October 21st, 2009

Music Per Se

Ah, music (departments).

Here’s an excerpt from an email I received this week from the academic administrator in my dept here at MIT (which, in case you didn’t know, is Foreign Languages & Literatures, not, as some might assume, Music & Theater Arts):

In order to justify [cross-listing your course] to the Music Faculty, they would appreciate a short rationale “addressing the question of why this is a music class per se.” I’ve already sent them your topic description, but they’d appreciate a little more justification, apparently, before they give their final “ok.” Is that something that you could send me by the end of the month?

Sorry for the extra hoop.

Incidentally, this is for a course titled, pretty unambiguously, “Global Music and Digital Youth Culture” (emphasis added). And here’s the topic description, fyi —

What can we learn about contemporary culture from “viral” dance crazes, mashups, and skinny jeans? The convergence of global pop, social networks, and international digital youth culture represents a profound shift in how we imagine and access the world around us. Focusing on specific technologies and platforms (e.g., YouTube, Facebook, imeem, blogs, torrents, production software), this course examines how digital tools — especially since the advent of peer-to-peer applications and social networks — have shaped, as they have been informed by, the practices and values of the people using them. While taking into account a variety of forms and platforms, our study will primarily use music as a crucial connective thread to discuss contemporary media and culture.

And here’s my best attempt at a “rationale” that expresses the resistance I feel toward such an exercise without, I hope, coming across as too resentful/snarky:

I have to confess, first off, that I’m not sure I know exactly what is meant by a “music class per se.” Having been trained in a music department and having — prior to this semester — taught exclusively in music departments, I have my suspicions (namely, that there is a desire for a certain degree of attention to “form and analysis” employing the standard musicological toolkit drawn from European “common practice” repertories). I do some of that, sure, but as an ethnomusicologist I am at least, if not more, interested in music’s contexts as its texts.

I want to note that the title of the course begins with “Global Music…” which, I hope, gives a sense of the class’s priorities. As I note in the description “While taking into account a variety of forms and platforms, our study will primarily use music as a crucial connective thread to discuss contemporary media and culture.” To put it another way, musical texts (i.e., songs and other recordings) and musically-propelled texts (e.g., videos) will constitute our primary texts, and many of our secondary texts (i.e., academic studies) are authored by musicologists. However, the point of the course is not formalist analysis per se (though there may be some of that) as much as it is an attention to the role of music in (post-digital) society and media more generally. Our focus on music will hence be more concerned with the cultural work that music does than with the particulars of timbre, rhythm, harmony, and so forth. We will, however, continually return to the question of genre, which inevitably opens into a consideration of formal musical features.

I hope that this is sufficient to qualify as a “music class per se”; I think the class would appeal to students seeking a music class, and, moreover, I think it would enrich students’ sense of the power and reach and diversity of music in the world today. If our colleagues in Music do not agree, I’ll be sorry to hear that.

Of course, this is the same music dept that generated this classic(al) interaction. So, we’ll see…


  • 1. Nick  |  October 21st, 2009 at 10:47 am


    Seriously though, interdepartmental politics here (as everywhere else, I guess) are just too funny to believe sometimes.

  • 2. wayneandwax  |  October 21st, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Good point, Nick. This may be expressing some interdepartmental tension. My first reading, of course, is simply to blame the entrenched parochialism of music departments “per se.”

  • 3. 100dBs  |  October 21st, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Sorry you have to deal with this.. I went through something very similar at University of Maryland when trying to justify my synthesizer design project to the Electrical Engineering department, because I was working with a professor in the Music department. Sometimes those people are just after each other, and in the process end up ruining the innovation they claim to foster.

    Hope he sees it your way!!

  • 4. wayneandwax  |  October 21st, 2009 at 11:06 am

    or she/they…

    but, yes, thx for the support.

  • 5. Birdseed  |  October 21st, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Americans. *sigh*

  • 6. wayneandwax  |  October 21st, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    hahaha, I blame you Europeans with all your class(ic)ism!

  • 7. The Crooked Clef  |  October 21st, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Yet another example of what’s lost in university department segregation, particularly at large universities, if not “elite” ones. What is academia, high up or not, if it’s not synthesis?

    I feel a deep loss in not having access to the kind of scholarship Wayne represents at my own university, much less the idea of it being absent at MIT.

    Out to academics on some other other kind of (con)textual ish. Stay up Wayne!

  • 8. goldbug  |  October 21st, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    i know academics can be hard to get ahold of, but seriously, e-mail is a terrible way to handle this. you should go talk to them in person. you are going to find out that:

    * it is just one person sticking in the mud (maybe i’m wrong)
    * what you have to say to satisfy them

    the administrator is not going to say this over e-mail, but is clearly sympathetic to you. collaboration begins in person!

  • 9. AudioMetrix  |  October 21st, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    A rockstar response!

    But yeah, that is why I was so particular about wanting to do Ethno in an Ethno/Anthro based department and not a music department. It’s so unfortunate that those who consider themselves so immersed in the particularities of this thing we call music have such a limited, ethnocentric perspective…

  • 10. Daniel H.  |  October 21st, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    I wanna take your course.

    Good luck. I admire your efforts — and I rarely admire efforts in cultural academic contexts .. precisely because of structural bullshit like this that chokes so much creativity at most U.S. universities.


  • 11. wayneandwax  |  October 22nd, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Thanks to all for the supportive comments. It’s clear that I’m preaching to the choir when I post this sort of thing on my blog, and I’m very grateful to have such sympathetic eyes and ears here. The disjuncture between the appreciation of my work here on the blogosphere and in music departments is one of the biggest reasons that I blog.

