Defending Music Theory in a Multicultural Curriculum

October 2, 2006

Defending Music Theory in a Multicultural Curriculum1

Music theory has served as the foundation for undergraduate music curricula in the United States for much of the past century. Within many music departments, it has been used to introduce students with previous musical experience to the academic world of music—not only to music theory, but also to musicology and composition. During the past decade, however, music theory's central role in the music curriculum has been questioned by some scholars, in particular ethnomusicologists, and been the focus of debates within music departments, especially at liberal arts colleges and universities that attempt to foster multicultural awareness. At the heart of the debate is this question: What purpose does music theory serve within the music curriculum of an institution that does not purport to be a conservatory for Western art music? In this essay, I offer a vision of music theory's role in a multicultural undergraduate curriculum and offer a conceptualization of theory that goes beyond the alienation between theory's detractors (who advocate for the further elimination of theory courses from the music major) and its proponents (who fight to retain these courses in the curriculum without articulating a strong rationale for their presence).


Teaching Theory, Teaching Ethnomusicology

I approach this question as a music theorist who teaches the standard theory sequence for music majors at a liberal arts college. Although my own research interests lie outside the norms of standard music theory,2 like most other self-identified theorists, I believe in the pedagogical value of music theory. Like other theory pedagogues, I get excited by the subject, and I devote a great deal of thought to how to teach music theory to my students.

As a theorist who has done some ethnomusicological research and taught ethnomusicology courses, I find one remarkable similarity between the teaching of theory and ethnomusicology at various institutions of higher learning. At some institutions theory courses may be taught by non-theorists just as ethnomusicology courses may be taught by non-ethnomusicologists. Although most institutions regularly offer multiple courses in music theory and ethnomusicology,3 they do not necessarily have an instructor on staff with a doctorate in these fields. It is interesting to note that the similarity in teaching arrangement has contributed to very different attitudes about courses in these fields. Students often treat ethnomusicology courses, especially the introductory world music courses as if they were "non-serious" or "fun" courses. Several years ago, I taught an "Introduction to World Musics" class at a liberal arts college. The course required a tremendous amount of work, and even though most students did the work, learned something, and enjoyed the class anyway, one student obstinately refused to do the kind of work being asked and complained at the end because he thought the class should have been more about "grooving" to the music.4 Unfortunately, such an attitude is mirrored by some non-ethnomusicologists within music departments, who see ethnomusicology as the purview of the dilettante rather than the serious musician. Indeed, when such a musician teaches an ethnomusicology course, the intense negotiation with cultural difference that is at the heart of ethnomusicology remains absent from the classroom. In contrast to their reception of ethnomusicology courses, students often view music theory courses as "hard" courses and tend to treat them as a "duty" to be fulfilled.5 This view is certainly corroborated by the attitude of some theory teachers, often non-theorists who teach it as a burdensome duty. In addition to conveying their lack of enthusiasm, they may fail to communicate the musical intuition and conceptual rationale for the technical rules that are studied—thus passing on a limited view of music theory to future musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and composers. Therefore, for both ethnomusicology and music theory, superficial treatments of the subject often obscure the pedagogical objectives intended in these courses and negate the full potential for scholarly inquiry offered by these disciplines.


Universal Theory?

Within most liberal arts programs, theory courses familiarize students with Western music notation and the basic concepts that help explain and describe Western tonal music. These courses also teach the rudiments of Western tonal composition and analysis. Hence, for scholars and students whose interests lie outside the Western canon, music theory courses can, on the surface, appear peripheral. Indeed, responding to the changing demographics of the student body and expanded curricular needs of music departments, the theory sequence has been cut in most liberal arts institutions from 3-4 years to 2 years or less. In the College Music Society's 2000 survey of the theory curriculum at schools nationwide, the majority of the schools surveyed required only 2 years of theory:


2000 CMS Survey of 248 Institutions: Years of Music Theory Required6

1 year 11
1.5 years 9
2 years 125
2.5 years 29
3 years 35
>3 years 16

Although some schools still require the three or four years that are traditionally expected of a music major, most of these typically tend to be conservatories or schools of music with a student body that have matriculated specifically to study Western art music [Table 1].


Table 1

Music Theory and Ear Training: Years of Study Required Beyond Fundamentals
at selected universities, colleges, and conservatories

Tonal theory
& analysis2
Tonal ear
20th century
theory &
Florida State University (BM) 34 2 01
Cleveland Institute of Music 3.5 2 0.25
Juilliard School 3 4 1
Peabody Conservatory 2.5 2.5 0.5
University of Michigan School of Music 2.5 2.5 0
Eastman School of Music 2.5 2 0
USC School of Music 24 (2.5) 2 0
Indiana University 22.5 2 0.5


Harvard University 2.5 or 3 1 0.0 or 0.5
Columbia University 2 2 0
Cornell University 2 2 0
Florida State University (BA) 2 2 0
University of Pennsylvania 2 1.5 0
Yale University 1.5 or 2 1 0.0 or 0.5
UC Berkeley 1.5 1.5 0


Swarthmore College 2.25 2 (credit optional) 0.25
Colby College 2 22.5 0
Colorado College 2 2 0 .5 non-Western theory
Pomona College 1.5 1.5 0.25
Scripps College 1.5 1.5 0.25
Williams College 1.5 1.5 0.5
Carleton College 1 1 0 .5 composition


1These numbers were calculated by the author from the information on the schools' websites (July 2006), with the exception of CIM's information, supplied courtesy of Richard Nelson.
2These numbers include required upper division electives in theory. For BM degrees at conservatories, the requirements vary by major (composition vs. piano vs. voice).

