Music Theory: Case for the Prosecution

As happens, I may have inadvertently answered the question of my previous post (oh hell, I’m not going to be cute and link to it, just scroll down) by the question I threw in at the last minute: “Is there something about musical pedagogy inherently more deadening than its visual analogue?” I think a large majority of musicians would surmise that there is. Let’s think about it.

My own adolescent experiences as a budding painter gave no more pleasure to anyone than did the semester I spent playing the cello, but I learned a little bit of how the game goes, and I’ve read some things since then. Where better to let one’s little knowledge be a dangerous thing than in a blog? Correct me if I’m wrong, but beginning exercises in drawing – dividing images with grids, camera oscura, and so on – seem designed to short-circuit one’s left-brain cognitive grasp of physical objects, and focus the eye on exact contours. The exercises seem stiff and arbitrary at first, but you start to see differently, and, lo and behold, at some point you glance down at your paper, and the image you’ve just artificially drawn looks remarkably like the bell pepper you’ve been staring at, trying mightily to block out your preconceptions of bell peppers. You have become a smooth conduit for that image, and your fragile personality has stepped out of the way. It’s a heady feeling, and there’s something eternal about it – a sense that it must have been the same thrill for Rembrandt that it is for you. Relatively speaking, the payoff doesn’t take long to arrive, and afterward, as you walk along, the shapes of trees and park benches begin to translate into surprising and exact two-dimensional forms. Get excited enough by this transformation, and you buy a barn in Saugerties and become an artist.

I don’t know anything about color theory or the rest of that stuff – an art historian friend once told me that a red speck thrown in somewhere will focus a painting – and I’d love for someone trained as an artist to weigh in with details. But for contrast, let’s look at four types of music theory pedagogy and their effects, three of them common in all music schools and a fourth that few of us get to practice:

1. Harmony

The teaching of traditional harmony, in my experience, is the aspect of music theory that raises the most adolescent hackles. From the professor’s point of view, you are grouping pitches into the basic words and sentences of a well-known vernacular, familiar from church hymns, Broadway tunes, commercial jingles, and folk songs as well as classical masterpieces. From the student’s point of view, you are not building up but cutting down, limiting her to only a tiny fraction of the myriad combinations available. She’s coming to college having written a soulful song about how you shouldn’t hurt the one who loves you just because you see someone else in a pink sweater over a deeply-felt alternation of C-minor and A-flat-major chords, and then I come along, great, lumbering, bespectacled ass that I am, and tell her that that’s not one of the chord progressions that sounds good. Well, whatever sounds good to her sounds good to her by definition; it simply doesn’t fit the classical paradigm that, for reasons obscure even to myself, I’m trying to impose on her.

What is the payoff here, and when does it come? It’s that you learn to mimic the effects of music ubiquitous in the ether around you. You thus become equipped with a certain practicality for pedestrian musical functions. Learn a circle-of-fifth progression with a few secondary dominants, and you could, if the opportunity arose, write a song for your friends’ musical that, who knows?, could become a hit. You can, if necessary, write out a harmony for “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

For the student, this is not stellar inducement. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” has already been harmonized. You could look it up. It’s been a few decades since pop songs were particularly indebted to the circle of fifths. This is not the same thrill that it was for Bach: every piece of music Bach ever heard used this circle-of-fifth musical language, and by learning it he gained entreé to a world of musicians from which he would have been otherwise excluded. For the girl with the alternating triads, resolving V/vi to vi is an invitation to re-enter the Stone Age of torch songs. I feel as though I’m empowering her by teaching her how to recreate the more complex effects from music she hears; she feels that I’m crushing her spirit by forcing her to imitate music she’s not interested in. And, though this couldn’t be further from my intention, she will inevitably gather that I’m pressing this music on her as superior to the music she’s attracted to. I realize how far my pedagogic aims have miscarried when, as occasionally happens, a student comes up and proudly shows me that they used a conventional chord progression in an original composition, as though they think this is the only kind of music I approve of.

