Rethinking Music Literacy in the Undergraduate Theory Core

Rosa Abrahams

While music theory can provide many tools for interacting with music, for an undergraduate music student, a narrow understanding of music literacy, not theory, is what acts as a barrier to advanced engagement in music analysis. In this essay, I explore how music literacy, typically understood as facility with five-line staff notation, as it is taught in undergraduate music theory curricula prevents meaningful progress out of music theory’s white racial (and male) frame and perpetuates a hidden curriculum at odds with diversity efforts by theory pedagogues (Ewell 2020; Palfy and Gilson 2018). Despite pedagogical and curricular efforts towards inclusion of musics by BIPOC and
female composers, and the development of modular curricula that are becoming more common in music departments, the expectation that music literacy comes before deep engagement with notated and un-notated musics constrains this admirable work towards equity and diversity. I investigate the implications of a staff notation literacy focused theory core and advocate for a broadened understanding of music literacies. I offer avenues of incorporating a range of literacies into the undergraduate theory core, focusing on a unit I designed which includes music theory research experience at early stages in the core curriculum.