In Search of a New Pedagogy

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In the Fall of 1965 SYMPOSIUM printed a group of articles by four distinguished musicians under the heading "The Crisis in Theory Teaching."1 The present paper is offered as a continuation of that discussion. A particular approach to theory teaching, an approach which has been successfully used at Queens College in recent years, is set forth, hopefully in sufficient detail to provide the basis for further discourse and, eventually, some guidelines towards a possible resolution of the crisis. The approach itself grew out of much hard work by many colleagues; the present writer is responsible for the formulation contained in these pages.

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Music exists in time. Time is the dimension of music, as space is the dimension of painting and sculpture. We study how music moves in time. The essential word is moves. How does music move thru time? What operations take place? What procedures can we observe? How can we fit the details of musical motion into a conceptual framework? These are the problems which face college music and pedagogy today. It is the observation that in many places these questions are not even being raised—let alone answered—that makes some of us feel that there is, indeed, a crisis in theory teaching.

While "theory" is the word usually applied to a certain group of courses, Mr. Merritt's point that much of our time is (and should be) taken up with practice is well taken. What is under discussion here is perhaps better called the "theory behind the practice." It is the content of those courses usually called harmony and counterpoint. As a start, may we please throw away the simplistic notion that harmony has to do with chords, and counterpoint with lines?

Counterpoint has to do with lines, yes, but lines in relation to each other, at least in Western music since the Middle Ages. The relationship operates according to criteria of consonance and dissonance whose precise terms fluctuate from one epoch to another but whose general principles were in force until almost yesterday. If the discipline of counterpoint is taken as the study of linear motion in tonal music, it will become apparent that the large majority of the chords which can be heard in any piece of music can be understood and heard in linear terms, that is, they are the result of a soprano and bass moving from one point in the musical structure to another. In this view, study of the linear aspect of music leads to understanding of the motion from chord to chord and of the chordal movement within the phrase and, indeed, within the piece. To assign part of this study to a course called harmony and part to a course called counterpoint is to set up categories which will have to be broken down at a later stage. It is my position that the distinction between harmony and counterpoint, which has been taken for granted in many quarters, is arbitrary and useless. "Music knows no such division," as Richard Goldman says, and music teaching must take its direction from music itself.

But what, then, have we been teaching under the heading of "harmony"? Counterpoint, mostly. Traditionally, harmony has to do with sounds heard simultaneously. Supposedly there are generalizations, miscalled rules, which describe the way in which one "harmony" can move to another. But any bright undergraduate will soon find many exceptions to the rule, and the truth is that exceptions do not prove the rule, they disprove it. We are forced back to the question of how to move from one chord to another, how to learn the linear aspect of music. By learning about chords? But these represent frozen moments in time, and their connection is by definition linear. The traditional approach has been to study whatever it is that is called harmony first, meanwhile admonishing the young musician to use "good voice leading," then to follow up with something called counterpoint, often related to the music of Palestrina, which finally shows the student how this good voice leading was to have been achieved.

What, then, do we want our students to learn in our "theory" courses? Leaving aside for the moment the rather unsettling implications of Mr. Babbitt's statement that there is no general theory of music, or of tonal music, we may take as our goal "comprehensive musicianship." The ideal of the recently concluded Institutes for Music in Contemporary Education, comprehensive musicianship may become a program in which the various elements of musical study may each find their proper place. It will be most interesting to learn what some of the results of the two-year projects described in SYMPOSIUM (Volume Seven) have been, and how they were achieved. Without knowing much about the ideas behind these courses it is still possible to say that the IMCE classes have a breadth rarely found in college music teaching. In my own view, the core of musicianship is a clear understanding of musical motion, that is, how a musical phrase is shaped, with melody, harmony, counterpoint and texture in fruitful interaction. I think that with such an approach one may gain that depth which, apparently, is even more difficult to have than breadth.

It seems abundantly clear by now that the old-fashioned division of music study into two categories called harmony and counterpoint has outlived its usefulness. Indeed, the very words have had such a bewildering variety of meanings that our students might benefit from never hearing them again. We need an integrated course in music. Such a course would retain much of the content of the older courses (and much more) but with a unified rather than a dichotomous approach. Such an idea is not as novel as it may sound; it underlies the L and M course at Juilliard, it has been adopted and adapted in the IMCE classes, and many venturesome instructors have been teaching the interaction of vertical and horizontal elements in conventional courses. It is time to bring the new approach into the open, and I suggest that the usefulness of species counterpoint as the basis for the new pedagogy has yet to be fully appreciated.

