Music Tech – Part II (Obstacles)

Obstacles to Achieving Modern Course Goals Using Current Textbooks/Music Resources

Title image reading: “Part II: Obstacles to Achieving Modern Course Goals Using Current Textbooks & Music Resources, from Music Tech: Rethinking the Undergraduate Curriculum, a White Paper by ArtsInteractive

Although the precise curricular implications of the CMS task force report have provoked spirited debates, more general agreement exists around the need for creative, diverse, and integrated learning outcomes. Textbooks for college music history (majors) or survey (non-majors) courses have been slowly adapting to digital spaces, yet they continue to fall short in almost every key area. We first identify the industry leaders in music history and music appreciation. We then identify seven deeply entrenched obstacles to learning in textbooks currently available across a wide range of undergraduate music courses; we then offer proposals for beginning to address them.

While more than a dozen texts compete for the music theory market, the music history market has long been dominated by the Grout/Palisca/Burkholder A History of Western Music, now in its 10th Edition (Norton). Recently a very slimmed-down version of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music (OUP) has attempted to eat into this share.

Categories 2) and 3) of the three-category continuum of institutional models described earlier will often offer large-enrollment introductory courses for non-majors (often under the problematic rubric of “music appreciation”), frequently including surveys of Western art music. Historically, these courses have generated considerable revenue that helps support programs across the major. In recent years they have come under pressure to broaden their perspectives. A handful of publishers (Norton, Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press) have dominated this market since the 1955 publication of Joseph Machlis’s The Enjoyment of Music. Norton now publishes the highly-acclaimed Kerman/Tomlinson Listen as a higher-end alternative to Machlis/Forney/Dell’Antonio. All these texts must now compete with a growing array of non-major offerings such as world music surveys, the history of rock, etc.


Obstacle 1: Music Theory, History, and Performance Remain Segregated

Despite the CMS task force’s exhortations for integration across disciplines such as music history, music theory, and performance, these areas remain siloed in separate corners of music school hallways. A major contributor is the almost complete lack of course materials that address these areas in a holistic fashion.

A pie chart showing the top complaints about music theory. 43%: Poor integration; 28%: Not diverse; 23%: Creativity not valued; 6%: Overly simplistic

Take, for example, the simple inclusion of technical terms in music appreciation or history texts. All of these products, even those claiming to be the most comprehensive, shy away from any terms that might require more complex or nuanced definitions (or worse, actual listening)—and this in spite of their print-based glossaries of inordinate length. For example, in terms of music theory you will find tonic, dominant, and subdominant. But you will not find dominant seventh chord, diminished seventh chord, augmented sixth chord, Neapolitan chord, or deceptive cadence—much less Tristan chord. While we could perhaps teach Corelli in the major mode, this kind of language is so restrictive as to be useless for actually learning how music works.

Even where a term such as subdominant is included, you will find the most cursory definition. What good does “the pitch or triad a fifth below the dominant” accomplish if you do not say something about the expressive roles the subdominant has played over the course of Western music history? Where, indeed, is the theory text that teaches musical language (for undergraduates, the misapplied term “theory” is not illuminating; it is off-putting) within a rich cultural context?

The traditional answer, of course, is that undergraduates will learn “technical” terms in their first-year theory course, and “context” in their history sequence. Left out is that harmony, for example, will be presented largely in a technical, non-contextual fashion. And context will be taught with the most superficial consideration of musical language. How are students supposed to bridge this chasm between superficial context and superficial exploration of actual music?

And performance? In both theoretical and practical terms, performance is largely ignored across all music appreciation, history, and theory texts. This is at the very least ironic given that performance majors constitute some 80-85% of undergraduate music major populations. Even in smaller programs, almost every major has participated in a choir or band—and more than a few in an orchestra. This deafening silence on the reason why most students elect music as a major in the first place—the joy of participating in active music-making, or the joy of simply listening to music they have come to love—remains the elephant in the room of undergraduate (and much graduate) teaching.

