This summer Carlos and I are revamping the four-semester music theory curriculum here at DePauw. We want the students to become independent thinkers, not relying upon a textbook to tell them how to perceive music. While we will still use a textbook as a reference source for the short term, we will also be assigning readings from scholarly articles and monographs for discussion. It will be particularly interesting when the students encounter opposing viewpoints. They will have to think about which perspective they agree with, and why (or why they disagree with both perspectives). I had some success this semester with the final analysis papers. The students had to analyze a multi-movement or multi-song Common Practice work, developing their own theses to argue. Several students looked for articles or books on their subject, but then confronted these previous analyses, arguing for or against various points. I was very pleased with the results, as well as their responses to my constant challenges to write of their personal reactions to the music, using specific musical facts to explain their reactions. They also practiced this type of analysis in their blogs, though they tended to stick to answering the questions posed in the exercises rather than using the questions as jumping points to create their own theses. The new curriculum will include compositional exercises, as part of the See it, Say it, Read it, Write it pedagogical stance. I want the students to be able to recognize musical features, and an important way for them to learn this is to compose these musical features for themselves. There are additional benefits to compositional exercises as well, but that is my main purpose for this curriculum.
I was sparked to start blogging again, and to write about my summer efforts, because of James Cook's misunderstanding of my perspective on music theory. I do like to talk about harmony, but my conception of harmony is not as a discipline that can be separated from counterpoint, form, or motive. I mash together Schenker, Riemann, Meyer/Narmour/Huron, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Helmholtz, Rameau, Weber, Koch, Riepel, Tenney, and countless others for my understanding of how notes interact horizontally and vertically. I like Schoenberg's conception of key relationships, Schenker's wisdom on hierarchical organization and harmonic prolongation through contrapuntal functions, neo-Riemannian spaces that show how strange progressions can make sense as part of a cycle*, David Huron's expansion of Meyer's and Narmour's work on expectancy, Hindemith's conception of harmonic tension and how it can be generalized to plus-triadic harmonies, Weber's and Helmholtz's very different empirical examinations of music, Tenney's exploration of consonance and dissonance, etc. I want my students to explore at least some of these theories for themselves, to develop their own conceptions of harmony, as well as rhythm, timbre, and various bigger pictures like semiotics.
As I'm thinking about this, one thing I need to include in the theory curriculum is a discussion on what music theory is for. TTU Music Theory Department explains the two basic approaches, analytical and compositional. I won't repeat Michael Berry's excellent explanation, follow the link to read it. Also follow the link to read James Cook's view on what music theory is for: to explain how music is composed, and to provide a metalanguage for describing all music. I want music theory to spark new ideas on how to perform music, to spark new ideas on how to listen to music, and to inform us more on our interactions with the arts. But again, I don't want to shove my definition down the throats of the students. I want them to wrestle with this, encountering James Cook's view as well as many others.
I welcome any suggestions of reading materials, perspectives, or topics to consider as Carlos and I work on our curriculum.
*At some point I will blog about the recent Science article, "Generalized voice-leading spaces" by Callender, Quinn, and Tymoczko. This is a recent development out of neo-Riemannian theory that is quite interesting.