MEIEA Journal Vol 1 No 1  Copyright © 2000 Music & Entertainment Industry Educators Association All rights reserved

Ronkin, Bruce (2000), Introducing Global Musical Awareness Into the Undergraduate Music Industry Degree, MEIEA Journal Vol 1 No 1, 14-40.

Introducing Global Musical Awareness Into the Undergraduate Music Industry Degree


Bruce Ronkin

Northeastern University

When historians look back at late 20th century North America they may notice our preoccupation with the word “diversity.” Through its current usage in academia the term diversity has taken on a very narrow meaning. To many it has come to mean, “the demographic composition of a given student population.” While this issue is certainly an important and timely one, the magnitude of race, ethnic, and gender issues in our society has tended to obscure the original meaning of the word. Diversity is simply, a state of difference, or a variety. Diversity is not limited to the colors of our skin or the chromosomes in our cells. We live in a world with a variety of people, who speak a variety of languages, and create a variety of art forms. Contrary to popular opinion, music is not necessarily a universal language. The people of our world, past and present, have created, and continue to create, a variety of music—or musics, as some ethnomusicologists prefer to say. It is the purpose of this paper to explain why it is important for music industry students to acquire a more diverse, or global, perspective on music and to suggest ways in which to accomplish this.

Music industry educators have long recognized that the business aspects of our field are global in nature. While most of us have designed our music business classes to recognize these facts too many of us have not revised other aspects of our curricula to provide our students with a global perspective. Our students study international copyright issues. They learn how multinational firms market goods around the world. They learn that if one considers only North America as a market that significant potential opportunities for sales of recordings and musical products around the world are lost. While not enough students take advantage of it, the benefit of acquiring a second language has long been understood and encouraged. The onslaught of new technologies including the Internet and computers and their impact on the music and entertainment industries is a popular topic in classrooms. Unfortunately, while most of our students have an understanding of the global nature of music business, too many of them could be considered musically illiterate.

Musical literacy, for the purposes of this paper, does not refer to the reading of music, the perfection of performance techniques, or the mastery of musical composition. It refers to the acquisition of a broad understanding of the diverse music created by humankind. Our planet’s music spans many centuries and many cultures yet our student’s exposure to this vast and diverse body of art is often seriously deficient.

The current status of music history curricula in music industry programs varies widely. Most schools still offer the courses designed decades ago that concentrate primarily on European classical music with several weeks devoted to the what is called contemporary classical. Unfortunately most of what musicology professors call contemporary music was composed before 1950—one half century ago. Given the time constraints of a four-year degree program many institutions do not even survey the entire period of western music. They often leave out a century or two. A small number of schools require just one course in music history. It is usually entitled “A History of Western Music,” or “Introduction to Music.” Most schools offer two to four semesters of music history. During these semesters the focus is primarily on the Western classical tradition but this is often augmented with a cursory examination of jazz and an occasional brief foray into non-western music. Some schools have begun to broaden the required music history offerings by including courses in areas such as rock, jazz, or ethnomusicology.

The quest for musical diversity should not in any way detract from the importance of the Western classical tradition. This tradition serves as the foundation for much of the music in today’s world. Our classical masterpieces represent glorious artistic achievements. They have stood the test of time and are monuments—many would say living monuments—to the achievements of great individuals. Any broadening of the music history curricula should not attempt to diminish these accomplishments. But real musical literacy requires a broader perspective than our traditional music curricula have allowed. True musical literacy must be global.

Most historians are quick to point out that there are very few truly new ideas. While diversity and multiculturalism may be seen as exciting, new ideas in higher education, any student of the arts knows that forward-thinking musicians have always looked outside of their cultures for influence and inspiration. Composers like Dizzy Gillespie incorporated Latin musical elements into their music in the 1940s. During the 1920s and 1930s classical composers including Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, and Kurt Weill introduced elements of jazz into their works. Claude Debussy and a few of his French contemporaries were intrigued with the scales and timbres of Asian music. Beethoven was interested in Turkish music and Turkish instruments. Creative artists whether involved in music, painting, or other areas of artistic expression have continuously sought inspiration from other artists, other cultures, and other times. Perhaps it is a good thing that academia is catching up with the arts and realizing that cultural awareness can be beneficial.

As formulators of college curricula we must constantly review our programs of study and ask ourselves if we are providing the best curriculum possible for our students. To determine if a curriculum is designed appropriately we must examine it in context. We should ask certain questions: What type of education are we attempting to provide? What paths will the students follow after graduation? With these questions in mind we can consider whether global musical awareness is indeed beneficial to music industry students. Let’s consider the effects that true musical literacy might have on these students. These effects will be examined from a career perspective, an artistic and cultural perspective, and the larger philosophical and educational perspective.

