New Listening-Focused Music Minor Turns Music Lovers Into Music Scholars

Students in MUSIC 337S, Introduction to Hip-Hop Production. (Jared Lazarus/University Communications)
Students in MUSIC 337S, Introduction to Hip-Hop Production. (Jared Lazarus/University Communications)

Starting in Fall 2023, Duke students will have a new option to explore the music they love. The Minor in Music: Listening-focused will join the Department of Music’s current Minor in Music: Score-focused, providing an alternative path of study for students who wish to engage deeply with music but who don’t necessarily read musical notation or have a background in Western classical performance.

“At Duke in just about every department, a new student could walk in their first year and say, ‘I want to learn about psychology, I want to learn about global health’, and they could very feasibly end up with a minor by the end of their four years,” said Nathaniel Maxwell, a senior majoring in Mathematics and Music who served as a student representative through the process of designing the new minor. “With the Score-focused Music Minor, that would be really hard to do for anyone who has absolutely no musical background, because of the necessity of reading musical notation. Picking that up is almost more difficult than learning a new language.”

Two years in the making with input from faculty across the department and students like Nathaniel, the Minor in Music: Listening-focused is a collaborative effort that came out of the observed need to broaden the scope of the Music Department’s degree offerings. Although the Score-focused Minor will remain an option for students who wish to pursue it, the Listening-focused Minor was developed to appeal to a wider range of students who are engaged in music-making outside the lessons and music ensembles offered by the Music Department, or whose musical practice doesn’t involve musical notation.

 “I teach a lot of classes that draw students from Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, Asian American & Diaspora Studies, and Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies,” said Yun Emily Wang, Assistant Professor of Music. “I state explicitly that no prior musical knowledge is required, but I'm often surprised by how many of my students have a musical background. They just have a very different set of questions they want to ask through music.”

“It started to come together in the Fall of 2021,” she said, highlighting that the minor’s creation was a fully collaborative effort within the Music Department. The Department’s curriculum committee reached out to the ethnomusicology faculty — Wang and her colleagues Louise Meintjes, Marcello Lotti Professor of Music and Chair of the Department of Cultural Anthropology, and Sophia Enriquez, Assistant Professor of Music — to develop a proposal for a new minor pathway. With Deonte Harris, Assistant Professor of the Practice of the International Comparative Studies Program and Music, the group brainstormed possibilities — a “dream big session,” as Wang put it.

Wang and her colleagues worked with the Music Department’s curriculum committee to create a framework for the new minor that supports exploration of a wide variety of music. The first component of the minor is the Listening Lab (MUS163L). Taking the place of the music theory class required in the Score-focused Minor, the Listening Lab is a space where students learn to listen to different types of music critically and write about them in an informed, analytical way.

 The Pitchforks, Duke’s oldest all-male a cappella group. (Hannah Long)
The Pitchforks, Duke’s oldest all-male a cappella group. (Hannah Long)

The second component of the minor is an Artistic Practice Workshop, which will be offered for the first time in Spring 2024. “We drew on the Chamber Music Program as inspiration for how to include a wide variety of musical instruments in the workshop format,” Wang said. “The student might sing in an a cappella group on campus, or they might make beats on their computer and they're DJing, right? Or maybe they’re a bass player who performs at the Durham Farmer’s Market on the weekends.” Students will be able to bring these diverse musical expressions to the Artistic Practice Workshop. The idea, Wang said, is to give students a place to develop and share their music, whatever form it takes.

“I've talked to members of the marching band who say they wish their participation in it could count towards the music minor,” Maxwell said. “Now it can, because the minor isn’t limited to participation in the Music Department ensembles anymore. I think this is going to open up a lot more opportunities for students who are already involved in music in some capacity to have their efforts recognized.”

The third and final component of the Listening-focused Music Minor is a “Course Cluster” consisting of four full-credit electives. Students have the freedom to explore topics that interest them, choosing from existing courses to come up with a cluster of four classes with an internal coherence. “You could have a gender studies cluster or a jazz cluster, but it's also conceivable that students could come up with really unusual combinations,” Wang said. “As long as they can make a case, they have the ability to design a course of study that focuses on their particular interests.”

“It’s empowering,” Maxwell said. “It also ensures that students are really thinking about the courses they're selecting by requiring them to write a proposal that explains how the classes are connected. It pointedly asks the students to make the minor theirs, which is exciting.”

“Our hope,” said Jonathan Bagg, Professor of the Practice and Chair of the Music Department, “is that the Minor in Music: Listening-focused will let us engage in a formal relationship with a wider range of undergraduates than we have in the past. Through this new minor, students who have always considered themselves music lovers might also come to consider themselves music scholars.”