I've been chairing a task force that is renovating our theory curriculum. Today we got into a discussion of the woeful lack of literacy the students have when it comes to post-tonal music. This was part of a larger discussion on what skills and knowledge we want our students to have when they complete the curriculum. We agreed that our students should be comfortable performing and discussing 20th and 21st century music. This is the only way that art music will remain a viable living art, when current and future music professionals are advocates for contemporary music. Otherwise trained musicians will become more and more conservative, until performed music is canonically static and sterile.
Our possible solutions include requiring contemporary music in senior recitals and performance juries, encouraging more student involvement in our fledgling annual Music of the 21st Century festival, and integrating post-tonal theory and aural skills with tonal theory and aural skills at the very beginning of the curriculum. The last suggestion is rather radical, especially in written theory. There are two sightsinging books that encourage this integration, but no theory books that I am aware of.
Integrated tonal and post-tonal aural skills is a very big shift in my own thinking. I have designed my four-semester sequence to ingrain tonal fluency in my students, with some post-tonal and pre-tonal literature at the end of the sequence. I always teach this last segment through tonal filters, encouraging my students to think of these new languages by comparison to the tonal language that they have absorbed. I justify this approach by the fact that almost all of Western society perceives all music by comparison to ubiquitous tonal music. Modal music is tonal music with altered scale degrees. Post-tonal musics are also warped tonalities, or rapidly shifting tonalities. However, this attitude can prejudice our future professionals into thinking that post-tonal music is a lesser form of tonal music. And this is not what I want for the future of music.