Some reminders before we dive in: There are three different kinds of comments you can make in these online discussions in order to get the most out of this forum: add something, respond to a classmate, and ask a question that someone else can answer. The most effective comments in this kind of forum are concise, clear, and supported.
This online discussion is open for comments September 10-23. An overview of these assignments and how you’ll be graded is available here.
Most aspects of music—how it’s made, how it’s consumed, what sounds people prefer, how it’s performed, and how it’s learned—progress in cycles throughout history from being popular/affordable/accessible to being elite/costly/niche and back again. Put another way, aspects of music that were popular in one generation or century are the same features that are considered elite or rare in the next. As cultural norms, wealth, and social needs shift over time, music changes, too. So, the history of music can be an indicator of other broad trends in history, economics, politics, and social structure.
As you read, think about other history courses you’ve taken that help fill in the gaps in this chronological survey. Think, too, about the ways in which this survey reinforces what you’ve learned in school or from reading (literature and non-fiction!) and movies—every piece of information we add helps flesh out your sense of the world and all it contains.
There’s one constant about how music is learned to keep in mind throughout this historical survey. As long as music has existed—and this is true today, as well—people have learned to make music by listening to music that’s already been made and by trying their hand at making music with each other. The skills, techniques, and details of music are passed down directly from an older group of musicians to a younger group.
Ancient Greece and the Medieval period (ca. 12th century BC to 1300)
For a large portion of European history, the keepers of knowledge were monks and nuns. In between prayers (more on that in class soon!) and chores (e.g., cleaning, feeding animals, farming), a common daily task for men in a monastery or women in a nunnery was creating copies of important texts by hand. These texts included religious treatises, scientific texts, Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and music.
The history of how music was learned is also the history of how people thought about music. One of the most important takeaways when thinking about music in the Medieval period is knowing just how important music was in the whole spectrum of human knowledge. The way people thought about education was quite different than it is now, and people divided human knowledge into two groups of related subjects, the quadrivium and the trivium:
|Trivium (Literary arts)||Quadrivium (Mathematical disciplines)|
Together, all seven subjects constituted a liberal arts education, and mastery of the trivium was required before taking on the quadrivium. Notice where music is placed—it’s of equal importance with math and science. Notice, too, that none of the other fine arts appear anywhere in this list of essential subjects.
Organizing and prioritizing human knowledge in this way is an idea that comes from Ancient Greek philosophy. Here are some examples of how people thought about knowledge and music:
“Music is a science, certainly, in which exists sure and infallible knowledge.” —Aristides Quintilianus, On Music (ca. 130 AD)
“[T]he cosmos is ordered in accord with harmonia (just as the disciples of Pythagoras assert) and we need the musical theorems for the understanding of the whole universe.. [and] certain types of melos [melody, rhythm, and words sung] form the ethos of the soul.” —Sextus Empiricus, Against the Musicians (2nd century)
“Plato said, not idly, that the soul of the universe is united by musical concord [consonance]… [T]he music of the universe is especially to be studied in the combining of the elements and the variety of the seasons which are observed in the heavens. How indeed could the swift mechanism of the sky move silently in its course? And although the sound does not reach our ears, the extremely rapid motion of such great bodies could not be altogether silent, especially since the courses of the stars are joined together by such mutual adaptation that nothing more equally compacted or united could be imagined. For some orbit higher and others lower, and all revolve by a common impulse, so that an established order of their circuits can be deduced from their various inequalities. For this reason an established order of modulation [i.e., music with a mathematical connotation] cannot be lacking in this celestial revolution.” —Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, Fundamentals of Music, Book I (ca. 500), a summary of the works of Nichomachus (60-100) and Ptolemy (100-168)
There are many ways that the works of Greek thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Epicurus, Euripides, and Socrates continue to shape the world in which we live today—democracy, trial by jury, empirical scientific observations, and public theater all come from Ancient Greece, for example. The very assumption that music is an important thing to study—something that Europeans have believed for thousands of years, long after the quadrivium was abandoned in education, to the point that nearly everyone takes it for granted without knowing where the idea came from—shows how such ideas are tied up in musical behaviors that are passed down over time.
Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical eras (ca. 1300-1800)
Musicians in these periods tended to be born rather than made. That’s not a knock against how hard they worked, just a pithy way of saying that in music, as in most other trades (e.g, blacksmiths, carpenters, farmers), fathers passed their skills directly to their children by teaching them to follow in their footsteps, and most education took place in the home. Most of the “big name” composers we’ll come across in class learned their craft or at least began their studies with their fathers at an early age (around 3 or 4 years old), who were themselves musicians who had learned from their fathers, who had learned from their fathers… Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven (more on Beethoven in an upcoming online discussion!) all came from families of musicians and began their studies at an early age with their fathers. They heard excellent music making happening right in front of them from their infancy and reinforced what they saw with ongoing lessons in playing (usually keyboard, violin, and singing) and composition.
