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    Blog "Against Music Theory" Sure To Generate Discussion

    I happened to come across this article/blog while surfing topics on musical theory after reading through the latest edition of Spectrum - most of which I found to be incomprehensible, nonetheless interesting.  Nonetheless, this article is well written and sure to evoke a range of responses pro and con.  I find it meaningful and refreshing.  


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    • 13 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • The lesson we should take from this is: bad music theory pedagogy leads to people (who don't really get much about music theory) pontificating on blogs about what's wrong with music theory. These seem to crop up every spring like so many ephemeral wild onions. What they all seem to share in common is an unquestioning belief that music theory is about "what sounds good." They were taught by somebody who claimed that the rules of voice leading are supposed to be rules of "what sounds good" and instead of questioning the obviously dubious premise of giving rules for "what sounds good" they instead question the cultural elitism that supposedly belongs to an entire discipline (that they know nothing about).

      We have to face it: there is a lot of bad music theory teaching out there, and that's probably because good music theory teaching is pretty hard to do. It's a little bit silly for bad music theory teaching could fill someone the hubris of thinking they know better than an entire discipline and start quoting Susan Sontag and tell us that our approach to music should be more erotic. (I really don't think we have a problem with that, to tell you the truth.) But such is the world we live in.


      --Jason Yust


    • I begin by stating that I learned more about theory from teaching it than by studying it. For me, music theory seems to have two purposes–to give students the tools to write their own music and the tools to find out why they like a particular piece so much. The second is often a fool's errand because, with the proper tools, one can dissect a piece down to its bones, but you may not be able to explain the magic that is the product of freakishly creative minds–those inspired improbabilities.

      When a student tells me they wish to study theory I always ask them which theory interests them. I explain that the theory of Western music has been constantly evolving over the past thousand years. So picking a theory you want to study is like trying to shoot a moving target. What we are talking about is an appreciation of a particular style that was created by a ceratin composer at a certain place and time in history. You do wonder why college music departments and authors of well respected theory textbooks spend so much effort and space on a severly limited choice of styles. For the student in the early years of the 21st century Bach chorales are really cool stuff, but in a very historical sort of way. It is similar to a student of computer science spending two semesters working with an abacus.

      Our school, like so many others, needs to frequently revisit its theory currcilum in an attempt to decide just what theory our current paying customers really need. You start by considering who they are and what they know and project where they are going and what they will need when they get there. In doing that many professors will find it hard to let go of 18th century voice leading minutiae in favor of techniques of the past century many of which include some really terrific parallel fifths and worse!

      All you theorists out there need to remember that a masterpiece of music is greater than the sum of the theories that attempt to explain.

      Steve Jablonsky



    • My primary reactions on this blog post: (1) obviously there's still a lot of focus on the Western canon in music theory, but (2) a lot of basic theory classes may not be reflective of the pluralism of repertoires, approaches, etc. in the professional field today.  I also think there's a big difference between using 18th-century style as a model for a "strict style" compositional approach to one kind of musical structure (with one set of possible stylistic preferences) vs. claiming that 18th-century style is based on "laws of music" which should be valid for all times and places.

      I agree with Jason that this is partly an issue of teaching, though I think it's more than just a bit of "bad" music theory teaching.  It's pretty standard as part of the curriculum at many schools to spend 2-4 semesters on roughly "common practice" style.  A lot of standard textbooks are oriented around the stylistic principles of "common practice," even if they include the occasional rock or pop song or jazz standard as an example.  And you can't blame a student for thinking that music theory is primarily about parallel fifth prohibitions when many of them probably receive a theory exercise paper back every week for several semesters with a bunch of parallel fifths marked.  (For whatever reason, that's one common practice "rule" that many students have persistent struggles with.)

      My sense is that relatively few professional music theorists or even random lecturers tasked with teaching a theory class would claim today that common-practice stylistic constraints are some sort of "universal rule."  On the other hand, I think it's probably easy for a student to get an impression from textbooks and teachers that common-practice "rules" are somehow more important than principles governing other repertoires, given curricular emphasis.  And even though I'm always careful to stress the stylistic and historical rationale behind parallel 5th prohibition as part of some styles, how it can affect textural possibilities, and how it functions as a compositional/stylistic choice, I'm pretty certain if you polled a lot of my undergraduates, they'd have forgotten most of that nuance and just remembered getting papers back with parallel 5ths marked.

