The Lag of Theory Behind Practice

Leon Kirchner, moderator
Panel: William G. Waite, Robert M. Trotter, Seymour Shifrin
At the December 29, 1960, joint session of the CMS and AMS annual meetings, University of California, Berkeley.

The general plan for this panel was presented to me as follows:

By means of three prepared talks, the panel will consider the widening lag between current theory teaching, based primarily on Common Practice principles of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the materials actually being employed in contemporary composition.

Theory has practically always been a summary of practice, and has therefore followed after it, but the gap between them has widened immensely during profound stylistic revolutions such as we are experiencing in the twentieth century. And, since theory study—conventional theory study—concerns itself with styles of a past that becomes more and more remote, each year our students are harder put to relate it to the music they hear around them, and they are likely to regard their theory teachers more as museum-keepers than as musicians. Grappling with contemporary materials is largely reserved for advanced composition students.

I should like to improvise casually upon several statements here, which although adequately presented are to my mind at least, somewhat problematical. This may then give some further delineation to the problem, the definition of which is, after all, my present duty as moderator. Although the title reads "The Lag of Theory Behind Practice," it may very well be that the lag on a circular track is so enormous as to obviate the necessity for this panel and rather than discuss the "Lag of Theory Behind Practice" we should more appropriately lend our combined efforts toward an analysis of "The Lag of Practice Behind Theory."

Witness Darmstadt. The sensational theoretical ripples begun there in 1946 have belatedly come to our own shores—too late perhaps to accommodate the rapid changes in theoretical alterations and stylistic niceties of the last 14 years.

We need not be abject, for after all musica mundana and in general the musical doctrines of Pythagoras and that remarkable neo-Pythagorean Boethius, were, as long ago as the fourteenth century, rejected by Johannes Grocheo—particularly number mysticism and its theoretical implications. This ancient historical ripple has not, apparently, reached Darmstadt yet.

Consider the statement concerning "the widening lag between current theory teaching based primarily on the common practice principles of 18th and 19th centuries and the materials employed currently." Presumably this is questionable, and why not? All facts should be questionable, but for what reasons?

Is the music of the 18th and 19th centuries obsolete? Are the principles of its construction without meaning? Can we no longer learn from what still, in performances of vision and beauty, moves and delights us? Has so much time then passed since Schoenberg insisted upon the mastery of the disciplines of previous epochs and rejected the teaching of twelve tone techniques to musical dilettantes? It is quite possible that he was capable of the understanding that music, although unbelievably diversified in language and centuries apart in time, is nevertheless based upon a syntax having very many elements in common.

Once upon a time there was no ambiguity in the statement that events A and B in two different places could take place at the same time. After the advent of the Special Theory of Relativity, it was determined that whereas two events in distant locales may appear simultaneous to one observer, a second observer might with all accuracy see event A before B and still a third observer see event B before A and all three would be correct. This would happen if all three observers were moving relative to each other. The time order, in other words, is in part dependent on the observer and not entirely on inherent relation between events.

Einstein not only accounted for this phenomenon, but has also shown that the information was derivable from reasoning based upon old data. So the universal cosmic time, which used to be taken for granted, is no longer admissible. For each body, whether of celestial or human origin, there is a singular time order. This may not be noticeable among us, since we are all terrestrial creatures and are nearly stationary—but not quite; our minds, when we desire, are truly celestial and we, each of us, are moving through life relative to each other.

And so it is that each generation with infinite individual variations can reinterpret the masterworks of past, present, and future through the new and brilliant frames of reference, the "singular time orders" established by the gifted among us. Those who cannot find new values in the past after having truly experienced the present or see the future in the metamorphosis of the past will surely become the "museum keepers" of "past styles" which become "more and more remote." We can be assured that the "museum" holds treasures beyond the imaginations of the keepers.

"Contemporary materials" are easily grasped. To establish significant relationships with these materials is a problem of a totally different order, and it is precisely in this area that a fundamental experience in 18th and 19th century, or any century's so-called "common practice" is rewarding. Having thoroughly understood "some where" one can with greater security proceed to "no where."

One of the essential characteristics of any art work is its uniqueness or singularity. The dynamic balance of this totality is without peer. It is superb and inimitable. And yet this work is rooted in tradition, it is dumb without its historical connectedness. Our consciousness, our "nowness" is rooted in the "engrammed" reflections of time past. We move into, and test, unknown paths; we are able to extend ourselves into the future because of the balance established in historical precedent. Once music progresses in the sense that it makes obsolete previous endeavors, then we have submitted tragically, not to science, but to the trivial debris of technology. The true musical achievement becomes mere advance in the technological sense, and the work of art itself is lost in the process.


The Musicological Background


The subject proposed for the present discussion is the lag of theory behind practice. From the way in which the topic has been phrased, it would appear that the gap between theory and practice is a real and even necessary phenomenon, though perhaps a deplorable one. Indeed in the context of today's conflicting currents and cross-currents in music one can safely say that we are dealing with a most immediate problem. Yet perhaps we are wrong in thinking that the situation prevailing in the twentieth century has always existed. It is even debatable whether theory lags behind practice today, for there are several schools of composition in which theory has played a pioneering role. On the other hand, most of us can name periods in the history of music—such as the Classic Era—when theory trailed far behind practice.

