Sonia Ruiz

On this campus, it often seems as though everyone and their roommate is some kind of musician. The quiet boy downstairs plays the cello; every third person you pass on Cross Campus sports the emblem of some a cappella group; your suitemate unveils her alto sax a month into sophomore year — and how did you not know about this talent of hers before?

But for all the vibrancy of Yale’s arts and culture scene, there are not actually that many music majors — just nine students were granted music degrees in the 2016–17 academic year, according to the University’s Office of Institutional Research, which pale in comparison to the 106 degrees conferred in history and 143 in economics.

These numbers may change alongside the major’s updated requirements, which went into effect this semester. The changes broaden the scope of the major, thereby attracting a wider array of students into the department. Perhaps more critically, the changes also reflect a desire to redefine what it means to be a music major, rejecting a traditional framework of Western-centric music education often criticized for its elitism.

Diverse students, diverse interests. One of the music major’s roles, previously its primary one, is catering to students choosing between attending a conservatory and attending Yale. But as traffic into Yale’s Department of Music increases, more students are searching for less “traditional” routes of musical education.

“I think, ultimately, the new music major was triggered by the expansion of Yale College,” said professor Ian Quinn, undergraduate director of the music department. “It seemed like a good moment for us to rethink what it is that we’re trying to do and see how we can offer this major to more people.”

The expansion of Yale College began with the class of 2021, the largest class in Yale’s history. Coincidentally enough — or maybe not — a new music major has been implemented for the class of 2021 and subsequent classes.

The class of 2021 is the first class that must meet the requirements of the new major, but music majors of previous classes are being offered the chance to opt in to the new requirements. Seth Gregson ’19, a lover of early music and enthusiastic conversation, is “opting the fuck in.”


It is not just Yale. Change is sweeping music departments across the country as they try to increase the accessibility and scope of their programs. In 2010, Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music implemented a new musicology sequence that rejected a chronological framework, instead focusing on teaching students how to effectively evaluate music-historical information in a productive and meaningful manner.

In fall 2017, Harvard University decreased their music concentration’s course requirement and retracted its theory requirement. This prompted a controversial set of headlines, including one from the cultural website Slipped Disc that read “You don’t have to read music to study it at Harvard.”

For Quinn, the timing of Harvard’s curriculum unveiling was unfortunate. Not only would Yale’s curriculum change be perceived as a response to Harvard’s decision, but the two majors were at risk of being conflated — even though the curriculums turned out to be rather different.

“Harvard made a different set of decisions than we did, and I think that’s because the two student bodies are very, very different,” Quinn said. “Yale is known as the more artsy Ivy, so kids who spent their junior and senior years of high school becoming really excellent musicians know they can come to Yale and play for the Yale Symphony Orchestra, or go on to graduate from a conservatory. We didn’t want to take that away.”

So, when the time came to deliberate on the specifics of the new major, the department prioritized preserving student access to a conservatory experience. The faculty also wanted to avoid placing students in degree tracks that would separate one type of music student from another. After a year of deliberations, the music department chose to structure the major around categories that they deemed essential to a comprehensive music education, regardless of the future application of that education — hence, the “group” system.

The four disciplines, or “Groups,” were created to ensure that all music majors graduated with a variety of experiences the music department considers essential. Group I is a music theory and technology group; Group II is a creative practice group that offers courses in composition and performance; Group III is a Western art music group — referred to among music majors as the “wam” group — that requires students to engage with this specific canon through research and writing; and Group IV focuses on non-Western art music. The latter group also includes classes on popular and vernacular music.

The “old” music major consisted of four prerequisites — two theory courses and two musicianship courses — as well as 12 other course credits, three of which were the major’s rigorous history sequence. The intensive major required 13 course credits, with the essential difference between the two being another term working on a senior project.

Therefore, the “old” music major had a minimum course requirement of 16. Since many music majors are focused on improving their performance skills, and choose to enroll multiple times in for-credit lessons, the course load of a typical music major arguably exceeded what many students were willing to devote to a single major. This was compounded by the pressure to join extracurricular music groups and the distributional requirements looming in the shadows of Stoeckel Hall’s winding staircase. Luckily for music majors, though, Stoeckel is surprisingly well lit, so the potential for ominous, shadowy corners is greatly diminished.

One of the most popular elements of the new music major is the decrease in overall course requirements. There are zero prerequisites, and only 12 term courses are required for the standard major. One additional course is required for the intensive version of the major.

The major no longer requires specific course numbers either. Instead, prospective music majors must choose three courses from each of the four disciplines. This enables prospective students to tailor the major to their specific interests. For those who still want to take the previously mandated history survey of the entire “classical” Western canon from the ninth century onward, those classes will still be offered. For those that feel that such courses are less pertinent to their future, a more diverse array of courses will be offered to fulfill the history discipline — two of which being offered this semester are “Approaching Film Music” and “Russian Opera.”

“We don’t believe there are specific courses every music major should take,” Quinn said. “We do believe that every music major should have certain kinds of experiences, and that the music major should be broad.”

Certainly the interests of prospective music majors are broad. Even a small sampling from the Class of 2021 showcases the kind of variety to which this major is trying to cater. Michael Gancz ’21 is a trombone player who is primarily focused on composition. Since Michael is considering the joint bachelor’s and master’s program, the new major’s reduced course requirements helps quite a lot. He noted interest in musicology, but decided against pursuing it, because musicologists are “often only professors or music librarians.”