Say instead, though, that the student is a classical cellist? Well, the incentives are even more intangible. He can read the notes in a Bach gigue just fine without knowing which are the non-chord tones. For the average classical musician theory is an idle curiosity, like knowing why the pistons fire in the car he’s driving.

For the student truly destined for Broadway or Hollywood, the practical payoffs of tonal harmony – if he has not already stumbled across them by ear – may come quickly, but for everyone else they are gradual and, I suspect, exorbitantly delayed. Ten years down the road the cellist, assuming he goes professional, may be glad to understand the internal logic of the Beethoven sonata he’s playing. The singer may someday find herself in a school choir job and need to write an SATB arrangement of, god forbid, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The would-have-been concert pianist with carpal tunnel may find herself teaching theory. I suspect that few young musicians picture themselves someday trapped in the desolate careers for which a thorough grasp of classical harmony would be helpful….

Except for composers, for whom we promise a somewhat more metaphysical set of benefits. The composer will learn what’s already been done in the language of music so that he will not waste time reinventing the wheel; he will internalize a model for a complex musical language from which he can extrapolate to a new musical language of his own. Philosophically compelling as this rationale may be, it is still difficult to command a student’s full attention by teaching him in great detail a musical language that we are assuring him he will never have to use – indeed, that many composition professors will tell him he’s not allowed to use.

For a million reasons – including the fact that I employ historical references and underlying conventional harmonic progressions in my own music – a knowledge of theory has done me tremendous good. I doubt that many of my composer friends, drawing harmonics from digital circuitry and improvising on saxophone mouthpieces, would say the same. Occasionally I see a student’s eyes light up when he raises the third in a secondary dominant and a phrase he’s written comes to life, but the experience is depressingly rare. No one is more reluctant than I am to send musicians forth into the world not knowing how the language of Mozart and Brahms works, but there are times when I’ve wanted to withhold the study of advanced harmony, saving it only for seniors who’ve developed a true curiosity about it. For most musicians, it seems less an inspiration than a hazing: if you can survive the chapter on augmented sixth chords, you’ve proved you want to be a musician badly enough.

2. Counterpoint

For hundreds of years, until the early 19th century, the study of music theory was the study of counterpoint. (I teach only the 16th-century variety, because few of our students build up the harmonic chops to do the Baroque version, and, frankly, I’m a lot better at Renaissance. I rely on the principles of Palestrina counterpoint every time I sit down to compose, while Bach counterpoint presumes a harmonic framework foreign to my music.) Compared to the premises of harmony, those of counterpoint seem at first even more arbitrary, but there is a fun kind of reductionism to them. Students enter into them as a playful challenge, like a crossword puzzle, or Chinese checkers. As they humorously start berating themselves for falling into parallel fifths, something similar happens as with the grid in the drawing class: all their habitual musical instincts get clicked off, and they start to focus on every interval. Every detail in the music starts to mean something.

Also as in drawing, the payoff of counterpoint comes as a surprise. Given enough time and energy, at some point the student writes a 20-measure exercise, a little three-voice motet; it gets sung in class, and with a shock she recognizes that it is… perfect. No expert could prove that it was not written by Nicholas Gombert or Adrian Willaert. If she’s followed the rules religiously, she can produce something that transcends her own personality, that is demonstrably correct and solid and lovely, like an elegant mathematical equasion. Unlike harmony, which always maintains a connection to subjectivity and personal feelings, counterpoint may teach her how powerful it feels to be a mere vessel. She may learn what T.S. Eliot means when he says, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

This payoff may feel somewhat the same way it did for Josquin. For him, though, it meant the fulfillment of his creativity and the creation of a socially useful product, whereas for the student, it remains an enticing model, but a mere exercise – a mental state to be recaptured in other, more relevant media. Counterpoint may be a dead-end thrill, with little direct application to a world in which art and self-expression have merged, but the 16th-century counterpoint class I took (from Gregory Proctor, the year I attended the University of Texas) was a turning point of my life, and I do find that students who study counterpoint before harmony enter into the latter with more understanding and less resistance.

