Reading Music in the twenty-first century

Students inside the Reid Concert Hall in 2013, looking at instruments in the original Victorian display cabinets. The University’s world-leading musical instrument collection is now housed in the new St Cecilia’s Hall museum on the Cowgate, which re-opened in 2017. Photo credit: ECA images, CC-BY

In this post, Nikki Moran, Senior Lecturer in Music at the Reid School of Music, examines music theory’s relationship to Music as a discipline in UK Higher Education, and highlights how the new level 7 course, ‘Fundamentals of Music Theory’, is key to the design of the new curriculum…

The subject matter of a Music degree is not immediately obvious. Music academics are accustomed to the question, “And what instrument do you teach?”. In fact, we are a diverse group of specialist musicologists, including historians and social scientists, composers, acoustic and audio experts, and practitioners. As an academic discipline, Music has historically relied upon the creative, analytic and descriptive utility of music notational literacy – a skill based upon a working knowledge of rudiments of Western music theory, and which most people acquire as part of a formal music education.

Formal music education indicates a collection of core instruction that spans ear-training, notation conventions, technical (performance) proficiency, and repertoire, which includes recognition of historically- and geographically-delineated stylistic and compositional norms. Entrance to a University Bachelor’s in Music (BMus) has historically presumed aptitude in this array of skills, which could be seen as the bedrock for a specialist and disciplined type of ‘musical thinking’ that distinguishes Music graduates from those specialising in other arts and humanities subjects.

Archive image of the Reid Music classroom and concert hall. The building on Bristo Square is still in regular use for concerts and teaching. Photo credit: University of Edinburgh Images, CC-BY

As a sector, Music in HE has long relied upon students’ acquisition of skills and repertoire through the musical communities of youth bands and orchestras, alongside school-based music education and – typically – years of private tuition. But access to such sustained and developmental musical opportunities in a score-based Western tradition can no longer be presumed to be the norm for our applicants. Now, in 2019, we see great variability in the forms and fluency of students’ musical literacy, and the extent and type of performance experience that they have acquired during their school years.

So when it comes to University admissions, it is neither just nor satisfactory to assume that a student’s accomplishment of formal music education should represent their attainment and potential. Music in HE has had to redefine its distinctive array of specialist skills and attributes, and find new ways to teach these effectively to today’s undergraduates.

Over the past six years, ECA’s Reid School of Music has initiated significant development of its undergraduate programmes through various teaching innovation projects. Alongside the launch of the new BSc in Acoustics and Music Technology this year, we are also re-setting our single honours curriculum. Building upon the strengths of two existing awards (BMus and MA), we have merged the most successful and valued elements into a sole, single honours BMus Music programme.

The new Level 7 course, Fundamentals of Music Theory, is key to the design of the new curriculum. Fundamentals of Music Theory started as a teaching and learning project in 2014 with the launch of our eponymous Coursera MOOC. Fundamentals reached 90,000 learners on its first instance, and has run on a rolling basis since August 2016, maintaining over 2000 active learners each month across the globe. Capitalising on the digital resources that we created for the open access MOOC platform, we have used a flipped classroom design to support students with practical, small group tutorials. With a diagnostic test to determine entry level, we hope to use this stepping-stone Level 7 course, and its Coursera counterpart, to maintain the foundations of a common disciplinary language for our subject area, and to create accessible, non-traditional entry to the BMus programme.

The global appetite for music theoretic knowledge is apparent in the success of our MOOC. What is crucial to this new course – and its place in the curriculum – is that it fosters a critical view of conventional stave notation. Musical literacy demands both practical and conceptual skills. It is a powerful and sophisticated tool to support musical thinking. But human musical imagination and creativity exceed the classroom conventions of Western European music theory. We will be encouraging and supporting the peer-learning communities – on-site and online – to examine and value all of the musics they know and love (or dislike!), and to draw on this knowledge in the classroom.

Nikki Moran

Nikki Moran is Senior Lecturer in Music at the Reid School of Music, Edinburgh College of Art. She has designed courses and taught broadly across Music’s curriculum. Nikki’s research concerns cognition of musical performance. She has a critical interest in scientific and public discourse around music, and how ideas in these domains come to interact with values in educational settings.

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