Creating bridges between world and popular music

With the inception of the bachelor degree program “World Music” (WM) in 2015 the Popakademie Baden-Württemberg ventured into a new musical area. Our previous two artistic degree program “Pop Music Design” (PMD – Bachelor) and “Popular Music” (Master) were (and still are) clearly aimed towards European-US-American popular music in a broad sense. The target group for the programs are primarily aspiring musicians from Germany and the neighbouring countries operating within a popular music idiom. While some also have migrant backgrounds most of them come from a Central European background.

With the WM program the goal is to give the (primarily) 2nd and 3rd generation Germans with Turkish or Arabic background (but also other interested applicants) the possibility to study “their” musics. The main philosophy behind the program is to educate young musicians bridging their (Turkish/Arabic) musical background with (European-American) popular music. In order to enable this the WM curriculum focuses both on Turkish-Arabic music and music theory as well as Western popular music and music theory (for more information on how the program was started see Wickström 2018)

As with the other Bachelor degree programs one central tenant is to bring the students from the various degree program together. Hence the WM students have two general survey courses together with the Music Business and PMD students. In addition, the WM and PMD students not only have Western music theory together, but they are also from day one encouraged to play together in bands and ensembles.

The first year was mainly spent on setting up the curriculum for the WM bachelor program. The students and faculty, however, quite early on felt that while the WM students were in their curriculum rooted in both musical worlds the students in the popular music programs were not. Hence we started looking for ways to create bridges for the popular music students to understand the music of the WM students. Here we pursued two overarching goals:

  • Create an understanding for Turkish-Arabic music
  • Enhance the networking between the students

As mentioned, our overarching aim was (and still is) to promote musical collaborations between the degree programs.

Create an understanding for Turkish-Arabic music

One main goal was to give the students from the popular music programs the ability to understand the underlying musical foundation of Turkish-Arabic music. The aim was to enable the students to meet each other halfway between popular music and Turkish-Arabic music and not to have a rock band including a token darbuka player to give it an exotic tinge.

The first step was to provide the popular music students with knowledge of Turkish-Arabic music theory and rhythms. One of the first bridges we created here was to open the WM instruments (oud, baglama, percussion) as a facultative second secondary instrument for all students in the artistic programs disregarding their main instrument and degree program. Through the secondary instrument the students are provided with a practical understanding of Turkish/Arabic music theory and rhythms. This was not only aimed towards the popular music students, but also the WM students. Especially the WM percussionists gave us feedback that they had problems with learning how the maqam scales work. The possibility to play a melodic instrument (oud, baglama) helped them in Turkish-Arabic music theory to understand maqam scales and to train their ear in hearing the micro-intervals.

On a theoretical level we included an introduction to Turkish-Arabic as well as Indian music theory (in 2017 the world music program was broadened to include student wanting to study Indian music) for all the first year popular music students. In addition, we opened the first year Turkish-Arabic music theory course to PMD students by adding it to the facultative course catalogue they can choose from in their second and third year.

Western Music theory also includes one year of body percussion which primarily focuses on Afro-Cuban rhythms. In 2018 we decided to extend the mandatory body percussion by an additional term. This 3rd term body percussion which is mandatory for both the WM and PMD students focuses primarily on Turkish and Arabic rhythms.

Enhance the networking between the students

While creating a better musical understanding was the main goal we also wanted our students to mix more. Here the first year is crucial since the students mostly do not know each other when they start studying. Once they enter the second year they tend to have fixed groups of people they interact with.

While the PMD students have a mandatory popular music history survey course together with the music business students which runs over two terms the WM students have two one-term courses. The first course is “Musics of the World”, an introductory course to different musical cultures from around the globe. The second one is a one-term popular music history survey course. Starting in 2017 the PMD students can choose if they want to take the two-term popular music history survey course or the two one-term courses “Musics of the World” and “History of Popular Music”. In the initial year three, in the second year five students choose to do this (which also enriched the course by bringing in different (musical) backgrounds to the discussion).

Another way to facilitate music making across the degree programs is through the main instrument exam. Each WM student has to have one piece in which s/he is accompanied by a student from the popular music bachelor or master program. In addition to having to find a student willing to accompany the WM student this also helps the student adjust his/her repertoire so that it can be accompanied by a diatonically tuned instrument.

Finally, we also decided to open the instrumental workshops for instruments from related families. E.g. a guitar workshop is also open for baglama and oud students (and vice versa), a drum workshop is also open for percussionists etc. Besides networking the other aim is for the students to get a better understanding of the other instrument and thus also pick up ideas they have not thought about which can be applied to one’s own instrument.

While in hindsight these changes may seem obvious this was a process based on the students’ background and (continuous) feedback. Not all the ideas we had worked as intended: We initially wanted to mix the PMD students and WM students in Western music theory. While the WM students had no major problems hearing scales drawing on quarter or eight tones they had difficulties in hearing diatonic scales. The students having grown up primarily with a formal Turkish or Arabic music theory education have had their ears trained to hearing specific intervals which differ from those trained in Western diatonic music. This is also something Christiane Gerischer points out when discussing the challenges of transcultural music education (Gerischer 2012). We thus decided to create a separate world music group for Western music theory. This group specifically caters to their ears – but with the downside that they are not together with the PMD students.

This remains a work in progress. We do, however, see that the bands are mixing and the popular music and world music students working together in projects which maintain elements from different musical worlds, thus showing us that the general orientation of the path taken is in the right direction.

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This article is a part of our ongoing series entitled How are ‘diverse cultures’ integrated in the education of musicians across Europe? Other posts in the series can be found here.

Works cited

Gerischer, C. 2012. Chancen transkultureller Musikvermittlung in sozialpädagogischen Kontexten. In Transkulturalität und Musikvermittlung – Möglichkeiten und Herausforderungen in Forschung, Kulturpolitik und musikpädagogischer Praxis, edited by Susanne Binas-Preisendörfer, and Melanie Unseld, 243-62. Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang.

Wickström, D-E. 2018. Die Musiken der Welt in Mannheim? Cultural flow und die künstlerische Ausbildung in Weltmusik. In Transkulturelle Erkundungen – Wissenschaftlich-künstlerische Perspektiven, edited by Ursula Hemetek et al., 113-28. Wien, Köln, Weimar: Böhlau Verlag.

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