The title of this book is everything wrong with music education

This is a widely used college level music theory textbook.

Laitz what are you doing

Remember, kids, to be a complete musician, all you need to know is the most formal version of the harmonic preferences of aristocratic Western Europeans in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Read a longer, more nuanced critique of this book here.

17 thoughts on “The title of this book is everything wrong with music education

  1. Can I just compliment the informative tone of this thread and mention that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and taken a lot from it.

    As a professional musician, entirely self taught, with little to no music theory, who has also been lucky enough to enjoy an international playing career (and founded a successful social enterprise that uses music technology to have transformative effects on young people in challenging circumstances) I personally find the hegemony that western classical music enjoys stultifying.

    To contend that it’s not elitist (as exemplified by the title of the book in question) goes against everything I witness in my day to day working life and have experienced personally. It’s a cultural capital issue, its exclusive nature is an act of control. The denigrating of the ‘other’ a means of retaining that control. I was fascinated by the technicality and the language of form you both expressed yet I understood none of it. I’m neither proud of the ignorance nor shamed by it. All too often however I’ve been placed in situations where my lack of knowledge of a very narrow facet of the totality of music available has been the object of ‘music shaming’, similar though not as extreme as that perpetrated by the media on women in terms of say body shaming. Whilst the knowledge I do hold of production, technology, informal pedagogies, is denigrated in a western classical context.

    It’s the narrow nature, in terms of those actually accessing western classical music verses the educational funding it receives that galls me the most. My music and the way I choose to express myself musically (along with the vast majority of people’s experience of music – look at the streaming figures for % of people listening to western classical (5%) as opposed to those listening to everything else (95%) is equally as valid

    Therefore the title of this book and its content makes no sense to me whatsoever – am I then not a complete musician?

  2. I guess it really comes down to what your favorite parts of music are. For me, harmony is most important, with melody second and lyrics third. If you prefer rhythm, timbre, and orchestration, you probably won’t be interested in Laitz’s book as much.

    Why do you say that hip-hop has been the most salient influence on American culture since 1980? There was a lot of rock in the 80s (Bon Jovi, Guns n’ Roses, Journey, etc…) I would say hip-hop has been the most salient since abt. 1990 even 1995

    “To say that Western classical music is “art” and that these other forms aren’t is an outmoded Eurocentric attitude with ugly politics behind it.” – I kind of understand what you mean by this, but I still think that there is more artistry in, say, “Vesti la Giubba” by Leoncavallo than “Hot N*gga” by Bobby Shmurda.

    • Laitz didn’t write “My Favorite Part of Being a Musician.” He wrote “The Complete Musician.” Presenting your personal whims as if they were a matter of authoritative fact is irresponsible pedagogy at best. It’s not about “preferring” one aspect of music to another, it’s a textbook that gives a misleading and biased description of what the most important aspects of music are.

      I say that hip-hop is a more salient cultural influence starting in 1980 because, while people made good rock albums after that, they did not make many influential ones. Compare it to jazz: Duke Ellington made some of his best albums in the late 1960s, but they were less culturally salient at that point than the Beatles and the Stones. In the same way, Guns N Roses made fine music in the late 1980s, but it was less influential than Eric B and Rakim.

      Your personally preferring Leoncavallo to Bobby Shmurda isn’t a statement about artistic merit, it’s a statement about your personal preferences. I personally prefer James Brown to Mozart, but I recognize Mozart’s titanic cultural significance. A lot of contemporary hip-hop makes me tense and uncomfortable, but it would be obtuse not to recognize the shaping effect it’s having on every genre in every world culture right now.

      • Most formal music study is the study of European Classical music, though. For a college music student to do well in their classes, Laitz’s book is pretty complete.

        About Rock vs Hip-Hop in the 80s, a lot of 80s rock songs are still considered classics today. “Don’t Stop Believin'”, “Livin’ on a Prayer”, and “Africa”, for example. I’m not sure exactly how you are defining “influential”, though.

        Rock was definitely more popular on the radio and Billboard charts in the 80s, and when most people think of the 80s music, they think of Rock and/or it’s derivatives.

        • The Eurocentrism and implicit white supremacy of music education isn’t specific to this book. This book is symptomatic of the atavism of college-level music education generally. The divide between the 150-year-old curriculum and the actual needs of creative musicians in the world has never been wider. To say that you need this terrible book to do well within a terrible system doesn’t speak well to either.

