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Why we should dive deep into studying music history

By Scott Huntington

Why should people bother to study music history or, for that matter, go on to major in it? What could you possibly gain from studying music history?

The answer to these questions might surprise you. Besides the more obvious career paths, such as musical research, publishing, and criticism, music degrees still have plenty of merit for a lot of professions out there. Check out the following statistics:

Check out the following statistics::

  • According to a study conducted by Georgia Tech, college students who take a minimum of one music-related elective, such as music history, have a greater likelihood (4 ½ times higher) of staying in school than the rest of the students enrolled.
  • Another study conducted by the University of Alabama says that when it comes to getting into medical school, students who majored in music have the best chances (compared to their peers in other majors) of being admitted.
  • Taking music courses has the ripple effect of helping you become better at other courses too. A team of researchers explored the connection between intelligence and music. They found that music instruction is far more effective than computer based instruction. This is especially true when it comes to developing the abstract critical thinking skills required to learn science and math.
  • Compared to their peers who don’t study music, music students show significantly less stress and anxiety when taking a test.

Clearly, music education has many benefits to offer, but why study the history of it? Regardless of what we do for a living, all of us are listeners who can learn from the past. We are surrounded by music on a regular basis. It’s an integral part of our culture that has ebbed and flowed in various directions over time. Learning about its history and the ways in which it has changed over time, will make our appreciation for it much greater.

When I was studying at Shepherd University, I was like most of my peers and took a music history course only because I needed it to graduate. I was new to the school and didn’t know about any of the professors, so I ended up studying with Dr. David Gonzol. It was by far the most difficult class I have ever taken, but it was also the most rewarding. When I think back to college, every once in a while I’ll think about my time at the other college I attended (Vista College), my creative media classes, or hanging out with friends. Usually though, I’ll think about that music history class.

Dr. Gonzol struck me as strange at first, as he would abruptly lead the class in songs, dress in his graduation robe and even break out his bass recorder. As time went on, I began to get it and truly understand that this wasn’t just a class I had to take in order to graduate, but rather an incredibly important class.

I realized how absurd it was, that I was attempting to become a professional musician without even knowing how the music I was studying was linked to the past. I can’t imagine movie directors being clueless about the beginning of film or a professional hockey player getting by without studying the greats who came before him. Yet, here I was, ignorant about the past.

An example of early Western music staff notation. Jan Verdonck, bass part from ‘Godt is mijn licht’, 1571
An example of early Western music staff notation. Jan Verdonck, bass part from ‘Godt is mijn licht’, 1571. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As the class went on, one thing that really stuck with me was the importance of having a well-rounded education. As a percussionist, I was used to the concept of being well-rounded, since I had to be solid in so many different instruments. It wouldn’t matter how great a marimba player I was if I didn’t have any snare drum chops or ignored the surprisingly difficult techniques of playing a soft buzz roll on a tambourine. In the same way, I could never be a truly accomplished musician until I had a thorough understanding of things like music theory and music history. Dr. Gonzol explained it best by saying:

Photo courtesy of David Gonzol
Photo courtesy of David Gonzol

“All the best professional and amateur musicians, from Ella Fitzgerald to Paul McCartney, Adolph Herseth to Johann Sebastian Bach and Clara Schumann to Jean Ritchie, all made sure to know their field thoroughly and well. They knew their own performing skills, other performers, the repertoire, the history, the theory, the business, the culture, the people, everything. One can sing a melody or play a harmony, only if one really understands how those melodies or harmonies have been valued in their particular culture. How they have been performed, thought about, composed, improvised, listened to, danced to and worshipped to. Truly successful musicians understand all their music because they worked hard at becoming terrifically well-rounded. As cellist Lynn Harrell once said to a sixth-grade boy, ‘There are no shortcuts.’”

Music history is significant; it has value.

Perhaps Anthony Storr, author of Music and the Mind, said it best: “Music exalts life, enhances life and gives it meaning. Great music outlives the individual who created it. It is both personal and beyond the personal. For those who love it, it remains as a fixed point of reference in an unpredictable world. Music is a source of reconciliation, exhilaration, and hope which never fails.”

Now isn’t that something you want to dive deep into? It’s time to stop treating music history as a list of dead composers and understand how much we can learn from it. Once you do, you’ll have a brand new appreciation for music of all kinds.

Scott Huntington is a percussionist specializing in marimba. He’s also a writer, reporter and blogger. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son and does Internet marketing for WebpageFX in Harrisburg. Scott strives to play music whenever and wherever possible. Follow him on Twitter at @SMHuntington.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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