While many educators may take a more universal view of the purposes of higher education, students often concentrate on the short-term vocational aspects. They ask, “How does what I am studying apply to what I’ll be doing when I graduate?” Acquiring global musical awareness is relevant to music industry students. Our economy is international and cross-cultural yet how many of our students have studied the popular and traditional musics of Africa and Asia? How many of our students are aware of, and have studied, the many musics of South America? In fact, how many of our students could honestly say they possess more than a surface knowledge of all of the following: country, classical, hip-hop, and folk music? Most of our students don’t possess this type of knowledge. The majority of them tend to be experts in the musical styles that interest them personally and then we, often inadequately, supplement this first-hand knowledge with whatever else they acquire in their brief music history survey courses. Can students survive in the music business without a deeper understanding of the world’s music? Of course they can. There are many successful people in the music business with little or no musical knowledge. But think about the possibilities that unfold when a talented business person also has a deeper understanding of the musical diversity of our planet.

As music industry firms push further into international markets, employees who have some familiarity with these cultures become invaluable. In their business classes our students are taught to know their products and to know their markets. These products and markets are becoming increasingly international. Familiarity with the music, products, and tastes of other cultures will help one to make informed decisions and recommendations about which products to import and export. And perhaps more importantly, how to market these products to a diverse group of consumers.

Another aspect of the globalization of our economies is that of foreign-owned companies opening offices in North America with the intent of distributing their products, and developing new projects, on this continent. If our students are aware of the foreign country’s culture and music, as well as our domestic business practices and markets, they will be in an ideal position to help the company introduce these diverse products to the people of North America.

Conversely, jobs overseas provide exciting opportunities for our graduates. For years North American multinational corporations have sent employees abroad to conduct business in foreign markets. Typically, the employees who have some familiarity with the culture are the ones who are selected to go. This applies to the music and entertainment industries as well. It is to our students’ advantage to introduce them to music from around the world. Faculty tend to take a larger view of the purposes of higher education. Relevancy is just one piece of the puzzle. We have inherited the long and noble traditions of the academy. We are not solely vocational institutions. If all we did was teach our students which buttons to push, how to complete copyright forms, and how to select the best Internet protocol for transmitting a sound recording from Los Angeles to Cairo we could engage in substantial downsizing at our universities. We could send pink slips to our philosophers, our sociologist, and our poets. But we do more than vocational training in our academies. We introduce our students to the universe of accumulated human thought and knowledge and we do our best to excite and motivate our students so that they leave school with a desire to pursue a lifetime of learning. This approach to education has led us to develop what most institutions refer to as the core curriculum. In addition to whatever professional-area courses students take they are all required to take a diverse core of classes that expose them to the sciences, the arts, the humanities, and more. Even music’s most professionally oriented of institutions, our conservatories, require students to take a certain number of classes in non-musical areas.

And what is the benefit from this type of liberal arts education? It helps to prepare students for the world no matter which paths they choose. Literate, well read, well spoken, thinking individuals tend to do better in life. People who understand history and human nature are better prepared to formulate and achieve goals. It doesn’t matter whether that goal is to put food on the table, to secure a position at a publishing company, or to compose an opera. A person who has a clear understanding of how the world works, how the world got the way it is, and who can realistically assess his or her current place in this world will generally succeed faster because that individual has achieved a level of intellectual and cultural awareness.

Every educational institution has its own identity. This identity is reflected in its curriculum design. This paper is not a call for a standardized music history curriculum for all institutions of higher education that offer a degree in the music industry. Our many institutions, each with its own style and character, create a healthy diversity of educational choice for college students. But within this diversity a common belief should be adopted. And that belief is that we need to broaden our music history components to include a more all-encompassing view of the human musical experience.

This new curriculum might include the following material: Western classical and contemporary classical music, classic and contemporary music of a diversity of cultures including Asian, Indian, African, Latin American, and others. The curriculum should include what we call popular and folk traditions from North America and around the world. We must give special attention to the musics that are the roots of today’s popular music. This would include forms such as blues, gospel, country, jazz, and more.

Musicology professor Judith Tick of Northeastern University has developed a sequence of five courses. The student starts with a required course in American music. In this course classical, popular, and folk traditions are all examined. They offer three courses in Western classical music that span from the medieval period through the twentieth century. Music Industry students are required to take any two of these three courses. (Music Literature and Performance majors are required to take all three.) The fifth course in the series is a course in world music. This course is required of all students. All five courses are taught from an ethnomusicological perspective. This means that the music is studied within its cultural context. At Northeastern University we consider this music history sequence to be an evolving one. We don’t claim that we’ve found the answer but we do believe we are going in the right direction.

The challenge with implementing such an ambitious music history agenda is that an undergraduate degree program is only four years long and has a fixed number of credit hours. As the accumulated body of mankind’s knowledge continues to grow we find ourselves in the unfortunate position of teaching an ever-decreasing percentage of this material to our students. In recent years it has been suggested by some educators that the solution is to extend the undergraduate degree program to five or six years. Practical considerations tend to rule out this solution. It would increase the financial burden on students, parents, and governments. Additionally, given most students’ desires to finish school and enter the world as quickly as possible, this idea would not be accepted.