          • I guess that my best arguments for keeping classical music as the primary style studied in colleges is that it is incredibly sophisticated and refined. The complex harmonic progressions, forms, and melodies, as well as hundreds of years of scholarship make it a natural fit for academic settings.

            Something newer, like rap, is less suitable for academic study for a number of reasons.
            1. It breaks a lot of musical rules, which means it is not a good way to teach the rules of music. Bach, for example, follows the rules of music nearly perfectly, which makes his music an ideal tool to teach students about counterpoint and chorale-writing.
            2. There aren’t hundreds of years of scholarship to draw upon, which makes it much harder to develop a curriculum based around rap.
            3. The amount of profanity and discussion of taboo topics in rap would make for a very uncomfortable classroom experience.
            4. Classical Music follows a fairly linear progression of harmonic complexity, from the relatively diatonic (plus modulations to closely related keys) Baroque and Classical to the Romantic period, which got progressively more chromatic as time went by. This maps nicely to teaching music theory, since it means the progression of the units in the class can roughly follow the progression of real music history. Rap hasn’t really evolved in the same way.

          • Classical music is “incredibly sophisticated and refined” in specific ways – melody, counterpoint, and large-scale structure. It’s fairly uninteresting harmonically, especially compared to jazz. Its rhythms are nursery-rhyme-level simplistic. If I want to teach someone how to develop a melody across long timescales, Western classical is great. If I want to teach someone about rhythm, any random hip-hop song on the radio will have more sophistication than a typical symphony-length work in the classical canon. If I want to teach complex harmony, I might turn to Wagner, but I could just as easily go to Coltrane or Monk. As for scholarship, plenty of it exists for all forms of music, there’s no shortage of teaching resources to choose from.

            The “musical rules” that you describe rap as “breaking” are the arbitrary preferences of a place and time quite remote from our own. I hear a lot of the common-practice tonal rules as being actively wrong. Parallel fourths sound better to me (and most people) than “correct” voice leading, and resolving all those tritones feels clunky and awkward. Even within the classical canon, though, the great composers don’t always follow the rules. Bach uses a lot of chromaticism that can’t be accounted for within the rules set forth by Laitz, which is exactly why he continues to be a relevant cultural figure.

            The existence of hundreds years of scholarship is as much a burden as a benefit if that scholarship is outdated and inaccurate. There are hundreds of years of scholarship about astrology, but that doesn’t mean we should teach it. Besides, you don’t need a thousand textbooks to teach a class; you just need two or three good ones to choose from. And like I said, those exist.

            You’re right, profanity and taboo topics have no place in music education. It’s a good thing opera plots never include rape, murder, suicide or incest, or opera would be totally unsuitable for formal study as well. And classroom experience should never be uncomfortable, heaven forbid the education experience involves some confrontation of difficult and complex social issues.

            It’s easy to arrange any kind of music into a tidy linear progression of complexity. I’ve done it with jazz, rock, hip-hop, and various kinds of electronic music. But for more current and culturally relevant music, there’s less of a need to present concepts in a linear order, because you have the students’ intuitive familiarity to build on.

            Finally, to say that rap hasn’t evolved in complexity over the past four decades shows a lack of basic familiarity with rap. Track the progression from Spoonie G to Run-DMC to A Tribe Called Quest to the Fugees to Kanye West to Kendrick Lamar, and hear a steady rise in musical ambition in terms of rhyme schemes, literary devices, timbral palette, production techniques, thematic scope, album-scale organization, and everything else.

          • “It’s fairly uninteresting harmonically” – true for some kinds of classical music (most minuets from the classical period, for example) many pieces from the Romantic Era have incredibly complex harmonies. Leoncavallo was a master of harmonic complexity.

            F Dm6 E Dm Gm9 Gm6
            Recitar! Mentre preso dal deli – rio
            A7 A+ Bb G7/B C
            Non so più quel che dico e quel che faccio!
            Am/E C7 Em
            Eppur e d’uopo… sforzati!
            E7 Am/E Am/C Am Am/E
            Bah! sei tu forse un uom?
            Am6 Em B7 Em
            Tu se’ Pagliaccio!

            You’re right, parallel fourths don’t sound that bad when there are more than 2 voices. C-E-G to F-A-C doesn’t sound “off” the way C-G to F-C does, but it doesn’t sound as good as C-E-G to C-F-A or E-G-C to F-A-C. And parallel fourths were never quite as frowned upon as parallel fifths or octaves.

            Yes, some great composers break the rules. But you have to know the rules in order to break them intelligently.

