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Music: The Underappreciated Humanities Discipline

Jamming on a guitar, playing “Chopsticks” on the piano: no recipe for getting a good job after college. This is the presumed trajectory of a music major, a wasted academic experience—both in terms of the major itself and what it can provide. I would like to debunk this theory and its misconceptions, because I think that music, as a field of study, is ubiquitously underappreciated and under supported, hardly recognized despite the profound benefits it offers those who engage in its study. I hope to enlighten the student body and the faculty of Yeshiva University to the importance of an education in music so as to ensure that sufficient resources are allocated to the music department for a proper music education.

In general, the misconceptions of music stem from ignorance of the creative and mathematical complexity found in the music of old, perhaps due to the inundation of simplistic music played on the radio today. Music is presented as a watered-down manipulation of the same chords and melodies, with only minor changes to make the music appear novel. I’m not going to write this article pretending that I don’t thoroughly enjoy listening to Hunter Hayes. I submit: I too have a guilty pleasure for cheesy music. But the reality remains: artists have chosen to sacrifice sophistication for the instant gratification of easy listening. In so doing, the complexity of music has been significantly diminished. Classical music is molded with highly organized structure, both in its microscopic and macroscopic elements. The Greeks understood the scientific sophistication of music, evidenced by their classification of music as a hard science. The philosophers of the Renaissance felt similarly, as demonstrated by Immanuel Kant, who wrote philosophical treatises on the aesthetic of music.

Within this same ignorance comes the fact that many don’t recognize the critical function that music has played as perhaps the keenest reflection of the zeitgeist of a particular era. It provides a profound counter-narrative that articulates an idea that cannot be seen but can be comprehended only by listening. More importantly, scholars such as Jacques Attali note that music is not only a keen reflection of the culture of a current society, but is also unique among disciplines in its ability to foreshadow the cultural shifts of the future.

The root of this lack of awareness, I believe, is as follows: there seems to be a subconscious assumption that what we hear is inherently less sophisticated or telling than what we read or see, and that the impressions and associations we make with sound are far less ‘accurate’ or articulate than a philosophical concept or a mathematical formula. With the knowledge that music is in fact both  philosophy and complex mathematics, I challenge listeners to reconsider these assumptions. Secondly, what we hear is integrated peripherally; we internalize it without even realizing we have done so. Profundity in sound is in fact abundant, and we should take time to focus on it.

This lack of appreciation of and awareness for the mathematical and historical significance of music leads to the false perception of what being a music major actually entails. People perceive it in two ways: first, the major is thought to be either a “joke” or a “cool” major, by no means intellectually rigorous and productive. Additionally, people perceive it as a one-dimensional field of study focusing on music narrowly. Within this perception, music is defined ambiguously as something that involves playing an instrument and passively listening to classical music.

Newsflash: you don’t need to play an instrument to be a music major. That may be the case in a conservatory, but it’s not the case for music as a humanities major. This piece of knowledge probably comes as a surprise to most.

Most importantly, a music major is one of the only majors that successfully integrates the humanities and the sciences. The first two years of the music major are primarily concerned with the study of music theory, which is the complex mathematical application of melodic harmony. Numerical analysis of a piece of classical music requires significant mathematical knowledge. The second two years are primarily engaged in the study of music history. These courses, ideally, are structured just as any history course would be: papers that focus on analytical thinking, and tests that assess a student’s assimilation of historical and cultural knowledge. Additionally, within the history classes, there exists a mathematical component, as well. For an example, one may analyze a sonata as a reflection of a particular historical context, or assess a concerto alongside an assessment of a particular composers personality and social standing. In one essay, mathematical equations, and historical assessments will be incorporated.

A music major also offers a component of study that many other majors simply cannot: the practical and creative application of musical knowledge within the major itself. Your piano lessons ideally reflect the classical motifs and structures learned in your theory courses.

Much like a creative writing course, many music courses are geared specifically toward assimilating and expressing your musical knowledge in a creative way. In a composition course, your final project will be your very own composition, which though reflective of a particular set of rules and structures, is your very own personal creation, fine-tuned to the unique melody you intend to convey.

Lastly, there is the job factor. For whatever reason, the arts in general and music in particular, are thought to be in a separate category than all other humanities majors. Whether it’s perceived as less rigorous or as providing a student with fewer of the fundamental skills they need to be successful in the workplace, it is an outcast and the major is reserved for the wandering minstrel who has no career aspirations. As I hopefully described above, a music major is a fine avenue for developing critical thinking, mathematical application, and the practical and creative use of assimilated knowledge. Practically, graduate programs—-particularly in fields of medicine and law—look fondly upon majors in the arts, particularly music. As an example, one study shows that music majors have a higher acceptance rate to medical school than any other major, documented at 66% acceptance.

As a music major in Yeshiva University, I am proud of my field of study and what it has to offer. My hope is that with the encouragement of the student body, the faculty will continue to provide adequate resources for a sufficient music education, despite institutional financial difficulties.