Ohio State University

The standard musicology curriculum that Schools of Music offer music majors has not changed much since the 1940s. Most schools of music in the United States teach a sequence of two to three courses of European music history divided into style periods, which often ends before students reach the 21st century. Core curricula may also include a “world music course” that is expected to capture everything else, but which often has the effect of exoticizing and othering all music beyond the traditional European canon. 

This was the situation in ACLS Consortium Member The Ohio State University’s undergraduate music degrees before 2020. The core consisted of a three-course sequence in European music history, a world music history course, and, for music educators and Jazz majors, a course on African American music history. In the fall of 2020, the musicology faculty, including Professors Danielle Fosler-Lussier and Ryan Skinner, began the process of rebuilding the curriculum from scratch. They began developing an entirely new set of courses that would comprise a much more heterogeneous core curriculum for the department. Skinner has a joint appointment with Ohio State’s Department of African American and African Studies, and he had participated in the redesign of their curriculum, which provided a blueprint for Music to follow as they started the process.

The new core sequence consists of four courses. The first course, Musical Citizenship, covers case studies that reveal music’s political significance at a variety of scales—from the neighborhood to regions or nations.Students are encouraged to consider how music expresses social status, identities, rights, and duties in a variety of global music cultures, and to understand themselves as participants in political communities that include the arts. They also have the opportunity to get to know the art world of Columbus, Ohio, including how music is funded locally and how they can get involved.

The second course, called Global Music Histories, takes as its basic premise that all musics have history. It examines how peoples and their musics have interacted through travel, migration, colonialism, and globalization. Unlike a typical “world music” course, Global Music Histories highlights the conflict, adaptation, and intermixing of traditions over time. This strategy destabilizes the paradigm, implicit in the way music history has traditionally been taught, that European music has history but the music of the rest of the world is rendered timeless and ahistorical.

The third course, called European Music Traditions, still covers the European and Euro-American repertoire that is required for teacher licensure, but it considers European music history as a diasporic tradition that includes not only North America, but also East Asia, where this tradition is currently very vibrant. Similarly, the African American music history course, the fourth core course, is taught from an Africentric viewpoint that  includes folk and religious traditions, popular traditions, and interactions of African music with European-American traditions. This course, once two credits, is now a 3-credit course, on par with the other core courses. Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Music Education students will take all four core courses; in the Bachelor of Arts, three of the four courses are required.

Crucially, the core courses are no longer siloed from one another; they exist as part of a coherent whole and have the collective aim of helping students develop into more thoughtfully engaged citizens through their understanding of musical traditions. They also address a set of skills that faculty decided were important for students. These skills include engaging with historical materials, information technology and literacy, rhetorical skills (particularly writing), and articulating the value and importance of art. The assignments in the core curriculum are intended to help students cultivate those skill sets. In addition, Fosler-Lussier says she hopes that students will develop an attachment to a musical tradition other than the one they started out loving. The curriculum facilitates this by helping students engage with more music at a substantive level. 

The new curriculum also represents a move away from the concept of “mastery” that has prevailed in music studies. The faculty instead began thinking in terms of threshold concepts––a set of “interpretive approaches” they want their students to think with and have in their possession. Rather than “mastery,” Skinner says, he wants his students to learn “responsible curiosity,” anchored in the acknowledgment that students are often working with traditions and practices that are foreign to their own experiences. Skinner hopes that the new core will give students the skills they need to explore musical practices that are meaningful to them, both ones they already know and ones that they discover in the course of their studies. 

The transformation of the core is part of a larger shift that has been happening very slowly in the BA in Music degree over the past ten years. The biggest change is that students can be admitted to the major without an audition––that is, without demonstrating pre-existing “mastery” of either European classical music or Jazz. This means that musicians who create in a wider variety of genres will be welcomed into the major. New courses have been developed in order to serve those students, including a new intensive version of Music Theory I that does not presume prior exposure to music notation. Intensive Music Theory I meets five days a week and provides a smooth onramp into the curriculum for students of varying backgrounds. Faculty have also reduced the number of required credit hours in the BA, to make it easier for students who wish to double major or who declare their major later.  

As of Spring of 2024, the new core sequence has run once; the revised BA program will begin accepting students in Autumn 2024. It is therefore too early to know about the effects of the changes on student retention or enrollment, but Skinner and Fosler-Lussier say that student engagement is up, and that they are engaging new students who would not have been drawn to the previous sequence. 

Last year, the School of Music hired two tenure-track faculty members with a primary focus on hip hop, Dr. Jason Rawls and Dr. Stevie “Dr. View” Johnson. Two further faculty who study Black music from ethnographic and historical perspectives, Dr. Abby Lindo and Dr. Elea Proctor, will join Ohio State’s Department of Comparative Studies and Department of African American and African Studies in Autumn 2024. These hires significantly broaden musical opportunities across a range of disciplines and idioms of expression for students at Ohio State. Fosler-Lussier and Skinner emphasize that it was crucial to have structural changes in place before making these hires. Too often, early career faculty––especially faculty of color––are hired with the expectation that they will make structural changes without any of the resources or protections that senior faculty enjoy. It was important, Skinner and Fosler-Lussier said, that the tenured faculty do the heavy lifting, so that their new colleagues can shape the new curriculum gradually. This more equitably distributes departmental labor and prevents some of the pitfalls that arise from an overreliance on what Clifton Boyd (writing specifically about music departments) calls identity-based service.

Going forward, Fosler-Lussier and Skinner hope that the School of Music will truly embrace heterogeneity in its curriculum. Although it would be impossible to have all the musics of the world represented on their faculty, the department is moving toward being a place that values many different kinds of expertise. This means welcoming different types of musicians, such as laptop artists, who would previously have been excluded. Fosler-Lussier and Skinner hope that the new major will be attractive to a wider range of students, and that those students will be more employable because they think in connected ways. They hope, in short, to continue evolving a school and a curriculum of music in ways that are responsibly curious. 

  • Make structural changes before hiring new colleagues in new subject areas. Too many early career faculty, especially from historically marginalized groups, are hired with the expectation that they will change the culture even as they begin their new roles, without any of the protections of tenure or seniority. Making the biggest changes first and then hiring gives new faculty colleagues the best chance of success. 
  • Doing this work sometimes involves developing courses that are not in your area of expertise. Faculty may have to retool their own skills and subject matter expertise for it to be successful. This is a lot of work, so you have to really care about it if you want to make it happen. 
  • Given the extremely large lift of a curricular overhaul, institutions that want faculty to engage in this sort of work should consider incentivizing it by clearing time in faculty loads for the work of change.
  • The initial attempt to change the BA in Music in 2014-16 was not successful. Rather than getting discouraged, interested faculty decided to focus on changing the core, which was within their control, and then revisit the larger conversation afterward. If you’re not successful from one entry point, take a different approach and return to the first when circumstances have changed. 
  • Changing curriculum––and departmental culture––can take time. Be prepared for the long haul.
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