International News Mar 29, 2021 1:56 PM EST

Oxford University staff propose to 'rethink' teaching sheet music because of its 'complicity in white supremacy'

Staff at the University of Oxford have taken the Black Lives Matter movement to heart, and as such have proposed that the university consider a "rethink" sheet music, notation, and classical music.

Oxford University staff propose to 'rethink' teaching sheet music because of its 'complicity in white supremacy'
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY
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Staff at the University of Oxford have taken the Black Lives Matter movement to heart, and as such have proposed that the university consider a "rethink" sheet music, notation, and classical music.

This information was uncovered by the Telegraph, which reached out to Oxford for comment. At the time their story was published, Oxford had not replied. However, the AP reached out to Oxford, and Oxford said that "It has been incorrectly reported that the University is considering removing sheet music from its curriculum. This is completely incorrect and no such proposal or suggestion has been made about sheet music or western musical notation."

Musical notation, the Telegraph reported, is now considered "too colonial," while Beethoven and Mozart, and music curriculums in general, are believed by professors to have "complicity in white supremacy."

Arguments against the music, which is one of the greatest achievements of western civilization, arose not just from activist students but from activist staff, who say that the music study in its current composition is focused on "white European music from the slave period."

Musical notation is believed by these staff now to be part of a "colonialist representational system." The changes are being proposed to undergraduate level courses and the goal is to "decolonize" music study. These staff are intent on addressing "white hegemony," according to the Telegraph.

Since the Telegraph reported this, the Associated Press was able to obtain a comment from Oxford. The AP notes that "Stephen Rouse, head of university communications at Oxford, told The Associated Press that while the music faculty is planning to expand its music curriculum to broaden offerings, cutting sheet music is not part of the plan. He added that many of the views the Telegraph article attributed to 'professors' came from a single individual."

According to the Telegraph, staff argues that the teaching of musical notation would be a "slap in the face" for students because notation "has not 'shaken off its connection to its colonial past.'" Music study, moving forward, has been "earmarked for a rebranding to be more inclusive."

Additionally, staff proposes that requirements will no longer dictate that music students are taught to play piano, or how to conduct orchestras, because this, too, "structurally centres white European music." According to these music instructors at Oxford whose job it was to teach the history, scope, breadth and practice of music, this can cause "students of colour great distress." Even the way music is taught, these profs complain, is a problem because the "vast bulk of tutors for techniques are white men."

So what will all this problematic scoring and compositions be replaced with? There would be "special topics," more electives and less requirements that students learn about the history or technique of European music. The concern is that, according to some profs, the "structure of our curriculum supports white supremacy."

This is evidenced by the fact that the staff, who proposes these changes, are "almost all-white." Staff are worried that they are "giving 'privilege to white musics,'" even though in practice, they are currently giving preference to anything but.

These special topics would include "Introduction to Sociocultural and Historical Studies," or "African and African Diasporic Musics," "Global Musics," and "Popular Musics." So instead of studying the history of western music, which has been evolving and changing for thousands upon thousands of years, students will study what is happening in music right now.

Pop music will now be on the curriculum, so that students can study 2021 Grammy Award winning pop star "Dua Lipa's Record Breaking Livestream," or "Artists Demanding Trump Stop Using Their Songs." The academics proposing these changes have stated that it is in direct reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement.

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

Oxford staff are tying themselves in knots to root out the white supremacy in western music and to bring in elements of contemporary pop music. They are clamoring to say that their discipline, the ethereal art of music, is also racist.

There has been some pushback against these changes from inside the department. Staff noted that those who teach music from prior to the 20th century "are often implicitly accused of being concerned exclusively with music that is 'Western' and 'white.'"

Western music, however, has been a long evolving art form that, as the Telegraph notes, predates the trans Atlantic slave trade entirely. Music evolved along with the Catholic church and was about worship of the divine. Musical notation does not even have its origin in the west.

The first known musical notation was found on a cuneiform tablet from ancient Iraq, then known as Babylonia. That tablet is now some 4,000 years old. That first notated song is known as the Hurrian Hymn No. 6, and because a fragment of it has survived in notation, it is able to be recreated today.

Human beings learned how to communicate their musical melodies even when there was no one there to play the song. This practice grew and grew. Greeks used musical notation, as well. And while scales and meter changed, the practice of sharing music in notated form, which began as so many human achievements have, in the Middle East, spread across Europe.

It is believed that musical notation was not an invention but an evolution, much as written language did not stagnate when it first came into being but has changed as the people who use it change.

Oxford, who did not respond for the Telegraph's request for comment, notes on their course website that:

"Music has been part of the life of Oxford for more than 800 years. There are around 30 academic staff, of whom 15 give lectures regularly–scholars with distinguished reputations as musicologists, performers or composers.

"Oxford welcomes visits from numerous speakers and professional performing ensembles. Students enjoy performance and composition workshops, and play an active part in the life of the faculty and their colleges–in chapels, orchestras, ensembles, bands and stage performances, and in musical outreach to the broader community."

The Telegraph reached out for comment, but Oxford did not respond to that request at the time of publication. The Associated Press additionally reached out to Oxford who said that they would not be undertaking the change. This was part of a fact check undertaken by AP.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect Oxford's response to the Telegraph's article.

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