Music Tech – Part I (Status Quo, Reforms)

Part I: The Status Quo, Proposed Reforms

Title Image reading: “Part I: The Status Quo, Proposed Reforms, from Music Tech: Rethinking the Undergraduate Curriculum, a White Paper by ArtsInteractive”

Current Models and Goals

To judge how well current courseware meets the best-practice goals of undergraduate music education, the first steps are to define the landscape and identify the goals. For at least the last sixty years, higher ed music teaching has been dominated in the United States by a three-category continuum of institutional models—with, of course, many shadings and variants. The following breakdown should be regarded as points on a continuum rather than discrete categories. The institutions named are purely representative and in no way ranked:

Model 1) The Stand-Alone Conservatory

Focused on the training of classical performers and, in much smaller numbers, composers and theorists (Juilliard, Curtis, New England Conservatory, Cleveland Institute of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Berklee College of Music (merged with Boston Conservatory), the Colburn School (Los Angeles), San Francisco Conservatory, North Carolina School of the Arts at Winston-Salem, etc.). An average 70/80%-30/20% mix of undergraduate and graduate students. Degrees: primarily B.M., M.M., and D.M.A. in classical performance and composition (Berklee, devoted to jazz and popular music, is the obvious exception).

Model 2) Sizeable Schools of Music Embedded within Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities

Enrollments typically include numbers (sometimes large) of music education majors as well as graduate programs (both M.A. and Ph.D.) in musicology, ethnomusicology, composition, and theory. The greatest population by a substantial margin is still performance majors. Undergraduate curricula include significant offerings in the humanities and sciences. Focus on Western classical music but often including jazz, music technology and, increasingly, the music industry and popular music studies (Eastman School of Music, University of Michigan, Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Butler School of Music at the University of Texas (Austin), Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, University of North Texas, Oberlin Conservatory, Florida State University, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, University of South Carolina, University of Miami Frost School of Music, etc.).

Model 3) Smaller Programs in Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities

A college voice student sings as his teacher plays the piano
A voice lesson at Tulane University. Performance remains a strong focus of many music curricula. Photo by Tulane Public Relations

More parity between undergraduate and graduate student populations. Degrees: B.A., M.A., Ph.D. in fields such as music history, music theory, composition, ethnomusicology, and popular music studies. Such programs often welcome music minors and double majors. Performance organizations are populated by students from across the institution (including some of very high quality even though there may be no performance majors per se). Harvard, Yale (Department of Music), Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Stanford, New York University, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), UC Berkeley, Duke University, Emory University, Swarthmore College, Amherst College, Williams College, Dartmouth College).

Each of these institutions has an individual profile that we have knowingly glossed over. For example, Eastman operates independently of the University of Rochester but has the kinds of humanities/science requirements of more embedded programs. NEC, a standalone conservatory, has humanities/science requirements. Yet of this we can be certain: regardless of their individual concentrations, all of the undergraduates in these programs will be required to take discrete courses in music history, music theory, and performance, with perhaps the opportunity for electives in jazz, music technology, popular music, film music, music industry, dance, etc.

The College Music Society Task Force

The point of breaking the institutional structures and current texts down along general lines is to ask the question: Are there common skills, materials, knowledge, or issues that might apply to undergraduate majors across all three models? This was the aim of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major, assembled by the College Music Society (CMS). In 2014 the task force published its report on the state of undergraduate music education in which—not without controversy—they proposed far-reaching changes for the undergraduate music major grouped around three broadly defined areas: creativity, diversity, and integration.[4] While the report was aimed primarily at the undergraduate major curriculum, many of their proposals prove very relevant for the non-major music market as well.

Goal: Prioritize Creativity

Areas of Emphasis proposed by College Music Society: Creativity, Diversity, IntegrationWhile large music programs devote the lion’s share of their resources to cultivating expert performers, the CMS task force exhorted teachers to foster creative skills such as composing and improvising, integrated with interpretive skills for the performance of existing works. Newfound knowledge in academic courses should be applied toward creative outcomes such as original compositions, texts, videos, etc.

Goal: Foster Diversity


Students should engage with music from a variety of cultures around the world, including popular musics. Underrepresented groups such as women and racial minorities (to which we would add the LGBTQ community) should receive serious attention. The study of diverse musics leads to crucial awareness of the complex interactions between music and culture.

Goal: Integrate Within and Across Disciplines


Curricula ought to build bridges between history and theory and regularly apply learning from these areas to composition and performance. Searching for connections with non-musical disciplines such as science, athletics, the visual arts, etc. also helps to illuminate music’s role in the larger society.

Before our evaluation we should stipulate that the world of higher ed music teaching is replete with gifted teachers who regularly overcome (or make end runs around) the limitations of their course materials. Many have long succeeded on their own in fulfilling the priorities of the CMS study. What follows is an attempt to outline how technology-based course materials might reinforce rather than undermine the efforts of all teachers, regardless of their levels of experience.


[4] Transforming Music Study from Its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors. Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major, The College Music Society. Patricia Shehan Campbell, David Meyers, and Ed Sarath. Original Report: November 2014; Copy Edited Version: January 2016. https://www.music.org/pdf/pubs/tfumm/TFUMM.pdf

See also Michael Stepniak and Peter Sirotin, Beyond the Conservatory Model: Reimagining Classical Music Performance Training in Higher Education (Routledge, 2020).