In Defense of Music Theory

A few weeks ago, one of my graduate students emailed me a link to an article published on Slate.com. “How Can Traditional Music Theory Mesh With Modern Pop Music?” purports that music theory, as it’s taught in university music programs across North America, “serves practicing musicians pretty poorly.” The author, NYU graduate student Ethan Hein, proposes that music theory pedagogy should recast its mission and objectives to better suit the needs of today’s musicians, who are more interested in popular music than repertoire drawn from the common practice. Though he never really defines what he means by this, we can assume he’s referring to the typical “Bach to Brahms” canon.

The article resonated with me. I seem to frequently respond to people who suggest that what we learn in music theory class is “irrelevant and useless, since we’re not eighteenth-century court musicians.” Fine, nobody has ever really said exactly that to me. If they did, I think I would fall out of my chair. But many students over the years have asked me to explain to them how music theory is “relevant to their musical lives.” The tone of Hein’s article reminded me of these students. Perhaps more importantly, the article was being “published” (curated?) by Slate, a seemingly reputable journalistic website, and Hein was being touted as some kind of “music theory expert.” Moreover, Hein’s blog had gained significant traction on Reddit and Twitter, having been promoted by popular writers such as Dylan Matthews, and Eric Alper. My dear beloved field of music theory was being smeared all over the internet!

I disagreed with several of the claims he made in his post, and as we do in today’s society, I took to Twitter to air my grievances. Through the magic of the internet, I was soon thrust into a conversation with Hein about his article. While I love Twitter, it isn’t a great venue for lengthy debate. I promised Hein (who turns out to be a really nice guy) that I would write a “counterpoint” to his article, in which I more clearly spelled out exactly how I thought he was misrepresenting the discipline of music theory. And here we are.

Hein begins his discussion by describing what he sees as one of the central problems with music education today:

“The academic music world is slowly coming to grips with the ways that the conventional teaching of music theory serves practicing musicians pretty poorly.”

This is the first of several straw-man arguments (which I learned recently is called an “Aunt Sally” in the United Kingdom!) posed throughout the article. What evidence is there that music theorists are “coming to grips” with the failings of their own teaching? I certainly haven’t seen any “crisis of faith” panels at any recent meetings of the Society for Music Theory. Moreover, by what measurement can we determine the degree to which music theory classes have benefitted musicians? Most of what is taught in undergraduate theory curricula is rudimentary, and becomes deeply ingrained into our students’ musical knowledge. Students who have gone through our classes may not be able to articulate exactly what it is that they gained from studying counterpoint, but that doesn’t mean that studying counterpoint hasn’t had a positive impact on their musicianship or their careers.

Hein’s main premise is that today’s music students draw upon a diversity of musical experience, especially popular music. He suggests that, while some scholars have become proponents of studying popular music in the academy, music theorists have primarily ignored this repertoire.

“The pop music pedagogy movement, spearheaded by Lucy Green, is doing some creative work aimed at aligning music education with the way people experience and understand music in the present.”

Indeed, Lucy Green and several other scholars have done some tremendous research into the use of popular music in the public school system. However, I don’t think that many music theorists, or even Green herself, would really consider her work to be “music theory,” and it’s not really appropriate to compare her work to what might be seen as lacking in music theory scholarship or the classroom. Moreover, it’s a bit ridiculous to suggest that what is successful in general music programs in public schools can be automatically be transferred to conservatories and universities that train would-be professional musicians.

Hein then gets into dangerous territory in attempting to define music theory and its purpose. This is a question that I pose to my graduate students every year, and it’s definitely a tough nut to crack:

“We should be asking: What is it that musicians are doing that sounds good? What patterns can we detect in the broad mass of music being made and enjoyed out there in the world?”

Generally speaking, music theory does not attempt to discern what sounds good or bad. Music theory certainly helps explain why a chord might sound dissonant in one context and not another, but questions such as whether a piece sounds “good” or “bad,” or why a piece is popular, are much more difficult to answer. Learning music theory, more than anything, is about “learning to think in music.” It’s about developing the critical thinking skills and musicianship necessary to engage more deeply with musical performance, composition, and interpretation.

Hein tries further to suggest that music theory needs to ground itself in a “common practice,” and that most music programs are grounding it in the wrong “common practice”:

“I have my own set of ideas about what constitutes common-practice music in America in 2014, but I also come with my set of biases and preferences. It would be better to have some hard data on what we all collectively think makes for valid music.”