3. Analysis of Modernist Music

Here’s a heady thrill, and a quick payoff. The young musician comes to college with romantic ideas that great music is ever the result of spontaneous inspiration. But what’s this? That crazy-wild passage in The Rite of Spring – it all results from only four seventh chords, all linked by the octotonic scale. That broodingly meandering fugue at the beginning of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta – it actually fills out a symmetrical precompositional plan of ascending and descending fifths. That desolate atomism of minor ninths in Webern’s Symphony – simply a canon of 12-tone rows. Things are not what they seem. Modernist music appears a chaos of improvisation, but beneath the surface it is more structured than ever. The young composer senses a tempting opportunity. No more waiting for inspiration to strike; one can concoct a rationally conceived, rigorous plan, realize it, and get credit for a surface bristling with apparent spontaneity.

By now, we all know what the pitfalls of this kind of thinking are, which reached a peak in the 1970s and ’80s – it is easy to be so seduced into complicated underpinnings that the listener is rather malevolently left mystified. My students tend to balk at following the primrose path as far as Post-Partitions and Gruppen, and they ever surprise me by saving their greatest admiration for pieces that truly resist analysis, like Varèse and the Concord Sonata. From only a handful of schools do we still need fear excesses in this direction, but now and forevermore each new generation will be required to plumb the limits for themselves. This new knowledge so flatters the composer’s sense of respectable professionalism that it is likely to remain academically paradigmatic for the next century or two at least – thus all the continuing sentimentality about Ligeti, Carter, Boulez, et al as the Last Great Men.

The same analytical insights can ensue from analysis of 18th- and 19th-century music, but, for my students at least, they are less seductive. The young quite rightly plunge into music theory not for its own sake but for what they can steal for their own purposes, and the one hulking iron piece of démodé bric-a-brac that never makes it off the auction-room floor is sonata form. The urgency of bringing one’s themes back in the tonic key is not a motivation to stir the blood, and thus they tend to miss the subtle feats of tonal logic they could glean from Brahms and Bruckner until they return to them later in life. The premodern pieces that can excite them, in my experience, are those pervaded and rendered cohesive by motivic saturation, like the late Beethoven sonatas, the Tristan Prelude, and certain movements of Mahler. Analysis of individual works remains an encounter with subjectivity, but unlike the teaching of harmony, it never requires the professor to dissemble or hedge. The text on the page is what it is.

4. Acoustics

Underlying the patchwork discipline of harmony is a set of immutable physical facts. Multiples of a given frequency by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and so on make up the harmonic series, which one can demonstrate (not with godlike exactitude, but close enough) by running your finger up and down a piano string while striking it. In this Gibraltar of facts the student finds a comfortingly eternal solidity. The frequency ratio 3:2, a perfect fifth, yielded an intelligible consonance in Pythagoras’s day 4000 years ago, and will continue to do so after the human race has perished. For many, the payoff of this mathematically inviolable knowledge is fairly immediate. Point out that 4/3 x 4/3 x 4/3 x 5/4 x 4/3 (four perfect fourths and a major third) does not quite equal 4/1 (two octaves), and every guitarist in class suddenly realizes why he can’t get his ax in tune. Listen to meantone, and the prohibition against omitting the thirds of triads makes perfect sense. Teaching the acoustics of pitch, one can throw away the litany of mumbled excuses about German and Italian musicians that run through conventional theory classes. No longer is something “true” just because a human being once did it and it caught on. Numbers, for a musician, are nature.

Of course, the obvious downside (beyond the fear of arithmetic that makes this subject off-limits for some musicians) is that the teaching of just intonation finds so little cultural resonance. Its terms and definitions are not widely used, its practice is still in the experimental stage. The student who gets all wrapped up in pure tunings will grasp the vast truth underlying the disorderly history of harmony, and gain the background wisdom his contemporaries have missed – and will graduate to find that there are only 400 people in the country he can converse with, 200 of whom are weirdos.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Then there’s also Schenkerian Theory, which, since it is faith-based rather than evidence-based, I urge relegating to the religion department.

