, the economic landscape of academic publishing, and an awareness of the plethora of search engines and resources for accessing Open Educational Resources (OERs) and Open Access scholarship. My favorite newly-discovered resource is the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive, maintained by the University of Massachusetts, Boston. This archive houses hundreds of tapes made by locally-known emcees active in and around Boston during the 1980s. Each item in the archive includes pictures of the tapes and audio files that play their contents. Most of the recordings sound foreign to modern popular music listening ears, which is precisely what makes them such captivating pieces for both research and teaching.

In my scholarship, I am interested in how form (the succession of musical sections like intros, verses, and choruses) in hip-hop has changed over time. Hip-hop was still a young genre during the ’80s, and so only the recordings of the most famous artists are easily accessible. The Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive adds invaluable examples to my corpus. Further, I can only imagine the interesting reactions these recordings would garner if I brought them into a classroom filled with students who listen to post-millennial hip-hop. 

Over the course of the fellowship, I also redesigned the syllabus and created a new Commons course site for my Fundamentals of Music Theory class. This is a class taken as a general education requirement by non-music majors with the goal of introducing Western classical music notation, rhythm, melody, and harmony from scratch. Having taught this class for three semesters now, I have felt worried that the course content alienates students because it centers on a white musical style while the student demographic is by far majority-minority.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with studying white cultural artifacts, and the students are usually enthused and devote themselves deeply to the course. However, the spirit of OERs calls for us as educators to not only break down barriers to access in financial and institutional terms but also avoid reinventing a broken wheel, so to speak, that often forges a path that excludes people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals. 

To this end, my newly designed class contains features that encourage inclusion of a more diverse set of cultural, racial, ethnic, and sexual perspectives while enabling students to use a wider range of learning modalities. For example, through weekly blog posts, students will engage in writing, a form of thinking and learning not commonly used in music theory courses that invites more exploratory and self-expressive rather than mathematical and prescribed thinking.

Additionally, I have attempted to infuse mini-lessons in history, rather than just music theory. This approach adds context to the abstract tools of music composition that we will study, and will hopefully interest a wider range of students, some of whom relate more passionately to (hi)stories than to acoustical properties and notation.

Finally, I have included a Spotify playlist with examples for studying various topics throughout the semester. The playlist includes Western classical examples by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, but diversifies the repertoire with songs by Stevie Wonder, Billie Eilish, Noname, and the Beatles, to name a few.

The Open Knowledge Fellowship fosters skills and conversations that are crucial to the ever-evolving nature of pedagogy and research. I leave feeling better-prepared to tackle issues of access, content, and ontology as a professional in my field. 

Works Cited

Ewell, Philip. “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame.” Music Theory Online 26, no. 2, September 2020.

University of Massachusetts, Boston. Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive, 2016.

Photo: Romito, Francesco. “Akai MPC 2000XL.” Licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.