            The existence of hundreds of years of scholarship is far more beneficial than burdensome, as it enables students to also gain a historical perspective of music study. They can compare what 19th century scholars thought of Bach to what modern scholars do. You can’t do that for something that is only a few decades old, like rap.

            Yes, some opera contains taboo topics. However, the wording is a lot less vulgar than it is in rap music. You won’t find an opera that says something like “I f*cked that b*tch in the p*ssy”, whereas you will find a lot of rap that uses that kind of language. Characters in opera do not refer to their rivals as “motherf*ckers” the way rappers do.

            I would actually be interested in seeing a linear progression for the genres you mentioned.

            And a lot of American teenagers and young adults lack “intuitive familiarity” in rap.

            I guess the evolution in rap isn’t as dramatic as the evolution in classical. Tallis, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Leoncavallo, and Debussy all sound completely different. Tupac, Kanye, Kendrick Lamar, and Asap Rocky all sound very similar to me. Electronic beats, barely any real harmony, and rapping instead of singing. Whereas it is easy for me differentiate the intricate counterpoint of Bach from the harmonically complex and highly emotional romantic arias of Leoncavallo.

          • The key thing about those “rules” is that they aren’t laws of nature, they’re arbitrary cultural preferences, from a culture that has largely vanished from the earth (except in higher education settings.) I question the basic utility of teaching that rule set in the first place. I don’t see its inherent value aside from its historical interest. We should teach music theory as a way to understand music as it is practiced. Western tonal theory is an important basis of contemporary Western music, but it’s hardly the only one, and it’s not any more “basic” or “fundamental” than West African drumming at this point. Western music theory needs to be able to explain the blues, and loop-based structures with no harmonic movement, and power chords, and Middle Eastern scales, and all the other actual common practices of the world in which we live. It’s fine to offer strict Western tonal theory as an elective, but as the sole theory requirement for all music degrees, it makes no sense. Why does anyone who isn’t a specialist in the history of European art music need to know what scholars in the nineteenth century thought of Bach?

            I guess if I had to choose between profanity deployed playfully versus euphemistic description of rape and incest, I’d go with the playful profanity.

            Linear history of rock:

            Linear history of jazz up to about 1960:

            My syllabus for rock and hip-hop isn’t chronological because I prefer to go thematically:

            Spotify did a study of the most-listened genres, and their data set is a good one because they know what people listen to at a way more granular level than record labels, radio, etc. They found that rap is the most listened-to genre of music, not just in the US, but in the world. It’s hard to find a young person in any city on this planet who isn’t familiar with rap at some level. Certainly more than are intuitively familiar with classical, or jazz, or anything else.

            Classical composers and eras sound very different from each other to the specialist listener, but from the outside, the similarities between Bach and Mozart overwhelm the differences. I mean, I can tell within half a bar whether the tenor sax on a record is being played by Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, but I can understand why someone who isn’t a jazz obsessive would hear them as sounding exactly the same.

            The pace of cultural evolution is dramatically faster now than it was two hundred years ago because of mass media and the internet. So I expect we’ll be able to look back at the transition from Spoonie G to Kendrick and see as much evolution as the one from Purcell to Stravinsky. But we’ll see.

          • The fact that the culture they are from has largely vanished from the earth makes learning about them more valuable, not less, in my opinion. Learning about them becomes a way to preserve our musical culture and save it from near-extinction.

            Classical music is still widely practiced today, even among youth. My high school had a couple orchestras and choirs, and hundreds of students could play a classical instrument. (There were about 4,000 students at my high school)

            Jazz is also taught in academic settings, my college and high school have jazz bands, and both had classes in jazz theory.

            Jazz classes often teach about the blues.

            Loop-based structures with no harmonic movement are too simplistic to be worthy of analysis at the college level. Analyzing C-G-Am-F or C-Am-F-G is something that would be appropriate for beginning music students, not students studying music theory at the university level.

            Power chords are a part of classical music theory – they are just called “Dyads” instead of power chords.

            Middle Eastern scales don’t play a huge role in modern popular music, but most colleges that teach music have at least one ethnic music class.

            As far as the profanity vs. euphemism, that is just a personal preference that differs between us.

            Basic western tonal theory, even if no longer the only building block of pop music, is still the most important one, because pop music still uses the the 12 tones of the chromatic scales, triads, western time and key signatures, etc…

            “Why does anyone who isn’t a specialist in the history of European art music need to know what scholars in the nineteenth century thought of Bach?” – because it is important to know about our culture and its history;

            Thank you for the links to the linear histories, they look very interesting and I will definitely read them this weekend!