      I guess I've basically just restated the points at made at outset: a lot of intro pedagogy in the field still has a significant Western canon emphasis (even if it now comes with more frequent disclaimers).  There are many possible options for dealing with that, but with standard curricular choices it may be harder for students to see the pluralism most of us likely espouse.

    • Carson - thanks for a provocative discussion.  I don't think we need "apologies" for studying the Western canon, but we should ask "whose canon" we are representing in that "Western canon."  And I'm not just talking about the stereotypical "dead white men" or whatever -- I mean the audiences for different types of music today and whether we can still say there's a central "canon" within Western music to the same extent that was believed a couple generations ago.

      To your other questions: students of physics actually do spend quite a bit of time studying 17th-century physics, in the sense that Newtonian mechanics is still the standard method taught in most intro physics classes, leaving the details of relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. to much later courses.  Of course, Newton continues to be used because it's still a pretty good approximation for solving real-world physics problems at non-extreme speeds and at normal scales that aren't super huge or tiny.  Can we still claim the same applicability for theories of music from a couple hundred years ago, though?

      Your question about the 6/4 seems less clear-cut to me.  I'd say lots of people still care about the divergent sound of a sonority with a "fifth in the bass," whether or not they consider it strictly "dissonant."  Lots of pop, jazz, etc. styles seem to differentiate the use of a C/G chord much more than they would contrast a C from a C/E.

      To me, that's a crucial justification for continuing to pay some attention to things like voice-leading rules or parallel fifths or whatever.  Not because following those rules makes music "sound good," but because these principles often draw attention to distinctions that have broader acoustical ramifications.  The prohibition against 5ths makes sense in an environment where you're trying to create a sense of independent polyphonic motion, but the heavy use of parallel 5ths can do the opposite, perhaps even creating a sense of "fusion" or timbral distortion depending on the instrumentation.  Knowing that 5ths can affect texture, timbre, etc. more than other parallel intervals is something that potentially raises awareness about various acoustical phenomena.

      If you don't differentiate between using parallel 5th vs. not using them, or between 6/4 sonorities and other inversions, you may not be equipped to make informed choices about how to use them or to understand their effects when you encounter different choices.  Again, that may not justify the amount of time a lot of basic theory courses spend drilling such things, but to me there is often more than just familiarity with the conventions of the canon.

    • Fascinating.  There are really two divergent "music theories."  There is the analysis of music as a cultural phenomenon, and there is analysis of music as a mathematical representation of nature.  Western music theory began as the latter but is nowadays put forth for the former.

      I think that the blog author is right.  Cultural music analysis ought to fall under or be tied with ethnomusicology.  It is about identifying and defining individual or social tastes.  Scientific musical analysis is focused on probing the nature of sound and further understanding the universe.

      The two certainly should draw from each other and rely as necessary on each other's insights and methods, such as cognition/psychology, for example.  But our current theory model seems to be confusing the purposes of analysis.

    • I generally agree with Jason. It's very easy to criticize something when it's being done bad. I don't think there are many active members of SMT who would deny that there is plenty of bad music theory instruction out there. When I was in undergrad, it made me cringe to see classmates struggle with basic tenets of theory and aural skills who were going to become music educators (and likely be asked to teach music theory at some point.)

      Our problem, however, is not to simply deride bad music theory pedagogy as the sole source of this issue. This is the easy way out and it solves nothing. There will always be bad pedagogy (doesn't matter the subject). One of the things that has left me frustrated (and ultimately deciding not to pursue teaching music theory myself) is that we, as a society, haven't really done a great job in being more inclusive and supporting a revised theory curriculum. I learned a lot in my 9 years of theory instruction, and it led to a burgeoning interest in classical music (something I didn't really have in the past). But when it comes down to it, it's not the music that I--and millions of other people--are passionate about. And yet it dominates our curriculum in the vast majority of music programs. 