The upshot is, I think, that in studying art you’ve always got a home base to return to, while in studying music you’re at the mercy of whatever reference point the professor has chosen. Musicians have nature in the number series, but we don’t use it; we rely instead on a changing series of approximations for it and references to it arrived at by generations of poor working schlubs in response to social conditions we can no longer imagine. Those of us who have gone through the experience and survived and relatively prospered know that neither the starting point nor the road chosen really matters, you’ll get to the same place anyway. The student starting out doesn’t have that confidence. I’m sure there are art professors with strange theories and weird pedagogies who manage to murk up the path, but it strikes me that the young artist, starting out, gets a pretty clear view of the road ahead, and knows more or less why he is led into each new step. I don’t think this is true for the music student, who sees instead a winding, circuitous route, with arbitrary conventions standing as prerequisites for things that would make more sense. The art student can be given the answer, “Because that’s how the brain processes visual reality.” The music student has to settle for “Because that’s the way Bach or Schenker or Schoenberg or Duke Ellington or Bob Dylan did it.”

Perhaps it ultimately doesn’t matter. Certainly many musicians see such training as a filtering process, winnowing out the weak and uncommitted. But it does strike me that the problem is not so much in the nature of the medium as in the slow accretion of contradictory historical practices that we get stuck with through habit and inertia. Creative music, considered as a current cultural whole, and brilliant counterexamples notwithstanding, is not in a terribly impressive state. Perhaps the general level would be higher if the possibility of being pedagogically misled were not so ubiquitous; perhaps not. All I can say for sure is that, when teaching the theory curriculum in the accustomed progression, I spend an awful lot of time apologizing and making short-cuts and detours to ameliorate its deficiencies and absurdities, and I wish I didn’t have to do that.


  1. says

    Wunderbar, Kyle!
    One thing you could say is that the syllabus should be taught almost in reverse order: Acoustics, Counterpoint, Harmony, Modernism(s). This would more or less replicate the chronology of music history. Don’t we also need a more prominent and coherent way of teaching rhythm? It should be part of the first step.

  2. Nora says

    If you happen to be lucky (hehe) enough to take a good history of theory sequence, Alex’s order is pretty much the order that you get it in. And for someone like myself who learned harmony from the Pink Book, then did a course in 16th century counterpoint, but was always a historian and not a theorist or composer, getting the sequence suddenly made all of this material make sense in a deep way. I’ve myself explained some of the history of Western music to curious undergrads via the acoustics angle and what problem each tuning system solves (and which one it creates).
    I don’t even want to think about how to teach rhythm, though. I still can’t really deal with ligature modal notation, to my eternal shame.

  3. Amy Bauer says

    I have to speak up for the theorists who love and are committed to the admittedly flawed curriculum we teach (and I say this as a scholar of recent music first and foremost). Nearly every term I hear the trenchant pop ballad from the enthusiastic freshman featuring modal mixture or some more obscure “modern” affectation. And nearly every term I take the trouble to explain to her the history of the art, and where what she’s composed fits in the cultural continuum: how this harmonic change developed from what we are doing in class, and when we will get to the point where what she’s written will miraculously reveal itself as the psychological and historical culmination of our study.

    I don’t see the “bracketing out” of certain progressions as making excuses for theory but rather as a pedagogical opportunity. How can you teach music except as inextricably bound up with history? And listening itself has a history as deep and profound as any other aspect of culture. We do a disservice to students if we take every inspiration, or even, say the repertoire they are dealing with at the moment (be it pop/jazz/classical) outside of history and culture.
    Will every student’s eyes light up when he/she realize he/she’s composed the same progression as Bach, Beethoven, or Skryabin? Of course not; but I’ll wager more music students will sigh with pleasure at such a discovery than math students will lie awake nights pondering the fundamental theorem of calculus, or history students will gasp at connections between the court of Louis XVI and the current administration.