An important distinction of the post-Medieval era is that knowledge was more widely available beyond the monastery and the nunnery. Major universities were established in the Medieval period that grew in the Renaissance and beyond (Bologna, 1088; Oxford, 1096; Salamanca, 1134; Cambridge, 1209; Padua, 1222; Naples, 1224; Sorbonne, 1150). The invention of a printing press with movable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century facilitated the spread of knowledge, too. Both of these developments help support the general cultural trend towards making education fashionable—because book learning had been so rare previously, it was a mark of refinement, wealth, and quality at this point in time to be well-educated, and people who could afford to do so sought out education and ways to demonstrate their erudition.
On the musical side, there was a flowering of new treatises (rather than just copying ancient ones) written and published about music: its history, music theory, how to make music socially, how to play various instruments, and how to compose. Here’s a small but representative sample, with links to original texts wherever possible:
- Baldassare di Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano (Book of the Courtesan, 1528)
- Antonfrancesco Doni, Dialogo della musica (Dialogue on music, 1544)
- Pontus de Tyard, Solitaire premier ou prose des Muses & de la fureur poétique (First Solitaire or Prose on the Muses and Poetic Furor, 1552)
- Gioseffo Zarlino, Istitutioni harmoniche (Harmonic Institutions, 1558)
- Henry Peacham, “The Compleat Gentleman” (1622)
- Johann Joseph Fux, Gradus ad parnassum (1725)
- Johann Mattheson, Der vollkommene Capellmeister (The Perfect Music Director, 1739)
- Johann Joachim Quantz, Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (Essay on Playing the Flute, 1752)
- Joseph Riepel, “Fundamentals of Musical Composition” (1752)
- Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, Versuch über die wahre Art, das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the Proper Manner of Playing A Keyboard Instrument, 1753)
- Leopold Mozart, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, 1756)
- Georg Sulzer, Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste (General Theory of the Fine Arts, 1771-74)
- Johann Philipp Kirnberger, “The Art of Strict Musical Composition,” (1776)
- Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik (A General History of Music, 1788-1801)
- Heinrich Christoph Koch, Versuch einer Anleitung zur Composition (Introductory Essay on Composition, 1782-93)
Music literacy—the ability to read music that is notated on a page—is central to the way classical music is taught from the Baroque era onwards. Musical notation allows musicians to share music with people who aren’t physically in front of them and to learn much more music than a single person can reasonably memorize in one lifetime. Here’s a brief video introduction to music notation:
Finally, another important method for learning music emerged in the Baroque era: conservatories. A conservatorio (for boys) or an ospedale (for girls) in Italy was an orphanage.
A conservatory’s main task was to train parent-less children in music. This may seem odd: Why teach an orphan to play violin when they don’t even have a home? But let’s take everything we’ve learned so far about the history of music into account: (1) There’s a long-standing assumption that music is crucial to making a complete human being (from the Ancient Greeks); and (2) People who have musical training are considered cultured and valuable (because it was was rare to have access to it). Given that, it’s pretty clear why people caring for orphans—children who have nothing, no money, no land, no dowry—would give those children some cultural capital in the form of musical training. Even a child with no family has something to offer if they can make music. For boys, that meant the potential to make a living—the fact that they didn’t have a father to teach them was no longer an impediment to success. For girls, this typically meant that they became marriageable—the fact that they could make beautiful music made them more attractive to a potential (rich) husband (more on this idea in another upcoming online discussion!).
Romantic Era (basically the 19th century)
The goal of most music education in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical eras was becoming a competent professional musician: someone whose entire career revolves around music making in many ways (composing, performing, playing multiple instruments, teaching, and writing about music). The most important shift that happens in the Romantic era is an increase in amateur music making: doing it for fun rather than for money.
(Hey, this is one of those cycle things again! Music has always been made for fun, but the people doing that in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical eras were members of the nobility and aristocracy. In the 19th century, people who didn’t have titles like “King” or “Duke” are able to make music, too—what had been elite becomes common.)
A common pastime in 19th-century Europe was making music at home—singing songs or playing chamber music with the family to pass the evening, playing for guests to entertain them (and to show off!), and keeping female children busy. People would learn to play an instrument and read music by hiring a professional musician to be their private teacher.
University-level music appreciation classes—just like this class you’re taking right now!—first appeared in the 19th century in Germany. This tells us some important things about the cultural landscape of the 19th century: (1) People still thought that music was really important (those Greek ideals aren’t going away!), (2) But not everyone felt like they understood music as well as they should (and they wanted to remedy that situation by studying), and (3) Music was becoming more complex, and the kind of music being composed at the time was harder to understand just by hearing it once without some amount of training or background information.
Education of professional musicians was different; it didn’t take place in the home or in a university. People who showed particular musical talent at an early age in the 19th century didn’t study music with their fathers—middle class parents in the Romantic era were more likely to be teachers, government officials, or lawyers than musicians. Instead, they sent their children to the local (or regional) conservatory.
