Music Theory in Re-Transition: Centripetal Signs

October 1, 1977

This article was originally delivered as part of 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

If We Are All Theorists, Why Aren't We All Theorists?, by Richmond Browne
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

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


The idea of being a theorist of music has always been quite problematic, and especially so in this century. Heinrich Schenker, in fact, took great pains to dissociate himself from the theorists of his time, whom he regarded as ignorant pedagogues perpetuating historically incorrect and musically invalid theories. Volume I of his Neue musikalische Theorien und Phantasien, the Harmonielehre of 1906, bears on the title page in place of the author's name the inscription "von einem Kstler" (by an artist), making it clear to the prospective reader that this was not merely the work of another Riemann, but the creative statement of a musician, an artist. (As it turned out, Schenker's strategy proved to be the undoing of one English bibliographer, who listed an item entitled Neue musikalische Theorien und Phantasien by an author with last name Künstler and first and middle names von and Einem.)

To a large extent the tradition of regarding oneself as musician first and theorist second has persisted to the present time, undoubtedly as a result of our cultural and educational patterns. It is not difficult to imagine a 12-year-old violinist, but difficult—perhaps even bizarre—to picture a theorist of the same age. Musicians have traditionally turned to the field of music theory only after considerable experience in other aspects of music. Thus, the selection of the field is not made without serious deliberation.

For all the problems of becoming a theorist of music, including the lack of status within the profession of music as a whole, it now appears that a significant number of persons are interested in the field. This situation suggests that certain basic questions ought to be addressed. What is the field like at present? What is the relation between music theory and general education in music? I will touch on these questions and others in my brief talk.



For the present period the art and profession of music theory in this country are defined to a large extent by a number of journal articles, a few books, certain doctoral dissertations, and numerous papers read at professional conventions. The journal articles, in particular, should be selected for special attention here, since they probably represent the mainstream of activity in the field.

We are fortunate to have relatively good facilities for the publication of articles in the field of music theory. Indeed, the field could hardly exist without them. Following the establishment of the Journal of Music Theory in 1957, Perspectives of New Music was founded in 1962. More recently (1967), The Music Forum came into existence and has published articles with theoretical content as well as articles that bridge the fields of history and theory. And very recently (1975) the University of Michigan publication In Theory Only appeared. Originally presented as a "Newsletter," it has now assumed the status of a Journal and offers still another medium of publication to the scholar.

From all these sources it is possible to draw up certain categories of activity in this wide-ranging field. I list some of these here, with names of authors of articles published in the Journal of Music Theory:

  1. History of music theory (Nancy Kovaleff Baker)
  2. Music theory in relation to other fields (Terry Winograd—linguistics)
  3. Studies in musical systems and systematics (Steven E. Gilbert)
  4. Analytical theory (John Rothgeb)
  5. Analysis based upon theory (Robert Morgan)
  6. Psychoacoustical theory (Wayne Slawson)
  7. General studies of musical phenomena (Thomas Clifton)

In addition, there is an important area of activity that I will call "pedagogy combined with theory," those works in which a theory is set forth in the context of a pedagogical sequence. Especially noteworthy among these is Counterpoint in Composition by Felix Salzer and Carl Schachter (1969) and Peter Westergaard's An Introduction to Tonal Theory (1975).

At this point I would like to interject some personal comments. At the time I decided to pursue a career as a music theorist, there was very little activity in the field. The two inspirational figures in my budding scholarly life at that time were Heinrich Schenker and Milton Babbitt—and Babbitt had not published much then. There was no doctoral program in music theory, except for one or two apparently intended for disappointed composers, in which the doctoral project consisted of composing a work and then "theorizing" about it. And musicology contained very little of interest in the area of theory, being mainly concerned with repertories of medieval and renaissance music.

