The Core Commitment in Theory and Literature for Tomorrow's Musician

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When we speak of the responsibilities of the music theory and music literature programs in a college or university curriculum, we are concerned with singular parts of a greater educational process. All reputable educational processes have networks of implicit and explicit goals, and these clearly must provide the framework for any conclusions about singular responsibilities.

I can see no justification for formal education except that it prepare its products to come to grips with a world encountered in the present and future. An education whose exclusive goal is an acquaintance with the past, no matter how penetrating this acquaintance or how venerable this past might be, is not worth the expense and effort expended. In my definition, education is that which establishes a bridge from past to future, and by past here I certainly mean day before yesterday as much as I mean 1750.

Our world is beset with problems. Some are social, some political, some economic, some ecological—and then some are musical. Transmitting the human wherewithal to cope with these problems now and as they might be posed in the future is the inescapable charge of education. We must admit immediately, of course, that we really cannot know precisely what the future will bring. We all live constantly with the faith, however, that future events will evolve naturally from a past, that the particular human problems of a now always derive from general human needs and aspirations and limitations that are, in fact, enduring.

That which we wish to know and wish to transmit to others I shall call a discipline. We might call it a field, an area, or a subject. What we must be concerned with is not its name but what constitutes it. By knowing the distinguishable facets of any discipline, perhaps those of us who are involved with the music discipline will be in a better position to understand our own little domain, and then perhaps we can judge more objectively whether what we are doing is consistent with what can be done if our discipline is adequately fostered.

The best definition of a discipline that I know can be found in a book by Arthur King and John Brownell called The Curriculum and the Disciplines of Knowledge (New York: John Wiley, 1966). In their discussion these authors conclude that all disciplines reveal at least nine main facets in some way or another. They relate these nine facets to the nine rooms of a large house of human activity, a house one enters when he operates within that discipline. In random order I summarize these disciplinary "rooms" as follows:

  1. A discipline is a community of participants with a common intellectual commitment;
  2. it is a domain, an area of reality staked out by the participants;
  3. it is an expression of the human imagination;
  4. it is a tradition, a history with its accumulated artifacts;
  5. it is a valuative or affective stance;
  6. it is a substantive body, a collection of concepts;
  7. it is a syntactical structure;
  8. it is a specialized language or symbolic system;
  9. it is an instructive community.

It seems to me that all of these nine facets can be subsumed under the first. That is, all are really a part of the total unique awareness and disciplinary operations of those individuals whom we call "committed participants."

In music, then, the discipline can be defined by all of those things which musical persons think about and do when they are being musical, and we can spot people who are of the discipline because they do musical things well. We might tie in these operations which are peculiarly musical with the King and Brownell nine facets by noting that the musical person is committed to a particular kind of activity, namely music; he is moved by music, which is a product of the human imagination; he is aware of and concerned about the artifacts of his musical history; he is capable of evaluating the relative worth of these artifacts and of making an appropriate affective response to them; he is capable of conceptualizing about his domain, for he knows the substantive strands that comprise it; and he is capable of communicating these valuative and conceptual and relational matters, because he commands a fluency within the language and the symbolic system he and his co-participants have developed to portray them.

Our many areas of formal instruction in music—the ensembles, the music history and literature classes, the applied music instruction, the harmony and counterpoint and analysis courses, and all of the curriculum—have evolved as an efficient means for developing the behaviors demanded by the nine complementary facets of the music discipline. If musical people do certain things in identifiable ways, then our educational process must be structured in a way that develops the understandings and the skills which enable people to behave in these ways.

Each teaching specialty area is occupied with developing its own little chunk of the whole disciplinary domain, focussing in on some one or more of these nine facets in order to deal most effectively with the problems peculiar to it. To achieve optimum results, the teacher must never lose sight of the particular facet he is most concerned with. But equally important, he must at the same time not become oblivious of the other facets and their necessary relationships to his own. Forgetting the whole domain has produced some of the deadly compartmentalization that has led music students on occasion to the conclusion that what they do in one music class surely has no conceivable relation to what they are doing in another class, much less can it have any connection with the real world of music.

Keeping in mind this need for an awareness of the whole, we might now ask ourselves, "What part of the total discipline of music is the domain staked out for the music literature class?" For the time being, let us assume that we are concerned only with the undergraduate preparation of the student during the first two years, i.e., before he moves into the advanced levels in music history per se.

