Defending Music Appreciation Against Its Devotees

Following is the eleventh in our current series of short essays by participants in the Open Knowledge Fellowship coordinated by the Mina Rees Library, 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.

portrait of authorRobert B. Wrigley is a Ph.D. candidate in historical musicology at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College. He holds a MA in Musicology from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and a BA in Music from the University of Puget Sound. He is the co-chair of the 2022 Graduate Students in Music Conference at The Graduate Center. His research interests include liturgical music, the history of the theory and aesthetics of music, topic theory, and the reception of Joseph Haydn.

The concept of a music appreciation course, now ubiquitous in North American higher education, is an artifact of cultural elitism. As established at elite private universities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, music appreciation courses were designed to instill the younger generations of the wealthier classes with a particular form of cultural capital: the requisite knowledge ably and intelligently to discourse on the corpus of so-called “classical” music—a corpus consolidated ex post facto by historians and critics into an apparently coherent and linear tradition with the function of excluding those without the necessary wealth and education properly to “appreciate” it.

This curricular move engendered an elision of one particular tradition of music with “music” tout court, thereby suggesting not only that it was the only tradition of music worthy of the expenditure of academic labor, but also that its precepts were applicable to musical phenomena in general—in short, that the study of this increasingly esoteric and elite tradition of music was of universal appeal and applicability. The exclusionary history of the music appreciation curriculum, therefore, demonstrates the falsity of the universalist claim that supposedly justifies its curricular station. 

A thing’s origin, however, is not its essence, and in my view a music appreciation course, even one centered on the traditional body of European literate music, can have an emancipatory effect, demystifying the Western tradition of music in both the aural-technical and ideological-historical senses; that is to say it can both explicate the traditional knowledge base to a broader audience, thereby lessening the barriers to entry to Western music and rendering its hallowed halls a more democratic and pluralistic space, and explore the ideological concomitants of its politically contingent construction as well-bound, universal, timelessly relevant (i. e., “classical”) tradition. In short, it can explain part of what Benjamin meant when he wrote that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” The capacity of an academic course to effect this, however, is limited not only by the content and theoretical orientation of said course, but also in starkly practical terms by the availability of its pedagogical materials. 

To put it bluntly, the cost of textbooks is exorbitant, a situation exacerbated by the tactics of textbook companies to render unworkable the recycling of used books through planned obsolescence: putting out new editions after absurdly short time intervals and issuing them with non-transferable codes to online resources. This has the effect—be it deliberate or incidental—of reinscribing the elitism present in music appreciation courses from the first by making the knowledge of Western Art Music, and hence the power constructively and critically to engage with it, a commodity accessible only to those of the sort who may afford it. When I first started teaching at Lehman College in the fall of 2019, I found that many of my students had difficulty bearing even the reduced cost of an online-only version of the textbook I had assigned from a for-profit publisher. Deeply flawed as that textbook was, without it to establish a common knowledge base or even a foil, it was difficult even to begin the process of critique.  

Open Educational Resources open up a way out of this problem, and hence for music appreciation to achieve its critical promise, and this was one of the reasons I began to turn to alternative resources for my course. In my second semester of teaching I had already dispensed with the expensive textbook I had assigned my first time around in favor of what at the time I thought of merely as a freely available PDF. It was an important first step, but it was only a first step, for many problems remained: the new textbook was threadbare in its coverage, providing only the briefest of overviews of each historical period; the overall design and content of my course remained tied to the trajectory of the original textbook, ill suiting the chapter layout of the new; I relied on numerous PDFs of proprietary articles; and the site was housed on Blackboard, limiting its availability to those students enrolled in the course—no one else could potentially benefit from the course. For all these reasons, the OER fellowship offered by the Graduate Center proved useful.  

I turned to the Fellowship as an opportunity to further advance the work of reformulating my course and syllabus. It was useful in introducing me to several of the finer points of distinction between various degrees of open accessibility and Creative Commons Licensing in reference to which I sought form my course anew. Moreover, it provided me with the impetus and the financial incentive to commit some time to more thoroughly reworking my course design and continuing to find additional open access resources to replace the proprietary ones upon which I had been relying. Though even after the Fellowship it remains a work in progress, the new course site, not on Blackboard but on the CUNY Academic Commons where anyone with internet can access it freely, may be viewed here: 

About the Author

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