Emery Kerekes ’21 worked in a music library this summer. He is focused on musicology and linguistics, plays cello and sings. John Cooper ’21, a vocalist and actor who is also considering economics, sees himself in arts administration, such as managing theaters and multidisciplinary arts programs.

And me? I am a writer who wants to interrogate music as a political tool. All of us can tailor the music major to supplement each of our diverging interests and collaborate to strengthen our respective weaknesses.

“The question for us was: Can we still implement the old curriculum with this new student body?” Quinn said. “I think the answer for most of us was, no.”

Sarah Sotomayor ’21, a music and neuroscience double major who wants to sing and study the cognitive effects of music, concurs.

“I’m not terribly surprised that Quinn made such a move,” Sotomayor said. “I had a music cognition class with him last semester, and he’s really big on stepping away from traditional notation. He also disappeared a couple of years ago and went off to some country. I don’t even remember where, and [he] returned with this open-minded philosophy of music education. He’s very, very feng shui about letting people study what they feel is important.”


Gregson, a senior, wants to score movies. At first, he was disenchanted with the new music major. It seemed as if all of the old courses were just being renumbered, and he feared the major would not realize its changes in time for him to reap any of its added benefits. Then, he came across courses while shopping called “Approaching Film Music” and “Feminism in Popular Music.”

“So, now I get to study a huge diverse range of things, and take classes that are relevant to me in the music major,” Gregson said. “Already, it feels like the intent is being realized, insofar as people aren’t being forced to be scholars of this specific canon in this specific time period of yadda yadda yadda.”

A common element of the current changes in music curriculum in universities across the country: rejecting the idea that the classical Western canon should reign supreme over upper-level music education. This dovetails with the renewed push for inclusivity in music departments — as more people can engage in music education, more people’s histories must be addressed, including the way those histories still influence the accessibility of childhood music education.

“Personally, I think that the changes have given us more leniency to explore stuff that isn’t white, Western classical music, which has been a problem in the past,” Sotomayor said. “It’s still pretty prevalent in a lot of other music institutions. There’s this idea that, ‘Oh, you have to learn the classics first.’ So there’s an overlook of non-Western music — jazz, for example. Now, we are able to learn more about these things, instead of being forced to eat the mayonnaise rice.”

In an interview with National Sawdust, the undergraduate director of Harvard’s music department Anne Shreffler explained some of the changes in their music curriculum as a response to realizing the elitist tendencies of upper-level music programs.

“In the past, we have essentially relied on an enormous amount — up to 10 year’s worth — of pre-education before [students] came to Harvard,” Shreffler said in that interview. “But there are many other students who did not have that kind of childhood. And our old curriculum was saying to those students, ‘You cannot major in music because your parents did not give you 12 years of this kind of education that we implicitly require.’”

The “class-based implicit requirement” Shreffler mentions was on the minds of the Yale music faculty members during the creation of the new major. Just few years ago, Quinn taught his first Yale music theory class in which more than one person of color was enrolled. This incited some reflection. What did this say about the music major? Was the department doing everything it could to progress with Yale College as a whole? Would reducing elitist tendencies within the major invite diversity of people and ideas into a space that would surely benefit from it?

“One of the things that drives people away from the music major, or did, was how inaccessible it was, or how inflexible it was,” Gregson said. “It felt almost like it enlisted the kind of elitism that it wanted to distance itself from, and that felt super ironic to me. It felt like you could not do the kind of music that you wanted to do, you could explore it a little bit, as long as you were chained to this behemoth Western canon like, all-encompassing knowledge, preparation-for-grad-school kind of major.”

Gabriel Rainey ’20 is also opting into the new music major, although a tad less enthusiastically than Gregson.

“I think this change represents an improvement over the previous major, but there’s definitely some more work that needs to be done,” Rainey said. “The best change for me was the elimination of some theory requirements in favor of world music requirements, which I would consider more important to a comprehensive education.”

Rainey is an instrumentalist who came to Yale for the conservatory-opportunities-with-a-liberal-arts-education experience Quinn mentioned. Although he considers the curriculum improved, he feels there could be more avenues for performance-based credit opportunities, to help dedicated performers with their course load. As of now, performance in Yale-affiliated orchestras and comparable music groups are not eligible for performance credit, and therefore, do not fulfill the major’s creative practice requirement.

Sotomayor, who is a vocal performer, is unbothered by the fact that all performance credits cannot be counted toward the major.

“I feel like this new music major does make it so that you can’t focus completely and utterly on one thing, but that’s part of being a musician and getting an education,” Sotomayor said. “There’s a running joke that singers can’t read music and don’t have a sense of rhythm. I’ve always been tight to hear that, because I’m a percussionist, but I always credited my vocal musicianship to the background I have in music theory and history — if I know where the music comes from, I can better translate it and bring life to it.”

The recently unveiled music major is not yet fully realized. New courses will appear year to year, and the opportunity to tailor one’s experience within the department will continue to improve. With courses appealing to a broader contingent of the student body, it seems likely that more of Yale’s many music-loving students will choose to engage with the department in the future. Who knows — maybe in a few years, Stoeckel Hall will be the next WLH.

“There are many different ways to be a music major. What we wanted to do was expand out the pool of people who could be music majors. Students who want the conservatory experience can still find it here. People like you,” Quinn said, in reference to my pipe dreams of writing about music until the end of days, “who are looking to the music department for different things, like culture and common knowledge, but who don’t necessarily want to become concert-level pianists — we wanted to make a space for those students here.”

Rianna Turner