How Much and How Little Has Changed? Evolution In Theory Teaching

October 1, 2000

I. The Past

In comparing music theory pedagogy in the mid-1960s with current thinking today, some battles have been won while others are still being fought. Some of the hot-button topics mentioned in the given articles have cooled off but, interestingly, many of the issues from the past still incite vigorous commentary and perhaps will continue to haunt our thinking long into the future. Continuously hacking away at teaching approaches and the content of music theory—cutting through the underbrush of methodologies and concepts—seems, after all, hard-wired into the tradition of theory pedagogy. And, of course, in the meantime fresh topics have also emerged—ways of thinking about music that were unimagined thirty-five years ago.

Among those topics of perennial interest is the problem of how to get music to "enter our bloodstream" as Imbrie incisively puts it. He mentions "visceral" knowledge as being important too, not just intellectual knowledge. Most would agree that one desirable goal of undergraduate theory training is to enculturate the passions of musical experience so that responses become second nature. Merritt agrees: too much training in an "intellectual point of view" and not enough in sound is a common feature of too many programs (both then and now, I might add). Students often lack a basic "musical horse sense," he says, through what I call a deficiency of constructive aural brainwashing—not enough soaking in the sonorous nature of the art.

But even in the intellectual realm, I find that today's students frequently respond to purely analytical situations stiffly and laboriously. For example, a common weakness of entering graduate students, as measured on placement exams, is an inability to recognize the key of a given tonal passage.

It is true, of course, that this task is generally easy at the start or end of conventional movements. But I am talking about the middle of a development section, for example, where the prevailing key center does not match the key signature. Key recognition (through knowledge of stereotypical bass lines, addition and subtraction of accidentals, interplay of dissonance and consonance, contextual comprehension of chord types and function, and detection of long-range harmonic patterns and cadences) is evidently not being well taught today. Being a whiz at applying Roman numerals is of little help here since virtuoso use of chord symbols is only possible in the first place if one already knows the key. "Knowing the key" as a cognitive skill in its own right, though—being able to scan a passage and automatically and swiftly sift through appropriate visual cues—seems to me so fundamental that I am mystified why almost no textbooks seem to treat the subject. Perhaps the core of undergraduate common-practice pitch theory should be tonality rather than "harmony"—or, better yet, tonality and harmony. There is a difference.

Not only is knowing how to recognize keys important, but making distinctions between keys that are ambiguous and those that are clear-cut should be on the agenda too. Furthermore, the relationships among keys, their pacing, and their relative strengths and weaknesses (as measured by length and presence or absence of cadential realization) ought to be fully acknowledged in tonal analysis as well. A tonal plan consists of more than a superficial list of letter names without differentiation or nuance. In recent years, theoretical discourse in mental processing has proposed explanations of how groupings of pitch and rhythm can imply a tonal result. There is no reason why these theories cannot also be woven into undergraduate classrooms.

Concern about curricular design provides additional common ground between the teachers of yesteryear and today. For example, Merritt argues for tonal harmony and counterpoint forming a better basis for undergraduate studies than examples from the entire span of music history (impractical for time constraints) or from 20th-century repertoire alone (too many styles; too complex at a introductory level; and too difficult to distinguish between basic and peripheral topics and composers). Imbrie, on the other hand, identifies the controversy of "historical/stylistic" approaches vs. a "universals of music" framework as of crucial importance—a debate that must be revisited periodically by all thoughtful teachers—although he places, like Merritt, tone relations of the common-practice period (plus 16th-century counterpoint) at the heart of the curriculum. Boatwright identifies the physics of music (acoustics; tuning and temperament); tonal materials; rules of style; analysis; and theoretical techniques (particularly those that illuminate music history) as being of special significance.

Debate about the relative weighting of all these possibilities continues today. Nothing has been settled. In fact, trends, recurring cycles, and swings of the pendulum can be observed over the decades. Various fads come and go with each new change (or return) usually a reaction to perceived weakness in the reigning ideology. Even debate about what counts as a fad or a lasting improvement is ongoing.