A survey completed on the popular social media platform Reddit of recent graduates from university music programs and published in 2018 collected feedback about the student experience in theory courses. Despite generally positive feelings toward music theory among the survey’s 291 respondents, 81 percent agreed with the statement: “Music theory class … can be improved.” Of the feedback provided, the most prominent complaint—counting for 43 percent of all complaints—was music theory’s lack of integration with other musical areas.[5]

“Another facet of my music theory education that I felt could be improved upon was its integration into the rest of the curriculum … I think music theory should be integrated into historical and stylistic education.”
Student, Reddit Survey[6]

See Solution Here

Obstacle 2: Poor Interface Design

If you simply read the claims advanced by leading music textbook publishers, you would believe that the majority of packages have been fully integrated to take optimal advantage of digital environments. This is emphatically not the case. The eBook—the core of all these offerings—is simply the print book’s text in a digital format, with minimal effort to take advantage of the interactivity that a digital platform promises. Textbook publishers are hedging their bets, declining to invest in the considerable time and costs that would be incurred in a thorough re-design for digital spaces. What might look appealing in a print environment comes across on-screen as overdesigned. Screens are overly busy, text is too small, images are too large, and the awkward combination of scrolling fields and forward-backward arrows is bewildering. Because companies are still pushing their print textbooks (their consistent money-makers, after all), an eBook is obliged to include otherwise irrelevant print page numbers and a cumbersome index. While progress has been made in shortening the path to specific excerpts or passages, even when the text and listening bank are part of the same online module, discussions rarely go past superficial generalizations, and audio illustrations are only fitfully present, scarcely taking advantage of their potential for transforming music teaching.

A student at the entrance to a maze, with exits at scores, a CD-ROM, and a textbook

For example, up to hundreds of so-called “Listening Guides”—boldly proclaimed by their publishers as breakthroughs—are segregated awkwardly into completely different, and largely disconnected, modules. With prior apologies for going unavoidably into the weeds, their rudimentary content has been farmed out to secondary contributors. The industry-leading music history text works exclusively within the paradigm of the horizontal time line that inches its way agonizingly across the screen. “Events”—often merely a measure number or the letters A, B, and A for the musical shape of a 5-minute piece—typically occur at wide time intervals, with all the things that students will inevitably hear in-between simply left unremarked. Navigating back and forth between the main text and the guides is clumsy and time-consuming.

An exception is the industry’s leading music appreciation text, whose primary guides are all placed within the main text. Yet their digital designers clearly never attempted to actually use them. Their beautiful performances feature a horizontal-line media player with a time read-out. Below in a long scrolling field, times correspond to locations within the selection. The problem is, when you scroll down to where the timings begin, the player with the time read-out has disappeared (even when you set your screen size to the smallest print). Additionally, for each guide, students are given eight or nine color-coded style features they are somehow supposed to keep straight.

If the student chooses a further option entitled “Interact with the music” (what were they supposed to be doing in the first guide?) they will be taken incongruously to a second guide in a new window, built around the horizontal player described earlier. (BTW, each time you do this your browser creates a new tab, and if you move around at all you will very quickly get lost in a sea of tabs.) Moreover each of the two audio players operates in different ways, further confusing students. The first has a slider, but unlike every YouTube video, the time read-out remains frozen until you release the mouse. Hence you cannot find a timed location within the scrolling field without stopping and starting a half dozen times. Stopping and starting itself requires clicking on the tiny triangle at the slider head. You cannot, for example, simply listen to the music while paging through the program because you must be able to navigate back to this precise guide in order to stop the music. The second player does not slide at all; the user must click on discrete locations, again (aside from widely-separated markers) without knowing just where they will land. The time read-out slider stays stuck in the same position until the next event, to which it then suddenly jumps. Clicking the space bar now halts the music, although clicking it again sometimes resumes play, sometimes returns to the opening. (We now leave the weeds.)

We will say nothing at present about the utility of scores in the digital domain. Current introductory texts do not use them at all. The major history text requires three thick, cumbersome print volumes that students rarely (and, in our experience, more than a few never) consult.

