The Changing Curriculum: The "Music Theory" Teacher and the "Elements of Music"

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We are all aware of the many factors confronting the teacher of the so-called "rudiments" of music. Some of these include: size and previous experience of the class, choice of text or omission of text, scope of the class and level of achievement desired. The most important of these factors, however, has little to do with the students but rather with the attitudes of the teacher. Does he realize that it is he who must continually attempt to rediscover the significance of the basic concepts of music in the light of a continually changing musical scene? Is he aware that in cultivating an openly questioning attitude in his students he is enabling them to discover the meaning of music in all its facets today and in the future? It is admittedly difficult for a trained professional to peer with innocent eyes at his musical environment. It is to him, as the air he breathes, ubiquitous and unquestioned. He tends to stop re-evaluating these given concepts even before his formal education ends, and, therefore, tends to perpetuate them long after their usefulness has ceased. How many of us seriously ponder the meaning of the word "music" or "rhythm" or "time" or "melody," and discuss or even debate them with colleagues? Aren't our answers to questions like: "What is the distinction between rhythm and meter, measure and pulse, harmony and chord, etc.?" fairly glib, text-book definitions, rather than the result of fresh inquiry? Our failings in this regard are no different from similar ones in teachers in all fields, experienced and knowledgeable though they are.1

The best justification for teaching the rudiments of music, especially at the high school and college levels, is stated magnificently by one of the truly revolutionary developments in American music education: the Manhattanville Music Curriculum Program (MMCP), Ronald Thomas, Director:

. . . the expressiveness, the continuing and current nature, and the vitality of the creative search, are the most basic characteristics of music. They must be the most immediate responsibilities of the study, underlying every classroom experience and evident through every educational strategy. For without this depth of perspective the learning of data, skills and techniques has limited purpose, and the full potential value of music to man is obscured.2

It is significant that the burden is placed on the student as creator rather than the teacher as purveyor of attitudes and information. Emphasis is on that aspect of music which communicates expressively; the student's task is to understand and master the means of communicating. In the words of MMCP once again:

The emphasis of music education should . . . be on the development of sensitive people who have the breadth of insight and skill proficiency to use music for its intrinsic meaning and value to them.3

On the high school and college levels, when introspection and intensive examination of the world they live in occupy an increasing percentage of students' thinking, it behooves us to broach the subject of music in the broadest possible context. Also, it is of the utmost importance to encourage speculation concerning the position of man in the universe, the nature of time, space, perception, reality, feelings and many other subjects, so that music at once becomes a subject of cosmic importance, not merely another course among many sterile courses. In my classes, after much discussion, the students and I usually arrive at a definition of music something like: "a structuring of time in an expressive (or self-expressive, or meaningful) way, in the medium of sound." This formulation is of value to us not because it is in any way definitive, but the reverse: because it is not overly restrictive. Thus it allows (and even encourages) exploring relationships with poetry, prose, dance, drama and other arts. Let us consider these three elements, a) a structuring of time, b) an expressive way, and c) the medium of sound, as a basis for exploring the elements of music within the context of a high school or college music theory class.

a) A structuring of time. The concept of structuring time evolves from a discussion of the nature of time and, since it is a closely related phenomenon, space. Both time and space have dual natures in that both must be understood as time/"non-time" and space/"non-space." Upon further examination, we find that so-called "non-space" should be called "solid" space, space itself, "empty" space. Thus, each complements the other, in fact, is unthinkable without the other. It is empty space that delimits solid space, solid space that articulates empty space.

In a similar manner, we can distinguish intuitively (and subjectively) between "waiting" time and "event" time. Waiting time is the period during which we are acutely aware of time's passage, second by second or day by day because we anticipate some happy or anxious future event, a visit, diploma, punishment or the like. Event time is that occurrence which climaxes waiting time. Since the event usually receives our full attention, we are seldom aware of time as such during its occurrence. It is only afterward, when we ponder our experience, that we realize the brevity and concentration of event time compared with the greater length and diffuseness of waiting time.

