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Greg Sandow's advice to those who teach music theory

Greg Sandow recently published an entry on his blog, "Sandow", which is titled "Music Theory for a New Century." He had a number of things to say that may interest the list, especially in view of the upcoming discussion on the CMS manifesto. But since I assume Mr. Sandow won't be attending the conference (nor will I, unfortunately), I took the liberty of inviting him to add to the discussion here at SMTDiscuss and share his wisdom re theory, analysis, what to teach & how to teach it - especially since he is now doing consulting work on curricula with faculties at DePauw, NC-Greensboro & other schools. Please do read the essay/sermon on his blog. (My opinion can be inferred from the comment I left on his blog, which I assume he will post, & I will not add anything here since I would only get in the way.)

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  • 14 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
  • Stephen, Did you comment using your real name? If so, it hasn't posted yet.


    Hi @jenaroot,

    Yes, I did comment with my real name at around 11am. He hasn't posted my comment yet yet.


  • Thank you so much for sharing this Stephen.  I have received several emails in the past 24 hours with this link.  I would love to know more about the outcomes of the consulting.  How are schools like UNCG altering their curriculum in order to accomodate some of the ideas presented in this post? Is there a different curriculum for our music performance majors and our music industry majors?  I am incredibly hopeful that the panel at SMT will be able to respond to some of these ideas, using data from the survey (over 350 responses!) and from current research.  I think the survey will show that many of us ARE incorporating popular music (jazz included) and we ARE incorporating composition.....all while studying the great classical masterworks that made many of us fall in love with the study of music theory in the first place. I'm looking forward to the discussion at SMT at the end of this month.

  • I note that Greg Sandow talks specifically  about conservatory music theory training. His view might well be colored by the fact that he teaches at Juilliard. He notes that many of his Juilliard students have never heard of Charlie Parker. But is this typical of music students in general--especially those who study in non-conservatory settings? My guess is that far more music-major students in most other schools would be more familiar with that music of Charlie Parker than they are, for instance, with that of Elliot Carter,

    If I understand it correctly, Sandow's argument is not that music theory teaching in universities should incorporate popular music, jazz, and other musics. As Jennifer Snodgrass suggests, this is already done in many (if not most) schools (though whether universities should do more of this could be a matter for discussion). Rather, his point is that is even conservatories that are geared towards teaching classical musicians--among whom are many who have thus far never shown interest in jazz, pop, or any musics other than classical music--should nonetheless introduce these other styles within the music theory classroom.

    Poundie Burstein


  • I'm sure Greg Sandow is thinking about it & will post & reply to my comment on his blog in his own good time. But until then, here is the comment I posted to his blog 24 hours ago:


    Steve Soderberg says

    October 4, 2015 at 11:10 am

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Heloo, Greg.

    I haven’t been keeping up with your career, so if this is something you’ve already blogged about already, sorry, I missed it. CMS (College Music Society) put out a report in November 2014, “Transforming Music Study from its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors”


    It would seem unlikely that you missed it since, as far as I can tell, your post reads like it was taken right out of the CMS manifesto (not word for word, of course). Plus, since you say you have been consulting at NC-Greensboro & DePauw on the subject, it would be difficult to believe they didn’t mention the manifesto which has created such a stir that it will be a major topic of discussion at the SMT (Society for Music Theory) conference in St. Louis the end of this month. There will be a panel discussion focussed on the manifesto which will include Dr. Steven Laitz, someone you likely know since he’s Chair of Theory & Analysis at Juilliard & also teaches at Eastman. I believe these are both schools you’ve had some contact with, so perhaps you’ve also had some input from him about your current interest.

    So since you haven’t been invited to be on the panel with those who actually teach theory & analysis, my suggestion (no charge) is that you make your unique contribution to the music pedagogy community before the St. Louis meeting. You can easily do this on line by going to the SMT discussion list at


    If I’m allowed by the SMTDiscuss moderator, I will open a slot for you under the “Pedagogy” category titled “Greg Sandow’s advice to those who teach music theory” so that others may comment on your blog entry and its relevance – I think you’ll be pleased to find some who will agree with your points and welcome your support – or maybe not; it’s hard to predict just how a random sample from a thousand theory teachers will react to some of your insights into their field. I will link to your blog post to make sure everyone reads your comments (you’re welcome for the clicks – my pleasure).

