On Lying To My Students

Music on blackboardSince 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.

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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.

24 thoughts on “On Lying To My Students

  1. Lawrence Eckerling

    I’m sorry to wholeheartedly disagree with you, but it’s clear that you yourself don’t believe that good voice leading is beautiful, fun, and interesting. So your students won’t think so either. Voiceleading rules are not a set of rules that Bach followed. He just wrote good sounding music, and we musicians who figured out what he was doing came up with a set of rules to better understand Bach. You don’t need to tell “lies” to your students. But parallel 5ths are not to be avoided”in order to maintain the independence of individual voices. They are to be avoided because, usually, it doesn’t good. (Occasionally, it might.) It’s not a lie. You have a point in searching for the best way to present material. But a keen understanding of how harmony works is the key to the secrets of a whole universe of music. No matter how good a violinist (whatever instrument) you might be, knowing how harmony works will make you even better.

    1. Isaac Schankler

      I’m sorry that you misunderstood me. I said that four-part voice leading exercises are often not fun — often. (For some reason NewMusicBox readers love to skip right over certain carefully placed words in my sentences.) That doesn’t mean they can’t be. Just that we need to be careful how we present and frame them.

      And personally, I think parallel 5ths sound great! They just generally sound awkward in the context of four-part chorale writing. Understanding why is not straightforward, which is what probably what gave rise to the pat “independence of voices” explanation. You and I both find this explanation wanting, for good reason. But saying “they don’t sound good, usually” is equally unsatisfying and incomplete, if not more so.

    2. Isaac Schankler

      You actually made me curious about various textbook justifications for avoiding parallel 5ths, so thanks for that. Kostka & Payne says that “parallel motion at such intervals [P8 and P5] interferes with their independence,” while Aldwell & Schachter says that the perfect 5th has “a very strong stability and resistance to forward momentum,” which I find more compelling, if a bit abstract. Anyway, the fact that two extremely widely used texts on the subject have two totally different rationalizations should be enough to demonstrate that there’s not really one good answer.

      1. A.J. McCaffrey

        I think something to keep in mind (which you probably already do, Isaac) is that, as theory teachers, we’re not presenting parallel 5ths to a class with regards to how they sound – good or bad – to *us*, in 2013, but how they sounded to Bach et al. It helped me as a music student to realize that I wasn’t studying Harmony, capital H, as some all-encompassing or universal entity, but rather a harmonic style – one that hung around for a few centuries, for sure, but a style nonetheless. Parallel 5ths may sound bad in Bach, but they sure sound great in Debussy. I think that if my students understand this, it helps them suspend disbelief on things like part-writing as well. If they get that we’re striving for something that sounds authentically like a piece of baroque or classical music, rather than just trying to get something “right”, end of story, they seem to have a better time with it.

    1. Isaac Schankler

      I agree that connecting the rules to your ears is absolutely essential, but I’ve found that the rules don’t agree with my ears 100% of the time. There’s a subjective element that can’t be denied — certain rules that only apply to outer voices because they are more obvious, controversies about how to handle unequal fifths, etc. Their ears will help them, certainly, but without internalizing the rules they’ll still be lost.

      1. Mary Jane Leach

        Agreed. I should have put in a qualification that you might like things that break the rules. Once you can hear, though, how the texture thins when using parallel fifths and octaves, you’ll probably only use them when you want that to happen. Also, it makes a difference if you’re teaching to majors or non-majors about how fussy you get.

  2. Scott Pender

    Isaac, the idea of professorial modes (“here’s what you need to know” vs “isn’t this cool?”) made me think back over my many years of education (music and other). It’s funny, but the teachers I remember the best and with the most respect were those who knew their stuff cold, and although occasionally boring, clearly were brilliant at what they did. The ones who wanted to be your best bud or tried to make learning “cool” have mostly faded from my memory.

    1. Isaac Schankler

      I’d argue that the “isn’t this cool?”aspect is implied by the way these teachers’ brilliance showed the obvious passion for what they did, but I see your point.

  3. Randy Sandke

    I studied theory with Easley Blackwood at the University of Chicago. The first day of class he stated: “Much of music can’t be taught but a lot can. I will teach you only that which can be taught.” He had studied with Nadia Boulanger (whose students read like a “Who’s Who” of twentieth century music) and proceeded to teach exclusively from her exercises in four-part voice leading. I can’t say enough about how vital this training has been to my life as a professional musician: as a composer, arranger, and jazz instrumentalist. For me, a solid understanding of voice leading provided the basis for nearly everything I do and have done.