In order to understand the nature of the problem that confronts us today, it may prove fruitful to examine the relationship of theory and practice as it existed in other historical periods. Since it is obviously impossible to cover every recognizable period of the past, thank heaven, we shall confine our discussion to only two which for our purposes may prove to be most enlightening. Both of these ages heralded themselves as something new, moments when innovation struggled to disentangle itself from the trammels of the past. The first of these periods is the fourteenth century, which is frequently referred to as the Ars nova—the New Art—, a designation taken from the title of the treatise written by Philippe de Vitry around 1321. The second period is the seventeenth century whose opening years also resounded to the battle cries of a musical revolution, cries which reverberate in the title of Giulio Caccini's collection of solo madrigals and arias, Le Nuove Musiche (The New Music), 1602, and in Monteverdi's defense in 1607 of the seconda prattica against the prima prattica of the earlier sixteenth century. It is in such moments of tension that attackers and defenders alike call upon theory and practice to fortify their positions, and it is at such moments that the relationship of theory and practice is most clearly delineated.

Before we proceed with our discussion, it might be well to pause for a moment to consider what we mean by practice and by theory. On the first term we are probably all in agreement and would say that practice is the exercise of a musical art. As for the word "theory" we are probably less in accord. For the moment, let us say that theory is the codification or promulgation of a systematic body of musical knowledge. A definition of what the nature of this body of knowledge is or should be has deliberately been omitted, for here, I believe, is the crux of the problem before us. Many people believe that theory can only be derived from a pre-existent body of musical material. Thus the practitioner is always the innovator, while the theorist is relegated to the somewhat sterile role of conservator or, one might say, bookkeeper. Such a conception of the relationship of the theorist and practitioner, born of Romanticism and fostered by modern aesthetics, is clearly one in which the theoretician cannot rejoice, however much he may accept it. But theory has not always been obliged to follow behind its mistress, practice, lifting her train above the mire left by her predecessors. At times the two have walked arm in arm; and in some periods the theorist has even lighted the path for his hesitant follower.

When we look back upon the Middle Ages we discover a time when the role of the theorist was clearly recognized as being more important than that of the practitioner. A much quoted bit of doggerel states this attitude succinctly:

Musicorum & cantorum magna est distantia,
Isti dicunt, illi sciunt, quae componit Musica.
Nam qui facit, quod non sapit, diffinitur bestia.

"Great is the distance between theoreticians and performers: the latter merely declare, while the former know what music consists of. For he who makes what he does not truly know is only an animal." We may smile at this belief, but we should not forget that it was prevalent not just in music but in all the other disciplines. Man was distinguished from the animals by his intellect as well as his soul. Unless he knew the laws which he exercised in making something, he was no better than the bee endlessly building its honeycombs or the nightingale instinctively pouring forth its song.

Granting that the theorist was given this hallowed position in the Middle Ages, one might still query what he actually did for the living art in which we are all interested. Here we should recognize that the task of the theorist is not simply to codify existing practice, but also to relate the laws of his art to more universal concepts. Theory must not only give validity to the workaday rules of the practicing artist, it must also formulate new laws and discover new possibilities for the development of art. As long as the intellectual atmosphere and man's conception of his universe do not change, it is obvious that theorist and practitioner alike will be satisfied with the nature of their art and its theoretical formulation. In such periods, to be sure, there will be changes and modifications in the actual practice of art, but these will almost invariably transpire within the framework of the accepted system. They will not transcend, even though they may distend the system. There are times, however, when the introduction of radically new ideas forces practitioner and theorist alike to re-examine the basis of their art. Such a moment occurred in the opening years of the fourteenth century.

It is all too often forgotten that the thirteenth century had witnessed an intellectual revolution. The rediscovery of the works of Aristotle in the preceding hundred years and the introduction of his philosophy into the schools and universities created a new mode of thought and a new conception of the laws of the universe. By the end of the thirteenth century Aristotelian philosophy had triumphed almost everywhere over earlier systems rooted in neo-Platonism and its concomitant belief in musical proportions as the ordering force in the universe. Until this moment music had only had to look at its own essential nature to find its laws, for were not the proportions that regulated its consonances universally valid? But now the complacency of music was rudely shattered, for some of its premises were no longer tenable in the light of Aristotle's explanation of the physical universe.

From its first appearance in the ninth century polyphony had been guided in its evolution by preconceptions about the perfection of the mathematical proportions of intervals. This belief had conditioned to some extent the growth of the harmonic system of polyphony and had also established the ultimate limits of its expansion. By the beginning of the twelfth century the possibilities of note-against-note polyphony had been fully explored and no further development could take place unless a means could be found to liberate the individual voices from the simultaneity imposed upon them by this method of composing. But the only way to give each voice independence of motion is by means of a rhythmic system, and such a solution was eventually found in the twelfth century with the creation of the six rhythmic modes.