We could retain the four-year degree program but reapportion the credit hours. But from which subject or subjects would we reclaim these hours? Few professors would say that we are teaching too much of anything. However, there are some music industry programs where this may be appropriate. For example there are some programs that have more than twice as many credit hours in music theory and sightsinging than they have in music history. If this program is one that is not performance-intensive like most bachelor of music in music industry programs it might be feasible to reduce the instruction in theory and increase the hours in music history. We would have to ask ourselves: given the limited time, is it more beneficial to expose a student to Babbitt squares, advanced analysis, and counterpoint while only offering two semesters of surface-skimming music history courses or is it more beneficial to offer one to one and-a-half years of theory and two full years of more intensive music history courses that explore musical development and evolution from an artistic and cultural standpoint? For music industry students who will need to communicate with artists, audiences, and consumers of all types a good argument could be made that a broad-based, diverse music history approach is of greater value.

Even if it were possible for every institution to devote four or more semesters to music history it would be impossible to cover all the music of the planet within that time. This brings us to the only practical solution to this challenge. We can learn a lesson from our colleagues in literature and philosophy. An English literature major does not read every great book during four years of college. A philosophy major does not digest every important treatise. Instead, the classic liberal arts approach is used. A good professor will nourish in each student the desire to learn and the ability to appreciate great artistic and scholarly achievements. An effective professor will ignite in each student a passion, or at least an appreciation, of the subject matter. We hope this passion will stay with the student beyond graduation and accompany him or her throughout life encouraging a desire to never stop learning.

We can use the same approach with music history. We can introduce our students to music of many eras and cultures. We can approach this study from a diversity of perspectives including historical, musicological, cultural, and theoretical. We can keep the classes interesting enough so that we don’t destroy the love of music that brought these students to us in the first place. If we do this successfully we will engender in our students an ongoing desire to continue to learn about music. We will also have prepared them for the global marketplace that the music industry has become.

Designing and implementing such an approach to a music history curriculum for music industry students is not something that music industry professors can accomplish alone. Typically such courses are designed and taught by our colleagues in musicology. The degree to which traditional musicologists support a more diverse approach to music history studies varies widely from institution to institution. A suggestion to some musicologists to give their music history courses a more global character may meet with resistance. If music industry professors are convinced of the benefits of this model for music history studies, it is their responsibility to explain these benefits to their musicology colleagues and, if qualified to do so, assist them with planning curricular revisions.

Revising course content and reapportioning credit hours has potential ramifications on accreditation. It is not the scope of this paper to examine these issues in depth but it should be acknowledged as a concern. Accrediting agencies are, by their nature, one step behind the progress curve. These agencies tend to set their standards by determining what is currently deemed as academically acceptable. They identify minimum acceptable content and levels and then codify these standards for all to match. If enough experts agree that changes in our music history courses are needed, the accreditation agencies will accept this and alter their requirements. However, much of what is suggested in this paper can be accomplished within the current guidelines of most accreditation agencies.

For decades, our music academies prepared performers and teachers. Music business people tended to come from the street or with degrees in disciplines other than music. In the last two decades music industry studies have entered higher education. The pioneering professors who developed these first programs in music industry gave credibility to the concept of studying music business in a college or university. Over the years our colleagues in performance and music education have, for the most part, accepted music industry as a valid and significant field of study. During these past twenty years music industry programs across North America have matured. Programs have developed their own personalities and areas of specialty. As national economies merged into a massive and confusing global economy music industry professors did a commendable job of addressing this in the music business curricula. Now is the time to raise our student’s knowledge of music to an equally high standard. After all, music is the product and when one understands one’s product, the chances of success in business generally increase.

Our students will help shape the future of music. It is our responsibility to help them do this from a position of knowledge. We don’t know what directions our students will choose for the evolution of music and the music industry. But if they are not musically literate, if they are uninformed and ignorant about the human musical experience, if their knowledge of music is limited only to the music that they like, they will be shaping the future of music from a position of ignorance. If, on the other hand, we teach them about the totality of music, if we encourage them to open their minds to a world full of vibrant diverse musical traditions, if we introduce them to a global music history rich with achievement, if we instill in them the desire to continue learning about music throughout their careers, then, we will have done a better job of preparing them to guide the business of music into the future.


Dr. Bruce Ronkin is an Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department at Northeastern University. He has previously taught at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, and Glassboro State College in New Jersey. Ronkin directs Northeastern’s Music Industry program. He also serves on the board of the Music and Entertainment Industry Educators Association. Ronkin earned the Bachelor of Music degree at the Eastman School of Music, the Master of Music degree at Indiana University, and the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Maryland. He has studied saxophone with Reginald Jackson, William Osseck, Ramon Ricker, and Eugene Rousseau. In recent years, Ronkin has become widely known as a pioneering specialist on the Wind Synthesizer, an electronic wind instrument. He was recently elected president of the International Wind Synthesis Association. Ronkin has extensive experience as a solo artist and as an ensemble performer. He has published articles in the Saxophone Symposium and the Saxophone Journal. He is the editor of Jean-Marie Londeix’s 150 Years of Music For Saxophone, an encyclopedia of saxophone repertoire. Ronkin’s two-volume work, The Orchestral Saxophonist, co-authored with Robert Frascotti, is a required text at universities and conservatories throughout the world. His current research project is the editing and publishing of the early music for saxophone and piano originally published by Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, in the 1850s and 1860s. He is also the president of Roncorp Publications, a leading publisher of music and texts for woodwinds.