My Last Theory Professor Rant of 2007

My tombstone is going to read:

Here lies


Remember to raise the

seventh scale degree in


so that whenever my students drop by with flowers they’ll get an extra reminder. I wanted to also include the rules for acceptable resolutions of the six-four chord, but I’m afraid the engraving costs would be a hardship on my heirs.

Why is it that some students cannot be persuaded to write a triad without adding a seventh on it? I assume these kids had a jazz teacher in high school who was very, very successful in drilling into them that every chord, every friggin’ chord, contains a seventh. And since it’s often nice in classical harmony to spice up the occasional chord with a seventh, you can’t flat out forbid them, and it’s really not possible to get across the inexpressible nuances of why sevenths sound nice in some contexts and not in others. And if you’re teaching four-part writing, the presence of a seventh in every chord wreaks havoc with voice-leading. And what is it with ending tonal compositions on six-four chords? If I never mentioned six-four chords, would their natural instincts lead them to close in root position? Is it because I so emphatically bring six-four chords to their attention, as something to avoid, that they subconsciously or passive/aggressively end up writing epic strings of parallel six-four chords in their final compositions? What is so freakin’ attractive about having the fifth in the bass on every beat? Did I miss a meeting?

And what is it with the students who are allergic to initiative, and have to have everything done for them? I call them my DLDS Syndrome students: day late and a dollar short. They never have the textbook with them. They’ve never extracted the parts for their compositions, and when they do, they’re never transposed. Their printers, of course, haven’t been operational since seventh grade. They are incapable of looking up e-mail addresses of the performers they need to engage. The posters with which they advertise their concerts remain in the back seats of their cars until hours before the event. Many of them are charming, intelligent, funny, delightful people, some of my favorite students ever. One of my best came to my house to print his orchestral parts with only an hour to spare before deadline – and, as we were finishing, spilled a glass of orange juice over all the parts we had just printed. I slowly looked at him and said, “You really wanted to make this a memorable occasion, didn’t you?”

Why these DLDS students exist isn’t what’s interesting. The curious thing is that THEY ARE ALL MALE. I have never had a female student who fit this pattern. The young women, when they have something important to do, take care of it themselves. Explain, anyone?

That’s off my chest. I’m done. Let the new year begin.


  1. says

    i think women learn early on that they can’t depend on men to help them out because half the men don’t want to waste their time helping girls and the other half of the men are trying to be sensitive to women and don’t want to come off as condescending. women can’t depend on other women because they’re all trying to beat the men at their own game, so other women are a threat. therefore, the only person you can rely on is yourself. just a theory… definitely take with many grains of salt. (thankfully, i feel i’ve managed to find both men and women who don’t fit these stereotypes.)

  2. says

    ” I have never had a female student who fit this pattern. The young women, when they have something important to do, take care of it themselves. Explain, anyone?”

    Simple explanation number one:

    Girls have always had to pick up their own socks. Kinda in our DNA to do things for ourselves, I guess.


    Hey, KG: Your columns are life-giving gifts of air, light, and inner music!

    Thanks for all of them!

  3. Bob Jordahl says

    Hey, MSD, you are so right. I have to have my daily amount of Gann wisdom, or I go bananas.

  4. Megan says

    I am a music teacher and arts/culture writer and the mother of THREE boys. The DLDS syndrome is neatly catagorized as ADHD these days.
    In college, I attribute it to the “amotivational syndrome” associated with smoking pot.
    The only thing I can tell you about why these students don’t follow your rules is…that they are products of the late 20th century and believe they are above any rules that govern “ART”. Ask your associates in the visual art department. They most likely have the same problem. These are kids who were taught that fame comes from breaking the rules. Who taught them? I’m guessing it was a Baby Boomer.
    Gen X Mom.
    KG replies: Well, certainly when they get heavily into smoking pot, they tend to get spacier and spacier and graduate only by heroic efforts on their behalf, if at all. I’d hate to jump to that conclusion in as many cases as I’m referring to.