    This is neither the time nor the place to list every point with which I agree (e.g., “The young quite rightly . . . and the one hulking iron piece of démodé bric-a-brac that never makes it off the auction-room floor is sonata form.”) and disagree, suffice to say that I can’t even imagine enforcing some rule “[b]ecause that’s the way Bach or Schenker or Schoenberg or Duke Ellington or Bob Dylan did it.”
    I have taught in institutions that teach music the “historical” way (from Gregorian chant onwards), and it was IMO an unqualified disaster. But teaching rhythmic skills – ah, that is truly the lacuna in music ed!

    I’ll sign off before this turns into a screed; thanks for the opportunity to sound off.

  4. says

    One more way that the visual arts has us beat: doing figurative drawing with live models. That’s a euphemism for being allowed to stare at a naked person for several hours at a time. How can music compete with that?
    More seriously, I think one reason that music theory comes off as deadening is, as you said, that it has limited applications for a lot of students. Have you tried getting students to do four-part versions of “Yesterday” (or whatever) instead of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God?” I don’t think it cheapens the excercise as long as long as you stick to the same strict voice leading rules. And if any of your students are in an a capella group, they’ll be halfway done with an arrangement.

  5. says

    If you want a theory curriculum which will naturally fit “how the brain processes music”, you could do worse than put in a lot of musical gestalt theory, psychology of perception, all that. Now I have a big problem with the whole basic notion that a brain will turn a sensation into a “mental model” which seems to underlie such theories because they tend to naturalize and make ideological certain preferences on a scientific looking basis, when of course you have the freedom not to put things in a mental model but to listen, say, to sounds as sounds as well if that’s what you like.
    Having said that, in my student years probably one of the most profitable things I read was some of Narmour’s implication-realization theory, which no doubt will contain flaws as well (certainly his books themselves do!) but which certainly contained (for me) a lot of very interesting observations on the nature of melody in a context that could reasonably be expected to be applicable accross cultural boundaries.

  6. says

    Great stuff, Kyle.
    Were I designing a curriculum I would begin with a thorough understanding and working knowledge of interval and proceed from there to 16th century counterpoint for the reasons you outline–it is abstract enough that its principles are applicable to virtually all musical situations, whereas Bachian counterpoint is a special situation.

  7. Jonathan Russell says

    One of the things my freshman year teacher did that was very effective was he encouraged students to always bring in examples of whatever chord progressions we were studying from music they knew. Some would be classical, but many times, and with the professor’s encouragement, students brought in examples from pop music (to this day when i think of the circle of fifths I think first not of any Bach piece but of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive”). Our teacher would also give us very creative assignments like take any tune you know and harmonize it in the style of Bach (I did “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve Seen”; I remember someone else did a very creative version of “Yesterday”), or write a short composition in any style you want but, somewhere, stick a I-V43-I6 progression in it. In class he would seclect student’s assignments to share with the class, usually choosing one that best followed the rules and one that was the most creative or interesting. It created a certain friendly competition amongst the students, and made the whole process fun and engaging, not dry and abstract. The downside is that it was a bit all-over-the-place and it was hard to know concretely what we had learned. But then came two more traditional years of harmony, more strict and more dry, but, because of how excited that first year got us about learning, it was okay. I still think this was a great way to teach it, and, as a musicianship and harmony teacher myself now in a department with a much more narrow curriculum, I try as much as possible to always tie what we do into real life and make it relevant to the students.
    I wodner, though, why we have to teach harmony in chrnologocial order. We don’t listen historically; it’s not as if we have to “get” Bach before we can get Brahms before we can get Stravinsky. Indeed, it was the opposite for me, and proably for many others as well. I fell in love first with Stravinsky (actually, first was Guns N’ Roses, then Stravinsky), then worked my way back to Brahms and Mahler, and only much later came to appreciate Mozart and Bach. So why should we teach harmony this way? Why not start with what students know and are familiar with, namely popular music? I also wonder, what if we had a harmony class that was somehow topically based, rather then chronologically based? For example, let’s take the topic of repeating descending bass lines and trace it through history – from Dido’s Lament to the latest pop song. Or let’s look at the sonority of the dominant seventh chord from when it first appears contrapuntally in Palestrina, to it’s classical function as a dominant chord in Mozart and Beethoven, to its new function as an augmented 6 chord to its purely sonorous use by Debussy to its use as a tonic in the blues. This might work even better as a way to teach rhythm (in rhythm it could also be cross-cultural; e.g., compare the overlapping rhythmic layers in a Renaissance motet with the cyclical rythms of Balinese gamelan and the overlapping cycles of some minimalist composers). This might not be so useful to performers, but for composers, I think this would be a fascinating and creatively stimulating approach.

