A few weeks ago, I attended Flowin’, a conference that was hosted at Yale in honor of Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin and her critical work on Black feminist jazz and literary studies. It was probably one of the best things to ever happen to me. I met Dr. Griffin and many of my academic and cultural heroes, including Dr. Angela Y. Davis.  The conference felt more like a family reunion than an academic conference. Most importantly, I left with the triumph of knowing that it was possible for me to seriously study the music that I love  —  African American popular music — in its fullest capacity. 

This conference did not focus on music or African American history in isolation. Rather, it centered on the inextricable link between Black feminism and African American music, history and literature. It was the first space I had been in where I didn’t have to study music and culture separately. Music wasn’t an abstraction that existed in a vacuum, but a medium that embodied all parts of my identity, my sense of self and my family and our history.

Seeing people at the conference talking about the significance of Black popular musics — discussing the likes of Patti Labelle, Whitney Houston and Billie Holiday — was at once validating and infuriating because it made realize me the extent to which this music had been either devalued or completely omitted from my music education at Yale.

Reflecting on my experiences made me wonder about the experiences of other music lovers on campus. There are so many talented musicians here — from a cappella singers and Yale Symphony Orchestra players to students who produce and perform their own music. How many students shared my experience? How many students would love to study music but don’t see their interests reflected in the department? How many students have an unawakened love for music that may never be brought to life because of the narrow scope of the music curriculum? 

The music major is divided into four groups: Music Theory; Creative Practices, which consist of performance, composition and lessons; Western Art Musics, which is everything that would be colloquially called “classical music”; and World & Popular Musics. Unlike a conservatory like Juilliard, where students focus almost exclusively on music performance, Yale’s music program follows a liberal arts curriculum that requires students to take two intermediate courses and one advanced course in each group. The major’s website states that “Yale’s music major is a general music program that combines studies in composition, conducting, ethnomusicology, music history, music technology, music theory, and performance.”

The experiences of myself and my peers, however, cast doubt on whether this claim is true.

Amara Mgbeike ’22, who uses she/her pronouns, is a vocalist and guitar player who came to Yale with a background in Gospel music. She was eager to explore Gospel music and learn about music production and writing vocal arrangements. Caleb Crayton ’22, who uses he/him pronouns, came to Yale with extensive experience writing and producing hip-hop beats for himself and his friends in a home studio setup. He and Mgbeike both began releasing and performing their own music while at Yale and have continued to pursue music professionally since graduating. Crayton hopes to pursue music full time. 

When I asked Crayton if he ever considered majoring or double-majoring in music, he said that he considered it out of a love for music, but that his passion wasn’t in music theory, composition or classical music. These disciplines, he said, are “more so what the music major prepares you for unless you try to go at it on your own.”

Mgbeike said that most of her decision to not major or double-major in music was due to family concern about the viability of a music degree. However, those considerations aside, when I asked her if she could have seen a place for herself in the music major, she said, “I really have to say no.” 

“The course listings each semester didn’t have a lot of variety. Sometimes there’s one cool class or two, but the majority of what I’d have to take probably wouldn’t have excited me,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the extracurricular things that allowed me to be involved in music so I didn’t have to major in music and take classes I didn’t want to take.”

Mgbeike and Crayton’s first encounters with the music major were in the fall of 2018, the year that a reconfiguration of the major went into effect. In the previous structure of the major, Western classical music dominated the curriculum — seven of the 16 credits were required courses that focused on Western classical music. The newly configured music major was supposed to provide more flexibility and decenter the Western canon through changes such as eliminating required courses and creating the group structure that allows students to have more choice in which classes they take. 

It takes time for some of the impact of these changes to be felt, so it’s possible that aspects of the major have since improved. I talked to Sage Friedman ’25, a sophomore considering majoring in music. Friedman, who uses she/her pronouns, is a classically trained opera singer, but her true passion relates to music history and ethnomusicology, the study of music in its social and cultural contexts. She has a deep love for Caribbean music and the music of Haitian immigrants and is considering double-majoring in American Studies. During her first year, she took “Commercial & Pop Music Theory,” a recent course added to the curriculum in the fall of 2020, as well as a class called “Western Philosophy in Four Operas,” which she described as her “bread and butter.” She was so thrilled that she was exposed to things like “music history, ethnomusicology and all of these ways to study music as subject.” 

Though initially excited by those classes, Friedman has since developed concerns about how she will be able to further her course of study in the department. In other words, she’s feeling similarly to Mgbeike — there might be one or two classes in her area of interest, but the majority of the department doesn’t really have a place for her. She told me she would be meeting with the director of undergraduate studies of the Music Department in the days after our conversation to address her concerns.

“Now I’m here, having taken two music courses, and I’m like, ‘Okay, where is this going?’” Friedman told me. “There are kids sitting next to me in these music classes who are classically trained musicians of 10 years. They know what this looks like for them, but my path is much less clear. I’m not a theorist or composer, and I’m not necessarily a performer, so I’m worried I’ll have to squeeze myself into this shoe that doesn’t fit to continue doing the thing that I love.” 

