You know, no one ever taught me how to teach music theory. I’ve been winging it in 16 years of on-the-job training. And if anyone’s got a new idea of how to teach it, I’m all ears.
Several people, in response to my long case for the prosection against college theory, have suggested that a theory curriculum should begin with the study of rhythm. I’m much in sympathy with this idea. Who wouldn’t be? Rhythm is the part of music everybody likes, the part that can lead to every different culture. African mbira music, and Balinese gamelan, and roots-rock reggae, and Renasissance polyphony, and the blues, and Japanese gagaku, and Bulgarian folk music don’t all have harmony in the same sense, and they don’t all use the same pitches, but all God’s chillun’ got rhythm. So let’s start out with the feel-good subject that everyone gets excited about.
And I do. After a little section on pitch notation and a lot of basic rudiments (it’s always surprising how many students don’t know that 15va means two octaves, and you’ve got to explain fermatas, and double sharps, that ties go between noteheads not stems, and get everyone on the same page), we study rhythm. Nearly all my students come in knowing how to read music. We tap 8th-notes in 2/4 and 3/4, and that takes up about 45 seconds. Differences between 3/4 and 6/8 take about another two minutes. The idea that there are 3 beats in 9/8 and 4 in 12/8 is not going to sink in clearly for weeks, if ever, but I introduce it. Then, being a composer, and having 62 minutes of class time left, I get fancy, as composers do. I chart the possible organizations of 5/8 and 7/8 and 11/8. I play them amazing recordings of Bulgarian folk songs in 11/16 and 7/8 meter. I go into polyrhythms, and show how to figure out 4-against-3, and 5-against-6, and “PASS the GOD-damned BUTter” and “SHE’S PREGnant, DON’T know WHAT to DO,” and all that. They find it interesting. I mention fractional meters, and non-power-of-two meters like 4/6 and 17/24, as found in Boulez’s music and my own. I have even gone so far as to beat a steady quarter-note, have half the class clap 4-in-the-space-of-5 and the other half 5-in-the-space-of-4, and let them figure out that they’ve just performed 16-against-25. It’s a blast.
Now, before you bring up the obvious objection, let me say that, the arbitrary way we organize it, I don’t teach ear-training. We have a young woman who teaches that, who sings a hell of a lot better than I do, and thank goodness she’s not as good-looking as me or the contrast would be really depressing. Teaching students to perform rhythms accurately, or to notate them from dictation, is a long, grueling, never-ending process. It’s performative, and it takes practice. I don’t do a lot of that in theory class. She does.
But let’s just survey the progression theoretically. The students have learned that Bulgarians have no trouble singing in 11/16, and that 16-against-25 is performable. They never imagined such possibilities. The entire rhythmic world seems open and full of adventure. What do we do next? We look at a friggin’ Mozart minuet. BAA-dum-dum, BAA-dum-dum, BAA-dum-dum. Short of inviting some actual Bulgarians into the classroom (and there are never any around when you need them), there’s not much I can bring into class as examples that pursues these newfound possibilities aside from a few pieces in Bartok’s Microcosmos. What am I going to say to freshmen, “Now that you’ve learned how to do 11 over a 4/4 meter, let’s open Stockhausen’s Gruppen“? The sad truth is that all the music they’re going to encounter before they see The Rite of Spring in my Modernism class, and in fact 98% of the music they’re going to run into in their entire life, falls, rhythmically, into two categories:
1. Classical-based notated music which is almost inevitably in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, or 12/8, and
2. Pop music whose rhythms are basically unnotatable, but are tortured into wildly inaccurate quasi-syncopations in the sheet music that would sound wretchedly stilted if you actually sang them that way, and are almost all in 4/4 anyway.
The sad truth is, we in the West come from a rhythmically impoverished culture, and to the extent that our rhythms are livelier than Schubert’s, it’s in a performance-based way that is not capturable in notation. Were I a faded reggae star sent to pasture in the classroom, I’m sure I could give some wonderful demonstrations of different ways to swing a 4/4 beat, but, take my word, a Kyle Gann in dreadlocks is not a sight you want to spring on a bunch of impressionable freshmen.