  8. says

    “In studying art you’ve always got a home base to return to, while in studying music you’re at the mercy of whatever reference point the professor has chosen.”
    This will sound a little pretentious, but: do you think that American music departments have inherited the worst parts of the Western humanist tradition? In my experience, colleges teach art subjects like literature and music as evolving traditions, simultaneously analagous to scientific theory and — bear with me — royal lineage. They take pains to stress the debt of composers to their forebears, and the result is often a narrative that makes the western music tradition sound like a direct male-line descent in which J. S. Bach is Mozart’s grandfather.
    As a result, college music departments have pack-rat mentality when it comes to music history- no scrap of theory or knowledge can be ‘lost’. Music students are exposed to everything on the continuum, resulting in (at least in my education) a whirlwind four-year tour of five centuries that leaves the student (i.e. me) cowed and bewildered.
    I don’t think any previous musical era has been so impractical and historically-obsessed in its approach to training composers. This makes me wonder: what if we left some of that history on the shelves? If your theoretical student wants to write pink sweater songs that alternate C minor and A-flat major triads, well, maybe that’s the way the wind is blowing (it certainly gives John Adams a tidy living) and forcing her to write a fugue exposition is, like you say, a hazing ritual. The unspoken ‘home base’ of my professors at UC Davis was Brahms, but I think I’d be much better equipped to communicate with a larger audience if I hadn’t been carefully schooled to feel contempt for pink-sweater songs.
    (p.s. My apologies for the big block of text- for some reason my paragraphing seems to be disappearing.)

  9. says

    I hope I’m missing the sarcasm in your statement that going back and forth between c minor and Ab major doesn’t sound good. Does anyone really say that? I would jump at the chance to tell her that she’s found a very potent way to sit almost absolutely still, something Monteverdi, a whiz at harmonic nuance, would be very proud of. Framing her accomplishment in those terms opens her mind to the enormous range of expression possible through every gradation of harmonic movement, without in the least condemning her work. If she decides that she would like to sit almost absolutely still in every song she writes, that’s her choice — but at least she will be doing it by choice, rather than default.
    KG replies: Believe me, I don’t tell her it “doesn’t sound good.” With all due awareness of how abysmally pedantic the rest of this sentence will sound, i-VI-i-VI-i is not one of the chord progressions acknowledged in the chord progression chart in Kostka/Payne’s Tonal Harmony, the textbook I use. If a student wants to write a piece going i-VI-i-VI-i, I’m all for it. I’ve done it myself. But when I specifically assign a year-end project to be written in tonal style, correctly employing secondary dominants, augmented 6ths, et al, and I get back a piece that goes i-VI-i-VI-i – as happens at least once a year – I’m a little disappointed. Wouldn’t you be?

  10. says

    Ah, thanks – context is everything. Of course, I don’t believe in teaching theory from a textbook. Better to have the students get loose-leaf notebooks, filled with alternating sheets of ruled and staffed paper, and an anthology. We pay too much attention to rules when they are printed and bound – better to have them scribbled in your own hand. But your student’s response to a theory assignment makes me wonder if violin pupils ever protest that it should be enough to play only open strings.