That situation has changed radically over the intervening years. The number of scholars who have published significant writings in the field of music theory is considerable. I need only mention David Lewin, Benjamin Boretz, George Perle, John Rothgeb, David Beach, Steven E. Gilbert, Michael Kassler, Peter Westergaard, Carlton Gamer, Carl Schachter, Vernon Kliewer, Bo Alphonce, and Maury Yeston. While reciting this list I am uncomfortably aware that I have omitted many who have made important contributions, and I ask them to accept my apologies. The point I wish to make here is that the situation has changed in a remarkable way during recent years. It is clear that there now exists a field of scholarship called music theory. Moreover, it is evident that this field will be an active one for some time to come—perhaps as long as there is music.

I should like to state one perplexing and vexing problem connected with the field of music theory at the present time. It became particularly evident to me at the National Conference on Music Theory held in Boston at the end of February last. This is the question of the "constituency" of music theory. Who are the people seriously interested in the field although they themselves may not contribute to it? How large is this group? What are their common interests? I found it difficult to answer these questions at the time of the Boston meeting. Indeed, it seemed to me that there was so much diversity that a great deal of work would be required to adequately characterize any common ground. Prominent at that meeting were the composer-theorist and the teacher-theorist. Very much in the background was the theorist-theorist. Taking a pessimistic view, I suspect that the constituency of music theory is actually very modest in size. There is some evidence in support of this, perhaps not conclusive, but nonetheless evidence. The Journal of Music Theory, for example, has not increased its circulation during the past 10 years. And despite the enthusiasm of its youthful editorial staff, the new journal In Theory Only has not, I believe, achieved the response it had expected.

In fact, it would be unrealistic to assume that the musical community is generally enthusiastic about music theory. The reverse is easier to document. Most composers are ignorant of recent developments in music theory; music critics, for the most part, are similarly uninformed, perhaps aggressively so; and performers typically do not wish to burden themselves with any knowledge that does not relate immediately to the practice of their art. Even music historians are apt to detach themselves from what should be a sister discipline.



This brings me to a significant but perhaps controversial question. Should music theory be regarded as an entirely independent scholarly discipline or should it be associated with composition or with music history? This question is a rather difficult one to deal with since it has to do with certain traditions in the educational institutions of this country—perhaps even with certain regional preferences. I believe that thorough discussion of the question should be undertaken in connection with any move toward the formation of a national society for theory.

My own preference is to regard music theory as a separate discipline, but one closely associated with music history, a sister discipline, as I remarked earlier. Composers and performers may wish to draw upon both music history and music theory to deepen their knowledge of the intellectual bases of the art. This view stems in large part from the environment in which I work as a scholar and teacher, an environment in which there are strong bonds between the study of music history and the cultivation of theoretical concepts and analytical skills that comprise the field of music theory. The association of music theory and music history proves to be a congenial one, for there are many interests in common between the two types of scholars. I do not mean to imply that there are no bonds between the composer and the theorist; this would, of course, be false. However, many composers are uninterested in theoretical matters and many deliberately avoid contamination with intellectual developments they feel might jeopardize their creative processes. The world of musical composition is perhaps too diversified, too dynamic in the present age to provide the kind of stable association required by a long-range scholarly field such as music theory.

I would like now to comment on music theory as it relates to the teaching of music in college. We know that changes in the sciences sooner or later affect the way in which those sciences are introduced to the student in high school or college. This is not the case in music theory. The recent increased activity in theory of music and the new attitudes it embodies find very little reflection in the college music theory curriculum. Even the teaching of harmony and counterpoint in many institutions continues along the same barren paths it did fifty years ago, with here and there some slight evidence of influence from, say, Schenker. At present, for example, many teachers use, uncritically, a textbook that presents the major triad as the superposition of two thirds, one major, one minor, ignoring some interesting and basic theoretical problems embedded in that description: for example, how the fifth is to be explained. (Schenker referred to this interval as the "Grenzintervall" [boundary interval] of the triad and used it as the point of departure for discussion of several problems in counterpoint—e.g., the vertical fourth in first species. Schenker, Kpt. 1, p. 155.) Indeed, many teachers of harmony and counterpoint rarely examine any theoretical questions or refer their students to the literature of music theory, past or present. Thus, whereas the college student of music history is apt to gain a good introduction to the problems of historical research and to develop some understanding of the work being done in the field, the student of music theory is lucky to come away with his parallel fifths intact.