Again, I don’t think the purpose of a music theory class (or any music class, really), is to solely concentrate on a “common practice”, nor even to try to discern what a common practice might be. More egregious, though, is that Hein asserts that (his) music theory professors equate common practice with musical validity. He goes on to cite a wonderful study by Trevor de Clercq and David Temperley that investigates harmonic usage in rock music (loosely defined by the Rolling Stone Top 500 list) as a means of “proving” that music no longer works in the way that his stodgy, ivory-tower dwelling theory professors would have you believe. Let’s unpack all of the things that are wrong with this sentiment:

  1. Though the Temperley and de Clercq study indeed reveals some differences in harmonic usage between common practice and rock music, Hein fails to mention the tremendous amount of overlap that exists between these two styles (my own dissertation investigates this idea as well). The music of Bach is certainly markedly different from that of Jimi Hendrix, but discussing them using a common language isn’t akin to comparing apples to beavers. We can safely talk about the commonalities and celebrate the differences.

  2. Music theory professors are not concerned with finding “musical validity.” Literally nobody I’ve ever met in my nearly 15 years working in the environment of university music programs has tried to tell me that they’ve found the “ultimate musical truth.” A music theory graduate student who proposed that they did find something like this would be laughed out of the program.

  3. Though I can’t speak for every music theory teacher in the Western world (though it should be noted that neither can Hein, even though he tries to), I can say that in my classes, I strive more than anything to empower my students with the ability to speak intelligently about the technical musical differences between disparate styles. I want them to be able to talk about how and why rock music’s harmony is used differently than the harmony found in the music of Bach or Beethoven (or even why Bach’s use of harmony is different from Beethoven’s). In order to do so, my students need to understand voice leading and harmonic syntax, and how that differs in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Schoenberg, The Beatles, Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder, and The Wu-Tang Clan.

While I certainly haven’t conducted a thorough study of all of the theory curricula across the country, I can still point to the growing body of scholarship produced by people like Walter Everett, John Covach, Allan Moore, Nicole Biamonte, David Temperley, Mark Butler, Tim Hughes, Anna Stephan-Robinson, Guy Capuzzo, Jocelyn Neal, Fred Maus, Adam Krims, Mark Spicer, Joti Rockwell, Jay Summach, Drew Nobile, Brad Osborn, Kyle Adams, Chris Endrinal, Victoria Malawey, Dave Easley, Christopher Doll, Greg McCandless, and countless others over the last 20 years to show that popular music has a prominent place within the world of music theory. Moreover, this scholarship has trickled down into nearly every major music theory textbook that has been published in recent history. Heck, at their 2011 meeting, the Society for Music Theory staged a formal public debate, attended by hundreds of theory professors, that directly addressed the very issues that Hein claims we don’t ever think about. The resolution of the “Great Theory Debate” was:

“Be It Resolved … Common-Practice Period Repertoire No Longer Speaks to Our Students; It’s Time to Fire A Cannon at the Canon.”

To suggest that music theory as a discipline is purely invested in the music of the common practice from Bach to Brahms is simply wrong.

A lot of what Hein writes in his Slate article is drawn from earlier posts on his blog. In “Against Music Theory,” Hein explains why he felt so compelled to investigate a “new music theory”:

“I am mercifully finished with music theory in grad school and couldn’t be happier about it. You may find this surprising. My blog is full of music theory. How could a guy who enjoys thinking about music in analytical terms as much as I do have such a wretched time in my graduate music theory classes? It wasn’t the work, I mostly breezed through that. No, it was the grinding Eurocentrism. Common-practice period classical music theory is fine and good, but in the hands of the music academy, it’s dry, tedious, and worst of all, largely useless. The strict rules of eighteenth-century European art music are distantly removed from the knowledge a person needs to do anything in the present-day music world (except, I guess, to be a professor of common-practice tonal theory.)”

Terrible music theory teachers who don’t provide their students with a broader context in their classes surely exist. But terrible teachers of calculus, medieval history, economics, and marine biology also exist. That these classes are a waste of time is a failure of the teacher, not the discipline. At the heart of this is an argument that I hear a lot from younger students: “I don’t see the immediate utility of what we’re learning and how it relates to my current interests, so it is obviously useless to me.” I think this attitude is dangerous, especially among those who are dedicated to higher education. Ultimately, university is not meant to be job training. We go to university to become intellectually-engaged critical thinkers; to become better members of society. While I’ve just spent several hundred words explaining why I think music theory is a diverse discipline that is relevant to today’s musicians, I don’t think that investing time in learning something that might seem esoteric is a worthless endeavour. As students of music we should yearn to become musical experts; strive to become knowledgeable about all of its facets, from Josquin to Cecil Taylor to A$AP Rocky. If we have to constantly justify the immediate value of what we study, we will eventually fall into the same rhetorical trap that politicians use to question the value of studying music at all.