It is perhaps our fear of irrelevance that leads music students to the kind of self-deprecating humour usually focussed on how ‘out of touch’ the Oxford music course is. I used to think so but now I’m not sure this is the problem it is made out to be. If by relevance we mean that the course should reflect the statistical music preferences of the country than the course is far from relevant, being based around ‘classical’ music. But isn’t the assumption that the course should be doing this rather presumptuous? Pop, rock, dance, hip-hop, all of these are doing just fine without the intervention of Oxford music graduates to tell them how they should be doing it. In fact, the Oxford syllabus is not all that different from the music departments of most English universities, most of which have a similar preference. Stressing the out-of-touchness of the Oxford course can feel like a thinly disguised assertion of an Oxfordian superiority that ignores our similarity to other faculties and our dependence on these external influences. We’re in touch with them, you might say.
I would further add that we are all ‘out of touch’ in some way when it comes to music – a heavy metal fan is unlikely to be knowledgeable about K-pop, and a listener of Radio 3 is unlikely to pay much regard to Algerian Rai singers. The assumption that music can be reduced to what is relevant and what is not does it a disservice, because being out of touch is really a demonstration of diversity. To claim to cover what is ‘relevant’ is to make a dangerous and restrictive value judgement; instead we should accept our partial perspectives rather than claiming some kind of superiority or dominance (something universities are often in danger of doing). No, the Oxford course is not relevant to everyone but neither is any music, and this is exactly how it should be.
My worry is that some think the music course isn’t relevant because its object of study, classical music, appears to be reaching a lower proportion of younger people in Britain today than in previous generations. I would be the last person to invoke the moralistic argument that art has lost its way, or any other such nonsense. On the other hand, I would like to recognise that though the Oxford music course concerns itself with the same repertoire that can be found in the haughty practices of concert hall music-making, this repertoire is still valuable to a substantial audience, and continues to present us with interesting problems.
In fact, this is where the Oxford music course excels. Students are expected to learn more about the Western musical canon, but its academic centrality is also appropriately challenged. This is achieved by studying anti-canonical subject matter, including medieval music, women composers and hip-hop. The ‘Musical Thought and Scholarship’ module, colloquially known as MTS, is equally helpful in this regard, which involves critiquing classical music’s public institutions, such as the concert hall and the opera house.
I would make changes to my course if I could, no question. But I defend its core focus of the ‘art tradition’, since as music students we are presented with numerous opportunities to critically re-examine what such a term might once have meant, or what it might mean today. Though somewhat behind literary studies, modern musicology has developed a rich critical theory, and it seems to have been proven that the field is capable of acquiring a progressive bent. Ultimately, the course is relevant because it has preserved an exciting musical repertoire, tempered by generous amounts of self-scrutiny. What fun!