This article was part of a Symposium entitled The Crisis in Theory Teaching. The other authors were A. Tillman Merritt, Howard Boatwright, and Milton Babbitt. Their articles also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 5.

This discussion intends to convey to our readers current ideas on the proper material for undergraduate and graduate theory courses. The contributors were asked to respond to the following questions:

(1) In view of the great advances made in recent years in composition, do you think that "traditional" harmony, counterpoint, etc., are still essential to the training of a music student?

(2) Or do you feel that these courses are outmoded and need to be replaced with new curriculum concepts?

The Editor will welcome comments from readers on this subject.


I do not know when the word "theory" first came to mean the study of the musical fundamentals of harmony, counterpoint, and fugue. It seems a strange term to apply to a discipline presumably designed to develop a student's mastery of a craft. One doesn't learn to swim by studying the theory of swimming. When Beethoven stopped studying counterpoint with Haydn and turned instead to Schenk and Albrechtsberger, it was surely not because these latter understood more theory than Haydn did; it was, rather, because Haydn failed to provide the discipline Beethoven knew he needed. That is, Haydn simply allowed too many errors to pass uncorrected.

Perhaps our present tendency to regard the fundamentals as "theory" may have something to do with the spirit of our times. No longer, it seems, can a craft be handed down from master to disciple in the same way as in Beethoven's time. And even Beethoven displeased his teacher Albrechtsberger by questioning the rules at every turn; yet despite this, he executed hundreds of strict exercises with meticulous care. Today it is the teachers who question the rules.

This, of course, is quite understandable. We have become style-conscious to a point where it is possible to entertain the notion that the rules are nothing more than statistical generalizations. Faced with a choice of styles from many different times and places, we can observe that whereas parallel fifths are "infrequent" in Bach or Webern, they are "typical" of organum and French impressionism. Everything becomes relative. Robbed of any convictions about the matter, we discover that the safest way to teach is by the historical-statistical method. The student becomes a kind of computer which is programmed to produce imitations of this or that "common practice period." The student's acquiescence in this rôle is secured on the ground that the study of a style is an end in itself: i.e., that the study of "modal counterpoint" leads to an understanding of the 16th century, or the study of "traditional harmony" to that of the 18th or 19th. After all, we ask, what other purpose could such study serve, since 20th-century music no longer exhibits these stylistic norms? But even the 20th century itself has become the victim of the new academicism: there are handbooks which attempt to codify procedures drawn indiscriminately from many recent sources to produce a kind of do-it-yourself compilation of recipes for the up-to-date aspirant in composition.

This eclectic pedagogy has, of course, been challenged by an opposing group of textbook-writers, essentially on the ground that it is not sufficiently theoretical. What is needed, they claim, is a kind of "unified field theory" applicable to all styles and periods. Mere observation of the statistical frequency of a given procedure at a given time and place does not penetrate the surface of the music; it does not answer the question "why?." The search for an absolute standard against which to measure divergent types of music has led to some fascinating and useful formulations, beginning with Hindemith's and continuing through some of the latter-day attempts to broaden the base and the application of Schenker's analytical system. But, inevitably, the broader the spectrum of styles included, the less specific and incisive becomes the theoretical justification. What becomes apparent, rather, is that even the most ingenious theory exhibits the same human failing on the part of its creator as do the compositions of the masters whose music it attempts to measure: i.e., each theory betrays its author's unconscious preferences and those of his time and place—each theory, in short, has a style.

This difficulty, too, has been recognized, and has led to another and opposite reaction on the part of theorists. If there can be no objective standard against which diverse procedures can be measured, is it not better to abandon the attempt to find one? Especially in the 20th century, there are so many methods of organizing the musical raw-material—some of them very explicitly schematized by the composers themselves—that it is very tempting to approach music from a radically ad hoc standpoint. Thus, for example, Alan Forte makes the following statements in his analytical treatise Contemporary Tone Structures:

A musical composition is essentially an indivisible structure, a complete, highly integrated system. . . . A musical structure is a complex of ordered and interrelated tonal events which unfold in time. . . . A major feature of this study . . . is that it attempts to discover the structural premises and postulates of individual compositions without recourse to a pre-established theory. Each work is examined in its own terms, according to its own structural premises.

Aside from certain logical difficulties (for example: in what sense can we speak of a system as having "structural premises" which can be discovered "without recourse to a pre-established theory?" Surely the decision as to how or whether something is ordered or integrated presupposes a theory of what constitutes order), one is struck by a rather far-reaching implication. If the examination of each work purely "in its own terms, according to its own structural premises" is to yield fruitful analytical (and, presumably, pedagogical) results, it must assume that a listener is capable of hearing a work likewise "in its own terms, according to its own structural premises." To a certain extent, this is, of course, true: we do not expect a Bach fugue to turn suddenly into a Beethoven scherzo, or even, for that matter, into a different Bach fugue with a different subject. A measure of the greatness of a work of art is its unique character—with all that this word implies. Nevertheless, the insistence on the avoidance of pre-established theory implies that the experience which the listener brings with him to the apprehension of the piece of music under discussion is unimportant. The listener's mind—as far as his appreciation of the piece is concerned—is a blank, a tabula rasa on which the composer inscribes his runic message. The key to this message is supplied by the message itself; and when deciphered, the message refers, again, only to itself. The music presupposes no past, and the experience of other music cannot help the listener in any significant way.