Most of all, none of these products features the kind of interconnecting links between concepts, periods, styles, or genres that a native digital environment all but mandates.

See Solution Here

Obstacle 3: Still Too Much Emphasis on Facts, Not Enough on Ideas

The CMS task force study recommended a “move from a technical-informational base to an inquiry base.”[7] However, current course texts continue to focus on the “what.” If students memorize neat outlines of names, dates, and events (often condensed into PowerPoint modules that reinforce the dominance of outlines), so the logic goes, they will have mastered the material.

A box whose contents are labeled “Dates of Composition” and “Composer Names”. “Trends over Time,” “Music and Society,” “Aesthetic Decisions,” “Cultural Intersections,” “Technology in Music,” and “Development of Musical Languages” float around outside the box

Yet a focus on discrete chapter or sub-chapter outlines generally buries the broader issues. Why did Western musical language evolve as it did? How did Western exploration and expansion affect the development of music? Was polyphony, the ubiquity of the triad, or triadic tonality inevitable? How did equal temperament spread across the globe? How has technology driven the spread of popular musics? What does the expression “Western music” mean today? How has social media changed the ways in which musical tastes are formed? Should governments help finance the arts? How have the relationships between music and power evolved over the last thousand years? Engagement with ideas built around connections across areas is the surest route to student retention. A healthy engagement with these and a hundred more deeper-level issues is essential if students are, upon graduation, to apply what they have learned to today’s fast-paced cultural landscape. These are the kinds of questions that cannot be easily shoehorned into chapter reviews.

If your school is anything like UCLA (America’s most ethnically diverse campus), your students walk through the hallway with ear buds listening to their favorite tracks. How much effort do teachers make to find out what they are listening to, and why? The fear that it is all a mélange of popular artists unfamiliar to instructors is largely misplaced. Today’s music students did not grow up with a baked-in distinction between high and low art. The horn player who walks around mesmerized by the finale of Mahler’s Third Symphony may also be a hardcore fan of Nine Inch Nails. There is no contradiction here. Instead, there is opportunity for ongoing discussions that can carry throughout a semester or an entire academic year.

See Solution Here

Obstacle 4: Learning Remains More Passive Than Active

The issue with textbooks (no real distinction exists here between print and eBook versions) lies not just with their content but with their modes of presentation. Bundled PowerPoint presentations, commonly included as a selling point, encourage instructors to passively read outlines to passive classes as a substitute for a genuine discussion of the material. Even when dissemination of information rather than ideas is the goal, students are forced to memorize by rote rather being encouraged to establish their own neural networks.

Passive lectures provide the lowest knowledge retention rate of any method of learning and encourage learning at the lowest levels of cognitive function. In contrast, active learning that involves discussion, practicing by doing, or teaching others, results in much more effective long-term learning at higher levels of cognitive function, and is more likely to produce desired attributes … The factual information that we spend so much time conveying to students is rapidly outdated, and it is the critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and life-long learning skills that best prepare students for the decades of practice after graduation.
Joseph T. DiPiro, “Why Do We Still Lecture?”[8]

Such a model is entirely inadequate if the intention is to foreground ideas. In straight lectures, information often washes over students. They require regular practice in actively synthesizing and expressing ideas about music and culture. In other words, students—whether in courses for majors or non-majors—need to engage directly with their teachers and each other during class time if they are to become the creative and visible musical leaders we wish them to be. Few if any textbooks employ strategies designed to bring about this result.

A carryover from this passive approach is the manner in which “student outcomes” are measured. In virtually all non-major and in many courses for majors, testing is done via banks of multiple choice questions, most often packaged with the course material, limited to individual chapters, machine graded, and even providing machine feedback. The teacher is freed from any intervention in the grading process (or actual interaction with the course material). While the ability to answer thoughtful multiple choice questions accurately is one possible measure of mastery, it will prove almost entirely irrelevant to the world students will enter upon graduation.

