New Perspectives in "Theory and Musicianship" at UCLA

Theory and musicianship are longstanding subdisciplines within the study of music. In the music academies that transmit the essential skills and sensibilities of the art music tradition of Western Europe, these terms have been understood, for the most part, as encompassing the conceptual and practical aspects of musical activity. Although these understandings remain in effect in the 1990s, the purview of "music practice" has broadened considerably since the academies of Europe, the United States, and more recently, countries around the world instituted their founding curricula.

Debussy, Bartok, and Stravinsky were early exemplars of a musical sensibility that can register and assimilate impressions originating in "theories and musicianships" outside Western culture. More recently, the impulse to eclecticism often motivates composer-performers to take up formal study with teachers who represent other musical traditions (e.g. West Africa -- Steve Reich, Indonesia -- Lou Harrison, and ancient Japan -- Toshi Ichiyanagi). Jazz performers and composers are also listening increasingly further afield. With few exceptions, however, the mentors of institutional curricula have been reluctant to revamp theory in the light of emerging practice. The resulting disparity has proven misleading and even disillusioning to not a few.

Among the exceptions to this general rule is a program initiated by the Department of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In the context of a recently inaugurated undergraduate program the department offers a three-quarter, core-theory sequence entitled "World Music Theory and Musicianship." Like other core-theory offerings, the course sets measurable objectives in the areas of listening, theory, conceptually oriented performance, and notation. Unlike other programs, the course is organized around clearly delineated area repertoires, each of which serves as a vehicle for the cultivation of specific musical sensibilities and skills. This multidimensional organization is analogous in some respects to the matching of theoretical and historical topics in a more conventional sequence. Ancillary emphasis is shifted in this case, however, from the detailed consideration of history within a single culture area (Western Europe) to a geographically wider purview of several. This shift is in keeping with the view of ethnomusicologists that the music and culture of a society are co-arising and that meaningful study of one includes the other. Within the three-quarter sequence at UCLA, a conceptual framework serves to keep "first-factor" emphasis (i.e., achieving practical objectives in theory and musicianship) on track. Skills and sensibilities in relation to each of six exogenously defined "musical elements" are targeted specifically at different points within the sequence. Thus in the fall quarter area repertoires from Indonesia, South Asia, and Japan provide a vehicle for achieving practical objectives in relation to rhythm and timbre; in the winter, repertoires from the Near East, the Balkans, and Africa, for melody/mode and texture; in the spring, repertoires from Latin, Anglo-, and Afro-America, for form and harmony. This strategy of "foregrounding" one or more particular elements allows educator and student to evaluate their joint progress toward the practical objectives of the course. Focus upon one element does not exclude others: the fall unit on South Asia includes exercises with sargams (an indigenous solmization system) as well as solkattu (oral mnemonics for drumming); the winter unit on Africa includes dictation exercises in asymmetrical rhythms as well as group performances of multi-part textures; the spring unit on Latin America includes exercises in Solmization as well as aural recognition of chord progressions and juxtapositions of key. Practical objectives of the course, in summary, are as follows:

  • A. Listening and aural modeling. Fall: identify selected instrumental timbres; identify, replicate, and combine named timbral-rhythmic patterns; identify, replicate, and combine five-tone melodic patterns. Winter: identify and replicate modal usages and melodic symmetries; distinguish and replicate individual pans within multi-part textures. Spring: distinguish and replicate simple and compound forms; sing bass lines for chord progressions; identify "open" sonorities in folk hymn settings and add missing third; embellish given melodies with specified non-harmonic tones. Fall, winter, and spring: model after instructor, five- and seven-tone melodies with symmetrical and asymmetrical phrase structure.
  • B. Conceptual understanding. Fall: gain conversance with principal concepts of endogenous (native) and exogenous (metatheoretical) systems of timbre and rhythm. Winter: as above for systems of pitch and texture. Spring: as above for systems of "common practice" and essential jazz harmony. Fall, winter, and spring: use metatheoretical concepts to discuss commonalities between various area repertoires and to place new musical experiences in relation to familiar ones (e.g., study of common practice harmony in the spring will begin with reference to harmonic aspects of South Asian and African musics).
  • C. "Sight-singing" (including "drum speech" or the use of oral mnemonics for percussion) and instrumental performance. Fall: five-tone melodies and transactional rhythms (gamelan instruments); drum syllables and solmization exercises from South India; melodic and rhythmic patterns (flute and voice) from folk traditions of Korea and Japan. Winter: seven- tone melodies with neutral intervals accompanied by named rhythmic patterns (voice, rhythm syllables, percussion, and flutes); five-tone melodies with asymmetrical rhythms and two- to three-part folk polyphony (voice, flutes, and keyboard); five- and seven-tone melodies in thirds accompanied by polyrhythmic textures (voice, rhythm syllables, keyboard, and percussion). Spring: seven-tone melodies with asymmetrical phrases in simple and complex forms (voice, percussion, and keyboard); seven-tone melodies in thirds with rhythmic- harmonic accompaniment (voice and keyboard); three- and four-pan choral settings sung in "fa-sol-la" solmization; rhythmic-harmonic patterns as a basis for melodic improvisation (voice and keyboard).
  • D. Notation. Fall, winter, and spring: within specified area repertoires, use rhythm-line, melody-graph, written sargam, five-line staff (including shape notes), and "lead sheet" notations to represent and realize musical ideas; within the learned limits of specified area styles, use notation to create and perform original music.

Within this three-quarter framework, objectives for "common practice" are commensurate with the two-quarter point in a "starting from zero," first-year theory course (such as that offered in Tom Manoff's Music Workbook). In exchange for this "lost" quarter of specialization in the west European tradition (available as a theory lab option to students who choose it), students gain an overview of music practice on a global scale.

In the 1990s, no stronger argument for such a perspective can be offered than the currently emerging world economic system. Individual entities -- be they nations, corporations, or persons -- can function effectively within that system only if they understand their role and place in it. This is no less true for music, and this state of affairs sets new standards of responsibility for the assists, educators, and students who will define the tenor of musical life in the twenty-first century. A curriculum in world musicianship is one theater in which to explore the implications as well as the opportunities of that responsibility.

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/05/2013

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