In late March 2021, various social media users and outlets fanned internet outrage with false claims that England’s renowned University of Oxford would stop teaching students to read musical notation from sheet music, thanks to woke culture.
Alarmist takes included headlines like, “Oxford University may stop teaching sheet music because of its ‘complicity in white supremacy'” from right-leaning Canadian website Post Millennial. “If the woke have their way, soon we won’t have ANY culture to speak of,” an op-ed headline from the New York Post said. “SHEET MUSIC IS RACIST, COLONIAL SAY PSYCHOTIC, TALENTLESS ‘PROFESSORS’ OF MUSIC!” tweeted right-leaning commentator Michael Savage.
Not true, a spokesperson for the university said. Oxford spokesman Stephen Rouse told The Associated Press that the elite institution has not considered any proposal that would halt the study of musical notation or sheet music reading.
The takes claiming Oxford would be banning sheet music thanks to “the woke” were aggregated from a March 27, 2021, story published by The Telegraph, a British newspaper. The story was headlined, “Musical notation branded ‘colonialist’ by Oxford professors hoping to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum.” Citing documents and unnamed “professors,” the Telegraph reported:
Documents reveal that faculty members, who decide on courses that form the music degree, have proposed reforms to address this “white hegemony”, including rethinking the study of musical notation because it is a “colonialist representational system”.
Teaching notation which has not “shaken off its connection to its colonial past” would be a “slap in the face” for some students, documents state, and music-writing studies have been earmarked for rebranding to be more inclusive.
The Telegraph also noted that academics were “deconstructing” the university’s music program “after facing pressure to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum following the Black Lives Matter protests of the spring and summer of 2020,” and that the “development of Western classical music and its notation predate the establishment of the trade in African slaves, both having their roots in Medieval liturgical music like Greogorian chanting.”
Rouse told The Associated Press, however, that, “No such proposal or suggestion has been made about sheet music or western musical notation to stop teaching students to read sheet music.” Rouse also said that “many of the views the Telegraph article attributed to ‘professors’ came from a single individual.”
And while Rouse told the AP that Oxford plans to expand its offerings to reflect a more globally and culturally diverse musical landscape, those plans have been ongoing “for the past couple of years.” That would predate the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
We reached out to Oxford asking whether it’s true that the idea of restructuring the university’s music program was linked to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests sparked by high-profile killings of Black Americans by police, namely George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We didn’t get an answer in time for publication but will update this story if we do.
Modern musical notation is traced to the 11th century, its birth attributed to Guido of Arrezzo, a monk who devised a method that allowed other monks to sing liturgical music without ever having heard the songs before. Outside its present form, however, the practice of noting music has far more ancient roots tracing back thousands of years. The oldest known piece of music that was written down was a hymn, unearthed in Syria, and dates back to the 14th century B.C.