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    De-skilling and Illiteracy-Creep in Music Studies?

    Another controversy has broken out in the UK over methods, curricula, core, and hegemony in the academy. Rather than taking a poll American style they're actually continuing an open debate with many participants. It began with a talk given on BBC by musicologist-record producer Simon Zigorsky-Thomas entitled 'Dead White Composers' It was challenged in a series of FaceBook threads, mainly by Ian Pace who summarized the debate on his blog under the post title "Responses to Simon Zagorski-Thomas’s talk on ‘Dead White Composers’" where many other comments from others continue to be posted.

    I call attention to this because it seems to me Simon Zigorsky-Thomas' premise(s) are directly related to the mindset and intentions found in the CMS 'Manifesto' and the published program for the upcoming CMS-sponsored 'Summit', '21st Century Music School Design' to be held at USC next month.

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    • 13 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • I think it was rather a silly, short-sighted talk, but de-skilling is Pace's cause célèbre, and he has done a public service by including a transcript so that we can judge fairly. I was asked to comment by a UK friend, but in my view the talk has more to do with the politics of grant funding in the UK, an issue that most of us don't deal with. In the course of airing his grievances SZT shoots at some pretty broad barnsides, which has exercised a fair number of folks, but his remarks have to be taken with a grain of salt.

    • Just to respond to a couple of issues brought up in this thread:

      @Nicolas mentions the dearth of activity/information from the SMT Early Music Analysis and History of Theory interest groups.  I think it's important to note that both of these groups are relatively new.  I agree that the former has not been the focus of mainstream music theory, though there are certainly plenty more sources than the six in that bibliography.  (Again, note this is a very new group.)  I would also note that this weekend (May 21st and 22nd), the Early Music Analysis group will be hosting a conference at Indiana University to engage with some of these issues.  So, people are actively working on some of this stuff.  As for the latter (History of Theory), that's been a minor but consistent preoccupation of American music theory for many decades.

      I know this was a relatively minor point in Nicolas's posts, but there is activity in the field pushing in all sorts of directions, including historically.

      Also, an observation related to the question of de-emphasizing music history and notation in favor of "popular music" -- I absolutely encourage more study of popular music(s) in the field, as well as the study of many elements of musical practice and interpretation that are not captured well by standard Western notation (as Nicolas discussed).  But I do find critiques to get rid of the "canon" and notation with it in favor of "popular music" to be somewhat ironic.  When the phrase "popular music" is used, it often is associated with the commercialized global pop derived from American and European traditions, as opposed to "folk music," which is gradually being edged out of many traditional cultures.

      What's ironic is of course that this global pop tradition -- while not following the detailed syntax of "common practice" European art music -- is fundamentally indebted to it in various elements of its structure: scale formation, common chord types, methods of achieving cadences and articulating phrases and formal units, types of common textures available, etc.  One needs only to listen to various "traditional" polyphonic musics from around the world to realize that "global pop" is only one possible manifestation of polyphonic music that humans are capable of, and many of its foundations are interwoven with the same historical culture that produced "common practice" European music.  (To be clear: I'm not saying pop music structures are derived from "common practice" music, only that many structures share a cultural background that focused constraints in certain ways.)

      Of course this is an oversimplification.  But I think it's a fallacy to think that we somehow escape the hegemony of the "canon" by jettisoning European music history and even notation.  Much of our modern music's structure (including most "popular music") has constraints that have been created through centuries of cultural "work," much of which was spread around through European imperialism in the past few centuries.  To try to study "popular music" without this background isn't challenging that hegemony: it's denying it while letting its spectre live on.

      To me, therefore, Nicolas's points I brought up above are not tangential to the discussion.  Studying music of the far past or historical theories of music (including theories of notation!) that are very different from our own are valuable exercises in understanding where "common practice" music came from, as well as alternatives to it and its organization -- just as is studying traditional musics of other cultures.  I would suggest that these approaches are actually just as valuable in going beyond "the canon" as pop studies.

