I received a press release from The New York Times Knowledge Network, announcing two new online music courses. One of the courses is on Wagner's Ring Cycle, starting on March 19 to prepare potential audiences for the Met's productions of the cycle in April and May. This course is described in a very positive light: "participants in this webcast will have the opportunity to delve into the significance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 20th-century history, philosophy, culture, and even film with one of USC’s most distinguished faculty members."
The other course, however, feels the need to tell what it's not. Entitled "How to Listen to Classical Music," the press release describes it as "[n]ot a music
theory course, not a music history course, this is a joyful listening tour led
by The New York Times’
classical music reporter Daniel J. Wakin." Directly contradicting this description is the previous sentence, including this tidbit: "">this delightful
three-week course is designed to help students recognize elements unique to
classical music and identify favorite musicians and composers." Last time I checked, music theory courses were all about helping students recognize elements of music. Perhaps not unique to classical music, in fact I prefer to point out the universal nature of music theory concepts, and how they appear in different ways in different music genres.
I was about to write that I don't understand why the authors of the press release felt the need to distance the course from music theory or music history, but I realized that isn't true. I know that classical music is perceived to suffer from the slurs of elitism, epitomized by academic courses that perpetuate technical jargon intended to keep the riff raff out. And naturally, said academic courses are dull, boring, and unrelated to the joys of listening to music. The PR people at the NYT want to counter that perception, by reassuring potential students that their online course will be fun, and directly relevant to music listeners. The implied anti-elitism of the dig against music theory and music history is ironic, given the name of the course. I would never tell an audience how they must or should listen to classical music. I am happy to point out interesting features as uncovered by study in music theory and music history, hoping that these features will enrich the audience's listening experience, but without proscribing other means of establishing connections to the music.
I think this class will probably be very interesting. I enjoy some of Wakin's reviews and articles, and I think online courses provide the technology for interesting multi-media presentations of concepts for interested learners. My mother-in-law is taking a similar course right now through the University of Wisconsin, and is enjoying it a great deal. But I think the PR department needs to rethink how to brand this course, especially if they want music theorists and musicologists to support the concept. Don't make us into bogey men (and women). Instead, embrace the depth of music learning that has been uncovered, and indicate how this knowledge can affect the listening experience.