Music Theory Pedagogy 101, continued

This post is an extension of the original Music Theory Pedagogy 101.

1. Music, an artistic discipline which is already struggling socially and economically, ought not further burden itself by educating its future professionals in such a way that its adherents treat ideas as stagnant insipid a priori givens as opposed to fluid and questionable descriptions. As an educator, one of my personal mantras is to equip and encourage my students with the gall to someday perform ideological mutiny. Perpetuating traditions of what has been done while failing to inspire students to explore what can be done is not education, but indoctrination.

2. Music isn’t derived from theory anymore than weather is derived from meteorology. Both music theory and meteorology are attempts to describe and, in some cases, explain preexisting phenomena. To teach or speak as if music “follows” rules, or “adheres” to the predefined aesthetic injunctions of pencil pushers is not only patently false, but also places academics behind in the very game that they need to be ahead in: providing insightful tools for describing, understanding and ultimately enjoying the consumption and practice of music.

3. Tools should always be presented as such. For example: species counterpoint was codified by Fux as a pedagogical tool to essentially mimic the conventions he perceived as being fundamental to Palestrina’s style. Your students need to know this context. Without it, a topic such as species counterpoint appears to be an assumed set of universal and arbitrary rules for composition agreed upon by ivory towered academics. Everyday experience teaches students that the vast majority of music they encounter does not follow these rules. Do not proceed until this apparent incongruence is accounted for.

4. Multiplicities of approaches should always be offered. Specialization is what Ph.D.s are for, and even under the guise of such advanced degree programs, myopia is an ever-present danger.

5. One does not need to “learn the rules before they can break them.” This oft-repeated and markedly corrupt platitude stifles many of our discipline’s best minds. What is so painfully obvious to students, yet is easily forgotten by fusty professors, must be reinforced in the classroom: there are no rules unless we create and enforce them ourselves! This is an extension of what I stated in my original post: there are no rules, only conventions.

6. Put theory in its place; it’s made up; it’s fiction; it’s storytelling, and storytellers always have a role in choosing the kinds of stories they tell and the methods they use to tell them. Even the most essentiallizing and quasi-scientific quantitative theoretical engagements must, before musical analysis even begins, first proceed with a hypothesis. The answers you get depend upon the questions you ask.

Music theory is rarely presented as a cultural construct, incorrectly elevating the level of the discourse to one consisting of supposed facts and figures. Theory textbooks, similarly, in their implicit collusion, more closely resemble pedagogical tools in the field of mathematics than something emerging from the humanities. McClary has claimed that it is in fact this very “tendency [which] permits music to claim to be the result not of human endeavor, but of rules existing independent of humankind.” This psuedo-scientific discourse, as previously stated, contributes to the ersatz dialectical oppositions of which the moralized language of virtually any theory classroom is indicative. Acoustics, perhaps, is the only subject which could properly assume such an ostensibly objective level of discourse, and acoustics unfortunately remains one of the many arenas in which musicians are generally undereducated.

The fact that many of the concepts in music theory (triadic harmony, harmonic progression, counterpoint, structural cohesion, set theory, etc.) are not merely descriptive, but extraordinarily selective in their approach, is extremely problematic, and this is compounded by the persistent modernist streams among theorists in the twentieth century that have occasionally insisted on the primacy and ostensive objectivity of their methods. All of this wouldn’t be nearly as troublesome if it was simply addressed head-on in the classroom, but such engagement with historical ideology and the panoply of perspectives which are possible is rare, indeed. If theoretical tools and their biases were historicized and problematized for students at the outset of their training, and constantly revisited throughout their studies, then creativity and critical thinking would flourish among musicians; instead, rather unfortunately, many of the brightest students only parrot their teacher’s implied and often inherited, aesthetics, as if they were coming from the mouth of Hanslick himself.

Classroom teaching often proceeds in such a manner, engaging in such a biased discourse, that the student is unable to decipher between inalterable givens (properties of acoustics) and cultural constructions (scales, tonic/dominant, counterpoint, and everything else under the sun). It is the strict adherence to these cultural constructions, and the adamant unqualified prohibition of alternate perspectives which effectively generates swaths of music students and professionals who not only fail to actively engage alternative music and music making, but also unnecessarily, and sometimes arrogantly, judge them to be inferior based on outmoded premises and Adornian cultural assumptions that no longer accurately describe mass culture and aesthetic hierarchy in the twenty-first century.

Even the most benign music theory lecture (intervals anyone?) can quickly spiral into a project seemingly obsessed with identification, and “calling” things what they actually are. In this process, the identified often become confused with the identifiers, overlooking the fact that the only reason labels are attached to such things is so that we can clearly and effectively communicate to one another about them. Nothing is actual except the music itself (and what constitutes the “music itself” is a discussion which should be had in every classroom at least once). Reiterating that music theory fundamentals consist primarily of abstracted concepts provides a playing field to students that is open to creativity, interpretation, discussion, and education.

7. Suggest to your students that the elements that “don’t fit” are what generates interesting art. The “difficult” elements are what make us return to art again and again, those elements which are contentious, or foil our neat and tidy systems of categroizaion and labeling. Teaching your students about the beauty of ambiguity can free them from what, to them, may appear to be a dogmatic, rule-ridden enterprise, which, as I’ve already pointed out, is often not very far from the truth.

Although theorists themselves are sometimes fond of those issues that are difficult, and whose multi-dimensionality leaves room for reinterpretation, most theory students, rather, are likely under the impression that theorists, instead, value that which conforms; in the classroom it often appears as if what is valued are those things which are easily digested by our paradigm, and anything that doesn’t fit is, . . . well . . . “wrong”. It’s not.

8. Instead of treating music as if it were merely an embellishment of theory, a construction based on theoretical blueprints, consciously employ the habit of treating theory as a mere construction, a simplified description of music. In the western world we are often faced with the overpowering temptation to create abstractions and then treat the abstractions as more real than reality; it as if the theory itself is somehow actual, and the music is a figment, an ornamental extension of what exists in the Platonic-Pythagorean realm of theory. Turn this tendency on its head. Musical practice is real. Theory is merely an attempt to describe the shadows on the walls of our dimly lit cave.

9. In this vein (see 8), obliterate your students obsession with the actual and replace it with an informed sense of interpretation.


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