  4. Austin Wintory

    I don’t think music theory or any other subject music-related needs to be packaged as “isn’t this cool??” for the simple matter that music needs no salesmanship. Its default state is cool, beautiful, intriguing, and all the other wonderful things you say. The best teachers are the ones who still remember that, and in my experience there are great swaths (dare I say, a majority) of people teaching music (in every sense: performance majors, theory / comp majors, conducting, etc) who are themselves disgruntled or dissatisfied with their own career arcs. Some teachers I’ve had in my life I could listen to read a phone book, and sit with my breath held the entire time. They just explode with passion and its inescapably infectious. And from those I *never* had a problem internalizing the interest of things like 4-part voice leading, etc.

    So I think the problem is less about what’s being taught than who is teaching it. But alas this sad subject extends waaaaaaaay beyond that of musical pedagogy.

  5. Jonathan Elliott

    I have to say that I found counterpoint and four-part harmony fascinating, even though I did grapple with the relevance of four-part writing to composing–I was going wild over Carter, Babbitt, Nono, and the modernists, who were all new to me–at least until I was fortunate to be taught by the late Robert Middleton at Vassar. He had studied with Boulanger, who was so delighted with the perfection of “proper” voice-leading that he made me think only of creating something that was perfect, even if the perfection was based on a set of “rules.” When teaching my students now, I liken the practice to the necessity of even the most avant-garde architect to understand the concepts of solid construction. I also often refer to the analogy of figure-drawing for visual artists; whatever one chooses to do as an artist, the control of line, form and proportion that the student gains will always inform future work.

  6. Adrian Childs

    When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, the University had an orientation/training symposium for new teaching assistants. The symposium was accompanied by a book of essays called “Teaching at Chicago.” To this day, the essay from that collection by Jonathan Smith on what he calls “disciplinary lying”—which intersects directly with the topic of this post—remains the single greatest influence on my teaching philosophy. While the essay collection itself is sadly no longer in print, Prof. Smith’s essay can still be found online at the link below.


  7. Philipp Blume, y'all

    Hmmm… you seem to have touched a nerve with this innocuous talk of 4-part chorales. One thing that is under-emphasized in this discussion is that the 4-part texture is a great laboratory in which to learn about and appreciate, yes even GEEK OUT on very subtle differences, to teach people about the value of spacing, contrary v parallel motion, etc. It is a challenging topic to teach, but you’ve succeeded when you’ve imparted a sense of joy about what note of the chord is being doubled, and by which voices — also, which rules of voice leading are you going to break in a given situation? You can’t always follow all of them religiously, even if you are a Lutheran.

    Sitting down with your personal copy of the 389 (or however many there are now) Bach chorales, playing & singing all four parts with a partner, – ach wie flüchtig ach wie nichtig are the cherished memories.

  8. Elaine Fine

    I always loved the challenge of playing three voices on the piano (in different clefs) and singing one. Learning to write using strong voice leading becomes a habit, and studying voice leading in Bach Chorals, which he might have used for teaching tools himself, is one of the great pleasures. It gives us a peek into a great musical mind doing the most basic of tasks. There are many ways to get from one harmony to the next, and internalizing the reasons that one way sounds better than another (or doesn’t) is great training for the musical road ahead, no matter where it leads.

  9. lawrencedillon

    I find it impossible to imagine that parallel fifths sounded “bad” to Bach. The guy was an organist: any organist who doesn’t like the sound of parallel fifths should probably find another career.

    Parallel fifths are not allowed in 4-part writing in order to maximize the independence of voices, plain and simple. People can argue about whether two voices moving in parallel fifths sound independent from one another, because people have the right to argue whatever they want. I’ve never heard, though, anyone argue that two voices moving in parallel unisons sound independent from one another. Fifths present the same principle, extended through parallel octaves to the next overtone, the 12th.

    I tell my students to use parallel fifths (or parallel unisons or parallel octaves, for that matter) when they want a powerful block sonority and avoid them when they want independent, balanced voices. You can list exceptions, but it’s still a good premise to create exceptions from.

    On a side note, since the avoidance of parallel fifths first crops up in the Renaissance, 250 years before Bach, I like to imagine that they were originally avoided because they sounded old-fashioned — ie, Medieval. At that point, it might have been appropriate to say they sounded “bad” — in the way that things that sound old-fashioned can bother people to this day.

    1. Frank J. Oteri

      “since the avoidance of parallel fifths first crops up in the Renaissance, 250 years before Bach, I like to imagine that they were originally avoided because they sounded old-fashioned”

      An explanation that makes far more sense to me was that at the time the parallel fifth rule first became codified, and throughout most of the period the rule was enforced, all fifths were not created equal.