    – Steve



  • Without oversimplifying this "predicament," I think there are a few key reasons "classical" music is perceived to be imperiled.  1. New technology is more interesting to the current generations of musicians and why shouldn't it be.  2. Musical education in public secondary education is unfunded, relegated to elective status, or in the worst case non existent.  3. Musical careers are difficult for a majority of musicians not in the top tiers of talent. 4. Many music schools emphasize the academic historical aspects of music education rather than looking forward to contemporary needs (do physics students spend as much time on the physics/physicists of the past as music students spend on the music/musicians of the past or is there more emphasis on current scientific knowledge?).  5. It seems that older generations are always concerned about their "canon" disappearing - students are no longer reading Homer!  They don't know who Stravinsky is!  6. Instead of teaching musical theory as a practical useful subject for real musicians, it is an erudite, removed, selective, restricted endeavor for an elite group who wave the flag of high art, useless Schenkarian analysis, incomprehensible texts and thesis for privileged scholars.  In spite of it all, music marches forward as it always does.  And maybe the truth is that some of the most powerful music in our recent time is not the result of academics, but rather a real raw musical talent and forward looking energy.  Maybe there's too much emphasis on the historical "classical" tradition and not enough emphasis on what is useful to contemporary musicians.  A final comment - this post is intended to be humorous!

  • 5. It seems that older generations are always concerned about their "canon" disappearing - students are no longer reading Homer!  They don't know who Stravinsky is!  

    Some of my students don't know who the Beatles are. That worries me more.


  • This discussion appears to me to lead us back to that about "what do we call music theory" of not so long ago. To me, music history is a discipline, and a research, that began in the West, say, 25 or 26 centuries ago, and that produced hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of important texts; in non Western countries it may have begun even earlier, but may have produced a lesser number of texts – which may only mean that we in the West are more talkative.

    To reject such a long tradition as unfashionable seems to me despising even for the musics presented here (or by Greg Sandow) as if they knew better: jazz, rock, pop, or whatever. All of these are products of these centuries of theoretical thinking, and proudly so – this is one of the main reasons why they deserve our attention. I find it personally ridiculous both to believe that these 25 centuries of theory merely concern "classical music", and that these other musics, however you call them, could do without. As they say, "if you think knowledge is useless, try ignorance".

    But, or course, we may not be speaking of the same "theory of music". [I, for one, took my first hour of counterpoint class ***ty years ago; I found it so useless that I never took a second one. I had already read Fux, Jeppesen, and probably a few others.]



  • Hi Nicolas, 

    I do agree with you and as an educated musician I greatly value and rely on the centuries of music theory and history necessary for a comprehensive education.  I would not be the musician I am without exposure to that knowledge and my work as a composer would be the less without that breadth of teleological understanding [Western] history, art, and culture offer.  I hope you understand it was a somewhat satirical response after veiwing a rather interesting program on CSPAN (a public non commercial television channel in the United States dealing with serious political, intellectual and cultural subject matter) regarding the current state of Humanities in America discussed by a panel of academics, writers and journalists.  A very esteemed university professor was lamenting that students were no longer exposed or interested in the Western canon (specifically Homer and Stravinsky, classical music, or even Jazz for that matter).  A black student then asked the question if there were other books and works that weren't just as important as the professor's list and is it correct to assume that there is one "cultural" standard for culture?  