What will prove invaluable is the ability to articulate in spoken words the issues that have animated a course. This proves equally true with a music education major plunged into teaching a group of urban fourth graders as with a group of performance majors who want to move to a community of 40,000 and start a music school or, for that matter, to graduate students in performance who will inevitably find themselves before an arts council, making a funding pitch.

Each year American higher ed programs in music graduate some 35,000 music students of one kind or another, the bulk of whom are undergraduates. How many of them can stand in front of a group of music novices and explain in joyous fashion why what they have been trained to do matters?

See Solution Here

Obstacle 5: Narrowcast Models Constrain Student Learning

This occurs in at least three ways:

Single Sorts

By nature, a physical book must be arranged in a serial, page-by-page fashion. This forces authors and publishers to adopt a single ordering. In history texts, chronology remains the overwhelming design of choice. Theory texts traditionally begin with pitch, intervals, scales, etc. as if this were the way these terms/concepts evolved. Many instructors today are looking for a variety of lenses through which to approach musical and cultural practices.

In a 2018 study by the Babson Survey Group, 70 percent of instructors reported presenting material in a different order from that prescribed by their textbooks.[9] Musical genres, geography, styles, music and culture, music and power, music and gender, women in music, and ensemble types are just a few of the possible re-orderings.

Text box: 70 Percent of faculty present material in a different order from their textbooks. Source: Babson Survey Research Group

To realize alternative visions for their courses, instructors must often leapfrog across course materials after parsing them painstakingly for content that might fit into an alternative bucket. This practice proves both awkward and inefficient. It is a principal reason why a growing number of teachers have abandoned published textbooks and course materials altogether, undertaking the arduous creation of their own course readers even where it means they will be unable to capitalize on the newest technological developments.

In addition, the layout of a textbook in a particular way inevitably bestows unwarranted authority on that approach. The result is that despite the efforts of a handful of instructors, course structure—a fascinating opportunity for teacher creativity—has been co-opted and standardized by publishers and their authors. eBooks, tethered to their print models, continue to perpetuate these stereotypes.

A Single Level Must Accommodate All Students

One of the greatest challenges confronting instructors is making subject matter digestible for their entire range of students. Some struggle with the material while others find it insufficiently challenging.[10]  Authors of print textbooks, however, must aim at the median swath of learners, creating a sort of “Goldilocks” phenomenon: even with the highly respected scholars behind most history or theory textbooks today, a middle-of-the-road or even lowest-common-denominator approach inevitably creeps in. The result is that some students remain confused by the material, while others are bored.

Diagram of the “Goldilocks” Phenomenon, with dots representing students at various levels:
1) Textbook too easy (some advanced students bored)
2) Textbook just right (some students at middle level engaged)
3) Textbook too hard (some students struggle)

This problem is especially pronounced in music appreciation courses, where some students may have played in all-state orchestras—with knowledge of not just how to read music but also a solid foundation in harmony, counterpoint, and repertoire—while others are complete novices eager to get started.

When it comes to notation, the nearly universal assumption is that scores are only suitable for music majors or professionals, leaving enrollees in music appreciation courses with scarcely a whiff of this fundamental dimension of Western art music. Courses advertising that “the ability to read music is not a prerequisite” make few if any references to scores. 

Nonetheless, appreciation texts typically include an abstract section on the elements of music notation. They rarely put this information to any use. Yet books geared to non-majors incongruously include music examples without any explanation. We are not talking about simply teaching students about lines and spaces; we are talking about exposing them to notation in practice. A Level One Japanese language learning textbook will include an introduction to reading Japanese scripts, with appropriate guidance. The same kinds of tools for reading musical notation are available in the digital age, but publishers have thus far not harnessed them.

Single Texts for Single Courses

A final problem posed by the one-size-fits-all nature of printed music textbooks and their ported digital counterparts is that each continues to serve a single, narrowly-construed course. Given our four centuries of dependency on the printed book, this may seem obvious enough. Yet in the classroom one musical work may be discussed across a range of courses. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example, is a seminal work covered in some fashion in virtually every music history, music appreciation, and music theory text. Instructors who teach, say, both music history for majors and music appreciation for non-majors find themselves constructing alternative readings of the same work from separate texts. More importantly, students will get partial readings of the same work without any bridges to connect them.