  11. says

    Most of what I want to say has been said, but I want to step back for a moment and look at a broader context. Most people who study Harmony and Counterpoint will never use the system they’ve been taught after they pass the final exam. The smart performers will learn to apply their understanding of the theory to their interpretation-for-performance, but most of what they apply will be based on instincts that can be developed in other ways than rigorous analysis (you don’t have to know that “V7 always resolves to I except when it resolves to VI” to recognize that the deceptive cadence you just played is a surprise and that you should treat it as such the next time through.)
    The real value in studying harmony and counterpoint is not the specific rules but the experience with fitting notes and chords together — with learning about the properties of the materials. Harmony teaches you about functionality and recontextualization and defying expectations and gives you tools for creating momentum (tools for postponing cadences, for instance). Counterpoint teaches you about the shape of the line, and fitting lines together, and how to deal with the fact that if you change one note it effects many notes around it, and how to construct trajectories that go where you need them to, etc.
    The trick, I think, to making Harmony and Counterpoint maximally relevant is to regularly illustrate how the general principles apply in situations where the specific rules don’t. How does Schoenberg use 16th century rules of voice leading to make is atonal chord progressions fit logically? How can you switch from one non-tonal scale to another like you might modulate from one key to another in a tonal context? Why do parallel 5ths sound bad in the 18th century but good in Debussy, and why don’t they cause problems in Power Chords? Which modulation techniques from the 18th century work well in 20th century pop songs? How can you use good voice-leading to write a good rock bass-line? And so on.

  12. says

    The budding artist picking up a pencil for the first time has a big advantage over a new music student. That artist will produce something that is hers alone, however competently it’s done (and don’t all parents save their kids’ first scribblings?). The first thing the musican makes is…middle C. We are working primarily in a re-creative context, where we learn to perform the existing rather than create the new.
    This is a fascinating question: “How can you teach music except as inextricably bound up with history?” I’m not sure of the answer. I wonder what would happen if music theory and music history were rolled up into one course – and wondering if that is the kind of failed curriculum Amy Bauer is referring to above.
    Regarding the order in which skills are taught, I studied species counterpoint before harmony (at Brandeis long ago) and was shocked when a friend studying music at Cal State Hayward told me in the 80s that their curriculum put harmony first.
    Schenkerian theory as a matter of faith: ahaha!

  13. Aaron Wolf says

    What a great way of putting things. After delving COMPLETELY into the world of JI and microtonality and then struggling to reconcile all my theory education and figure out how to teach students myself, I’m left here:
    I highly recommend “The Rhythmic Structure of Music” as a great resource. I would like to see that style of theory be rewritten in a way that could be used as the foundation of theory teaching. Rhythm really does come first, and defining that as the order of weak and strong beats and expectation and memory really is what is going on in music. We can then build on that and relate the effect of all the counterpoint, harmony, form, etc. and its effect on the order of things rythmically. I think in the end, that is what gets us closer to the visual art’s world of “that’s how the brain processes.”
    Anyway, I’ve got too many thoughts to write it all here. But I can certainly say that after every exploration of how to introduce music and theory the only possibility that never has a “but that won’t work” for whatever reason is starting with RHYTHM. And I’d like that to start with understand the rhythms of human physiology and memory and mental conception of patterns. And this approach is the way to also make music related to the rest of life experience and learning rather than distinct. Rhythm is a large part of nearly everything in life.

  14. Don Cox says

    As a teacher of drawing, I found this discussion interesting.
    It does seem very strange not to teach rhythm. As a mere listener, it seems to me that rhythm is more fundamental than pitch, while harmony is found only in European music – just as perspective is found only in European art.
    To me it would make more sense to start with rhythm, then go on to single-line melodies with various selections of three, five or seven notes out of the “octave”. The melody adds pitches to the rhythm.
    Then you could see what can happen with two or more voices singing melodies together – leading to counterpoint, perhaps.
    Berlioz said he was thankful he never learned to play a keyboard instrument, as it would have loaded him with cliches.

  15. Janno says

    I wish you were my teacher…i need someone who is concerned about music as a whole and is willing to teach rather than demand the money at the end of the lesson…