An early call for comprehensive musicianship (CM) can be seen peeping through in these articles from an era ripe for curricular re-examination in all levels of music instruction. CM continues to color, if not dominate, the educational landscape today by reminding us of the interdependence of all categories of music study (theory, history, composition, performance, listening, teaching) even while recognizing the practical difficulties of mixing all the relevant strands. One of the most convincing testaments to the CM philosophy is the accumulative strength of the College Music Society whose very premise is based on the synergistic advantage of mutual support among individual music disciplines. Another emerging topic in its infancy back then was the concept of theory pedagogy as a worthy subject on its own. Merritt specifically mentions that teaching ought to be approached with the same urgency as research. And he would be gratified to know this specialty has blossomed during the intervening years.

A healthy flexibility of thinking can been seen in these articles. For example, Imbrie believes that choice of text, a particular teaching approach, or curricular emphasis is relatively inconsequential so long as a musical rationale is maintained. Musical insights can thrive (or not) in many kinds of pedagogical environments so long as genuine understanding is given priority over routine data collection. He also promotes the importance of the teacher over the method. It is the rapport between teacher and student that is telling. How the teacher models musicianship and shares personal musical experience ought to rank above rigid adherence to a prescribed teaching technique or course design.

And regarding addressing affiliated topics in separate courses (e.g., counterpoint and harmony) vs. combining them into a single unified class, Merritt wisely concludes it doesn't matter—only that the topics must be related. A distinction ought to be made, though, between true integration, a melding of associated elements (e.g., applying the principles learned in analysis to ear training—joining concept with percept), and correlation, a more mindless lock-step alignment of topics within the syllabus without credible interconnections ever being secured. Simply placing like subjects side by side within a class doesn't necessarily ensure that merger or assimilation will take place.

Additional topics that still seem relevant today include the proper preparation for incoming college theory students. The necessary experiential background is trimly summarized by Merritt: (a) habitual singing from childhood; (b) ability to play an instrument, especially the piano; and (c) sight reading—or as I call it, simply "reading." We don't describe reading the newspaper as "sight reading," and I think that processing musical notation should be expected in the same spontaneous manner we assume with words. Knowledge of rudiments is, of course, important too for potential college music majors and in recent years the Advanced Placement Program in Music Theory, through high school theory courses and college credit by exam, has helped thousands of young students be more ready for college.

Some future wishes from the past have been realized: (a) that more real music be used (Merritt); and (b) that theory and history books become more alike (Boatwright). Other goals (Merritt) have produced mixed results: (a) smaller classes; (b) stricter standards for passing; and (c) greater use of senior faculty for teaching undergraduates.


II. The Present

A curious omission in these articles is any commentary about aural skills. Boatwright briefly acknowledges the topic but then intentionally omits it. The significance of sonic elements as well as score study is frequently recognized, but treatment of sight singing and dictation as critical components of theory pedagogy, including its obvious relationships to written or analytical theory, is completely missing.

The governing tacit assumption evidently is that theory is based on a compositional/written model with performance aspects such as singing or keyboard harmony mysteriously ruled out. Admission that a pedagogical tradition (e.g., solmization systems) actually exists for converting sound to notation and notation to sound is overlooked. I am pleased to say nowadays that such a tradition is fully honored and, in fact, is continually being augmented through research.

Perhaps some of the increased interest in ear-training pedagogy is a by-product of the scholarly proliferation, in recent decades, of investigations about the perception and cognition of music—another aspect of music study that could barely have been glimpsed in the 60s. Just as full development of the equally tempered scale in past centuries required a corresponding discovery in mathematics for extracting the twelfth root of two, we now seem to require a fuller understanding of brain science to make concomitant application in teaching how to hear and produce music. Recent research has provided a welcome re-examination of commonly held assumptions and a corrective for numerous myths about the efficacy of long-favored learning processes and teaching techniques. It is so easy to coast on supposition and surmise. We should not underestimate, however, the contribution of common sense in aural teaching. Much of what we know to be true in our bones is, in fact, valid. Some things are sensed from self-critical personal experience and from objectively evaluating the feedback from our students' progress. Not everything has to be proven in an experiment. It is especially satisfying, though, when the harvest of science confirms our intuition and this is an important reason for supporting the research.