The necessity of becoming conversant with a different full-length textbook for each separate course also increases barriers to introducing new courses. Narrowcast texts complicate the work of program directors who cannot easily shift instructors around to meet student demand, or avoid the fatigue of teachers who wind up teaching the same course year after year in the misplaced name of simplicity.

See Solution Here

Obstacle 6: Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion Are Not Honest or Thorough Enough

Textbook publishers have historically and understandably been loath to project any appearance of being politically biased. Clearly, no text should attempt to impose points of view that are not backed by solid scholarship. Yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that current texts skirt around difficult or sensitive subjects just as they have for at least the last century. There is, for example, among historians a broad consensus that within a century after Columbus landed in the West Indies, the indigenous population of the combined Americas—roughly 75 million strong, stable and growing at the time Columbus landed—had declined to roughly ten percent of its original size. This constitutes the single greatest loss of human life in recorded history. All of it occurred during the heyday of the musical Renaissance—Ockeghem, Busnoys, Obrecht, Isaac, Josquin, Arcadelt, Willaert, de Rore, Marenzio, Lasso, Victoria, Morley, and many others.                                        

Yet the currently most popular text sets up the musical Renaissance by speaking blandly of “Columbus’s encounter with the New World,” which “would ultimately lead to the expansion of European culture …” Forty-five pages later the chapter on Franco-Flemish composers speaks of Isabella and Ferdinand having “sponsored Christopher Columbus’s voyage west over the Atlantic Ocean, which led to the European encounter with and colonization of the New World.”  

Six men look on as a seventh man carves up a cake that reads “Afrique” on the side
A political cartoon of the Berlin Conference, where Africa was literally carved up by European powers. A discussion of events like this one is absent from virtually all current music texts.

Even when we get to an account of an actual “Spanish Description of Aztec Festivals,” the commentary states that “Fray Toribio de Bonavente … went to Mexico in 1524 to convert the indigenous people to Christianity …. [H]e admired their skill in music and described their rituals in detail. Ironically, the Church he served sought to end these rituals and to replace the Aztec music with its own.” There was nothing “ironic” in the mandates to these Franciscans. Their assignment was to learn everything they could about indigenous practices (that were more than a millennium old) in order to destroy (not the benign “replace”) them, thereby wiping out the entire social fabric. Those who did not resist and face execution could then be “converted” as the price for being permitted to live.

The painstaking work by musicologists such as Glenda Goodman about the experience of the Wompanoag tribes (and the fate of their music) after the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 provides a radically different perspective from the formulaic mentions of psalm books and the first Thanksgiving in traditional texts. The same could be said of music in the California missions or the general effects of the 1884 carving up of Africa initiated by Bismarck.

The argument for not exposing students to these historical realities is the familiar “what does any of this have to do with the actual history of Western music?” To judge from virtually every current text, the answer is “very little.”

The same is true in the gradual expansion of the previously token treatments afforded to women in music texts. You will for certain find more women included now, but the accounts of their music and significance still remain more superficial than those afforded their male counterparts. You will also look in vain for any mention at all of the LGBTQ community (they all do, of course, make lots of music). The same goes for issues of music and race, or music’s relationships to power. The criticisms implied here are not some misdirected plea for political correctness; they simply point out that traditional history texts leave out much of the world—both past and present. Students take note. Even in texts focused on Western music there is really no excuse today for not acknowledging the full nature of the West’s interactions within itself and with the rest of the globe.

