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    Imagining a "broader" curriculum

    What would a rigorous music theory curriculum that adopted rock, pop, and jazz (basically, modern tonal) music as central texts look like? Analysis of this music has become accepted in scholarship, and examples have made their way into textbooks, but this doesn’t seem to have changed our overall pedagogical priorities. For example, it’s rare not to have a whole chapter or two in a textbook on “Neapolitan” sixths and Augmented sixth chords, but we don’t often spend much time on (say) the tritone substitution, which is a similarly rich phenomenon.

    I’m not interested in discarding the Classical/Romantic (and some Baroque and 20th century) canon, but rather adding to. Clearly, we cannot simply add another semester or two to our curricula. But I was intrigued by some of the suggestions at the “The End of the Music History Curriculum?” session at AMS/SMT this year, and this might be an analogous conversation to have in music theory. Perhaps, as some of the presenters there suggested, we might worry less about getting through “all" of the material, and focus instead on 1. (relatively) astylistic fundamentals, 2. depth in selected areas (chosen individually by each instructor), and 3. making sure students know where to get access to more information?

    This is *not* to suggest that everyone should adopt this repertoire. I’m just wondering, for those who want to do this, what it might look like. At some point it may mean new textbooks and a greater diversity of curricula, but I think that's a ways off still.

    I’m interested in any thoughts on this—whether they address the question directly or not. Thanks!

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    • 10 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Thank you, Nicolas. I definitely believe in the importance of "strict writing," as you define it. I have other responses to your post, but they come down largely to questions about the purpose of a "music theory" curriculum--especially in a department (not school or conservatory) of music at a state school in the US. As much as those interest me, my main concern right now is with the very practical question, "How should I organize a curriculum [somewhat analysis-based, as you say] that recognizes the importance of rock, pop, and jazz to musicians today?" So I'll reserve the other thoughts for now, perhaps for a different discussion thread.

    • It seems to me that Timothy's question might be reversed, that one might wonder how and why common practice tonality was chosen as the model of theory classes. The initial choice (that of the 19th century, especially of the Paris Conservatoire) wasn't that one, but rather one of "strict writing".

      I did my classes in the tradition or the Paris Conservatoire a century ago (I mean, I did not study a century ago, it is the tradition that is that old). In Brussels, we worked on the basses et chants donnés from the Paris exercices de concours of the late 19th and early 20th century (some were particularly tricky). It never occured to us (or at least to anyone of us pondering on these questions) that any of these could have anything to do with 'real' music. I doubted the interest of such things during my studies, but I later realized that having practiced an abstract strict writing had its virtues...

      Theory classes (we did not call them "theory", they were classes d'écriture) included Harmony, Counterpoint and Fugue, in that order. Counterpoint was species counterpoint à la Cherubini (or worse, Durand), and fugue was this very abstract thing known as fugue d'école, of which Gedalge wrote: "if I treated the fugue d'École [with capital É !] separately, it is because I consider it not as a genre of composition, but as an exercise in musical rhetorics, of an arbitrary, conventional form and which does not find its complete application in [musical] practice". Gedalge further stressed that, contrarily to all fugue theoricians, he has chosen his examples in real music: "It is the only point on which all theorists agree, the proscription of the study of the great masters of fugue...". And Koechlin, in his Treatise of Harmony, writes that "the strict prohibition of successive fifths is no more reasonable, in free music, than that of the false relations or the compulsory preparation of dissonances. [...] At least, let us see in them a convention always useful in school: the 'rule of the game' – training to which the pen and the style of the student must submit." [One may note in passing that Koechlin's rules, avoidance of successive fifths or of false relations, preparation of dissonances, are contrapuntal rules: harmony, as I studied it, actually was a kind of edulcorated tonal counterpoint in four voices.]

      I suppose that Schenker's concept of "free composition" hardly can be understood without a notion of "strict writing" that our students (and many of their teachers) have lost. Since then, theory classes turned to "real" music (or, at least, to some idea of it) and, as a result, the question of including modern or ancient music, and musics of the world, besides common practice tonality, cannot be avoided and must be raised.