At the other end of the spectrum, a few colleges have given up on the traditional music major and have opted to require only one year or less of music theory. At the very least, most liberal arts institutions have had to compress the traditional three to four years of tonal harmony, form and analysis, counterpoint, and twentieth-century theory into one and one-half to two years of a condensed curriculum.7 For example, Pomona College in Claremont, California shortened its theory sequence from four years (or eight semesters) to three years in 1970, then to two and one-half years in 1975.8 In 1991, the theory sequence was shortened again to one and one-half years of tonal theory plus some theory and analysis in a twentieth-century course. Similarly, at neighboring Scripps College, the music major (concentration) required three years of music theory until 1983, when the theory sequence was condensed to two years.9 It was shortened again in 2004, when the sequence became one and one-half years of tonal theory plus some theory and analysis in a twentieth-century course. Although many theory teachers lament the shortening of the theory sequence, others still see theory as taking up more than its fair share of the music curriculum. After all, in a liberal arts setting, a course such as "Women in Music" or "World Music" or "Introduction to Ethnomusicology" may seem as important as the traditional topics in theory and history.

Recently some theorists and ethnomusicologists have tried to reconcile this opposition by proposing changes to theory courses to make them more multicultural, and their proposals have ranged from a perfunctory inclusion of non-Western music to a complete re-design of the theory curriculum. One of the special topics of the October 2003 joint meeting of the College Music Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology was "teaching music theory from a cross-cultural perspective." Multiple panels at this conference discussed the intersections of theory and ethnomusicology [Table 2], and several papers proposed ways in which one might develop a more generalized theory curriculum that would allow for the integration of Western and non-Western musics.


Table 2

Presentations on the Intersections of Theory and Ethnomusicology at 2003 CMS/SEM/ATMI Conference "Cultural Crossroads"


Forum: Bridging Modes of Thought in Ethnomusicology and Music Theory
Marianne Killian-Gilbert, chair
Frank Gunderson, Sumarsam, Michael Tenzer, Mark Lochstampfor, Fred Maus, and Allyn Reilly, presenters


Panel: Listening to Theories of Music
Rene T.A. Lysloff, chair
"Teaching Music Theory Through Music Practice," Bonnie Wade
"Africanizing Music Theory," Martin Scherzinger
"Using and Delimiting Music Theory," Fred E. Maus
"Worlding Music Theory," Rene T.A. Lysloff


Panel: Intersections of Music Theory and Ethnomusicology
Brenda Romero, chair
"The Social Model Theory of Disability in the Case of Composer Richard Wagner," Alex Lubet
"Four Essential Topic Areas in World Music Theory," Jonathon Grasse
"Panpipes as an Instrument of Learning: Broadening the Cultural Praxis of 'Music Fundamentals'," Paul Humphreys
Discussion: Brenda Romero


Workshop: "The Argentine Tango and the Pedagogy of Music Theory and Culture," Kristen Wendland


Other "Music Theory" Presentations in the 2003 SEM Program


Panel: Mode, Musicianship, and Composition
Scott Marcus, chair
"How to spin a good Horo: Melody, Mode and Musicianship in the Composition of Bulgarian Dance Tunes," Donna A. Buchanan
"Patriarchino chant: a repertory on the borderline of written and oral tradition," Paola Barzan
"The Grand and Majestic: Ujo in P'ansori Performance," Ju-Yong Ha


Panel: Stylistic Portraits in Improvisation, Spontaneous Composition, and Variation
Stephen Blum, chair
"Performance Styles of a Bukharian Singer," Evan Rapport
"Hariprasad Chaurasia and Nityanand Haldipur: Stylistic Differences within a Gharana," Carl Clements
"¡Lo tuyo no rima na'!: Current Trends in Salsa Vocal Improvisation," Benjamin Lapidus
Discussion: Stephen Blum

In particular, ethnomusicologist Bonnie Wade proposed an example of such a theoretical framework that allows students to approach all musics from more general and ostensibly culturally neutral categories such as pitch, time, instruments, etc. Her presentation basically reflected the approach used in her newly published "fundamentals" textbook, Thinking Musically: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture.10 Wade's textbook is refreshing in that it presents Western tonal music, both classical and non-classical, as one of many musical possibilities and attempts to address cultural context (the "why" of music making as well as the "how") at various points throughout the book. Nonetheless, she uses examples from European Western art music as the points of reference in each chapter, and she never questions the categories of instruments, time, pitch, and structure that define her model for musical organization. In particular, her presentation of the revised Sachs-Hornbostel system of instruments as the "international classification" shows an adherence to a quasi-universalist approach to music study.11 Within introductory music classes, Wade's approach to music theory certainly makes pedagogical sense since most liberal arts students enter the classroom with little formal musical training and with a vague familiarity with many different musical cultures. But using such an approach to supplant a more specific theory curriculum is a different matter.12

