Working in My Sleep

This morning I dreamed, honest to god, that an editor was coaxing me to write an online music theory text. So I started mapping out, on paper, a starting point and an endpoint, and a tree diagram of ways to get from one to the other. At the point where you study triads, both classical and jazz terminology would be given. Then, to go to seventh chords, if you click on classical it will take you to a page on the five standard classical seventh chords, or if on jazz, to a page with the seven or eight or nine (depending on who I’ve been taking advice from) jazz seventh chords. The jazz links eventually ended up in modal improv, and the classical links in set theory. The pop/folk route had a shorter trajectory. But it was a complete multicultural approach  to theory through which one could ultimately learn pop, jazz, and classical theory.

Not that I ever want to write any such thing. I have no (waking) interest in packaging information that’s already common knowledge, and I think writing theory texts is deadly for a composer’s reputation (think Piston and Kennan). I much prefer telling people things that no one already knows. But I certainly wish I had a resource like the one I dreamed.


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  1. says

    I know what you mean, but just to provide an exception to your rule, there’s the theory book by Duckworth and Brown. I used their ideas to develop a foundation harmony course for Nottingham, because, unfortunately, it was out of print by then. And that book didn’t hurt Duckworth’s career. At the time he wrote it, we just about knew him as a composer — Barney Childs programmed his works — but he became famous much later.

    KG replies: Well that’s true. And in fact, my long-held desire for a multitrack theory text probably grew out of my conversations with Duckworth over the years. His book didn’t go far enough to use for my students – didn’t get up to augmented 6th chords. His complaint was that the publishers had dug in their heels and were afraid to go multicultural.

    He made a ton of money off that textbook too, relatively speaking.

    • says

      Well, if you can remember your dream work, you’re lucky. I can’t remember my insomnia work. I’ve got a tricky section in my book right now. Losing sleep, I get it word perfect, but by the time I walk the few feet to the office or even pick up my iPad or a pencil and paper it’s gone.

      KG replies: *This* morning I dreamed that David Garland let me use his radio show for a tribute to Bill Duckworth by playing pieces by his friends. I played one movement of Southern Harmony, Eve Beglarian’s Five Things, my own Bud Ran Back Out, Guy Klucevsek’s Viavy Rose Variations, and a few others I now forget – but upon waking I realized *they were all real pieces*. My subconscious didn’t even make anything up. It could have completely happened.

  2. says

    I understand your qualms, but I think it’s a good dream, and I would love to have such a thing. You may see it as common knowledge, but it doesn’t seem so to me.

    KG replies: Well, there are many other people who could do it. It was a great dream. I fantasize about making such a resource along with my fellow jazz professors and a couple of pop musicians I know, but no one would pay us for the effort.

  3. says

    gotta change the way theory is taught in colleges before a publisher would be interested in that. I wish it were taught that way because that sounds like an approach that would contextualize things in a way that would be really useful and interesting for students.

  4. says

    I suppose the classic exception to a theory text dooming a composer is Rameau — but in that case, he had some radical changes to propose. Repackaging is probably not the best use of your time, even though the package is ingenious. I will, however, snap up the text on your own harmonic discoveries.

    At any rate, your dreams sound more practical than mine. In one recent dream, I notated piano music with pictures of monkeys.

  5. mclaren says

    This idea seems profound because it touches on the concept of multiple representation.

    The physical sciences have long recognized that the observable world has such inexhaustible subtlety that one single representation fails to fully capture its nuances. So in quantum mechanics, particles are viewed as having wave characteristics and waves as having particle characteristics. Likewise, special relativity requires that the results of observations in two different reference frames may contradict one another, depending on their relative velocities, in order to preserve general conservation laws of physics. Your idea sounds like a wonderfully inclusive and easy-to-approach way of getting this kind of multiple representation in music.

    Of course, your proposed schema could be greatly expanded. Why not include Lewin’s GIS system and Lerdahl & Jackendoff’s GTTM method and Tymoczko’s hyperspatial mapping representation? Each of these captures some essential feature of harmony not well represented by other methods — Lewin’s transformational model shows harmony as a process rather than “things” called chords that exist “out there” in some fixed pitch space, while L&D’s GTTM considers harmony as a syntactic system with hierarchical linguistic features, and Tymoczko’s n-dimensional geometric model emboyding ordered paths through musical hyperspace captures the essential rule-sets behind compositions like Chopin’s F minor mazurka.

