In Theory Only

Corey Dargel – singer extraordinaire, writer of touching songs, and the only composer I know of still in his 20s (though there may be ones I haven’t heard) who is carrying on the Downtown tradition of making technological music in which the technology is subsumed into the feelings involved – Corey has raised an issue over at Sequenza 21 that I have been struggling with for years. At issue is whether teaching music theory to music students warps them in some way, and ruins their natural intuitions about music. Specifically, he asks,

Could teaching young musicians to write analyses, dissections, and formalistic essays about music improperly influence their responses to it (i.e. do they actually like the music, or do they think they’re supposed to like it)? Is it possible that introducing music theory and analysis at the undergraduate level may subvert or distort a young listener’s perfectly valid instincts? Is it better to require theory and analysis courses only for music theory majors?

And he starts off, very cleverly, from an item he read about jam-tasting. You should read the whole thing. (That’s my photo Corey pasted just below John Corigliano, by the way. Cute.)

As someone who has now taught first-year theory eleven times, and will teach it a twelfth come September, I have increasingly been having a crisis of conscience about this very issue, and in fact have an article on the subject published where my readers might not know to look for it, in the current issue of Chamber Music magazine. (I’ve been writing a bimonthly column for Chamber Music called “American Composer” for six years now, which is the recent journalistic activity I’m most proud of. Sorry you can’t read it online.) Let me tell you first how I used to think about teaching theory, and then about the second thoughts I describe in the article.

I used to take the position that music theory was kind of a necessary evil, and something that would winnow out the wheat from the chaff, or the men from the boys, or the sheep from the goats – stop me when I’ve mixed too many metaphors for you. Being a musician is tough, and if all you’ve got going for you is talent and a love for playing or composing, you’ll never make it. You can’t simply love playing – you’ve got to have the stamina for sitting in a practice room for six hours, the ability to put your ego aside in rehearsal, the resoluteness to go out and get gigs, the capability to accept music-making that is compromised by political or commercial exigencies. You can’t only love composing – you have to love, or at least not debilitatingly dislike, copying parts, doing PR, applying for grants, networking, debugging technical setups, organizing rehearsals, all that crap that makes the composing life possible. The difference between talented amateur musicians and professionals is that the professionals can take on the logistical crap that constitutes maybe 50 percent of a musician’s business life and still keep loving music in spite of it all.

And I saw music theory as being part of that crap. I always applied the wonderful saying Cage quoted from Zen:

Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are again men and mountains are again mountains, only the feet are a little bit off the ground.

Things certainly do become confused while you’re studying music theory. Chords become numbers. Melodies become cadence types. Inspired dissonances fall into Germanic categories. Everything you used to do with such elegance and simplicity, being led by your impeccable ear, gets chopped up and dropped into slots labeled with musical examples from Bach, Mozart, and Schumann. If all you love about music is the right-brain intuitiveness of it, the way you get swept away at the piano and lose track of time, you will quail before this process and not go on. Sometimes with great results: David Garland, my favorite songwriter of my generation, recently told me he majored in art in college because he was afraid that studying theory would mess with his intuitive composing abilities – which are fantastic. He may have been right.

What I’ve always told students, though, is if you have what it takes to become a professional musician, you will go through this horrible process and get all confused, transferring a lot of musical processing from your intuitive right brain to your analytical left brain, freeing up the former for ever deeper musical investigations – and when it’s all over, sounds will again be sounds and numbers numbers, and your feet will be a little bit off the ground. Otherwise, you’ll go through life never able to do more than you could by ear at 20. David’s songs are stirring, lovable, unforgettable – but he’s never written a piano concerto. As long as he doesn’t want to, his ear is enough.

I still believe all that, basically. But I am becoming more and more dissatisfied about the way we teach theory. As I get fewer and fewer students who come from a classical background, I feel more like we’re not only deflecting student musical enthusiasms into more structured channels, we’re actively deflating them. I try to bring pop music into class via sheet music, in order to convince them that what I’m teaching them has broader applications than just the canonical classical repertoire. As I say in the article (since it won’t be easy to get ahold of even if you’re interested),

I analyze the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Cat Stevens’s arrangement of “Morning Has Broken,” even parodies by humorist Tom Lehrer. When we get to secondary dominants I wrench from the students’ collective memories the correct harmonization of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” one of the few songs left for which I can count on universal recognition (thank God for baseball). We are honored to possess a superb jazz pedagogue, John Esposito, and a few years ago I took his jazz harmony course so I could better learn how jazz works. So now I compare near-identical passages from Beethoven and Thelonious Monk, and prove triumphantly that we we classicals call the “German Sixth” is also a tritone substitution chord for a V7 of V. I show that Wagner and Liszt were just as excited to discover the possibilities of a “flat five” chord as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were.