On the surface, a repertory-nonspecific approach to theory sounds like a good compromise solution and may even sound utopian, but it is highly problematic when viewed in relation to the pedagogical goals of both theory and ethnomusicology. Music theory practiced in general, universal terms is often vague and unsatisfying, because it is the in-depth investigation of a musical culture that produces understanding and interested engagement. At its most effective, music theory deals with the conceptual, technical, and formal details that define a music's sound, style, and aural interpretation. All music scholars, including ethnomusicologists and historical musicologists, deal on some level with theoretical and analytical issues in their research, sometimes even formulating a new vocabulary and creating entire theoretical systems in order to better explain a musical repertory or musical practice. Such a case could easily be demonstrated among jazz scholars in the United States and scholars of traditional music in India, Iran, Korea, and Japan, among others. A generalist theoretical approach, then, such as that proposed by Wade for undergraduate classes, can be useful as an introductory study of musical sound (as in a class dealing with musical fundamentals), but ultimately a specific vocabulary and culturally and/or historically contingent analytic techniques are necessary to study any particular music in depth.

Even aside from the specificity required for a deep understanding of any musical culture, the notion that one could use any overarching analytical method to describe all musics is also highly problematic. A theoretical method that purports to address all music equally still establishes the modes of descriptions and criteria for measurement that work more or less well with particular music cultures. In addition, it invites superficial, often spurious comparisons by students who are eager to apply their newly acquired knowledge in less than enlightened ways. One could even contend that any "universal" or utopian theory of this kind is ethnocentrically Western.13 Indeed, many worthy theories of music become problematic when they start to claim universality. I will discuss briefly two cases in which the notion of "universality" has become a problem within music theory:


Case One: Schenkerian Analysis

Schenkerian analysis is a standard method used by theorists that is often reviled by non-theorists and even by some theorists who have never studied it (or studied it only superficially) but who could easily point to some of its more questionable claims. Nevertheless, many very thoughtful and musically talented theorists continue to use this form of analysis because it offers a meaningful engagement with some Western art music and gives a conceptual framework for this repertory that is certainly more explanatory than other types of analysis. Schenkerian theory is, in a sense, part of the musical cosmos of many American-trained theorists, and it informs how they listen to and study music. A famous example of a Schenker graph is Heinrich Schenker's own graph of "Prelude in C" from J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier I.14 In this particular case, the graph works particularly well in explaining the piece, because a prelude, by definition, is supposed to prolong the harmony of a tonal area in various melodic and harmonic ways—which is what Schenkerian analysis does at the most fundamental level. Schenkerian analysis becomes harder to apply to European repertory where some of the basic assumptions and values embedded in Schenkerian theory are put into question.15 Applying Schenkerian structures to non-Western musics goes one step further in taking this theory completely out of its original context. Schenkerian analysis of West African musics may be possible to do and may even constitute an interesting analytic exercise, but such analysis requires multiple intermediary steps in order to accomplish.16 First of all, one needs to transcribe the music into a written score even if it were produced and conceptualized without one, and by doing this, one gives a priori privileged status to written versus non-written music. Second, one needs to strip Schenkerian theory of many of its nuances of meaning and details of value judgements that make it such an effective and interesting analytic tool for the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Chopin. Ultimately, it is unclear what value a Schenkerian analysis of West African music would have for non-Schenkerians.


Case Two: Analysis of European Art Music before 1700

Fifteen years ago, a music scholar might have asserted (without fear of argument) that until the twentieth century, music theorists were not able to explain adequately the music of their own time. The belief that "theory lags behind practice" was commonly accepted by most scholars who studied European art music before 1700. Looking through the lens of Riemannian chordal analysis, many historians and theorists listened to and analyzed earlier repertories with vocabulary and techniques developed for later music and dismissed the ways in which musicians wrote about their own music. In other words, scholars rejected an "emic" understanding of the music because it was considered inferior to modern standard conventions of analysis and description.17 This is perhaps akin to the way that early twentieth-century anthropologists did not pay much attention to a culture's own understanding of itself because that emic understanding was considered "unscientific" and "biased." But just as anthropology has become wary of claims of etic "objectivity" in the past fifty years, music theory as a field during the last fifteen years has come to accept the notion that the discipline needs to work with historically contingent theories and analytic methods.18 Thus, most theorists and musicologists no longer talk about keys or functional harmony in relation to sixteenth or early seventeenth-century polyphony. Even if some elements from standard theory are employed it is usually done with a nuanced understanding of the historic musical practice, and one no longer naively assumes that conventional analytic methods can be applied equally to music of all periods.

In a music curriculum that is being stretched thin by competing interests, it may seem inviting to change the small details of a theory course such as including non-Western musics and non-canonic repertories to placate the critics. Such a change has already taken place in some new music appreciation textbooks where each chapter may include music from a non-Western culture to amplify a concept covered in the chapter.19 Although such inclusions can be well-intended, this "inclusive" approach gives Western music theory a "universal" omnipotent status and subsumes all musics under the theoretical umbrella of Western art music. A more generalized theory curriculum, on the other hand, robs music theory of its pedagogical value: to teach students the importance of grappling with theoretical concepts and particular technical details in their specific musical context. What is necessary is not so much a change of specific topics or repertories taught in a theory class, but rather a reconceptualization of music theory's role within the overall music curriculum.


