Discussion of the Month – September/16

Welcome to the seventh installment of the Discussion of the Month feature on the MayDay Group website. For the next several months, this feature of the website will reprint the collection of short articles that first appeared 10 years ago in Ecclectica. The collection was edited by Wayne Bowman, and published online by Brandon University; this particular issue explored the topic, “The Future of Music Study in Canada.”  Contributing authors to this collection represent a diverse range of music scholarship and interests. The MayDay Group obtained permission to reprint these articles from Ecclectica and the various authors for the purpose of discussing the ways music in higher ed has changed since these articles were written ten years ago. The original publication may be viewed at http://ecclectica.brandonu.ca/issues/2006/2/Pegley.ecc.asp

Our hope is that as you read, you will think about what has changed in the past ten years, what may not have changed at all or very much, and where there are signs of shifts in both thinking and practice. While the Ecclectica issue dealt primarily with music in higher education in Canada, the issues, we believe are common to higher music studies in other parts of the world, and this reprint seems timely given the 2014 report from the College Music Society calling for sweeping changes in the approach to undergraduate education in music. Please take a moment after you read to share your thoughts, so that we may generate the kinds of discussions that will lead to the kinds of changes the original Ecclectica authors call for.

Popular Music: Administrative Challenges, Pedagogical Rewards

Kip Pegley, Queen’s UniversityKip-Pegley

As a popular music specialist, I never expected to find myself teaching at Queen’s University. Queen’s is known for many strong disciplines but it houses no departments in dance, media studies or communications, disciplines that would compliment popular music studies. The Queen’s School of Music is small, with no graduate programme, and, like many other schools of its size, it specializes in Western art music. I had no idea when I arrived how I would fit in.

Colleagues within the department and across the campus have supported and sustained me, and, because of the absence of the departments listed above, I have come to recognize the power and the benefits (as well as the difficulty) of working interdisciplinarily with a wider range of scholars. Faculty members are now coming together at Queen’s to create a graduate programme in Cultural Studies, a prospect I find exciting (although that programme will be significantly different from one exclusively based in music). The challenges this project poses are numerous, including finding the time and support to afford genuine exchanges between colleagues. Far too often these new programmes are implemented on top of existing workloads, created by the good will of a few faculty members to satisfy intellectual hunger. Finding sufficient support will make or break these ambitions. For small and mid-sized Canadian music programs like that at Queen’s, however, this is a hopeful avenue for intellectual growth, especially for faculty members for whom graduate programmes are not on the horizon.

In any event, I believe it is not entirely accurate to see us – or many of our colleagues – as discipline bound. The majority of popular music scholars teaching in Canadian universities today have already shifted to this area of specialization from areas outside the field of music “proper” (for instance, from media studies or sociology), or from historical musicology to popular music studies. There are advantages to this trend: we bring to our studies a wide range of theoretical underpinnings, training, and interests. Having said this, however, we must strive to make popular music studies a focal point from which we can branch out; and this is often at odds with the expediency (from administrative perspective) of having specialists from other musicological areas teach popular music simply as an afterthought. That sends the wrong message to students and colleagues alike (read: anyone with a decent record or compact disk collection can teach this material). We are now, happily and finally, beyond that point.

I believe my challenge, as it is for many popular music professors across Canada, is to manage very large undergraduate courses, both literally and figuratively. These courses make universities considerable amounts of money. The desire for revenue results in first and second-year undergraduate courses loaded with hundreds of students where the instructor could not possibly grade all of the exams, papers and assignments. The combination of large classes, with the (inevitable?) accompanying multiple-choice questions, contribute to the perception that our courses lack intellectual or musical “rigor.” We therefore find ourselves in a bind: to justify our presence within our departments primarily by attracting large numbers of undergraduate students is to risk not being taken seriously, despite the need for high enrolment courses. There is a critical need for delivery of upper-level seminars alongside large undergraduate classes. Only then will students and colleagues come to recognize the validity and importance of discussing Prince and Mahler, not only in the same programme, but in the same sentence.

It is especially important that we teach music educators that these diverse artists and composers do not represent musical traditions that are mutually exclusive: one serious, the other trivial and concerned with entertaining only; one artistic, the other merely social and commercial. To this end, music education majors should have experience in popular music studies and world music, and their training should involve guitar pedagogy alongside orchestral and non-Western instruments. Future educators should become comfortable assembling a clarinet, tuning a veena, as well as plugging in an amplifier, manipulating the mixer, and downloading music. The time to teach these skills and understandings will undoubtedly reduce the curricular emphasis on Western art music. But the result or end “product”, in my view, is well worth it.

At the same time and on the other hand, I believe what I am proposing has at least indirect potential benefits for the study of Western art music. In her fieldwork, Lucy Green (2002) observed students learning to play popular music by jamming with their peers, watching others perform, copying recordings by ear, and happily practicing much more than a ‘typical’ band student, (on average 5 or 6 hours a day in the early stages). I don’t believe we have a sense yet of how studying popular music might change the way students learn all instruments in the public school system. It would be wonderful if the enthusiasm with which they approach popular music looped back to all music making.

This is over and above the ear training skills they would develop transcribing Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos, the appreciation of rhythmic complexity taking apart Neil Peart’s drum solos (to say nothing of the mixed meters Rush often uses), or the challenge of trying to document Janis Joplin’s complex vocal timbre. Imagine how their musical skills would improve further by trying to notate any of these excerpts. And what if we began with Zappa and then related his music back to that of Varèse? Björk then Stravinsky? What connections between composers/artists might students find? The possibilities are endless.

Once popular music is more fully integrated, will students ask more of their music programmes in public schools, colleges and universities? Will they ask more of their teachers? Their administrators? We can certainly hope so.


Lucy Green, How popular musicians learn : a way ahead for music education. Aldershot, Hants ; Burlington, VT : Ashgate, 2002.

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