Where does "music" fit into this discussion of time? Rudolf Arnheim has called a piece of music "a self-contained package of pure action." Arnheim differentiates music (which includes both sounds and silences) from "non-music" in much the same fashion that we might differentiate waiting time from event time, i.e., in terms of structure:

There is a close relation between structure and delimitation. Music at psychologically early levels, e.g., that of primitive cultures, has no beginning and no end because of its uniformity. Perhaps the crescendo is the first step beyond: it has a climax and therefore an end. It is the beginning of what one may call event structure. Only through event structure can sound acquire a beginning and an end, i.e., become a self-contained package of action. This . . . is the "piece" of music of our own tradition. When the internal structure loosens, the boundaries begin to dissolve. The music slips back into the social situation from which it came. It oozes into the silence surrounding it or submerges in the noise.4

A fundamental decision concerning time must be made early in the game. Are we to approach time as it is traditionally structured, according to a basic "pulse" or "beat," or as a loosely structured, flexible material? The MMCP Synthesis uses rhythm as one of its five fundamental curriculum concepts, stating in its very first generalization:

The pulse is the underlying beat (sometimes not heard but merely sensed) that may help to create a feeling of motion in music.5

A contrasting view is expressed by George Self in his extremely valuable book of experimental pieces, New Sounds in Class. He states the following with respect to time:

The basis of the work here is unorthodox; the regular beat plays no part in the early exercises and pieces. A series of sounds heard at regular intervals is an uncommon feature in the music of today . . . and it would be wrong to start with an exception.6

While it can be argued that Self has been unduly narrow in his assessment of contemporary music, particularly when folk or "pop" music are considered, I have found that notation such as Self's is extremely stimulating to my students, experienced and beginners alike. Ambiguous vis-à-vis time, pitch, loudness, timbre and form, (all of MMCP's curriculum concepts), Self's examples demand a great degree of creativity and involvement from the students in actually "creating" the sounds themselves.7 It should be noted that not only sounds but also silences must be created. Sound/non-sound becomes the framework for the creation of music. In my classroom experience, silence is the more difficult aspect to deal with, perhaps because, as we all know, it is the more difficult to obtain when we want it.

b) An expressive way. Based on the reactions of my beginning students I would assert that most of them "experience" music, regardless of type, rather than conceptualize it. By this I mean that music acts as a catalyst by bringing them in touch with themselves. They usually do not perceive music in terms of structure or melody or anything else intrinsic to the music itself! They either react bodily to it by dancing, imaginatively to it by creating a story to accompany it, or emotionally to it by feeling an emotion or mood. In other words, they respond to music spontaneously, out of their depths. We music teachers frequently disparage such un-intellectual behavior from a misguided belief that only those qualities which are apprehended by the intellect are worthy of attention and study. Compare the way in which we usually react to classical music with the reactions of our students to pop music: we sit, quietly listening, our minds aglow; they let loose the energies of their bodies in movement. Which is more expressive, the glow of the mind or the energy of the body? Which communicates more clearly what is felt? We try most often to teach the characteristics of music either by concentrating on its theoretical aspects such as scales, chords, key and time signatures, etc., or by so-called "analytic" listening to the words of the "masters" à la music appreciation. Both methods in themselves completely ignore a student's individual expressivity and should, therefore, be discarded. The Manhattanville Program is quite to the point:

To base the study, especially the earliest stages, predominantly on rules of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic procedure which have not been used seriously by composers for at least six decades is to falsely represent the art. This forces the child to establish prejudicial judgments of right and wrong in music solely on idiomatic practices. It is far more consistent with the art that the student's judgments be formed on the broadest principles of expressiveness, form, balance, and tension for which any idiomatic practice is but one composer's solution.8

