A Music Theory Curriculum for the 21st Century

Alex Rehding, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Music theory is struggling with its endemic whiteness. Founded on the 18th-century European art music repertory of Bach and Beethoven, the discipline is in search of alternatives, which are still in short supply. All music programs in the country are wrestling with this question; our accelerator workshop is focused on Harvard’s current efforts to implement a new music theory curriculum that addresses issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. A new curriculum is a question of social justice—with diverse repertoires, socially conscious questions, inclusive methods, and innovative teaching goals. This is a daunting task, not least since traditional music theory has been very successful in tying together a specific repertory (dubbed “common practice”) and a specific musical grammar—but this came at the expense of a narrow and exclusive focus, which left out a whole lot of other music. Any diverse curriculum will have to give up the pipe dream of universality, which old music theory misleadingly claimed for itself, and take a long hard look at what could usefully replace it. The accelerator workshop would give us the opportunity to tackle this important, urgent task. Every challenge is also an opportunity, and we are hopeful that the result of our discussions—our new curriculum—will be as eagerly studied and copied by other departments around the country as it was when our department overhauled our general music curriculum in 2015.