See Solution Here

Obstacle 7: Costs Remain Too High

A significant barrier to learning among all college courses is the prohibitively high cost of textbooks. College Board estimates that the average undergraduate spent over $1,200 on books and supplies in the 2018-19 school year.[11] These prices, along with soaring tuition bills, have ballooned in recent years, rising from 2006 to 2016 at a rate four times faster than inflation.[12]

A graph showing the prices for college textbooks, college tuition, and all other items in the economy, from 2006-2016. Whereas prices in the general economy increased by about 20 percent, prices for textbooks increased by well over 80 percent

While the outlay for textbooks may seem small in comparison to the cost of tuition, it impacts students’ lives directly. In a survey of over 1,600 students conducted by big-five publisher Cengage, 46 percent said it had “a big impact,” and another 41 percent indicated that paying for textbooks had “somewhat of an impact” on their finances. Responding to these numbers, Michael Hanson, Cengage’s CEO, reflected, “Students are making major trade-offs such as housing, such as food, to accommodate textbooks.”[13]

The consequences of textbook prices affect academic performance as well. According to CBS News, 65 percent of students said they did not buy the course textbook at some point during their college careers because of price.[14] Follett, the United States’ leading textbook distributor, notes that 40 percent of students who did without a required textbook reported receiving a lower grade than they had hoped for, while  89 percent of faculty believe obtaining the course textbook is “very important” for performing well in their classes.[15]

In music courses the situation can be especially dire. While the growth of the used and rental textbook markets has eased the price burden on students in other departments, these options are less viable for music courses. Publishers—in an effort to promote new sales—now lock listening resources (an indispensable component of the course materials) behind access codes that expire after a period of time (usually one year) and are only provided with purchases of new books. Commenting on the use of digital course materials, Tom Scotty, former co-CEO of another big-five publisher, MacMillan, said he observed that students “were just looking to spend as little money as possible,” regardless of the quality of the course materials in the format purchased.[16] For music classes, the result of this practice is that many students, lured by lower prices, purchase used and rental textbooks and subsequently struggle without the necessary listening resources.

“Due to the current costs of textbooks, score anthologies and sets of recorded CDs or music streaming packages, classroom discussion and score study is often ineffective, as many students do not participate simply because they do not have the resources to purchase these materials, and are therefore unprepared for class.”
—Brownlow, 2017[17]

See Solution Here

Quick Review

In summary, then, here are seven key areas where today’s music course materials fall short:

  1. Theory, History, and Performance Remain Segregated
  2. Poor Interface Design
  3. Still Too Much Emphasis on Facts, Not Enough on Ideas
  4. Learning Remains More Passive than Active
  5. One-Size-Fits-All, Narrowcast Models Constrain Student Learning
  6. Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion Are Not Honest or Thorough Enough
  7. Costs Remain Too High

Read on for proposals on how to solve these challenges and to discover how Music in the Air was designed from the ground up to address them.

[5] College Music Symposium. “Students Evaluate Music Theory Courses.” Gutierrez, 2018.

[6] College Music Symposium. Volume 58, No. 2. “Students Evaluate Music Theory Courses: A Reddit Community Survey.” James A. W. Gutierrez. September 20, 2018

[7] Transforming Music Study from Its Foundations. College Music Society. Campbell, Meyers, and Sarath, 2016.

[8] American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. “Why Do We Still Lecture?” Joseph T. DiPiro. December 17, 2009.

[9] Freeing the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2018. Babson Survey Research Group. Julia Seaman and Jeff Seaman. 2018.

[10] See George Lam, “Engaging Everyone: Musical Analysis in the General Education Classroom,” in Social Paper (City University of New York), December 11, 2017.

[11] CollegeBoard. “Average Estimated Undergraduate Budgets, 2018-19.”

[12] United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “College tuition and fees increase 63 percent since January 2006.” August 30, 2016.

[13] Inside Higher Ed. “Textbook Trade-Offs.” Emma Whitford. July 26, 2018.

[14] CBS News. “What’s behind the soaring cost of college textbooks.” Kathy Kristof. January 26, 2018.

[15] Follett Corporation. “Outcomes Made Accessible: Improving Outcomes and Retention While Lowering the Cost of College Learning Materials.” 2019.

[16] Inside Higher Ed. “Are Etextbooks Affordable Now?” Lindsay McKenzie. May 1, 2018.

[17] College Music Symposium. Volume 57. “A New Approach to Music History Pedagogy Using iPad Technology and Flipped Learning.” Art Brownlow. July 21, 2017.


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