    In contrast, I'd like to talk about the contemporary professional musician.  I was recently in New York City on a cultural trip for serious music concerts at Julliard, famous jazz clubs, theater, clubs, etc., not to mention visiting all the great museums.  My question is this - are New York's working professional musicians [really] using Schenkarian analysis?  Are the musicians playing in the theaters [really] using the technical tools of scholastic theory?  Are the members of the NY Philharmonic using Schenkarian analysis to prepare their orchestral parts?  Are the musicians performing for live television studios in NYC using academic theory as a necessary tool for their work?  Maybe yes, maybe no - there is no doubt they are highly trained.  I would like to know if conductors of major symphony orchestras around the world [really] use Schenkarian analysis to inform their performances.  I believe there is a real world for the performing working musician in today's musical environment and an academic world doing research - and I do believe both are important.  My question is, and this relates to the original post which suggested interest and sustainability (and employment) of classical music (in the U.S. at least) is waning - are we emphazing one over the other at the expense of the other in regards to theory education and is a change or adjustment in order?  If one is honest, a vast amount of professional media work in the field of music: television, film, multimedia is music technology oriented: software, synthesis, hardware, and electronic music technology in general. I would argue this is an important and necessary tool for contemporary professional musician training (but has very little to do with the historical canon).   So perhaps we need to emphasize the present and future as well as the past moving forward or at least consider it as requiring some important educational space?  

    In my opinion, any musician worth their salt will seek out learning from whatever source they need to fuel their creativity.  In that regard I beleive the black student mentioned above had a valuable point - there are other important cultural resources besides the traditonal ones that inform the creative mind.  I've often thought that if you tell a student there are specific resolutions for a diminished 7th chord they will learn that information.  On the other hand if you present a diminished 7th chord to students and say "come up with some resolutions and progressions for this chord" I guarantee they will come up with some solutions outside the conventional wisdom if they are not told "how" a diminished 7th chord should behave.  One only has to look at Jazz to see that there are many possible usages for a diminished 7th chord besides those used in classical music and that expands the definition for diminished 7th chords.   

  • As relates to Music Theory For A New Century, a topic I have seen in many forms, discussions and variations on SMT, I finally have some clarity that has alluded me for some time.  A disclaimer first - I am not a university theory professor; however I did study theory at the University of Washington and I do teach music privately as a cellist, composer, bassist, and I have taught theory and computer music applications to individual students as well.  Music theory is imbedded in every thing I teach at every level in every lesson as conceptual necessity.  No student is too inexperienced or advanced for the integration of theory as essential information regardless of instrument, style, or genre.  Theory illuminates concept, form, pattern, and essential information about music at every step.   My own experience with music education is a long road through the historical canon of Western Music as I'm sure it is/was for most formally trained musicians - counterpoint, harmony, periods, styles, form, history, performance, analysis, ear training, repertoire . . . and the point as related to the topic is that this is a circuitous approach.  I am not criticizing that approach otherwise I would not have spent my entire life studying music . . .  and continue to study it!  

    But must we always take the longest way possible?  The fear is that anything not learned in depth and great detail will only skim the surface of knowledge and result in shallow incomplete information.  How can a student understand this without understanding that How can anyone understand anything without having gone through the motions?  And of course there is no substitute for hard work and the years spent learning one's craft.  

    So let me present an idea or two which do not follow that path.  Let's use a high standard to begin with - suppose you wanted to train a music student in NY, Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo, or any other major cultural center for the musical work they would encounter as professional musicians now.  What would that entail?  Would a musician in those environs need to know about music technology?  Would they need to read jazz charts, show biz charts?  What would they encounter if they were working in television or media?  What would they need to know if they were doing commercial music or pop music?  What would they need to know about the bushiness of music?  Would they need to know how to create promotional materials and internet content for publicity?  I'm not suggesting formal traditional education does not address this or prepare musicians for their trade - I am suggesting that content and focus can be presented with an emphasis on current necessity in a manner different than traditional methods.  What essential information as related to musical theory (if not just for scholars) would be important to the contemporary musician?  Can the accumulated knowledge of counterpoint, harmony, voice leading, modern language be compressed into more direct useful applications?  

    If necessity is the mother of invention, I say Yes it can.   I am not advocating anyone change the sacred methods and coursework or that the suggestion of a different approach is the answer.  All I'm saying is that there are musicians who need ergonomic up to date information about the musical practice and reality of their own time and what's wrong with jumping in there and taking it head on?  Human minds are very adaptive and there are different ways of learning.  Many subjects and learning are taught in this manner.  The military teaches recruits what they need to know in a very direct manner so they can perform specific tasks with precision and there is a great deal of technology in the armed forces.  So before I am lambasted and laughed at - this is my response for Music Theory For A New Century.  Make some avenues of musical theory (not all of them) more direct and related to the time we live in and the needs of today's musicians and at least consider direct learning that does not take the long road through history as the only way to teach music theory.   

