Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Music Theory Apologetics

I can understand why professional musicians sometimes develop a hatred of "music theory." They were forced to take tests on part-writing, chord labeling, non-chord tone labeling, and other hyper-focused details that killed a little part of their souls each time they took those tests. I'm killing some souls right now as I write this post, with a classroom of sophomores busily creating a form diagram of Beethoven's Bagatelle No. 8 in G minor, Op. 119, No. 1 and realizing figured bass progressions with lovely augmented sixth chords. But any good music theory teacher would emphasize that music theory doesn't stop with labeling. The analysis begins after the labeling is done. Knowing what the chords are, what the form is, what the contour of the melody is, these are the musical facts that are used to shape and defend an interpretation of the music. And it is that interpretation that is the analysis. Knowing this, I am frustrated when I read Jeremy Denk providing an excellent analysis of Bach's Violin Sonata BWV 1017, and come to this statement:
That’s why it sometimes seems to me that music theory is one of the most despicable disciplines there is, because you’d probably label the bass of that magical chord a “passing tone,” and once you’ve labeled it a passing tone it’s a bit deflating … doink!, it goes in the bin with all the other passing tones. Somewhat like passing through Trenton on your way to Philadelphia: unremarkable. In the same way, once you call something Spaghetti and Meatballs, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ve understood anything about pasta, or that you should serve it to paying customers, or why a pianist might eat such a ridiculous thing before a concert, or any of the related questions that might come up. But Bach had that way of using passing tones so that you could meditate on the passing-ness of things, what it is to pass, to move on, to leave beauties behind … of labeling the labels with meaning, breathing life back into the most basic, even the most unassuming, words.

Notice that right after Jeremy criticizes music theory for labeling a note, he uses that exact label to explain his interpretation of the beauty of that note. It is indeed a lovely passing-ness, and yes it is different from other passing tones. But it is still a passing tone, and that identification of the context is what helps to figure out why the previous chord can be interpreted as existing in two worlds, or two time-lines.

My guess is that Jeremy would correct himself that he meant "bad" music theory, the kind that does indeed stop at labels without providing any interpretation. I know those kinds of music theory classes exist, for two reasons: 1) The classes are so huge that the teacher has no time to get beyond the basics, as the prospect of grading 100 analytical papers for a single class is very daunting. 2) The bad theory class is taught by a studio professor whose only theory training was another bad undergraduate theory program. The teacher finds him/herself teaching a subject s/he hates because s/he didn't recruit enough bagpipers to fill the studio. However, too many people read these statements, or make them themselves, and start forgetting the crucial "bad", blaming the discipline instead of bad teachers.

So, don't hate the game, hate the bad playas.

7 comments:

HT, with T for Teh said...

It's despicable sometimes, isn't it? Other times, I wonder if the best kind of analyses succeed in sublating the pleasures of music into the pleasures of the text...

CM Zimmerman said...

Nicholas Cook has some powerful passages early on in his 'Music, Imagination, Culture' concerning Schenkerian analysis. I can look through my notes for the specific passages, but Cook argues that a performer's interpretation can certainly be broadened or deepened through analysis of the work, but the analysis should only be used as a tool in the construction of an interpretation. Problems arise, as usual, when entering ideology. The ideological use of music theory has contributed to the 'specialization' of the music and the resulting intimidation and exclusion of audiences.

HT, with T for Teh said...

Well said, and I quote David Lewin's own "post-Bloomian" concerns over the integrity of music theory's poem-of-a-poem status:

"My skeptic will point out that this symphony is an exceptionally "dramatic" one, and ask how my contentions would fare in connection with less dramatic music. Here, finally, I must call a halt. As I said before, I am not proclaiming the virtues of any one mode of perception over all others.I am only concerned that our society encourages us to ignore some of those modes. To the skeptic above I say, "Find me a piece we both like that you are convinced is neither poetic nor dramatic. Then we shall discuss the matter further.""

Scott said...

I can see a good analysis a) reminding the reader why the music is so pleasurable, b) pointing the way to different performance opportunities, c) teaching the reader or analyst about themselves, and/or d) revealing other aspects of the piece or of life. Can an analysis be an end in itself? Just as much as any artwork or communication can be.

Scott D. Strader said...

Denk seems to be railing primarily on the basis of nomenclature, contriving a complaint that "passing" also connotes ephemeral and therefore the specific mood of the phrase is diminished. His argument is not compelling--and I want to doubt that he himself believes it. However, I can see how others, predisposed to rail against what they see as the tyranny that analysis imposes upon art, might be convinced.

And that's a shame.

CM Zimmerman said...

Susan McClary, in her afterword to Attali's 'Noise', provides some thought-food: 'The tendency to deal with music by means of acoustics, mathematics, or mechanistic models preserves its mystery (accessible only to a trained priesthood), lends it higher prestige in a culture that values quantifiable knowledge over mere expression, and conceals the ideological basis of its conventions and repertories.'

She also writes: '...non trained listeners are prevented from talking about social and expressive dimensions of music (for they lack the vocabulary to refer to its parts) and so are trained musicians (for they have been taught, in learning the proper vocabulary, that music is strictly self-contained structure).'

Scott said...

CM, that is an interesting point about the alienating effect of terminology. And yet, do we complain about alienating terminology in physics or psychology? If one is going to express nuanced thoughts, advanced tools and terminology is needed. That shouldn't discourage neophytes from expressing their thoughts about music in whatever language they can access. And most music historians would be shocked to hear that they have not taught their students about the social contexts that affect music. Of course, Susan McClary announced at the last SMT conference that she considered herself more of a theorist than a musicologist these days, so I wonder how much she actually agrees with that quote anymore.