Thecanon is defined by Dr S Howe, author of ‘Women Music Educators in the UnitedStates: A History’ as “an authoritative list of booksor a body of material that is considered to be essential for understanding thesubject” (Howe, 1998).
Thisindicates the canon is the most desirable pieces of work from each genre andthat if an understanding of these trends and practises and the developmentalprocess between them has been grasped an understanding of music history willfollow. Although the model of the canon is an effective human reaction to the requirementto preserve music and its place in society, as with any human creation thereare flaws. Through exploration of the history of the structure of canon and theways in which it is perceived and applied with regards to music, an attempt hasbeen made to justify the merits and issues that arise when using the canon inan educational context. Whenapproaching the canon as a tool to develop the understanding of music history,consideration must be given to the authority under which the canon wasestablished.
The motivations behind certain composers or great works beingsecured into the body of material are not always authentic and to this end thecanon itself cannot be considered truly accurate. Even if specific examples ofmusic were considered popular at the time of writing the likelihood that thosepopular pieces represent the general stereotypes of music and its role insociety at the time is very small therefor their place in the canon isjeopardised by a system that delights in categorising. “At the end of the sixteenth century, it wasunusual for music to remain in circulation for more than a generation; thoseworks that did persist remained isolated from each other, or formed part ofpedagogical traditions known by a small group of learned musicians” (Cook andEverest, 1999).
The nature ofsociety, limited travel, class system and technological state greatly reducedthe opportunity for music and the arts to be shared among peers and especially internationally,trends would have been difficult to foresee and extend therefor even if musicwas retained it would be isolated. The music that remained popular would havebeen the pieces that were finically supported and publicised by those with thedisposable income to do so- not necessarily the music that was appreciated bythe general public or the pieces that best encapsulated the trends of the time,as it is often perceived. So to take the canon as essential for understandingwestern music’s development we must either blindly trust the reasoning behindthe construct being created or to some extent accept the generalisations madeon our behalf and appreciate the mass of works that were not included, whetherthat be for financial, aesthetic or political reasons. Froman educators point of view in order for examination and assessments to takeplace there must be some sort of formalised curriculum which states the ‘recommendedreading’ (listening) and research for each period of history that is covered,in this situation the canon proves to be very useful acting as a ready madelist of examples for the examination boards and teachers to choose from to demonstratecertain trends and concepts. Without a structure such as the canon it would beimpossible to begin restricting the necessary knowledge for certificate levelstudents to an attainable range. Although this structure leaves a lot to bedesired in terms of diversity and accuracy of representation it is vital in themethods of teaching and assessment used today.
Once the ideology behind thecanon is explained to students those with a specific interest can go on todiscover more around the trends of music history which interest them most.Unfortunately Within the discipline of music educationtoday, historical research is not emphasised. This is where issues can arise if theirpreferred genre is less or barely represented in the canon the information andsurrounding influences may simply no longer be recorded and therefor inaccessibleexcept for through imagining the situation of the composer or estimating fromother resources available from the time. Educators should be encouragingstudent’s individual exploration of personal interest and require to alreadypossess enough of a background knowledge to open these doors of enquiry andignite the interest. But with this emphasis on personal interest and with advances in technology, students are learning the musicthey prefer, with their peers; they are ignoring the traditional institutionsof learning. Which is not inherently a bad thing, although it plays apart in further dissociating students from the origins and influences on thecreative process of the music they listen to.
To create a canon of the musicalculture we have access to today would be a much more difficult task as theboundaries of good works are much less clear and the different types and genresof music are much more diverse. When looking at society in this way we begin tolook backward framing the structure of canon in terms that are not specific toour time, which highlights many flaws including those around the inclusion ofwork of minority groups. Which in turn encourages reflection on the accuracy ofthe canon in the past – music could have been equally diverse and non-unifiedbut for aesthetic reasons works which did not fit into the mould of the periodwere not established into the canon and thought of as great works. The musicallandscape we see today could have been very different if another authoritativefigure had been the power behind decisions that brought the canon into being. Interpretationin music is of vital importance, when performing the music must be brought offof the page to depict something.
The very nature of canon galvanises certaincomposers as prominent within their time period, which is very useful whenlooking further into the meaning behind the notes. As certain composers havethe upper hand in the popularity ranks there is much literature that can befound surrounding them and their lives and so researching the journeys thatthey took and the possible life experiences that influenced their creativechoices is a relatively easy task. If the canon did not function in the manner whichit has many individual pieces may have been remembered for their merits butwithout an over arching link or a specific biographical line in mind andtherefor the volume of information surrounding those composers, pieces andtheir origins would have been much more limited. The information we have is specialist,concentrated on the lives of a select few but the sheer depth of thisinformation allows us to reach much further into the interpretation of what thecomposer intended to convey and allows us a real insight into their lives andinfluences. … to have a one hit wonder in classical music is almost unheard ofbut in todays temporary culture works and the artists behind them unlessworshipped by a committed following are often enjoyed for a time but so quicklyforgotten.
The canon in this ay forms a distinction between the longevity ofmusic now and in the past – in essence the Top 40 charts are an intermediatecanon created weekly based on the popularity and following a song receives.Although still based primary on financial support, the aesthetic conformity ofa song does not discount it from being placed highly in the rankings of theday, although often popularity is synonymous to this as it is human nature togravitate towards comfort and similarity.