I find three of the nine facets most relevant. They are (1) music as an expression of the human imagination; (2) music as a tradition, a heritage of artifacts; and (3) music as an affective or valuative stance. In my opinion, the goal of literature teaching should be threefold rather than singular, as I fear it has become in our own time, when only the heritage of artifacts and its chronology occupies us. To be complete, we must also attend to an awareness of music as a testimony of the human imagination through involvement in the diverse and rich products of its history. We must provide a context within which valuative criteria can be nurtured by the individual, making clear that one product of a profound musical experience is a judgment of aesthetic worth. And last, through involvement with these products of the human imagination, a sense of historical succession and a feel for the cultural roots from which these artifacts sprang must be emphasized.

It seems to me that these are the fruitful responsibilities for literature study. Once a single one of the trio is allowed to usurp the others, a less than defensible educational process is in operation. The responsibility cannot be limited to mere chronological enumeration, which is only a travesty of history as meaningful events of human involvement in music. The object cannot be to learn how many sets of piano variations Beethoven wrote or even when his hearing acuity dropped fifty decibels, or in what year Bach moved to Leipzig. These neat data might well be isolated paving stones along the way, but if they mark off the path, we can only pity the products. Our concern at this level must be not that the student learn the history of music as much as that he learn the music of history.

I shall return later to literature in order to suggest something about how this process might be carried out most effectively. For the present I should like to move on to establish a similar framework within which to view the role of theory instruction, particularly those courses we have come to call the "core" theory courses at the undergraduate level.

As with literature, I believe that we can single out three of the nine disciplinary facets whose cultivation depends in large part upon the theory curriculum. These are (1) music as a body of concepts; (2) music as a syntax; and (3) music as a specialized language and symbolic system.

Although music is not in the usual sense substance, it is most assuredly substantive. From tone to phrase, tone to chord, tone to texture, and tone to form, we have spread before us the familiar web of conceptual patterns, as experiential phenomena, which are the stuff of music. The concepts of music are derived, then, from the host of perceivable data—all manner of discrete events in space-time—which are peculiar to music as experience. Our recognition that these substantive concepts can be united in various ways to produce the musical experience is adequate proof, of course, that music does operate within a syntax and that it therefore harbors certain modes of organization which, when observed, can produce predictable outcomes. And then it should be obvious to anyone who has struggled with the spelling of the word appoggiatura, or who has languished in confusion at the intricacies of melodic dictation, that music does indeed possess a special language and a particular symbolization.

I regard these three areas—substantive concepts, syntax, and symbolization—as the essential concern for theory study. What we must attempt to accomplish in this part of the disciplinary house is to develop within students an understanding of the representative paraphernalia of our whole art, an understanding that yields to no barrier of style or era or genre, an understanding of how its peculiar concepts relate one to another as well as from age to age, and finally the ability to operate with the language and family of symbols which are used to depict them. The effective musician must be more than just a knower or doer; he must also be able to communicate his musical conceptualizations and describe his musical operations for others. We might even suspect that this is in itself a major part of the knowing in the first place.

I think most of us are aware that there has been an extraordinary degree of ferment in our business during the past few years, a kind of brooding that has led to some serious re-evaluations of what we are doing and how well we are doing it. I know of few alive theory departments that are not engaged in some kind of revision, either of subject matter or teaching strategies, or both. Certainly the pedagogical strictures passed on to us from Rameau of the 18th century, Hauptmann and Riemann of the 19th century, and Prout and Goetschius of the early 20th century have been weighed in the educational balance and found wanting. I suspect that few of us today have not had occasion to doubt the wisdom of limiting our study of musical concepts and syntax to Bach Chorales, to the music of the so-called "common practice period," or even to that grand old catch-all called "tonal harmony." Everybody seems at least interested in the possibility of a retooling on the assembly line that can turn out new models less condemned to instant obsolescence. This is the direct result of our painful realization that the now, which was the future of yesterday, has proved the wastefulness of our neat but sterile methods, so we suspect any current methods, wondering if they too will not prove to be only so much more dry rot. What we must seek are principles of music which endure, principles which, once known as they operate in a rich variety of musics, hold the potential of transfer to music not yet even imagined. This is not to imply that there are musical laws or axioms, all of which are determinants for all music and always will be. It is to say, rather, that there are demonstrable and classifiable principles, some of which are crucial to any musical experience. Some musics might neglect or do without one or another of these principles, but we can be certain that when they do, other principles assume determining roles in their place. The concept of pitch focus or tonicality, for example, is of established cogency in the music of Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, or even Gregorian chant and William Schuman. But it is a useless notion when confronted with the music of Earle Brown or even some of the early Schoenberg piano pieces, music in which the composer utilized structuring procedures that are not premised on the phenomenon of pitch gravitation. But in these works we can be assured that some other identifiable principles are performing organizational functions, perhaps even working overtime because of the absence of tonality. This is what Schoenberg meant, I believe, when he said that whether tonality can be replaced depends upon whether other form-producing means might be discovered. If they were discovered, then it is our business to employ them as a part of our teaching.