When Friedman told me all of this, I jokingly asked her how she got into my brain. We had never met before this conversation, yet she articulated my exact experience with the music major in a way that I had never been able to. I had been feeling constrained by what felt like a narrow range of musical study and thus feeling less passionate about music as a whole. 

Coming into college, I knew that I wanted to leave with a degree in music because I wanted it to be part of my professional life. I knew I did not want to focus on performance or theory, so I settled on composition and began the four-semester-long composition sequence, even though my passion has never been for composing. At times my friends saw my dissatisfaction and suggested I stop pursuing the composition track. What else would I do? I would respond. The senior project options are a composition, a musical theater composition, a senior recital or a senior essay. I could have done the senior essay, but there weren’t enough relevant courses to undergird the writing and research I was interested in, African American popular music. Thus, I continued walking around with that too-tight shoe, even when it gave me blisters. 

My experience in the music major is especially jarring when compared to my experience as an Ethnicity, Race and Migration major, also known as ER&M. Though my interests in ER&M would traditionally fall under the African American Studies Department, the ER&M Program recognizes that a lot of African American studies topics overlap with ethnicity, race and migration. Therefore, there are a lot of ER&M courses that reflect that overlap. In other words, I don’t feel like I have to leave the ER&M Department to substantially study various topics related to ethnicity, race and migration. Why is this not the case with the Music Department? Why do I have to go outside of the Music Department to substantially study music that is not of the western classical tradition?

While it was affirming to hear I’m not alone, I hated listening to Friedman echo the same problem. I’m glad that she has such a strong sense of what she wants to study and is taking the steps to make sure she is supported academically, but she shouldn’t have to do all of that heavy lifting. None of us should have to “go at it on our own,” as Crayton noted, if we want to deviate from the traditional path. No one should have to come into college knowing exactly what they want and be ready to fight tooth and nail to get it. 

The fact that students are slipping through the cracks or feeling confined within the major is indicative of a larger problem with the structure of the major, which lies in what Avik Sarkar ’23, who uses all pronouns, calls its “diversity approach.” In this model, classes that focus on music outside of the Western classical music tradition are added in here and there — as Mgbeike noted — for the sake of diversifying the course offerings, but there is no structural interrogation of who the major serves. 

Sarkar is a classically trained pianist and composer whose work has received national and international recognition. They decided against majoring or double-majoring in music because of the dominance of western classical music in the music major that resulted from this diversity approach.

She noted that in this context, classes that don’t focus on Western classical can “only matter as additives.” This is why students like Friedman, Mgbeike, Crayton and I did not — and have not — felt as though there’s a place for us in the music major. The music that we consider worthy of serious study functions more as a way to enrich the education of students studying Western classical music than as a topic for any student to focus on, as if the music we love is an afterthought. 

This is evident in the way the major still requires students to interact with the Western tradition for the majority of their study. Until last year’s introduction of the popular music theory sequence, almost all of the classes that fulfilled the music theory requirement were based in the Western classical tradition. The only classes that fulfill the intermediate level of the Western classical music history requirement are the same three history classes that used to be required for the major. In other words, there’s still a de facto requirement that all music majors take two of those western classical music history classes. Lastly, there are consistently only three or four classes offered in the World and Popular Musics category — for comparison, the Creative Practices category usually has fifteen classes. 

On a smaller scale, the diversity approach results in feelings of alienation and lackluster support for students who want to study or create music that is not of the Western classical tradition. Sarkar gave this account from his semester in Composition Seminar I: 

“I wanted to write something that was influenced by Indian classical music, which has a very highly complicated system of notation, counterpoint, rhythm and meter, but there was no one to guide me through that. I was completely on my own. All anyone wanted to talk about was that I was bringing in a diverse perspective. That to me is a problem with the diversity approach because it’s like, ‘We need to integrate non-Western influences into Western music,’ but that leads to people only regarding this music as exotic and other.” 

Mgbeike had a similar anecdote about her time in Composition Seminar I: “When I took Composition Seminar, I was trying to make something more jazzy than the rest of my classmates, so I kind of felt out of place. I wondered if that feeling would have subsided at all had I continued with the major. During my first year, I was feeling like everyone was better than me or more advanced than me because they were doing something different from me.” 

These are the stakes of the diversity approach. Music lovers either see the overwhelming dominance of Western classical music in the major and feel completely shut out, or they continue walking through the major with blisters on their feet, always feeling implicitly less than or exoticized and exhausted from having to learn about the music they love without support. 

Immediately following my conversation with Sarkar, I interviewed Dr. Fredara Hadley, an ethnomusicologist who specializes in African American popular music, who gave me some context that even further highlights the problems with Yale’s diversity approach. Dr. Hadley, who uses she/her pronouns, went to Florida A&M University, received her Ph.D. at Indiana University, and has taught at Oberlin College and Conservatory and The Juilliard School, both of which are conservatories where the overwhelming majority of students study Western classical music performance. When I asked her where her ethnomusicology courses fit into the conservatory curriculum, she said many of her classes are electives.

