How Should We Define Music Theory?
This Blog topic is interwoven with questions about the repertoire we examine and use as models in our theory classes. Let’s start with a few assumptions about what Music Theory means and move from there. My own definition includes these reasons to study Music Theory:
Literacy: Mastering the language of music to communicate
Understanding: Enlightening performance, memorizing easily
Expression: Composing, arranging, and sharing creative ideas
Musicianship: Hearing with your eyes, seeing with your ears
What must we teach?
Music literacy involves knowing the fundamental concepts and understanding the symbols used in the language of music. Fundamentals include scales, key signatures, intervals, chords, rhythm, and the proper notation of these elements. Some may argue that these basic materials are not really theoretical, any more than the alphabet is theoretical to a writer. However, the job of instilling an understanding of these elements is part of the theory curriculum at the beginning, and students cannot progress without a solid foundation.
Musicianship skills are also part of any integrated theory curriculum. Usually, they are taught separately in Sight Singing and Ear Training classes, along with Keyboard Harmony. Some may argue that these skills are critical for musicians to function at a high level. The fact that knowledge and skill in music theory enables a musician to perform better, and to express original ideas more effectively through composition or improvisation is not really disputable. Instructional methods utilizing technologies are changing rapidly in this field and impacting theory teaching in general.
The main topics and the order of presentation are consistent among popular textbooks, and they generally follow a similar pattern. Fundamentals are addressed to varying degrees. Then non-harmonic tones, functional analysis, part writing, phrases and cadences, basic forms, simple counterpoint, and chromatic harmony follow. This is followed by an overview of 20th century techniques and ends up in the present. Upper-division courses usually address more advanced counterpoint, along with structural analysis, orchestration, and a deeper dive into musical matters that are truly theoretical. The goal is to develop a thorough understanding of the relationships between sounds in time, which to me is the main purpose of studying Music Theory. But most of these topics are not the exclusive domain of a specific style or cultural source.
Should the Canon of Western European Music Dominate our Curriculum?
Decentering a cultural or systemic bias should not be undertaken by music theorists alone, because choices in literature addressed in the music history class, the literature performed by ensembles, and the music studied in applied studios would ideally be considered holistically. While the bulk of the repertoire studied in most of these arenas was produced by white males in Germany, Italy, France, and England over the last three hundred years, their music does not provide the only vehicle for studying music theory.
If we choose to expand the concepts taught in the theory classroom to embrace other composers and musical styles, one question is how we allocate precious time to address a wider range of topics. An example is the fixation on part-writing in the style of J.S. Bach according to a narrow set of guidelines. Perhaps the deeper fluency in this particular skill could be taught in upper-division courses. The more widely used textbooks allocate a significant amount of time and space to this topic.
Should We Focus More on American Music?
While the quantity and quality of concert music composed by Americans is significant, outside of the classical concert hall American music presents an amazingly rich array of styles with multicultural influences. Ragtime, Blues, Jazz, Latin, and a diverse array of contemporary and popular forms provide an inexhaustible source of music with which students in the 21st century can connect. This might include music that was actually written, performed, and recorded during their lifetime. For some theory instructors, it may be a matter of leaving the comfort zone of teaching what we were taught in the manner it was presented and finding new examples and ways to engage students.
Should the Curriculum Become more Modular and Flexible?
In some cases, the theory curriculum has become like a frozen path for every student to follow, dictated by a common set of prescribed materials. Perhaps modules could be offered, each with a different topical emphasis, from which students could choose. What might some of these modules address? In a multicultural society, indigenous music from around the world would provide interesting choices. Delta Blues? Latin Claves? North Indian Ragas? Bulgarian Folk Music? The only limitations are the instructor’s capacity to engage, along with the capacity of the institution to formulate processes that allow flexibility.