    Goldbug, you might be right that there may be one or two people I could talk to face-to-face in order to clear this up, but that approach also overlooks, as Daniel puts it, the “structural bullshit” at work here. I’m not going to take on the immense task of trying to change music departments around the country; they’re just too entrenched in Eurocentrism and elitism and, to their peril, have little institutional interest (if I may deploy such an entity) in broadening their curricula or attracting greater numbers of students. The majority of music departments still operate more like classics departments than, say, English departments (where a variety of “texts” and methodologies are now embraced). That said, it *is* probably in my best interests to attempt to change, or at least challenge, the music depts at whichever institution I find myself — and that is what I have attempted to do here (after being pushed to do so, of course; I’d much rather face no resistance).

    Also, I just want to note that the academic administrator I quote above is not from music but from my own department, hence the sympathy.

    And I do want to affirm that there *are* people in the music dept here, and in music depts elsewhere, with whom I am happy to collaborate — and vice versa.

  • 12. Georgina  |  October 22nd, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    I wanna take your class too! Anyway, I thought you might find this interesting, it’s also just a really catchy song.


  • 13. wayneandwax  |  October 23rd, 2009 at 8:42 am

    thx for the comment, georgina — and for that video. a song about facebook, in spanish, with skinny jeans to boot! this one’s got my number, even if i tend to prefer electronic dance music to throwback r’n’r. cute.

  • 14. Jay P  |  October 23rd, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    I would respond in this kind of way:

    A music class per se has to have music at its core. This course does exactly that: It examines the musical landscape that exists in a variety of platforms in an internet age. It attendant components of dance and social constructs are seen as interactive aspects to the central animating focus of the class– music!

    You need to be kind of basic in your arguments, I think.

  • 15. Colin  |  October 24th, 2009 at 12:53 pm


    I just ran into the same thing here at UW-Madison for 619: Music Research Methods and Materials (w/ Potter). I did a state of research report on “Hip Hop Outside the US” and her response was, after I presented on 19 articles from various ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and media studies people, “But, this isn’t music research.”

    I couldn’t respond.


  • 16. wayneandwax  |  October 24th, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    haha, I think I had exactly the same exchange with her 9 or 10 years ago. I also remember her asking how one could study something (hip-hop) that was still ongoing.

    at any rate, i’d be curious to see that bib. I’m slacking on posting my global hip-hop syllabus here; would love to see what I no doubt overlooked.

  • 17. goldbug  |  October 26th, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Ah, well. I’m just thinking that instead of academic posturing, you could just squash it. Seriously, weren’t you just fired? Or rather, only students thought you were important enough to keep around? On the other hand, never let an academic grant you a favor, they will always want to control you forever. It is their department, you don’t have to list your class there. A music major who wants to add the credits can fight their own fight. Last idea: you can always give your class during IAP, then you can basically just teach kids to DJ.

  • 18. wayneandwax  |  October 26th, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Well, I wouldn’t characterize my response as “posturing.” Rather, I was seeking to speak — in their language — in defense of what I’m doing as “music” studies “per se.”

    And, no, I was most certainly NOT fired. I had a two year fellowship at Brandeis; that’s all. Yes, the students very much wanted to keep me around, as did many faculty, including — please note — the music dept (whose faculty, including the chair, lobbied strongly on my behalf). The reason I was not offered a position at Brandeis is because of the complete hiring freeze instituted there in the wake of the financial crisis.

    But you’re right, I could certainly let music majors make this their fight instead of mine. When it comes down to it, though, it’s a fight I think is worth fighting precisely because I care about music (studies) and would like to see major reform of music departments and their curricula.

    Finally, I don’t want to overstate any sense of tension here. I have plenty of allies in the music dept at MIT, and it is my hope that they, and my reasoned response, will be enough to convince any skeptics. We’ll see.

  • 19. Kiri  |  November 3rd, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    I think it’s bizarro that this cross-listing didn’t go straight through, but from the course description I might speculate that this was more a case of protecting Lady Music’s status as special & unique than of anti-popular-music or anti-technoculture sentiment (though this could be wishful thinking on my part; cf. Colin’s comment — whoa!). The actual word “music” only appears once in the description, and colleagues of a certain age/disciplinary orientation may not be in a position to infer its centrality to the course from the refs to mashups, imeem, torrents, production software, etc. I can imagine that some might feel compelled to defend music’s honor as more than [just a] “connective thread” to facilitate discussions about all this other trendy-sounding stuff. Of course, anyone who actually knows your background/current work would be aware that you’re not just planning to play some fun tracks for local color while holding forth about social networking and skinny jeans. It appears that the music faculty ought to get to know you better, and hopefully getting the course cross-listed will help with that!

  • 20. wayneandwax  |  November 3rd, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    I appreciate your perspective on this, Kiri, and I hope you’re right.

    I’m not sure, though, what more to ask of a music class than that music serves as the connective thread. Actually, I would go so far as to say that, at least in the classes I teach, music is always the central thread running through readings and discussions.

    But even though I’m a music exceptionalist in all sorts of ways, almost always arguing implicitly for music’s significance in society and culture, I’m still not sure that there’s a clear line to be drawn between music-in/as-culture and “music per se.”

    Or maybe I should just use the word “music” more in my titles and course descriptions?

  • 21. Mike K  |  November 6th, 2009 at 4:11 am

    Would you be releasing any/some/all of your course material on MIT’s OpenCourseWare? This is something I would absolutely love, and I’m sure many would appreciate. One of the aspects I particularly enjoy is that the material on OCW and similar sites comes curated and arranged, which someone who isn’t an expert–such as myself–can’t really do.


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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