Some Observations on Instruction in Music Theory

October 1, 1966

This article was part of a Symposium entitled
Trends in Music Teaching.

This discussion intends to convey to our readers current ideas on the newer trends in the teaching of music.

Three of the articlesMusic Education is Coming of Age by Daniel Schuman, Teaching Children to Read Music by Charles Heffernan, and A New Curriculum for Secondary General Music by Bennett Reimerdeal with aspects of instruction in music pedagogy. This article comments on the future of conventional theory teaching. The Editor will welcome observations from readers on this subject.

All four articles appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 6.


Up until the last war it still could be maintained with some justification that a knowledge of harmonic and tonal procedures developed by composers of the "common practice" period, from approximately 1675 to 1875, could be employed directly, albeit with certain extensions, in the composition of music. The justification lay in the work of respected contemporary composers: the Symphony in C of Stravinsky, the Ludus Tonalis of Hindemith. The abandonment in the postwar years of such tonalizing reconstructions has reduced the immediate or living force of tonality to insignificance, with the consequence that the study of tonal practices has become an unequivocally historical one. Faced with this fact, what is the instructor of theory to do if he wishes to restore some relevance to current practices?

It should be clear that a consideration of extensions of tonality, followed according to their chronological appearance, will not resolve the question. Proliferation of unresolved appoggiature, a constant shift of tonal center, bi- and polytonality, a universal and undifferentiated dominantal sound, are of negative rather than positive import. They are characteristic of the disintegration of the system rather than its elaboration. Simili modo, their use as a foundation for theoretical training in a more nearly contemporary style will tend to result in a breakdown of technical discipline and control, rather than its increase.

It is the positive aspects of musical construction, the elements that contribute to the healthy bone structure of the musical organism, which must be inculcated, not the sluggish residue of earlier growth that may still cling to it. These elements are of a more primary quality, and they can be observed as a generative force throughout the course of music history, subsisting through the vagaries of stylistic change.

This realization helps to account for the seemingly anomalous validity of the instruction in counterpoint imparted by Fux. The results of this study will not lead to composition in the style of the 16th century masters, on whom he claimed it to be founded, nor will it lead to composition in an early 18th century style, to which it has a certain affinity. It occupies a never-never land, and this very fact puts it above stylistic contingency. Many of the matters with which Fux deals are truly fundamental, since they are concerned with principles of pitch succession, intervallic relationships, and controlled independence in musical thought. These principles likewise have served the composers of the most vital music of the 20th century, and, indeed, in such a composer as Webern are manifested in almost purely skeletal form.

Beyond these primary technical levels there lies motivic manipulation, permutation, and variation. Rigorous exploration of these procedures has been undertaken by Bach; the results are available in his chorale preludes, inventions, and fugal writing. The parallelism, and purtenance, to recent musical thought is easily demonstrated; it would be sufficient to compare the motivic manipulation of a chorale prelude such as In dich hab' ich gehoffet with that found in the Sonatine for flute and piano of Boulez, or in his first two piano sonatas.

Such considerations would seem to indicate that an assimilation of particular aspects of early 18th century theory and practice would provide a fitting and appropriate preparation for similar aspects of 20th century practice. Furthermore, this should continue to be true as long as the style of the earlier period remains more easily accessible to the young musician in search of training. Complementary support for this derives also from the fact that there is not yet a codified, or even codifiable, 20th century "style", though one has seemed to be coalescing in recent years out of the divergent experiences of the earlier part of the century.

Training in the manipulation of musical material could then consist of two parts. The first would consist of the preparatory assimilation just described, for fundamental technique. The use of Baroque dance movements or Haydenesque sonata movements cannot make a significant contribution because of their dependence on superficial stylistic criteria peculiar to their time. Musical thinking fundamental enough to transcend stylistic considerations can still be developed through the chorale prelude, the invention and fugal writing, which have remained central to compositional technique. The second part of this training would transfer, through a change in stylistic coordinates and perhaps an extension of field, these thought processes to procedures that may specifically be adopted in a contemporary idiom. A young man with compositional bent will discover that he can manipulate, in an advanced style, intervallic and motivic structures, rhythmic and dynamic orders, or collections of pitches with a considerable degree of awareness of what he is doing, an awareness that makes possible musical meaning.

It is the second part of this training that remains, to-day, exploratory, at least to a degree. The method to be followed, however, may yet be derived from Fux. A single line, for example, may first be called for, to be composed according to intervallic and rhythmic prescriptions that will approximate contemporary practice. This can lead to intervallic pitch and durational series and their permutations, whether in combination or fragmentation, and motivic manipulation and variation, all of which can subsequently be investigated on the basis of previously acquired technique.

Implicit in such training is the supposition that the necessity for preliminary familiarity with these musical principles as they are embodied in early 18th century practice will become gradually less acute. When they can be imparted effectively in the building of compositional technique within a viable and codified contemporary idiom, or more recent idiom, that necessity will disappear, and the 18th century will come to join the 16th and earlier centuries, to constitute a historical treasure house into which one may delve for the insights it may provide to particular aspects of compositional activity.

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