      In medieval times, music typically employed a Pythagorean scale in which all fifths were the same and were all pure (3/2 = 701.9 cents) intervals except for one (which, of course, was not used). As a result the major thirds resulting from such a scale (81/64 = 407 cents as opposed to the pure 5/4 = 386 cents) were dissonant and were therefore treated as such. (I’m always bewildered when people assume that twelve-tone equal temperament (12tET) with its exclusively 700 cent perfect fifths and 400 cent major thirds was an eternal condition and make excuses for folks in Medieval times thinking that major 3rds were dissonant intervals; the reality is that the third they were using was a different interval.)

      As pure thirds got introduced into English music (Dunstable) which became popular on the continent (beginning in the music of Dufay and Binchois), it ushered in a musical renaissance which required a different approach to intonation. As it proved impossible at the time to reconcile the beauty of these intervals with the ability to modulate without having an extraordinary number of different intervals, a series of compromise temperaments evolved, the most common of which was the 1/4-comma meantone system that was so popular in the Baroque (which is the temperament many unrefurbished European organs use to this day). These scale worked in some keys and not others which is why there are no Handel Sonatas in Db major. (These meantone scales make the fifths slightly smaller in order to also make the thirds smaller than 81/64 and more closely in tune to 5/4; but as a result hearing such fifths parallel exposes the audibility of their out-of-tuneness.)

      Equal temperament, as a completely circular temperament, eventually won out, but it was a long drawn out battle that didn’t get completely resolved until the latter half of the 19th century. During the late 17th and throughout the 18th centuries many alternatives were in vogue, the most common being the so-called Werckmeister III well temperament that was theorized by Andreas Werckmeister in his Musikalische Temperatur (published in 1691). Many musicologists now believe that this was J.S. Bach’s intended tuning for at least the first book of his “Well Tempered” Clavier. After all, why not call it the “Equal Tempered” Clavier if it were so, and why write a prelude and fugue in every key if the pitch content of all the keys were exactly the same? A more amazing compositional feat, which is what Bach most likely did, would be to write something that worked in each of the slightly different scales for each major and minor key. And there’s some telltale evidence in the music itself, such as emphasis on major thirds in the very first C major prelude since in the key of C in Werckmeister III the major third between C and E is 390 cents which is much closer to 5/4 and therefore rings out gloriously. But the parallel fifths still sound pretty bad in Werckmeister III since it calls attention to the fact that each of the 5ths is a slightly different size.

      Parallel fifths in 12tET do indeed sound fabulous on an organ and they sound just as great on a piano which is why Debussy, who did use 12tET, put them in his piano music to such great effect!

      1. lawrencedillon

        Beautiful, thanks. So, to summarize, in the Renaissance,
        *5ths were consonant but different enough from one another to cause distress when heard in succession
        *4ths were dissonant.
        *3rds were consonant and close enough in tuning to sound okay — or better yet: fantastic — in succession.

        This is all great — but I still like to imagine, as I said, that the Medieval approach to fifths just sounded old in the 15th century — not in opposition, but in addition to what you are saying.

  10. Sam L. Richards

    I’ve written a great deal about music theory pedagogy on my personal blog, some of which directly relates to this article.

    A aesthetic principle that informs my own approach to this issue can be summed up as follows: there are no rules; there are only conventions. Conventions cannot be “broken”, like rules can. Conventions, however, can be imitated. This generates a classroom discourse founded on the historical exploration of the elements of particular styles. Setting the degree of enthusiasm or relative “fun” of the subject aside, when four-part writing is viewed as an exploration of a particular style it immediately begs the question of why music theory pedagogy so constantly emphasizes this particular style over virtually all others. I’ve yet to hear an answer to this which doesn’t smack of a myopic period-centric vision of what constitutes the music that is worth teaching in the theory classroom.

    Evidence of these insufficient answers can be found in some of the comments above (remarks about how parallel fifths don’t sound “good”, trying to figure out ways to discuss “rule-breaking”, or even relying on ears). We cannot rely upon our ears to guide us until we have been sufficiently enculturated—until our ears have themselves been sufficiently exposed to a particular style enough so as to hear it as “natural” and constituting a particular style at all.

    Again, however, I think if the classroom is going to focus on four-part writing, there must be a sufficient justification for doing so; there must be a sufficient justification for placing a particular style of chorale writing of a particular Austro-Germanic composer from a very particular time period at the center of our 21st-century music pedagogy. When viewed like this, our four-part pedagogical preoccupations appear to be a rather specialized skill. Indeed, writing a good four-part chorale is a rather specialized skill, as is writing a Chopin-like nocturne, a Webern-like short, an Adams-like whirlwind, or a Muhly-like musing. Bach-like chorale writing is a prerequisite to none of these.