      What strikes me, however, is that teachers of the writing of 'real music' often base themselves on a poor analysis of the music they teach and that the style they claim to imitate is in itself questionable. If music theory must turn to a study of styles, then it must turn to analysis. Nobody wants today to learn the composition of common practice tonal music – nor, for that matter, of ancient or world music – unless for purposes of analysis. Even for modern tonal music, it seems to me that teaching students who intend to become creators of jazz or popular music is quite different from a general theory class – a class of composition is not a class of écriture. Besides, when Timothy speaks of opening the curriculum to "modern tonal music", why doesn't he include atonal music? Isn't it because atonal music would not allow any sense of "strict writing" (what Timothy calls the "canon")? – in other words, isn't it that the 19th-century idea of strict writing is still lingering?

      I do believe that a theory curriculum that wants to open to all (or several) styles of music must become a curriculum of analysis, in which the actual writing of music would appear merely as one possible means of analysis among others. It may not be without interest, at the same time, to give our students an idea of what "strict writing" has been: it had some importance in the shaping of our music...

      Nicolas Meeùs




    • There was a wonderful program in the 1980s called "Rock School" that is still available on the internet via Youtube - there are many different episodes on various styles of pop music.  It was hosted by some stellar musicians including Herbie Hancock.  The approach is direct and visual, involves examples by proficient players including clips of the giants of pop/rock/funk/reggae, etc.  Topics include basic information on instruments in the rock genre, soloing, getting the right sounds, instrumental technique, roles or the various instruments in a band, rhythm, form, and more . . . It was suggested I mention this resource.  I've included a link to an episode introduced by Herbie Hancock on reggae style:  

      Carson Farley

    • I don't know if Herbie Hancock or his colleagues have any official academic credentials. But it seems to me that the work in this video (and other Rock School videos that I have now looked at) is an excellent model for how to analyze rock/pop. Having seen these videos, why would an analyst want to try to apply "classic" techniques to the analysis of Reggae or other pop/rock? ? ?

      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • A question for Nicolas Meeùs that others may be interested in. He wrote:

      Even for modern tonal music, it seems to me that teaching students who intend to become creators of jazz or popular music is quite different from a general theory class – a class of composition is not a class of écriture.

      I'm confused by what you mean by écriture in this conext in that you are apparently saying that a "general theory class" is a "class of écriture." 

      I do believe that a theory curriculum that wants to open to all (or several) styles of music must become a curriculum of analysis, in which the actual writing of music would appear merely as one possible means of analysis among others.

      In so far as I think I understand this statement, I agree entirely. Again I am still confused by your use of "writing." I am intrigued by the notion that "actual writing of music" is a "means of analysis" rather than (in the classroom context) a demonstration of the student's understanding: e.g., prove you understand fugue by writing one, which I see as distinct from analysis. This may seem to be nit picking, but as you may know I am taken up right now with the distinction in music between "techne" and "analysis." I have come to some conclusions about the relationship which I will be presenting soon, but one possibility I had not considered was an identity of one sort or another between the two.


    • Stephen,

      I am not entirely sure myself of what I meant, but I'll try to clarify.

      I spent quite some time, during my studies (in the French Conservatoire tradition, if not in France) writing things (notes on staves) that I hesitate to call 'music', and anyway far from any idea of composing anything: I spent hours trying to solve harmony exercises in four voices in open score. I didn't dislike these exercises, but I didn't clearly understand their purpose. One might say that one purpose was to understand harmony, counterpoint or fugue; but what does "understand" mean in such case? Even class fugues do not really ressemble real fugues, and I think that understanding, say, Bach's fugues involves actively forgetting much of what was learned in fugue classes.

      Things have changed since: these classes have been complemented by classes in analysis and, in the Sorbonne at least, by classes about historical theories. Even the "writing" changed, because one now claims writing "in styles" (in classical style, in Schumann's style, in Debussy's style, etc.) — which appears to me even more purposeless than what I had done during my studies (writing in "Conservatoire style"). What is the point of writing in a (poorly defined) Schumann or Debussy style?