            The problem is that most Spotify users are younger, and so Spotify’s most-listened genres is more likely to reflect the musical tastes of teenagers and young adults then those of the population as a whole. Also, people who prefer classical or other forms of less mainstream music are more likely to actually buy the CDs, whereas rap fans are more likely to just stream or watch on YouTube.

            I am a college student, and yet I couldn’t identify more than half a dozen rap songs if they were played on the radio, and I would have a really hard time telling the rappers apart unless I looked up the song. In contrast, I could easily tell Bach from Mozart from Leoncavallo. I could also tell most classic rock/pop artists apart.

            It just baffles me how anyone could not tell the difference between Bach and Mozart. Their compositional styles were just so vastly different from each other.

            It remains to be seen whether rap will stand the test of time the way classical, jazz, or rock did.

          • I’m not arguing that we remove classical music from the curriculum. It should be there! People should be able to study it! I just want to remove it from its present position as a hoop that all music majors have to jump through to obtain their degrees, whether it bears on their musical lives or not. In terms of absolute numbers, the number of people making and listening to classical music has never been larger. “Our” culture is in no danger of extinction. The danger is that an excessively Eurocentric curriculum scares away too many would-be creators of every other kind of music. It creates the yawning gulf between school music and the rest of the world’s music. This is a problem, because both worlds have a lot to learn from each other.

            It is simply not true that loop structures are too simplistic to be worthy of analysis. Most world musical cultures are based on loop structures, including America’s, and to say that European linearity is intrinsically more intelligent than non-European circularity is another manifestation of white supremacist thinking. Loop structures are enormously larger and more diverse than the progressions that classical music identifies as loop structures. Their complexity lies on the rhythmic axis rather than the harmonic one. Thus you get James Brown tunes built on two-bar cells whose rhythmic counterpoint is as complex as the melodic equivalent in Bach.

            Middle eastern scales and exotic modes are ubiquitous in hip-hop and electronic music. Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” is in Phrygian mode. Björk’s “Army Of Me” is in Locrian. Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty To Me” is Phrygian dominant. Also: Western European is an “ethnicity” just like any other. To call European music “music” and other music “ethnic” is white supremacist.

            Western tonal theory is a reasonable starting point for the harmony in pop, but harmony is not the most important or substantive part of pop. Rhythm and timbre are. These are areas where Western classical is impoverished. Meanwhile, the best way to learn pop harmony is just to study pop songs.

            “Our culture” and “Western European culture” are not synonymous. European-descended Americans are going to be a numerical minority by 2050. My and my wife’s culture descends from Eastern Europe. Our pop music mostly comes from Africa and the Caribbean. European classical tradition is very important, but it’s not the sole fountainhead that the music academy imagines it to be. To continue to center it so disproportionately is atavistic.

            Schools are supposed to teach young people, so their musical tastes matter a great deal to educational discussions. The assertion that classical fans are likelier to buy CDs is an empirical statement that might or might not be true. I don’t have good stats on it. If you do, I’d like to see them.

            You are an outlier as a college student. Unfortunately, so are most people who teach college-level music. It would be good if music educators represented the culture more accurately.

            Bach and Mozart both write Western tonal music with linear melodies that resolve in cadences using a limited palette of instruments. Their styles are different from each other on a scale of other Western Europeans of their historical era. Compared to gamelan or techno or mbira music, they sound practically identical.

            It doesn’t matter whether rap “stands the test of time.” What matters is what has been happening in the culture for forty-plus years now, what the significant drivers of the culture are. To demand that music students center their studies on Bach now is like demanding that Bach center his studies on plainchant. Bach would have been itching to write some counterpoint. So too are most would-be musicians now itching to make some beats.

          • Regardless of what kind of music you want to make/study, you should have to have at least some knowledge of classical music to get a music degree.

            If someone truly has their heart set on making rap or techno music, how could studying classical music discourage them?

            I wish to dispute your assertion that I am a White supremacist because I find European tonality and linearity more interesting than non-European circularity and lack of comp-lex harmonies. It is simply a matter of taste.

            Even modal music is based on the 7 traditional modes of Western music, which are taught in a traditional music curriculum.

            Defining your own culture as the norm and other cultures as “ethnic” or “foreign” is not remotely racist. China calls itself “Chung-kuo” which means “Middle Kingdom”. Most cultures define themselves as the norm. I am fully aware of the fact that I am ethnic to a Chinese or Indian person.