Translating the findings of lab research for practical use in the music classroom—an immense challenge—is now just beginning. A pedagogically beneficial vocabulary for describing some of the ways the mind and musical sounds interact is now being developed. Atomistic knowledge about how data bits of sound or artificially concocted aural examples in a laboratory operate, though, is often only distantly related to knowledge about how the more expansive and cumulative flow of real musical compositions is experienced, including not just the scientific understanding of psychoacoustics but the larger realm of human emotional repertoires and expressive resonance as studied in the philosophy of music, which, by the way, is also of expanding interest among theorists. This connection between mind, emotion, and music is aptly foreshadowed by Imbrie in his comment about listeners contributing to musical experience too. Our aesthetic involvement is an outgrowth of an encounter between a subject and an object. What we bring to the sounds through heredity, training, knowledge, temperament, psychological maturity, feelings, and mindset is as important as what the sounds bring to us.

The increasing influence of ethnomusicology has also spilled over into curriculum layouts and course content in theory since the earlier articles were written. I differentiate between world music, which is more literature oriented (the actual compositions of various cultures) and ethnomusicology, which is more philosophically oriented (asking the deeper questions like "what qualifies something as music?"). Both approaches are needed. The reasons for inclusion in choosing the music we study are obvious: (a) the expansion of the human mind and heart from exposure to multi-faceted compositional procedures and expressive evocations (the value of diversity); (b) increased understanding of one's more familiar repertoires through comparison and contrast with the "other" (enhanced appreciation of one's own culture); and (c) the thrill of discovering some really cool new pieces (love of music for its own sake). Even within our own familiar culture, new frameworks are being devised almost daily for examining all kinds of music (rock, pop, folk, jazz, classical, ethnic)—for considering the common ground and fluid borders between repertoires we used to think of as distinct and separate.

Like mushrooms in the night, the past several decades have witnessed the sprouting of numerous schools of analytical thought including semiotics, phenomenology, narratology, timbral studies, implication/realization models, set theory, and others. Some of these sophisticated analytical systems have permeated undergraduate classrooms and have shaped textbooks. Schenkerian techniques have been particularly influential in this way and with good reason. While it has not been the goal of many programs to actually teach this system in toto to beginning college students, a way of thinking about pitch relationships that honors horizontal as well as vertical factors has helped to promote our understanding of the unmistakably important principle that long-range connections between musical events can be as significant as adjacent ones. Local and global forces operate in a delicate, yet powerfully cooperative, interaction.

Other recent emphases in theory teaching emanate from the technological revolution: computer-assisted instruction; electronic keyboard labs; computer-composition studios; MIDI; notation software; on-line courses; distance learning; e-mail; e-books; CD-ROMs; CD recordings; laserdiscs; and DVDs. There is an urge for each new trend to overstate its benefits with an ensuing bandwagon effect until hype is overcome by reality. As far back as the 1950s, television was hailed as the savior of education and during the 60s and 70s teaching machines and programmed instruction were similarly viewed as panaceas. I remember when ear-training software was supposed to reduce the need for aural-skills classes. Then we heard about computer literacy and cultural literacy. Now it's the Web, the Internet, and even Internet2, which can transport a violin lesson intercontinentally with an eerily crystalline picture and sound. A complete Web university called is now offering courses without classrooms (or teachers?). Not Harvard indeed! Many pedagogical advances of past eras have taken a respectable place on the academic menu while others have vanished. Perhaps it's best to adopt an attitude of healthy skepticism toward all cure-alls for curricula, textbooks, methodologies, and ideologies. Time will tell what works best and how to integrate—remember my earlier definition—the new with the old.


III. The Future

There are other orientations found within music theory and within the yet larger domains of higher education or society that I would like to see infuse undergraduate music theory classes. I don't mean that these newer subjects should swamp the regular content but rather that they be folded gracefully into the natural habits of music study. In many cases a particular viewpoint could be presented as an aside or as an alternative way of thinking. Rarely is much extra time required to incorporate this wider range of options for understanding, problem solving, or candid reflection. It's just a matter of remembering to do it.

Such supplemental possibilities might include more emphases on the emotive or aesthetic qualities of music or on psychological manipulations such as suspense, surprise, drama, wit, poignancy, and denial or fulfillment of expectation. We shouldn't be embarrassed to identify examples of profound beauty or even to puzzle out the "why" of such instances. These discoveries need not be overly subjective if supported by tangible and relevant evidence from the score and if a convincing argument is marshaled for an individual interpretation, which can, in turn, be compared with other choices. Undergraduate theory too often unnecessarily restricts itself to the nuts and bolts of music (pasting labels) at the expense of attending to listener response. I think the two can be combined.