Significantly, modal rhythm does not depart from the manner of thinking that had determined the harmonic aspects of polyphony. Underlying this system is the tacit assumption that proportion and relationship are the quintessence of music. Each of the six rhythmic modes represents a specific, unchanging relationship between two or three temporal values. The first rhythmic mode, for example, is a long value of two times followed by a short value of one, while the second rhythmic mode arranges the same values in opposite order. In the one case the proportion governing the pattern of the mode is 2:1; in the other, it is 1:2. These six rhythmic modes can exist simultaneously in different voices or successively in the same voice only if their individual proportions are not in conflict. For this reason the second rhythmic mode cannot be injected into or be combined with a succession of feet of the first mode. In this rhythmic system time is not measured as we think of it being measured by means of a common unit. Time, rather, is ordered by a proportion: the temporal flow of the composition is controlled by the imposition of a proportioned pattern or better still a module upon it.

With the advent of the new rhythmic system the harmonic practice was clarified by the establishment of a relationship between harmonic motion and rhythmic motion, the assumption being that a perfect interval should appear at the beginning of a rhythmic pattern, while imperfect intervals or dissonances could be utilized on the remaining values of the pattern. Thus harmonic theory became at this time dependent upon rhythmic theory. During the thirteenth century the possibilities of the new system were explored and the interest of composers was focussed upon the differentiation of the individual melodic lines through rhythmic means. This was accomplished by setting the lowest voice in a slow rhythmic mode, the middle voice in a more rapid one, and the top voice in the smallest rhythmic values. Increasingly the theoretically smallest value, the breve, was divided into an ever greater number of still smaller values or semibreves. Pierre de la Croix, whose activities can be traced as late as 1298, divided the breve into as many as 9 semibreves. The use of these smaller values, even though they occurred within the context of the modal system, clearly introduced an element of irrationality into an ordered musical world, for the relationship of these small values was not regulated by the harmonious proportions that ruled elsewhere in music. If a breve were divided into five semibreves, each of these would have 1/5 the value of the breve; if divided into seven, each would have 1/7 the value.

This element of irrationality is indicative of a breakdown of the modal rhythm which had been the guiding principle of musical practice for over a century. But it was not simply practice that was undermining this system, for its integrity had already been destroyed in the mid-thirteenth century by the theory of Franco of Cologne. In most histories of music Franco is hailed as the savior of music, the man who freed music from the bondage of modal rhythm and the defects of its notation. By devising a system of notation in which the forms of the symbols of notation have definite temporal meaning, it is said, Franco enabled music to progress. Though it is undeniable that the Franconian system opened up new vistas to the musician, what we fail to see is that his theory represents a rejection of the very premises upon which the music of his time was based. Ostensibly Franco is still loyal to the modes, but he no longer accepts their intrinsic individuality. They are for him only the possible permutations and rearrangements that lie within a basic unit of time having a value of three beats. For him the first rhythmic mode is not the proportion 2:1, but the sum of 2 plus 1. In Franco's theory then rhythm is no longer the ordering of time through proportion; it is the measurement of time by an arbitrary unit. It is for this reason, and not just for the practical reason of convenience, that Franco codified his eminently practical system of notation.

This development is by no means surprising, for it reflects the new conception of the world introduced by Aristotelian philosophy. The rigorous logic of his science swept away that mystic unity of a universe linked by musical proportions. Of the ancient trilogy of musica mundana, musica humana, and musica instrumentalis, only the last remained. Music was now only a phenomenon of the natural world, and as such it was subject to the laws of this world. For Aristotle the world of nature is a realm in which objects come into being through the imposition of specific forms upon matter. It is a world of change and motion as objects come into being and pass away through this process. And the measure of this motion is time, time whose yardstick can be read only by the establishment of a fixed and determinate unit, be it the minute, the hour, the day, or the year.

Aristotelian science had no immediate consequences for harmonic practice because the individual tones and their relation to one another could be seen simply as specific forms of air in motion. However, it did have a most direct influence upon rhythmic practice. Time was now seen to be a necessary condition of music, for tones come into being and pass away like all natural objects. Furthermore, musical time must be rationally measurable not by the artificial proportions of modal rhythm, but in the same way that all time is measured, i.e. by a specific unit. It was the recognition of this fact that led Franco to reinterpret the modes in terms of a basic unit of mensuration, the ternary long.

Though Franco still admitted the validity of the modes as different manners of subdividing a ternary measure, his followers were quick to see the implications of his system. In the writings of Aristotle they discovered that theoretically a unit of time is divisible into infinity. I do not think that it is pressing the point too far to see in Pierre de la Croix's division of the breve into ever smaller values a conscious and deliberate exploration of this potentiality. If the direction taken by Pierre had been carried to its logical conclusion, chaos would have ensued for there would be no limit to such division. Moreover, little or no rhythmic nuance would be possible because such divisions always consisted of groups of equal semibreves. Obviously some means had to be found to control these subdivisions of time.

The first decade of the fourteenth century then was evidently a period of confusion and uncertainty as musicians sought a new theory which could limit and regulate the possible divisions of the breve, which was called now revealingly enough the tempus or unit of time. The first solution was a practical, rather than a theoretical one. It simply fixed the number of semibreves within the breve as six, and established the manner of reading groups other than six. Two semibreves for instance, would each have 3/6 of the value of a brevis; in a group of three, the first would have 3/6 its value, the second, 2/6, and the third, 1/6. The first reading is nothing other than the old fifth rhythmic mode, now employed at the level of the semibreve; and the second reading is more than reminiscent of the earliest form of the third rhythmic mode, dotted quarter, quarter and eighth. Expediency, it appears, had led the musician to revert to an older system for guidance for a means of regulating this new rhythm he wished to employ.

The unsatisfactoriness and the inadequacy of such a solution must have been apparent to many men, and within a very few years more acceptable theoretical explanations were found, enabling the practitioner to utilize the new-found divisions of time with utmost freedom. It is impossible at this time to go into the details of these theories. Suffice it to say that for the Italians Marchettus of Padua in his Pomerium of 1318 or '19 provided a firm theoretical basis for the Italian divisions of 4, 6, 8, 9, or 12 semibreves, adducing perfectly acceptable scholastic arguments for them. In 1321 Philippe de Vitry codified four divisions or prolations for the French in his Ars nova. Though his treatise, which incidentally we do not possess in its original form but only in badly truncated copies or reworkings, does not give the theoretical justification for this system, there is convincing evidence that it rests ultimately upon a mathematical theorem which was solved for Philippe at his request by the Jewish mathematician, Gersonides. Upon these two systems, French and Italian, the subtle and sophisticated musical art of the fourteenth century grew and developed as it could not have done without them.

The historical situation that we have just retraced is convincing evidence, I believe, that theory can and has preceded practice. The special nature of this theory and the musical problems involved are of course peculiar to the age in which they evolved. If we turn now to that other epoch of New Music, the opening of the seventeenth century, we shall find an entirely different set of circumstances. The introduction of monody in the first years of that century is a fact known to all of us. The sudden appearance of solo song accompanied by a thorough-bass has engaged the interest of scholars for a long time and precedents for this innovation have been sought in the earlier practice of singing with the accompaniment of the lute or in the increasing tendency of the later sixteenth century towards homophonic writing with its consequent emphasis upon the top voice and its chordal bass. Precedents these may be, but they do not explain the peculiar qualities of the new monody nor its astonishing, sudden popularity.

This musical revolution was unquestionably brought about by a reinterpretation of music inspired by the antiquarian studies of Renaissance humanists. Music, it was asserted, is the union of words and tone, and its function is to portray and stir the emotions. In this partnership the words are the dominant element and all that takes place in a musical composition must derive from the meaning and emotion contained in the text. By these standards traditional counterpoint was found wanting. Not only did imitative polyphony rob the words of their effectiveness because they could not be clearly heard, but the fixed rules of harmonic combinations and successions had nothing to do with music's real function, that of purveying meaning. The new theorem, it is evident, would require a revision of harmonic practice.

One of the most important results of the new definition of music was the establishment of the thorough-bass as an essential element of musical composition. By relegating the harmonic function to this part, the voice was freed to express the text clearly and meaningfully in melody. Though the task of the continuo part was primarily to support the voice, its harmonies were nonetheless supposed to derive from the text. But how was this to be done? What rules could theory adduce to guide the composer? The answer is that no rules did exist for this type of harmonic procedure. When Monteverdi was attacked by Artusi for his harmonic licences, he could only reply rather lamely that it was unfair to judge his music apart from the text, for these licenses derived from the relationship of the harmonies to the words.

Agostino Agazzari, the author of the first real treatise on the continuo, was frank to admit that no theory existed to explain the new usage.

And even though some writers who treat of counterpoint have defined the order of progression from one consonance to another as though there were but one way, they are in the wrong; they will pardon me for saying this, for they show that they have not understood that the consonances and the harmony as a whole are subject and subordinate to the words, not vice versa, and this I shall defend, if need be, with all the reasons I can. While it is perfectly true that, absolutely and in general, it is possible to lay down definite rules of progression, when there are words they must be clothed with that suitable harmony which arouses or conveys some passion. As no definite rule can be given, the player must necessarily rely upon his ear and follow the work and its progressions.1

The situation at the beginning of the seventeenth century is most assuredly a paradoxical one. A premise about the nature of music had led rationally enough to the use of a basso continuo. Since the continuo is a quasi-improvisatory performance, it urgently needed some rules to guide both composer and performer. But the same premise that had led to the use of the continuo also denied that there are any fixed harmonic laws. Fidelity to the text would admit and justify any violation of the canon of harmonic procedure. Confronted by this dilemma, theorists threw up their hands and allowed themselves to be led by practice. For the best part of the century theory contented itself with expounding upon the outmoded treatise of Zarlino or recording the innovations of practice and converting them into precepts. Not until late in the century did theory find in the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes and his followers the laws by which it could lead and mould practice once again.

What conclusions can we draw from our examination of the relationship of theory and practice in these two musical epochs? There are no obvious panaceas to be found here for our own times, for history never repeats itself in exactly the same terms. But this hasty survey of situations analogous to our own era of New Music should at least suggest that we ought to disabuse ourselves of the idea that theory necessarily lags behind practice. There are times that cry out for new legislation, for the formulation of new laws to govern the universe of the art that we create. These laws may be established by the theorist—as happened in the Ars nova of the fourteenth century—, or they may be allowed to crystallize slowly out of the numberless intuitive formulations in individual works of art—as was the case in the seventeenth century. What the role of the theorist should be today, that of leader, the framer of laws, or that of follower, the codifier and interpreter of a canon handed to him by the composer, is for him to decide.

