Toward a better music curriculum

I love music grad school and am finding it extremely valuable, except for one part: the music theory requirement. In order to get my degree, I have to attain mastery of Western tonal harmony of the common practice era. I am not happy about it. This requirement requires a lot mastery of a lot of skills that are irrelevant to my life as a working musician, and leaves out many skills that I consider essential. Something needs to change.

Don’t get me wrong: I love studying music theory. I spent years studying it for my own gratification before ever even considering grad school. I’ve written a ton of blog posts about it, taught it for money, and talked about it to anyone who would listen. But the way that music theory is taught at NYU, and in most schools, is counterproductive.

The problem with music education now

If you’re a working American musician who hasn’t gone to grad school, you might be shocked to discover what you’re expected to know, and what you aren’t.

I entered NYU with a deeper knowledge of jazz harmony and improvisation than almost anyone I know. I had a good general sense of how classical music works, how jazz differs, and how both paradigms work (or don’t work) when trying to understand all the different flavors of rock, electronic, folk and dance music. I also had a shallow knowledge of Indian classical and a few other non-western traditions as well.

Like everyone entering NYU’s various music-related masters programs, I took a music theory placement exam. To my surprise, I bombed the theory test, because it focused entirely on the rules and terminology of Western classical music between 1700 and 1900. After a lot of complaining, I got out of basic theory and into a more advanced and accelerated remedial theory class. This is good, because NYU is extremely expensive, and I didn’t want to spend a giant pile of money learning stuff I either know already or don’t need to know.

Meanwhile, people are getting graduate music degrees who lack knowledge of fundamental areas like improvisation, drumming, blues, dance music, crafting a melody that a contemporary listener might enjoy, recording and mixing, editing and remixing, and really anything that has happened in music since 1900 outside of the European academy. A professor in my program had never even heard of the blues scale until I happened to mention it to her. How did she get a PhD in music in America without ever encountering that piece of information?

My music theory textbook is full of statements that are baldly incorrect.

  • “Melody is the most basic musical element.” No, rhythm is.
  • “How do we learn and memorize music? We analyze the score.” Who is this “we”? Outside of classical, most of us learn and memorize by ear.
  • The text makes frequent references to “musical instinct,” by which it means an instinct to follow the rules of Mozart. My instinct as a musician in the year 2012 is to use a lot of unresolved tritones and parallel fourths and blues scale and lots of other things explicitly forbidden by this text.
  • The biggest issue is that the text uses the terms “music” and “the music of western Europe from 1700-1900″ interchangeably. This is atavistic white supremacy.

If you want to understand any kind of music from the past hundred years, traditional tonal theory is the wrong tool for the job. The rules about consonance and dissonance, about resolving tritones, about parallelism and voice-leading, about notation of chords — the way these things were handled in the powdered-wig era is quite different from the way we think about them now. It’s baffling to me that an institution as progressive as NYU would require such deep knowledge of this specific set of obsolete rules and practices. It’s like requiring English majors to master Elizabethan English and never read anything written since then. I’m exasperating to be forced to pay NYU a giant pile of money to learn a lot of algorithms for producing boring, lame music. The world does not need any more Baroque string quartets.

It’s not that I dislike tonal classical music. I love Bach, and I can get into specific pieces by Mozart, Beethoven et al. There’s a lot of beauty there. Everyone should be so lucky as to get to study this material. But as the sole requirement to get a music degree? That’s like making physics students master the field only up to Isaac Newton. People should study Newtonian physics — some of it is still valid — but much of it has been superseded. As with the history of science, I’m all in favor of music grad students learning the rules of common-practice western music as an elective.

I understand why NYU has so much institutional inertia around the classical tradition. The Western Europeans are easy to build a curriculum around because they wrote everything down. Oral tradition is hard to xerox. But in the age of recordings and the internet, availability of texts and documents is no longer an obstacle. So let’s bring music education into the present.

