The Cloud of Musical Knowledge: Towards a Critical Music Theory Pedagogy

The Cloud of Musical Knowledge: Towards a Critical Music Theory Pedagogy

Paul Smith (University of New England, Australia)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5109-6.ch008
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This chapter positions the teaching of music theory in the online sphere as a powerful and unlikely site for critical pedagogy. Teaching music theory in the online platform should not ask questions of how best to digitally recast music theory classes, but to consider how teaching online can change the way students approach, explore, and respond to theory content. This happens in what the author labels “the cloud of musical knowledge,” which is mutable, accessible, and democratic. Music theory suffers from being largely considered separate from political and cultural discussion, and as a result is a hidden bullet of neoliberalism and conservativism that reminds students from minorities that their opinions do not matter and similarly it does not remind other students to consider their own privileged perspective. By exploring the intersections of critical pedagogy and music theory and detailing the structure of online music theory lessons, the author argues for an open and inviting space in which students do not think of music theory as being other than themselves and their experience.
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Many institutions still employ formal classical skills as the dominant measure of teaching curriculum and summative assessment in music theory. As such, most music theory skills are learned by the students through pieces of a commonly accepted musical canon. This canon carries the problem of creating an “imaginary museum of musical works,” as described by Lydia Goehr in her book of the same name (1992). Goehr describes this canon as a space where there is an untouchability, and therefore a given composer’s practice is distant, ideal, abstract, and necessarily elusive “as an expression of an individually inspired genius” (p. 210). The dominant effect of adhering to this idea of a strict musical canon for exemplars creates an impossible gulf between a “traditional” understanding of music that the instructor is hoping they will achieve, and the way students listen to, perform, or favour music in their everyday lives. By teaching music theory skills through this lens of a monolithic catalogue, students lose the freedom and the ability to question or critique the commonly accepted truths about harmony, form, and other components of musical style. Teaching music theory through such a limited view has been diligently critiqued by many scholars over the past two decades. Despite this ongoing and compelling discussion, the structures of music theory pedagogy remain largely unchanged. For example, Davidson and Lupton (2016) argue that “music theory pedagogy, at least as reflected in many undergraduate music theory courses, continues to follow universalising assumptions of earlier music theory” (p. 177). Rather than use and re-use the same exclusionary set of examples in which students learn music theory skills, instructors would do better to adopt a more democratic method of offering learning opportunities with more examples which offer students a variety of ways to experience the skills they are learning. The intellectual framework of critical pedagogy opens up new ideas to help students become more skeptical towards commonly accepted “truisms” in music theory, and allows students more freedom to learn about musical devices in music outside the commonly accepted canon. This includes the music created by minorities as well as the music that is heard and shared within the community of a culturally diverse student body. The online teaching space offers new opportunities for these learning structures to be challenged and reconceived.

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