An inspiring defence of the teaching of Western classical music and musical literacy

In the wake of the huge response to the article on music notation and literacy by Charlotte C. Gill in The Guardian, and encountering a certain amount of qualified support for her position amongst some academics who are more broadly antipathetic towards a Western classical tradition or at least a central place for it in Western music curricula, I recently read the following inspiring passage from an essay by Estelle R. Jorgensen, ‘Western Classical Music and General Education’, Philosophy of Music Education Review, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Fall 2003), pp. 130-140, which I wanted to share here. Note that this is emphatically not a denigration of other traditions and practices, nor an assertion of superiority, but part of a wider argument for rejuvenating the teaching of something which is increasingly marginalised in various musical education, according to the author; she says ‘it seems now to have acquired (in some quarters at least) a negative connotation as a bastion of elitism and privilege. Instead, popular musics (with a nod to musics of other culture) have pride of place in much elementary and secondary music education and in many university and college offerings designed for students whose principal fields of study lie outside music.’


Why should Western classical music be advocated by music education policy makers? Among the possible reasons, the term “Western classical music” is a misnomer. It is really a multi-cultural and international tradition forged by musicians around the world who brought their various individual and cultural perspectives to a music that grew up in Europe but that from its infancy drew upon African and Near Eastern roots. Its widespread influence as one of the great musical traditions does not make it necessarily better than others but does make it worthy of study. A music that is known so widely, has captured the interest and participation of so many musicians and their audiences internationally, has such a rich repertory, and represents so many cultures strikes me as a human endeavor of inherent interest and worth.

Western classical music is also one of the ancient classical traditions in the world. Its long history can constitute a bridge to better understanding the particular contributions and detractions of Western civilization. This music constitutes a rich heritage of instruments, compositions, theories, and performers. It sometimes instances brilliant and deeply moving creations that manifest human genius at work. There is, as Jane Roland Martin puts it, a “stock” of cultural makings and doings that support, enrich, challenge, and defy social and cultural conventions. Musical artifacts include written compositions that are brought to life in performance, archaic instruments that are preserved, copied, restored, and otherwise kept for posterity, and musical rituals that are described, recorded, and recreated in a host of ways. As Neil Postman notes, knowing about the eighteenth century is particularly important at a time when mediated culture focuses on the present. Knowing the past traditions of a particular place enables one to connect with those who have gone before just as one relates to people in other places. Viewed this way, Western classical music is a precious heritage that links Westerners to their past just as it links them to other world cultures.

This music is an organic, living thing. Although informed and influenced by Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, it is also rooted in the musics of Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism, and in the secular musics of Middle Eastern and Northern African countries in which Islam took hold. Its mythos, influenced originally by Greek polytheism, later acquired a monotheistic Judeo-Christian perspective that is now being transformed as the tradition increasingly finds its home in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, affected again by polytheistic and other religious and mythical world views. It has also absorbed a host of other musics that have likewise become classical in their own right. For example, jazz is in the midst of becoming a classical tradition and many of its elements have been included in the Western classical mainstream. Likewise, rock, country, and gospel are acquiring classic properties such as notation, instrumentation, and self- reflexivity, and becoming incorporated into and interconnected with the Western classical tradition.

Musical notation is one of its singular achievements. Literacy provides a way of recording the nuances of performance, intellectualizing music, propagating it widely and disparately in time and space, and quickly learning new pieces of music. Becoming literate in this tradition is essential. Since the music is notated, one can read a score and hear how it should sound and quickly catch on to what is happening even if one is unacquainted with the particular piece. Remaining illiterate in this tradition leaves one deprived of knowledge essential to full participation in a society that regards itself as Western. This deprivation, whether intentional or not, is arguably racist and classist when it fails to ensure that all people irrespective of their background have the opportunity to be musically literate. Recognizing the multiplicity of musical cultures in today’s societies suggests expanding literacy beyond the Western classical tradition while also emphasizing aurality/orality- a point that Patricia Shehan Campbell is at pains to make. Notwithstanding the importance of musical orality, failing to develop musical literacy in at least one notated musical tradition makes it difficult to break out of a solely aural/oral tradition into a literate one, something that exponents of aural/oral or little musical traditions may wish to do, sooner or later. And leaving students limited is arguably mis-educative since it stunts and prevents their further development.