Rather than attempting to teach students what we believe we know (better, perhaps, what we know we believe), we should encourage them to become expressive in music by becoming, themselves, composers. Bruner has penetrated to the core of the problem by emphasizing the term "discovery." How does a student "discover" knowledge? By performing the experiments, working out the proofs, solving the puzzles that have fascinated human beings since the beginning of time. We face the same problems as teachers, encouraging our students to compose, that we do as parents (and administrators), encouraging them to discover their own morality, ethic or life style. We must face up to the possibility that they will choose rather different alternatives than those which we chose. They will discover not necessarily what we would have them know, but who and what they themselves are, and there are not many of us who can be comfortable in the position of student to our students' teacher! Heed the words of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet on the subject of children:9

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
  which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make
  them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

Thus begins the hour of our questioning. Is tonality necessary or can music be "organized" without it? How relevant are concepts of consonance and dissonance based on distant musical styles? How might electronic, aleatoric and rock music affect our rather staid esthetic judgment? Make no doubt about it: if we allow our students the opportunity to experiment, they will teach us and love us for allowing and encouraging them to grow rather than, at best, mimic!

c) The medium of sound. While many of us might regard "sound" as a fairly familiar concept, I would urge serious consideration of the following:

Man likes to make sounds and to surround himself with sounds. Silence is the outcome of the rejection of the human personality. Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life. There is nothing so sublime or stunning in music as silence.

The ultimate silence is death.10

What is vitally important in the above quotation is the implied statement: Sound/silence is the most fundamental musical response we create during our lives, realizing that abandoning sound entirely means abandoning life itself. Schafer states, at the beginning of his discussion of "tone":

The tone cuts silence (death) with its vibrant life.

No matter how softly or loudly, it is saying one thing: "I am alive."

The tone, intruding on the darkness and oblivion of silence, cuts a light into it.11

Western traditions have gradually altered an auditory culture into a literate one. Western musical tradition has interposed an elaborate notation between our creative musical impulses and their realization in sound. Most of our students have learned that music comes not from sound sources but from notes and other symbols on a page. Many of them are almost totally detached from the sounds they produce, a far cry from the sound/life involvement discussed above. McLuhan offers a penetrating perspective on this disparity, one which is among the most perplexing for us as teachers:

Civilization is built on literacy because literacy is a uniform processing of a culture by a visual sense extended in space and time by the alphabet. In tribal cultures, experience is arranged by a dominant auditory sense-life that represses visual values. The auditory sense, unlike the cool and neutral eye, is hyper-esthetic and delicate and all-inclusive. Oral cultures act and react at the same time. Phonetic culture endows men with the means of repressing their feelings and emotions when engaged in action. To act without reacting, without involvement, is the peculiar advantage of Western literate man.12

We should regard sound-silence as the element which can spontaneously involve the entire human personality in a response to his environment. We can assume that student-teacher involvement in music will come to the fore only if we emphasize sound/silence rather than its appearance in the guise of music "literacy." Our students want and need to express their feelings artistically. They need to know that others will respond spontaneously to their expression. In our anesthetized culture how many of us can claim that we express ourselves esthetically and that we experience an appropriate response to that expression from our fellow human beings? Are we open to such involvement in our classrooms or do we concentrate on the outmoded idea of "technical proficiency" which, according to George Leonard, "has become one of the very best ways to avoid awareness of self"?13

The view that composition, improvisation, and discussion-evaluation are assertions of self is the paramount concern in my classroom. How does the student translate his world of feelings into sounds his classmates can listen to and understand? Again, let me emphasize the need for the broadest possible approach to composition. I began teaching composition three years ago by concentrating on the writing of music. While this approach can be workable with high school and college musicians who may have perceived the connection between the written language of music and its underlying expressive content, it is woefully inadequate with beginners. Conventional notation is an extremely complex and inhibiting barrier to inexperienced youngsters. Thanks to notational systems devised in connection with aleatoric and electronic composition, and specifically with those systems created by Schafer and Self, it is easy for the student to proceed directly from improvised sound to simple, expressive, graphic notation. Gradually, according to the needs of the fledgling composers, more complex, perhaps even traditional notation, can be introduced. Improvisations should remain the initial creative impulse, however. The process of improvising injects the students into an immediate musical context consisting of the three basic elements of our initial definition: time, expression and sound.