  • As Nicolas said, to continue this discussion would be to continue the previous one about "what do we call music theory?" We (the "field") cannot "fix" something – or even determine whether or not it needs "fixing" – if we are not able to agree on what "it" is or, at a minimum given its fluid nature, what its function is or ought to be. Given that lack, the definition of the subject, individually intuited and all over the map, is up for grabs to anyone with an opinion (informed or not). Such a discussion would be not only a continuation of the one several months ago, but a continuation of a much older debate and professional confusion/disagreement. I would think that such a discussion would be a necessary prelude to the discussion to take place in St. Louis about the Manifesto – just what is it that you are intending (or want) to teach??

    I can't leave this without saying a word of thanks to Greg Sandow who, employing yet again – boldly and without embarrassment – the fallacy of confirmation bias (think "cherry picking") in support of a popular nonsense claim (argumentum ad populum), has reminded me of a relevant dispute that kicked up in the late 60s between Edward Cohn and David Lewin. It should have been referenced in the previous discussion of "what is theory?" here & I kick myself for not thinking of it at the time (my own self-absorption blindness - we all suffer from it now and then, some more than others). Here are Mr. Sandow's words:

    One other thing.... Have you ever read Edward T. Cone’s paper called “The Limits of Analysis”? He takes one of the Schoenberg Op. 33 piano pieces and inverts it. Now all the 12-tone analysis ever done of it still works. But the music sounds terrible. One thing people might (and do) mistakenly take from theory study, as theory has traditionally been taught, is the idea that theory and analysis tell us the most essential truths about western classical music. While as Cone shows, there are things analysis can’t get at that are even more important.

    He's probably getting the title confused with Stanley Rosen's Limits of Analysis, but any music theorist (I still assume) understands he's referring to Cone's PNM article "Beyond Analysis". But the title confusion is not the problem.

    With his own value judgement injected into Cone's thesis and specific example (-- "But the music sounds terrible"), he embraces Cone as his authority (-- "... as Cone shows" baldly stated = argumentum ab auctoritate). He then supresses the famous and at least equally authoritative reply to Cone, Lewin's "Behind the Beyond". This fulfills perfectly the definition of cherry picking. But beyond the caution, "Do not take an A from this man", I will refrain from going all ad hominem on Mr. Sandow by suggesting possible motives.

    However, I do think that Mr. Sandow's attempt to enlist Cone to establish a point I highly doubt Cone would subscribe to, actually wins the point for David Lewin in one of his criticisms of the Cone article, to wit, the dangers inherent in Cone's article if it is "carelessly read." Cone replies to that concern in "Behind the Beyond: Mr. Cone Responds" by essentially saying his position has been made abundantly clear previously and he can't take responsibility for the "inattentive" reader; Cone: "I hope, and I believe I have the right to expect, that the reader of Perspectives realizes that I have no sympathy with the know-nothings; and that I have no desire to 'discourage rational critical thought.'" So it's fair to ask whether Sandow's omission makes Lewin's point. I think it does.

    Finally, and not entirely unrelated to my previous remarks, I would like to lend support to @Nicolas Meeùs' comment above. I don't expect much participation here, so this is FWIW. My own position goes a step beyond "Behind the Beyond" (but that for another time if someone can afford my consultation fee). Though Nicolas and I may have differences in how we define and purpose "music theory" and which came first, the analysis or the egg, I am in full agreement with his statement above. Especially worth repeating:

    To reject such a long tradition as unfashionable seems to me despising even for the musics presented here (or by Greg Sandow) as if they knew better: jazz, rock, pop, or whatever. All of these are products of these centuries of theoretical thinking, and proudly so – this is one of the main reasons why they deserve our attention. I find it personally ridiculous both to believe that these 25 centuries of theory merely concern "classical music", and that these other musics, however you call them, could do without. As they say, "if you think knowledge is useless, try ignorance".


