If We Are All Theorists, Why Aren't We All Theorists?

October 1, 1977

This article was originally delivered as the foreword to a unified group of papers entitled Music Theory: The Art, the Profession, and the Future, which was read at a plenary session of the national conferences of The College Music Society and the American Musicological Society, in Washington, D.C., on November 6, 1976. The other papers read in the session were

Music Theory's Negativisms, Fallacies, Divisions, and Needs, by Vernon Kliewer
What Theorists Do, by Peter Westergaard
Diversity and the Decline of Literacy in Music Theory, by Carl E. Schachter
Sketch of a Foundation for Music Theory Today, by Carlton Gamer
Music Theory in Re-Transition: Centripetal Signs, by Allen Forte

(These papers were also included in SYMPOSIUM Volume 17#1.)


From about 1940 to the present, in various journals, with varying points of view, music theorists and others have speculated on the nature of theories of music (sometimes contrasted with the teaching of rudiments called "music theory"). One might recall Glen Hayden, David Kraehenbuehl, William Poland, Thomas Clifton, and others in this trend. More recently, in meetings of the American Society of University Composers (ASUC), the subject of the composer's role as theorist and trainer of theorists was extensively debated. At the meetings of CMS and ASUC held in Iowa City early in 1975, reports of the success of the young Music Theory Society of New York State (MTS/NYS) and other regional theory meetings (held by the Michigan Conference on Music Theory, the Midwest Theory Society, the Ohio Theory-Composition Teachers Association, and others) led to the forming of an ASUC plan to host a "first National Conference on Music Theory" as part of ASUC meetings in Boston, February 29—March 1, 1976.

The Boston "first" National Conference on Music Theory met for two days; approximately 800 invitations to a list selected from the CMS directory brought about 100 to the Conference. Papers, good and better than good, were read. Theorists met and, with some trepidation, took a step forward. After discussion, a "steering committee," chaired by this writer, was chosen. Since a major charge to that committee had been to seek increased theory participation within existing major societies, that was the route chosen. The CMS acceptance of these papers, the organizational meeting mentioned later in this foreword, and a CMS offer to help sponsor a national theory meeting in 1977 were the outcome of the committee's work.

The underlying thrust of these various gatherings seems clear: there is a growing self-awareness on the part of a growing number of persons to whom music theory is more than just a repetition of the synchronic models of the past. It will be recognized by, for instance, musicologists who know that their diachronic venture can be no better than the symbolic quality of their discourse will allow; ethnomusicologists whose training encourages them to employ much more intricate linguistic tools than perhaps any Western musician habitually turns upon his own art; composers who sometimes choose to bring to their own conscious procedures the mingling of craft and dream which I think Professor Gamer alludes to as the "[weaving of a] seamless syntactic-semantic fabric"; performers who discern obscurantism in the perpetration (by their peers?) of the fallacies described by Professor Kliewer; most of all, theorists beginning to realize the dignity incumbent upon the claim inherent in the word "theory."

This self-conscious thrust, running directly counter to the anti-intellectualism and defeatism of much of education today, is surely not going to go without opposition. Some of it will be well-meaning: Don't fragment music! Don't arrogate theory when it hasn't yet defined itself (a circular argument applied to something which is merely trying to define everything—humbly . . .). Much of the opposition to theory can be traced to symptoms which denote trouble for music itself, if not culture itself.

But just as some of the various musical societies now vigorous emerged from an undifferentiated educational milieu, perhaps music theory must escape from the freedom of ubiquity. The question was debated in Boston, in recent regional meetings, and again on the occasion of these papers. The consensus, as I read it for now, is to proceed with more ambitious gatherings specifically dedicated to theories of music. Such a meeting is scheduled for November 17-20, 1977, in conjunction with, and under the aegis of, the CMS 1977 meetings at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois). A CMS committee, headed by Professor Wallace Berry (University of Michigan), broadly representative of theory activities in every region of the country, will plan that meeting—which might be called the "second" National Conference on Music Theory.

Will there ensue a series of such theory meetings—perhaps with other societies in turn? Will the current proliferation of localized theory gatherings continue? Will there eventually be a separate National Society for Music Theory? These questions (which will serve, in time, to date this foreword and this set of papers) have no clear answer beyond the outcome of Evanston 1977. But the clarity and rather powerful suggestiveness of the papers herein are, to me, a hint that theory is going to be an increasingly helpful and independent force in the American higher music education scene.

Professor Westergaard's title is "What Theorists Do." But his major question is "what should they do?" My answer is "they should do what needs doing." Many such directions are suggested by Professor Forte. Without implying that theorists do something which all other musicians don't do (which would be wrong and rude), I would only point to the explosion of investigation into the human condition and its operative modes which now characterizes linguistics, psychology, mathematics, logic, and acoustical science; add that all of the relevant musical disciplines have experienced a similar explosion of pragmatic cognition; and then diffidently suggest that the existence of a group calling itself "theorists" is neither arrogant nor rash—but perhaps worth calling back into being . . . in any form . . . with the support of the thoughtful musical community. And, of course, "theorists" will continue to work, with or without any such support.

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