    • Amy, I have to disagree. Taking the position that SZT's talk 'has more to do with the politics of grant funding in the UK, an issue that most of us don't deal with' hides behind questionable claims of exceptionalism on both sides of the pond. I'm less interested in the political mechanics that set apart the two sides, and more interested in the threat posed by their common goal. That's why I mentioned CMS' position and the projects they support of late, which you didn't address. It seems to me that what they are actively supporting would build a world all but identical to the one SZT and others in the Anglo-American continuum are increasingly promoting. What CMS seems to be promoting (their version is mostly under the cover of entrepreneurship) is what SZT and others promote. I've had people tell me that CMS today is mostly irrelevant as an influence in music curricula in the U.S., so their activities should be 'taken with a grain of salt' and ignored - that education in the U.S. is uniquely protected by the independence of institutions. I don't buy that - mostly because of the incredible, undeniable expansion of administrators and interference by BODs. We may be going about it differently in the U.S., but I think the goal, a thoroughly profit motivated educational system, is the same as that being debated in the U.K.

      I wish you would reconsider your UK friend's request to add you own comment. You are right that SZT's talk was (and continues to be) silly, but BBC gave him a stage to a much larger and more gullible audience than even his own students. For me at any rate, that means: Qui tacet consentire videtur.

    • I also do not think that SZT is preoccupied with getting grants. He, actually, amplifies the vibe that can be sensed everywhere today. The CMS is acting in reaction to it, as well. New music adepts, popular music fans--all seem to form their opinions on Schubert's Trout Quintet. The point, in a nut shell, goes as follows: there is our culture and we have to spend more time on teaching it. I have a few questions, though. This "our" culture is formulated by SZT as "rock music." That "rock music" is the affair of the past, last century music. So, it is difficult to fish out a style from the ocean of popular music and lable it as "the culture." Secondly, I understand that the pop-music has an irresistible appeal to SZT. This does, not mean, however, that he, or whoever promotes this call for action, has discovered pop-music. Or that pop-music of our days is in any ways different from pop-music of the times of Mozart. There has been a "pop-music," and there were "teenagers." So, this call for action is hardly a new news. I cannot imagine Rachmaninoff saying that the dance tunes, kabak music or yarmarka noise  of Russian 1890s was "our culture." This so-called "culture" has been around. The only difference of today's one is that some music teachers are trying to put it on a pedestal, in place of what they call "old white man's music." The question is serious. It is not about Schubert; rather, about us turning into apes eventually, but inevitably.

    • Ildar Khannanov's post reminds me of a story that might (or might not!) relate to this discussion. After an AMS-SMT meeting a number of years ago, I was riding home on the train when an elderly woman sitting across from me struck up a conversation. She notice my AMS-SMT tote bag, and asked about the conference (she was no musicologist, but said she enjoyed listening to music). When I mentioned a talk I heard that refered to klezmer music, she noted that she was Jewish and that before WWII she lived in Vilnius, then part of Poland (her father, sensing the danger ahead, sent her on a vacation to the US around the third week of September, 1939--and she never went back). In any case, she became very insistent that most Jewish people she knew as a child were not fans of klezmer music. She noted that there was a symphony in Vilnius, and an opera company that performed Carmen and La Bohème in Yiddish, and she was amazed that people thought that klezmer was the main type of music that the Jewish Eastern European community listened to.

      Poundie Burstein


    • Yes, absolutely! And, while it may be enjoyable to discuss rap music on a campus of an Ivy League university, after a nice dinner, at the cup of good coffee, those who live in the low-income areas of our cities deam about other things. Reverend Ford of St. Paul AME church in Santa Barbara (where I played keyboard) mentioned in his sermons that he and the parents of African-American children do not want them to become ball players and rap musicians. They wanted them to be lawyers, doctors, specialists in different professional fields. I visited the Neverland ranch of the King of Pop: he was listening to Mahler's symphonies at home. That music of "old white men" is the depositary of global culture, and it is perceived as such by many representatives of local traditions.Culture vs. traditions--that is one possible way to conceptualize this.

