Integrating Music Theory Instruction into Studio Teaching

A theory student of mine once wrote on a class evaluation, "of all my blow-off courses (which include everything except lessons and ensembles), this was my favorite." While I was pleased that the student had enjoyed my course, I was troubled by the notion that all coursework outside the studio or ensemble was somehow superfluous. Yet this attitude is not uncommon among serious undergraduate music majors today. Many ..young musicians seem unaware of the valuable role that musical analysis can play for the performer who is daily faced with interpretive decisions. If students' perspectives are to change, the impetus for change must come not only from theory classrooms, but also from studios and rehearsal halls. Students need to see theory instructors who integrate student performances into their classes, who relate music-analytical observations to musical interpretation, who themselves play musically when demonstrate theoretical concepts and musical repertoire in the classroom, and who can articulate how structural features in the music led to their interpretive decisions. Likewise, students need to see applied music teachers who think analytically and critically about music, and who can convey the relationship between their musical analysis and their performance decisions.

Given a musical score, over which musical elements does the performer really have direct control? Except in the cases of ornamentation or improvised sections like cadenzas, performers have little control over which notes are to be played. Rather, they control how the notes are to be played. Interpretive elements that vary from performer to performer may be grouped into four broad categories: timing, dynamic, articulation, and tone color. Timing decisions include the establishment of each tempo as directed in the score or implied by musical context, as well as the pacing of each notated ritardando or accelerando. The timing dimension also includes tempo fluctuations that can convey musical structure in performance, through rubato, directed motion toward a harmonic or formal goal, or accents of timing (agogic accents). Like timing, dynamic variation may be indicated specifically by directions in the score or implied by musical context; examples of the latter include the dynamic shaping of a musical phrase, the dynamic reinforcement of a metric accent, or dynamic emphasis upon a structural line in a multi-voiced composition. The third dimension, musical articulation, includes not simply the contrast between legato playing and other more detached or accented modes of performance. This dimension also encompasses the articulation that distinguishes the downbeat from other beats, or one musical phrase from the next, and the articulation that links a dissonance with its preparation and resolution, or that groups a motive into an aurally distinct musical unit. Even a performer's decision about variation in tone color can be informed by analysis, as in the decision to color a shift to the Neapolitan, for example, or to distinguish one thematic group from another.

Among the most important concepts about musical structure and performance that can be conveyed to a student in studio teaching are: (1) an understanding of tonality and meter as hierarchical and (2) an understanding of the interaction of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements to create form. A performer who views tonality as hierarchical knows that not every chord has equal weight; some serve important structural functions, while others serve to embellish or prolong structural harmonies. Indeed, not every chord of identical spelling (or identical Roman numeral)has equal structural weight, since its musical context determines its function. Students should be encouraged to look for broad harmonic motions, so that their performances will convey clear direction toward important harmonic goals rather than becoming bogged down in chord-to-chord relations. One very accessible reading on this subject, which could be assigned to students for discussion and musical application in the studio, is Part I (pp. 1-31) of Structural Hearing: Tonal Coherence in Music (Dover, 1962) by Felix Salzer, a student of Heinrich Schenker. Schenker's assertion that contrapuntal principles of voice leading underlie most tonal music also has direct application to performance. A performer who understands a sequential passage of filigree as a contrapuntal elaboration of parallel tenths between soprano and bass, for example, would be less likely to place undue emphasis on the internal, passing harmonies and more likely to convey the large- scale connection from the beginning of this sequence to what follows. This interpretation might also distinguish between embellishing and structural pitches by means of articulation or dynamic, and might mark the harmonic arrival at the conclusion of the sequence by use of an agogic accent or other musical means. Performers who discover linear intervallic patterns of this type can convey a unifying sense of harmonic direction through passages that sometimes span many measures.

Two books, one a classic contribution and the other an important recent addition to the field, should be required reading for performers (teachers and students alike) who wish to explore the implications of metric hierarchy for musical interpretation. These are Edward T. Cone's Musical Form and Musical Performance (W. W. Norton, 1968) and William Rothstein's Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music (Schirmer Books, 1989). In the first, Cone devel ops the notion of "hypermeter," the grouping of measures into larger metrical units, performed with the same alternation of strong-weak accentuation that typifies the single-measure unit. This concept has powerful implications for musical interpretation, since the feeling of one beat per bar and of clear measure groupings can give each of these large units a broad sweep in performance. Rothstein's book opens with a discussion of what musicians mean by the term "phrase," then examines the interaction between phrase and hypermetric structure. Because his definition of the phrase encompasses not just its melodic and rhythmic structure but also its harmonic direction, thoughtful performers may wish to reconsider some of their "phrasing" in light of his discussion.

