Music Faculty responds to confusion over curriculum changes

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Image description: the Radcam and a tree in blossom, and some sheet music

Students have criticised the Music faculty over confusing reports of changes to the Music curriculum published in various media outlets. The faculty today responded to student concerns, reassuring students that the course was not being changed beyond changes that had already been announced.

In an email sent to music undergraduate students today, the faculty explained that the stories published over the past week were the result of Freedom of Information requests that they were obliged to comply with, which asked for communications about the curriculum reforms discussed since the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer.

The FOI requests sent to the faculty by the Telegraph reportedly targeted key words such as decolonisation and racism. The quotes that the publication then selected were apparently “from genuine communications amongst Faculty Board members, but often represented in misleading fashion. This misrepresentation was then compounded by others, particularly The Daily Mail, who invented the idea that we were “scrapping sheet music”.”

The email, from Associate Professor of Music Suzanne Aspden, told students that although they had succeeded in making outlets change incorrect statements, they “could not get them to print a more sympathetic or nuanced statement about our reformed curriculum”. They reaffirmed their commitments to curriculum reform discussed in the summer and in Michaelmas.

This comes after undergraduate music students wrote a second open letter, seen by The Oxford Student, regarding what they saw as a failure to communicate transparently with its students. The open letter took the view that the statement issued by the faculty to parts of the national press and published on their website was a misrepresentation of the discussions that have taken place. The faculty’s comment that they have been planning changes such as these “for the past couple of years” in particular was contested by many students, who believe that the music faculty only made the changes under duress and pressure from students, including in a virtual meeting held last July.

The open letter wrote that:

“the only conclusion that students, especially those of colour, can make is that the Faculty deem it more important to indulge and validate those who are fiercely protective of White European cultural hegemony than to assure their students, to whom they have a duty of care.”

The Telegraph article reported that members of the faculty were attempting to devalue the importance of sheet music and musical notation in order to “decolonise the curriculum”. The story has since been reported widely, from the Daily Mail to Classical FM and Fox News. The open letter stressed that:

“The faculty must appreciate how unsettling it is for the majority of students to find out about potential curriculum changes from what can only be described as an attempt to incite a culture war”

The letter claims that discussion in the media has distorted recent reforms and discussions. The coverage is described as “inconsistent with the tenor of ongoing discourse”.

“They cannot on one hand claim to their students that they are committed to decolonisation whilst also telling the press and those fiercely protective of White European cultural hegemony that nothing is changing and that whiteness will remain central.”

The faculty’s statement, at the centre of the confusion and anger noted that:

“While retaining (and in no way diminishing) our traditional excellence in the critical analysis, history and performance of the broad range of western art music, we are exploring ways to enhance our students’ opportunities to study a wider range of non-western and popular music from across the world than is currently on offer, as well as music composition, the psychology and sociology of music, music education, conducting, and much more. We look forward to sharing our curriculum in the coming months.”

The statement explained that techniques of composition course for first years will also now include music arranging and transcription, including non-western and popular options alongside western classical. They also drew attention to the appointment of a new Associate Professor of Popular music, which will allow teaching to remain ‘cutting-edge’ and to continue to ‘evolve’.

This comes after pressure from a group of undergraduate music students who wrote an open letter to the faculty after the events of the summer regarding Black Lives Matter. Documents collected by the Telegraph note that music is a “colonialist representational system”. Current topics available to students which are said to represent more diverse musical topics include special topics on Hip-Hop and world jazz. Nonetheless, concerns remain that the undergraduate curriculum represents “white hegemony”. There is also concern that the large majority of tutors for notation and techniques were white males, and that change to this is moving incredibly slowly.

The music faculty’s website describes the course “strong in traditional musicological and musical skills – for musicologists, performers and composers” but also “notably wide-ranging and imaginative”.  However, the open letter argued that the faculty’s language of “traditional excellence” can “only be seen as a perturbing nod to white supremacist views in the authority of White Western cultural products”.

The faculty announced changes to the undergraduate curriculum earlier in the year which involve the end of compulsory keyboard skills for freshers, widely seen as privileging those with classical music training and creating access issues for the course.

Decolonising the curriculum has become a key concern over recent months, including featuring in almost all of the SU Presidential manifestos. It has also become an issue in government circles, with the Universities Minister Michelle Donelan recently saying that decolonising the curriculum risked “censoring” the past, which she likened to the actions of the Soviet Union.


Image Credit: Issy Fleming


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