    • Attempting to get a higher-lever view of these issues, I present the following comments:

      [1] Mainstream Music Theory and Analyis ("MTA") does not seem to be able to successfully analyze/discuss much of top-quality contemporary music (by which I mean composers such as Lachenmann, Kurtag, Rebecca Saunders, Chaya Czernowin, Grisey, Klaus Lang. Or alternatively, contemporary music presented by leading artists or groups such as Severine Ballon, Marino Formeni, Talea, MondayEveningConcerts.org . Feel free to swap in some of your own favorites into the above lists if you wish)

      [2] If MTA could do a great job with the above, I would predict the following:

          [a] MTA would also be able to offer compelling discussions of contemporary music of all kinds, including pop music.

          [b] MTA would be generally viewed by academics and the public as much more interesting and "current"

      [3] If MTA did a great job with the above, the classical canon would naturally extend (perhaps it would start to include: The early-20th-century masters; some mid-century masters such as Messiaen, Xenakis, Gershwin (!!); and some late-century masters such as Ustvolskaya, Part . Swap in your own names if you wish.). This would provide an improved "base" for judging all kinds of current music.

      [4] In summary: The MTA community has some serious catching-up to do re its core professional mission. If the catching-up is done, then some of the SZT/IanPace issues are also addressed.

      [5] The bad news is that (in my assessment), "catching-up" will require some major innovation in the techniques used for theory/analysis. "Tried-and-true" methods that work for Schubert are not going to work for Chaya. I sense resistance about this ...





      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • Isaac Malitz makes the point that music theory pedagogy is trapped in its own bubble. Thank you. I agree. I would add that the bubble it's trapped in is coincidentally amenable to including a large core of contemporary (Western) popular musics. Call it a 'Perfect Calm'.

      To 'expand' the curriculum to include examples from contemporary popular to join the usual suspects (Western 'classical' defined as the CPP) - the conservative form of the present trend - may appear to expand the bubble, but it doesn't. It only extends the repertoire of examples that support the bubble & pay a rather embarrassing homage in argumentum est de tribu. Such an extension of the list of examples doesn't really change, let alone go outside, the bubble; it simply justifies a tweeked – or twerked – status quo.

      It's as if you were to devise an ornithology that divides all birds into crows and not-crows. And, doing precisely the opposite of what any ornithologist would do, you concentrate almost solely on the crows because in your neighborhood there are more of them – and you just don't have the time or resources for all those confusing, inessential not-crows.

      Switching analogies: Imagine a core curriculum for undergraduate physics majors: Newtonian Physics I, II, III, IV; one semester each – required. Post-Newtonian Physics; one semester overview of Special & General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Supersymmetry, String Theory, Cosmology – elective.


    • While Stephen (and Ian Pace, and Simon Zigorsky-Thomas) certainly point to an existing problem in musicology at large and more specifically in what Isaac describes as MTA, I wonder whether and to what extent the problem is clearly identified.

      There is, first of all, a problem of repertoire. Simon Z-Th certainly is wrong in pretending that musical studies are interested in classical music exclusively. Jazz and Western popular musics form today a significant part or the repertoire of university studies. Other repertoires should be included. Ancient music, for instance, should not be left to historical musicology exclusively, nor non-Western music to ethnomusicologists.

      But considering this immediately raises another problem, that of methodology. We have extensive and well exercized methods for the study of common practice tonality, which in turn can be extended to include other practices of tonality, e.g. in jazz or popular musics – at the risk, however, of taking these in the same bubble, as Stephen points out, i.e. as studying then as if they merely were tonal. We are more at loss for ancient music, as the desperately poor bibliography page of SMT's Early Music Group evidences (https://docs.google.com/document/d/12sc2iyllAHT7OM8ZJkQiZVEIo_RYK-rYyyN8La-jwGo/edit – six items!). And even more so for non Western musics (even although the SMT World Music Analysis Group published a Journal that now counts eight issues).

