Diversity and the Decline of Literacy in Music Theory
This article was originally delivered as part of a unified group of papers entitled Music Theory: The Art, the Profession, and the Future, which was read at a plenary session of the national conferences of The College Music Society and the American Musicological Society, in Washington, D.C., on November 6, 1976. The other papers read in the session were:
If We Are All Theorists, Why Aren't We All Theorists?, by Richmond Browne
Music Theory's Negativisms, Fallacies, Divisions, and Needs, by Vernon Kliewer
What Theorists Do, by Peter Westergaard
Sketch of a Foundation for Music Theory Today, by Carlton Gamer
Music Theory in Re-Transition: Centripetal Signs, by Allen Forte
(These papers were also included in SYMPOSIUM Volume 17#1.)
At present, activity in music theory is characterized above all by diversity. This diversity is probably greater than at any time in the past; it extends both to subject matter and to approach; it influences both the evolution of the discipline itself and the effectiveness with which theorists can help to educate music students, few of whom hope to specialize in theory. Until fairly recently, most work in music theory—and virtually all theory teaching—centered on pitch organization in tonal music. After World War II, twelve-tone theory ceased to be a field for specialists and began to attract the attention of a large group of musicians and theorists. Interest in tonal and twelve-tone theory has by no means died out. Indeed, as far as tonal theory is concerned, interest seems to have grown over the last few years. But alongside the more traditional parts of the field, all sorts of new specialties have begun to develop; to mention a few, we now find theories of rhythm, theories of tone color, theories of performance, speculations about new musical systems, a renewed interest in tuning and temperament, computer-based studies of almost any aspect of music, and Schenkerian analyses of Beatles' songs. And, of course, attempts at devising a two-year theory sequence that will include as many of these areas as possible.
Although music theory has been a specialized field for a very long time—twenty-five hundred years or so—it is only recently that music theorists have become specialists. From Pythagoras on, most of the people who have made an enduring contribution to theory have been more than theorists. Many of them—for example, Zarlino, Bernhardt, Fux, Rameau, C.P.E. Bach, Schenker—were composers, a few of them important composers; many were notable performers. If, with some of them, music theory reaches the level of "art" (to refer to Professor Browne's rather optimistic title for these talks), it is partly because they were deeply involved with music in all of its important manifestations and were able to make theory another vehicle for artistic expression.
Nowadays theorists are more and more becoming specialists, their work divorced from significant practical activity in composition or performance. In addition, the diversity I mentioned at the beginning of this talk adds a second layer of specialization; for the field of theory is itself subdivided into many separate and often unrelated areas. Of course, some versatile theorists are able to do important work in two or even more of these areas and, at least for themselves and, perhaps, their students, establish some connecting links. In general, however, our discipline is a very fragmented one.
This fragmentation may conceivably have some positive and beneficial aspects; on the whole, however, it is not a very good condition, at least as I see it. But I don't think that there is much that anyone can do to remedy it; it results from and mirrors the fragmented state of our musical life in general. But even though a trend may be too powerful to halt, the way in which we respond to it can have important consequences. One possible response to this trend is to try to minimize the fragmentation by formulating music theory and its teaching in a way that emphasizes similarities rather than differences among music of different periods, cultures, or systems of organization. Such an approach has its advantages. It frequently accompanies the very attractive personal qualities of tolerance and of interest in and respect for different points of view. And there can be more specifically musical gains from a broad and inclusive outlook. Schenker's incomparably profound work in the area of counterpoint, for example, reveals that identical techniques of voice leading are at work in music by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masters of the most contrasting styles. Many of these procedures—formulated systematically in the species approach to counterpoint—relate to and derive from techniques developed by the composers of the Renaissance. It is possible, therefore, to present counterpoint as a basis for understanding the possibilities of tonal succession and combination in music of many styles rather than as a way of learning to identify and imitate details of the style of a single period—or even of a single composer. That a number of recent texts attempt to present counterpoint as a foundation for tonal theory in general is, I believe, a very good trend.
But failing to recognize and account for differences can be at least as dangerous as failing to recognize significant similarities; and of the two dangers, failing to recognize differences is certainly the more prevalent nowadays. This is especially true of teaching methods and by no means only in the field of music theory. I've seen a recent college text in art whose author states that the man who put burlap over a few miles of the Australian coast was doing essentially the same thing as Constable and Turner—making a statement about landscape or something of the sort. I've not seen any book in music theory that sinks so deeply into nonsense, but there are trends that make me uncomfortable: for example, the idea that tone clusters or chords built of fourths are not so different from triads, since all of these types of chords contain intervals. Or that a fugue by Shostakovich—a specimen, in my opinion, of the purest musical kitsch—has something significant in common with a fugue by Bach. Of course, with a little effort one can probably find a perspective from which any two things will seem to resemble each other. From the perspective of molecular structure, Beethoven and a wooden table probably have a lot in common, but recognizing their similarities will not bring us much closer to Beethoven or to his music.
Trivializing music theory through facile and ill-considered generalizations probably does less harm to the development of the field itself than to its educational function. Those theorists who are able to make a significant individual contribution—who really add to what we know—are always few in number. It is most unlikely that such people will allow themselves to be victimized—at least for long—by an obviously unproductive approach. But for uninformed and defenseless students, such an approach can only lead to a confusion from which, perhaps, nothing will ever extricate them.
In addition, the many theorist-educators who view things clearly—who know the difference between Beethoven and a table—must somehow come to grips with the problems posed by the diversified and fragmented nature of the field. Now that so many kinds of music have become academically respectable and that new theories are being devised to deal with them, the question of what to include and what to leave out becomes a very real one for the conscientious teacher. It is a question to which there are no easy answers. Different institutions have been working out different solutions, most of them compromises of one sort or another. In a compromise, of course, all the parties lose something, though some may lose more than others. In many of our new theory programs, the biggest losers have been the traditional disciplines of tonal harmony and counterpoint. The time and effort devoted to these disciplines—which have usually been less than adequate to begin with—have been reduced to make room for all sorts of new projects, many of them, no doubt, interesting and valuable in themselves. The result has been what I and many others see as an ominous lowering in the general standards of musical literacy—a decline particularly evident, I think, to those of us involved in graduate teaching. Far too many gifted and intelligent graduate students are finding it necessary to learn tonal theory almost from the beginning.
This decline in literacy represents a threat to what I regard as one of the most hopeful trends in our profession: the unmistakable growth of interest in Schenker's ideas which, if it continues, could bring great benefits to everyone who works with tonal music—to the performer and historian as well as to the theorist. But students ignorant of counterpoint, of thoroughbass, of the simplest aspects of tonal composition will have enormous difficulties with Schenker's approach; it is difficult enough in the best of circumstances. If we take tonal music seriously, we must recognize that there are no shortcuts to mastering it. Schenker's work makes available to us an approach to understanding tonal music that is superior to any previous one. It is an approach, incidentally, that does not at all exclude valuable insights derived from other ways of viewing music. More and more musicians are coming to understand how much Schenker has to offer. What a pity if at the very time when this awareness is growing, inadequate methods of teaching should prevent our realizing the benefits we have a right to expect.
In this talk I've spoken more about the teaching of theory than about the state of the discipline itself. As far as tonal theory is concerned, many questions remain to be answered, whole areas await exploration. I have no intention of minimizing the importance of extending the boundaries of our knowledge. But the discrepancy between what could be and what, all too often, is available to our students seems to me to be so great that I see our most urgent task as the consolidation of what we already have rather than as the conquest of new territory.