Music is considered to be a universal communicator of human emotions. This can be seen in the ever-present K-pop craze, as English-speaking fans rock out to hits in a completely different language. If 10 people with 10 different native tongues were listening to Kool & The Gang sing “Celebrate good times, come on!” together, it wouldn’t matter that some might not fully understand the lyrics — the jovial brass and funk guitar communicate in the same way that the words do. Depending on cultural background and life experience, individuals are bound to glean a variety of emotional experiences from the same piece of music, but there is always emotion to be found nonetheless. The language of music truly knows no bounds — that is, until a prospective music student finds out they can’t fit the requirements to be admitted into a music program.
That barrier is one I’ve given much thought to recently. My senior year of high school was the first time I thought of music composition as an actual possibility for a major, and I became incredibly excited at the idea. Some research about the University of Michigan’s program in October revealed that up to seven original works, scored and recorded, were required for the application due in December, plus a recording of the student playing their preferred instrument of focus. And if all that works out, you get the opportunity to interview in the spring. I did not end up completing a portfolio in time. Today I sit in musical limbo, wanting to compose with my entire heart and then some, but unable to get in the door.
It can be saddening to be barred from studying and developing something that feels so entwined with your existence. Unfortunately, this has been the majority of my music experience at the University. I have strong musical instincts and abilities in, apparently, all the wrong areas, like harmonizing, sight-reading and learning music by ear. I do play the violin, sing and read sheet music, but not to a high enough level that it will get me anywhere that I want to go here — including the music composition program.
In the digital audio workstations like Logic Pro and Ableton that people use for music production, there’s a built-in tool for correcting any note or drum hit that doesn’t fall precisely on a beat. This is called quantization. Jacob Collier, a prolific musician and Grammy-winning artist, is an advocate for un-quantizing music. In a January 2020 livestream, he mentions his desire to “get the grid out of people’s psychologies,” describing the result of quantizing as “something which is … grid-based, which is not human.” He goes on to say that “grids are not the same as humans. Humans are some of the least grid-based creatures … in the world, in the universe.” Collier also briefly mentions how education accomplishes something eerily similar, keeping different subjects in neatly separate containers.
It is not a new idea that the separation of subjects presents a skewed and frankly untrue view of how different knowledge bases operate and interact. Music is a culmination of science and math and art, and oftentimes philosophy. Yet it is still kept quantized, even at our university.
I’d like to acknowledge the perspective I’m writing from, which is that of a student in LSA who doesn’t have a lot of technical skill on the violin and has taken only a year of classical singing lessons. I am very much someone on the outside looking in at what I haven’t gained access to. This whole column could be seen as fist-shaking at the musical doors that I haven’t worked as hard as others to enter. The audition process is completely understandable for performance majors, and I get why it’s the typical mode of admission for music programs everywhere. There are people in the world who lack rhythm, good pitch or both, and it would be nearly impossible to study certain aspects of music without these qualities, let alone prepare for years to have other people pay for your skills.
The theory behind music, however, is incredibly academic in nature. It’s analytical, puzzling, rife with patterns to be scrutinized, replicated, unraveled, reassembled and implemented. In other words, music theory is the audible version of math. In a conversation I had with my math professor recently about the plethora of different proof types there are in the world, he described music theory as just “a different type of problem-solving.” You don’t need to be able to perform a solo with technical proficiency to learn the theory of music. Anyone who works at it can go far in the subject in the same way that anyone can go into science.
Now, not every musician needs formal instruction to keep their instrument in their life or to be successful in the field. John Mayer is a celebrated guitarist, singer-songwriter and Grammy winner who also dropped out of Berklee College of Music in Boston. Madonna, another prolific artist who did not complete college, dropped out of the University of Michigan. But when a prerequisite for many of the music classes offered at the University is being a music student, it’s not even a curiosity that can be satisfied and cultivated farther than one semester. There is one music theory class that is available to me at the University, and it’s an introductory course that I already took before college. Why, if someone is committed, able and passionate, should certain music classes be less accessible, based on when the student became interested in music or their prior access to the resources that make a competitive application?
No matter how you slice it, the current application and audition process creates exclusivity in every music department. This could be in part due to a lack of resources that limits the number of students in the program, not to mention teaching auxiliary students who are part of other schools. Maybe there aren’t enough teachers, and maybe there’s not enough money to expand.
If these college-level programs like the ones here at the University were to do more outreach to high schools in the state, this would be a great way to, at the very least, create a more equal opportunity for incoming students. If I had known in my freshman year of high school what I needed to complete in order to study what I love, I might have finished the application. Who knows if I would have gotten in, but I would have closure. Time to prepare and awareness of what to prepare could make all the difference.
Danielle Canan is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.