CMS Initiatives in Music Theory

In an intriguing passage of his Theory of Harmony (1911, 1922), Arnold Schoenberg asserts that the direction in instruction should be into life itself. The life we lead today is confusing and contradictory as never before, in part because modern technology and communication have exposed us to extraordinarily valuable and diverse musics from every culture, from both concert and vernacular venues. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the traditions of western classical training in music theory have come under attack. Certain of us still view ourselves, as did Schoenberg himself, as the keepers of a legacy of musical training. The development of craft in harmony, counterpoint, and formthe ability to sing, play, improvise, and composewas considered essential for a students ability to confront and extend the values of masterpieces in the western tradition. But does such training continue to have relevance to performance and composition in contemporary musical practice? Does the study of voice leading in Beethoven indeed lead students to improvise jazz or write or play popular music or deal in any way with a nonwestern repertoire?

For both Schoenberg and Nadia Boulangertwo great theory pedagogues of the first half of the twentieth centurythese questions scarcely existed. For Schoenberg they were quite irrelevant (in his extant writings, the piece receiving more analysis than any other was the Blue Danube Waltz). Schoenberg and Boulanger, however, were both convinced of the value of rigorous study in the western classical tradition. Both produced musicians who went beyond the confines of that tradition as previously practiced. Did this happen despite their traditional teaching, or perhaps did it occur precisely because of the rigor of that training?

Schoenbergs teachings are summarized in his writings on harmony, counterpoint, and form. Boulangers teaching based on Theodore DuBoiss harmony text, Vidals figured basses, and Bachs Well-Tempered Klavierproduced musicians of unparalleled skill in dictation, score-reading, transposition, figured-bass realization, harmony, and counterpoint. However, unlike Schoenberg, Boulanger acknowledged that some students would not benefit from her training. For example, she refused to teach either George Gershwin or Iannis XenakisGershwin out of concern that the rigor of her training might impede his spontaneity and Xenakis because she felt his work was exploring quite different directions. Interestingly enough, both were mature and active composers at the time they requested study. In any case, Boulangers striking position raises the question if indeed the training of musicians should vary in light of the music they aspire to master. However, if we do not teach traditional tonal grammar and voice leading to students of jazz, popular music, or nonwestern repertories, what materials should we teach them?

The legacy of both Schoenberg and Boulanger has been severely undermined across the twentieth century. In the past decade or so, with the expansion of the curriculum to include non-canonical studies, conservatories and universities have whittled down their traditional offerings. Theory sequences have shrunk from six semesters of harmony, counterpoint, form and musicianship, to three or four semesters of harmony and analysis, with counterpoint and/or highly chromatic harmony most frequently omitted from the core study. Despite the presence of many technological aids, the teaching of aural skills also has not increased, though the development of precise hearing impacts the understanding of all musics. Should we teach more ear training and less traditional theory? Should aural skills methods include pedagogical approaches of non-European cultures having strong theoretical traditions, such as India? If so, do schools have the economic means to support an instructor with such knowledge? Have some institutions been able to wed traditional practice in harmony and aural skills with intercultural and interdisciplinary approaches?

At this years meeting in Kansas City, a panel proposed new venues for analysis encompassing such interdisciplinary and crosscultural studies. They wedded the study of theory to art history, feminist philosophy, and documentary and sketch studies, as well as to tango and jazz. At the 2003 CMS meeting in Miami, we are planning a panel composed of pedagogues from Germany, Korea, Mexico, and Russia who will discuss the teaching of music theory at their current institutions or at those they attended as students. The group will present papers specifying the curriculum in theory and aural skills of their respective institutions, emphasizing interdisciplinary or cross-cultural components. An American pedagogue will respond to the papers. Such a presentation will offer unique perspectives. For example, how is the western canon taught in non-European cultures? Has the relevance of western theoretical legacy been questioned in other countries? Conversely, how do Koreans view the inclusion of feminist philosophy in analytic study? Do Russians see the study of voice leading in Beethoven as relevant to folk culture? Indeed in the former Soviet Union, the study of folk music and theory occupied a required portion of the curriculum of Moscow State Conservatory along with five years of harmony, counterpoint, solfege, and orchestration. Is such study now seen as a vestige of the old political regime? Are aural skills given more attention than written ones in non-European training?

In preparation for the 2003 panel and open forum, I encourage members to share thoughts on our listserv. The discussion will be monitored by Claire Boge, Miami University (Ohio); Marianne Kielian-Gilbert, Indiana University; and Patricia Hall, University of California at Santa Barbara; I will take part in the exchange of ideas. Our talks will include discussions of these topics:

  • How has music theory pedagogy changed over the past few years? Is any change an improvement? If not, what can be done?
  • Is there resistance to classical training among your student populations? How have you dealt with it? With what success?
  • Do you believe that schools and universities across America should include more ear training and less theory in their respective sequences? Is this a valid pedagogical method for addressing issues of canonical and noncanonical study?
  • Do you include the repertory of jazz and nonwestern musics in your ear training sequence? If so, with what success?
  • Do you try to relate traditional voice-leading procedures to non-European classical music? How? With what success?

Of course participants can bring up any further questions as they please on the listserv and in the open forum at Miami. We hope that this discussion will be fruitful, ideally leading us, as Schoenberg said, into life itself as confusing or contradictory as that life may be. Schoenberg continues his thought with timely advice:

To represent life in art, life with its flexibility, its possibilities for change, its necessities; to acknowledge the sole eternal law as evolution and changethis way has to be more fruitful than the other . . .

           (Theory of Harmony, 1911, 1922)

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01/05/2013

Severine Neff

Severine Neff is the Eugene Falk Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received a Bachelor of Arts in music magna cum laude from Columbia University (1971), a Master of Arts in music theory from Yale University (1972) and a Master of Fine Arts (1974) and Doctor of Philosophy from Princeton University (1979). She has taught at Bates College, Barnard College of Columbia University, and the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati. Neff has been a Fellow and Teaching Fellow at the Mannes Institute for Advanced Studies in Music Theory (2004, 2005, 2007), a J. William Fulbright Senior Scholar (1998-99) at Moscow State Conservatory, Moscow, Russia, a Teaching Fellow at the Summer Akademie of the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna, Austria (2009, 2012), and has received research awards from The Korea Foundation (2006), The Arnold Schoenberg Center, Vienna (2003, 2009, 2012), the Institute of Arts and Humanities, UNC-Chapel Hill (2002), the National Endowment for the Humanities (1993), Newberry Library (1985), and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (1981-83, 2011). Her research interests include twentieth-century music, particularly the works of Arnold Schoenberg and his students. She is working an edition of and commentary on Schoenberg’s writings about counterpoint, part of a nine-volume set Schoenberg in Words that she is co-editing with Sabine Feisst for Oxford University Press. In 2012 she completed her tenure as Editor-in-Chief of Music Theory Spectrum. From 2002–4 she was the National Representative for Theory for The College Music Society.

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