Tuesday, July 03, 2007

What to teach?

A few months ago my friend and colleague, Carlos Carrillo, put together a microfestival of new music, including two nights of concerts sandwiching a microsymposium with himself and yours truly. I posted about the preparations for it here and here. During the small but lively discussion, a student asked whether we should change the standard theory curriculum to reflect changes in performance opportunities in the "real world." We had been discussing the success of new music ensembles such as eighth blackbird (who will be visiting artists here at DePauw next year), Alarm Will Sound, Bang on a Can (who will also be performing here), and ICE. This student figured that if he and his peers would be more likely to perform contemporary music after college, the theory and musicianship sequences should perhaps be more heavily weighted to contemporary music. Currently we have 3.5 semesters of tonal theory and musicianship, .5 semesters of 20th-21st century theory and musicianship, and one 1/2 credit course on the history and theory of 20th century music. Instead of immediately agreeing with this student, I have been pondering what background in tonal theory is necessary to understand atonal theory, and likewise for musicianship. It is no secret that students are coming in knowing less and less of the classic music literature of all periods, so that is a deficiency that must be addressed in the history and theory curricula. But should so much time be devoted to the theory and analysis of tonal music? Certainly it should not be abolished, as plenty of our students will be performing common practice music as band directors, wedding musicians, etc. But what balance do you think is right? (I'm attempting to more directly engage my readers this week, which is probably bad timing with the holidays (Happy belated Canada Day to my northern readers)).


Chris said...

Some long-winded observations:

1) The accepted theoretical models for analyzing music are always at the least a few decades behind as people try to come to terms with music that is currently being written.. How do you equip students to be able to understand the way music of today is made if our tools are those of yesterday? It's like listening to Mozart in 1790 and having only the tools of Rameau's age to understand it, whereas the Schenkerian model that so elequently explains the tonal processes and perception of Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven has only been developed in the last hundred years.

2) Many of the accepted models of contemporary theoretical analysis have absolutely nothing to do with music written at present. Case in point: 12-tone analysis. I cringe when I talk to students that spend the only 4 months of their undergraduate education dedicated to contemporary music theory doing find-the-row exercises for some prof that thinks it's still 1965.

So how do you deal with works of today? One work that brings these challenges to mind is Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión según San Marcos, which draws upon incredibly disparate elements and requires bringing together many different methods of analysis. As teachers, all we can do is equip students with tools to deal with both tonal and atonal elements, rhythm (ignored in many theory classes), and multicultural elements (ie. fado style, African drumming) that can enable us to talk about this music intelligently.

Apologies for the long-winded comment, but the importance of giving college students the proper tools to deal with contemporary music is a subject dear to my heart and essential to a proper undergraduate (and graduate!) theory program.

Shimmy said...

It always seemed strange to learn something so that you can later throw it away. I remember 2 semesters of Newtonian physics, got to Einstein and the professor said 'Everything we've learned so far is crap'. Why not jump to the chase?

Peter (the other) said...

Although I couldn't imagine how one might come up with a practical way to teach outside of private lessons, I think the best way might be to start with music someone is passionate about, and then taking on the analytical techniques needed to feel that a comfortable understanding of the piece is reached. This might well predict the future usefulness to the particular practitioner. It could be that by succesfully learning one technique it makes it easier to learn the next, learning how to learn analysis, so that one could quickly take on new techniques as called for.

In my own theoretical learning experience (thirty-five years ago) it felt like the acquisition of some dry tools that then one went about trying them on anything. Sometimes it wasn't until years later when I needed to understand something that I was interested in, that one of those tools all of a sudden proved useful. Although there was a certain long range satisfaction derived from that, like a joke that takes forever, I would imagine many get lost to the joys of theory by not having found immediate usefulness on a personal level.

Anonymous said...

i dont know. I find a real richness in the survey of musical theory that provides food for my own creative process. I also find a lot of it simply lacking in evidence (psychological or acoutically) or is there simply as "proof" to placate the critique of academia peer. I think the question is how to learn to be practical and filter what is important to you given the flux of so much information and voice. How much of Morris and Lewin is really useful for your own work if at all? Group Theory? Or common practice? Where do they fall short in their usefulness and how can I reinvent what they profess to be simple and to the point for my own needs?