The Role of Music Theory Pedagogy in a Liberal Arts Curriculum

A legitimate question remains: "In a curriculum that claims to have the ideals of multiculturalism at heart, how does one justify the almost exclusive study of Western classical music in a required theory class?" This question has troubled many music departments, and a few have devised solutions to address it. The University of California at Riverside adopted one solution by opting to offer two music majorsone akin to a traditional music major that focuses on Western art music, and another that emphasizes ethnomusicology.20 By contrast, the University of Virginia music department decided to overhaul its music major completely so that a student is only required to take two introductory courses plus one course in each of theory, history, ethnomusicology, and composition, with the remainder being left up to the student.21 Both are interesting solutions that may work well for these particular institutions. For many small departments, however, it is not logistically possible to offer separate music majors. Nor do most college music teachers want to give up the pedagogical rigor and coherence of a more comprehensive theory curriculum. Thus one returns to the question posed above which asks the pedagogue to justify the seemingly inextricable relationship between music theory and Western classical music. I offer several answers to that question here—none of which are completely satisfactory, but compelling nonetheless in their own way.

First, Western classical music is an excellent repertory for the detailed analytic study of music. This answer may seem facile at first, but in practical reality this argument is not so easy to dismiss. If one is to teach music theory to students, one needs to find a repertory with a highly-developed theoretical apparatus for pedagogical use, and Western classical music conveniently has a sophisticated theory pedagogy already in place within the academy. Of course, other musics such as those of India, Indonesia, China, Japan, Korea, and American jazz also have highly sophisticated theoretical constructs accompanying them. Indeed, in schools where another particular musical repertory is the focus of study, other theoretical systems are taught with equal emphasis.22 The Berklee College of Music in Boston emphasizes contemporary music, particularly jazz; thus the theory curriculum there focuses on jazz theory. Although traditional music theory is also taught, jazz theory is given the place of prominence. The music department at Wesleyan University, with its considerable resources, is able to offer the traditional upper-level theory courses in Western art music and in-depth theory courses in jazz improvisation, South Indian music, and computer music.23 In short, if one could realistically offer an in-depth theory curriculum with another repertory as the focus, such a curriculum could accomplish many of the same goals as the standard theory sequence. Thus, in a liberal arts setting, the relationship of music theory to Western art music should not be that of using theory to privilege this particular repertory above others, but rather that of utilizing this repertory with its established theoretical apparatus as the basis for a detailed analytical study of music.

Second, it is possible to find meaningful connections between the vocabulary and concepts covered in a theory class and jazz, show tunes, and popular music. Most recent theory textbooks include examples of jazz, show tunes and popular music in order to show the connections between theoretical concepts and these other repertories more familiar to some students [Table 3]. One notices in particular the Ellington standards, the Beatles songs, and the show tunes by Rodgers, Porter, and even the ubiquitous Lloyd Weber. The link is strongest, perhaps, for older show tunes, because they feature not only standard harmonic progressions, but also linear and melodic compositional techniques akin to those found in Classical music. At the very least, jazz, show tunes, and popular music occupy a musical space that overlaps in significant ways with the one for which the music pedagogy is intended.


