Reforming Music Theory as the Centerpiece of a Twenty-First-Century Curriculum: A Response to YouYoung Kang

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In her essay, "Defending Music Theory in a Multicultural Curriculum" (College Music Symposium 46, pp. 45-63), YouYoung Kang clearly and helpfully articulates what I believe are some of the most important issues in the undergraduate music curriculum today. Kang is especially right to note that music theory has long stood at the center of the curriculum, anchoring studies in musicology, performance and composition. Indeed, I submit that now, more than ever, music theory can and should serve as such an anchor. However, Kang at first confuses the issue of the place of contemporary music theory with its nature, and later argues for tonal theory on the basis of its "Otherness" to students. I respectfully suggest that both of these analyses are exactly backward: What the theory curriculum needs in our time is reformation, to restore it to a central place of relevance by making it more effective in training musicians for the actual twenty-first-century musical world in which they will live and work. We see already the contours of that musical world, and it does not have an exclusively Western common practice shape; rather, it is a globalized world in which connections and syntheses are far more important than differences, exclusions and definitions. Thus, at the heart of the solution lie issues that rankle many theorists and ethnomusicologists—but that make perfect sense to most composers, improvisers, performers and music educators.

As a composer, I have admittedly been drawn into this issue as one who sees the importance of maintaining a vibrant place for every new and fresh musical exploration and engagement. But, like Ms. Kang, I too teach music theory (and recently ethnomusicology as well) at a small liberal arts college. Like her, I "believe in the pedagogical value of music theory."1 Indeed, I believe in it so strongly that I cannot help but be driven to see it become far more directly helpful to students than it now is. I too "get excited by the subject, and devote a great deal of thought to how to teach music theory to my students"2 (and have done so for the past 15 years). But I have come to a much different conclusion about where the field ought to go next.

Kang speaks of the difference between ethnomusicology courses, which are often seen by students as "fun", and music-theory courses, which are often considered "hard" and a "duty". She also notes that the common-practice focus of traditional music theory is now seen by some as a distraction from, or counterproductive to, the development of multicultural sensibilities.3 But this is a rather limited analysis. Yes, music theory is challenging because it is demanding. The real question is whether such demands are sufficiently worthwhile, and here I would argue that relevance rather than difficulty is the main issue. Given the costs of college education, students, parents and administrators may now have the intuitive sense that, in a world with infinite choices but limited time, precious efforts ought to be directed toward those exertions that might be most beneficial. And they may be wondering whether, in the music-theory curriculum as it now exists, such is not the case. Part of the problem, as Kang perhaps inadvertently implies, may be precisely that the "fun" parts of world music exploration have become too separated from the complexities of technical musical understanding. Reforming music theory so that it re-unites such elements might be just the thing needed.

Kang then goes on to note that colleges have responded to the situation by reducing the amount of music theory students are required to take.4 On this point, certainly, I am sympathetic with Kang's concerns, but here the confusion between place and nature becomes most acute in her argument. It actually makes perfect sense to reduce that which seems least relevant to the enterprise of an organization. The solution is to improve relevance, not to increase (or maintain) the space devoted to that which seems least in touch with the institutional mission by virtue of its insistence on maintaining a "museum culture." The same logic applies to music history (which is susceptible to the same pressures as music theory) and the repertoire of performance studies (which is not, due to the fact that it is much harder to control what happens in the private applied studio).

I will never forget when, upon visiting the University of Oxford (UK) in 1999 as a guest composer and speaker, I was told privately by one vibrant and entrepreneurial music student that "the faculty here act as if music ended in 1910—they don't even like to include the Rite of Spring." (I did not have the temerity to ask anyone else whether this was true at the time.) How shocked would we be to hear a current undergraduate music student remark that "the theory faculty acts like music ends at the European border?"

The simple fact is that music theory, as traditionally taught in most undergraduate curricula today, does not even match the current state of music in the West let alone the state of music in our world. Part of what we have come to realize is that the West itself has always been a culture of synthesis. Bruno Nettl put this in perspective not so long ago by suggesting that if Western musical purists could travel back in time to the Vienna of the 1780s, they might be "scandalized that Mozart, evidently a member of the 18th-century world music movement, claimed to be able to write Italian, French, German music, old and new, mixing in Bohemian and Hungarian and `Turkish' styles."5 Mozart taught his students with figured-bass exercises because those techniques were sufficient for synthetic musical thinking in the world as he and his European contemporaries understood it. Limiting ourselves to those same exercises is not sufficient to the largeness of the musical world we have since encountered. Are we then surprised that students are not "excited" about the work they are doing in today's music-theory courses? Perhaps we must admit that, ultimately, students study music so that they can make music. Students ill-equipped to deal practically and effectively with the eclectic musical world in which we increasingly find ourselves will likely neither survive nor thrive.

