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    Continuing search for a definition of "music theory"

    Challenge: Can you define what it is that you teach? 

    Essays & Endnotes: Notes from the Pluriverse {7–13}.


    I would be interested in the thoughts & arguments from those who teach music theory. (If you prefer, scroll to {13} for David Lewin's defiition.)

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    • 2 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • I teach music theory according to an idividual student's cognitive level.  If I'm working with a young student or child, and if I am teaching that student instrumental music (cello lessons) I simultaneosly teach in addition to instrumental technique musical history and theory concepts right from the beginning.  We talk first about the purpose of the music - is it a dance, is it programmatic, is it sacred music, etc.  Next we look at the form - how many different parts are there?  Is it a binary form, is it a tenary form, is there any repetition of phrases or parts (echos), is the piece in a major or minor tonality, what do the terms and symbols mean, is the piece older or newer (and what may have been happening in that period of history and what function a musician may have been performing at that period of time - troubador, court musician, social events, military functions, etc.  

      With more mature students we can begin to talk about the origins of Western musical concepts: Pythagoras and the division of the monochord, the concept of scales as used around the world, concepts of polyphony, homophony, imitation, counterpoint, organizing principles and forms, consonance and dissonance, rhythmical subdivisions, specific information on harmonic content, voice leading, specific period forms like isorhythm, canon, fugue, sonata, motivic development, stylistic considerations (jazz, classical, world music, electronic music), harmonic succession/progression, post tonal/atonal organizing principles and exploration.  

      In all of my teaching I attempt to make things as conceptually clear and simplified as possible.  I attempt to reduce abstractions to comprehensible usable information.  Since my teaching is primarily with private lessons and students, I take into account each student's specific interests and goals and my first priority is to teach them what information they need to succeed in their particular area of music.  What I teach a classical cello student would be quite different than what I teach a guitar or bass student who's goal is to play pop music.  For pop or jazz students my emphasis is more on processing musical technique and ideas directly with less use of printed music or reading - improvization for example.  A jazz bass player has to know how to create a bass line directly from chord symbols by understanding theory that can be directly translated into playing.  

      The common demoninator with any student is that music technique, history, and theory are taught simultaneously for comprehensive understanding and general interest.  Music is a fascinating subject and should never be allowed to become boring or dry.  Composers and musicians are interesting characters with many stories to tell that are amusing and add a human element to music education.  

      I admit I am not a method teacher.  I prefer to individualize all my lessons with specific (often self written lessons of my own design) examples and exercizes in order to make my point, emphasize the concept I am trying to convey.  

    • I agree with Lewin's statement, especially the last point--that we explore systematic assumptions underlying received analytic methods. I would only add that, by doing this, we also learn that no analytic method and no particular way of hearing music exists without underlying assumptions. Seeing clearly these assumptions helps us build a relativistic attitude towards our musical experience and our understanding of familiar (and not so familiar) concepts. This relativistic attitude is one of the primary points that I try to convey in my own teaching. Ultimately, for the students, music theory is a study of why they hear music the way they do, what other ways of hearing it (and understanding it) exist, and how these different understandings are conditioned. In a way, it is an exercise in the comparison of different systems of thought. In this sense, music theory studies, when they are done without an unconditional bias towards a single theoretical system, transcend the realm of music and help the students develop a flexibility of thought across different disciplines.