Posted on April 2, 2021

Musical Notation Branded ‘Colonialist’ by Oxford Professors Hoping to ‘Decolonise’ the Curriculum

Craig Simpson, The Telegraph, March 27, 2021

Musical notation has been branded “colonialist” by Oxford professors hoping to reform their courses to focus less on white European culture, The Telegraph can reveal.

Academics are deconstructing the university’s music offering after facing pressure to “decolonise” the curriculum following the Black Lives Matter protests.

The Telegraph has seen proposals for changes to undergraduate courses, in which some staff question the current curriculum’s “complicity in white supremacy”.

Professors said the classical repertoire taught at Oxford, which spans works by Mozart and Beethoven, focuses too much on “white European music from the slave period”.

Documents reveal that faculty members, who decide on courses that form the music degree, have proposed reforms to address this “white hegemony”, including rethinking the study of musical notation because it is a “colonialist representational system”.

Teaching notation which has not “shaken off its connection to its colonial past” would be a “slap in the face” for some students, documents state, and music-writing studies have been earmarked for rebranding to be more inclusive.

Academics have also proposed that musical skills such as learning to play the keyboard or conducting orchestras should no longer be compulsory because the repertoire “structurally centres white European music” which causes “students of colour great distress”.

It is also noted that the “vast bulk of tutors for techniques are white men”.

A faculty checklist devised to tick off student demands notes that hip hop and jazz are on the curriculum at Oxford, providing “non-Eurocentric” topics of study. But professors questioning whether the “structure of our curriculum supports white supremacy” have also highlighted the issue of an “almost all-white faculty” giving “privilege to white musics”.

As a proposed change, “special topics” for students to choose from instead would be relabelled as “Introduction to Sociocultural and Historical Studies” to reflect the faculty’s new focus.

Options focussing on French composer Machaut and Shucbert’s last decade could be changed to focus on “African and African Diasporic Musics”, “Global Musics”, and “Popular Musics” under one proposal.

Another suggestion is that pop music will come into greater focus, allowing students to study mooted events in popular culture including “Dua Lipa’s Record Breaking Livestream” and “Artists Demanding Trump Stop Using Their Songs”.

Following a faculty “away day”, staff state in documentation – seen by the Telegraph – that “arising from international Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the Faculty Board proposed making changes to enhance the diversity of the undergraduate curriculum”.

One student demand of the reformed curriculum, which is yet to be decided, is that “No tutors should speak disparagingly to students about any element of the curriculum”.

However, in internal documents there was dissent from some faculty members, with one stating that colleagues focussed on music from before 1900 “are often implicitly accused of being concerned exclusively with music that is ‘Western’ and ‘white’”.

There was also disconnect over the use of the term Western Art Music being used.  It is a modern term intended to be more inclusive than “classical” by recognising other culture’s classical traditions.

The development of Western classical music and its notation predate the establishment of the trade in African slaves, both having their roots in Medieval liturgical music like Greogorian chanting.

Major figures in the development of classical music including JS Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The University of Oxford has been approached for comment.