Music Theory Pedagogy 101

This is in follow up to my previous post titled Music Composition Pedagogy 101. Also check out the follow up to this in Music Theory Pedagogy 101 (continued). Comments, criticism, corrections, suggestions, and overall beefs are more than welcome in the comments below.

1. There are no rules, only conventions. The language that you use in order to communicate the subject to your students essentially defines the students’ relationship to the material. Rules connote there is a right and wrong and without a lucid historically contextualized approach (which most theory courses lack—more on this later), music theory can quickly spiral into a confusing list of do’s and don’ts that appear to be universal. Numerous times I have had to mollify my fellow students’ confusion outside of the classroom walls when they have spotted a musical work that does not adhere to the “rules” taught to them in their classes. I have witnessed passionate musicians (especially pianists, who encounter harmonic writing much more frequently than many of their peers) just beginning their academic training leave the classroom with a severe distrust of their teachers because they regularly encounter music that does not adhere to the “rules” taught to them in the classroom. “Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff wrote parallel octaves for the left hand all the time!” or “All of the popular/rock music that I love uses parallel fifths.” or “But I write parallel fifths constantly in my own music.” or “What about power chords?”

Implying a right and a wrong with no accompanying sense of historical or stylistic context almost does more harm than good to budding musicians who could otherwise benefit from thorough training in the subject. The proper preparation and resolution of 7ths, chord voicings, note doublings, and harmonic progressions are not universal principles. Do not act or teach as if they are. Questions such as those recounted above should be preemptively addressed by clearly explaining what the principles in class and in theory textbooks mean historically, when they were applicable, why they were applicable, and why the students are being “forced” to learn them now. All of this should be discussed within the context of increasing the students overall creative musicianship and their understanding of the music of the past and how that music has influenced and will likely continue to influence the music of the present.

2. Constantly reiterate that the vast majority of music theory was created in order to understand and explain pre-existing music, and that, with relatively few exceptions, the theory has rarely preceded the music itself. Go out of your way divide the too-often conflated notions of descriptive vs. prescriptive theory. Rule-driven music has its dangers (whether it is “tonal” or “atonal”), as does music that pretentiously decides to proceed without any reference to any rules or conventions whatsoever (a creative impossibility).

3. There is no “rule” more menacing to music theory students than parallel octaves and parallel fifths. Before proceeding with any other principles ensure that each student has a thorough historical understanding regarding the stylistic use of parallel fifths in medieval and early renaissance music, and the common practice trend towards prohibiting them in order to both generate independent voice-leading and distinguish the music from popular and folk idioms.

The “why” of such stylistically localized principles should always be coupled with the instruction of the principles themselves. Additionally, a discussion of how the aesthetic values of a particular culture or period contributed to the development of such musical conventions can enrich, clarify, and ultimately generate more accurately informed, thoughtful, and creative musicians. Firstly, don’t assume that your students will or ought to receive this type instruction in their other required music classes. If you do not teach it to them, chances are no one will. Secondly, do not assume that your students are not intellectually mature or curious enough to either understand or find such discussions interesting. Too much harm is done by a combination of ineffective pedagogy and the underestimating of students’ potential (of all ages!).

4. The entire class should be presented as an inquiry into the musical conventions of the past. This would solve much of the rule-based thinking that stumps and rubs many musicians the wrong way (“Hey, I thought music was art. What’s up with all these stingy rules?”). It would also serve to veer the entire enterprise of music education away from the extremely past-biased repertoire , and hopefully would direct more students attention to the fact that they live in the 21st-century, and that twelve-tone music, serialism, and minimalism are all very old news. (Can anybody else think of an art so stuck on the past that they still refer to works created over 50 years ago as “contemporary”, let alone “new”? Good grief!)

5. When 20th-century theory is presented, please follow it with a discussion of music in the latter half of the 20th-century, and then proceed with a discussion of music in the 21st-century. Talk about music now. Do your entire academic discipline a favor and blast people out of the paradigm that is so bent on the past that it more closely resembles archaeology than a living, breathing art.

Ask your students to bring in some music of their own that was written or recorded within the past 3 years. (Yes. 3-years. Can we please stop pretending that analyzing the music of The Beatles somehow brings us all the way up to the present day? Or does The Ed Sullivan Show make you feel all hip, new, and “contemporary”?). Talk about aesthetics in popular culture, and how a lot of “popular” music values elements other than complex harmonic progressions and elegant counterpoint. A good deal of popular music (even the really popular stuff—boy bands anyone?) is significantly more complex than most concert music in terms of timbral diversity (and specificity!—the amount of care, sensitivity, and time spent by many recording engineers and producers to refine the sound of a single snare drum would blow many concert composers away. Compare this to the old “write ‘snare drum’ in the score and be pleased with whatever the percussionist pulls out of the closet and puts on stage” mentality), vocal inflections, cultural borrowing, etc. All of these things are music theory, and ought to be discussed and addressed.

Do not strip popular music of its most interesting elements in an “I-told-you-this-doesn’t-compare-to-bach” fashion by merely transcribing it into conventional notation and analyzing harmonies and rhythms. You might as well give your students grapes and then talk about how they don’t have the green spikey stems or the fibrous texture of pineapples, and therefore aren’t nearly as interesting or relevant.

Contextualize. Contextualize. Contextualize. Insist on recounting the western canon’s Austro-Germanic obsession and how this has influenced aesthetic values (i.e. harmony, counterpoint, organicism). This will likely not be discussed at all in your students’ music history courses. Spill the ethnocentric beans for them.

3 thoughts on “Music Theory Pedagogy 101”

  1. Hi! Remember me? It’s been awhile… OSB documentary finally found a full time editor (not me because unfortunately I have other full time job now) …. Will be looking for composition in the summer…. Not sure if you are still down (hope so, though). A-n-y-w-a-y, this post reminded me of this other post I recently read about music and formulas: Music Is What Numbers Feel Like … completely different perspective and only loosely related, but thought I’d share because you may find it interesting. I hope all is well with you and your endeavors.

  2. Good to hear from you, Amira! I have been wondering about you and the OSB project lately. I figured that other things had eaten up all your time 🙂 That’s OK. I hope I’ll have time this summer for a project like that; I’m going to be moving somewhere for a doctoral composition program (don’t know where yet). I’ll check out that link, and do keep in touch!

  3. Inspiring stuff. I too have been upset with students’ perceptions of rules, rules, rules. I like to emphasize that theory should reflect how music is heard. Isn’t it amazing that everyone in “western” culture has internalized such a complex grammar? Though they may not be able to explain it, most people know instinctively when notes sound wrong. How? Pretty amazing!

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