Suppose that we teach a student only those musical factors and processes which are premised on the undergirding of tonality. Suppose, for instance, that our student learns to resolve dominant seventh chords in all inversions with the greatest fluency. Suppose also that the development of this elegant understanding demands so much time from the formal educational period that it crowds out other understandings of equally valid methods of structuring pitches. What does the student have, then, that enables him to make meaningful responses to musical works which lack dominant seventh chords or even tonality, and yet justify being called music? How can he be prepared to realize that sometimes register placement of tone, or shifting texture, or even mode of articulation or timbre can be more important than pitch expectations premised on a dominant-tonic axis?

In this respect, I could only agree with at least the spirit of a remark I once heard Vincent Persichetti make, to the effect that "Some students know too well how to write four-part harmony." The problem lies not so much in the capability itself; it lies, rather, in the other relevant understandings of musical reality that are necessarily sacrificed in order to achieve that blissful state.

We could profit by a tip from recently successful teachers of social studies and history in the public schools by turning our attention in the music classroom to the major recurrent issues of our discipline. Rather than bore hard and deep into the full tissue of some lonely past era, we could then bear witness to the continuing occupation of musicians of all times with those fundamental musical issues which must be dealt with for music even to exist.

Our first question naturally must be, "Just exactly how does this new way of approaching the problem differ from the old?"

The key word, I think, is that recently much abused term concept. The concept is a general idea of a class of objects, as opposed to an idea of a particular object. It is a notion of a class of things which, if I possess it, guides my responses to all of those particular instances which share the general notion. The concept of melody is not the same as this melody; the concept of counterpoint is considerably more involved than this or that contrapuntal texture, and so on. And thus my concept of harmony is necessarily limiting if it harbors only a notion of chords built of stacked thirds above a postulated root. And it is similarly confining if it relies only upon an understanding of three harmonic functions of a tonic, subdominant, and dominant, or the notion that musical texture is capable of only two kinds of deployment, called open and close spacing. To be a concept that has meaning for the real world, my concept of harmony must include somewhere the notion that chords can in fact consist of any combination of tones (or even noises), and that the composer has at his disposal many potentials of patterning—timbre, register, texture, sonance, density, and even relative loudness—as means for creating organized worlds of sound. I must know something about the harmonic vocabularies and syntaxes of Hindemith and Josquin, Webern and Landini, Wagner and Gesualdo as preparation for the aesthetic challenge tomorrow might bring.

The recurrent issues of music might be called the basic musical concepts. They can be the unchanging stuff or a spiral curriculum which Jerome Bruner and others have advocated as an antidote to the flighty practices we have engendered, in which particular instances get all the attention and generalizations are left, we might assume, for the subconscious.

I am sure that one could devise a far better list of fundamental musical concepts than I, but my responsibility seems to entail more than superficial hints, so allow me to list my considered concepts. They are Tone, Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, Tonality, Texture, and Form. These seem to me to offer the most appropriate body of fundamental issues—the enduring musical issues—that can subsume all other possible musical concepts and practices. They offer an all-encompassing canopy for the day-by-day learning of student theory. Obviously they are the same old basic issues we have talked about for these past long centuries. But I am proposing that a bright new ecumenical light be flooded on these dark old concepts.

To really possess an understanding of melody as a concept that prepares one for the musical unknown, melody must have been viewed as it operates in a broad panoply of musics, as an ingredient of the 13th-century motet as well as the Henze sonata, in the Broadway show-tune as well as the plainsong, in the Bulgarian folk song as well as in the Beethoven symphony.

To really possess a useful concept of musical form, one cannot begin and end with the stereotypes of a past age, perpetuating the myth that all music must fit one of the molds of rondo or sonata-allegro or ternary song-form, or else it simply does not have form, nor can one continue to assume that form has been exhausted as soon as all melodic themes have been uncovered.

What I have said so far should provide at least an introduction to what I propose. By attending to an exhaustive set of basic substantive issues, or concepts, as these are manifested or even as some of them might be denied by the music of a broad spectrum of our total history, we can be more sure that formal education is truly opening eyes rather than closing them.