  • S_Soderberg quotes Greg Sandow:

    He takes one of the Schoenberg Op. 33 piano pieces and inverts it. Now all the 12-tone analysis ever done of it still works.

    But what is a "12-tone analysis"? Would he be thinking of numbering the pitch classes from 0 to 11 (or from 1 to 12)? Of course, this works in both directions (and upside down, or whatever); but it certainly is not an analysis! Numbering the pitch classes of a 12-tone piece merely is verifying that the piece is indeed a 12-tone one.

    I'd like to find where Célestin Deliège wrote "Analysis is about things that you don't hear"; I think he said it, but never wrote it. And I trust that he meant "Analysis is about things that you didn't hear before you analyzed them". I used to teach that analysis is about what one does not hear, and that the only way to check an analysis is to listen; my students took me for a fool.

    It is very unfortunate that, most often, when people criticize analysis (or this or that particular method of analysis), or theory, they merely know nothing of what they are speaking about.



  • Nicolas, I have no idea what Sandow is thinking (I gave up on that years ago), nor what may be going on in classrooms when they get to the unit on 12-tone. But my guess is that yes, there's a lot of note counting passing as analysis – which is no more than the serial version of the popular game, Find the V7. All this is at best pre-analytical (did I just invent a new term?) & a door into the house, but it's hardly the house.

    For those who wish to read the entire Cone-Lewin debate that took place on the pages of PNM, cites are given below. (Those who don't have access to copies of PNM can read all three articles for free by registering with MyJSTOR & using their "Read Online (beta)") There's also a related post-debate commentary from Lewin in a letter to Oliver Neighbour about his "Three Hats" approach (go directly to the long quote at the end of the page & skip the rest).


    Beyond Analysis

    Edward T. Cone

    Perspectives of New Music

    Vol. 6, No. 1 (Autumn - Winter, 1967), pp. 33-51



    Behind the Beyond: A Response to Edward T. Cone

    David Lewin

    Perspectives of New Music

    Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring - Summer, 1969), pp. 59-69



    Behind the Beyond: Mr. Cone Replies

    Perspectives of New Music

    Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring - Summer, 1969), pp. 70-72



  • I don't really understand why the "knowledge is useless" statement came to the surface?  Is there something wrong with looking at the present state of things?  Do physicists spend their time in the physics of the past?  Does modern medicine plow over the history of medicine when researching new paths and treatments in medicine?  Do engineers use methods from antiquity when building modern structures?  No one said, and certainly not me that the Western Canon was not vital to the understanding of music and music theory specifically.  What I did say is that contemporary usage, language, technology should be considered as important to today's musicians as part of their training.  Somehow a misconception or misunderstanding generated the word "ignorance."  I am a professional working musician who plays classical, jazz, and pop music for a living.  A lot of the knowlege I use as a musician for my work is not always found in academic historical theory - recording and studio work involves a lot of musical technology.  The language of jazz is also more recent, and though related to traditional music theory in so many ways (which has been invaluable in informing my understanding of jazz), it is separate from the classical canon in other ways - lot's of charts musicians read nowadays are more closely resembling jazz charts.  I challenge anyone to survey how much music technology is involved in the modern media, what film/television composers/performers do/use, etc.  It's unfair to equate contemporary focus of a discipline or profession as a disregard for historical knowledge.  I sometimes get the impression that many in this field have retreated into their own Glass Bead Game.  Again I restate my thoughts - what would a professional musician find valuable as related to training and yes . . . (musical theory) working in any major cultural city of importance?   And is it wrong to at least consider some focus on contemporary practices that a musician encounters in their own time?  Is it important to understand notation software?  Is it important to understand digital recording technology?  Is it important to understand electronic music synthesis and sound production?  Is it important to understand computer/software applications?  It is for me . . . I'm a working musician (who studied music theory).  I love knowlege - old and new.  Contemporary music practices outside the scope of academic theory pose no threat to knowledge and are certainly not "useless."