Finally, if the musical articulation of phrase structure is considered an important aspect of interpretation, then the same must be true of larger formal units. In fact, the articulation of musical form can involve every variable element of performance discussed above (timing, dynamic, articulation, and tone color). At the most basic level, student performers must know where formal boundaries lie in the works they perform. Further, they need to understand the dramatic function of contrasting tonal areas and themes, motivic development, large-scale tonal or motivic connections, moments of harmonic instability, and the inevitable resolution to tonic-all within the framework of the various formal designs, in order to convey these important aspects in performance. As students grow in musical maturity, their interpretations of the various forms will be challenged by works that break out of the mold, but they will have a firm grounding on which to base their performance decisions.

How can these music-theoretical concepts be integrated into studio teaching? First, demonstrate alternative interpretations of passages, based on divergent analyses. Better yet, challenge the student to try out several different interpretations during the lesson. ("How would you play this passage if you viewed this chord as its harmonic goal?" "How would your interpretation change if the tonicization of this chord were an intermediate point on your way to this structural goal?" "Can you play the opening of this piece twice, first thinking in two-bar hypermetric units, then again with four-bar groupings? Which do you prefer, and why?") Another way to get at this issue of alternative interpretations is to assign the student several contrasting recorded performances of the work under study, with the expectation that at a future lesson these artists' different interpretive decisions will be discussed in some detail. Students should hypothesize various reasons for these interpretive differences, based on their analysis of the passages in question. This technique is used to good effect by Janet Schmalfeldt in her article "On the Relation of Analysis to Performance: Beethoven's Bagatelles Op. 126, Nos. 2 and 5" (Journal of Music Theory 29 [1985]: 1-31) and by Eugene Narmour in "On the Relationship of Analytical Theory to Performance and Interpretation" in Explorations in Music, the Arts, and Ideas (Pendragon Press, 1988), pp. 317-340. Care should be taken that students not use these recordings simply to imitate another artist's interpretation; although the resulting performance might be musically very satisfying in the short run, the student will have acquired fewer principles to generalize to the next piece attempted. In fact, the comparison of recordings might best be saved until the work has been memorized and the student is refining his or her interpretation for performance.

Second, act as a bibliographic resource for your students; if necessary, students should be directed to a good form book, such as Douglass Green's Form in Tonal Music (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), so that lessons may be spent discussing the musical means by which form is articulated, and not in explaining the form itself. Require students to mark the formal divisions and major tonal areas into their scores for discussion during the next lesson. With upper-division and graduate students, assign and discuss the readings on analysis and performance suggested here. (Another possible resource is Marie Rolf's and Elizabeth West Marvin's "Analytical Issues and Interpretive Decisions in Two Songs by Richard Strauss," in Intégral 4 [1990]: 67-103.) Encourage research, analysis, and reflection as a necessary counterpart of instrumental practice.

Finally, pose some "thinking questions" to your students, either on the spot in a lesson or as an assignment, based on issues that arise in the work under study. Early on, you might consider asking Rothstein's question "What is a phrase?" Later on, you might ask, "How do you know whether this opening is an introduction or a first theme, and how would this dis tinction affect your interpretation?" These questions may be less al)propriate when the student is preparing a twentieth-century work, but similar questions may be asked and discussed. ("What constitutes a phrase in non-tonal music?" "Are hypermetric groupings suggested by this musical context?" "Which motives in this row are most significant musically so that they should be brought out in performance?")

A young performer's two most influential mentors and role models are often the studio teacher and ensemble conductor (as my opening quotation attests), because students engage in a very personal and uplifting shared experience with these musicians, music-making. Faculty members in both these venues can make an immense difference in the depth of their student performers' musical interpretations by incorporating some "theory instruction" into their lessons and ensemble rehearsals. Time spent verbalizing the performance questions that a work raises and attempting to answer these questions through analysis is time well spent, since the payoff is an interpretation with integrity and individuality.

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Last modified on Friday, 10/05/2013

Elizabeth West Marvin

Elizabeth West Marvin is Professor of Music Theory at the Eastman School of Music; she holds a joint appointment in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, where she teaches a large-enrollment course on “Music and the Mind.”  In 2013, Dr. Marvin was awarded the Gail Boyd de Stwolinski Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Music Theory Teaching and Scholarship, and in 2011 was Visiting Researcher at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium.  Dr. Marvin is a past president of the Society for Music Theory and the Music Theory Society of New York State, and former Academic Dean of the Eastman School of Music.  She currently serves as Chair of the Test Development Committee for AP Music Theory.  Marvin is co-author of The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis, with Jane Clendinning; The Musician’s Guide to Aural Skills, with Joel Phillips, Paul Murphy and Clendinning; and The Musician's Guide to Fundamentals, with Clendinning and Phillips (all published by W.W. Norton).  Her articles on music analysis, theory pedagogy, and music cognition appear in Music Theory Spectrum, Journal of Music Theory, Music Perception, and Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, among others.

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