      We keep seeing posts like this because we aren't doing enough to change the discussion. And I think that's a damning account of our perceived lack of inclusiveness as a field. There are people chipping away at the ivory tower, but won't make any progress unless more join in.

      Devin Chaloux

      Indiana University

    • For the record, here is the author of the blog's bio:

      Ethan Hein

      I’m a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at NYU, an adjunct professor of music technology at NYU and Montclair State University, and a founding member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab.

      If anyone was offended by the author's "bad theory" pedagogy responsibility or the Spring offense/offensive for such posts - "These seem to crop up every spring like so many ephemeral wild onions." All apologies for any discomfort it may have caused!  In truth I posted this thread to mischievously provoke as posts seem to be either far and few in-between, or related to academic protocol.  

      Further, I thoroughly enjoy every edition and article in Spectrum and usually read most articles - even if I do not understand aspects of complex musical theory language (and I studied music theory at University).  As a result I listened to and read the score for Penderecki's Threnody. I enjoyed the article on distortion in Hard Rock and Heavy Metal.  Though as a guitarist well versed in multi effects and amplifier specifics (and certainly distortion) I cannot say I really understood a useful perspective from the article.  So what!  I enjoy complex material as much as any intellectual and why I enjoy reading Gunter Grass and sometimes Adorno (one long sentence at a time), studying foreign language, and of course . . . music theory.  I am not a scientist, but that does not discourage me from reading Scientific American or books by Stephen Hawking on astrophysics.  

      We are members of Western Civilization (some of us anyway) so are apologies necessary for studying the Western canon?  The point I like about said blog is that we all respect our history and what it has to tell us about our cultural teleology, but emphasis on the present, current technology, reality, interests and current affairs is certainly an important aspect of musical theory education.  Do physics students spend as much time on 17th century physics as music students spend in their study of the same period?  Who cares if a 6/4 chord is dissonant or consonant [today]? Would courses in music technology, software, acoustical physics benefit the modern musician and be time well spent for preparing them for "their time?" I am of the opinion (and I am going out on a limb here) that much of the historical Western music canon can be taught in a more compressed generalized manner when a practical approach to teaching usable applicable music education is the goal.  Of course any deep subject matter has endless levels of specifics, particulars, purpose, function, creativity - it's a very big universe indeed.  I greatly admire the details, brilliance, and expertise of the professional musical theorist's output, research, historical documentation whether useful or abstract, whether comprehensible or incomprehensible.  No one ever said life was easy or simple.  

      I'll finish with an analogy.  Recently I am fascinated with Monteverdi's Orfeo and have been reading the score and listening to the entire opera (simultaneously).  Of course there are a multitude of levels and study possible, but on first "erotic" observations and interface many details emerge of primary importance (to me as a composer at least) - the continual variation of Renaissance orchestration that varies with every single interlude following recitatives, the complexity of rhythms in complex meter, hemiolas, ornate usage of vocal technique, effects, reoccurring themes and cadential materials, the enormous scope and length of the opera, the formal structure of instrumental music alternating with recitatives, the poetic emotion of the allegorical story, etc.  There is much to be learned and observed from this mere "erotic" experience.  And this is what I want as a composer upon first experiencing the work (without preconceptions of what it is).  One needs a global necessity for further inquiry, study - which is an organic outcome of curiosity, intellect, research, passion for music, and for the composer insight into particulars of technique and content learned from a great master.  

    • Thanks for your response John.  I concur with your comments.  As an academically trained musician I began my studies in composition with the Notre Dame Mass and examination of isorhythmic technique.  Haydn is my favorite composer and I drool with delight when studying his piano sonatas.  I have been through Bach Chorales, Monteverdi's Madrigals, 20th century works, Schenkarian Analysis, Post Tonal Theory, early music and Renaissance counterpoint, jazz theory and history, harmony and counterpoint studies, ethnomusicology studies, etc. You won't find any argument from me at the value of studying the great masters and music!  Any great masters or music from any age or style/culture.  I do analyze music on a regular basis, lately mostly jazz since I am a professional musician who performs jazz (bass) and classical chamber music (cello) on a regular basis.  

