Thursday, November 30, 2006

Composers vs. theorists

Today I had two experiences that reminded me that composers and theorists approach the teaching of music theory from different perspectives. I'm horribly generalizing in this statement, including the quite false assumption that composers and theorists are two separate sets. But there still is truth to it, especially when isolating all non-composing theorists from those who compose extensively. Composers look at music theory as a way to teach composition. Rules are taught as limits to engender creative control and artistic self-awareness. Theorists regard music theory as a means of explaining how music works. Rules are taught as norms of practice, so students can recognize when these norms are broken and when elegant solutions are produced to avoid breaking the norms*. So it is composition pedagogy vs. analysis pedagogy. And we are richer for both perspectives.

*I'm using this term just to annoy Norm Carey.


Anonymous said...


I've long thought that the distinction between analytic and speculative music theory is a useful one to make, making separate sets of the disciplines rather than of composers (who often analyse) and theorists (who often come up with good ideas for new compositions).

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Your division is much more accurate, if not as polemic. I still think there is a general divide between those whose chief identity is to compose music, and those whose chief identity is to study music theory. While composers do analyze, they do so with a little voice pointing out possibilities or mistakes to use or avoid, making the primary purpose of the analysis the inspiration of future compositions. When I analyze music, the little voice is pointing out performance possibilities, generalizable theory possibilities, and cognitive implications.