Table 3

Examples of Non-Traditional Musical Examples in Recent Theory Textbooks

Jane Piper Clendinning and Elizabeth West Marvin, The Musician's Guide to Theory and Analysis (2004) Robert Gauldin, Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music, 2nd ed. (2004) Miguel A. Roig-Francoli, Harmony in Context (2003) Stephen Jablonsky, Tonal Facts and Tonal Theories (2005)
Joplin, "Pine Apple Rag" & "Solace"   12-bar blues progression   Ellington, "Don't Get Around Much Any More," "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart"   Howard, "Fly Me to the Moon"
    "Boogie" Blues   Ellington & Irving, "It Don't Mean A Thing"    
    Ellington, "Sophisticated Lady"   Ellington, Mercer & Strayhorn, "Satin Doll"    
    Joplin, "The Entertainer"   Howard, "Fly Me to the Moon"    
    Strayhorn, "Take the A Train"        
Arlen, "Over the Rainbow"   Arlen, "Over the Rainbow"   Arlen, "If I Only Had a Brain"   Arlen, "Over the Rainbow"
Gershwin, "I Got Rhythm" & "'S Wonderful"   Gershwin, "Fascinating Rhythm"   Bernstein, "Somewhere"   Berlin, "How Deep is the Ocean?"
Kern & Hammerstein, "All the Things You Are" & "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man"   Kern, "All the Things You Are" & "Long Ago and Far Away"   Blitzstein, "Mack the Knife"   Bernstein, "Tonight"
Kern & Harbach, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"   Mills, "Meet Me in St. Louis"   Gershwin, "Someone to Watch Over Me"   Gershwin, "Things Are Looking Up"
Livingstone & Hoffman, "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo"   Porter, "Every Time We Say Goodbye" & "I Get a Kick Out of You" Kern & Harbach, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" Kern, "All the Things You Are"
Lloyd Weber & Rice, "Don't Cry For Me Argentina"   Rodgers, "Bali Ha'i" & "You Are Too Beautiful" Lerner & Lowe, "Almost Like Being in Love" Kosma, "Autumn Leaves"
Menken & Rice, "A Whole New World"   Youmans, "Tea for Two" Lloyd Weber & Rice, "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" Mancini, "Moon River"
Rodgers & Hart, "My Funny Valentine"   Young, "Stella by Starlight" Porter, "Begin the Beguine" Richards, "Young At Heart"
Sherman, "Feed the Birds"     Rodgers & Hart, "Bewitched" Rodgers, "Bewitched," "Hello Young Lovers" & "If I Loved You"
Van Heusen & Burke, "Here's That Rainy Day"     Rodgers & Hammerstein, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" Warren, "There Will Never Be Another You"
Williams, "Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back     Webster & Jarre, "Somewhere, My Love"
Willson, "Till There Was You" Willson, "Goodnight My Someone" & "I Ain't Down Yet"
Lennon & McCartney, "Eleanor Rigby," "Norwegian Wood" & "Nowhere Man" Bishop, "Love Has Eyes" Feldes, Henley & Frey, "Hotel California"
McLean, "Vincent" Dylan, "Blowin' in the Wind" Harrison, "Something"
Myers & Freedman, "Rock Around the Clock" Harrison, "Something" John, "Candle in the Wind"
Lennon & McCartney, "You Never Give Me Your Money" Lennon & McCartney, "All My Loving," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," Got To Get You Into My Life," "Can't Buy Me Love," "A Hard Day's Night," "My Love" & "I Will"
Love & Wilson, "The Warmth of the Sun"
Melson, "Only the Lonely"
Neil, "Everybody's Talkin'"
C. Simon, "The Right Thing to Do"
Vance & Pockriss, "Tracy"
"Auld Lang Syne"   "America"   "The First Noel"   "Auld Lang Syne"
"Clementine"   "Annie Laurie"   "God Save the King"   "Danny Boy"
"Down in the Valley"   "Auld Lang Syne"   Foster, "Gentle Annie," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" & "Oh! Susannah"   "Frère Jacques"
"Frère Jacques"   "Blue Tail Fly"       "Greensleeves"
"Greensleeves"   "By Yon Castle Wa'"        
"Happy Birthday to You"   "The Carnival of Venice"        
"Hickory Dickory Dock"   "The First Noel"        
"Michael Finnigin"   "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton"        
"Merrily We Roll Along"   "Home on the Range"        
"My Country, 'Tis of Thee"   "Joy to the World"        
"Old Joe Clark"   "Little Brown Jug"        
"On Top of Old Smoky"   "The Minstrel Boy"        
"Pop Goes the Weasel"   "Oranges and Lemons"        
"Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"   "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms"        
"Wayfaring Stranger"   "The Rose of Tralee"        
    "Santa Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down"        
    "Scarborough Fair"        
    "The Star-Spangled Banner"        
    "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"        
    Arne, "Rule Britannia"        
    Foster, "Beautiful Dreamer"        
    Gruber, "Silent Night"        
Bartok, "Mikrokosmos (Bulgarian rhythms and scales)   "Cielito Lindo" (Mexican)       "Arirang" (Korea)
Chance, Variations on a Korean Folk Song   Flamenco Progression        
    Hungarian Folk Tune        

There are also practical considerations in terms of the student body. Liberal arts college students come in with an interest in multicultural studies and issues, but in terms of active musical experience, they come equipped with a varied knowledge of different forms of Western tonal music [Table 4].


Table 4

Musical Experiences of Students Entering Liberal Arts Colleges

As audience members:

CDs and music files downloaded from the web and shared with friends
Live performances by peers of rock, classical, and world musics
Live performances by professional musicians


As participants:

Musical Theater
Marching Band
Concert Band or Wind Ensemble
Jazz Band
Non-Western Ensemble
Garage Rock Band
Piano Lessons
Guitar (often self-taught)
Lessons on Another Instrument or Voice
High School AP Music Theory or Fundamentals Course
High School Music Appreciation Course


Of the various participatory activities listed, students are much more likely to have sung in a choir, played in a band, or taken lessons on a Western instrument than any other musical activity. Therefore most of the students interested in majoring in music come to college with experience in various types of Western tonal music and with the initial vocabulary and terms of negotiation already in place for a Theory I class. On the other side of the college timeline, for students who plan to pursue graduate studies in Western art music performance, theory, composition, or musicology, three or four semesters of theory is the absolute minimum necessary to cover enough material so that a musically talented student can converse with his/her peers at schools of music and conservatories. The learning curve for students in theory courses is such that it is only toward the end of the third or fourth semester that students acquire any depth of understanding and learn to teach themselves new theoretical concepts and make independent analytic decisions.

