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27 August 2012

Repertoire Choices in the Classroom: A Music Theory Teacher’s Perspective

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Gena R. Greher's recent article in this journal (CMS 49-50, 2010) arguing for the use of rap music in the classroom prompted me to reflect on the music I use in my own classroom and my reasons for using it. That music is almost exclusively Western art music. This, I grant, is far from an astonishing admission, especially for a music theory teacher who teaches mainly in the sequence of classes taken by music majors during their first two years of college. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to account for my choices.

Do I use this music in order "to provide what [I] have been trained to think of as a 'quality music education,' one that is steeped in the traditions of Western Art Music?"1 There may be something to this, at least to a degree. After all, which teacher strives to give his or her students anything less than a "quality music education"? And yet, contrary to the implication of Greher's formulation, such an education must not concentrate solely on Western art music; a good music education should include at least an introduction to world music, preferably one taught by a bona fide ethnomusicologist. It should also include opportunities to take classes examining the interactions of music and society or music and politics or music and identity; and, ideally, to cite just two examples, it should offer students the chance to learn to play the mbira or to participate in a gamelan ensemble. A "quality music education," in short, is vast, so vast that no single teacher is capable of providing the whole of it.

Perhaps, then, I use Western art music because [I] have reservations about "teaching music that is either outside [my] own comfort zone or not what [I] have been formally taught to teach?"2 Here the answer is no. Having several times taught an introductory world music class, I know firsthand how much I have profited from the chance to teach music outside my "comfort zone." Isn't one of the truest tests of a teacher's technique how he or she manages to cope with introducing and explaining a topic he or she does not understand particularly well?

Neither of these reasons applies to me, I believe, or applies to me perfectly. Why do I use Western art music?

I begin with self-interested reasons. I remain, even after more than a dozen years on the job, utterly enchanted by this music. Rare is the year when I don’t lead my students through three or four fugues from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. Almost every year includes a discussion of the “Crucifixus” from his B Minor Mass; it frequently includes, too, an examination of part of the famous chaconne from his second Partita for solo violin. Each spring I look forward to introducing a new crop of students to the dignified first movement of Mozart’s K. 333 piano sonata and the serious third movement of Beethoven’s Op. 13 piano sonata. A year without a pass through several songs by Schumann or preludes by Chopin is, for me, a wasted opportunity. At the conclusion of our study of tonal music, I look forward to the reaction of my students to such difficult pieces as Schönberg’s Opus 33a piano piece or Webern’s “Wie bin ich froh” and to the discussion their reaction brings about.3 In a way, these pieces are akin to old friends: as years go by, my understanding of them deepens; they furnish solace of a sort while retaining the ability to surprise, remaining through it all utterly reliable. The way I look at it, I am in the enviable position of introducing these friends to my students; I do so in the hopes that some of latter, upon making the acquaintance of the former, will come to regard them as friends, too, albeit of a more recent vintage.

If I feel strongly about these pieces, it is partly because they offer so many examples of the techniques and terms to which I introduce my theory students.4 Once introduced, say, to the rudiments of imitative writing, these students become equipped with a way of describing what takes place in a fugue by Bach or Buxtehude; knowing such terms as exposition, link, and stretto enables them to take fuller mental possession of what they see and hear. The same holds true with the elements of sonata form. If students understand the norms, they should appreciate how they are contravened in the first movement of Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata—with its move in the exposition to the major mediant—or in the third movement of his "Hammerklavier" sonata—with its subordinate theme's closing with an imperfect, not a perfect, authentic cadence (and, on top of it, in the major submediant!). What is more, thanks to William E. Caplin, James Webster, Janet Schmalfeldt, Warren Darcy, James Hepokoski, and others, sonata-form theory is witnessing revitalization, and a fair number of my students appear to enjoy learning about the work of these present-day theorists and coming to terms with some of their concepts.5 The pieces I have mentioned and many others also afford me plenty of examples of narrower topics—sequences and augmented sixth chords, hypermeter and structural downbeat, secondary mixture and chromatic third relationships, and many others. So rich and so useful are these pieces that it is only with slight exaggeration that I refer to them as the "Greatest Hits of Music Theory."

