Thursday, 1 October 2015

Music theory for a new century

So now — continuing about changes in the conservatory curriculum — some thoughts about how to teach music history and theory.

And remember that I'm offering free consulting sessions to anyone who'd like to talk about these issues. I can help! Contact me.

I might note to start that there might be classes on what's happening now. What's the state of classical music? What are the problems in the field, how are things changing? And why — in language we could use with nonbelievers — is classical music worth saving?

These are topics of discussion throughout our field, so why not get students involved? I've mentioned my visit to the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where classes were cancelled for a day so students could discuss the big issues we face. And while that's a great thing to do, it's also good to offer courses on the current state of things. As is done at DePauw, where as part of a revamping of conservatory education, a course called "State of the Art" (taught by my friend Eric Edberg) is required for all students.

A wider context

theory new age blogMoving now to music theory, and how it might be taught, I might start with this: That it's important for all of us — and especially for schools — to put classical music in a wider cultural context. How does it function in our wider culture, where does it fit with other things that are going on, where doesn't it fit?

Of course these are questions for a course like "State of the Art." But they also loom when I think about music theory. Conservatories, up to now, have largely taught classical music theory, which made sense in a bygone age when our art ruled unchallenged as the deepest, most artistically important music in the western world. So we all learned chord symbols, labelled chords in Bach chorales, studied harmony and counterpoint and form, and went deep into analysis.

All of which, I have to say, I loved. But now we're in a different age. Classical music coexists with other genres, all of which are taken seriously as art. And in those genres, people think about the stuff of music differently.

In jazz, you label chords by their names, not by their function, as we do in classical music. In classical music, what you call a C major chord depends on what key you're in. In C, it's I. (We always use roman numerals.) In F, it's V. In G, it's IV.

While in jazz it's simply C. Though jazz chords are rarely simple, so maybe the tonic chord in C is Cmaj7 (with an added B), or something even more complex, with B plus added A and D.

And that just touches the surface of what jazz harmony can be. Which is one reason it makes sense to name the chords. Makes it easier to see what notes are giving bite and color to the harmony. Plus jazz mostly doesn't deal in large-scale modulations, as classical music does, so the function in a key of any chord is less important. (You don't have to deal with C changing its function — and hence its label — when you modulate to F or G, or some other key.)

Doing it by ear

But this just scratches the surface. Jazz musicians use more kinds of scales than classical music recognizes. And they improvise, which really is the key to what their music does.

Pop music has its own ways of thinking, in which pure sound — created with amplification and all kinds of software and studio intricacies — becomes a central element. So what if the guitar is playing an E major chord? That's obvious. What matters is how the chord is filtered, mixed, panned to right or left of center, delayed, fed back on itself. And so on through an endless list of detailed refinements, whose use is both a science and an art, and which may take hours in the studio or on the computer to get right.

Plus there's heterophany. Many things going on at once, but not obeying rules like (in classical music) those of counterpoint. Things get layered on each other pretty much by ear. As when, year ago, I was watching an album being mixed, and the producer added a recording of chant from an Eastern European church to a texture full of other things.

And he did this without being in the studio! He checked in by phone, and told his staff where to find the chant recording, on a tape stored in a closet, and exactly where in the song the chant should start and end. Later, I assume, he'd listen to the mix, and adjust the volume, panning, and quality of sound the chant should have.

To state what should be obvious: You don't need to read or write music to create pop music. Much of what you deal with can't be notated. How do you notate what happens when you use EQ to darken a specific sound? Everything in pop can be done without notation, and many of the most important things have to be done entirely by ear.

And then there's rhythm…but I just don't have space to go into all the rhythmic understanding (like the concept of groove) that you take for granted in pop and jazz, but which aren't known in classical music.

Why we should learn this

And of courese I'm only talking about familiar genres, pop and jazz. What happens when we go outside the western world? (Or, for that matter, into western genres with their own musical languages, like the many kinds of Latin music.) Still more new rules apply!

But why should classical musicians learn these things?

First, so they'll be musically literate. Musical horizons are much wider than they were when classical music reigned supreme. Many of my Juilliard students have never heard Charlie Parker, and most have no idea how pop records are produced.

Which means that — in today's terms — they might not be fully educated musicians. Charlie Parker is one of the greatest musical artists (so silly to have to say this) that anyone will ever hear. My students recognize this when they hear him. But they have no idea what he's doing, how he develops motifs, how his understanding of jazz harmony lets him play notes that — in classical music terms — don't seem to fit the chords he's improvising over.

Nor do they completely understand his interplay with others in his groups, or how musuic takes shape when it's improvised, with something different happening each time.

So start with that. Musical literacy, as it should be understood today.

Then there's something practical. Classical musicians, younger ones especially, play many kinds of music. They may find themselves playing with jazz musicians, playing in rock bands, playing world music. So they have to know what's going on in all these genres. They have to know how to talk to the people they're working with. They have to speak more than one musical language.

And then a very basic point. But far-reaching! At conservatories, the music theory everybody learned wasn't called "classical music theory." It was labelled – with decisive if unacknowledged force — as "music theory," implying that it was the theory of all music. Or at least all music that mattered!

This became — whether or not anyone intended this — a way of enforcing the idea that classical music is superior. If music theory (emphasis added to make the implication clear) shows us certain formal processes, and analytical details, going on in classical music, and if we're taught that these give classical music much of its depth and value, and we don't find these things in other music…well, you see where this goes.

And I encounter thinking like that to this day. Pop music is inferior because the chords are simple. Well, in classical music terms, the chord progressions (generally without any modulation) look pretty basic, but when you play an E major chord on an electric guitar you have hundreds, thousands of ways to mess with the sound, so the overtones ringing and clashing in the air create a wildness far removed from the pure E major we take for granted in classical music.

If music theory is only classical music, then we don't learn the things that give other kinds of music depth and value. And so we're encouraged (implicitly, but strongly) to undervalue them.

But there's a big question!

Namely: if we add the study of nonclassical genres to music theory courses, what do we remove? What do we now not learn about classical music, that may be crucial for understanding it?

Quickly, I'd make a couple of points. First, how well do students really learn the theory that they're made to study? And, most crucially, how well do they hear the things they're taught about, how well do they integrate their theory training with the sound and flow of music, and the deep discipline and joy of performing it?

Maybe not so well. Which suggests that even on its own terms, traditional theory teaching needs some changes.

But then one other thing, which came up when I talked to theory faculty during my consulting work at DePauw. Suppose you expand the concept of music theory, to include nonclassical music. And because the required courses still take two years, or whatever the requirement might be, you have to take some classical music theory out.

What then happens to undergraduates who want to do graduate work at schools that still expect the traditional theory curriculum? Students trained in more diverse music theory won't, when they go to graduate school, know what they're expected to. How do you handle that?

One idea was to add an extra, optional semester, where students could expand their classical theory training.

But of course this is a discussion in progress, as are so many conversations we're having in our field. I'm available to help you as a consultant. And, as I've been saying, I'll give a free consultation to anyone who'd like one. Contact me to set it up!

Next: teaching music history. We can't just teach the history of composition, as we've traditionally done. We have to show how music lived and breathed in past centuries. And, in our new age of entrepreneurship, students should learn how musicians — the great composers included — made a living! They were far more entrepreneurial than we might think.

My previous posts on curriculum change:

"Changing the curriculum" (why we have to do it)

"The highest road" (about entrepreneurship, and why the tension some people feel between teaching entrepreneurship and teaching music doesn't need to be there)

Original Content: Music theory for a new century

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