Value judgments and axiomatic assumptions

  • Music theory should be descriptive, not prescriptive. It should systematize what sounds good to people in the room, not try to dictate a priori what is and is not “correct.”
  • Music theory should be inclusive, not exclusive. Decanonization is underway but it needs to accelerate. There’s no reason to bore beginners with Handel when Beatles songs of equivalent musical interest exist.
  • Music study should start with pop music of the present and work backwards, outwards, and deeper. Having familiar reference points makes it easier to absorb alien musical practices of the past, of other cultures and of the avant-garde.

My dream music curriculum

Part One: Rhythm

Part Two: Pitch

  • Rhythm into pitches — speeding rhythm up until event fusion occurs
  • Singing and identifying pitches
  • Sine waves and the overtone series
  • The octave
  • The fifth, the fourth, and the circle of fifths
  • Pentatonics – melodies and improvisation

Part Three: Chords and Harmony

Part Four: Music Technology

  • Audio recording
  • Audio editing and mixing
  • MIDI
  • DJing
  • Amplification
  • Basic electrical engineering
  • Basic computer science

Part Five: Music Business

  • Marketing
  • Contracts
  • Copyright and licensing
  • Basic accounting and finance
  • Artist management
  • Touring
  • Web design and social media

Advanced Electives

  • Jazz improvisation
  • Classical counterpoint, harmony and form
  • Ragas and talas
  • Advanced recording and production
  • Contemporary composition
  • Film and game music
  • Your sophisticated topic of choice

What do you think? I’d love to hear from music teachers, practicing musicians, students, academics in other fields.

8 thoughts on “Toward a better music curriculum

  1. Ethan,
    As a music educator for sixteen years, currently in an urban setting, I think your on to something. We should explore the effectiveness of your curriculum.

  2. I guess I didn’t make myself clear with the physics analogy. I meant that requiring mastery of classical music theory and nothing else is like requiring mastery of 17th century physics and nothing else. My music theory classes are like taking a physics class that asks you to pretend you’ve never heard of electromagnetism, much less quantum mechanics. I do understand the wisdom of teaching people science in ascending order of mathematical complexity. Music education doesn’t have to be so hierarchical; there’s no particular reason to teach it the way we do except for tradition.

  3. Well, almost everywhere we do make Physics students learn the field as it was understood by Newton first. Actually, we usually start with Galileo, then Newton and Hook, then Faraday and Maxwell, then Einstein, Fermi, Schroedinger, and the rest. If I tried explaining General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics on day 1, they would be pretty confused, because you can’t understand a paradigm shift until you understand the original paradigm.

  4. medium is the message

    notes are never simply notes. sound is as much important as pitch. pitch is just a factor of sound.

    I like your ideas. there are many new things to learn when you want to do music in this age of time.

  5. Maybe chemistry or biology are better analogies than physics. Music theory is more systematic and quantifiable than literature — you can write computer programs that produce Bach chorales good enough to fool experts, and that can generate corny-sounding but recognizable jazz. The way jazz approaches theory is to say, “Here are the possible combinations of pitches; on this end are the consonant ones and on this end are the dissonant ones.” You can quantify consonance and dissonance easily. You start getting into literary territory when you ask why a given person prefers this or that level of consonance or dissonance, and why this or that set of stylistic guidelines has evolved within the whole set of all possible tonal combinations.

  6. As before, I agree about everything, except “I think the physics analogy works better than the literary analogy.”

    No, in music 2+2 as often doesn’t as it does give 4.

  7. I think the physics analogy works better than the literary analogy. Music theory is technical and almost mathematical. It’s different from musical style or genre. I do believe that everyone should know their music history, and that they should be at least basically conversant in European classical. But to privilege that particular era and geographic region over all others is perverse. I’d require masters students to know something about jazz, something about modernist atonal music, something about electronica, something about the music of various other world cultures, both the highbrow stuff and the popular stuff. And in America, I think it’s reasonable to expect some knowledge of American vernacular music.

  8. “What do you think?”

    I agree and/or admire 99% of what you wrote, but just this one thing:

    “That’s like making physics students master the field as it was understood by Isaac Newton.”

    No, that’s like making English literature students know who Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde were, and understand their work aside from George Orwell’s, Samuel Beckett’s and J.K. Rowling’s.

    I think I don’t need to justify. And of course it doesn’t mean the world needs any more Renaissance tragedies.

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