The Only Music Worth Knowing

I initially accepted my university teaching role to push myself into more organized presentation and as a way to connect myself with the music community in San Jose. 

It was not the first time I'd accepted a university position, and was certainly less overwhelming than my first - directing an applied research program in an actual war zone. Eastern Congo was an instructional trial by fire; I was conducting research and directing a program in English and French, which I had not spoken fluently before. Rebel activity, kidnapping, and mandatory evacuation were real concerns. It prepared me for anything. 

Accepting an instructional role at SJSU felt simple and direct, a joy and a pleasant expansion on my abilities. Yet, would it be a step in my life if it didn't come with some surprising twist? 

I have found myself obsessing recently about what we consider worthwhile sound. 


As I began to dig into organizing a semester's worth of lectures, I found myself struggling with balance and emphasis. Of course I want to cover all of Western music in all its complexity and beauty, but how relevant, really, is that? What do I miss if I ignore every other region, genre, and influence? 

Furthermore, when I consider today's globalized world of music and increasingly diverse classroom, it becomes almost comical to ignore every other tradition. Even the task of introducing and discussing recent composers like Le Monte Young (influenced by Buddhist philosophy), Lou Harrison (composed for gamelan), and Tan Dun (often uses traditional Chinese instruments) becomes nearly impossible without a basic understanding of non-Western traditions. 

Finally, and most significantly, I find myself asking how the curriculum as it generally stands reinscribes colonial attitudes about Western superiority and refinement over other cultures. If we discuss Western art music at length, we naturally elevate it. Time devoted implies importance. So how do we justify 25 class meetings on Western art music and not a single one to Indian classical, Central American cumbia, or Peking opera outside of nakedly racist conceptions of Western primacy? 

There is no easy answer

Of course I recognize that every instructor attempting to cover music in a lower division class is in a hard place. How on earth does one summarize music over the course of a semester, let alone give adequate information on a number of traditions? 

I admit I don't have the answer at all, but I do wonder if there are ways to begin from more universal starting points. Start with types of instruments and move out, or perhaps begin on topical issues like music and religion and music and celebration. 

Whatever the answer will be, it certainly cannot be found without taking a long, hard look at our curriculum as it stands and questioning what values went into its formation and focus and being honest about what needs to change.