Kang does finally admit that a number of noted scholars have seriously proposed re-designing the music-theory curriculum to include a much broader variety of musics. Unfortunately, she then turns to a single recent example, Bonnie C. Wade's Thinking Musically: Expressing Music, Expressing Culture. Kang gives Wade's work very fair treatment, except in one crucial respect: She fails to note that it is not intended as a theory text.6 From there, the arguments deteriorate rapidly. Kang is forced to simply assert that:

. . . a repertory-nonspecific approach to theory sounds like a good compromise solution and may even sound utopian, but it is highly problematic when viewed in relation to the pedagogical goals of both theory and ethnomusicology. Music theory practiced in general, universal terms is often vague and unsatisfying, because it is the in-depth investigation of a musical culture that produces understanding and interested engagement.7

Here the real crux of the matter emerges, for Kang's claim that "it is the in-depth investigation of a musical culture that produces understanding and interested engagement" is likely to be echoed by some ethnomusicologists as well. Here's the problem: What if the "musical culture" in question is a globally synthetic, eclectic one? How might such a musical culture be approached for "in-depth investigation?" In fact, "in-depth" must be redefined for an age in which synthesis, not narrowly focused expertise, is the higher value.

What we have in this portrait of a world of separately bounded music cultures is simply the failure to admit reality coupled with a failure of imagination. We can no more go back to a world of truly discrete musical cultures than we can to one without mobile telephones. We can attempt to preserve the discrete cultures of the past in a variety of ways, but whether such preservation ought to be the basis upon which music theory rests is another matter entirely.

But Kang is not content to let the issue of "universality" rest:

Even aside from the specificity required for a deep understanding of any musical culture, the notion that one could use any overarching analytical method to describe all musics is also highly problematic. A theoretical method that purports to address all music equally still establishes the modes of descriptions and criteria for measurement that work more or less well with particular music cultures.8

The same argument could be made for prohibiting English from becoming the global language of business—one wonders how the one billion Indians whose economic lives are being transformed by the internet would respond. In the end, methods of discourse are determined more or less pragmatically. What has been the net gain of having Asian and African cultural and philosophical concepts transmitted to the West in non-indigenous languages? Why ought we to resist so vehemently the notion that the analytical tools and templates of Western music theory (the notions of rhythm, melody, harmony and process and how they interact in styles) might illuminate a wide variety of musics (and vice versa)? Isn't it possible that each musical system could make a unique positive contribution to a new hybrid world music theory? Kofi Agawu notes that:

. . . compatibility between conceptual worldscan facilitate a more even-handed traffic in intellectual capital between musical cultures. Our flow of meta-languages will no longer be the one-way stream that currently exists—especially from Euro-America to the Third World—but will take on the character and movement potential of an unhierarchized network. Under such conditions, Eurocentric cross-culturalism will be replaced by a dense network of exchanges in which origins and destinations change regularly and swiftly and are accessible to, and at the same time enriching for, all actors.9

As noted earlier, what we think of as "the West" (including its music) was itself the product of just such globalism. And, as Agawu implies, one could argue that the attempt to keep all musics distinct is equally arrogant because it is an attempt to limit the free flow of influence that defines our time.

Kang continues:

In addition, [a theoretical method that purports to address all music equally] invites superficial, often spurious comparisons by students who are eager to apply their newly acquired knowledge in less than enlightened ways. One could even contend that any "universal" or utopian theory of this kind is ethnocentrically Western.10

One could very well ask whether, if students are so inclined, all theoretical methods invite abuse. The point of pedagogy, of course, is to provide students with the tools and sensibilities to avoid such "spurious" antics. Meanwhile, the charge that "universal" equals "Western" (read: "oppressive") has no answer that would satisfy those who would raise it because it goes to the unfathomable question of intent. From a content perspective, nothing seems more oppressive than fixing the core of the undergraduate music curriculum narrowly around the repertoire of the Western European Enlightenment.

Kang next suggests a rather inexplicable example of a theory gone awry: Schenkerianism.11 Who outside the innermost circle of Schenker devotees would attempt to defend the idea that Schenkerianism was ever a viable "universal" theory of music? Kang's second example is not a theory at all, but simply the point that theorists have applied later theories to earlier music with mixed (or deleterious) results.12 Here at least the connection is clearer, since her larger contention is that applying any theoretical system to music for which it might not have been intended is problematic. Once again, however, Kang is locked into the narrow view that the field is incapable of developing appropriate analytical approaches to the synthetic globalized musical world in which we find ourselves. Ironically, such a possibility ought to satisfy her implicit desire for a theory that is developed from within its own milieu. But, of course, an enterprise of that sort is not conceivable in a world devoted primarily to preserving that which has come before.

Kang attempts one other line of argument that is ultimately no more satisfying than the previous one and which, despite her best efforts, ends up confusing the issues further. She insists that any theory curriculum must settle on one music exclusively, but admits that there are many possible appropriate candidates, of which the Western common practice is only one. However, Kang then asserts that Western music is still the most appropriate for four reasons:

  1. It has the strongest connections to jazz, show tunes and popular music.13 Strictly speaking, Kang may be right about this (at least to some degree), but one could easily make the case that non-Western musics have contributed as much or more to the current state of popular music (even film music) in our time.

