Musical Theory and Musical Judgment—Both Optional at Harvard


The department of music at Harvard University recently revised its curriculum. Music theory and counterpoint—once the bedrock of the degree—are now optional.

The reasons for this change by Harvard are not complicated, and not surprising. The faculty of music at Harvard feels it can no longer justify the priority long given to traditional Western music theory and history. The change is part of a process now common in departments of music in universities around the country. They adopt new classes like “pop music history” or “rock and roll compositional methods,” and then become uncomfortable with the implications—social, racial, and aesthetic—that come when these new classes are treated as optional while traditional theory and history are required.

The college where I teach has a mission statement that binds faculty to “avoid … educational philosophies that emphasize contemporary perspectives to the neglect of what has proven itself across the ages to be of value for human life.” Because of this, I will probably be spared the obvious complications that come from a curriculum like the one Harvard has adopted. I think, nevertheless, that those complications are worth observing before they arrive. And they are legion.

Consider: If a faculty has no real basis to prioritize a theory course over anything else in the curriculum, one must wonder how it prioritizes anything at all. In a class on Indian music, why give preference to the beautiful upper caste music of that classical tradition—steeped as it is in aristocratic privilege—and not consider the rhythmic pulses that the starving untouchables beat out on their garbage heaps in Calcutta? Taken further, why even study human music at all when the very presence of humanity has brought about the extinction of so much birdsong that once filled the rainforests of Peru? Why would the faculty of Harvard feel themselves so very intellectually superior as to impose any requirementsat all on their undergraduates? Why not accept for transfer credit a student’s experience in his high school garage band?

Is that form of musical culture unacceptable?

Historically, we have had an easy answer to this question: Some musics—including some musical styles—are natively superior to others. They have more potential for meaning and the music made in them is more meaningful. Based on this sense of value, we have long required students to study some things over others. Modern universities have increasingly lost confidence in their ability to do this. They realize that to admit the superiority of some things over others things leads where they do not wish to go. It validates a Western culture about which they are embarrassed. It may even lead them to bigger questions about value.

One wonders, too, about the application of the word “Western” before “music theory.”  The periodic table of elements is also a thoroughly Western way of thinking about chemicals. To insist that undergraduate chemists have a knowledge of it is to overlook the many animist and spiritist approaches to natural materials that are more prevalent in non-Western society. So goes the logic.

Will computer science students abandon circuitry, on the grounds of its Western prejudice, in favor of tools made of wood and stone?

Having rejected the traditional view of musical judgment, it is easy to see why Harvard was pressed to reject its own curriculum. It remains to be seen whether students will study from faculty who have no way to judge whether their subject is especially worth studying.

Self-Educated American Guest Contributor, Dr. Joshua F. Drake, is professor of music and humanities at Grove City College. He earned his PhD in musicology from the University of Glasgow. Since then, he has written on a broad range of topics related to beauty and culture, including as co-author with Paul Munson of “Art and Music: a Student’s Guide” (Crossway, 2014). Website:

The views & opinions expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City College. Copyright © 2017 The Center for Vision and Values. Used with permission.