Another consideration is that the ear training or musicianship component of theory courses actually trains the ear and mind to differentiate pitch and rhythm, common components of almost all musical systems. Although the training occurs in one or two particular systems of Western musicianship, a student who has worked on and mastered those skills will usually do better in performing and listening to musics of different cultures. Musicians in other cultures, for example, tend to treat with more respect those who demonstrate facility and understanding in at least one other musical culture, and who, after the initial stage of incomprehension and incompetence, usually progress much faster than their non-musician counterparts.

But the most compelling reason why Music Theory (even with its object of study as Western art music) can work in a multicultural curriculum is because Western art music for the most part is completely alien to liberal arts students. Many theory teachers at liberal arts colleges spend their lives introducing students to the conceptual and technical niceties of a musical culture that is as much the music of the Other as Indian ragas.24 Even students with school band or choir experience come to college with very little exposure to classical music. Even if they've been exposed to it, they have not had to consider intellectually how the music was conceived or the reasons why it is structured as it is. By contrast to their self-acknowledged ignorance of the repertory used in a theory class, however, many students come in thinking they know the questions that they must ask and hence what they must learn in order to understand music. In such a case, which is the overwhelming majority at many liberal arts institutions, music theory courses serve as the technical, detailed study of a foreign musical culture that uses some familiar terminology and elements. It is within a theory class that these familiar terminology and elements are used to discuss music in ways unimagined before their entrance into the class. The process of studying this "foreign culture" hence has the potential to bring about a defamiliarization of common musical concepts (chord, melody, rhythm, meter, form) and give rise to situations in which students are forced to re-conceptualize their own musical world. In its best manifestation, undergraduate music theory is a culturally and historically specific study that conceptually opens a new world of music and defamiliarizes musical concepts and sounds they had previously taken for granted.

In practice, a theory class takes students beyond the simplistic labeling of chords with Roman numerals and mandates that they deal with the syntax of "classical music."25 In much of Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, musical practice was prescribed in terms of standard conventions, contrapuntal rules, and figured bass theory. Although Roman numerals were first coined in the late eighteenth century, they were not used widely as a prescriptive theory for musical composition until the latter part of the nineteenth century.26 Indeed, the combination of Roman numerals with figured bass notation and implied chord function is a useful analytic shorthand invented in the twentieth century. The months that a student might have spent copying out manuscripts to learn musical style can be done in less time by analyzing and studying the repertory with modern methods of analysis.27 Simple Roman numeral analysis by itself, however, does not require any depth of engagement with the music; thus an individual who learns all the labels and terminology may still not understand how the music works. Understanding a musical repertory requires immersion in the details of a musical language and musical practice. In the case of "classical music," this understanding requires immersion in a musical world in which counterpoint and particular musical forms play important roles and in which one must avoid parallel perfect intervals and retrogressive harmonic progressions—an immersion made possible by continued daily interaction in a theory classroom. In the end, classical music serves as the entity through which students learn what it means to engage in substantive music analysis.



It is often a struggle to get others in the United States, including those in the academy, to acknowledge that music and music making are serious objects of inquiry even though they may be fun. Ethnomusicologists suffer from this perception as do many musicologists and theorists. What music theory does in a liberal arts setting is to place students into a situation that forces them to question their assumptions about musical knowledge. Theory helps students to develop critical thinking skills unique to the study of music, and it brings about a different kind of critical thinking than would an ethnomusicology class. If an undergraduate ethnomusicology class challenges students' assumptions about such things as music's definition, its categories, the importance of performance context and social organization, the identification of meaningful sounds, and issues of ownership, then a theory class challenges students' notions about musical sound and organization, melodic and formal structure, the importance of conventions and patterns, and the process of creating music—and it does so by taking terms that most music majors had previously taken for granted and putting them into an alien context.

Music theory in a multicultural curriculum occupies an uneasy space between the competing interests of offering a multi-faceted study of music and allowing students to explore many different musical cultures versus exposing students to the process of learning music in its particular detail and defamiliarizing a musical world that students had taken for granted. At the present moment in liberal arts institutions, the detailed and painstaking engagement with music that theory pedagogy offers is still essential, and the theory developed for Western art music is still the most useful for most students. The detailed insider knowledge about music's organization and the development of listening and analytic skills are considered valuable for the study of any musical culture. Thus, even for students who may not want to specialize in Western art music, the process of learning that takes place in a theory classroom can be just as valuable for their development as music scholars. In a world where one could ostensibly own any musical product at the click of a button, the type of pedagogy that music theory can offer within a college classroom is perhaps more crucial now than ever before.



Ceulemans, Anne-Emmanuelle, and Bonnie J. Blackburn, eds. Thèorie et analyse musicales 1450-1650: Music Theory and Analysis. Louvain-la-Neuve: Départment d'histoire de l'art et d'archéologie de l'Université Catholique de Louvain, 2001.

Chafe, Eric. Monteverdi's Tonal Language. New York: Schirmer Books, 1992.

Clendinning, Jane Piper, and Elizabeth West Marvin. The Musician's Guide to Theory and Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

"Cultural Crossroads": The 48th Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology with The College Music Society. Hotel Intercontinental, Miami, Florida. October 1-5, 2003. Program of SEM Panels and Events.