  5. says

    Composer Ingram Marshall writes in with a good thought: “I just read your blog commentary on the 6/4 triad syndrome. I think it
    comes from the physical fact that the 6/4 position lies so comfortably under
    the left hand; thus you can easilly accompany a tune in the right hand with
    a string of them in the left without much effort or thought.”

    That would explain a lot.

  6. says

    the baby boomer theory is interesting; i’m the child of ‘silent generation’ folks and i’ve long felt that’s had a huge influence on what i listen to and how i live my life.
    my question for you kyle: why are you enabling these students to continue to behave in this manner? allowing them to print up parts at your house? maybe they need to fail a few times instead of charming their way into opportunities the girls have to bust their asses to get considered for.
    KG replies: Andrea, your question gave me a good, long laugh. When a student increasingly can’t handle the responsibilities of college for reasons unrelated to academic ability, his case gets bounced around until it ends up with the Dean of Students or Mental Health Services. And the ultimate verdict of those bodies, whether at Oberlin in the ’70s or Bard in the ’00s, or probably anywhere else in academia at any time, is usually (delivered not imperiously, but with a quiet, confident smile): “Do whatever it takes to graduate ‘im, and get ‘im out of here.” And don’t worry, the girls get the same opportunities, in college anyway, and are a lot less trouble.

  7. says

    not to harp on this – i’m just engaging in debate/sparring out of curiosity – whom does it benefit to just graduate that kind of student? obviously, the institution gets the tuition money and if the person does go on to become well-known, the school gets the benefit of that. i do wonder how yale deals with/cares about mr. mclaren’s favorite yale grad now in the white house. what would have happened if yale said, come back when you’re ready to do some real work?
    i had a friend in college (good ol’ umass amherst) who i met when she was 26, returning to umass as a junior to finish her degree. when she first arrived at 18, she spent two years partying, etc., partly because she didn’t know what she wanted to do, what she was even doing at college. this is the case for a large amount of students: you go to college, ’cause that’s just what you do. by the end of her sophomore year, a professor pulled her aside (a female professor, if i remember correctly), and told her to stop wasting her time and her parents’ money and come back to school when she knew what she wanted to do. she dropped out, worked for five years, figured out what she wanted, came back, got A’s instead of C’s, and graduated. it’s not that she didn’t have the smarts to do college level work, it’s that she wasn’t ready to do it at 18.
    yes, it was ultimately up to the student to decide to take that professor’s advice. but i think that kind of advice is not given out often enough. and i’m sure people giving out that kind of advice have it come back to bite them. so, i understand why my questions make you laugh. but i still don’t understand how graduating people who don’t do the work helps anybody out.
    KG replies: This is a very big question with many long answers, and, in effect, you’re asking a White House kitchen assistant to justify Bush’s domestic policy. Also, you’re talking about kids who are party animals (Bush and your UMass friend); I’m talking kids who are serious and high achievers in some areas, but chronically unable to handle the details. My student who spilled the orange juice had, after all, written a competent, interesting orchestra piece, which was more than he was required to do. After all that work, cancelling his performance because he couldn’t solve his own printing issues would have been a cruel lesson.
    We’ve flunked a couple of music students’ senior projects. One was a dream result: the guy stayed an extra year, redid his project splendidly, got a job at school, refocused his life, and is doing terrific. The other, independently wealthy, drifted off and, at least, isn’t materially suffering. It’s always a risk. One student committed suicide when the computer ate his senior project. You never know what you’re dealing with. And as some of the other letters here indicate, there may be true physiological problems involved.
    Professors are educated in their individual fields, not in psychotherapy – though some workshops in the latter might sure be helpful. As a result, colleges are great at dealing with academic deficiencies, not so good at handling emotional disturbances. I myself was ready for college at 17 academically, but not emotionally, and to say my approach to my college career was inefficient would be putting the best face on it. But I don’t think holding me back at Oberlin would have been beneficial, and I hit the ground running in grad school and got up to speed.
    I’m glad to hear about the inattentive form of ADHD – seems like there should be more awareness of such conditions spread around campus by the proper administrators. We take each student on a case by case basis, but there are times when we realize that a student has personal issues that will have to be dealt with later in life, and penalizing them academically is not a helpful response. It would be great if they’d all get therapy before coming to college (I wish I had), and it’s almost always helpful, though I’ve seen exceptions, for them to take a year or two off and come back. Others have personal demons that they’ll spend their life dealing with, and denying them a B.A. doesn’t seem like a direct answer.

