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…