But elsewhere I fall into trouble. Jazz and classical music observe the gravity of the circle of fifths – vi ii V I – but popular music often plays against it. Pop and folk music regularly stick a four chord between a cadential five and one, just after I’ve told my students never to do that. I hit my head against a wall trying to make them always sharp the seventh scale degree in a minor key, and “Scarborough Fair” (not to mention “Greensleeves”) makes them wonder if I know what I’m talking about.

Our duty is to pass on what we know about music of the past, but that past looks awfully limited to them…. [T]heory is supposed to be the science of music, and science is supposed to be true in all cases.

My justification for continuing to hit 18-year-olds with secondary dominants year after year is to show them how the “conventional” music they hear is written so they can write it too: church hymns, broadway tunes, film music. Of course that’s not what they want to do. They immediately want to be creative, and write things unlike the music they hear. So they turn in theory assignments with interesting chord progressions that they’ve obviously scoped out by ear, but that are “incorrect” according to the theory text, which is based on Mozart, Brahms, etc. And rather than swing with their enthusiasm and channel it, I have to slam their momentum to a crashing halt, and say, “That’s fine for your own music, but in here you have to write more conventionally.” I don’t like doing it.

Here’s the solution I’m toying with, and by the glacial norms of acadème, it’s pretty radical.

You can’t learn to more expertly express yourself in sounds until you learn how sounds work – but how sounds work is a matter of physics, not 18th-century usage. I have a course called The Arithmetic of Listening in which I teach the harmonic series, the physics and arithmetic of harmony, various world tuning systems. Students who encounter that class after years of learning harmony seem to breathe a sigh of relief, as if, for the first time, a theory teacher is not lying to them. What we call a “major third” is a 5-to-4 frequency ratio, approximatable by 81/64 or the cube root of 2, and that’s that. There’s no room for opinion. 5/4 was not a different ratio for Mozart than it is for Sting. Start them there. (To the extent that I can, I do.)

Secondly, understanding of the numbers of tuning leads to an understanding of consonance, which is all you need to do 16th-century counterpoint. I find that my students who take my Renaissance counterpoint class before they study harmony have less trouble with harmony, and get a more intuitive grasp of how it’s supposed to work. For hundreds of years, until the Paris Conservatoire switched tactics in the 1820s, counterpoint was taught before harmony, with excellent results – and Chopin, coming from more conservative Warsaw Conservatory, was disturbed by the trend, so actually I’m suggesting something radically conservative. Counterpoint leads to a recognition of triads, at which point one can introduce the concepts of I, ii, IV, V chords, etc., that a musician needs just to get through a simple blues tune.

As for our old friends five-six-five-of-two, French sixth, seven-four-three-of-four – and I’m sure there are practicing musicians among you who already don’t know what I’m talking about – why burden young musicians with them just as they’re starting out? Why not leave that German/Italian bastard Roman numeral analysis, with its peskily inconsistent inversion symbols, in the closet until senior year, when it’s become clear who is planning a career in classical music and who wants to be a rock star? As I say in Chamber Music,

Every classical musician agrees that a knowledge of advanced harmony is important for a classical performer, but everyone also agrees that its advantages are subtle and somewhat intangible, difficult to pinpoint. There seems to me good reason to make harmony, not the foundation of a musical education, but the finishing touch, saved for senior year and for the students who are clearly headed toward a life involved with 18th- and 19th-century music.

The theory curriculum I’m mulling over is one turned almost upside-down from the ones in the theory books. I can’t teach it yet – I don’t have the textbook support, which is not likely to be forthcoming in today’s timid and classically entrenched educational environment, and I’m not quite sure I have the cohones to supplant I-IV-V-I with alternative tunings. I do still feel that a certain amount of regimentation, a systematic right-to-left-brain transfer is ultimately necessary for a musician. But I am also convinced that today’s students are veering farther and farther away from the music our conventional theory training is based on. And I wonder if we can’t come up with a way of teaching theory that would harness the momentum of students’ creative energy rather than immediately block it.