    See: “A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended Common Practice (Oxford Studies in Music Theory),” Dmitri Tymoczko; “A Generative Theory of Tonal Music,” Fred Lerdahl & Ray S. Jackendoff, 3rd ed, 1996; and “Foundations of Diatonic Theory: A Mathematically Based Approach to Musical Fundamentals,” Timothy A. Johnson, 2008.

    Here’s a neat short video (3 mins) showing Tymoczko’s hypercube representation of Chopin’s E minor prelude and F minor mazurka — which, he points out in the book, are essentially the same piece of music using slightly different transition rule paths through the same pitch-space hypercube.

    None of these representations, mind you, represents “the truth” about how harmonic progressions work in the pieces of music they analyze. In fact, each of these types of representations, from classical harmony anlsysis to jazz theory to L&J’s linguistic model to Tymoczko’s spatial-graph representation suffers from severe shortcomings. But while each representation exhibits flaws and remains incomplete, put together they offer a rich representation of the various ways in which harmonic progressions work that they seem to me to greatly enhance the appreciation and understanding of the music discussed.

    One of the saddest aspects of the internet involves the epistemic closure trend among websites, particularly new music sites. By shutting down dissenting comments and disallowing articles expressing inconvenient facts, all too many new music sites restrict themselves into closed-system ecologies of belief which wind up polluting themselves with groupthink and dying off. (We see the same kind of epistemic closure among Republicans with their mass denial of evolution, global warming, etc, This led to the increasing marginalization of the Republican party and will probably eventually spell its extinction.)

    But the upside of the net is a corollary of the infamous Rule 34, which I call Rule 35: if there’s a pedagogical resource you can imagine, it either exists on the net, or will soon exist, probably courtesy of crowdsourcing. The wonderful thing about instructional resources on the net is that they are often created by unpaid volunteers and grow into emergent and rich systems of instruction which exist completely outside the traditional university. See the Kahn Academy for a good example.

    So my guess is that if such a music site as the one you described doesn’t exist, Kyle, it will soon — probably crowdsourced.

    As we enter the 21st century, it seems as though we’re leaving behind the single representation “I speak eternal truth and all other musical beliefs/analyses/represtations are HERESY!” attitude of 19th century figures like c.f. Schenker. Viz., “Whoever has once perceived the essence of a pure idea — whoever has fathomed its secrets — knows that such an idea remains forever the same, ever indestructible, as an element of eternal order. Even if, after millenia, such an idea should desert mankind and vanish from the foreground of life — that foreground which we like to call chaos — it still partakes of God’s cosmos, the background of all creation whence it originated.” Heinrich Schenker, Free Composition, Vol. 1, appendix 4, pg. 161 (originally in the main body of the text of the German original Der Freie Satz but relegated to the infamous appendix in the English translation because it clashes so jarringly with postmodern concepts of music); or the equally wacky: “Italian music must be appraised as merely a preliminary first step toward the German”, H. Schenker, op. cit.; or the memorable “My [music analysis] work is once-for-all and requires no supplements whatever as the centuries go by,” (letter from H. Schenker to his publisher Emil Hertzka of Universal Edition, May 1914; or the even more impressive “for mankind, a Sebastian Bach will have more importance for all time than will a talent from the fortieth century,” Tonwille pamphlet I, pg. 160; or the extraordinary little gem: “Just as Kant established these limits for human thought as a whole, so, too did the great masters of Germanic composition establish the limits of specifically musical thought…they have been not just ahead of their own time, but of all times,” Tonwille pamphlet I, op. cit.

  6. says

    Oh, please, Kyle, don’t even dream-write a theory programme with L-J or Shenker. These systems have completely narrowed what music theory, even music, can be. We all took Leo Treitler’s PhD seminar in Rhythm and Notation after 1600, hoping to get exciting studies of the music, but instead we got those guys, plus Cooper and Meyer. When we asked for graphic and text notation, Treitler said, ‘Well, I could have called it Rhythm and Blues…’.