Clearly, one finds in a piece of music what one seeks. It is crucial, therefore, that the educational process provide appropriate paradigms for the musician. They must be paradigms which enable him to deal with the music he encounters more on its own terms rather than on terms postulated from an outmoded or irrelevant base. The viewer who witnesses a painting by Kandinsky with expectations derived exclusively from Constable will be baffled. Similarly, the listener who approaches a work by Xenakis with a psychological set of plagal and deceptive and authentic cadences will be prepared for only disappointment. It is our responsibility to reveal first those aspects of music that are not localized, that we base our teaching on principles which depend upon more than current aberration or upon a past myopia. The spread of information yielded for our discipline by the musicological spree of the past eighty years provides us with a perspective for tomorrow that, if intelligently utilized, can produce a far clearer vision than we have enjoyed before. By viewing the music of past and present and working with it in genuinely musical ways, we can come up with less cramping solutions for any of the problems the musician of tomorrow may face.

The immediate tradition of the theory classroom, with its accumulation of sight singing, melodic dictation, tertial harmony, tonal cadences, keyboard harmony, and the like, has developed what I like to refer to as an unhealthy kind of "pitch fetishism." Taking the music of the 18th and 19th centuries as the arbiter of musical reality, we focus in on the little intricacies of a limited sample of only a single parameter of musical process. We talk major and minor scales until we actually forget what meaning these abstractions have for the musical substances, even for the musical substances from which they are said to be derivatives. We labor the correct spelling of all manner of augmented sixth chords, but we fail to provide insight into the more elemental issue of chromaticism as an agent of elaboration in tonal music. We admonish our students to practice the I—IV—V—I progression at the keyboard until even sleep cannot mask out this heavenly sound in all keys, but we overlook the function texture can perform by its variety of deployments in delineating the progression in time of a piece of music, a function that can be found in the most far-out piece of Ives as well as in the most conventional piece of Mozart.

What I wish to endorse is an educational process in which unchanging components—or concepts—become the continuing subject matter, each treated as the essential element of a balanced diet gleaned from the repertory of our total past. Such a process precludes any cozy kind of narrow stylism or any excessive emphasis on any one of the several music parameters. On the contrary, it demands a sampling at every turn from the musical repertory of East and West, past and present, fine and folk art. It entails constant attention to harmonic syntax in Webern as well as in Beethoven, melody in Dunstable as well as in Chopin, rhythm in Stockhausen as well as in Haydn, texture in Carter as well as in Bach, form in Penderecki as well as in Clementi.

My proposal should startle no one who is aware of recent pedagogical strategies in some other disciplines. Who today would even think of teaching the nature and use of the English language using only the novels of Jane Austin as stylistic index? Or who would assume that the modern student is mathematically prepared for his world once he has mastered Euclid? And what physicist would presume to have prepared his charges for life through a painstaking two-year study of the cosmological speculations of Kepler? And then, how many today would be content to fall under the scalpel of a surgeon whose grasp of anatomy derived solely from Harvey of the early 17th century? Seen in these lights, perhaps our comfortable stylistic ruminations of the theory class appear less educationally sound, less able to stand the pragmatic acid test.

This brings me to a kind of recapitulation of my second theme group, for I find compelling logic in returning to the music literature topic at this time.

I said earlier that the three facets of the music discipline which should be the primary concern of the music literature class are (1) music as an expression of the human imagination, (2) music as a tradition with its accumulated artifacts, and (3) music as an affective stance. Since my proposal for theory instruction entails constant attention to music from our total past as carriers of fundamental principles, it appears only natural that some sort of accommodation, a kind of trial marriage between the two areas of theory and history, might prove capable of spawning some healthy offspring.

We all know that music history and music theory are different fields for, after all, musicologists teach in one and theorists teach in the other. But perhaps this separation has been artificial. Perhaps it is time for a flirtation between the two, if not an actual trip to the altar.

We have fallen into the unfortunate position of assuming that since music history is an abstraction that possesses a chronology, i.e., the events of music history occurred in time one after another, they necessarily must always be learned in a manner that reflects that chronology. In my opinion this is a major educational non sequitur.

Clearly, the child does not acquire a sense of his world in this way. Instead, he begins with his immediate surroundings and works backward and forward as he develops, slowly accumulating a sense of his past simultaneously with a sense of how he must deal with his present and plan for his future. Once he has acquired a feel of history, as related events of unique properties peculiar to their circumstances, he is then ready to study history as an abstraction. But until he has this sense of the past, until he has gained a feel of human events and human products as they relate to him, any study of history and literature as a succession of dead events cannot have useful meaning.

