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
- Clock time vs free time
- Tempo and emotion
- Basic grooves: funk, jazz, Afro-Cuban, Middle Eastern, etc.
- Rhythmic vocalizing, meter, rap and beatboxing
- Drum programming
- Rhythmic improvisation
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
- The dominant seventh chord and the blues diaspora
- The major scale, its chords and modes
- Major melodies and improvisation
- The minor scales, their chords and modes
- Minor melodies and improvisation
- Secondary dominants and key changes
Part Four: Music Technology
- Audio recording
- Audio editing and mixing
- Basic electrical engineering
- Basic computer science
Part Five: Music Business
- Copyright and licensing
- Basic accounting and finance
- Artist management
- Web design and social media
- 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.