  8. says

    I think it has to do more with the fact that there are more men in composition (at least in my experience) than women, but I hate to ascribe any trait to any gender, since there will always be exceptions. I think another reason for DLDS is that college students are exponentially busier than they were when I was in college. More to do means less headspace per task, and it seems like every student has at least a double major and several minors. It’s also how those kids were raised–their parents had them in extracurriculars before they hit Kindergarten.

  9. says

    Gen X Mom Says: “I am a music teacher and arts/culture writer and the mother of THREE boys. The DLDS syndrome is neatly catagorized as ADHD these days.”
    I hear an awful lot of people talk about ADHD as if it’s not real or serious or as if it’s a moral deficincy rather than a genuine medical issue. I’m not sure which way to interpret this statement — based on that quote you might just as easily mean the opposite — so I’ll just have to ask you to forgive me if you don’t mean to imply any of those things. Enough people do, though, that it’s worth taking this opportunity to make some observations.
    First, it’s important to know that there are two forms of ADHD — the hyperactive type and the inattentive type. Some people have both, some one or the other.
    Second, it’s important to know that ADHD is both over- AND under-diagnosed. Kids with high energy are often diagnosed as ADHD by schools and parents who can’t handle their exuberance when in fact only some of them really have ADHD. On the other hand, because most people aren’t aware of the inattentive type they don’t recognize the inattentive form when they see it, and often attribute the kid’s problems to laziness.
    The second problem happened to me — I was only diagnosed a few years ago, and suddenly my whole academic history made a lot more sense. I was always one of the DLDS students, hated being that way, but couldn’t figure out how not to be. Medication has been a huge help for me, although of course far from a “cure.” I wish I had been diagnosed years ago.
    Returning to the subject of Kyle’s students, I don’t mean to suggest that all of the DLDS students are ADHD, but it’s likely that at least some of them are. In terms of the gender issue, it turns out that an article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2002 found that “Girls with ADHD were more likely than boys to have the predominantly inattentive type of ADHD, less likely to have a learning disability, and less likely to manifest problems in school or in their spare time.” This may or not be relevant, since most of the research with which I’m familiar doesn’t bother to separate out inattentive and hyperactive forms — so in this case the “problems” being or not being manifested might refer to hyperactive acting out rather than turning in late work.
    Anyway, My tombstone is going to read:
    Here Lies
    Insufferable Know-it-all who couldn’t keep his big mouth shut.

  10. says

    Just to reassure you a bit: the same thing happens in essay-writing courses. If I tell them a bunch of phrases that are best avoided, some students start using them more than ever. I tell them that a phrase like “I think” has appropriate and inappropriate uses in expository writing, and all they seem to hear is “use[ ] in expository writing.”
    I don’t think it’s attention-deficit syndrome, unless people want to argue that a significant minority of people (mostly guys, but also some gals) suffer from it.

  11. Elizabeth Marshall says

    You have so walked in my shoes…as soneone who has theory for the past 6 years, I can verify that this was unbelievably right-on. Thanks for putting it into words for me!
    I have, however, had several female students who favored the I7 chord.
    KG replies: Ah yes, the inevitable I7. I tell the students they can use it in the jazz professor’s harmony class, not mine. And one year I made up a composer named Herbert Phivofour, complete with fictional biography, to try to get them to accept the V/IV chord (presumably named for him).