Fine In Theory

Fine In Theory

Time to revisit a tired old conversation, one that I’m sure has been had more than a few times on NewMusicBox but that continues to go unresolved: How should the last 120 years of Western concert music be periodized? There are a number of reasons why this is an issue of importance, but the most urgent (from where I sit as an educator-in-training, at least) is that it bears directly on the structuring of music curricula in universities. At my current institution, which requires that all undergraduates in music tackle a core of excellent (and demanding) theory classes, the “Twentieth-Century Theory” course loiters between Wagner and Debussy for a few weeks, then hunkers down with Joe Straus’s Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory for the remainder of the term, with a brief postlude of Soviet music.

Without disputing the utility of familiarizing oneself with common-tone diminished seventh chords or identifying common tones under inversion, I think this situation—which is probably more progressive than lots of schools’ theory curricula—is still somehow unsatisfactory. (There’s an additional theory class that covers music between 1945 and the present day, but I don’t think students are required to enroll in it.) In any case, it seems to be taken as a given that the literature one has to know as a music student ends around the time of the second World War. Is there a better way to redraw these boundaries? What if the “Twentieth Century” of Northwest Asian court music, as John Drummond put it, began in 1910 (when, according to Virginia Woolf, “human character changed”) and ended in 1968 or 1989, years of significant social and cultural import? Or what if music was taught in a completely diachronic way—the histories of tuning and harmony, signifying material, instrumentation, and notation disentangled from each other and presented one at a time? Such an approach might destabilize some of the taken-for-granted narratives of music history, further erode the weirdly unproductive boundary between music theory and musicology in the academy, and make room for counter-canonical curricula.

However, as we all know, music instruction at the undergrad level is only partially about teaching music to undergrads: It’s also about preparing them to enter grad programs, which is to say that (until a consensus on any point, including periodization, emerges in the academic world) embracing a novel pedagogy is tantamount to sentencing your students to failure on entrance exams, even if their knowledge—nonstandard though it may be—is useful and correct. And of course there’s the slipperly slope of complaining about theory curricula: It’s only a short hop from questioning the value of teaching species counterpoint to questioning the value of teaching music, period. The stars might just be right, however, to reconsider periodization in the context of curricula; my impression is that few programs have a coherent philosophy when it comes to breaking up core classes by era, so maybe all it would take is a single strong program to lead by example.

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2 thoughts on “Fine In Theory

  1. pgblu

    Here as in many things, the ‘third way’ is perhaps the best – trying to present new ideas chronologically, but showing their lines of influence as individual strands/units of instruction. The first step in such a drawing up of curricula is to separate not between music theory and musicology but between a ‘history of ideas’ and a cultural history. This is by no means the same distinction. As one goes along, one must continually demonstrate the shortcomings of trying to present either account in isolation from the other.

  2. lukegullickson

    In high school history we finally learned the nasty truth about some of the paragons (Columbus et al) that our grade school classes simplistically extolled. I took two years of chemistry; at the time I reflected that the first year we learned all the rules, and the second year we learned all the exceptions.

    Maybe, maybe there’s always an element of “learning the rules before you can break them”–in this case, learning at least the outline of party-line historical truths before you can examine alternative perspectives. If so, it would certainly help to start earlier, to get students through the basic theory sequence and Grout/whatever history rundown before they get to university, so they can spend those years asking real questions. Wishful thinking, I suppose.

    Unfortunately, learning to think properly and learning to succeed in a bureaucratic system will always be conflicting curricula. Because the more properly one learns to think, the more likely one is to ask whether that particular bureaucratic system is worth succeeding in. Another reason that “counter-canonical curricula,” in places we’ve been lucky enough to see them emerge, are rarely taken seriously by those higher up the ladder — because they inherently destabilize the ladder.


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