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I recently attended the SMT special session entitled "Corralling the Chorale: Moving Away from SATB." The session provided an important venue for SMT members to voice concerns and criticisms of the dominance of part-writing in the undergraduate curriculum. All of the presenters, as well as all of the questioners in the subsequent Q&A session, made the level of unhappiness quite clear. I'd like to respond to that session.
First, I entirely applaud efforts to revisit and reconceive the undergraduate core theory curriculum. We should always be looking to analyze the needs of our students and re-prioritize curriculum elements so as to best serve the people we teach. I also concur with efforts to broaden the repertoire to be more inclusive; it's important for students to connect with the musical materials while simultaneously being challenged to listen beyond their comfort zones.
In brief, my concern is the possibility of throwing out the voice-leading baby with the chorale bathwater.
Over the past half century, auditory research has made impressive strides in illuminating how human minds parse the world of sound. Incredibly, research in auditory scene analysis dovetails almost perfectly with the conventional canonic part writing rules one finds in most textbooks.
Voice leading is about how listeners hear some musical scene--whether concurrent sounds are heard as independent entities, cohere into integrated super entities, or form ambiguous textures that may be challenging for listeners to parse. Among other determinants, sounds are more likely to combine perceptually when they employ synchronous onsets, exhibit shared pitch movements, share similar timbres, and involve tonally fused intervals. For example, if my aim as a composer/arranger is to have the woodwinds cohere as a single textural stream distinct from the brass and strings, then it helps to arrange the passage so the woodwinds employ synchronous onsets, feature parallel pitch contours, close position spelling, and favor tonally fused intervals.
If you think that voice leading is all about creating late Baroque-style chorales, then you are confusing voice leading with style. When teachers characterize Debussy's parallelisms (or Nigerian parallel harmonizations) as "breaking" the rules of voice leading, they are merely showing they don't understand voice leading. Voice leading is a set of tools, not an aesthetic goal. If you want concurrent parts to be perceptually independent then J.S. Bach isn't a bad exemplar. If you want concurrent parts to be perceptually integrated you use the same tools in reverse. These tools apply whether you are creating an integrated barbershop arrangement or an acousmatic texture with the aim of multiple sources cohering perceptually. The musical/aesthetic question is how do you want the auditory scene to be perceived by a listener? Voice leading provides the compositional tools. It is not some sort of aesthetic imperative.
I think the effort to go beyond the stylistic limitations of chorales is not merely laudable, but essential. There's no need for voice leading to be taught exclusively with reference to Baroque chorales--although chorales are certainly convenient. Theoretically, we could achieve the same goals by having students create and analyze abstract electroacoustic textures--although that might be more pedagogically challenging.
For those not familiar with the auditory research, the achievements of the past 50 years are quite impressive. There's an enormous swathe of musical practice that is explained. Limiting the discussion for the moment to the goal of perceptual independence, the auditory science explains why we tend to have larger harmonic intervals in the bass region (it has nothing to do with the harmonic series, and instead arises from the lower density of sensory neurons in the bass region). It explains leap lengthening where large intervals tend to be formed using tones of relative longer durations. The auditory science explains the exposed or hidden octaves rule: why, when approaching an octave by similar motion, one of the parts should prefer to move by step. Moreover, the auditory research provides an excellent reason why we should favor step motion in the uppermost part. (See Claire Arthur's excellent experimental work on this.)
Auditory research also explains something called the "high voice superiority effect." For complex tones with similar timbres and intensities, the higher of the sounds will tend to mask the lower more than vice versa. The high voice superiority effect explains why, all over the world, one observes a tendency for the foremost musical line (such as a melody) to be assigned to the highest voice or part, especially when the timbres are homogeneous. Of course, there are exceptions (faux bourdon, descant singing, barbershop quartets ...), but the general trend still holds.
Some perspective on the importance of this phenomenon can be gained if we consider the social circumstances in which much of the world's music making has occurred. Throughout history and in nearly every documented culture, we have evidence of a pervasive prejudice against women. In many cultures, women's participation in music making was actively discouraged, highly restricted, or simply forbidden. In light of this prejudice it is striking that so much of the multipart music of the past would be organized to permit women to sing the foremost vocal part. Even when women were socially excluded from music making, it's striking that young boys (also of comparatively low social status) still managed to command the principal melodic line. The point is, auditory research suggests that a physiological peculiarity of the human hearing organ helped to save women and children from what might have otherwise been a history of near-total musical exclusion.
Incidentally, the high voice superiority effect is not an aesthetic imperative; it's simply a ubiquitous perceptual phenomenon. It's important not to confuse voice leading with aesthetic choices. There is nothing wrong with placing the principle melodic line somewhere other than the highest voice (as in close harmony textures such as Sweet Adelines). The science merely says that listeners will have a more difficult time hearing-out that line. As a musician you might compensate for that by making the line louder, using a distinctive timbre, or having the musician stand apart from the other musicians (separate spatial location also enhances auditory stream segregation). Of course, one might simply hold a contrary aesthetic goal--that of intentionally making the line less obvious to listeners. Once again, voice leading principles are not aesthetic imperatives. Voice leading simply provides a road map showing the perceptual consequences of choosing different organizational paths. Voice leading doesn't tell you where to go, just how to get there.
My principal complaint about voice leading pedagogy is not the reliance on Baroque chorales. My principal complaint is that most instructors either don't appear to understand the overarching value of what they are teaching, or fail to communicate explicitly to students the broad value of voice leading principles. Many instructors seem to think that they are teaching late Baroque-style part writing, and don't recognize that the point of teaching this material is to convey general principles about how to control texture--most any musical texture. I would suggest that instructors should be explicit that they are teaching broad principles--initially oriented toward creating textures with parts that have high perceptual independence--but that these same principals apply (in reverse) when the compositional goal is to create perceptually integrated passages.
Once we recognize the bigger picture for voice leading, we open avenues to much more diverse repertoires.
Of course, none of my defense of voice leading should be construed as a claim that voice leading must be retained in the core undergraduate music theory curriculum. That's an entirely separate discussion. Voice leading and texture are arguably more important for students of composition and arranging than for performers, and most of our theory students are performance or education majors. For any given cohort of students, we need to consider what are the most important things for them to learn, and prioritize the curriculum elements accordingly.
My simple hope is that, if we get rid of something from the curriculum, it would be reassuring to know that that decision is an informed decision that doesn’t abandon voice-leading because of our unhappiness with chorales.