      It appears to me strinking that whatever methodology may exist, it hardly includes the study of indigenous theories. SMT has an interest group on History of Theory, of which we may learn more here, but which publishes very little if anything about its activities. If a theory curriculum were to include ancient or non Western music, this may not go as far studying the theories of these musics, and this once again raises the question of the meaning or the word "theory" for SMT (as discussed before).

      As to analytic methodologies, the problem appears less linked to a hypothetical disdain for anything else than Western classical music than to a history of the discipline: music analysis has less than two centuries of existence, began with the study of common practice tonality, and should now turn to other musics. Important steps have already been taken in this direction, but there is a lot more to be done – at a research level first. One way of doing indeed is to extend the bubble until it explodes (I recently gave a talk in Tunis about the use of Schenkerian methodology for maqamic music...).

      This is a matter of research. It cannot be solved at the level of undergraduate curricula before it is solved at the research level.



    • Music Literacy /Illiteracy

      I've been out of the conversational loops for some time with most of my focus going to the funding and management of a mini residency program at my college, which involved a workshop in graphic notation involving 24 students from the visual art department drawing class and five musicians versed in improvisation. My final budget report is almost done, so I'd like to throw my two cents in  to this interesting topic.

      Go further with your line of reasoning, and ask of the discipline, what is it trying to accomplish?

      Look to the sciences as a model and the phenomenon itself-vibration in a medium-as a focus of the discipline of theory. If we are truly honest about the temporal nature of the medium-as an art form-sound is closest to the nature of human existence. Every moment of our lives is different. We are governed by the inexorable force of time. The illusion is that similarity of moments activates the human need to recognize patterns and to try to obtain meaning from the observed patterns. Very good for agriculture, but with music there are too many opportunities to enter into pattern cul de sacs, endlessly looping around and around. The aim of past generations has been to store sound via notation-but music notation is not a language, it is an instruction set to organize future sonic/temporal events. Literacy or illiteracy is a component of the red herring argument. The better argument is this: having invested in 1/4 inch floppy diskettes as the only way to legitimately store and investigate a temporal medium, how do we reconcile the fact that the storage method-magnetic flakes on a plastic disk- really has nothing to do with the actual medium and aesthetic? 

      How do we reconcile the existence of USB drives in this scenario?

      How much longer do we train people in learning floppy disk technology thinking that  it is the art form, when really it is the tool to approach the art form. 

      The other factor is technology itself. The upheaval by the creation of recording technology and the computer was thought to sound the death knell of live music performance, but what is clear is that recordings effect on performance is more insidious than mere extinction-it becomes the sonic standard bearer of a historical event-not the notation instruction set and certainly not the attendance at the event. Sound now is made plastic, therefore there are two art forms, performative-temporal (performance) and concrete (recording). Neither new branches are dealt at all well by existing music theory, as existing study still treats the notation as a language rather than an instruction set and entirely ignores the more fruitful direction of considering music theory as an offshoot of physics. 

      Where does this head? 

      I'll throw a few scenarios out there to illuminate:

      1. music departments-if they focus on old style notational music are

      really music history departments. 

      2. Music performance should be aimed at study of past patterns in order for performers to obtain a critical mass of pattern skills to craft new music immediately, not to recreate something which has already been created.

      3. Performing musicians will have skills somewhat resembling free improvisation trends of today, but with even more depth in listening-analyzing-performing than even would be found in musicians of today.

      4. Music theory should be considered a practical offshoot of physics, psychology and sociology, but physics first, if it ever hopes to attain a meaningful place in music making and temporal art.

      5. Theory should occupy the same place as theoretical physics-pointing the way, conjecture and ideas based upon vibration, not notation. 