1Translated by Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History, New York, 1950, p. 426.

Contemporary Contributions Toward Reconciliation


The title of this symposium has two possible interpretations. "The Lag of Theory Behind Practice" might mean that we are dealing with problems of interest mainly to research scholars, to musical theorists who search out important principles underlying musical practice. Mr. Waite's paper has put into historical perspective certain aspects of this current lag. But Seymour Shifrin's paper, to follow mine, is called, "Tomorrow's Theory Study," bringing out the other, latent interpretation. No such ambiguity would have been possible had the title been "The Lag of Theory Teachers Behind Theorists and Practice."

I stand between these two papers and between these two interpretations, with a polysyllabic title made more imposing by its possibilities for general application. "Contemporary Contributions Toward Reconciliation" might equally apply to Detroit versus foreign compact cars, states' rights versus the Supreme Court, or even to musicologists versus music educators. Given this position and subject I am going to state some criteria for categorizing the work of musical theorists during the last several decades and, further, to comment on some of this work in relation to today's theory study.

If publicity is any indication, there is little question where the frontiers of our contemporary musical practice are: electronic media, and the polarities of "chance" music and totally predetermined serial music. These have their passionate defenders, both creative and theoretical. They have their journals, and like all new movements, their bitter enemies. For my purpose here, it is most important to stress that they have their theorists. In effect, I am making the claim that at one level there is no extraordinary lag of theory behind practice. In line with what Mr. Waite has said, I contend that theory has come quite far in catching up with practice. At times—and I say this quite without flippant intent—I wonder, having sometimes tried unsuccessfully to join together what I hear and what I read about it, whether practice has caught up with theory!

We can read about electronic music not only in direct reports from the workshops in America, Europe, and Asia, but also for example in an entire current issue of the Revue Belge de Musicologie, and in the special issue of The Musical Quarterly (April, 1960) devoted to the Princeton Seminar. Totally serialized music, it goes without saying, has its literature close by as well. As for the music of chance we can read about Foss's Chamber Improvisation Ensemble, Morton Feldman's "Extensions, Projections and Intersections," Stockhausen's "Klavierstueck XI," or Cage's "Indeterminacies." By the way, although I doubt that anyone has yet achieved academic tenure on the basis of publishing on record jackets, these wonderful repositories of new theoretical essays offer fine testimony that there is theory quite au courant with practice. I quote one sentence from Morton Feldman's Columbia LP release: The "vertical elements are linked by a sort of shy contrapuntal stimulation of great delicacy and tautness."

On the other hand, I cannot deny that certain aspects of musical practice in the last fifty years have somewhat baffled theorists. Perhaps the clearest example is the problem of defining harmonic principles in music devoid (truly or apparently) of root relationships, devoid of any clear governing principles of dissonance treatment, and freed from any seeming responsibility of helping to define form. But even this has had some clarification, as I shall briefly describe in a moment.

My first point, then, is that the lag of theory behind practice is today scarcely different from other times and, being somewhat normal, needs our attention far less than the lag of theory teachers (and other students of music) behind the theorists and composers. A number of new insights, new working hypotheses, have appeared in books and journals in the last few decades. What we desperately need is a concerted effort to seek these out, make them personal, and incorporate them into our teaching and research.

One general purpose of theory is to explain what has already been done by the creative imagination, satisfying a pervasive appetite for understanding, and—at its best—accepting the dangers discerned by Marianne Moore and stated in her line: "Expanded explanation spoils the lion's leap." There are diverse specific purposes following on this general one, each affecting variously the composer, scholar, performer, teacher, or listener. Depending on how speculative and abstract, or how concrete and immediate the subject is, each of these types of musicians takes from theory according to his needs and the limitations of his understanding. Naturally I do not exclude the possibility of several functions' being joined in one person, the more complete musician who may be both composer and scholar, or performer and teacher. But one thing they all share. They must be listeners, and our best single approach to theory will be, how does it help explain what we hear, either in our physical or in our mind's ear. Does it help clarify the relation between music and the human spirit? Does it help clarify the way in which musical elements become architectonic—that is, build a unified design in time? Does it describe the detailed nature of those musical elements themselves?

At this point I have presented a kind of working set of principles that help me categorize and absorb the work of present-day theorists. I do not want to present now an annotated bibliography of names. As soon as I might mention such names as Schenker, Hindemith, Tovey, Eschman, or Meyer, I should guess that a preservative device I call the "Automatic Rejection Mechanism" might come into play. There is an element of self-preservation, not to say cowardice and laziness, in all of us when confronted with new ways of thinking about music. New historical data can much more easily become part of us than new theoretical data affecting our basic rationale of music. So I have to be almost unpardonably frank in demanding of you as I demand of myself that before rejecting a theorist's ideas because they are wrong, they must be thoroughly understood, somewhat assimilated. And that is not easy. We may quite properly reject something because it is meaningless or irrelevant to us. Each of us has an upper limit to his understanding, an outer edge to his needs. But to reject as meaningless or irrelevant is different from rejecting as wrong. Everyone who is involved with the problems of musical style needs to consider the work of present-day theorists, working through the questionable or obscure portions to seek out what may become fruitful for himself.