Such an approach implies considerably more writing or debating than is commonly found today. "Writing Across the Curriculum" is the buzz phrase for describing this educational vogue but it has not (yet) become a widespread practice in music theory. I don't mean library research papers should be assigned but simple practice in persuasion, even of just paragraph length, can be required. Or at least such polemics can be identified during class if not on paper. Making a reasoned case for a way of hearing or understanding musical function—learning how to be cogent and articulate or how to refute another view—is a skill that resonates far beyond the classroom or even the given subject. Heated, but informed, debate is not only a valid educational enterprise, but it's exciting too.

Even such a mundane and seemingly fixed activity as aural skills has much room for improvement and expansion. A much more encompassing agenda and comprehensive set of goals ought to be imagined. First on the list of problems is our current fetish with pitch, although more recently some increased interest in rhythmic pedagogy is appearing on the horizon. But beyond that, more creative materials need to be developed for exploring various tuning systems; timbral comparisons; judgements about performance nuances and subtleties (phrasing, articulation, inflection, tempo, rubato, attack and decay, dynamics, and vibrato); comparisons of differing interpretations of the same piece; musical texture and density (weight and transparency, not just melodic relationships); hypermeter; spatial distributions; imaging exercises; body language movement coordinated with sound; and so on.

Another topic that has not yet sufficiently infiltrated our teaching involves the relationship of analysis and performance. The subject often falls through the cracks as theory teachers assume it is being covered by the applied studio teacher and vice versa. It is also such an elusive, slippery subject. No convincing overall intellectual scaffolding has yet been assembled to demonstrate exactly the nature of this relationship. Most of the research tries, often unsuccessfully, to connect analytical insight with interpretational implication and is often delivered as a set of specific and sometimes contrived performance directions—a recipe. It is not so easy, though, to map theoretical discoveries directly onto a blueprint for performance or to explain the often undervalued but powerful role of intuition. But, nevertheless, I think more could be done. It is certainly a potent way to get out of the box by demonstrating theoretical relevancy to other parts of a student's training.

At a more rarified level, the philosophies of structuralism, deconstruction, postmodernism, and now post-postmodernism have been applied to music study. It is way beyond the scope of this article to enter the murky and contentious disputations on these subjects but I just mention them briefly as options for study, perhaps for more sophisticated undergraduate classes. Pluralism in thought (as well as in repertoires) now seems to rule. The possibility of multiple realities, not one, or of different kinds of truth, some of which may be social inventions, not eternal verities, could at least be mentioned simply to provoke thought, if not final answers, or as a way to learn how to ask good questions—the ultimate theoretical pursuit. Undergraduates should at least know of the existence of gender studies; controversies about the canon; reception theories; music as social, political, and ethical concern; ontology; competing value systems; changing performance traditions; multiple authenticities; and music as text, and that similar concerns are pursued in other fields, too (literature, art, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, psychology).

Considering this wealth of possibilities suggests that a major problem for future curriculum designers will circle around the issue of breadth vs. depth. We already have too many good choices to include in undergraduate theory. How can we possibly consider even more? Should we teach a restricted repertoire of concepts and literature in great detail or should we cover many things at the risk of superficiality? Perhaps in another thirty-five years, when a substantial body of 21st-century works will need to be covered, an update to this article will illuminate the dilemma.

Finally, a resource for improving theory teaching that should not be overlooked is the advancement of our own musicianship through self-development. Not all the available aids for progress are "out there" in a journal article such as this, a piece of machinery, a computer disc, the latest textbook, a curricular fad, a teaching gimmick, a pilot study, advice from a colleague, or a pedagogy workshop, although each of these can be helpful at the right time. Enlarging and continuously renewing our interior life through developing a rich experiential stockpile of sensation and contemplation is crucial too. And this is a lifetime project—one perhaps that is better furthered by ardent listening than sterile book learning. I am reminded of a question raised in philosopher Robert Pirsig's classic book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, about how to paint a perfect picture. His answer: "First, make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally." In a similar vein I might paraphrase by asking "How does one become an ideal theory teacher?" First, make yourself musical and then just teach naturally.

2720 Last modified on October 17, 2018