Thursday, May 29, 2008

What is Music Theory?

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.


Anonymous said...

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.

This sounds all well and good, and maybe I do misunderstand your position; but when it comes right down to it, do you not teach your students to analyze the beginning of the Waldstein sonata as "I I V⁴₂/V V6 V6 bVII bVII V⁴₂/IV IV6 iv6 V7 iv6 V7 iv6 V7 iv6 V7 i V"? (This would have driven Schenker absolutely crazy, as it does me.) For that matter, did you yourself not analyze mm. 2-3 of Chopin's E-minor Prelude as follows:

"The melody turns this dominant chord into a diminished seventh chord, which resolves as a common-tone chord to a secondary French augmented-sixth chord!" ?

Furthermore, you are guilty of an at least equally severe misunderstanding of my view on the purpose of music theory when you characterize it as "to explain how music is composed". That is what Lewis Lockwood or Barry Cooper do when they examine Beethoven's sketches. With respect to the creative process, the goal of music theory, in my view, is not to describe it, or even explain it in any historical sense, but rather to demystify it. This may be a subtle distinction, but it's an extremely important one. I'll do a post on it in the near future.

Briefly: whatever else it does, an analysis of the opening of the Waldstein sonata should take you from "How in the world could a human being possibly have made up something like that?! Out of nothing!" to "Oh, I see what's going on here; nothing mysterious. (But a clever fellow, that Beethoven!)".

On this score (pun intended), the above Roman numeral analysis fails miserably. In fact, it only makes the passage more mysterious; one would be better off just presenting the score of the piece as an analysis of itself. After all, with the score, you are least are in possession of something you can hear in your head; whereas the Roman numerals don't even give you that (at least not without requiring a tedious exercise in cryptography first).

Empiricus said...

I don't have time to go into this at length, but! But, I would like to hear your thoughts about learning (i.e., intervals, syntax, memory formation at an early age, etc.), as well as your thoughts on starting with counterpoint (at least at the collegiate level), instead of tonal harmony. It seems to me to be a more clear, understandable/grasped path than, say, Kostka/Piston/Sessions (or many others for that matter), who rely on learned schema, not "hard-wired" (I hate that term, by the way) abilities.



Sator Arepo said...

And (although I didn't realize Empiricus was already here!) I have to be a homer and recommend "Sonic Design" by Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot as an integrated, totalist approach to music theory.

Sator Arepo

PS: I am all for driving Schenker crazy.

Scott said...

Going in reverse order:

Sator, Sonic Design is a good suggestion, I'll look at ways to incorporate parts of it. I wouldn't use it as the main reference, but the sonographs alone will be fun for the students to look at.

Empiricus, Yes, counterpoint will be started early on in our curriculum, though perhaps spread throughout. Like, learn about intervals, learn first species; learn about dissonance, learn second species, etc; rather than all the species at once. As for hard-wired abilities, I think you are suggesting appealing to what the students already know/hear, rather than trying to impose a new schema based on Common Practice. I think it is important to give the students tools to explain what they are hearing. As for specific schema, I wrestle with how Common Practice-centric our curriculum should be. I want tools that can be generalized, but not so universal as to be useless, like Jay Rahn's conclusions that all musics are made of pitch and rhythm. And it comes down to the fact that we encounter all forms of music from a tonal perspective, thanks to the overlearning produced by nursery rhymes, TV jingles, most pop music, etc. Thus it is important that the students understand what tonality is, to be able to explain how these ingrained expectancies have been denied in other musical languages.

James, some of the students do latch onto Roman Numerals too much, a major reason why we are renovating the curriculum. I disagree that one can't hear Roman Numeral-ed progressions though. If I see a series of Roman Numerals such as: I - bII6 - V64-53 - I, I have a clear starting point to how that musical passage sounds. But I do agree that having a score to follow with is important, since any description in words will necessarily miss details. As for my Chopin analysis, that was a description of one aspect of the music, though still informed by my understanding of the voice-leading. I didn't supply Schenkerian graphs, because I didn't know how to upload those kinds of things to the blog, and felt the description worked as a summary of my results. The language used implies the various voice motions, to anyone familiar with this language. As for your goals for music theory, I look forward to reading your post explaining them. For now, I don't see any significant difference between my description and yours.

Shimmy said...

This is going far out from theory itself but I really like Kenny Wheeler's 'Effortless Mastery'. Your students would no longer 'wrestle' with ideas...