The principles and operations which can be learned thru study of the five species are: the essentials of voice leading, control of soprano and bass in a framework which gives direction to melodic and chordal movement, control of textures, solutions to the problems of chord choice. Behind these practical skills are the esthetic desiderata of tonal music: both independence and smoothness of parts, balance of contrary, parallel, and oblique motion, melodic focus around critical melodic points, and the interplay of consonance and dissonance. A student who has mastered first species in four parts knows how to connect root position and first inversion triads on all degrees of both major and minor scales. The VI chord need not become a special problem; the VII6 will be no mystery; he has already learned how to write and hear them. Furthermore, if the study of the species is followed up with note-against-note studies in directed motion, and then in writing short phrases in the same manner (without cantus firmus), the freshman can have an initial experience which will begin to develop some musical literacy, some of that "basic musical horse sense" whose absence Mr. Merritt rightfully deplores.2

We all know that species counterpoint has been associated with the music of Palestrina since the days of Fux. Upon examination, however, this association proves to be more historical than musical. The principles of Gradus Ad Parnassum are valid for all tonal music. Jeppesen has shown how little Fux knew about Palestrina's music, and how little of renaissance practice was understood less than two centuries later. Clearly, Jeppesen has succeeded admirably in doing what Fux thought he was doing. But, as it turns out, that does not reduce Fux to insignificance; this is not the first time that a Columbus discovered America while looking for China. What Fux did was to bring to fruition the development of a systematic approach to teaching—not the theory but the practice—of tonal music. All of tonal music, for as Salzer has demonstrated, the principles which underlie the species are valid to a far wider extent than either Fux or Jeppesen realized. What can we learn from the species? One clue to the generalized value of the species as a pedagogical tool can be seen in the number of composers who have used Fux to teach themselves what they needed to know. And just what did they learn? As Mr. Imbrie put it, what Beethoven learned from Fux was "not mastery of Palestrina's style, or even Fux's, but mastery of Beethoven's." Fux's book, for all its garrulousness, remains useful today, and is more amusing than most treatises. But Salzer's condensed version (chapter 3 in Part Two of Structural Hearing), is all the counterpoint text one needs.

Of course, species exercises alone will not provide enough material for a pedagogical method. The challenge is to move from the species to real music; studying many examples, inventing many exercises, and before too long, writing much music. Working from the abstraction which is species to music of many styles, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of our new program. And we try to bear in mind that the theory, such as it is, is in the mind of the instructor; the student is concerned with how notes go. And it is to the music itself that we must turn, music of all kinds.

Now, I venture to say that little of what most students learn, little of what is in any harmony book, can shed much light on the music of Fauré. An extreme case, perhaps, in that Fauré's music is so linear, the chords so clearly growing out of the confluence of lines, particularly soprano and bass. But is that any less true of the music of Schumann? And of the composer whose music is in the background of both Fauré and Schumann, namely, Bach? Are there no principles which can be applied to many styles?

'Midst the profusion of 16th century counterpoint, 18th century counterpoint, 19th century chromaticism and 20th century innovations, whatever became of the 17th century? A very brief consideration of that musical terra incognita may shed some light on the question of what style(s) we are teaching. Music which still contains remnants of the modes may not lend itself very well to thinking based on the supremacy of I-IV-V-I. But for students trained in the species it presents no special problems. Is there anything in the styles (I use the word loosely) of Frescobaldi, Purcell, or Lully which cannot be learned from a species-oriented approach? There certainly is. Just as in Palestrina, Chopin, or Bartok, we can learn the principles which they have in common—no more, no less. Having learned the similarities, we are in a better position to identify the differences. There is no excuse for our not entering into the world of the early baroque, along with the more familiar late baroque, classic and romantic eras. I am hard put to see the merit of a pedagogy which would include Palestrina but not Monteverdi. Not incidentally, analysts and historians are coming to find that a method of analysis which digs out the underlying structure of music, often expressed in a species-like reduction, is a most valuable point of departure for both esthetics and history. What we need, then, is not a species method based on the personal idiosyncrasies of one composer, no matter how great, but a generalized species counterpoint, a counterpoint for all styles.

A harmony for no style; I wonder how many have shared this reaction in seeing some of the items included in harmony texts. For instance, the familiar list of triads on each degree of the scale and of allegedly normative chord progressions is worse than useless to the student who is searching for some insight into the way music moves. Chords are frozen moments in time, a handy way of identifying simultaneities, and their description by Roman numbers or any other means has the same status in music as grammatical terms in poetry. Of course the student has to know a noun from a verb, but such information is the beginning of knowledge, not the end. The limitations of an analysis based on chord description have been pointed out many times, very dearly in a discussion of a progression in Wagner by Saul Novack.3 Chord labelling can be educationally disastrous if it is presented as a vital part of musical understanding. But it has the advantage of being easy to teach, easy to test, easy to specify in an art which continually defies tests and measurements. Nevertheless, we can do better.

