Since I last wrote about four-part voice leading, questioning its educational value, I’ve had to eat my words a little bit. Now that I’m teaching this material, I’ve begun to see its immense utility as a teaching tool. I still have some of the same issues with how the material is usually presented but, more often than not, I find myself taking the same shortcuts my teachers did.
One of the most difficult things for me right now as a teacher is learning how to tell the expedient lie. For example, saying that parallel fifths are disallowed in order to maintain the independence of voices is a half-truth at best that elides over huge swaths of history and scholarship. But a diversion into this background would be completely inappropriate in the context of an intro course. Even worse, it could very well muddle the students’ understanding of the basic material. So in most cases, it’s best to stick to the simplified version, with maybe a metaphorical asterisk hinting at the larger issues.
The best thing about four-part voice leading is that it is an efficient and objective way to measure fluency in a field where objectivity is hard to come by. If a student can write a coherent chorale, I know that they also have a solid grasp of a host of other things including keys, intervals, chords, melody, and tonality. A more open compositional assignment would not necessarily reveal these things.
But the limitations of chorale writing can make it very, very dry stuff, especially compared to the vividness and expanse of what’s possible in music. It can be, let’s face it, downright boring. Kyle Gann talks about being fed up with the rise of the professor-as-entertainer ethos, and I’m extremely sympathetic to his argument—it’s also something I worry about a great deal. But I do think we have a duty beyond simply teaching the material. We must also justify it and show how the knowledge we’re imparting is vital, interesting, and beautiful. Music theory, and the fascinatingly intricate way it interacts with actual music, is all three of these things. Four-part voice leading exercises are often none of these things.
I don’t have a easy solution for this. It’s simple enough to flip back and forth between the “here’s what you need to know” and “isn’t this cool?” modes, but I wonder if this doesn’t send the wrong message, that theory is more interesting…well, in theory. Better to infuse the material with interestingness every step of the way. I suspect this will be an eternal challenge.