      I certainly understand the principles of voice leading as a result of my study of music and use that "awareness" in all of my compositional work.  I believe that the historical rules of voice leading can now be generalized to a certain extent and the depth that any music student cares to pursue that end is determined by music programs, interest and necesity.  For example, there are only four types of motion possible for any composer from any era or time: oblique, parallel, contrary, and silence (no motion).  Voice leading can also be summed up in those general terms and is pretty consistent from the Middle Ages through the Romantic period (with some variation) from my perspective.  In contrast to contemporary music previous voice leading rules do not hold the same gravity or usage and for very good reason as other organizational principles and techniques for musical composition require contemporary means.  

      I was somewhat joking about the 6/4 chord!  Jazz bass players play the 6/4 inversion all the time as the root and it happens so fast that dissonance or consonance isn't all that relevant.  If I want to play in a more conventional style I use more roots and first inversions.  If I want to abstract the music or build contour and lines I use 5ths, 7ths, 9ths, etc., more often as roots and passing tones.  

    • Ethan Hein's article (that Carson cites at the beginning of this thread) is not a narrow complaint about the teaching of some music professor or other. It was a complaint about mainstream music theory . He writes " ... in the hands of the music academy, it’s dry, tedious, and worst of all, largely useless." He is complaining about narrow scope, lack of major new developments.

      As Ethan, Carson and many others have politely observed, there is certainly some value to mainstream music theory, even "in the hands of the music academy". But that is a narrow scope to what is properly characterized as a vast subject. In my opinion, mainstream music theory is perhaps 20% of the total potential subject matter. What about the other 80%?

      In a separate thread, I will attempt an outline to lead a discussion of this other 80%.

      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • Thank you for your input Isaacc.  I'm excited to hear your suggestions.  I thought the Blog was interesting since the author teaches music theory and composition at NYU.  It was thought provoking and I enjoyed his candor on university music school theory education.  Stephen Soderberg recommended a new group for research only separate from educational issues - that would be exciting!  I have further ideas as you do that I am interested in sharing and excited about - music theory from a generalized universal perspective, or focusing first on aspects of music common to all cultures like the Platonic Universals.  I have a list I would like to present and invite others to add to.  If an aspect of music is universal it must be a magnanimous feature of all music and therefore primal and essential.  Those topics should be taught in a wider more generalized relevant perspective.



    • I like Stephen's proposal, consider me on board. I'll send my post tonight - to this thread. And let's get the ball rolling!


      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • Ethan: That was a great idea you had to put OUP on the dissecting table. (btw, I think if you did a similar analysis of one of the top Music Theory journals, you would get similar results  ...)

      I think that one of the best ways of diminishing the distasteful stuff and getting past it is simply to focus on the newest and the best in music (and music theory). The newest-and-the-best music is now very far ahead of Schenker, and much of it is also delicious and compelling. Take a look at the series this year for the LA Phil http://www.laphil.com/ . These programs and performances are now esteemed worldwide (and the envy of most of the musical establishment), they have left Schenker far behind, they are wildly successful. And they are at the highest musical standards, no fluff. Icelandic festival just completed, Bjork, Harrison and more coming up (along with more conventional repertoire, but often performed from a contemporary POV) . BTW LAPhil is attracting plenty of $$$, the "upper-class" music-lovers are on-board (I think they were getting bored with excessive Brahms etc.)

      Although I think that Schenker was very capable, the elephant-in-the-room with him is that his model of music is based on just a few parameters. He chose a few important parameters and he beat them to death. Ask him about other parameters, and he really had little to offer other than political diatribes.

      We need Music Theory (and other writing about music) in the spirit of this Boulez quote: "Just listen with the vastness of the world in mind. You can’t fail to get the message" Doing that will put Schenker in his appropriate place.

      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • Hi folks. I'm the author of the blog post being discussed on this thread. First, let me say that I'm flattered by this thoughtful debate. Second, I've done some more writing on this subject as part of my doctoral studies, and I'd be curious as to your reactions. For a sociology of education course, I wrote this analysis of the Oxford University Press music textbook catalog. In the course of researching it, I learned a lot about Heinrich Schenker and his extraordinarily distasteful politics. It helped me put my finger on some of my strongly negative emotions about my collegiate and graduate level music studies.