  2. Incoming students seem statistically more likely to already have connections to some type of Western music.14 This contention contradicts Kang's later contention that the music of the Western common practice is "Other" to most students, and is actually another argument for broadening students' stylistic horizons at the core of their musical training (i.e., in music theory/musicianship courses).

  3. Training in Western tonal theory provides the best basis for study of other musics.15 This contention is harder to dismiss, if for no other reason than it fits the experience of many Western musicians who have eventually explored non-Western musics successfully. Indeed, Kang's implicit argument here is that thorough training in any one music is the best preparation for exploration of many musics. I reply, as before, that if the most important skill musicians must have in our time is that of synthesis, then providing the broader tools and exposures necessary to foster synthetic thinking within a world of highly eclectic materials transcends Kang's point.

  4. (Most intriguingly) Western classical music theory is now the "Other"16 that serves "as the technical, detailed study of a foreign musical culture . . . ."17 In addition to contradicting Kang's second point above, this argument relies on the same assumption that exposure to "otherness" is the main goal. As I have said, the overriding concern is rather to help students see connections and create new combinations of understanding (i.e., synthesis). Implicit here too is the same "modes of thought" defense that is used to justify requiring foreign languages and formal mathematics: whether or not "practical" benefits accrue, students should study these things if for no other reason than the ways in which they train the mind to operate. This argument has some merit (indeed, it is at the heart of the liberal-arts milieu in which both Ms. Kang and I teach), but to apply such thinking to the development of musicians within the music curriculum itself is going too far, given the pressures faced by that curriculum. What this reveals is the question of whom the theory curriculum is intended to benefitis it for the music majors or the non-majors? I imagine nearly all music departments (even in liberal arts colleges) would be forced to admit that it is the former.

To summarize: Our globalized musical world is both eclectic and synthetic. This presents us with a dilemma since, to some degree, these characteristics are in tension with one another. Both theorists and ethnomusicologists have historically seemed most interested in defining and preserving discrete styles and systems, whereas composers have usually looked for points of connection. In fairness, though, a great deal more of the work in contemporary ethnomusicology has in fact focused on synthesis, and perhaps such a trend might provide helpful hints for the theory field. Nevertheless, the challenge remains for us to decide which direction music education (as a whole, at all levels) should take. I respectfully suggest we should be concerned with helping students become music makers first and music studiers second, to be able to breathe in the musical atmosphere of their world first and to understand its origins second. In order to survive and thrive, then, music makers in our time need to develop the flexibility of synthesis as their primary mode of thought. Such synthetic thinking requires diversity, since understanding at least some of the sensibilities of many musics is necessary to seeing their connections. However, given the limited time afforded to music education, we must devise extremely sophisticated curricular offerings that somehow meet both of these goals. The compromises necessary to accomplish such a curriculum will not be easy ones, as I can attest from my own recent efforts to reform the music-theory curriculum in which I teach. But I have also seen the benefits of such an attempt in the faces of students who are successfully engaged with more of the musical situations in which they find themselves. Applying the methodologies of both Western and non-Western musics to a more diverse set of musical materials, with an eye toward the syntheses necessary for interpretation, improvisation and composition, has been particularly successful in my classes. It is at the center of the music-education milieu that the undergraduate music-theory curriculum stands and must continue to stand (along with, I would argue, the music-history sequence). Thus its nature is of the utmost importance. Without a music theory that is applicable to a wide variety of musics, and most importantly to globally integrated musics, efforts to educate both listeners and music makers will become increasingly ineffective.


Agawu, Kofi. Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Kang, YouYoung. "Defending Music Theory in a Multicultural Curriculum." College Music Symposium 46 (Fall 2006): 45-63.

Nettl, Bruno. "There's Room for Us All." College Music Symposium 40 (Fall 2000): 24-30.

Wade, Bonnie C.. Thinking Musically: Expressing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.


1Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 45.

2Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 45.

3See Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 46-47.

4See Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 47-48.

5Nettl, "There's Room," 24-25.

6See Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 49.

7Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 49, 51.

8Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 51.

9Agawu, Representing African Music, 188.

10Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 51.

11See Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 51-52.

12See Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 52-53.

13See Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 54-59.

14See Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 59.

15See Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 59.

16See Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 59-60.

17Kang, "Defending Music Theory," 60.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 02/10/2018

Mark Hijleh

Mark Hijleh, currently Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Music at Houghton College (NY), has taught music theory and composition for over 20 years. Author of “Towards a Global Music Theory: Practical Concepts and Methods for the Analysis of Music Across Human Cultures” (Ashgate, 2012), he holds degrees in composition, conducting and world music from The University of Sheffield, the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, Ithaca College and William Jewell College. Hijleh has written about and presented on world music theory through the College Music Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the International Conference on Analytical Approaches to World Music, and the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. An active composer and conductor, Hijleh also studied shakuhachi with Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldi.

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