Somewhere near the heart of the matter is the crucial distinction between description and explanation, a distinction whose importance has been dear to our colleagues in the sciences for ever so long. Objection! Music is an art, not a science. Granted, for the sake of argument; we'll save the discussion of the interpenetration of the two cultures for another day. And as long as a person functions strictly as a practitioner in the literal sense, so long as one plays in the orchestra or sings in the chorus or—if one is more fortunate and—practices eight hours daily, concertizes nightly and gives interviews monthly, one can forget about such matters as speaking logically or trying to utter only those statements which have some cognitive meaning. But, as the very title of the College Music Society implies, we function on the level of what we ourselves call "higher education." Yes, we are musicians, indispensably, but in the college and conservatory we function largely as teachers and thinkers. That is, we communicate something which we know, largely by means of words. All this puts us under the obligation to know something about the nature of verbal statements, to pay some attention to the principles of logic, to have some understanding of semantics, to organize our ideas with the same attention to meaning that is required in any other subject which is taught verbally. The nature of reasoning does not change with the subject matter, and reasoning about music follows the same laws of logic and scientific method as reasoning about history or mathematics. As Mr. Babbitt wryly put it, we cannot talk to our students in "that wonderful language which permits anything to be said and virtually nothing to be communicated."

What is usually called music theory has nothing theoretical about it. Very able people are now working towards a theory of music, and we all hope to benefit from their investigations. Meanwhile, what is proposed here is not theoretical, either; it is based on a series of generalizations about tonal music, an informal compendium of musical practice. But it does stress operations, principles, processes, and in that essential respect it comes closer than the conventional courses to being scientific—that is, rational. And it does fulfill one requirement of a theory in that the general principles can be applied to new cases, which would consist of the whole range of tonal music, Fauré (and Bartok) as well as Palestrina (and Monteverdi). Moreover, the emphasis on directed motion can lead to insights beyond tonal music,4 fulfilling at least in part the request of Mr. Boatwright for "an idea how logically to go about writing non-traditional verticalities or dissonant contrapuntal textures."

This article has offered no more than a sketch for an improved "theory" course, but certain guidelines may be brought together in summary. As the essential point, the contents of the courses now called harmony and counterpoint should be taught in one integrated course. The linear aspect of music, how sounds move thru time in the framework of triadic tonality, should be uppermost in the instructor's mind, and the emphasis should be on principles and operations, which means a goodly amount of drill. The literature of music itself should be before the young musician in as many ways as possible, as material for analysis and as model for synthesis. As the basic technical tool I propose the study of the species, together with exercises leading from that study towards the understanding of musical structure. And the entire study should range as far back into the history of the art and as close to the present as possible. Working towards the goal of comprehensive musicianship can lead to the breadth we would like to see in our young people; understanding musical structure in depth and the development of a reliable technique can be based on a contrapuntal approach. Within so general an outline there certainly is room for many methods of teaching and many points of view. No one can lay claim to having the "best way"; there are many best ways. But a rethinking of the basic college music courses in the light of the best ideas now available is long overdue. Failure to get down to the hard work of that rethinking will only prolong the crises in which we and our students now find ourselves.

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As the music of the tonal period slips slowly into the past, it becomes increasingly important to train our students in the techniques of post-tonal music, what we now call "20th century techniques." The melancholy truth is that the 20th century is two-thirds over, and most of our charges will be plying their trade in the 21st century, even if all of us won't. Mr. Boatwright speaks for the large majority, I'm certain when, speaking about music before 1950, he says that the student "should have a right to expect to find it woven into the main fabric of his theory courses." Any curriculum which stops before that point is cheating the student. But it is also safe to assume that in the coming years more and more music will be composed, and some of it will be good, which means that more and more of the music curriculum will have to be devoted to modern practice, so that less and less time will be available for the music of the receding past. The implication is clear. Just as chemistry students now learn in one year what used to take two, music students will have to learn more quickly, which means that we are going to have to be more efficient. Not the least virtue of the pedagogy towards which some of us are working is that it may offer the best hope of presenting the practice and principles of tonal music in a concise but accurate form, so that future generations may learn that music rapidly and well.


1All references are to "The Crisis in Theory Teaching," SYMPOSIUM, Volume Five, 1965, pp. 21-62; except where otherwise indicated.

2But from his statement that harmony and counterpoint are two sides of the same coin I come to a different conclusion: that whether they are offered as separate courses or as one is of vital importance.

3Saul Novack, "Recent Approaches to the Study of Harmony," Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1964) pp. 155-157. The entire article deserves reading in light of the present discussion.

4A fine example is the article by Roy Travis, "Directed Motion in Schoenberg and Webern," Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1966) pp. 85-89.

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