On preparing for graduate study in music theory

An "are we the baddies" moment, assuaged by an asinine twitter spat

June 11 2023

I. Teaching students versus (?) teaching teachers

I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want my music theory students to learn, to think about, to do. I’ve written about that a bit here. I like to think of my teaching as ecumenical and omnivorous. A syllabus is a curatorial document, and there are specific concepts and ideas and habits of thought that are a high priority for me when I think about what I want to impart to my students. (My syllabi are on my website, to give a partial sense of what I am doing with my students.)

It was only recently that I had a bright and hard-working student express the desire to do graduate work in music theory, with an eye toward becoming a theory pedagogue himself. He asked me what I’d recommend he read over the summer to prepare for graduate-level coursework in music theory, and the list I wrote as a first draft astonished me with its hoary conservatism. (For readers not interested in unfocused musings about music theory pedagogy, my final list is at the bottom of this post and is marginally more expansive.) How can it be that I’ve spent so much time trying to build a music theory curriculum that presents a diversity of methodologies; represents a range of racial, gender, and sexual identities; considers scholarship from a wide range of authors who come from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds; but when it came time to give guidance to a future teacher I was prepared to hand over many of the same musty, Eurocentric tomes I’d been given?

This is, of course, a common experience for educators. We are always torn between our perceived obligations to teach the material “students just have to know,” and our wish to dismantle the power structures that such an attitude sediments. What even is the center of our discipline, and what are its boundaries? Metaphors of “expansion” regarding what we teach in turn imply an origin point, the Big Bang that continues to spread outward. I found myself dutifully searching for that center on behalf of my student even after long ago deciding to reject the metaphor of outward expansion entirely.

Then there are pragmatic concerns: for example, it is simply true that someone wishing to work as a music theory educator needs to be able to sight sing and to play a chordal instrument—almost invariably the keyboard—in order to rapidly realize student work. And I did not wish for my student to botch, as I did, a demo lecture on a basic topic in front of 30 students and one crestfallen professor. So it seemed best to include one or two of the heftier textbooks.

This dovetails into my last self-observation, about the inescapable influence of my own insecurities from when I was starting graduate school. I went directly from a conservatory to a doctoral program, from a jazz background into a world where fairly substantial familiarity with Western concert music tradition was assumed, and from a musicianship-heavy but scholarship-light curriculum into one where a level of basic awareness of extant trends in the field was expected of me. At what point am I writing suggestions to 22-year-old me instead of to my student, whose background is different?

Such was my existential crisis. And then, to my surprise, an asinine twitter spat actually provided some welcome clarity, and somewhat alleviated my concerns about my impulse toward conservatism.

II. Detecting flaws in argumentation

The first tweet read as follows: “Something I never heard mentioned in any music theory class is the role that repetition plays in creating musical meaning and harmonic function. Absolutely anything will start sounding good and ‘correct’ if you repeat it over a nice groove. Seriously! Anything!”

This tweet and subsequent claims by the author angered a number of music theory pedagogues, myself included, but the specific issues that irked us seemed to vary. Varun Chandrasekhar wrote a lengthy blog post rebutting specific claims in more detail than I intend to do here. The conversation on Twitter ended up focusing quite a bit on the expertise imparted by doctoral work in music theory. The author claims authority as a music theory pedagogue and highlights his possession of a doctoral degree, but it is not in music theory. I noted with interest that some commenters were not just challenging the claims he made in his tweet, but his very claim to authority. Was that specific to this author, or indicative of a broader mindset held by professional practitioners? I think the answer is “both.”

For me, there are two big problems with the tweet. First, “I never heard this thing mentioned in class” is meant to imply “it is not taught,” (or, if we are feeling charitable to the author, “not widely taught”). While the list of topics that are not taught in music theory courses is undoubtedly quite long, the observation that harmonic function is impacted by repetition and metric placement is a mainstay of literally every single core music theory textbook. It is generally not presented in a way that is repertoire-specific, or if it is, it’s tied to Western European art music. I am quite sure that a lack of familiarity with common music theory textbooks, coupled with a reluctance to engage with 19th century Western art music, are the culprits for the OP’s misunderstanding here. I think this part of his post was what enraged theory pedagogues the most. It’s a falsifiable statement: it either is true or is not true that this topic is taught in classes. Those of us who work hard to craft lessons about the interactions of harmony and meter in a wide range of music will certainly bristle at the suggestion that we don’t teach these.

The second issue concerns fallacious presumptions about music as an object. This was the part that I found more irksome. Subsequent tweets made it clear to me that “anything will start sounding good and ‘correct’” wasn’t a figure of speech or casual hyperbole but truly was meant as a statement of truth. For example, one read: “One of my students said, ‘Everything harmonizes with the Funky Drummer break.’ I was playing the break in class, trying to find some chord that sounded bad over it, just mashing my first on the piano, and everything worked.”

Another one read: “Another important idea I never, ever heard in a theory class: timing and emphasis of chords can override voice leading and intervallic content in your sense of the chords function. If you have the chords C, F, and G, you can make any one of them sound like the tonic through metrical placement and emphasis. Very easily!”

The assumption made is that an inviolable musical phenomenon has been uncovered. Music becomes X whenever Y happens. It’s of a piece with those irritating headlines like “Scientists may have uncovered the Groove gene.” But of course there’s no way to evidence this claim consistently; it’s bad framing, reliant on the kind of 1-to-1 correspondences that fuel videos like “These Chords Make ANYTHING Spooky.” Hearing a harmony as tonic-functioning is something that has to be learned. Aspect shifts involved in ambiguous chord progressions are analogized to the vase/face or duck/rabbit illusions, but those require the viewer to know what a vase looks like and know what a face looks like. “Tonic” isn’t just a thing, floating about in the universe.

