A Modest (Technical) Proposal

OK, music theory teachers, here’s a more definite proposal. The teaching of music theory needs to be changed. Can we start by getting rid of inversion symbols?

Bear with me while I develop my argument. I spend a lot of time beating inversion symbols (in Roman numeral analysis) into my students. They’re seemingly arbitrary (“6” for first inversion, “6 – 4” for second), and difficult for the students to internalize. Now, I do agree that inversions of triads are important to note. Unless you’re writing really eccentric music (and may the gods bless you if you are), a second-inversion triad has a specific connotation and creates specific expectations. Refuse to deal with those expectations, and the result is a musical faux pas, and sounds like you don’t know what you’re doing.

However, let’s go on to seventh chords. Root position is “7,” first inversion is “6 – 5,” second is “4 – 3,” and third is either “2” or “4 – 2.” (I invariably teach “2”, but always get a student or two already trained to use “4 – 2.”) Using triads, it’s important to deal with the second inversion carefully, but with seventh chords the second inversion rule is greatly relaxed, especially diminished seventh chords. The “4 – 3” chord, theoretically to be avoided, is actually quite common. And so by April I have a bunch of freshmen sweating over whether a dim. 7th is “6 – 5” or “4 – 3,” and I have yet to see a context (outside of Baroque improvisation) in which it makes a damn bit of difference. Different inversions of chords can have quite different effects, but what possible purpose can it serve to specify those inversions in Roman numeral analysis? The prohibition (or at least careful handling, if you prefer) against non-cadential 6 – 4 chords can easily be noted and dealt with some other way. When having students write harmony according to pattern, all the inversion symbols do is asymmetrically isolate the bass line and prevent them from coming up with creative solutions to that one line. Of course we can talk about the advantages of sometimes putting the third or seventh of the chord in the bass, but why cling to a prescriptive notation for same which only really has application to Baroque figured bass? And in 17 years of teaching, I have not yet had a student go into Baroque keyboard accompaniment as a career.

Of course, I’m afraid to send students out into the world not knowing what a “4 – 3” chord is. I don’t want them doing badly on grad-school entrance exams, and I don’t want Bard to get a reputation for loose scholarship. Is that any reason to continue drilling this arbitrary and useless convention? Will you stop teaching it if I do?