Musicology and Music Education: Fault lines?

In this post, Adam Whittaker reflects on two talks that he gave at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. He explores the intersections of two areas rarely considered in the same breath, and draws attention to the ways in which they can speak to each other. 

In early October, I was fortunate enough to be invited to present at the first public research seminar at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. In a break from the usual format of 60 minutes plus discussion, I was asked to present two shorter papers drawing on my work in historical musicology and music education. This was an interesting opportunity to highlight the ways in which these two disciplines, traditionally separated along methodological and cultural lines (and REF units!), could interface with each other. The event was well attended and the discussion was certainly lively!

Most music education research in recent times has, quite understandably, been focused on performance and composition. Aspects of contextual study, arguably the seeds of historical musicology in the curriculum, have received much less attention. In my first presentation, I shared some of my developing work on set works in A-level music examinations, problematizing the relative similarity with examinations from the 1950s. I argued that the continued dominance of classical music within A-level music has a potentially damaging effect upon the relevance and inclusivity of this qualification, building on Robert Legg’s 2012 work in this area.

In highlighting the points of similarity, and a few small points of divergence, it is clear that female composers are still significantly underrepresented in this area of study, being confined to a marginalised status that misrepresents their presence in world leading music festivals. Following this line of inquiry, it became clear that significant areas of our diverse musical culture had been reduced to a relatively fusty selection of set works that differ little from those set by examiners working in the 1950s. What are the implications of this lack of change? How can we possibly expect students to see A-level music study as relating to their own musical experiences when it barely resembles the experiences of the concert-going public? I concluded that such a narrow definition of set work study is sabotaging the ability of the classical music sector to attract students from outside of the socio-economic groups associated with white, middle-class privilege. Such an intentional provocation sparked a lively discussion, leading to a detailed and constructive email exchange with an audience member that went on for many days after the talk.

Johannes Tinctoris - Frontispiece to Valencia 835.

Immediately following this talk, and donning my historical musicologist hat, I moved to my second presentation, reprising and developing some of my research on the musical examples of Johannes Tinctoris: see Whittaker (2017) and image (above). Tinctoris is the best-known music theorist of the fifteenth-century, occupying an almost unrivalled status in modern scholarship as a leader in his field. His nine notational treatises contain over 600 musical examples, exceeding the standard practices of the time. He was also the royal music teacher at the court of Naples in the 1470s, and was clearly a widely-respected musical authority, with other writers continuing to reference his theories decades after his death. His texts are important witnesses to the musical practices of the fifteenth-century, and offer a unique insight into the pedagogical logics which underpinned the way that music was theorised and, by implication, taught to aspiring musicians. They, in turn, offer some examples of pieces that musicians should study in order to understand good compositional style and technique.

For example, Tinctoris extolls the virtue of some of compositional masters of his own age, praising the skills of composers such as Guillaume Du Fay, Antoine Busnoys, and Johannes Ockeghem. Not afraid to pick a fight, however, Tinctoris also heavily criticises these same composers for practices that he deemed to be transgressions of theoretical propriety. He doesn’t mince his words either, describing some of these errors as ‘intolerable’ and ‘inexcusable’. All this, however, is in the spirit of musical appraisal, offering detailed insights into the practices displayed by composers across an age.

It is this theme which unites the two papers, exploring the pedagogical logics which underpin our approaches to the study of music, whether based on repertoire studies in the set work model, or to think deeply about the heritage of musical pedagogies. I hope to continue to draw together my musicological and music education research to bring fresh perspectives to music education, construed in its broadest sense, both in terms of setting, historical period, and age range. Such complementary perspectives can indeed speak to each other in interesting ways!

References (if applicable):

Legg, R. (2012). Bach, Beethoven, Bourdieu: ‘cultural capital’ and the scholastic canon in England’s A-level examinations. The Curriculum Journal, 23(2), 157-172

Whittaker, A. (2017). Signposting Mutation in some Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century Music Theory Treatises. Plainsong & Medieval Music, 26(1), 37-61.

Short bio: Adam Whittaker is a research assistant working across the music education research projects in CSPACE. His work has been published in leading journals and he has co-authored a number of national evaluation reports, including two commissioned by Arts Council England and Music Mark. He also cofounded the Representations of Early Music in Stage and Screen Study Group, which is soon to have its first book published by Routledge in early 2018. Alongside his scholarly work, he is also active as a musician and is currently musical director of the Stafford Orchestra.

Academic social media: @DrAdamWhittaker

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