      In the meanwhile, I discovered Schenkerian analysis and, with it, one possible purpose of my classes d'écriture, as they are called in French conservatoires, because it made me understand that what I had done to some extent was the kind of "strict writing" (écriture stricte, enge Satz) to which Schenker refers when he speaks of freie Satz. Yet, my students in analysis had no idea any more of what écriture stricte might mean.

      My feeling now, therefore, is that in our theory curriculum at large, one is spending way too much time writing "in styles", without real purpose, while it would be so much more important to read styles (and possibly to identify traces of "strict writing" in them). I think it more important to understand what a syncope is (among others by reading it in ancient treatises) than to spend hours writing 4th-species counterpoint (our students don't do that anymore, anyway).

      Some teachers of writing in style are quite good, and I have heard Lieder or dances in Schubert style by young students that were quite convincing. These, I presume, have acquired what you call a techne. But do they produce works that would be worth analyses? One may consider it interesting to analyse their techne; but their works?




    • A bit late, here is a summary of responses to my original email.

      1. Some people suggested that there is a fundamental difference between pop-rock and "classical" music, and that (either because of the role of technology in the former, or its reliance on, in Carson Farley's words, "raw nonacademic talent") traditional theoretical/analytical teaching misses the point. Others questioned this.

      2. There were quite a few calls or suggestions for fundamental change. Christopher Doll pointed me to a series of articles and responses in the Dutch Journal of Music Theory (http://upers.kuleuven.be/nl/tvm_archief18): these include (among others) his original article suggesting a way to accomodate both hierarchical and literal ways of labeling chords, and an interesting article by Trevor de Clerq suggesting that, following astylistic fundamentals courses, the rest of a curriculum consist of style-based courses. Richard Cohn asserted that half of the curriculum should be spent on temporal aspects of music. Isaac Malitz critiqued the "note-centric" model of analysis, and suggested his OMS Model is more appropriate for classical music and also relevant to other types of music. Garrett Michaelson suggested a curriculum based on improvisation in various historical performance practices. The CMS task-force manifesto (see discussion at https://discuss.societymusictheory.org/discussion/264/cms-task-force-manifesto) is also relevant here: its authors clearly believe that contemporary jazz practice is a better model for music education.

      3. Very few people suggested ways of accomplishing my goals without fundamental change, but Scott Murphy gave an example of a thought exercise that he believes help students to think about their (I presume) traditional class in a broader context. This is somewhat along the lines of what I've been doing in my own classes.

      4. Very few people also suggested useful resources, but George J. Ferencz suggested the book Making Changes: A Practical Guide to Vernacular Harmony. I know there are other resources that aim to teach theory to those interested in commercial, popular, or jazz music, but very few that integrate these into a curriculum that also values "traditional" theory. The only one I know of, and it's not out yet, is Jennifer Snodgrass's fundamentals textbook Contemporary Musicianship.

      I'll follow this up with my conclusions.

    • I'm still not happy with where I am on this issue. The calls for fundamental change are exciting but difficult to implement. Smaller changes seem more realistic in the short term. For me, this has meant incorporating as broad a repertoire as possible into my courses, and I've found this remarkably successful so far (and it hasn't made me feel that I am giving short shrift to classical music). I've created a blog about such connections, https://musictheorybridges.wordpress.com, which I intend as a reminder to myself, a source of supplemental readings for my students, and potentially a help to other teachers with similar goals. If anyone would like to contribute to the blog, I would love to get others' ideas on there.

      It seems like, in the long term, the solution is to create a more dynamic curriculum that integrates jazz theory and respects pop-rock music too, but that's a big project--potentially made more manageable by the configurability of online resources such as Open Music Theory (http://openmusictheory.com). But I look forward to that day...

    • I should clarify that the SMT metablog mentioned above is still in development;  it has not yet been officially approved by the SMT Board  (which is why it has not yet been publicized).


      Poundie Burstein


    • Hi Tim, you should submit some of your blog posts to the SMT Discover "meta-blog" at http://discover.societymusictheory.org - I'm not sure why this site isn't being publicized yet. 

      SMT Discuss Manager
      Somewhere in the Universe