The theorist who adheres to the conception of musical systems as self-enclosed must, presumably, when faced with the problem of teaching harmony and counterpoint of the "traditional" kind, regard such studies in the same light: as the exploration of a fascinating mechanism whose historical importance warrants such study, but which can have no application to the problems of today. And we find ourselves back on the stylistic merry-go-round.

Before discussing the question of how or whether "traditional" counterpoint, harmony, and fugue should be taught today, I wish to urge that the remarks made above not be taken to signify a rejection of all the textbooks and treatises written from one or another of the points of view mentioned. On the contrary, there are some excellent ones, including the work of Forte specifically alluded to. My plea, rather, is for a grain of salt.

A foolproof theoretical foundation for the study of the fundamentals is not going to be found—thank heaven. Theory has made, and will continue to make, invaluable contributions to pedagogy; but theory is not and cannot be perfect. Nor need it be, in order to serve its purpose. Fux thought he was imparting the secrets of the Palestrina style, yet the scholarly studies of Jeppesen have shown how far Fux was from this ideal. This fact did not, however, prevent Beethoven from acquiring mastery through the study of Fux's text. Not mastery of Palestrina's style, or even Fux's; but mastery of Beethoven's.

I believe that species counterpoint, triadic harmony, and fugue should be taught today. I believe that it is useful to base these studies on the music of the 16th, 18th, and 19th century masters—not with a view to exact imitation, but with a view to hearing and understanding what happens when tones are placed in relation to one another. I have been told that Ernest Bloch used to say to his students: "We will now take a lesson from Mr. Bach." This implies an initial act of faith, without which I believe that learning cannot take place. That is to say: one must begin by trusting Mr. Bach. To understand, one must emulate; emulation is based on love, not on coercion or even on reason.

I believe (as an article of faith, if you will) that despite our cosmopolitan attitudes and historicizing sensibilities, we are still the direct heirs of the Western musical tradition; and that once the music of the great masters has entered our blood-stream, we cannot choose to discount it. This music surrounds us on all sides and compels our love. It affects our modes of hearing, and hence our way of composing. Whatever we do as composers is in some sense conditioned by this music. We must hear our way through it and build upon it. While our students are acquiring technical skill, we must be sure that they are also acquiring an intimate familiarity with a good number of masterpieces—not as examples of historical trends, but as masterpieces. Some of these, incidentally, should be chosen from the 20th century.

I believe that as teachers we should operate under the assumption that every student is a potential composer. The emphasis should be on the effects that he, the student, is producing, and the control that he is learning to exert over the material. I am profoundly suspicious of what is sometimes called the "creative approach," in which the student is invited to compose "freely" before he has learned to control his material. Self-expression cannot be achieved without discipline.

I consider it relatively unimportant which textbook a teacher uses, or which of several alternative methods. I, personally, for example, do not feel that counterpoint studies need concern themselves greatly with the various ecclesiastical modes; but there are those who feel strongly that these are important. The students stand only to gain if the teacher succeeds in communicating his conviction about the musical (as opposed to the historical or ideological) importance of any aspect of his materials. There is more than one stairway to Parnassus.

It is ultimately the relation between student and teacher that counts. Obviously, classes should be small, especially at the beginning. The core of the course of study should be the students' written assignments, and the utmost care should be given to correcting them and returning them promptly. The teacher should illustrate frequently at the keyboard, quoting examples from the literature wherever possible from memory, or inventing passages on the spot to illustrate his points. The teacher should also occasionally write his own exercises for the students (melodies to harmonize, basses, fugue subjects, etc.)—preferably at the blackboard, without prior preparation. He should, in short, show by personal example what a trained musician should be able to do as a matter of course.

Naturally, students are going to ask the question "why?," and the teacher must be prepared. Thus, it is essential for the teacher to have familiarized himself with the important theoretical explanations which have been advanced, and impart pertinent aspects of these to the students, together with whatever insights he himself can bring. It is crucial that the student be allowed to evaluate for himself the basis of his musical education, without slighting his technical training. The acquisition of discipline and the development of a critical attitude need not contradict one another, but rather will stimulate one another if the student is constantly reminded by precept and example of the lofty goals for which he is striving. For it is nothing less than the dignity of true craftsmanship that he should aspire to. Even the musician who has no intention of becoming a composer should have the experience of knowing what it is like to learn the fundamentals. His understanding of the music of any given style and period will be the greater if it is regarded as a by-product rather than as the chief goal of this study. For he must first know what it is like to get his hands dirty with the materials from which masterpieces are wrought.

As for the student who wants to be a composer, he desperately needs—especially today—this kind of first-hand knowledge of what he inherits from the past, in order to steer a clear course through uncharted waters. Only through this knowledge—as much "visceral" as intellectual—can he evaluate the wholesale iconoclasm which surrounds him. If he chooses to reject his heritage, or any part of it, he will at least know what he is rejecting. More likely, however, he will, by. acknowledging his debt to the past, learn what it is to be truly free.

2167 Last modified on November 14, 2018