For example, in the rarest and toughest kind of theoretical writing I am considering today, that attempting to clarify the relation between music and the human spirit, it is important that we consider the philosophical writings of composers like Sessions, Copland, Hindemith, and Stravinsky. They are properly considered part of the corpus of theoretical studies. The work of Leonard Meyer and of Monroe Beardsley, both dealing with problems of musical perception, description, and interpretation, need to be dealt with by each of us.

Among those theorists dealing with the architectonic function of details, Heinrich Schenker stands as a fountainhead. The extraordinarily provocative principles developed by this man still arouse bigoted and angry reactions when they are mentioned, or when any attempt is made to smooth them out or to expand them so that their relevance to contemporary music is understood. I think of the bold steps in this direction made by writers like Felix Salzer, Roy Travis, Allen Forte. To be sure, those terrifying graphs need patience, and above all to be understood as the final product of a process that far outstrips them in importance. But in analysing the music of our own and former times, Schenker's theory stands ready to assist us, with its extraordinary flexibility in examining both linear and harmonic forces. Allen Forte, in the Journal of Music Theory, is correct when he says, "There is hardly a significant theory book of recent date which does not show that influence." I think immediately of volume one of William J. Mitchell's harmony text, of Ellis Kohs' new text in theory, of Vincent Persichetti's new book on twentieth-century harmony. These last, along with Roger Sessions' Harmonic Practice, Hindemith's Craft of Musical Composition and others, have contributed to our understanding of musical details as well.

There is much work still to be done, but the reconciliation of theory with practice is not so much the point. The fact that a Journal of Music Theory exists, that the Journal of the American Musicological Society can publish an article entitled, "A Set of Symbols for Formal Analysis," that such a meeting as this one can take place, are hints that an important reconciliation may take place elsewhere. In this connection, we were warned last year—in a particularly wise paper—of the need for complete musicians. Perhaps our American musical life will develop an ecumenical trend where composers, performers, scholars, and teachers will—not lie down together—but get busy with sober, vital work in a peaceable kingdom. Then the study of style may take its rightful position as the crown of historical research, the composer and performer may cease partly to protect their creative intuition against the light of reason, and theory instruction may again flourish, going beyond the grinding out of Roman numerals and round white eggs on music paper. Here is the place for reconciliation, in our incredibly, unforgivably layered and compartmentalized academic world of music, represented right in this room. Theory teaching, as practiced widely during the last decades and right now, this semester, is lagging way behind the theorists. Quite frankly, it is moribund.


Tomorrow's Theory Study


I have something of a confession to make. The more I think of it, the more I am led to marvel that I find myself addressing you on this most unlikely of topics. I can only suppose that I was to be the apostolic visionary on the panel. I fear I shall disappoint you. What visions I may have are safely directed toward a virginal blank piece of paper, adorned with 5-lined groups. Alas, I have no radical panaceas, let alone a theory program for the space age. I do not propose to relegate Bach and Beethoven to the safety vault, nor to drink the health of the computer machine. However, though I shall be brief, I should like to share some disquieting thoughts with you.

One hears, these days, a good deal about the lag between theory and current practice. It is a lag that is quite universally deplored and the inevitable symposia follow as the locust the grain of wheat and here we are today, sitting in consort. If what is meant by theory has to do with the usual strictures involving the bad and the beautiful, the invidious and the inviolate, then I have the strongest reservations about doing much to close the gap. Certainly we have ever before us the example of Artusi and his attempt to make an honest man of Monteverdi. Theoretical systems of whatever clime too often are apologias for a restricted view and require "true believers." One violation of the temple, and the elaborate edifice crumbles. And theoreticians have generally proven to be most elegant, diligent Fafners. That is not to say that some few theorists have not added profoundly to our musical perception; in fact, I believe it just to say that a proper understanding of the music of the 18th and 19th centuries would be most difficult without the contributions of Schenker, for one. But he was certainly a doctrinaire time-laggist. I wonder if it would have been possible to formulate his elevated level of insight some fifty years earlier.

Certainly our students are in large part justified when they question the validity of what they are taught in theory courses. What they learn sheds little light not only on contemporary practice but on the music of the 16th through 19th centuries as well. Why is this so? Because, I believe, our emphasis is wrongly placed. Rather than search for the incisive insight, we protect our vulnerability with the dispassionate cloak of statistics. Bach moved to roots a fifth apart 52% of the time and therefore it is recommended, if not ordained, procedure. To be sure, not all of our theory training is on so monumentally low a level but, I fear, very little of it escapes this sort of woeful misrepresentation of scientific method.

We set up elaborate machinery embodying rules and regulations on the theory that, if rigorously adhered to, the student will produce an exercise that is stylistically correct. If he strays from the straight and narrow, he is confronted with the authority of Palestrina who never, or hardly ever, in all of his work did write an ascending major sixth. The student soon enough learns to exclude the offending interval, for the results are deplorable—not necessarily for the exercise he is engaged in doing but certainly for his grade-point average. He too often leaves his studies of counterpoint cheated by an authority from which there is no reasoned appeal; at best, he has the skill to ape the mannerisms of a style and, at worst, he becomes adept at a cynical game.

