Retrograde Music History

Geoffrey Himes argued recently in Smithsonian Magazine that “we should teach music history backwards.” to take advantage of the desire at least some listeners have to understand the precursors to/influences on the music they like today.  The question of what order to put things in (chronological, reverse chronological, by genre,…..) is a perpetual one for teachers of music history or music appreciation. Why don’t we start with the music they know and perhaps even like?

Himes , although he claims to discuss music history, writes only about popular genres,  In his primary example , he makes connections from Sam Smith all the way back to Rosetta Tharpe.  It’s not hard to see the limitations of the approach, most prominent among them that you have to start with contemporary music that you like and follow where that leads.  What about all the other music?

Especially, how do you span the chasm between folk/popular song and the art music tradition?  Understanding the link between Sam Smith and Aretha Franklin is relatively straightforward.  Making the connection between Smith and Josquin is much less obvious.The chasm is even wider when you consider music without words, a bête noire for many studying music history for the first time. Even if you are working backwards, there comes a point where you must jump the gap to music that seems not at all familiar. Does it make more sense to start at the beginning with a blank slate?

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