Erlmann, Veit. "Resisting Sameness: À propos Kofi Agawu's Representing African Music." Music Theory Spectrum 25 (2004): 291-304.

Everist, Mark, ed. Models of Musical Analysis: Music before 1600. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Gauldin, Robert. Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music, 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

Hast, Dorothea, James Cowdery, and Stan Scott. Exploring the World of Music. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1999.

Hatch, Christopher, and David W. Bernstein, eds. Music Theory and the Exploration of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993.

Herisone, Rebecca. Music Theory in Seventeenth-Century England. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Jablonsky, Stephen. Tonal Facts and Tonal Theories. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 2005.

Judd, Cristle Collins, ed. Tonal Structures in Early Music. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

. Reading Renaissance Music Theory: Hearing with the Eyes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kerman, Joseph, and Gary Tomlinson. Listen, 5th ed. New York and Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003.

Littlefield, Richard, and David Neumeyer. "Rewriting Schenker: Narrative—History—Ideology." Music Theory Spectrum 14 (1992): 38-65.

Marcus, George E., and Michael M.J. Fischer. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Maus, Fred Everett. "Ethnomusicology, Music Curricula, and the Centrality of Classical Music." College Music Symposium 44 (2004): 58-67.

Nelson, Richard. "The College Music Society Music Theory Undergraduate Core Curriculum Survey - 2000." College Music Symposium 42 (2002): 60-75.

Owens, Jessie Ann. Composers at Work: The Craft of Musical Composition, 1450-1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Powers, Harold. "Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony." Journal of the American Musicological Society 34 (1981): 428-70.

Roig-Francoli, Miguel A. Harmony in Context. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003.

Schenker, Heinrich. Five Graphic Music Analyses, with introduction by Felix Salzer. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.

Wade, Bonnie C. Thinking Musically: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

1A preliminary version of this paper, titled "Defending Music Theory from Its Detractors (and Its Proponents): The Place of Music Theory in a Multicultural Music Curriculum," was delivered at the 2005 annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Southern California Chapter on February 26, 2005. I thank Ronald Rodman for reading a subsequent draft and providing me with multiple insightful and helpful comments.

2I am not a theorist that does Schenkerian analysis, set theory, or neo-Riemmanian theory, nor one that conducts analytic studies of high art European music of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries—which is what most American theorists do. My research interests lie instead in the areas of early music analysis and musical performances of national identity.

3It has become necessary for all institution granting degrees in music to offer both music theory and ethnomusicology courses, either for general education/enrollment purposes or for accreditation. The standards and guidelines presented in the 2005-2006 Handbook of the NASM (National Association of Schools of Music) for "liberal arts" baccalaureate degrees with majors in music give particular attention to "Musicianship studies":

  1. The ability to hear, identify, and work conceptually with the elements of music—rhythm, melody, harmony, and structure.
  2. An understanding of compositional processes, aesthetic properties of style, and the ways these shape and are shaped by artistic and cultural forces.
  3. An acquaintance with a wide selection of musical literature, the principal eras, genres, and cultural sources.
  4. The ability to develop and defend musical judgments. (NASM Handbook 2005-2006, p. 72)

Thus, for accreditation by NASM, a liberal arts institution must offer courses in traditional music theory and some courses that will expose the student to a wide selection of "cultural sources." In addition, the NASM guidelines specifically include the study of diverse musical cultures for the professional Bachelor of Music degree in Music History (NASM Handbook 2005-2006, p. 79). As a consequence, Western music conservatories have started offering courses that normally fall within the purview of an ethnomusicologist.

4This attitude is supported by a music industry that puts all the various world musics into one commercial category and promotes commodifiable sounds that people purchase for "groove" value without any understanding of origin, cultural context, performing practices, and sometimes even the type of instruments employed in performance. The commercial "world music" category, as defined by corporations such as Tower Records or Borders, includes such disparate musics as Korean kugak, Tuvan throat singing, African pop, mariachi, and new age albums such as "Deep Forest." Although some CD liner notes attempt to give information about the origins, cultural context, and structure of the music, many others promote the idea of "one world - one music" and purposefully eliminate such information. In the age of iPods and MP3s, even the context of the CD album disappears as listeners download individual songs off a list from the web.

5A colleague at another liberal arts college reported having a conversation with a student who identified music theory as the "O-chem" (organic chemistry) of the music major.

6Nelson, "CMS Music Theory Survey-2000."

7In particular, keyboard harmony and counterpoint have suffered in the compressions of the traditional theory curriculum. See Nelson, "CMS Music Theory Survey-2000."

8The author thanks Alfred Cramer for this information.

9The change took place between the 1981-1982 and the 1983-1984 Scripps College Catalog.

10The seven chapters of Wade's book are titled "Thinking about Music," "Thinking about Instruments," "Thinking about Time," "Thinking about Pitch," "Thinking about Structure," "Thinking about Issues," and "Thinking about Fieldwork." Another textbook which takes a similar approach by integrating an introduction to world music with fundamentals is: Hast, Cowdery, and Scott, Exploring the World of Music. In this textbook, chapters five through ten, titled "Rhythm," "Melody," "Timbre: The Color of Music," "Texture," "Harmony," and "Form," present the materials of music with both Western and non-Western examples. Like the Wade, this textbook also comes with accompanying audio recordings.