By now you’ve got your finger on the “comments” button, but stop!: I already know what you’re going to say. The rhythmic interest in classical music isn’t in unusual meters or polyrhythms, it’s much more subtle than that. It’s in the different hierarchical ways to combine measures into phrases, the way a measure or group of measures can play anacrusis to a structural downbeat. It’s true. I took a rhythmic analysis course in grad school, and while my fellow RILM addicts did their final projects on Bartok, Stravinsky, Ginastera or somebody, I rather negatively astonished them by analyzing the Adagio of the Bruckner Seventh. And what I found impressive was the way that the delayed resolution of Bruckner’s large-scale structural syncopations, all pointing toward that cymbal crash at the climax, interacted with the harmonic rhythm and tonal resolution. But it’s obvious from the very words I’m using that this is a subject requiring considerable sophistication. I am not convinced that the hierarchical rhythmic organization of classical music can be reliably discussed without reference to harmonic rhythm, and thus harmony. To dissect rhythmic organization in classical music requires knowing the harmonic rhythm, and how dissonance and resolution affect rhythmic perception, and thus you have to know harmony first.
In addition, large-scale rhythmic organization is not unambiguous, but prone to subjective interpretation. One chamber music coach will tell the players to move the music forward to this point, another to that point. How many arguments are there in print about the correct accentuation of the opening of Beethoven’s First String Quartet, or the Fifth Symphony? It is not, I don’t think, something you can teach freshmen by pointing to on the page without first teaching them, through performative experience, a large number of relevant analytical and right-brain criteria without which they will be incapable of deciding whether a beat is “important” or “emphasized” or not.
Someone suggested the book The Rhythmic Structure of Music by Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer, which is a good book that I hadn’t looked at in many years. I’m not going to go back to campus for my copy on a lovely summer’s day, but one can reread excerpts at Amazon, and on page 15 I find the following:
Because the more a tone seems to be oriented toward a goal, the more it tends to function as an anacrusis, rising melodic lines, particularly conjunct ones, tend to become anacrustic. The energy and striving implicit in a rising line make each successive tone move toward the one which follows it, rather than from the one preceding it. A rising melodic line feels very much like a crescendo. Indeed, most people perceive it as such. This is shown not only by the tendency of performers to crescendo in rising passages and of composers to indicate crescendos over rising passages much more frequently than over descending ones, but also by the fact that people actually tend to hear higher pitches as louder, even though intensity remains constant.
To the seasoned musician who reads this, this is very clear, and is validated by experience. It draws together a million intuitions one has had in the playing of music, and creates articulate order from myriad vague impressions. To the young guitarist in a garage band who’s just found out there’s music beyond Phish, I can’t imagine what this could mean, if anything, beyond a platitude that he would immediately contradict by writing a crescendo over a descending line. If forcing them through augmented sixth chords is torture, what would this be? The book’s preceding examples of different ways to notate “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in order to suggest different rhythmic organizations seem designed to challenge a web of assumptions that the beginning musician has not yet formed. The subtle higher-level organization of classical rhythm is, it seems to me, a subject for which an experienced musician can draw on his experiences, not an empty theoretical container that the 18-year-old musician can fit her upcoming experiences into as she gathers them.
In short, I can’t see that the theory of rhythm can be taught, at the beginning of a musical education, in anything like the same methodical and exhaustive abstract way, on a blackboard, that the theory of harmony can. The music of India is one of the most rhythmically complex and sophisticated on earth: how does the Indian student learn rhythm? From observing his teacher, who is a master performer, and who says, “Watch me and repeat what I do.” At its deepest, rhythm is a feeling that enters the system through the body and the right brain. Analyzed before it is felt, it becomes stilted. I believe that my student’s piano teacher can teach him more about rhythm than I can, by saying, “No, play it like this. Put the accent here. See how much better it sounds?” After a few years of that, and with an understanding of harmony under his belt, the student can then embark on the rhythmic analysis of entire works, which is a fascinating study.
I would that it were not so. Perhaps I’m mistaken. If anyone can offer a different way to think about it, it would be a relief to jettison all my inconvenient opinions about the subject.