Wait a minute! Weren’t conservatories just orphanages with musical training? Yes, originally (see above), but once people realized how effective musical training could be if you kept kids captive and immersed in music education, they started choosing to have conservatories take their children and train them professionally. The major music conservatories in Europe that are still active today were established in the early 19th century:
- Paris, 1795
- Bologna, 1804
- Milan, 1807
- Florence, 1811
- Prague, 1811
- Warsaw, 1821
- Vienna, 1821
- Royal Academy of Music in London, 1822
- The Hague, 1826
- Liège, 1827
Children would typically enter the conservatory between the ages of 5 and 15 and study music there exclusively—no literature, no math, no science—and intensively for 10-15 years. They’d become proficient in all the skills necessary to make music at the highest level: composition, counterpoint, performance, sight singing, and conducting. Many of the “big name” composers you’ll come across in the 19th and 20th centuries were conservatory-trained: Hector Berlioz, Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
But what about the US? Even though the United States declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, much of American culture was still tied to or imitated European culture. This included the assumption that having musical knowledge was crucial for a person to be fully educated and worldly. The US didn’t have the same long-standing music education tradition that Europe did, and the major US conservatories and music schools were established quite a bit later than their European counterparts:
- The Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, 1857
- Oberlin Conservatory of Music, 1865
- New England Conservatory, 1867
- Boston Conservatory, 1867
- Yale School of Music, 1894
- The Juilliard School, 1905
- San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 1917
- Manhattan School of Music, 1917
- Cleveland Institute of Music, 1920
- Eastman School of Music, 1921
- The Curtis Institute of Music, 1924
- The Colburn School, 1950
Without the same quality of musical training available, American orchestras and opera companies often weren’t as proficient as their European counterparts, and audiences weren’t as culturally savvy. Some American musicians experienced a fair amount of culture-envy or cultural inadequacy when they compared music making in America to the institutions of Europe. For example, one such musician, William Henry Fry (1813-64), staged a series of lengthy, dense public lectures in New York City in 1853 in a feverish attempt to bring the uncultured (or so he thought) American public up to speed with the European standard-makers. Notice that his lectures precede the establishment of any conservatories in the US—other people clearly felt the same pressure and put their efforts into institutional education.
The 20th century
The 19th-century trend of home music making (by amateurs for fun) was widespread—to the point that most middle-class families had a piano in their living room and at least one family member could play it reasonably well—until the Great Depression (1929-39). In the 20th century we again run up against another one of those social cycles: classical music making had become so common, and seemed so associated with “old people” (like parents and grandparents), that it stopped being fashionable. What was fashionable was popular music—jazz, rock, disco, hip-hop, or pop, depending on the decade in question.
On top of that, the classical music made by those conservatory-trained professional musicians (who immersed themselves in all the techniques, skills, and history of music from an early age) was generally becoming even less accessible to the average listener. As an example of music from a conservatory-trained musician that is difficult for many new listeners, here’s Pierre Boulez’s Structures I (1952) and II (1962):
All of this means that the way music is learned in the 20th century is a more extreme version of trends that had already taken root in previous eras: (1) Professional classical musicians were trained intensively, often from an early age, in a style of music that was becoming less and less popular; (2) People who could afford it studied music privately in their homes (because they were continuing that Ancient Greek assumption that there’s value in music study!); (3) Hands-on music making generally became less and less prevalent (consider that even garage bands, with self-taught teenagers playing guitars, drums, and bass, are significantly less popular now than they were 20 years ago—just a single generation); and (4) The majority of the public only listened to music rather than playing it themselves, and increasingly they only listened to music that was recorded rather than played live. An oversimplified—and contentious!—description of the way music is learned today would suggest that there is a class of people who are trained to do the music making for everyone else.
There are exceptions to all historical trends, so here I’d like to provide another approach to music education from the 20th century. The poster below hung in the New York City dance studio of choreographer Merce Cunningham in the 1960s consisting of rules for teachers and students, compiled by educator Sister Corita Kent in 1967-68 and partly inspired by composer John Cage. These rules (although the word “rules” here is used ironically, since the ideas they contain are so broad as to defy the formula of typical rules that must be followed) are an effort in one corner of the art world to buck against the rigidity of the conservatory tradition and the notion of top-down learning (i.e., from professional veterans to their disciples). Cage and his partner Cunningham used these rules as a way to create a learning environment in which they and their students were encouraged to grow, explore and create freely:
The question of “How is music learned?” is simplistic but not simple—the answer depends on when in history we’re talking about and who we’re talking about. The common thread in all of these music education methods is that effective learning involves meaningful and constant exposure to people who already make music at a high level, accompanied by rigorous, systematic training in many aspects of music making (e.g., multiple instruments, composition, performance). This should remind you of our last online discussion—even though historical music professionals didn’t know the neuroscience of training one’s brain, through thousands of years of passing music down people developed methods that reinforce neural pathways!
Some questions to get the conversation going
It’s most effective in an online forum like this to pick one idea at a time to respond to in a single comment, rather than combining several different ideas into one comment. And, these are just a way to get started—the best online discussions branch out into surprising new topics!
- What would be your preferred way to study music of all the methods described?
- What would happen if you adopted the Kent/Cage/Cunningham rules in your own life?
- What kinds of music making/learning does this survey omit or leave out? Why do you think they’re not included here?
- Why might knowing the history of how a subject has been taught be helpful?
- How are your own educational experiences similar or dissimilar to the ways in which music has been taught?