What I say of contrapuntal studies holds equally true of the study of harmony. What will it profit a student to be taught that at every moment in his exercise he has three possible harmonies to choose from, when he hears a magnificent inevitability in the music he admires? May he not expect that his studies will bring him understanding and, at least, a modest but analogous skill? Need I bring up the travesties practiced in the teaching of the notion of modulation or the mystic faith in labeling all harmonies with symbols that transliterate but do not discriminate?

How then can we best deal with the divorce of so much of our theory from whatever the practice? The discipline of theory has to do with what makes music consequential. It is the study of how the diverse elements—rhythm, line, harmony, texture—serve to articulate and thus make intelligible the guided movement of the piece. If from the very outset our ambition would be to understand "why a musical event occurs, what preceding events have made it necessary or appropriate, towards what later events does its function lead,"1 our student would have a meaningful contextual frame for the pursuit of his studies. It is thus, by his hearing, writing and performing with an ear for implication and consequence, that the student may refine his sensibilities and acquire the desired skills. Is it not here, in his attempt to illuminate the present event with past and future, that he will find meaning in the work and significance for what he hears? What is needed is not more contemporary obiter dicta but some worthy ambitions. At the earliest possible moment, after he has mastered the basic elements of grammar, the student ought to be asked to commit himself to a specific hearing of the exercise at hand; his object—to make his hearing evident to the trained listener by means of his realization. The advice he gets from the instructor should center itself on how well he succeeds in getting what he intends and not simply with his ability to conform to the categorical. It may well be demonstrated, that, for example, the chorale melody he has been dealing with has been set by Bach in several ways—each setting reflecting a different hearing of implication in the melody. He must grow increasingly sensitive to how eloquent a single outer voice line can be in suggesting the shaping of the rhythmic, harmonic, and linear aspects of the whole of the phrase. His decision as to where the high point of tension is achieved in an enclosed section must be supported by the various means of intensification. He ought to grow increasingly aware of the role of contrast and accent that Mr. Sessions so admirably deals with—the significance of correspondence and clash of accents for the intelligibility of the piece. I can't help thinking that his growing awareness of the interrelationship between the effect of a particular work which excites his wonder and its musical means will make him alert to issues that would otherwise escape his attention. It would put the living breath back into his theoretical studies and make evident their relevance to performance and composition and more pertinent discussions of style. I believe it would prove the most significant sort of ear-training and would encourage the student to be inquisitive and adventurous in his attitude toward the new. And, most immediate to our discussion, it would prepare him to consider the means by which composers of his own day strive to make their work intelligible and eloquent, for he will have been trained to listen for implication and function in the specific and unique materials of the individual work, no matter what the period or style. He will have been trained in a manner more befitting a liberal education and he may well see more immediate intellectual relevance between his courses in the other humanities and his studies in music.

We live in an age of much exegetical exposition. Composers and theorists alike, aware of a heightened crisis of mind, have taken to writing essays of varying tone on almost every aspect of current practice. Some of them have been speculative, pertinent and enlightening. Too many of them have been counterfeit and doctrinaire.

At another time the dicta of theory fell under the divine protection of the "Law of Nature"; for today and tomorrow the divine protector would seem to be Mathematics. All well and good—but how is the student to make his way through the polemical maze? Having been trained to self-reliance and possessing the intellectual stamina to ask the most difficult questions, he will be adequate to the task of judging for himself the relevance of the theory to the music at hand. It would be all to the good for him to study logic, mathematics, physics along with the other humanities, the better to enlarge his view and to test that relevance.

I suggest that the appeal to strictural authority is not an appropriate stance at a university—that it is degrading for both student and instructor—that it can only result in construction and not instruction. We postulate rules and do not arrive at principles; we value style and not idea; we do not hope to possess the whole of a work but are content to chip away at its eccentricities.

What I suggest then is the conception of theory as the study of the functioning of musical intelligence. What is implied is that there is no one method to be applied, but rather that any work will yield the means relevant to its own comprehension if diligently approached by a discerning ear and the intellectual fortitude to ask why.

1Edward T. Cone, "Analysis Today," The Musical Quarterly, XLVI, 2 (April, 1960), p. 174.


["The Lag of Theory Behind Practice," as exposed and discussed by the panel, proved to be a stimulating topic for discussion by members of the audience. The discussion period was recorded, then condensed and edited for publication here. The panelists, who were responding spontaneously to questions from the floor, have not seen their statements after they were made.—Ed.]

QUESTION: Should theory be taught or not be taught by composers?

MR. TROTTER: I think that the teaching of theory is a tough job if you are or if you are not a composer. It helps in the assigning of exercises, at the very least, and in the planning of fruitful exercises if you yourself have worked the other way. If you, working from principles, have brought forth living music, this is a help, but I think it's possible—keeping this interchange in mind—for someone who is not a composer to examine the work of great composers of all periods and see how it works.

QUESTION: Should there be a different course for a person who knows he does not have talent in composition and yet wants the fundamental principles? Should he have a different course than a student who wants to be a composer? Should there be two or more types of theory for various functions—for the performer, for the musicologist, composer, etc.?