Thus we "instructors" are led, by our students' need, into the living present and the necessity for confronting that present in the midst of our students. There we are, we who are isolated from a brutal interaction with the present by ideas of historical development and a feeling for the past, maintaining, as did our teachers and our teachers' teachers, that not enough is known about today to fit it into proper alignment not only with yesterday but also tomorrow. Do we still need the "distance" and "objectivity" granted by the so-called "test of time," so that we can hide behind someone's "definitive" judgment of the valid, beautiful and worthwhile? I have tried to indicate in this paper that we do not; that my experiences and, I feel certain, those of many others in the field, attest to the practicality of our joining our students in the learning process. By teaching contemporary composition rather than "theory," I have, of late, become a composer. I am, after all, not too old to learn more about music and, through music, about myself. I am also not afraid to let my students know it.


  * * *  


Below, I am including the program from my students' third composition concert held in our high school cafeteria, surrounded by canvases of all kinds and lasting about two and a half hours.




An explanation of the kinds of pieces represented will show the diversity of student effort that is possible with the approach outlined in my paper.

1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 16, 18, 19 are conventionally notated pieces.

4 is the performance of No. 7 from Self's New Sounds in Class, together with a piano piece, The Cat, by Milhaud (my idea), orchestrated for percussion, rehearsed and conducted by the student.

5, 7, 11, 20 are pieces written in the manner of Self's pieces, rehearsed and conducted by the composers.

9 is a poem written by the student and read to her own improvised piano background.

10 is a ballad sung and accompanied by the composer on the guitar.

12 was improvised by the student on an Electro-Comp synthesizer and a Chinese gong.

13 was an improvisation I did with the audience split into two different vocal groups and with students playing percussion instruments.

14 was a combination synthesizer improvisation, tape piece.

15 is a ten-minute jazz rock piece for concert band, rehearsed, conducted and recorded by the composer.

17 was a fifteen-minute piece worked out that afternoon by a student, who played lead guitar and synthesizer, and a rock group consisting of rhythm and bass guitars, drums, clarinet, alto and tenor saxophones.

21 was taken from Self's New Sounds in Class, No. 14, orchestrated by the student for percussion, and conducted by him.

22 was a reading from James Johnson's poem, The Creation, accompanied by a rehearsed improvisation.

23 is a tape piece utilizing synthesizer and various percussion instruments in an Afro-Cuban idiom.

1"Indeed, some [physicists] have suggested that improving the use of intuitive thinking by teachers is as much a problem as improving its use by students." Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education. Vintage Books, 1960, p. 56.

2Ronald Thomas, MMCP Synthesis: A Structure for Music Education. Media Inc., Elmira, N.Y., 1969, p. 2.

3Ibid., p. 21.

4Rudolf Arnheim, "'Resonances' to Pat Carpenter's article 'The Musical Object'," Current Musicology, VI (1968), p. 95.

5MMCP Synthesis, p. 40.

6George Self, New Sounds in Class: A Contemporary Approach to Music. Universal Ed., 1967, p. 10.

7Cf. Marshal McLuhan's distinction between "hot" and "cool" media: a "hot" medium is one which supplies much information and, consequently, demands little involvement and participation from the recipient, e.g., contemporary radio. A "cool" medium is one which either presents little information to the observer or one which presents him with ambiguity. Responding to a "cool" medium, the observer must supply context, meaning or distinction and is thus highly involved, e.g., television.

8MMCP Synthesis, p. 3.

9A.A. Knopf, New York, 1923, pp. 21-22.

10R. Murray Schafer, Ear Cleaning: Notes for an Experimental Music Course. BMI Canada Ltd., 1967, p. 7.

11Ibid., p. 9.

12Marshal McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Signet Books, 1964, p. 88. My italics.

13George B. Leonard. Education and Ecstasy. Delta Books, 1969, p. 123.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

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