Our hypothetical learner begins with a "here" and "now" and, in hit or peck fashion, he pinpoints slices of the past in a way that fragments the actual chronology into a multitude of disparate pieces. These pieces eventually may fall into some kind of perspective that yields a sense of historical continuum rather than isolated clusters of events.

With this crude analogy in mind we might assume that the typical chronologically-based music history and literature study is indeed valid, but only if it occurs at a time in the student's development when he is conscious enough of the actual musical artifacts, as musical experiences, to make this chronology of names and dates and works more than an exercise in memory. If such a study occurs earlier than this optimum time, it misses the mark of providing those three necessities of the discipline which it is best equipped to provide.

I would propose a kind of shotgun marriage between theory and music literature classes for the freshman and sophomore years. In such a plan the theory study would provide an analytical framework of tone, rhythm, melody, harmony, tonality, texture, and form; it would provide a context in which the manipulation of these components would be sharpened and broadened through use in musically real ways. The correlate of such a study would lie in the music literature class, where works from our vast repertory are sampled as the syntheses of the same concepts pursued in piecemeal fashion in the theory study. In such a literature class the focus would be on the work as aesthetic object, an object that achieves structure by virtue of its incorporation of most, if not all, of the seven basic components in a unique product of the human imagination. Here the focus is upon music as a holistic dynamic process in which musical meaning is derived from the organization of component parts. In the theory study the focus is upon the nature of the component parts themselves and the ways they have been utilized within contexts from a diversity of cultures.

Within such an accommodation the student is in effect pursuing the same goals along separate paths. In a sense, the theory class provides the window which helps to frame the scene, while the literature class provides the changing scene. In this way the relationship between actual music and theory study does not become a tenuous thread that runs the constant risk of tearing away from the whole cloth. And equally wholesome, the study of music literature does not degenerate into an exercise in the remembrance of a chronology of mementoes.

I am not proposing a rejuvenated "L and M" course in which a superstar teacher performs the role of musicologist, theorist, applied teacher, composer-in-residence, and conductor in one grand synthesis. I have in mind something more readily achievable and consistent with human limitations. It seems to me that the expert in music history and literature is best equipped to guide students through its literature, and clearly the expert in the substantive and syntactical matters of music, the theorist, is best suited to take care of his part of the job. All these two need is a common ground, a format and unitary goal that can nourish a mutual affection and a mutual set of understandings. This format might be derived from the seven basic concepts themselves; it might be founded instead on a typology of musical genres, or it might even be based solely on an objective and workable classification of musical form types as they have occurred within the past. The individual situation demands its unique solution for this problem of inter-disciplinary integration. But the two major requirements which cannot be overlooked are the need for learning broadly applicable musical principles, and then witnessing these principles as they operate in whole works which are products of a wide array of human imaginations.

If these form the core educational commitment in our part of the discipline, we can be better assured of meeting our responsibility. By this method we can better help the student build a firm bridge to his future musical life.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

William Ennis Thomson

After a youth playing jazz trumpet and French Horn, the professional life of William Ennis Thomson (b. 1927, Ft. Worth, Texas) was devoted to collegiate-level music theory and composition. His primary thrust in research and writing centered upon the cognitive/perceptual foundation of music, but the range of his many books and articles extends to political and historical aspects of academe. A complete listing of published articles can be found in Wikipedia, (William Ennis Thomson).

His academic history includes Music School, University of Southern California (Professor and Dean, 1980–1992; SUNY-Buffalo (Music Chair and Ziegle Professor, 1975–80); University of Arizona (Director, Graduate Studies 1972–75); Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Institute of Music (Kulas Professor, 1969–72); Indiana University (Music Theory Chair,1961–69)); University of Hawaii (Scholar in Residence, 1967–68); Sul Ross State College (Prof., 1951–59); Ford Foundation Composer in Residence, Elkhart, IN (1960–61). From 1967-77 he guided the formation of the public school music curriculum for the state of Hawaii.

1975-79 Thomson chaired the Advanced Placement in Music Test Committee; 1971-75; served as Music Panel Member and Examiner for the National Endowment for the Arts; was Fellow and Policy Committee member of the Ford Foundation CMP, 1963-76; and board member, Buffalo Philharmonic,1976–80.

Early in his career Thomson composed award-winning works for band, orchestra, chorus and various chamber media. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1945-46, mainly as band member aboard the aircraft carrier Lexington.

Now retired from USC, he lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

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