By: Reza Vali*
Exportation and Internationalization of European-Style Music Education
Throughout Europe, the conservatory system is the primary method of teaching music. This system’s roots stretch back to the French Revolution and the establishment of the National Conservatory of Music in Paris. In this system, the best musicians and composers are selected through strict entrance exams and educated under a highly disciplined system that includes the teaching of solfège, music dictation, figured bass, harmony, counterpoint, etc. During the 19th century, the conservatory system evolved and spread to all European countries, and it has since continued to proliferate almost all over the world.
This has created several noteworthy problems. First, the cultures of the world, including those of China, India, Iran, East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, already have indigenous methods of teaching music that have evolved within those cultures and are pedagogically linked to the music of those cultures. Many of these music education systems are simply not compatible with the European conservatory system and are being erased.
Second, during the transfer of the European conservatory system to other countries, this highly disciplined system has been corrupted and many of its rules have been relaxed and “watered down.” In many countries, the entrance exam is no longer very difficult (or there are no entrance exams), and regular conservatory courses have either been changed or eliminated. The result is that every year a large group of music students graduate from conservatories in non-European countries without a deep understanding of European art music and not knowing the music of their own cultures.
In many countries, students attending conservatory learn European music by default due to a historically Eurocentric presupposition of the dominance of European music. A better, more pluralistic route would be to ask the student what sort of music they wish to study and to teach this in parallel with other musical languages. Of course, with the advancement of technology, students can now communicate with professors and experts in various styles and cultures of music via the internet. In this way, conservatory-style teaching could be used to teach European music, and the music of other cultures could be taught according to the musical traditions of those cultures.
In some respects, learning music is syntactically similar to learning a language. Suppose you decided to study English and Persian at the same time. You wouldn’t learn Persian using English grammar or vice versa; you’d learn Persian grammar for Persian and English grammar for English. Still, if you studied these languages together, you’d also notice a series of English and Persian words that are phonetically nearly identical. For example, the Persian word “pass” is “pass” in English, and the Persian word “dokhtar” is “daughter” in English. Where do these similarities come from? Persian and English are in the same lexiconic family and are both Indo-European languages. When the relationships between these languages are acknowledged, the process of learning them in parallel is better facilitated.
This learning process can hold true in music as well. I call this process Parallel Interconnected Education. In Parallel Interconnected Education, students learn two or more musical languages simultaneously, and similarities between the two musical “languages” can be used to facilitate learning. For example, suppose a student wanted to learn European music as well as Iranian music. They could learn European music using the European music tradition (the conservatory system) and Iranian music using the Iranian music tradition (the radif system) in parallel.
*This article is derived from Chapter 2 of Reza Vali’s Return to the Origins, published in Nov. 2022 by The Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton University, and has been edited for content and length.
Courtesy: I Care If You Listen