Why Music Theory Should Not Be a Requirement
for Music Ed and Music Performance Majors
in American Universities in the Early Twenty-First Century
by Jody Nagel
Opinion / Sarcasm
The overwhelming majority of music education and performance majors in college music programs detest music theory requirements. They endure the subject. It is a hurdle, they think, of which they must, somehow, "get around." The Studio and Ensemble teachers do not contribute towards motivating their students to value music theory. The perfected methodologies and techniques of the Music Ed faculty are applied to the most nauseatingly simple-minded level of "music theory," and no more. They spell major and minor chords and scales, and consider that music theory. The college music graduates that go back into the public school system not only have forgotten (as quickly as they can) everything that they ever learned about theory, but they take this hostile attitude towards theory with them, and they have no intention of including theory in their curriculum. They do not want to think about music; they just want to play. Everything has to be fun. Thinking is apparently not "fun" for these people.
Students are given an instrument, and a play-oriented bias, as their first encounter with music. By the time they are "teachers," they have completed the cycle and continue to perpetuate the status quo. In our capitalistic economy, everything apparently is product oriented, and in music the "product" is the "concert" or recording. We do not care if the performers (or the audience) understand - really understand - the sensibilities derived from compositions that are played; they merely get "credit" for playing them, conducting them, attending concerts of them. So the capitalist economy demands profit, and concerts are made without comprehension. Then, democracy contributes to the problem: the majority wish to consider painfully low levels of comprehension to be equivalent to intellectual mastery. So, democratically speaking, the majority want to hear simple-minded pop music, marching band music, or the most banal of so-called religious choral music. These people encounter music theory and are adamant in their refusal to learn and grow above what they themselves have already defined as "intelligent." When a musically literate person points out their illiteracy, then we're back to music theory being "elitist" and/or boring. They won't learn. They won't move away from their perpetuation of simple-mindedness. They accuse theory teachers of standing in the way of their "careers" whereby they intend to continue freezing the general societal level of music knowledge at depressingly low levels.
Imagine the day when Schenkerian structural analysis of Brahms' late piano Intermezzi is required work for 7th-graders, and 9th-graders are taught to contemplate the nature of Form in music. Imagine 11th-graders being required to master set-theory as the normative version of pitch analysis, and then having them comprehend the abstracted sonata-form structure in Webern's Symphonie (Op. 21) and afterwards being able to juxtapose that understanding alongside the abstracted forms within the paintings of Picasso. While most other fields advance into the 21st century, music teaching seems to be doomed to remain in the 18th century. The field called "Music Education" simply does not have the advancement of significant musical comprehension as its goal and would consider it "unrealistic." We can't do it, because we never did, because we don't want to, because we can't. Round and round it goes. The "reasoning" is something like this:
A. But I don't like "that kind" of music.
A. Because I've never been taught it at an early enough age, I guess.
A. Because my teachers don't like it.
Q. What will you do?
A. Nothing; it requires effort to learn about that kind of music.
Q. While in college, why not expend the effort?
A. Because that wouldn't contribute towards my career goals.
Q. Which are?
A. To teach the music that sells in the capitalist economy, and that democratically is what most people want to hear.
Q. So you think teachers shouldn't lead in the cutting edge of human comprehension?
A. No, they should reflect the culture; they shouldn't change anything; they should prepare students to be the next generation of people perpetuating this. (A kind of Neo-Confucianism.)
Q. Yes, but if the mathematicians thought this way, we'd all still be using the abacus rather than computers. Don't you think musical evolution should proceed forward, too?
A. Well that's different! Mathematicians are smart. . .
Yes and why not musicians, too? Plato said that all educated people should learn about music, but only the slaves and peasants should be musicians. Using modern terms, Plato surely meant that all educated people should study music theory and the lower classes only should be performers. Now music is used primarily as a means of subconscious manipulation by the broadcast-based commercial economic system. The affects of various theoretical techniques are studied by Wall Street and used to maximize profits by influencing people's decisions via controlled sound. ("music") It would seem that the study of music theory is the only way to really be free nowadays from this commercial tyranny. But most Performers don't want to learn theory. Most Music Ed majors loath it. They just want to play. Of course, what they want to play is what everyone else wants them to play, and this is forced on them by the very powerful and infinitely subtle forces of capitalism and democracy. So these people that refuse to learn music theory are enslaved by their ignorance, unwitting dupes in a power struggle of titans. The extraordinary success of this system is quite clear because, even when these ideas are stated directly to them, they find it all so boring. "Leave me alone, I don't care," they say. So, you see, Plato was right even for our own times, or at least almost. It's not so much that performers should be slaves; it's simply that they are slaves. The whole thing is nicely supported by the Music Ed field, playing right along, unwittingly acting as the front forces for the social status quo of our oh-so-necessary-for-capitalism music-theory ignorance.
And therefore the great art music of the 20th century shrivels unpicked on the vine and is forgotten, because the Music Ed people in power won't support it. They are the cause of the enablement of the tyranny of simplistic pop/rock music.