MR. SHIFRIN: I can only feel that too much of our theory today is geared to the maintaining not of high standards but of high enrollment in our theory courses.

MR. TROTTER: I made the point, or tried to make the point, that the one thing all these students have in common is that they have to be listeners. And it seems to me that the teaching of theory has to have as one of its basic techniques that of perceiving quality in masterworks. And I think that whatever the specific need of the student is going to be, he will take from this, if the teacher and student both are skillful, certain things that will do him good in the practice of his art. For instance, it seems to me that certain ways of teaching music appreciation nowadays can be expanded to a higher level or to a more complex level, and I don't mean the anecdotal way of doing this. There are other ways of teaching music appreciation that I think can be expanded to take on importance for the music majors.

QUESTION: Mr. Shifrin, what did you mean by the "grammar"?

MR. SHIFRIN: What I meant by the grammar, quite simply, is perhaps what occurs in the first six weeks of the normal harmony course. That is, a matter of chord construction, the various positions, and all of this—that seems basic. Of course, we all work on the assumption that the students will hear the distinctions in the first six weeks, but we all assume this and we go on from there, in any case. What I am suggesting is that what we go on to in the normal course of events these days is not worth going on to. That perhaps what would make it more relevant to the way people hear and perform and compose is if what we did was to train the individual ear as much as we possibly can to make it responsible for its musical decisions, its musical action, to have as early as possible a commitment as to how a given melody, for example, is heard by the particular student, and to have his realization that the other three parts reflect and support that hearing. The comment of the instructor should be on the line of how well he succeeds and where, of course, he fails.

QUESTION: Could not the composers themselves perform an enormous service if they would write theory text books which could have wide currency? One of the problems really is that we don't have materials which are easy to work from. Obviously, you have to have teachers with imagination, but sometimes these things are really beyond their control.

MR. SHIFRIN: I am trying to suggest that we need more self-reliance on the part of the student. I think it holds equally true of the instructor. Either the instructor is in a position to instruct or he isn't, and I would make the distinction not one of whether he can choose a better book or a poorer book, but whether he has insight into the music that he is dealing with or whether he does not.

QUESTION: I wonder what role Mr. Waite would assign to the traditional procedures of making a student compose from the very start—writing his own exercises—whether it is possible to work in theory without this or whether perhaps we have found two other means for the study of music theory that in collaboration with the third, which was so eloquently spoken for by Mr. Shifrin, cannot give us a whole new spectrum of theory teaching?

MR. WAITE: I thoroughly believe that theory is an absolutely essential tool of the historian. I also think it is a thoroughly essential tool for the student, whether he is going on into music or not. I think, too, for a young person who wishes to get into music, to at least have experienced through practice some of the rules and application of rules, the general principles which underlie this harmony, to do so instantly gives him more insight into the music in which he is interested. We, for instance, have our beginning students, introductory students, students who are none but music majors, analyze 13th-century motets according to the harmonic and rhythmic principles of that age. They gain a great deal of insight from it. I thoroughly believe that in the use of this, from our point of view, but not in the application of a theory coined today, this might very well work. But the use of the theory as it existed in relationship to a given art, to master that to some extent, by which I mean other centuries going back beyond the Palestrina age, is, I think, an enlightening tool for teacher and for student alike.

QUESTION: Must the student be able to compose music in order to be able to master it?

MR. WAITE: Composing, even if only in the sense of playing at composing, to realize that these people who are working with certain implied limitations in their music to try to create something in which you have set up these limitations; they are imposed upon you to see if you can transcend them in any way—I think it's a very fruitful experience. I hope they wouldn't then go on to compose in that way, if they want to go on being composers.

QUESTION: There are really, I think, two purposes to our instruction in theory. One is to develop sensitivity to materials in the students—I am talking of the music majors here, not the non-musician. And the second is to give them an approach to music. Now for the first, I can well understand formulated rules of one kind or another, whether they are based on the theories of common practice of the Baroque or Classic eras or they could be modified. For the second, however, I think that it is not felicitous to base judgments approaching music on pre-established rules. It seems to me we have to deal with necessary conditions of music in this case and to formulate those as best we can and then let the performer or the composer piece together as evidence in making his decisions on how to execute or what to cut.

MR. WAITE: Well, may I say to that that being neither a composer nor a teacher of theory and trying to feel, let's say, the contemporary scene in which I live—viewing it as dispassionately as I possibly can—one thing that does strike me is that there seems to be a lack of a common experience, even a beginning formula of what music is, the necessities of music. There seems to be no common agreement at this particular time, and this is what I was thinking of when I spoke of the 14th century. There was this period when no one knew what to do but finally they came to a common agreement of what it could be, and then music did move on. I am still looking for that agreement in the 20th century.

MR. SHIFRIN: May I ask if this agreement was arranged over a conference table or where? Or was it a matter of compositional practice?

MR. WAITE: I think it came about, as a matter of fact, by finally bringing music theory up to date with certain ideas which lie outside of the art itself, basic things. It was a question of time. I think we have such problems confronting us today in our modern world. I don't think any solution has yet been proposed which actually reconciles these elements, the relativity of which you spoke earlier.

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Last modified on Thursday, 15/11/2018

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