Indeed, in many places the study of music theory is still regarded as an unrewarding chore, to be accomplished in the shortest possible time and with the least possible amount of distraction from practice of the instrument. Here and there this situation has changed or is changing. Still, it remains a matter that deserves serious consideration by the profession.

In my opinion, music theory should be the central study of any undergraduate curriculum: an introduction to certain basic intellectual traditions of the art, with some attention to current research in music theory, and incorporation of the development of skills required by every trained musician.

The situation being what it is, it is remarkable that the young people entering the field as graduate students are as well qualified as they are. Many, indeed, if not most, are still very naive about the profession when they enter, in contrast to those entering graduate study in music history.

On the other hand, graduate training of the music theorist has improved markedly during the recent past. The general musical preparation of the theorist is improving. And theory is no longer regarded as the refuge of the failed composer, unqualified performer, or unsuccessful music historian, but as a field with its own requirements and its own professional expectations. The present generation of music theorists is far better prepared than previous generations to pursue work in the field as scholars. At the same time there is an increased sense of responsibility among young theorists toward the instructional responsibilities they will assume in teaching basic concepts and skills to undergraduates.

In this country most of the music theoretical work is being carried out today in certain eastern universities and in a few universities in the midwest. One reason for this concentration is that these university departments emphasize research interests and achievements as well as teaching capabilities when they fill positions.

In many parts of the country, however, music theory is still equated exclusively with the routine teaching of rudiments and often left in the hands of a faculty member whose primary interest is in another area of music altogether and who may be marginally competent and probably indifferent. The result is often ineffective teaching, and, of course, there is no involvement in the scholarly field of music theory. If these positions were filled with qualified young persons in music theory, persons with teaching skills and experience as well as long-range interests in the field of music theory, the situation could change dramatically within a few years. I believe that every music department in the country should have at least one music theorist associated with it. And I also believe that there is a trend in that direction evident in notices of positions open.

In connection with this, I would like to point out that it appears that more and more young women are entering the profession. Just as music history has always attracted a number of brilliant young women, so now we are witnessing an increase in the number of women entering the field of music theory.



Despite the increased activity in the field, as indicated by the list of names I read earlier, it is probably true that the basic theoretical work will be done by a very small number of persons. Many theorists will be engaged in secondary, but significant, studies, and a still larger number will be the non-active clientele, or constituency, mentioned earlier. This picture is typical for a number of fields of endeavor, of course, and I see nothing wrong with it.

The question of what the theorist should be doing in the future is open to a number of different answers. My own response to this question is conditioned by my own work, by the interests of my graduate students, and by the work done by others that I find attractive and interesting. There are at least five categories that I believe will and should continue to attract theorists:

  1. Significant studies of contemporary music
  2. Study of musical systems
  3. Theory as intellectual history; that is, the study of history of music theory from the standpoint of the modern theorist
  4. Investigation of modes of musical thought
  5. Studies of older repertories of music from the vantage of the modern theorist, perhaps including the development of generative systems probably embodied in computer programs.

Two comments on this list are appropriate. First, the items are not given in order of priority. And second, it is evident that some of these categories intersect with those I listed earlier in connection with my review of active areas within the field.

Music theory and computation have been associated for some time now, and it appears that the association is not about to end. Several of the categories mentioned just now, excluding perhaps the third and fourth, are represented at the present time by extensive studies that have utilized digital computers. It has now been demonstrated that sophisticated computer programs offer powerful means for investigating a wide range of music-theoretical problems.

Since I have spoken on this topic a good deal in the past I will not dwell on it here, but simply say that I believe we have not yet witnessed the end of activity in the area of computational music theory.

In closing, I would like to offer a general observation on the current state of the field. Despite some progress, much work remains to be done in three interrelated directions: first, there is the basic need for the continuation of significant research activities; second, we need to see that the field remains viable for those entering it—which implies support for our periodicals and graduate programs; third, it is necessary to secure wider recognition of the field of music theory within the profession as a whole, both in its educational and its research aspects.

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