Music theory is a sort of closed universe or game for learning purposes. Given a closed set of circumstances, here is how to "think" about music, not necessarily how to "write" music. In that sense, I think it doesnt matter what style of theory you teach - contemporary or common practice. Exposure is another issue.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Wow, the dam has burst! Chris, you are right that rhythm often takes a back seat to pitch. I would also add timbre as a neglected feature in theory classes. I will talk about the find the row comment in a separate post.

Shimmy, I understand why we need to learn classical mechanics before relativity, since relativity only really affects special cases of mechanics. Likewise in chemistry, a simpler, though incorrect, explanation of electron shells leads students through steps of comprehension, a successful type of pedagogy. I just wonder how much tonal analysis is a necessary step to 21st century analysis.

Peter, I am basically doing this literature-based approach with my summer class at IU, though I am picking most of the literature rather than the students.

Anonymous, I basically agree with everything you say, though we are giving specific tools as well as the larger issue of thinking about music, and some tools don't work well with contemporary music, as Chris points out above.

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

the improvising guitarist said...

Thinking about music analysis in particular, is the purpose of analysis to understand the music under examination, or is it a more of a reflexive exercise—a kind of discourse analysis or, potentially, a form of critical pedagogy?
I would be unconvinced by the argument that, say, Schenkerian analysis somehow uncovers the underlying mechanisms of (some) musics. On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to the idea that learning about Heinrich Schenker and his ‘method’ (and its variants) illuminates something about the assumptions and dogmas that shaped the historical Schenker, the milieu that he was a part of, the conditions under which his ‘method’ could take root (or not), and the history of music as an academic enterprise.

S, tig

Scott Spiegelberg said...

tig, I will waffle and say that analysis in the classroom is meant to both understand the composition and to develop critical thinking. As for Schenkerian analysis, I think it works very well as a means of discourse about common practice music, though it is not the only means of understanding music. It also certainly reveals the historical contexts that you mention.

Shimmy said...

I'd question the traditional pedagogy approach overall though. Working in software now, I see that developers are taught many bad habits that end up leading to bad decisions for new technology.
I think the same probably applies to music. A historical approach is OK for an intro class, but teaching future composers outdated, and sometimes incorrect techniques, seems like a horrible waste of time.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Shimmy, the issue is that music theory isn't just for future composers. In fact, the supermajority of my classes are not composers, but rather performers or future educators or arts administrators. And the topics I teach aren't singularly about how to compose music, but also on how to break a piece apart to understand its organization (and meaning?), and on how to talk about music with other musicians. So the level of application varies greatly with different students.

Tim R-J said...

Lots of interesting comments here.

< soapbox >

From a European perspective, I'd just like to pick up on Chris's points. I find the (random?) choice of date interesting - by 1965 everyone here had moved way on from the integral serialism they were experimenting with for a few months in the early 50s.

But that's not to say that serialism, and the compositional approaches that it led to - parametrical thinking, serious considerations of timbre and rhythm, electronic music, and so on - are outdated (much less "incorrect", as Shimmy would have it). A very large part of the music that is composed, performed, recorded, reviewed and enjoyed here owes some sort of debt to the experience of total serialism. Its impact here has been as wide, deep and various as has minimalism's in the US, or tonality's from the 17th and 19th centuries.

Apart from early examples like Gabrieli, no one wrote using tonal harmony as a banal set of I-V relationships - composers take that principle run with it. Likewise with serialism - after 1952 no one was really doing stuff like Structures 1a or Kreuzspiel. But the ideas that serialism inspired pushed, and still push, composers' imaginations into new and productive places. I think if we're talking about giving students the tools to deal with contemporary music, a basic understanding of the possibilities of the serial landscape HAS to be in there (although I would agree that, for the sake of interest alone, it needs to be taken beyond simpe number counting). To exclude it would, for me anyway, be to present a dishonest picture of international contemporary musical life.

< / soapbox>

ThumMeister said...

If tonal theory could be taught in a shorter period of time, all else being equal, that would free up time for studying other issues, wouldn't it?

I've developed a new approach to displaying and controlling musical information which some music educators have said could do just that. It's described here:

Not being a theory teacher myself, I don't know how useful the above system might be for that purpose. I'd welcome comments from the readers of this blog at jim@thumtronics.com.

Additional information can be found at www.thummer.com, especially www.thummer.com/blog.