Oxford University professor suggests ‘decolonising’ music syllabus to make it less ‘white European’

29 March 2021, 16:41 | Updated: 1 April 2021, 12:07

Oxford University academic proposes 'decolonisation' of music syllabus
Oxford University academic proposes 'decolonisation' of music syllabus. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Oxford music academic proposes to “decolonise the syllabus” and make the subject more inclusive following pressure from Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

A professor from one of the world’s leading universities is hoping to “decolonise” its degree-level music offering and enhance the diversity of the undergraduate curriculum.

In documents seen by The Telegraph, an academic from the University of Oxford proposed a lighter focus on Euro-American elite music, “arising from international Black Lives Matter demonstrations”.

They said they want to address the “white hegemony” in Oxford’s music syllabus, and to better represent other forms of music.

Possible changes to undergraduate courses include reducing the focus on canonic classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven, in a proposed move away from “white European music from the slave period”.

It was reported that the professor questioning the music curriculum’s “complicity in white supremacy” also proposed a lighter focus on western music notation, allegedly described in the documents as a “colonialist representational system”.

Western staff notation, which has become the most internationally accepted musical language, is one of the fundamental components of the western classical tradition in music. Notation, meanwhile, has developed over time and varies widely between cultures.

However, the music faculty denies any proposals to remove western notation from its curriculum.

Read more: ABRSM must include more black composers in exam syllabus, music leaders urge >

Proposals to increase representation of Black composers like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Proposals to increase representation of Black composers like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Picture: Getty

A spokesperson told Classic FM: “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.”

The faculty added that the plans, forged “in consultation with our staff and students” will be published in the summer following University approval.

According to the documents, the faculty member also suggested learning skills like playing the piano, or conducting orchestras, should no longer be compulsory. They said these skills “structurally centre [around] white European music”, causing some “students of colour great distress”.

Documents also highlight the issue of an “almost all-white faculty” giving “privilege to white musics”.

The professor, hoping to expand their coverage of non-Eurocentric genres beyond hip-hop and jazz, proposed to rebrand “special topics” as “Introduction to Sociocultural and Historical Studies”.

Options focusing on Schubert’s music could also be changed to focus on ‘African and African Diasporic Musics’, ‘Global Musics’ or ‘Popular Musics’.

‘Decolonising’ the syllabus comes as part of an effort to acknowledge how Western Art Music has, throughout history, travelled and forced itself as a dominant genre, giving itself higher emphasis than diverse or grassroots styles.

It was also proposed that pop music could play a bigger role, allowing students to study flagship events in pop culture, from ‘Dua Lipa’s Record Breaking Livestream’ to ‘Artists Demanding Trump Stop Using Their Songs’.

The documentation, which arose from a faculty “away day”, comes amid fears degree-level music will become inaccessible to students if universities do not increase the voices and stories on their curriculums.

Read more: Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason says music education is crucial for diversity >

While Music A-Level and GCSE uptake is at an all-time low, greater representation of non-European and American thinkers could also encourage a more diverse pool of students to take up music at university.

The conversation comes amid wider calls to “decolonise the curriculum” and to think about widely taught ideas – from music, to history – in a more globally connected way.