    It is important to also acknowledge that a four-part writing centric pedagogy also necessarily, yet often clandestinely, emphasizes and educates with only a few musical parameters in mind: pitch and harmony. Timbre, texture, trajectory, energetics, emotion, rhythm, meaning, cognition, context, feminism, an engagement of philosophical aesthetics, et al are usually not only marginalized, but not engaged at all. These are not advanced subjects whose reservation for a graduate course can be easily justified. They are now essential elements of the current musico-theoretical discourse. Most of the parameters which appear in my partial list above can easily be engaged in conjunction with pitch and harmony; in other words, one need not first master the esoteric art of baroque part-writing before they begin to engage musical meaning. One need not learn to mimic the chorale style of a particular period in order to learn about energetics. The limited mode in which pitch and harmony are so frequently taught is not a prerequisite to musical learning, musical thinking, or, to invoke the late Adam Krims, an engagement of “theory about music”.

    I fear that our pedagogy often educates our students into cultural irrelevance instead of out of it. While acknowledging that such a style, no doubt, possesses harmonic, and voice-leading similarities to many other styles, placing it at the center or treating it as a foundation of one’s early musical training (or later musical training) is not only a pedagogical move, but an aesthetic one which serves to marginalize other styles which do not “adhere” to its practices.

    I could go on, but I hope my comment, like your article, continues to press others towards thinking critically about what we teach and why. These are not easy questions, and I fear that many are not up to the challenge of critiquing their own pedagogical predecessors and the limited and anachronistic modes of engagement that we have all inherited.

  11. Greg Nicolett

    This definitely seems to be an issue teachers face across all disciplines, particularly the creative ones. But white lies have to be told to students of the sciences as well; I’m sure we can all remember graduating from Newtownian to quantum physics in high school.

    Maybe it feels more “appropriate” to lie in a purely academic pursuit like physics because the “creative” aspect of science is not valued as much. We live in a culture which basically defines creativity as rule-breaking, which is perhaps why teaching rules in a musical context feels particularly disingenuous.

    I would think the real art in teaching is offering a glimpse, a tease into that other world while still imparting the value of technique. It takes a lot more effort; it means you need to answer those pesky questions about perfect 5ths both thoughtfully and concisely, and without diminishing your own respect for the rules at hand. Tough! I remember my first theory class was taught by an experimental composer who was concurrently developing a computer algorithm that could churn out music in the style of other composers; he once wise-cracked that his program could make Copland sound more interesting than Copland, and that we’d no longer need film composers. You could just sense his disdain for Copland’s “conservative,” tonal music – and it came through in his teaching style. He was boring, uninspiring, useless. I got nothing from him, except perhaps a disdain for people who rebelled ONLY for the sake of rebelling, and couldn’t appreciate beauty/craft in simplicity.

    Of course I went on to have teachers, both traditional and experimental, with a far more nuanced philosophy on art. But it’s amazing how much damage one teacher can do in an Intro To Music Theory Class.

  12. Ethan Hein

    This entire discussion presupposes that the rules and norms of eighteenth century Western European aristocratic music should be the baseline standard for understanding all of music. I resented having to do four-voice chorales, not because they were boring, but because “correct” voice leading actually sounds worse to me than “bad” voice-leading a lot of the time. I’m a guitarist, and half the music I play and listen to uses parallel fifths and octaves constantly. I don’t need my tritones to resolve, and find pure diatonicism to be bland and alien. I’m hardly unusual in these regards. Learning music theory in grad school was essentially an exercise in mastering the music of an alien culture. Which is a fine thing to do, but not in a basic required theory course. Music theory as presently taught should be a music history elective. Required, intro-level music theory should start with the the common practice of the present, and work its way backwards in time later, if at all.

    1. Frank J. Oteri

      Ethan, great comment! I totally agree with you that parallel fifths and octaves sound fabulous. But that’s because they sound fabulous in equal temperament. Those voice-leading “rules” were codified at a time before temperament got equalized in Europe and so sometimes those fifths were actually not the same size as each other and so it didn’t sound so great when they were played back-to-back. Sadly the “rule” stayed without the explanation and ultimately without a good reason for it and so music students, kinda like the denizen of the original Star Trek episode “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” follow rules that ultimately don’t apply to their specific corporeal reality. Debussy knew better and broke the “no parallel fifths” rule with impunity to great sonic effect (he was using 12tET after all) and so have tons of others since then. That said, any one set of baseline standards that are specific to one time and place should never be interpreted as being universally applicable and in the 21st century where the music of all times and places could and should be equally accessible it behooves us all to have a broader view.


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