Music theory, for most of the last three thousand years, was the domain of philosophers and intellectuals. Performers never really emphasized it. Music Ed, nowadays, emphasizes the mindset of the performer. Indeed, performance practice throughout much of Western history emphasized playing techniques, not musical comprehension. I suggest to the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) and to all American university presidents that music theory be placed back in the philosophy department, where it belongs. Stop wasting resources on the futile effort of trying to force "musicians" to understand things. What a shame that it is performers who take the name "musician" when they are experts mostly only at fingerings and embouchures, while the root word of musician (i.e., "music") implies that a musician should be one who understands music. What a shame that composers of the last several centuries were educated in something of philosophy, literature and poetry, theology, political and economic theories, history and mythology, not to mention music theory, and that their creations must be portrayed by performers who "just want to play." They like wiggling their fingers around on their instruments, or hearing their own vocal cords, I guess, but they do not crave an understanding of what they are performing. These are the human instruments that composers must rely on. How sad! Let's hope that electronic instruments keep getting better, so that composers communicating musically to audiences can finally sever altogether their need for this belittling intermediary.
For those rare Performers and Music Ed majors that wish to comprehend the great field of music theory, let it be an elective for them, and have them take it from the philosophy department. Do not require it of all music majors. It is just another sorry instance of throwing pearls to the swine. But for those rare individuals that opt to take music theory, let them first come to a full awareness of exactly how desensitized to sound they have become. A college freshman has 18 years of exposure to desensitizing commercial drumset music from almost every store and restaurant they have ever visited; from abundant movies, TV commercials and programs; from constant proximity to one stereo system after another. The very constancy has dulled their minds so that they will never have the musical sensitivity of their analogs of the past. Ironically, their instrumental and vocal techniques are improving at the same time their compositional literacy fades to non-existence. I suggest that the rare comprehension-craving Performer or Music Ed major that comes along, should be asked to adopt a vow of silence for a six-month period; they should hear no music of any sort. After that, for another six months, they should listen to assigned recordings, and, if possible, performances, of music representing the great compositional achievements of past centuries and the current century. In between listenings they should continue hearing silence. There is no sensitivity toward art in a life that has no silence. They should adopt a personal habit of always avoiding background music, and making the act of listening to music a consciously chosen activity that one devotes all of one's attention to for the duration of the composition.
Thanks to modern sound-byte messages, 20-second commercials, 2-minute songs, and television shows interrupted regularly by commercials, the average student has an absurdly small attention span. And society wonders why attention-deficit disorder is on the rise! (Children are merely learning that which society asks them to learn. Attention-deficit disordered children should be applauded, perhaps, as the true accomplishment of our economic system.) Serious music students should break this pattern now, by listening to very long works such as Mahler symphonies, and by reading long complex novels. Only when they are capable of following a line of reasoning, with continued alertness, from beginning to end, should they be allowed to experience some of the smaller gems that appear in the literature. Duration itself is not a measure of a work's greatness, but as a cure to sound-byte-itis, only long works should be heard for a time. To those musically literate people that wish to teach their children, start at the top, not the bottom. Give children great works to listen to, not contrived children's music. Here, there is no analogy to the need to give infants mother's milk, and then to wean them and begin giving them more substantial food. In the case of music, a child is more likely to learn to like simplistic music and then never want anything else. They will want sweet cotton candy and never learn truly to enjoy anything else. Indeed, trying to be a serious composer nowadays is about as frustrating as it would be for a gourmet chef to live in a country where the people only eat cotton candy.
Great art was achieved first under monarchy. It was commanded! As the greed-based capitalist system rose to domination, simplistic music became increasingly desired, and increasing democracy legitimized it with its recursive stamp of approval. When the science of marketing finally matured by the 1970s, the art of music was just about annihilated, and replaced in society with sonic brainwashing. Great art limps along, still, though. It doesn't really flourish. It gets grants, and rich people support it financially. But the rich people have been desensitized by current reality along with all the rest. They mostly don't solely seek out musical art; "classical music" is just another entertainment option. It is therefore not really functioning as Art, in the Age-of-Enlightenment or Age-of-Romanticism sense, in the sense that it is truly a means to provide meaning for one's life.
Music Theory and Analysis attempts to reveal musical meaning, and value, by comprehending compositional techniques and intentions, and by finding symbolic meanings associated with the sound categories that the theorists identify. It would be best taught like it always has been for the majority of the last three millennia: by philosophers. All educated people should know music theory, but most intellectuals would be too embarrassed to walk into most contemporary schools of music; the level of general illiteracy is just too great there. And most Performers and Music Ed students would be so much happier if they didn't have this requirement. If it turns out that ultra-basic elements, such as chords and scales, are important to instrumental playing, the performance teachers should by all means choose to promote such things in their own studios, if they wish. Or, they could leave those topics out, if they wish, if, say, fingerings are more important to them. And maybe if our performers, and their perpetuators, the Music Ed people, are happier, then the world might be just that much happier a place! . . . . .
(if yet even more ignorant . . . .
if that's possible.)
Dr. Jody Nagel
May 17, 2000