Beyond these personal or selfish reasons, I have broader reasons for using Western art music, and these have to do with my students' scholarly needs. To begin with, they should be prepared for the standardized tests they are required to take during their senior year. All of the music students at the school where I teach take the M-FAT, the major field assessment test, which we use internally to gauge the effectiveness of our music curriculum. Music education students who intend to teach in the state where I live, Missouri, must also take the PRAXIS-II test. Both these tests include many questions dealing with the forms and procedures, the terms and the analysis of Western art music. As long as my students take these tests, I will continue to teach this repertoire. Were I to do otherwise, I would be shirking my responsibilities by delivering something other than what my students (or their parents) paid for.

What, though, if these standardized tests were no longer an obstacle? What if my students no longer had to take them? In that event, I would still continue to concentrate on Western art music. After all, a number of our graduates, having earned a Bachelor of Music or Bachelor of Music Education degree, elect to pursue graduate study, usually at another school. Not uncommonly, first-year graduate students are required to take a theory placement test at the beginning of the school year. Those who pass might be exempted from taking any further theory classes or might be allowed to take an upper-level theory or history elective; those who fail usually wind up taking a graduate theory review.6 These placement tests—at least, practice copies of those I have seen—tend to concentrate on the analysis of Western art music. In one section, students may be asked to analyze a fugue, labeling the subjects and answers along with the episodes; in another, given a portion of a piano piece or a string quartet, they may be asked to provide a Roman numeral analysis, an accounting of embellishing tones, and an explanation of modulations; in yet another, they might be asked to complete a matrix and to identify the row forms used in a piece of serial music. When former students report to me that they felt prepared for their graduate theory placement tests, I feel gratified. I also feel the incentive to continue in my present curricular course—and to improve upon it.

Yet what if, hypothetically, none of our graduates were to pursue an advanced degree in music? Would this be reason enough for me to abandon or radically reduce the amount of Western art music I use in my classroom? No, for the simple yet important reason that many of our graduates wind up becoming middle-school and high-school music teachers. One can easily imagine two situations: in the first, a young band director is rehearsing Hugh Stewart's Hymn for Band, telling his students about the suspensions used at its beginning; in the second, a novice choir director is working on the opening of Palestrina's Sicut cervus, speaking about the deliberate use of consonance and dissonance or urging her singers to listen for imitation between the parts. Suspensions, consonance, dissonance, imitation—the more deeply teachers understand these and similar terms, the more persuasively they will be able to speak about them; and, in turn, the more likely it is that they will be able to provide their students with something more than mere instruction in how to perform their particular voice or instrumental part, something closer, that is, to a musical education. It is my belief that my former students—those who experience success as teachers—do so, at least in part, because of what they have learned from their close study with me of a small number of pieces of Western art music.

So far I have presented two kinds of reasons for my repertoire choices. Beginning with selfish reasons, I mentioned that I enjoy and get excited about this music and that it provides me with a repository of examples of the techniques, terms, and concepts to which I introduce my students. As I shifted attention to what I take to be my students' needs, I concentrated on vocational matters: on the tests they have to take in order to advance in school and on the work many of them go on to do as teachers. Now I wish to reflect on another, perhaps less practical, undoubtedly more philosophical (or quasi-philosophical), set of reasons.

These touch on a term used not by a music theorist but by a pair of ethnomusicologists, Jeff Todd Titon and Mark Slobin. Early in their popular textbook, Worlds of Music, the authors introduce the term "music-culture," defining it as "a group's total involvement with music: ideas, actions, institutions, material objects—everything that has to do with music."7 It is a useful, even bountiful, term because it reminds us all, teachers and students alike, of how broad, encompassing, and multi-faceted our involvement with music can be. As I see it, within the context of the institution where I teach, my duty is to introduce students to the sounds and ideas of a part of their music-culture. That part, true, is largely an inherited part: it is something they take possession of because they are next in line in a succession of trained musicians—specifically, university-trained musicians. As my teachers bequeathed it to me, so do I bequeath it to them; and so, in time, will they bequeath it to others.