            Harmony is very important for some pop songs, and less so for others.

            American culture is mostly Western European in origin. I have some Eastern and Southern European ancestry as well, but culturally I am Western European. And people of solely European descent will be a minority by 2050, but most Americans will still be either fully or partially European.

            “Schools are supposed to teach young people, so their musical tastes matter a great deal to educational discussions.” – if students are already listening to techno and rap on their own time, shouldn’t school music classes introduce them to a style of music they would otherwise be unlikely to engage with?

            Even compared to other music, Bach and Mozart are still vastly different. I could tell them apart in my sleep.

            Shouldn’t music education be about studying the Great Works of history, instead of whichever pop song is currently enjoying 15 minutes of fame?

            Shouldn’t education strive for the profound, and not the ephemeral?

          • I agree that everyone should have some knowledge of classical music to get a music degree. But right now, in most schools, including the ones I teach in, knowledge of classical music is the *only* thing you need to get a music degree. You don’t need to know how to improvise, or make a beat, or create a decent-sounding recording, all of which are as fundamental to musicianship in the year 2016. I don’t want us to stop teaching classical. I want to dismantle Eurocentric cultural hegemony. I want to work in an environment where it would never occur to someone to name a textbook about a narrow aspect of a particular kind of music “The Complete Musician.”

            Higher ed music programs produce the teachers in elementary and secondary schools, and music education at those levels is in crisis. Among kids who have access to elective music in high school, between 80 and 95 percent opt out, depending on the study you read. Given that 99 percent of teenagers love music, we should be horrified by this situation. But we shouldn’t be surprised by it. The pedagogical traditions of Western Europe centuries ago create a learning environment that is hostile to the creative needs and ambitions of the large majority of would-be musicians. Dehegemonizing music education would scare fewer kids away, and would open the benefits of music-making to more kids who urgently need it.

            You are allowed to like whatever kind of music you like. The white supremacists are the people who set curriculum standards that privilege the study of Western European tradition as if it’s the only kind of music that matters.

            Many aspects of America’s culture are dominated by Western European tradition, but for a hundred years now, our musical culture has been dominated by the African diaspora. This is self-evident to everyone except for the music academy.

            I want techno and rap in the schools so we can turn passive consumers of that music into active producers of it. The techno and rap kids have a lot to learn from the jazz and classical kids, and vice versa. The towering barrier that exists between them benefits no one.

            The standards by which we define the Great Works of History are cultural norms, not ironclad laws of nature. We hold Duke Ellington in high esteem now, but white academics were mostly contemptuous of him in the era when he was producing his best work. Elements of the canon come and go. Hip-hop has been a vital engine of musical culture both high and low for forty years, and the major one for twenty. That’s a bit more than fifteen minutes of fame. People in the 1940s thought Ellington was ephemeral, and the racism of that attitude seems obvious now. Let’s not wait another 40 years to recognize his present-day equivalents.

  3. That’s my college music textbook!

    But why did you tag a textbook you don’t like with “White Supremacy”? That seems a little melodramatic to me

    • If I wrote a book called The Complete Musician that only talked about Balinese gamelan, or Dixieland jazz, or dubstep, you would think it was absurdly narrow, limited, and biased. And you would be right! The specific flavor of bias that favors Western European culture from the colonial/imperial era over all other music has a name, and that name is white supremacy.

      • Have you ever read this textbook? I think that it is very good at explaining how music works.

        But in a Western European country (America is essentially a Western European country in North America), it makes the most sense to study Western European music. I’m sure that in Bali they have a textbook called “The Complete Musician” or something similar that focuses just on Balinese gamelan.

        Like it or not, Western Classical Music is the predominant form of art music in Western countries.

        • I know the book well, I used Laitz’s similar Graduate Review of Tonal Theory for my masters level theory requirement. It is not good at explaining how “music” works. It explains how a particular form of music in a particular era works, and only in harmonic terms at that – it neglects rhythm, timbre, and orchestration.

          Western European music is a salient influence on American culture, but it’s not the only one, and for the past hundred years it hasn’t been the most important one. From 1900 until 1960, the main influence was jazz; from 1960 until 1980 it was rock; and since then it’s been hip-hop. None of those forms descend from Western Europe. To say that Western classical music is “art” and that these other forms aren’t is an outmoded Eurocentric attitude with ugly politics behind it.

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