Never mind that apparently not everything sounds good over the Funky Drummer break after all; a subsequent tweet by the author said “V7#9 is supposedly a nonstable sound, but it is also routinely used as a stable, resolved sound in blues and funk. Meanwhile, V-I cadences sound terrible looping over the Funky Drummer.”

One final exchange involved a comment: “Why do random notes and chords instantly sound ‘better’ when put over a beat or given rhythmic emphasis? Is there a music theory term for this?” The OP replied: “This is the thing!” (roughly meaning, in this context, “this is what I am trying to discuss but never have heard mentioned.”) There are very few music theory terms that imply preference or value, though that’s not to say that music theory terminology isn’t easy to weaponize toward those ends. The idea that a project of music theory ought to be to give people a language to express their preferences is a salutary one; Arnie Cox’s recent book “Music and Embodied Cognition” has been instrumental for me in developing this kind of framework. But the desire for objectivity, for one-to-one correspondences between symbol and percept, for the “make anything spooky” chord — these are noxious drives that have long histories in the West.

This isn’t meant to be a post about ontological questions about the nature of music and the nature of aesthetic judgment; there is of course a sprawling expanse of scholarly literature on the subject, representing a reasonably wide diversity of viewpoints. I also don’t want to litigate these tweets; they are offered here as a timely example that precipitated a surprising turn toward disciplinary conservativism in me.

Because what this no-stakes kerfuffle demonstrates is how important it is to learn how to construct and analyze an argument in music scholarship. In this case there was a claim that was provably wrong; and there was a claim that rested on assumptions about the ontology of music that are effectively indefensible: ahistorical, laden with ideological baggage, and have been extensively discussed for literal centuries.

And that was what I wanted to prepare my student to be able to assess, ahead of starting graduate work.

I like to think that this is a central part of my teaching already, but it depends on the course; realistically, it is not given much real estate in my music theory core courses. I spend much more time on this in a class about music psychology for first-year students that I co-teach with my brilliant psychology colleague Kate Eskine. The questions we consider in that course include: What counts as evidence for a claim? What would render that claim false? How do we circumscribe our arguments and our evidence so that they retain their explanatory insights without becoming easily disprovable? These are hard things to do! And they’re especially hard when dealing with aesthetics and with claims about value.

You do not need a PhD in music theory in order to craft sound arguments about music. But I do think that possessing that credential makes it much, much more likely that its holder has considered the questions I just listed, probably in the invaluable communal context of a seminar. And I think that being active in professional societies and being an active pedagogue leads one to have familiarity with pedagogical trends sufficient to judge what is and is not routinely taught in music theory.

Music theory’s intellectual history is a story of two drives: the study and interpretation of works deemed to have high value; and the imparting of skills and habits of mind that assist in the composition, performance, and perception of musical activity. Music theory has recently seen an efflorescence of scholarship concerned with expanding the repertoire that it analyzes, and to adjusting and revising theories in the process. There is no progress to be claimed in a world in which theories of music (which are ideologies of music) that were borne of racism, sexism, and colonialism are merely applied, as-is, to music by the people those ideologies subjugated.

III. The List

I broke the list down into six categories:
  • Keyboard skills
  • Review of core curriculum
  • History of ideas
  • Contemporary trends
  • Articles by this student’s future professors
  • Specific topics that might interest this particular student

I’ll leave out the last two for obvious reasons. I also will note that I tried not to give too much reading and failed miserably. I limited myself to four entries for all but the “history of ideas” section and that’s still too many. There are millions of other books and articles that could be here, particularly under the “Contemporary Trends” heading, and I would certainly be curious what you would include. I don’t think this list will look the same in one or two years; I actually hope that it doesn’t. But this was a moment that unexpectedly presented me with some real conflicts, and so on the assumption that this is not an experience unique to me, I wanted to write about it here.

To reiterate, the prompt for this list is: A gifted student with a BA in music from a liberal arts college asks: “What should I look at over the summer to hit the ground running when taking graduate courses in music theory?”

Keyboard Skills

  • Mark Levine - The Jazz Piano Book
  • Brings et al. - A New Approach to Keyboard Harmony
  • Schubert - Winterreise
  • The Real Book vol 2

Review of core

  • Caplin - Classical Form
  • Berkman - The Jazz Harmony Book
  • Laitz - The Complete Musician vol 4
  • Kostka and Santa - Materials and Techniques of Post-Tonal Music

History of Ideas

  • Iyer - Beneath Improvisation
  • Christensen (ed) - Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (and specifically Part I: Mapping the Terrain)
  • McCreless - Rethinking Contemporary Music Theory
  • Hisama - Gendering Musical Modernism
  • Southern - Afro-American Musical Materials
  • Lewin - Music theory, phenomenology, and modes of perception
  • Paddison - Art and the ideology of nature
  • Cone - Schubert’s Promissory Note

Contemporary Trends, circa 2023

  • Shelley - Healing for the Soul: Richard Smallwood, the Vamp, and the Gospel Imagination
  • Attas - The Many Paths of Decolonization: Exploring Colonizing and Decolonizing Analyses of a Tribe Called Red’s “How I Feel”
  • Chung - Review of Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory
  • Lett, Gopinath, Van Handel, Rao, Boyd, Manabe, Kim, Lochhead, McCreless Colloquy: “Take Care”
  • Momii - A Transformational Approach to Gesture in Shō Performance