“Conservatory students are required to take courses in Western classical music history, and there are always electives that they have left over. Oftentimes ethnomusicology courses are among the electives they can take after they’ve completed their classical music history requirements. At Oberlin, students could use these courses to fulfill a cultural diversity requirement.” 

While Yale’s Music Department does not solely focus on performance, the structure of the major is very similar to that of the conservatory structure Dr. Hadley described: Western classical music dominates the curriculum and a few courses are offered in other types of music to act as supplements to the classical music education. The problem here is that Yale’s Music Department is explicitly not a conservatory. It’s also the Music Department, not the department of Western classical music or the Western-classical-music-and-a-few-other-types-of-music department. Dr. Hadley herself noted that departments like Yale’s are meant to be more flexible than conservatories, so one would think there’d be a much more expansive study of music in our department. But instead, as Friedman noted, the department is “boxing itself in and stifling what could be a really vibrant and much more popular major.” She continued, ““We all interact with music so differently, it’s one of the most versatile forms of media you can engage with. I think the lack of versatility in the department is disheartening.”

I talked to the DUS — Dr. Anna Zayaruznaya, who specializes in music of the Middle ages and Renaissance — about a place to start with potential changes. I first asked about cross-listing music-related classes taught in other departments as a way to start, since hiring new music faculty would be a lengthy process. The list below shows some of the music-related classes that have been offered in other departments since the reconfiguration of the music major but were not cross-listed with the music major.

CSGH 370 The Media of Sound: Experimental Approaches to Sound Design (Fall 2022)

CSBF 370 Hip-Hop Music and Culture (Fall 2022, Spring 2021, Fall 2019)

ENGL 423 Writing about the Performing Arts (Spring 2022, 2021, 2020) 

RLST 156 Buddhism & Hip-Hop (Fall 2021)

FILM 338 International Movie Musical (Fall 2021) 

CSDC 330 The Art and Business of Songwriting (Spring 2021)

AFAM 190/AMST 204 Protest Music and the Black Radical Tradition (Fall 2020) 

AMST 034 Country Music in America (Spring 2021) 

AMST 357 The Times of Bob Dylan (Spring 2020 but was canceled)

CSBR 301 Music and Cinema: A History (Fall 2019) 

CSDC 300 Composing for Film & Media: Art, Innovation, and Commerce (2019)

ENGL 350 Literary Sound Studies (Fall 2019, Spr 21 canceled)

AMST 354 Music and Resistance in the United States (Fall 2018) 

I also asked about the inclusion of the so-called “general interest and introductory classes” that are taught in the Music Department but cannot currently be counted towards the major. Many of these are first-year seminars like Music 081: “Race and Place in British New Wave, K-Pop, and Beyond,” Music 031: “Music of Protest, & Propaganda” and Music 087: “Music, Memes and Digital Culture.” Some are introductory courses like Music 145: “Music in Japan,” Music 185: “American Musical Theater History,” and even the class Friedman loved, Music 137: “Western Philosophy in Four Operas.” The exclusion of these classes from the major is a bit ludicrous to me — imagine taking one of these classes as a first-year student or someone who’s interested in the major only to find out those classes can’t count towards the fulfillment of the requirements and the rest of the major looks nothing like those classes. 

Professor Zayaruznaya, who uses she/her pronouns, said her “goal is never to gatekeep” and that she would always be open to allowing classes to count for the major when individual students ask. She also agreed that some of the music-related classes from other departments should be cross-listed with music, noting that sometimes the department just doesn’t know that those classes are being taught. 

While this is certainly nice to hear, it places the burden of getting credits counted toward the major on the student and does not structurally change the prioritization of Western music. If the department made a more centralized effort to include these classes in the major that would be much more impactful. It’s the difference between sure, we’ll allow that class to count towards the fulfillment of this requirement in this one case and these concepts are important components of the study of music. Let’s make sure that is reflected in our course offerings. This requires both an interrogation or expansion of what is considered to be important to music education and an examination of the course offerings to determine if the different types of music represented are actually getting an equal amount of focus. That is what is missing in the Music Department. 

In the last part of our discussion, I told Professor Zayaruznaya that this piece is not necessarily about me shaking my fist at the Music Department. I just want so much more. I want my study of music to be as expansive as my love for music, and I want the same for all music lovers. It’s also not about getting rid of Western classical music — all of the students I spoke with value the many skills they’ve learned from studying that canon. It’s a matter of Western classical music being so disproportionately centered in the department to the extent that it’s difficult to study any other type of music substantively. It’s a matter of the curriculum being designed with a “typical” student in mind when, in reality, there should be no typical. While incorporating some of the classes I mentioned would be a great start, I dream of the vibrant music major that Friedman talked about. 

What if the Music Department was a multicultural hub for the study of music? What if you could walk in and hear the sounds of someone learning how to DJ, a classically trained pianist preparing for a performance, and a classroom of students analyzing a Beyoncé album? What if the Music Department was a place where a person’s love for music, no matter the form, could blossom instead of wilting from malnourishment? What if the Music Department could be reimagined so that students like myself, Crayton, Mgbeike, Friedman and Sarkar aren’t left behind or forced to squeeze into shoes that don’t fit in order to pursue our love of music?