I do not expect that students will regard this part of their music-culture as the most important part or as the only part worth studying. I hope, instead, for something more modest: that they will be curious about it and that they will give it a chance. Given this, I hope they will make a concerted effort to understand how this music works and that they will leave open the possibility that it is something worth preserving and passing on.

In class I sometimes allude to my own music-culture. For instance, before class I often play jazz at the piano or over the sound system; sometimes this leads to a discussion of the music my students listen to, why they like it, and what it means to them. A good number of students know that I play string bass with a variety trio; not only do they know it, some of them have heard me play in coffee shops and bars. Others play with me in the community band that operates during summer. On campus, I have participated in recitals of Klezmer music, recitals attended by past, present, and future students; and in performances with the faculty brass quintet, a group that has premiered many works of new music. Finally, I make no secret that I head to Wisconsin twice each year to participate in polka festivals. That my music-culture is many-sided is something I think worth sharing with my students.

While I may not say so explicitly, my accumulated actions demonstrate that music, for me, does not have to be all Western art music, all the time. This, I think, is an important part of the reason students are receptive to what I do have to say about Western art music. I use my music-culture partly as a pedagogical tool. To borrow from Greher, I see it as an invaluable "entry point... to connect [my] knowledge and interests to the cultural lives of my students."8

Spurred by Gena R. Greher's article about the pedagogical uses of rap music, I have tried here to examine the reasons I use Western art music in my own classroom. These reasons reflect my interests as a musician and my concerns as a teacher of music theory. They take into account the hurdles my students must negotiate—the tests they must take—before graduating and upon entering graduate school. They also have to do with my wanting my students to become well-equipped teachers of music. Last, they harmonize with deeply held beliefs about my own music-culture and my wish to fortify the music-cultures of my students. As Greher herself may have put it, I find in the music I use a bottomless source of teachable moments.



Burkhart, Charles, and William Rothstein. Anthology for Musical Analysis, 7th edition. Boston: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2012.

Caplin, William E., James Hepokoski, and James Webster. Musical Form, Forms & Formenlehre: Three Methodological Reflections. Edited by Pieter Berge. Flanders: Leuven University Press, 2010.

Forte, Allen. Response to Ellie M. Hisama. "Responses to Plenary Session Papers, NECMT 2000." In Music Theory Online 6, no. 3 (August 2000) (accessed October 5, 2012).

Greher, Gina R. "Night & Day: Cole Porter, Hip Hop, Their Shared Sensibilities and Their Teachable Moments." College Music Symposium 49/50 (2010): 158‒63.

Laitz, Steven G., and Christopher Bartlette. Graduate Review of Tonal Theory: A Recasting of Common-Practice Harmony, Form, and Counterpoint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Schmalfeldt, Janet. In the Process of Becoming: Analytic and Philosophical Perspectives on Form in Early Nineteenth-Century Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Titon, Jeff Todd, and Mark Slobin. "The Music-Culture as a World of Music." In Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World's Peoples, 4th edition, edited by Jeff Todd Titon, 1‒34. Boston: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2002.



1Greher, "Night & Day," 159.


3It may be noted that all of the named compositions in this paragraph appear in various editions of Charles Burkhart's (or Burkhart's and William Rothstein's) Anthology for Musical Analysis.

4Allen Forte speaks to the reciprocity between music theory and the repertoire it is designed to illuminate: "By its traditions American music theory is a small field, one that may not be able to accommodate unlimited diversification without sacrificing some of its basic characteristics: primarily, the cultivation of abstract concepts designed to illuminate specific repertoires of music." Forte 2000.

5See Caplin et. al., Musical Forms, and Schmalfeldt, Process, for example.

6Steven E. Laitz and Christopher Bartlette have written a textbook, Graduate Review of Tonal Theory: A Recasting of Common-Practice Harmony, Form, and Counterpoint, specifically designed for such a class.

7Titon and Slobin, "The Music-Culture,"4.

8Greher, "Night & Day," 162.

  • Volume: 52
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John Check

John Check is an associate professor of music theory at the University of Central Missouri.

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