11Wade, Thinking Musically, pp. 33-36.

12In her attempt to be comprehensive, Wade can only provide a brief treatment of any one specific topic. For example, her treatment of Korean changdan (pp. 71-72) gives only a brief glimpse of these rhythmic cycles, but does not explain how they actually work within Korean traditional music. Since the chapter also addresses the topics of rhythm, Western concepts of meter, South Indian and North Indian Tala, Middle Eastern Rhythmic Modes, African polyrhythm, and speed (tempo), it would be difficult for the student to engage with any of these systems of organizing time in a meaningful manner. It would certainly be difficult to teach from this book unless the instructor were already conversant in these other musical cultures. Also, the student loses some of the musical intuition that would be gained from a study in which issues of time and pitch are treated simultaneously within the context of a larger body of musical repertory.

13One could argue that the search for universal music theories stemmed from the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Colonialist impetus toward a positivistic acquiring of knowledge.

14See Schenker, Five Graphic Music Analyses.

15The music of some late nineteenth-century composers such as Richard Wagner has features such as the ambiguity of key and the lack of overarching melodic lines in phrases and sections (both of which are fundamental to Schenkerian views of music). Hence, some scholars who have traditionally shown disdain for Wagner's music have used Schenkerian analysis to validate their opinion. As Richard Littlefield and David Neumeyer write, "Schenkerian analysis owes its entrenchment not only to the elegance of the method and the supposed insights it brings as a representation of music, but also to its presentation, its day-to-day 'pragmatic' function which forwards the ideology of a collection of professional interpreters." (Littlefield and Neumeyer, "Rewriting Schenker," pp. 48-49.)

16There are many other problems with applying this type of structural analysis to West African musics. See Veit Erlmann's review essay, "Resisting Sameness: À propos Kofi Agawu's Representing African Music." I would argue that for those whose musical thinking is shaped by Schenkerian theory, Schenkerian theory may influence their hearing of all music.

17I use the term "emic" here as in the anthropological emic/etic distinction. The emic/etic dichotomy was first coined by linguist Kenneth Pike in 1954 in reference to the phonemic/phonetic distinction, and it was subsequently adopted by anthropologists, and to a certain extent by ethnomusicologists. "Emic" generally refers to meanings, categories, and understandings internal to a culture and derived from that culture, whereas "etic" generally refers to those external to the culture, usually posing as scientific or universal for the purposes of cross-cultural comparison. However, as Marcus and Fischer wrote in 1986, "The epistemological critique of this distinction showed the invalidity of purely etic categories that somehow stand completely outside any culture-bound context" (Marcus and Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique, p. 180). Thus, the notion that one can work with culturally neutral "etic" categories has been debunked during the past quarter century. The concept of emic/etic was evoked in musicological literature by Harold Powers in his 1981 article, "Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony," where he made the distinction between etic tonal types and emic modal categories.

18A selected list of recent publications on early music analysis would include: Ceulemans and Blackburn, eds., Thèorie et analyse musicales 1450-1650; Chafe, Monteverdi's Tonal Language; Everist, ed., Models of Musical Analysis: Music before 1600; Hatch and Bernstein, eds., Music Theory and the Exploration of the Past; Herisone, Music Theory in Seventeenth-Century England; Judd, ed., Tonal Structures in Early Music; Judd, Reading Renaissance Music Theory; Owens, Composers at Work: The Craft of Musical Composition, 1450-1600.

19An example of this kind of inclusion can be seen in Kerman and Tomlinson, Listen, 5th ed.

20UC Riverside offers "Music" and "Music and Culture" majors which share some overlapping core courses including one year of tonal theory (, August 2006).

21Maus, "The Centrality of Classical Music," p. 62.

22Conservatories specializing in traditional music in countries such as Korea offer a curriculum that includes theory courses on the traditional repertory.

23 (August 2006).

24I thank Christi-Anne Castro for pointing out that the use of the "Other" also implies a disadvantageous position in a colonialist or imperialist power dynamic, and I acknowledge that my use of the term here is controversial. In the American academy, Western classical music certainly continues to enjoy a privileged position, and I use the term "Other" here in the sense of foreign, distant, and exotic. However, I would argue that within the larger musical culture, Western classical music has lost its status as the musical representative of the majority or the powerful. In the music industry, it occupies a tenuous space financed by a small minority of the population, and classical music is no longer identified immediately with the economic and social elite in the United States.

25I thank Ronald Rodman for pointing out that music could be conceived as a non-verbal, syntactical system that can be studied, analyzed, criticized, and evaluated like other systems of communication.

26Stufentheorie, or theory based on labeling the fundamental-bass of chords by their relation to the tonal center was theorized and propagated in Vienna during the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth centuries. Some prominent theorists of Stufentheorie are George Joseph Vogler (1749-1814), Johann Gottfried Weber (1779-1839), and Simon Sechter (1788-1867).

27Many theory pedagogues from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries advised students to learn from the masters by copying out their musical scores by hand.

4933 Last modified on October 4, 2018