      6. Consonance-dissonance duality will be left in favor of an energy state model approach to sound. 

      These changes in approach and focus allow for inclusion of a wider variety of pattern sets, approaches to creation, places greater importance on the role of improvisation in the history of music, addresses it's place in modern and contemporary music pattern creation, acknowledges the role of technology and sets the vision towards the future, not the past.

    • @Aaron, even if your invitation to "Go further with your line of reasoning, and ask of the discipline, what is it trying to accomplish?" probably addresses our community as a whole, it may aim at me in particular. Let me therefore answer some of your points.

      Look to the sciences as a model and the phenomenon itself-vibration in a medium-as a focus of the discipline of theory.

      I won't come back to the question of "science as a model": this has enough been discussed in previous threads. Let me deny, on the other hand, that the phenomenon itself (music) is "vibration in a medium." Defining music is a hopeless challenge, but music certainly is all what makes the difference with a mere vibration in a medium (i.e. sound).

      The aim of past generations has been to store sound via notation-but music notation is not a language, it is an instruction set to organize future sonic/temporal events.

      Let's agree that music is some sort of language – or, more technically, some sort of semiotic system. As such, it involves a "substance of expression" (sound) and a "form of expression" (music properly speaking, the "organization" of sound). Notation is not and has never been intended to store the substance, it aims at indicating the form. It indeed is an instruction to organize the musical event, but it does not say how to produce it – it indicates to the performers what they should perform, but does not say how. As such, it has nothing to do with any type of recording, be it on USB disk); and recording technology sounded the death knell of neither performance, nor musical notation, both of which are of an utterly different nature.

      With this in mind, let me comment on your first two scenarios:

      1. Music departments-if they focus on old style notational music are really music history departments.

      I personally think it very wrong that deparments of music theory should forget about history: music is too important to be left to historians. [I wonder what you have in mind when you speak of "old style notational music": Mozart, Beethoven?]

      2. Music performance should be aimed at study of past patterns in order for performers to obtain a critical mass of pattern skills to craft new music immediately, not to recreate something which has already been created.

      The best performances today of "old style notational music" do create things than had not been created before, even if the music they play is well known.

      From you other scenarios, it appears obvious that you think as Prof. Bruno Heinz Jaja did (I wonder whether anyone reminds him here), when he stated with his inimitable Viennese accent: "Musik began venn Joenberg invented the tone rove".

      You may set your vision "towards the future, not the past". But you cannot negate cultures, "old style notational music" and still older musics, nor the musics of the world. You cannot, on behalf of the future, abolish the past.



    • @Nicolas wrote, 'You cannot, on behalf of the future, abolish the past.' To take off from there:

      I remember a session at an SMT meeting on metaphor. One example that came up was the common notion that the past is behind us while we face the future​, at which point David Lewin got up and pointed out that there are cultures where the opposite is the case, and in fact, the opposite is more logical. We can't see the future & we can't see what's behind us. So the better metaphor would be that we face the past as we back into the future. (Cf. Klee's Angelus Novus.)

      It's certainly true that we can't recollect all of history (nor would we want to). Most is lost to memory & what is retained is often mangled by the selectivity of a biased present. But even the present is always confoundingly past as soon as you look at it, so the past provides the entirety of the material that thought has to work with. All in all, history is not linear as we keep insisting it is with our neo this & post that.

      History is essentially cumulative (see Benjamin's commentary on Klee's Angelus Novus in the link above), and we had best think carefully about what an imaginary future or a fickle, jealous present tell us to either toss out or preserve for study as artifacts in a museum. Contrary to how some may want to try to paint this position, it is not 'conservative'. I consider it to be conservationist & therefore progressive:  it's more liberal than the idea of replacing old ideas with new because (ironically) it's inclusive - as both status quo theory pedagogy & current trends toward de-skilling are not.


    • For those interested in the larger discussion around "What is music theory?", please go to: